Tensions flared outside a federal detention center in Brooklyn on Sunday where inmates remained on lockdown after living with limited electricity and heat for almost a week.
Guards outside the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park used pepper spray on the crowd of family members, advocates and reporters gathered by the facility’s entrance.
Protesters held banners and yelled “Shame!” while inmates banged on the walls.
Outrage has been growing about conditions at the facility where inmates suffered through last week’s brutal cold snap without heat.
“Prisoners in New York are human beings. Let’s treat them that way,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement released Sunday, calling for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
He said, “No one in New York should live in fear that they may freeze to death alone in the dark."
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who went inside the jail on Sunday, said temperatures were warmer but it was unclear whether that was due to improvements to the heating system or warmer outside temperatures, which reached 50 degrees.
“It’s also very clear that even when it’s working properly, this heating system is simply inadequate for the building,” Nadler told reporters outside the jail.
Nadler said he spoke to inmates who were frustrated by the lockdown, cold temperatures, being forced to eat in the dark and not being able to shower.
“We are going to have to have a hearing to review what happened, why it happened and to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Nadler said. “But right now, we have to get this reopened and get the services restored as soon as possible.”
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons said inmates have hot water for showers and hot water in the sinks in the cells. The agency said medical staff has been checking in on inmates and providing medication.
Inmate telephones, computers and televisions are still without power because of electrical issues. The partial power outage was caused by a fire in the switch gear room last Sunday.
“We continue to work expeditiously to restore power to the facility as quickly as possible,” according to the statement.
Nadler, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and several other lawmakers have demanded access to the jail in recent days to evaluate conditions.
Velazquez and state Attorney General Letitia James told reporters on Sunday afternoon that contractors and Con Edison had parts needed to restore service by Monday morning.
“We’re here to do whatever it takes to treat people like human beings,” Velazquez said.
Court filings by lawyers who represent some of the 1,600 men and women incarcerated said the situation worsened as temperatures dipped into the single digits last week with a wind chill that made it feel even colder.
Lawyers who were allowed inside the building painted a horrific portrait of pitch-black cells, windows frosted over with ice and limited medical care for inmates.
Indra Bisram of Brooklyn showed up at the center to show support for her 27-year-old nephew, Marcus Bisram, who is housed at the facility while awaiting extradition.
“I’m scared for his health, I’m scared that he’s not eating,” she said. “Our lawyer is trying to get in touch but no one can get to him.”
Leslie Smith, 40, of Staten Island, said she is concerned her brother, Jason Smith, a 43-year-old inmate, will catch pneumonia.
“This is New York City, why is this going on?” she asked.
City Councilman Brad Lander said he was one of the people hit with pepper spray on Sunday when guards approached a “flood of people” coming to the entrance. Lander was with Nadler and City Comptroller Scott Stringer inside the first floor.
Mayor Bill de Blasio dispatched the city’s Office of Emergency Management to the detention center on Saturday night with generators, blankets and hand warmers.
“The people inside have a right to dignity and safety and we won’t stand by while the Federal Bureau of Prisons fails them,” de Blasio tweeted. “NYC stands ready to do all we can to help.”