Protests win heat back at federal jail in Brooklyn

Prisoners held days with no heat, light, hot water

By Janet Post
February 18, 2019
Family members of prisoners and supporters protest outside U.S. prison in Brooklyn Feb. 2.
BklynerFamily members of prisoners and supporters protest outside U.S. prison in Brooklyn Feb. 2.

NEW YORK — Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, chanting, “Move them out!” as prisoners pounded on cell windows Feb. 1-3. They were protesting the loss of heat and light inside the prison in the midst of a freezing cold snap.

For weeks, the prison’s heating system had been malfunctioning. The Legal Aid Society of New York complained to the federal Bureau of Prisons Jan. 22, but there was no response. Then on Jan. 27 a fire destroyed Con Edison’s main electrical panel in the men’s section. The power outage cut off all heat, lights, hot water and internet connections.

Nothing was done to repair this for an entire week — the coldest week in New York this winter, as temperatures hit zero degrees. Prisoners were locked down in cells 23 hours a day from Jan. 31 and visits from family and friends banned.

The detention center imprisons over 1,600 workers and youth. Protesters included many family members. Some stayed outside overnight in solidarity. When one of the prisoners, Desmond Murchinson, shouted out to his mother, Yvonne Murchinson, she and others tried to get into the prison but were attacked with pepper spray by prison authorities.

Those thrown into the prison are mainly detainees who haven’t been convicted of any crime. Many are clients of the federal defenders office, among thousands of impoverished defendants caught up in the criminal “justice” system.

“Inmates were wrapped head to toe in towels and blankets. Their windows were frosted over,” said Deirdre von Dornum after a tour of the jail Feb. 1.  She heads the federal defenders office in Brooklyn. “Even more disturbingly, perhaps, for the inmates, their cells were pitch-black.”

It took widespread publicity on the protests for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to say the city would deliver blankets to the prisoners. Federal authorities never distributed them.

Other liberal politicians belatedly feigned outrage over conditions at the jail. Workers in New York City have been trying for years to get these same officials, including de Blasio, to deal with the lack of heat in much of the rent-regulated public housing operated by the New York City Housing Authority. De Blasio is the boss over the notorious Rikers Island prison here, a hellhole imposed on workers and youth who face charges in the city.