NYT: Why Did a Brooklyn Jail Without Heat Inspire So Much Outrage?

By Ginia Bellafante
Feb. 7, 2019

Late Monday afternoon, the day after electricity had been restored to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and heat had returned, protesters kept at it outside the jail, holding banners and banging on pots and chanting and questioning.

They shouted that they loved those inside as they loved themselves, and while some were the actual loved ones of the people detained, most were young activists bonded in outrage over the fact that a federal jail allowed 1,600 detainees to freeze, in darkness and lockdown, while temperatures outside were in the single digits.

Elsewhere, many other vulnerable people were very cold last week. But they failed to capture the same kind of attention. At one point, the Legal Aid Society reported that nearly 12,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority, dispersed among several developments in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, had been without heat or hot water during the previous 24 hours.

But perhaps because we are so accustomed to hearing about how badly public housing is managed, the crowds and viral videos and expressions of disgust from morning-news anchors and presidential candidates did not materialize.

What was the difference? The conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center suggested a culture of cruelty over inefficiency, of hostility over neglect. There were heartless guards and overlords, presumably, doing nothing to alleviate agonizing conditions endured by accused drug dealers and gang members and mob bosses who did not command sympathy.

The heating failure followed an electrical fire that erupted in the jail on Jan. 27, the latest in a series of infrastructural problems in the building. Little had been done, it appeared, to fix things quickly. On Wednesday, the Justice Department said it would have its ombudsman conduct an investigation into how the crisis was handled. While some institutional failings can be easily laid at the feet of inscrutable bureaucracies; in this case it seems that individual human beings plagued by huge deficits of compassion were to blame.

When visitors were finally allowed in, to see their husbands and partners, brothers and sons, late in the day on Monday, stories emerged that confirmed this view. One woman, a lawyer, told me that her boyfriend said that a guard had opened a window to bring in more cold air as a means of extending the pain. The inmates had been banging on windows to communicate with the world outside, and this was a form of retaliation.

The man, who was being held on an immigration charge, also told his girlfriend that he never got one of the blankets the city had sent over when news of the heat crisis broke. To what extent they had been distributed was unclear.

The jail also seemed to do a poor job of letting families know what was going on. Another woman, Isabel Vega, said she had grown worried about her husband in the middle of last week because she hadn’t heard from him. When she emailed the jail to voice a concern, she heard nothing back. It was through a post on Instagram that she was alerted to the prisoners’ miseries.

Others held at the detention center wondered why they were not moved to another building on the same block that was part of the facility. According to Arthur Aidala, a lawyer who was visiting one of several clients at the jail, this building had heat and power. It houses mostly female inmates on two floors but is otherwise empty, he said, and while it would have been logistically challenging to move so many inmates at once, the jail moves them back and forth to court all the time.

Why the building did not resort to generator power was also left unexplained. “Can you imagine if this were an apartment building on the Upper East Side?’’ Mr. Aidala said. “But here, you have to consider who the tenant is and who the landlord is.”

The landlord, of course, is the federal government, led by a president who, two years ago at a speech on Long Island, suggested that police officers should not bother to protect the heads of suspects as they put them in police cars. He was speaking to law enforcement officials, and he told them they could “take the hand off,” a comment that elicited cheers from the audience.

Without a big push on social media from influential activists — Tamika Mallory, co-president of the Women’s March, was one of the organizers of the protest that began over the weekend — it is hard to say how much emotion the power failure and heating issues at the jail would have unleashed. How much is ignored because it can’t be distilled to one and a half minutes of haunting footage? The images of inmates banging on windows had supplied that — the sense of something dark and medieval.

The same jail had, in fact, been hit with a series of sexual assault cases in recent years — female inmates had accused guards of molesting them — but there was no similar outcry. Hunger is a big problem in this country, but hunger isn’t visual; there is no clear path to Instagram.

The Metropolitan Detention Center also finds itself in a place that can no longer be considered remote. Gentrification has changed that.

In recent years, an entire world of makers and designers and microbrewers, craft boutiques, ramen stands, artisanal chocolatiers, high-end furniture retailers and Citi Bikes has evolved around the jail in the form of Industry City, a work-life-retail experience on the waterfront in Sunset Park. If you were to occupy a cell in the back of the complex, for instance, you might have the bizarre fate of looking out at the ABC Carpet outlet down Second Avenue, which sits below the training facility of the Brooklyn Nets.

The obvious effect of all this is an influx of people into a part of the city that had for so long felt vacant. Last summer, the de Blasio administration released plans for a new network of neighborhood jails, four in total, spread across the city, as part of the effort to close Rikers Island. Nimbyism is sure to intervene, but one of the unspoken benefits of the proposed system is that the jails will sit in actual communities where people will see them on their way to work, to the gym, to the grocery store. And all secrets, in the end, are harder to keep in the daylight.