Following yesterday's evidentiary hearing on the "humanitarian crisis" at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center, Judge Analisa Torres visited the Sunset Park facility along with public defenders, jail officials, and state Attorney General Letitia James. Torres, a federal judge presiding over one of several cases related to the conditions at MDC, spent several hours inside, but gave no public indication about what she'd seen during the visit. Later in the evening, the judge denied requests to transfer two detainees, and declined to make a ruling on whether a special master should be appointed to investigate the troubled jail, punting that to another case.
But a transcript of the visit published on Wednesday offers a disturbing look at life inside MDC, and suggests that mistreatment of detainees goes far beyond the recent electrical issues. While heat and electricity did return to most units earlier this week, those who met with the judge described immense suffering inflicted by corrections officers, and an "incredible fear of retaliation" among anyone who spoke up.
According to the transcript, which was recorded by a stenographer and released by the court, several detainees told Judge Torres that they had medical problems that had been ignored by jail staff—in some cases, life-threatening issues that were exacerbated by the dark and freezing conditions they were forced to endure during last week's bitter cold snap.
On the seventh floor, the judge described observing "abundant water" and "black, blotchy mold" on the ceiling of a jail cell. She spoke to the man incarcerated in that cell, relating that he was showing her "a very dingy yellowed blanket that is obviously water damaged" and also "his left arm that has a rash on it, and he says it's from the water dripping." Several others told Torres that they were not given adequate clothing or blankets during the heat outages, with one person saying it was like "sleeping under a waterfall."
#MDCBrooklyn’s Deputy Warden testified today that thermal underwear could only be purchased through commissary, but it was down w/ computers. This means during the week of freezing cold, there were thermals on site, but they didn’t distribute them bc they wouldn’t make any money. https://t.co/GRd9SDlBhF
— Scott Hechinger (@ScottHech) February 6, 2019
Another detainee said that he didn't receive his medication for an entire week, causing him to pass out in his cell this past Sunday after attempting to call for help. He accused security officials of jamming the alert button, and purposefully ignoring his cries for assistance. "I still haven't been seen yet," he told the judge. "I am still in pain."
(During the hearing earlier in the day, a medical technician at MDC, Rhonda Barnwell, had seemed to admit that the jail was failing to provide adequate health care to its 1,600-person population. She added, "If the media didn't come, we'd still be in the same situation.")
The judge also met with a detainee who said his cellmate experienced a mental breakdown during the heat outages. "He asked for attention because when the power was off the emergency buttons were not working," the man said. "The officers were walking around only every hour or so. When we finally got the officers' attention...I said the man is suicidal, and I think they took it as a joke."
The man added that he "literally had to take the noose out of his cellmate's hand [as] he was trying to kill himself."
When the judge said that she was sorry to hear that, the man replied: "Thank you for being worried about us, ma'am, and treating us like human beings."
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons did not respond to Gothamist's request for comment. You can read the full transcript here.
UPDATE 6:00 p.m. The Department of Justice is requesting that the Inspector General "undertake a review of this matter to determine if BOP responded appropriately to the heat and electricity failures at MDC Brooklyn and to assess whether BOP has in place adequate contingency plans for such an incident."
The statement continues, "The BOP will also conduct a thorough investigation of the infrastructure at the facility and review the emergency response and contingency planning for this type of incident. DOJ and BOP will continue to work to ensure that MDC Brooklyn meets all required standards."