The Federal Defenders of New York have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons over reported conditions of no heat or electricity in parts of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for nearly a week while temperatures outside plummeted well below freezing.
State lawmakers in Albany said New York Attorney General Letitia James is also considering litigation over the conditions, which she said were “unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane” in a statement late last week.
Representatives for James did not immediately comment on whether the office was considering litigation on the matter, but lawmakers confirmed that she attended a tour of the facility over the weekend.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a news conference Monday that a lawsuit from James is on the table, but that his counsel is evaluating how the state’s involvement could be legally justified since the prison is a federal facility.
“The question is the grounds,” Cuomo said. “We are very aggressive in suing the federal government, but you need grounds and that’s what my counsel’s office is looking at.”
Cuomo called, over the weekend, on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the reported conditions at the prison, calling them a “violation of human decency and dignity.” He said Monday that the state couldn’t formally get involved in an inquiry into the matter because the prison is outside the state’s control.
“It’s a federal facility, the state doesn’t have jurisdiction,” Cuomo said. “We have said to the Justice Department that it’s an outrage that violates the civil rights and civil liberties of the people that are incarcerated.”
A spokesman for DOJ said in a statement Monday morning that the federal agency will be investigating the incident in the coming days to find out exactly what happened and to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the future.
The conditions had sparked protests from within the prison, where inmates were heard banging on the walls in an attempt to draw the attention of those outside the facility. As many as 1,600 inmates were without heat during the week until heat was, at least partially, restored late Sunday evening, according to state Sen. Luis Sepulveda, a Democrat from the Bronx who chairs the Correction Committee.
“For about 23 hours a day, inmates were shivering because of the cold, they were promised blankets they never received, and the commissary was closed because there was no electricity,” Sepulveda said.
Lawmakers who toured the facility over the weekend said conditions had only gotten worse over the week since the building lost heat and electricity. State Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, said he was told that inmates responsible for preparing food for the prison population didn’t have any access to take showers for at least three days.
“This was a grossly mismanaged situation at best with a complete disregard for the humanity of the people who are being held at this facility,” Gianaris said.
Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, who chairs the Codes Committee, also visited the facility over the weekend. He said he was told by prison officials that heat had been restored to the building, but that it didn’t feel that way when he was there.
“I was not warm despite being told that the heat was on. I heard the tapping that we’ve all heard,” Bailey said. “I felt the chills in my own body, so I don’t know how you can say the heat is on.”
Sepulveda said state lawmakers will be meeting with attorneys from James’ office this afternoon to discuss the state’s next steps on the matter, whether that will be litigation or not. It’s possible that the attorney general’s office could become involved in the lawsuit through the Federal Defenders of New York rather than bringing its own litigation.
“We’re going to have a conversation this afternoon. Things have been moving quickly,” Sepulveda said. “We’re hearing there have been some corrective measures but we’re not convinced here.”
The Federal Defenders of New York, which is represented by Kaplan Hecker & Fink in Manhattan, filed its lawsuit Monday morning in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. It claimed the conditions inmates were subjected to over the past week were unconstitutional, including their lack of access to counsel throughout the situation.
On Monday afternoon, U.S. District Judge DeArcy Hall granted the Federal Defenders’ request for a temporary restraining order to require the prison to resume attorney visits for inmates, finding that the Federal Defenders might have sufficient facts to allege that the Bureau of Prisons is violating the Sixth Amendment rights of inmates.
“We are very pleased that the Court found that the Federal Defenders of New York had made a sufficient showing to justify ordering the government to reinstate legal visiting,” said Sean Hecker, a partner at Kaplan Hecker & Fink. “The right to counsel is the bedrock of our criminal justice system, and the Court’s order ensures that the government can no longer ignore it, pending a hearing on our motion for an injunction and for appointment of a special master.”
Hall denied, however, the Federal Defenders’ request for an order to require the resumption of social visits, finding that such contacts are not protected by the Sixth Amendment.
A DOJ spokesman confirmed Monday morning that electrical power was restored to the facility Sunday evening, and that heat had returned to the building. State lawmakers in Albany seemed skeptical of that news Monday morning, with Sepulveda saying he planned to visit the facility later in the day.
Gianaris said it’s been difficult to accurately discern facts, since updates on the situation have come from the Bureau of Prisons itself.
“Part of the problem is trying to extract information on the situation,” Gianaris said. “We still don’t know exactly what happened because the people telling us what happened are the people who mismanaged this to begin with.”