Hundreds of inmates trapped without heat and power in Brooklyn jail as Polar Vortex grips the Northeast

Hundreds of inmates trapped without heat and power in Brooklyn jail as Polar Vortex grips the Northeast
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News & Politics

Inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York have been waiting in cold, dark cells for the power to return to the facility for what likely feels like an eternity. As of now, the 1,654 inmates are hopeful that power will finally come back on Monday. When did this begin? Oh, about a week ago.

That’s right: Many inmates have been without lights in their cells for days already, meaning that when the sun goes down, they’re submerged into darkness. This has obvious safety concerns, but less obvious ones too; trying to read the directions for taking medication, for example, or simply reading a book or letter.

What else can’t inmates do during the power outage? Communicate with their families or attorneys. Because they lack power, for example, inmates aren’t able to email their families on computers. Some inmates can’t even use the phone to call their lawyers.

The temperature has been as low as 49 degrees inside the detention center, one US representative told CNN affiliate WPIX.

On Twitter, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio posted about the city sending blankets and hand warmers into the detention center:

Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes the jail, visited the jail on Friday but was denied access to inmates. She came back on Saturday, this time bringing two other Democratic Congress members, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney. This time, they were able to reach inmates.

 On Saturday, Rep. Velazquez tweeted:

State Senator Zellnor Myrie tweeted about conditions as reported by inmates, including some who said they hadn’t left their cell in days, and some who reported not being able to access medical treatments, like inhalers.

Sen. Myrie also tweeted:

Why did the detention center lose power to begin with? As reported by the New York Times, there was a fire in the room that holds their electrical switches, which led to a partial power outage. While they’ve installed a new electrical panel, crews still need to restore power, which is where the wait comes in.

While obviously disturbing and horrifying for inmates, it’s also a safety and health issue for employees. Gabriel Pedreira, an organizer for the local branch of the American Federation of Government Employees, told CNN that federal prison officers are being "forced to work in freezing temperatures” while wearing hats, coats, and scarves.

Videos have gone viral on social media from protests, as well as recordings where you can hear inmates making coordinated noise efforts, assumably to catch the attention of literally anyone outside who can help:

Letitia A. James, New York Attorney General, issued a statement condemning these conditions:
"It is unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane to detain people without basic amenities, access to counsel, or medical care. The reported conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center are appalling. Prisoners and detainees have rights and those rights must be enforced. My office is in touch with legal service providers and inmates' attorneys, and closely monitoring this deeply disturbing situation."

Heat, hot water, safe environments, the ability to contact your attorney… All are basic, basic human rights. These conditions are appalling, and all of the media attention on the detention center is sure to help advocates make changes sooner rather than later.

But it also raises an important point: Incarcerated people are too often kept in the shadows, and their rights are routinely and systemically denied and ignored. While this situation is especially horrifying, once the heat and power come back on, people need to continue advocating on behalf of inmates. Or at the very least, listening to and amplifying them.

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