More than 1,600 prisoners at a Brooklyn federal detention center were forced to endure freezing temperatures during last week’s polar vortex, with no heat, no light, no hot water for showers and no hot meals. Demonstrators rallied throughout the weekend to protest the conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center, which is run by the Bureau of Prisons. Prisoners communicated with protesters by banging on the jail windows. On Sunday afternoon, some of the protesters, including family members of those incarcerated, were pepper-sprayed by guards. Democracy Now! was there on the ground. By 6:30 pm, officials said electricity was restored. We speak with Brad Lander, a New York city councilmember who spoke with prisoners and prison officials this weekend.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show here in New York, where more than 1,600 prisoners at a Brooklyn federal detention center were forced to endure freezing temperatures during last week’s polar vortex, with no heat, no light, no water for showers, no hot meals.
Demonstrators rallied throughout the weekend to protest the conditions at Metropolitan Detention Center, which is run by the Bureau of Prisons. Heat issues at the facility have been ongoing. Officials said the electricity problem was caused in part by a fire the previous week and that the jail had switched over to emergency power. Legal Aid Society said it wrote to the jail’s warden as early as January 22nd to demand heat be restored, before temperatures arrive that were, quote, “dangerous to human life.”
As the news of the conditions spread, crowds of protesters gathered outside the prison, known as MDC. Prisoners communicated with them by banging on the jail windows. On Sunday afternoon, some of the protesters, including family members of those incarcerated, were pepper-sprayed by guards. Democracy Now! was there and spoke to family members, activists, including Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
PROTESTER: Let them know that you are happy that we are here for you. Bang on those windows!
LINDA SARSOUR: A group of activists, organizers and family members have actually been out here since yesterday. Many of us slept overnight here, on the ground here in front of MDC.
We have been figuring out a communication system that works really well with the incarcerated brothers that are inside. And we ask them questions, and they answer by banging on the windows. And it’s been in unison, literally. Like, yes, yes, everybody’s yes. If it’s no, no. And the fact that they’re not in the same cells together and can answer questions makes us believe that what they are telling us is to be true. We just watched some incarcerated folks actually recognize their families’ voices and started talking to us through a different area up here. We have videos of people talking to their moms: “I hear you, Mom. I see you, Mom.” It was really heartbreaking to watch people have to talk to their family members. They were not wearing shirts. It’s cold. And we know they don’t have heat inside.
One of the mothers went to confirm that that was her son who was talking to her in there without a shirt. She went inside with some folks. Next thing you know, the CO started beating people up and throwing people on the floor, pepper-spraying the mom and all the people, the media. They were — picked up cameras, and they were throwing them out, people falling down the stairs. It was really horrible to watch it happen. And all the mom wanted to do is go in and to confirm if that was her son speaking to her from this other undesignated area that we don’t even know what this area is. He was climbing up on the gate of the window. It’s horrible.
The warden has been not responsive. Yesterday, the Mayor’s Office delivered trucks of blankets for everyone, generators. And they — lawyers from Federal Defenders went inside to see their clients, and asked them, “Did you get blankets?” No blankets. None of these people have gotten blankets. Yesterday, they told us, at 6:00 is when they got their first meal of the day. They’re not getting hot meals. They don’t have hot water. I mean, this is inhumane. It’s cruel. There are people in there who have asthma, who are not able to have use nebulizers, people who have sleep apnea machines, who are not able to have those apnea machines during the night, which means that they are at high risk of stroke. There are people with diabetes that are in there. There are older folks in there, people who need medication, who have not had any access to medical care. I mean, this is outrageous. And the issues with the families is, you don’t even know if your family member is alive. I mean, that’s the issue here.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: What surprised me the most in there —
AMY GOODMAN: New York City Councilmember Jumaane Williams.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: — was the blatant disregard of urgency of anything that was going on. Things happen. Emergencies happen. But you have a plan. They had no plan and didn’t seem to care. We asked them about what’s going on to get the heat properly regulated. The warden said the contractor left and went home. What are you talking about? Get another contractor and get this fixed like it was your house. We asked the warden why he would not receive the blankets and the generator that the Office of Emergency Management in the city was not accepting. He had no excuse. He said, “We didn’t. Maybe we will now,” because it was an emergency. It was an emergency on Sunday when it happened. What are you talking about?
