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Rikers Island inmates evacuated during cold snap after heating failed

Temperatures at some housing units dropped below 60 degrees on Dec. 30 during the recent cold snap. Broken equipment at two complexes was to blame, according to the correction department.

The George Motchan Detention Center at Rikers Island,

The George Motchan Detention Center at Rikers Island, shown on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, was one of two facilities that were evacuated due to frigid temperatures last week. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Some housing units in two Rikers Island jails — including in one slated to close this summer because the building is deteriorating — had to be evacuated during the cold snap because the heating failed, according to the city Department of Correction.

A broken radiator at the Robert N. Davoren Complex and an inoperable circulator pump in a facility boiler at the George Motchan Detention Center were to blame for the temperature inside dipping below 60 degrees on Dec. 30, a correction spokesman said — lower than the 68-degree minimum Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann has said is the jail system’s heating standard.

Inmates were taken elsewhere in the facility. “They were also given warm blankets and hot beverages as soon as DOC became aware of the heating issue,” per department policy, correction spokesman Mitchell Abramson wrote in an email. Natalie Grybauskas, spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that the relocations affected 60 inmates.

Temperatures hit a low of 9 degrees last weekend. The department did not say how far below 60 the temperature inside went.

Last week, Brann announced that the Motchan jail, or GMDC, where all the inmates are awaiting trial, is expected to close by summer because the building is in poor condition. It is part of de Blasio’s 10-year timeline for shuttering the violence-plagued complex, which a blue-ribbon panel led by the state’s top judge has said should and can be closed far sooner.

In a statement, the correction department spokesman said temperatures are taken periodically throughout the day at each of the island’s nine jails and the warden is notified when they go below 68 degrees.

Cold weather can be especially dangerous in the close quarters of jail, where low temperatures foster illness, and vulnerable inmates can sometimes be targeted by violent ones who steal their blankets “because they don’t want to be freezing,” said Vidal Guzman, 26, a close-Rikers activist with the group Just Leadership USA who served time at Rikers years ago for robbery and drugs.

Guzman said inmates’ families have lamented lately how cold their loved ones get in prison.

“Thank God I’m not there,” he said. “I don’t think people understand the buildings at Rikers Island, how cold it gets.”


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