Prison rights activists and relatives of the incarcerated continue to protest outside the Metropolitan Detention Center on February 4, 2019 in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. The prison lost power and heat for over a week during a polar vortex.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

After a power outage at the Metropolitan Detention Center left over 1600 people trapped in their cells without light or heat, a federal judge held an evidentiary hearing on Tuesday to determine the causes and possible solutions for widespread problems at the MDC Brooklyn facility. Over four hours of testimony later, witnesses accuse MDC officials of ignoring long-standing issues, and complete apathy about the plight of inmates in their custody.

"I'm thinking that if the media didn't come, we'd still be in the same situation," said Rhonda Barnwell, a health information tech at the MDC Brooklyn facility. She added that the electrical fire on Sunday, Jan. 27 was not the cause of the jail's heating problems, but that it experienced "very cold temperatures" about a week beforehand.

Anthony Sanon, a union president at MDC, added that the building was having electrical problems several weeks before the electrical file that supposedly caused the heating issues.

Prior to the hearing, the federal government had maintained that there were no problems with heat in the building, except for in one specific cell.

 

"Regarding heat at the facility, MDC informs us that the electrical outage did not cause the heat to go out, nor did it lead to a lack of hot water," wrote federal attorneys in a motion to adjourn the hearing on Tuesday.

Herman Quay, the warden at the MDC Brooklyn facility, also claimed that inmates had not been confined to their cells, they had been allowed to spend time in the "yard" for recreational activity and that they had access to hot water, meals and medical care.

"People were begging me to call their lawyers...They were expressing real terror in a way that I haven't heard," said Dierdre Dionysia von Dornum, attorney-in-charge for the Federal Defenders of New York. "So I have personal knowledge that what the warden said was false."

However, according to MDC facility manager John Maffeo, the problems were well known prior to the power outage. He also claimed that the prison brought in extra blankets to the affected units, though MDC case manager Hai June Bencibi testified that this was not the case.

According to Bencibi, prison staff wore winter coats, gloves and hats, and used space heaters. Prisoners, on the other hand, were not given anything extra, Bencibi said, adding, "They just stay huddled in bed." Without the blankets that jail officials never actually distributed, the only other option for prisoners was buying thermal underwear from MDC's commissary, which didn't work because of the power outage.

City Council Member Jumaane Williams added that the most "astonishing thing was the lack of urgency" among prison officials, saying that they even seemed to be annoyed that he and other elected officials touring the facility on Feb. 2 cared about the well-being of the prisoners at all.

"There were people we were trying to get connected to get medical attention," he testified. "There was no plan to create a plan."

Judge Analisa Torres toured the prison herself on Tuesday, though prison officials claim that heat has been completely restored. One of the inmates at the MDC Brooklyn facility has already been evacuated from the jail by court order, as the lack of heat and access to medical care aggravated his asthma to the point that he was "spitting up blood."

"It was hard on me because it was dark," said Donnell Murray, an MDC Brooklyn inmate. "It was cold. I was nervous."

 

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