What’s happening there is a microcosm of this country. That man in the White House and the people who continue to support him, all of them, don’t even know where the kids are that they separated from the border. Those are melanated children. That’s why they lost them. The majority of people here are melanated, so they don’t care. Even the ones that aren’t are from the poorer communities, so they don’t care. But we care. And we are going to stay here until this gets resolved. And if we’ve got to shut some stuff down, we’re going to shut it down.
ELIZABETH: Name is Elizabeth. I’m here for my brother Jason, who has been here at MDC for the past five years. This condition with the heat is not new. It happened last year. But fortunately for Jason, he has family that sends him money, and he can buy what he needs to layer up and have blankets and food and resources.
I’m here because, one, I want my brother to know I love him; two, I do not want this problem to keep going on. God forbid if the temperatures plummet again. You know, I’m really worried about his health. We contacted his attorney and demanded that he find out what’s going on.
You know, this has been an ongoing issue, that the power went out last year for like three, four days and that the heat went out three, four days last year. You know, so — and it’s disgusting. And when Nydia Velázquez came out, she was saying that there were wet mattresses from leaks in the ceiling and crumbling conditions in ceilings and things like that. It’s just — it’s disgusting. And we can only imagine the vermin and the rodents and everything else. You know, so, again, it’s disgusting.
But, you know, this has restored my faith in humanity. It’s really made me very proud to be a New Yorker. No one wants to see any human beings suffer, especially knowing what we know about sentencing, extreme sentences and mistreatment of people, you know, especially when so many of these people here haven’t even really been convicted of anything, not that that makes a difference, but they’re just waiting because they’re poor, you know, and they can’t afford bail. So, it’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. So, thankfully, everybody showed up for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Voices from the protest outside MDC, Metropolitan Detention Center. Special thanks to Tey-Marie Astudillo and Ariel Boone for that report.
Around 6:30 p.m. Sunday, officials said electricity restored, but many cells still lack heat. As protesters gathered outside, many lawmakers toured the Metropolitan Detention Center. One of them, who was standing next to Jumaane Williams, the city councilman who was speaking outside, was Brad Lander, a New York city councilmember. He’s with us now.
We have very little time. Has the electricity been restored?
BRAD LANDER: The electricity was restored last night at 6:30, about one full week after it had gone off.
AMY GOODMAN: But people are still reporting they’re freezing.
BRAD LANDER: It’s cold in that facility. It’s going to take more changes to make it warm enough on the coldest days.
AMY GOODMAN: How could there have been no plan, with this polar vortex this week, with people freezing inside?
BRAD LANDER: The whole thing, no plan for an emergency provision. And when the power went off a week ago, last Sunday, they did not act with any urgency. They could have had an emergency plan. If there had been a round-the-clock contractor in there, power could have been back on by Tuesday.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a federal prison. Mayor de Blasio sent in hundreds of blankets. They didn’t distribute them?
BRAD LANDER: There was just, from the staff, from the prison officials, from the facilities manager, no sense of urgency, no sense that there were human beings in those cells who had the right to talk to their families, who needed light. You know, they were eating in the dark. You know, their toilets are in their cells. They were in there. They couldn’t shower for 48 hours. It was really a nightmare.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is responsible for this?
BRAD LANDER: Federal Bureau of Prisons. Federal Bureau of Prisons.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Jerry Nadler is head of House Judiciary Committee.
BRAD LANDER: Yes, he is.
AMY GOODMAN: He was in there both days this weekend.
BRAD LANDER: And he was in there with me on Saturday and Sunday. And he says he is going to have hearings and make sure this gets fixed.
AMY GOODMAN: New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, thanks so much. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.