By Molly Crane-Newman, Stephen Rex Brown, Thomas Tracy and Michael Gartland
Feb 01, 2019
Inmates locked up in federal jail in Brooklyn banged their windows and flashed lights at street-level onlookers Friday in an apparent plea for relief from the freezing temperatures advocates say they’re enduring.
The dystopian scene unfolded Friday evening inside and outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park as prisoners on each floor of the 14-story lockup frantically gestured to shocked passersby in a desperate cry for help.
Rhonda Barnwell, who works in the jail’s medical station, said the facility has no electricity and is now on a generator.
“They’re just waiting for a disaster to happen,” she said. “There’s only heat in the afternoons since we’ve been complaining today … It’s been really bad … It’s been very dangerous.”
The darkness has also made it dangerous for corrections officers to move the 1,600 inmates who have suffered in the cold for more than a week now.
“They can’t sleep. Their throats are hurting,” she said.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), who toured the facility Friday, demanded the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons come up with a plan to fix the problem immediately.
“When I asked [staff] they said that they provided blankets for anyone who said that they’re too cold,” she said. “That is what they’re telling us. How can we verify that that is the right information?”
The scene brought Rafael Sanchez, 45, a carpenter from the Bronx, to tears over worries about his 24-year-old son’s health.
“My son is one week in here with no hot water, no heat,” he said, standing outside the jail, just a block from the water. “He calls me every night, he gives me the information, ‘OK, hi Dad – how you doing?’ Nothing for one week. I feel so bad, you see I’m crying.”
Problems with heat at the federal facility started to become apparent about a week ago.
Last week, the Legal Aid Society complained in a letter about freezing conditions at both the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, as well as the Manhattan Correctional Center.
That letter, dated Jan. 22 and signed by Mary Lynne Werlwas, refers to several complaints from the Prisoners’ Rights Project about “the absence of heat over the last few days.”
“Please ensure that all areas of the facilities are heated, and remain so, immediately,” Werlwas wrote.
The issue was “supposedly resolved,” a Legal Aid spokesman said earlier Friday.
But according to the inmates, sources and court records, that is not the case.
In a Jan. 31 letter to Judge Nicholas Garoufis, the legal team for alleged NXIVM cult founder Keith Raniere complained of “extreme deprivation,” 44-degree temperatures and the failure to provide their client with “any means” to keep warm.
“MDC has been without heat, electricity, hot water, commissary or warm food since Jan. 27, 2019, following an apparent fire in the institution,” the missive says. “Raniere has also informed us that the corrections officers are wearing masks to mask the smell of noxious fumes, but have not provided any masks to the inmates.”
The fire on Sunday made an already bad situation worse, according to a source familiar with what’s going on inside. The next day, inmates got no lunch and only cold food for dinner. Some who are on restricted diets either got only bread or went without.
Many tried to block vents in their cells with clothing and blankets to keep the frigid air out, he said.
“It’s colder the higher up you go in the building,” he said. “The higher up you are, the worse it is.”
Conditions appeared to grow increasingly desperate as a polar vortex moved into the city Thursday and Friday. City Councilman Brad Lander described the prison as the #SunsetParkGulag.
“The freezing prisoners at the Metropolitan detention Center in Sunset Park are banging out SOS for all of us to hear,” he tweeted.