After 1,600 people spent last week’s deep freeze locked in a dark, cold building in Brooklyn, it was their calls for help — in the form of tapping on the windows and flashing flashlights, combined with the voices of protesters and local officials outside — that finally got them the attention and help they needed.
Those inhumane conditions and desperate cries to family members outside occurred at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, which mostly houses inmates awaiting trial in Brooklyn and Long Island federal courts.
An electrical fire caused a power outage on Jan. 27 before the bitter cold snap. Combined with other infrastructure problems, the outage led to limited heat, hot water and hot meals, and kept most inmates confined to their cells, and sometimes without necessary medical devices, for days. Communication with families, lawyers or elected officials was nonexistent. The warden and his superiors in the Federal Bureau of Prisons failed to fix the issues or act with urgency, barely acknowledging the problem.
It’s unacceptable, even unimaginable, that this happened. The Federal Defenders of New York, who represent those who can’t afford an attorney, has filed a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations, federal judges with cases involving these inmates are holding hearings, and the Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to open a probe. Additional oversight and an assessment of the building’s infrastructure and leadership must be done. The center must develop emergency plans and communications strategies that work. But a larger and more troubling incompetence and lack of responsibility that have existed for far longer became obvious last week. Both the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are led by acting administrators; no one’s in charge. Permanent, solid leadership at those agencies, along with responsible, reliable management at MDC itself, is necessary.
Then there’s something more, something less tangible: MDC’s staff and leaders failed to seek and even refused help while those in their custody suffered. That reveals a disturbing culture of indifference that must end.