Bang if the heat’s out: cold week at MDC

A wife's experience trying to reach her husband in an electricity-less Brooklyn jail.
A wife’s experience trying to reach her husband in an electricity-less Brooklyn jail. Photo Credit: Freestyle Digital Media

Fran F. started getting nervous when she hadn’t heard from her husband in a couple days.

They had talked last Saturday. But Sunday and Monday: nothing.

At first she figured it was a lockdown, just another difficulty during her husband’s monthslong tenure in the Metropolitan Detention Center. That’s the federal jail in Sunset Park, Brooklyn where he is waiting for resolution to his legal situation, which Fran says stems from a nonviolent offense where he “did favors for the boss” and was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

But something made her curious, so last Monday night, Fran, 49, took a ride down to the jail. She says the facility seemed to be in total darkness. It was only around 6 p.m. Everyone couldn’t be sleeping.

“It looked like an abandoned building,” she said.

We now know that though the building wasn’t abandoned, some dereliction of duty definitely occurred. A fire on Jan. 27 affected the building’s power, and heat and electricity were patchy, at best, for a week. That was during polar vortex weather where temperatures hung below zero with wind chill. Some cells were frigid and drafty near windows, and people were kept in cells for long stretches without the ability to do laundry or shower. Elected officials who eventually got in to visit over the weekend reported examples of inmates with asthma or those who needed sleep apnea machines suffering in the cold and dark.

But Fran wasn’t given that information. She says she was stonewalled whenever she called MDC, told versions of “that’s confidential” when she asked why the lights seemed to be out.

Fran agreed to tell her story under the condition that her full name not be revealed, given her husband’s precarious situation. But it was Fran’s story that was one of the first to poke through the public consciousness, when she finally got fed up with the stonewalling and sent pictures of the darkened facility to her representative in the City Council, Justin Brannan, who tweeted the pictures and a message on Thursday night: “I’m being told something’s up at MDC Brooklyn. No lights, no heat, inmates not being fed, etc.”

It was just as journalists were catching on to the situation, and by the weekend there were protesters chanting outside the facility.

Fran didn’t join the protests. She had held her own lonelier vigil all week.

A Bay Ridge resident who works in hospital administration, she and a few other family members of people incarcerated at MDC made the drive to the facility multiple times last week even when they weren’t allowed in to visit. They would look to the tower as they passed on the BQE, and see it still lightless.

Outside, she says, she held up a sign asking if the inmates had heat, telling them to bang if not. They banged.

“I didn’t know where to turn,” she said.

She finally reached her husband Sunday night. He didn’t go into detail about his feelings — these phone calls are not exactly private. She says he told her it wasn’t good, it had been freezing. But he’d managed, and now the heat and electricity were back. She had the sense that he was trying to make her feel better.

The world had finally awakened to the situation around that time, shocked at the unfair treatment of people presumed innocent. (Most of those in MDC are awaiting trial.) There were questions about the warden and facility administration’s seemingly lackadaisical response.

“What may have started out as an inconvenience became a crisis,” said NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, who visited the facility.

It was a “very volatile, intense situation," said Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, who also visited, noting that the cells varied in heat levels and inmate preparedness, some having blankets and sweatshirts, some not.

In some ways, it was just a few mishaps more than business as usual for jail facilities in New York. Defense lawyers have horror stories about conditions being too cold or too hot. The Legal Aid Society sent a letter complaining about the cold at this very facility even before the fire, and Rep. Jerry Nadler noted that when he visited, he felt cool air coming through vents.

All making things even harder for people and their families already in difficult positions.

“It’s been a tough seven months,” said Fran. “I hope it’s over soon.”

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