The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prisoners are among the most vulnerable people in the U.S.

The crisis at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center during the polar vortex shows just how tough the situation is for the incarcerated — and their advocates.

Inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility in Brooklyn, respond on Feb. 3 to family members and others protesting prison conditions. (Kathy Willens/AP)

The U.S. prison system is irrevocably broken, and incarcerated people remain one of the most vulnerable populations in the country. In the United States, the vast majority (67 percent) of the incarcerated are people of color and come from poor and working-class backgrounds. A significant percentage also live with mental illness. As inmates, they are unable to give consent or exercise autonomy over their treatment, and as such are wholly subject to the whims of prison officials, guards and politicians — many of whom generally do not have their best interests in mind. Headline after headline about the cruelty, neglect and violence inflicted upon incarcerated individuals by those ostensibly charged with their care make this clear. This holds especially true during periods of extreme weather, when inmates are at risk of greater danger due to poor infrastructure, aggressive guards or lack of resources.

Prisoners’ families, advocates and prison abolitionists who fight for people held inside such walls often face seemingly insurmountable odds to gain even basic rights for those they represent. In many cases, these groups are the first (and often only) line of defense for prisoners — the first on the scene and the last to leave. It takes herculean effort to constantly go toe-to-toe with the prison industrial complex, but that’s exactly what many people choose to do in the pursuit of justice.

That’s what happened at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) during the first week of February, as a bone-chilling polar vortex hit New York City, with temperatures dipping as low as 3 degrees. MDC holds more than 1,600 people, “most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime,” the New York Times reports. More than a thousand of them were left without heat, hot water, power or medical care for over a week. The jail has always had a terrible reputation for neglect and violence against inmates, but the polar vortex’s brutal temperatures, coupled with a partial power outage on Jan. 27, made the situation much worse.

In a statement to the New York Times, the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed a “partial power outage” and claimed the “cells have heat and hot water, there is lighting in the common areas and inmates are receiving hot meals.”

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Freezing inmates flooded federal defenders’ phone lines with requests for aid. Because of the lack of electricity, the commissary was closed, leaving inmates unable to buy warm clothes, and they were unable to access the computers normally used to get medical care and contact their families. Even under ordinary circumstances, the prison commissary is a lifeline in and of itself for those able to afford its typically inflated prices; according to MDC’s deputy warden, there was plenty of thermal underwear in stock during the freeze, but inmates were unable to buy it — or anything else the commissary offers, including medication, food and toiletries. Instead, as the New York Times reported, they huddled under thin blankets in their cells — some in total darkness — piling on every stitch of clothing they had in an effort to keep warm. One prisoner was left with an untreated gunshot wound for two weeks; another man’s eye infection was left to fester, and inmates with psychiatric needs were left unattended. Cold water reportedly pooled in concrete cells, and black mold was visible on light fixtures. Elderly inmates and those in need of medical care suffered the most: Their prescriptions went unfilled and pleas for more blankets went unanswered. One inmate in a flooded cell had to prevent his suicidal cellmate from hanging himself. To reiterate, most of them have not been convicted of any crime — and even if they were, no human being deserves to be treated this way.

In their desperation, prisoners began banging on the bars of their cells and screaming for help. Their cries could be heard from blocks away, the haunting sound of a last-ditch effort for rescue. Already frantic, inmates’ relatives gathered outside MDC on Feb. 2 to demand answers. The group Bay Ridge for Social Justice set up a Facebook event urging the community to show support, and it snowballed from there.

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Once the call went out, they came in droves — families, advocates, abolitionists, anarchists and all manner of local residents. People poured in from all over the city to stand up for those jailed inside MDC’s frigid walls, and to demand — loudly, repeatedly, resolutely — that something be done to alleviate their suffering. Once they raised enough of a ruckus, politicians caught wind and came, too. Jacobin reports that members of Congress and the city council, the New York attorney general and the Brooklyn Borough president all came down to the protest. Elected officials did their speechifying and posturing, and toured the facilities, returning with nightmarish reports, condemning prison officials’ refusal to act with any sense of urgency, pressuring prison officials to take action. Mayor Bill De Blasio sent a truckload of blankets and generators. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an investigation.

For days, people channeled 2018’s Occupy ICE campaign (or took cues from 2011’s global Occupy movement) and held space outside of MDC, refusing to abandon the people inside until their basic needs were properly met. Notably, MDC and its sister complex in Lower Manhattan are unusually accessible to New York residents, which helped make the protests possible. As Jacobin notes, “In 2016, 54 percent of the New York State prison population was from NYC and its suburbs, but not one of the state’s fifty-three facilities is within an hour of the city by car.” Incarcerated people are already enormously vulnerable, and those in places such as Rikers, who don’t have easy access to representatives who can speak on their behalf, are at an even higher risk.

On Feb. 3, a group of prisoners’ families and allies entered the MDC building, forcing their way inside to protest before being driven out by prison guards wielding pepper spray. As public outrage grew and more elected officials called for immediate change, MDC finally started working to rectify the problem. Public defenders brought a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and MDC’s warden, Herman Quay, alleging that they violated inmates’ constitutional rights. At least six federal judges are investigating the crisis, and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General is reviewing how the Federal Bureau of Prisons handled the crisis. Power was reportedly restored on Feb. 3, but conflicting reports from prisoners raise questions about the conditions inside MDC.

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Without protesters’ dogged displays of public support and solidarity, those people could have been left to freeze for another week. But even that fragile victory is the exception rather than the rule: To be a prisoner means to be wholly subject to the will of the state, and to be utterly defenseless against external and internal forces, from polar vortexes to incompetent wardens. The people inside MDC had no way to help themselves, so they reached out by every possible means they had to ask others to step in. This is far from the only example of incarcerated people being left to fend for themselves against dangerous natural elements. Less than a year ago, as Hurricane Florence barreled toward South Carolina, officials at Lee Correctional Institution refused to evacuate inmates ahead of the coming storm, as did those who ran three state jails in Virginia. The same thing happened to prisoners in Texas during Hurricane Harvey. The lack of regard for human life shown in these cases — and made clear at MDC — is appalling and sadly symptomatic of how the broader prison system in this country views and treats those it holds within its clutches.

The tragedy at MDC is an all-too-common example of mistreatment in the U.S. carceral state. It illustrates just how defenseless incarcerated people here and in every other prison facility are in the face of institutional neglect, and how much they suffer as a result. Even a return to relative normalcy means a return to a painful, uncertain existence. Prison wardens, guards and government officials are charged with tending to the needs of the incarcerated people forcibly placed within their care. Any failure to do so constitutes a moral and legal outrage, and a dereliction of duty, and those who held power at this Brooklyn jail are absolutely guilty. Leaving human beings to shiver and weep inside freezing, damp cells, with no light, no heat and no hope, is nothing short of monstrous. At some point, prison slavery will be abolished, and justice will be done, but until then, it is on those of us who live outside those walls to advocate on the behalf of the vulnerable inmates caught inside the prison industrial complex — until every cage is empty, until every soul is free.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first name.