Protesters and elected city officials crowded the street facing the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center on Saturday as the facility’s inmates experienced a sixth day of freezing temperatures while the jail remains with limited power.
The protesters, some of whom have family members detained at MDC, were drawn to the site after reports revealed that more than 1,600 inmates and workers were forced to endure frigid conditions after an electrical failure left the jail running only on emergency power.
At the demonstration, people yelled “Get those lights on,” while holding signs that called on jail officials to “turn on the heat.”
The demonstration continued on into the night. New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) said in a tweet that inmates’ family members were leading the protests and intended to stay “until adequate conditions are restored.”
Salazar called the jail conditions infuriating and accused Warden Herman Quay of denying inmates medical care and refusing donated blankets from the city’s emergency management.
The federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the Brooklyn detention center, said in a statement to news organizations that “medical services continue to be provided.”
Videos surfaced Friday showing inmates at the detention center flashing reading lights and banging on the cells’ walls and windows, which line the perimeter of the facility. This continued late into the night, according to The City reporter Rosa Goldensohn.
New York City Councilman Justin Brannan filmed the scene on Friday.
“Inmates are banging on S-O-S on windows to get our attention. This is surreal,” Brannan tweeted, adding that it was “one of the most harrowing sounds I’ve ever known.”
Over the week, temperatures in New York City dropped to as low as two degrees. According to The New York Times, cells at the detention center had no electricity and inmates were forced to stuff clothing or cardboard into vents in the ceiling to keep cold air out.
“The situation is really, really a nightmare,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who was at Saturday’s protest, told the Times. “It is like living in a closet without lights.”
In a tweet, Velázquez said that a detention center guard said he needed to “wear fleece over a down vest to stay warm in overnight hours.”
In a statement to CBS News, the prison bureau said that a fire in the switchgear room caused the “partial power outage.” Outside contractors have installed a new electrical panel, but full electricity isn’t expected to restored until Monday.
According to a statement to the NBC News, the bureau said the facility was operating on emergency power, but that cells had access to heat and inmates were receiving hot meals. A bureau spokeswoman told CNN that the inmates have hot water for their sinks and showers.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) tweeted that prison conditions are “much warmer” when he toured the facility Sunday, but he confirmed that full electricity will be back Monday.
“We will remain vigilant to [ensure] that the health and safety of the inmates and correction officers are taken care of properly,” Nadler said.
Lawyer attorney Deirdre von Dornum, who toured the jail on Friday, told the Times on Saturday that inmates were not being allowed to enter common areas. Instead, she said they were being held in their cells. Some inmates said they had been locked in their cells since last Sunday.
Von Dornum told Times reporter Annie Correal that she saw inmates whose heads were wrapped in towels for warmth.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called on acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to investigate the detention center in light of the reported conditions. Samuel Spital, the organization’s director of litigation, said that the situation may be unconstitutional.
“As temperatures dropped dramatically this week, so too did living conditions for over a thousand inmates who were forced to weather the cold without heat, hot water, sufficient light, or even additional blankets,” Spital said in a statement to HuffPost.
“This situation is not just inhumane, but likely unconstitutional,” Spital said. “The lack of adequate clothing and shelter run afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s protections and put inmates’ lives in jeopardy. So far it seems little has been done to improve the situation, with requests for relocation or backup heating going unheeded.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Saturday night that city officials would be delivering generators and hundreds of blankets and hand warmers despite reports that the jail was refusing such donations.
“We’ve told the Federal Bureau of Prisons the supplies are coming ― whether they like it or not,” the mayor tweeted.
Later Saturday night, de Blasio tweeted photos of a delivery being made to the detention center.
This story has been updated with a Twitter post by Rep. Jerry Nadler. Reporter Sanjana Karanth contributed.