Community Rallies Around Freezing Prisoners in Brooklyn

Sonia Chajet Wides, ‘21

February 2019

On January 31, 2019, the coldest day in New York City in three years, New York Times reporter Annie Correal received an anonymous email that read “MDC [Metropolitan Detention Center] Brooklyn without Power. No heat no power no proper food. Over 72 hours in lockdown. Please help.” The Metropolitan Detention Center is a federal prison in Brooklyn which mostly holds people who have not yet been convicted of crimes and cannot afford bail as they await trial. The facility has also been used to hold people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The next day, February 1st, the NY Times published Correal’s article reporting that over 1,000 prisoners had been without heat, on lockdown, and without medical care for days. Familial or legal visits had also been barred by the prison. When media, politicians, and activists arrived at the prison, they were greeted with the sound of incarcerated people banging on the windows, creating a rhythmic thumping in a desperate cry for help.

When the story first came out, the office of Herman Quay, MDC’s warden, claimed that there had been a partial power outage due to an electrical panel that caught fire but that heat had not been affected by the fire. Prison employees and inmates later reported that the freeze had preceded the fire. Lawyers from the organization Federal Defenders who had spoken with their clients asked that the prisoners be moved to a heated facility when they learned that the cells were dark and freezing; they were given “a dismissive response,” according to the New York Times. Later testimonies from inmates given in court and to the press revealed how dire the situation was inside. Among them were stories of people huddling in three layers of blankets, having blankets taken away, trying to cover a vent of cold air with a book, and keeping hands warm with a can of water heated by a contraband lighter.

As the conditions at MDC became more apparent to people on the outside, organizers from The Gathering for Justice’s NY Justice League began immediately pulling together a rally. “When we got word of what was happening we immediately jumped on a strategizing call and realized we needed a physical presence on site,” said Brea Baker, an organizer with Justice League who responded to questions for this article via email. Protestors, mostly families of inmates, had been outside the prison since Thursday, January 31st, but the first official rally was on Saturday, February 2nd, where a couple hundred protestors (including a few BHSEC students) gathered alongside elected officials and organizers who were assessing the situation. Elected officials and activists who spoke on Saturday included Representative Jerry Nadler, Councilman Jumaane Williams, BHSEC parent Councilman Brad Lander, Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory. The speeches highlighted the fact that most of the prisoners had not been convicted and that the jail’s population was majority Black and Latinx. The most powerful voices of the day were the families of some of the incarcerated people. One mother, Cheryl Roberts, addressed the crowd in an impassioned speech, saying “I haven’t heard from my son in over a week…. I don’t know what’s wrong with him in there. I don’t know if he’s sick… He just had twin babies; I don’t know what I’m gonna tell my grandchildren. What are they doing in there? ... They are treating them like they are animals! What are we? Less than animals? My child and all these children need love and all these husbands need love. We don’t need to treat them like animals! You understand what I’m saying here? They’re children!”

In response to the protests, Mayor de Blasio announced the city would be sending blankets to the prison, despite it not being under the city’s jurisdiction.“As more information went out, we continued to adjust accordingly, turning a rally into a multi-day campout,” Baker said. On the night of the 2nd,  Councilman Williams provided a heated bus for protestors who spent the night outside the prison.

Credit:  Sonia Chajet Wides

Credit: Sonia Chajet Wides

On Sunday, organizers developed a means of communicating with prisoners where organizers asked questions on a loudspeaker and prisoners responded by banging their answers. For example, an organizer would say “Bang if you received blankets,” and the prison would be silent- the blankets sent by the Mayor’s office had not been “processed” by prison staff. Then someone would say “Bang if you do not have heat,” and a resounding chorus of thumping would ensue. Around two P.M., a few men inside hoisted themselves up onto window bars in the center of the prison and yelled messages to protesters. These men were able to call for their families, and families began directly speaking with their loved ones through a bullhorn and window bars. One mother became so upset that she ran up to the jail and demanded to be let in. When other families and organizers followed her, the crowd was immediately pushed out and people were pepper sprayed, leading to a chaotic scene outside the prison.

Credit:  Sonia Chajet Wides

Credit: Sonia Chajet Wides

Meanwhile, additional elected officials, such as New York Attorney General Letitia James, were allowed inside and lawyers were talking with clients. Politicians and lawyers informed protesters that the inmates had been on lockdown for four days and had not had showers. Other information included the fact that corrections officers were punishing the inmates with solitary confinement and pepper spray if they asked to eat their dinner in a place with light since the cells were pitch black. “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,” Councilman Williams said, “You’re pepper spraying families. This is how you know they don’t care. You wouldn’t even set up a process for people to know if their children and their fathers and their mothers and their daughters are ok.” Baker added, “What's most troubling is how much of this is not circumstantial but intentional.”

Councilman Williams later sent a powerful message to the protesters, saying “All the people here, we are the America that makes this bulls*** go away. We are the ones that have always pushed back. We are the ones who are going to continue to push back. And the future is watching us saying ‘thank you for being here right now.’” On the night of Sunday, February 3rd, heat and electricity were restored. The blackout had lasted for a week. However, the next day, according to Baker, inmates reported that corrections officers had been retaliating by punishing inmates, particularly those who protested, by turning up their heat to blistering highs.

Credit:  Sonia Chajet Wides

Credit: Sonia Chajet Wides

In the days following the protests, judges ordered that prisoners with medical issues be taken to the hospital and that regular lawyer and family visits resume. There was a public hearing on Tuesday, February 5th, where protesters filled the room and inmates testified about the freezing conditions. According to the Associated Press, The Federal Defenders “sued the Bureau of Prisons, alleging it violated the constitutional rights of inmates.” On February 7th, it was announced that the Justice Department would launch an investigation into conditions at the jail. On February 14th, organizers from Justice League and families of people held in MDC traveled to the Philadelphia regional office of the Bureau of Prisons to demand oversight from Director Ray J. Ormond on Warden Quay’s actions. Justice League set up a meeting with Ormond for next week. Since the protests, Justice League has received messages from people around the country reporting inhumane treatment in prisons, including the “mysterious death” of an inmate at Greene Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

Justice League and the New York Times, in particular, are continuing to release updated information about the situation at MDC. Baker said that Justice League is used to the fast-paced nature of this new information but that organizing has been difficult with a lack of communication with those inside the prison. She said that politicians’ presence on the scene has helped them get information. As of February 17th, the scene outside MDC is quiet save for the few posters left on a brick wall with messages of love for family members. Many point to the situation as a symptom of a larger problem with the criminal justice system. “There's no ‘reforming’ these prisons,” Baker said, “They are dens of abuse of power, violence, and inhumane treatment. Prisons and jails as we know them need to be dismantled altogether.”