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Lawsuit filed against Brooklyn jail that went with limited power, heat during frigid week

The suit called the issues inside the prison a "humanitarian crisis" and accused the Federal Bureau of Prisons of misleading the public.
Catana Yehudah of the Bronx uses a megaphone to speak to prisoners at the Metropolitan Detention Center on Sunday in Brooklyn. Kathy Willens / AP

Attorneys in New York City have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the warden of Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center, claiming the jail kept inmates in "inhumane" and unconstitutional conditions during a dangerously cold week.

The federal lawsuit, filed on Monday morning in the Eastern District of New York by the Federal Defenders of New York on behalf of its clients held in the facility, called the conditions in the prison a "humanitarian crisis."

Metropolitan Detention Center, which is located in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood, is a pre-trial detention facility that houses more than 1,600 inmates. While there are suspected drug traffickers and alleged terrorists among the inmate population there, according to The New York Times, the vast majority are accused of low-level crime.

On Jan. 27, a fire broke out in a gear switch room in Metropolitan Detention Center, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Public defenders said they had trouble contacting inmates during the 35-day government shutdown, and thought funding and staffing shortages could be the cause.

Prisoners at the Metropolitan Detention Center respond to family members and protesters who turned out to call attention to the conditions at the center on Sunday. Kathy Willens / AP

Over the weekend, one public defender said it still wasn't clear if those issues played a role in the electrical failure.

A statement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons on Sunday said that while the jail's west building, which houses men, had "limited power in some areas," the east building, which houses women, was unaffected. The statement also said the heating to the building was unaffected by the outage and that inmates still had access to hot water.

The suit called the bureau's characterization of the jail's conditions "misleading" to the public and to the courts.

Bureau officials did not respond to inquiries made by the Federal Defenders and when they did respond, offered explanations that were inconsistent with the conditions that inmates had described to attorneys, the suit claims.

"For example, one BOP attorney represented to a Federal Defenders attorney on two separate occasions that he was 'informed that the power outage did not impact the heating in the institutions' ... however, the power outage following the fire had a significant impact on MDC's heating system," the suit reads.

The suit also claims that the jail said it had provided medical services despite numerous inmates claiming otherwise.

It also said the jail has deprived inmates of legal and family visits since Jan. 27.

"The Defendants' deprivation of MDC detainees' constitutional rights has caused and is causing irreparable harm to the Federal Defenders and its clients," the suit reads.

Prior to the suit's filing, the U.S. Department of Justice released a statement saying it would review the events of the last week at Metropolitan Detention Center.

"In the coming days, the Department will work with the Bureau of Prisons to examine what happened and ensure the facility has the power, heat and backup systems in place to prevent the problem from reoccurring," DOJ spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement.

Defenders who visited the jail during the week with limited heat and power described a frantic scene inside, with inmates confined to freezing, pitch black cells, water leaking from the ceiling, and tepid shower water. David Patton, the executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, who toured the facility, read thermometers throughout the prison, saying that temperatures ranged between 50 and 69 degrees inside some of the cells, with temperatures varying depending on location and proximity to the windows.

Politicians, activists and attorneys gathered outside the jail over the weekend to protest the conditions.

On Sunday evening, the Federal Bureau of Prisons released a statement saying the power had been restored at the Metropolitan Detention Center, and that staff was working to resume normal operations.

As the lights finally flickered on inside the jail, those watching outside cheered.