What to Know
- The federal government badly botched its response to a weeklong power failure amid a cold snap at a detention center in NYC last winter
- The failure led to shivering inmates' unrest after prison management “failed to recognize the importance” of providing details to inmates
- The power failure, resulting from an electrical room fire, happened as a deep freeze hit NYC, with temperatures as low as 2 degrees
The federal government badly botched its response to a weeklong power failure amid a cold snap at a federal detention center in New York City last winter, fueling rumors and sparking unrest among shivering inmates, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said in a report Thursday.
The Inspector General’s report criticized the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for mismanaging “critical aspects” of the crisis at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, including communication failures that left inmates, lawyers and the public in the dark for days on the problems plaguing the facility.
It wasn’t until six days after the lights went out last January that the agency publicly acknowledged the power outage, the report said. By the time prison officials issued a press release, media outlets were already reporting on desperate conditions at the jail based on accounts from lawyers and inmate advocates.
The report also criticized the agency for halting legal and social visits without a backup plan for the duration of the outage, a move that inmate advocates said violated their constitutional rights. The Federal Defenders of New York, a public defender organization, sued the Bureau of Prisons over the decision.
The Bureau of Prisons said it would take steps outlined in the report to improve conditions at the jail and its crisis response. The agency has been under fire for various issues of late, including Jeffrey Epstein’s August suicide at a federal jail in Manhattan.
Inmates at the Brooklyn jail reported little or no heat, little or no hot water, minimal electricity, and near-total lack of access to some medical services, telephones, televisions, computers, laundry or commissary during the outage.
Without an official accounting of what was happening, people wrongly assumed that the power failure had caused a drastic drop in temperatures at the jail. In reality, the report said, the prison had “long-standing temperature regulation issues” and the outage happened to coincide with some of the coldest days of the year.
The temperature inside the prison bottomed out at 59 degrees a week before the outage and hit a recorded low of 64 degrees during the outage, the report said, though it noted that high-speed air flow from vents and chilly surfaces could’ve led to inmates’ “freezing” complaints.
As the power outage continued, prison management “failed to recognize the importance” of providing information to inmates and other stakeholders, such as lawyers, judges and advocates, about conditions in the jail, the report said.
“This lack of information, coupled with rumors about the heating conditions inside the jail during the extremely cold weather, led to protests outside the institution, as well as unrest inside the jail,” the watchdog report said.
Protesters gathered outside after news reports that inmates had been without heat or power for a week. Guards pushed and shoved demonstrators attempting to enter the facility. Witnesses said they also used pepper spray.
The power failure, resulting from a Jan. 27 fire in an electrical room, happened as a deep freeze hit New York City. The temperature in the city hit a low of 2 degrees on Jan. 31.
Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velazquez, both Democrats, visited the jail in February and were among the members of Congress who asked the inspector general to review the matter. They said in a statement Thursday that the conditions they observed were “unacceptable and should not be allowed to happen again.”
The Bureau of Prisons, in accepting the report’s recommendations, said it’s upgrading the facility’s antiquated heating and cooling system and installing equipment to better regulate temperatures.
It also said it will update policies to include alternative visiting arrangements and refine its guidance on when staff should inform lawyers, the public and other stakeholders about disruptive events at prison facilities.
The report wasn’t all negative. It acknowledged prison management rightly took several steps to ensure the safety and security of the facility.
They included the warden’s decision to keep inmates secured in their cells for certain periods to maintain safety instead of evacuating the jail — which would have presented a greater security risk, the report said.