Brooklyn prisoners suffer during polar vortex in unheated prison

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

The final week of January brought record-low temperatures to the northeast, with Arctic winds dropping temperatures below zero during many nights. While most braved the polar vortex beside roaring fireplaces and behind shuttered windows, the 1,654 inmates held at the Metropolitan Detention Center of Brooklyn, N.Y. were left without light or heat.

The prison, which houses “special case” inmates including those with serious health conditions, lost power Jan. 28 as a result of a fire in the switch gear room. Legal visitation rights were suspended until the following Sunday. The Federal Defenders of New York, a nonprofit representing low-income citizens accused of crimes, has filed a lawsuit against MDC for violating the Sixth Amendment rights of its detainees.

An attorney for the nonprofit visited the prison during the outage and reported not only freezing temperatures, but also blatant neglect of inmates’ medical needs.

This is in direct conflict with a statement released by MDC on Sunday, in which a representative stated the prison’s heating was not affected by the outage and the inmates were well taken care of. Passersby on the streets of Brooklyn would likely disagree with the latter remark as screams for help and the clang of metal crockery on cell walls echoed from MDC.

Protesters gathered out front to shout support to the inmates and call attention to the injustice at hand, but were quickly turned away by pepper-spraying cops.

Relatives of inmates as well as city officials touring the facilities claim no efforts were made to make the inmates’ stay any more bearable. Congressman Jerrold Nadler visited the prison during the outage and was told by the warden that 600 blankets had been distributed to assuage the uncomfortable chill, but reported seeing no such amenities at any point in his tour.

“Where’s the president on this? He’s worrying about the wrong issue, where’s he on this? Everybody in there’s not guilty, and even if they were, they’re human beings,” said Yvonne Murchison, mother of an inmate, to Gothamist. Her son, Desmond, has been held awaiting trial for a year, and cried for his mother through metal grates during the protests on Sunday.

At what point does human decency run out? Why, because they were convicted of a crime, should human beings be left to die, shivering on concrete floors without so much as a blanket?

It is without a doubt that those guilty of crimes should be punished, but the brutal treatment seen in Brooklyn is not civil punishment, it’s torture.

In addition to being morally heinous, the acts of the MDC are in clear violation of the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners issued by the United Nations, in which the first and foremost rule states “all prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.”

Because a majority of the MDC’s population belongs to ethnic minorities, the situation also raises questions about racial inequality in the American justice system. Would the prisoners have been left in the frigid darkness if they were predominantly white?

The acts of the MDC serve as a grotesque example of the consequences of an elitist, Anglo-centric society failing to see the aforementioned “inherent dignity and value” of individuals that do not resemble them.

The Federal Defenders should see that the prison is held responsible for its crimes against humanity and the protesters should not cease their efforts to open the public’s eyes to this injustice.

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