A power failure at a federal detention centre in New York City spawned a humanitarian crisis worsened by authorities’ response as guards wearing scarves and layers of clothing policed inmates who coped with “very cold” conditions in short-sleeve shirts and light pants, a lawsuit filed on Monday said.
The lawsuit filed in Brooklyn federal court by the Federal Defenders of New York cited numerous disruptions caused by the outage that resulted from a January 27 fire at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
Defense lawyers have not been able to visit inmates who were reporting little or no heat, little or no hot water, minimal electricity, near total lack of access to some medical services, or access to telephones, televisions, computers, laundry or commissary, it said.
Inmates also reported smelling noxious fumes and seeing prison officers wearing masks even though none were supplied to inmates, the lawsuit said.
The Justice Department said that power was restored around 6:30pm local time on Sunday (23:30GMT) and that it was working to prevent future problems.
“In the coming days, the Department will work with the Bureau of Prisons to examine what happened and ensure the facility has the power, heat and backup systems in place to prevent the problem from re-occurring,” said Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of public affairs for the Justice Department.
The outage occurred just as freezing Arctic air began rolling towards the East Coast.
On Wednesday night, the temperature in New York City dropped to nearly minus 18 Celsius (zero Fahrenheit).
Authorities violated the constitutional rights of over 1,600 inmates by denying legal visits, the lawsuit alleges.
Protesters gathered outside after news reports that inmates had largely been without heat or power for a week.
The power failure caused “inhumane” conditions for inmates, and the response was “woefully inadequate” as authorities were slow to acknowledge the problem and failed to take adequate steps to obtain temporary supplies of electricity or heat and to repair damage, the lawsuit said.
It called for the appointment of a special master to inspect the lockup and unspecified damages.
The lawsuit also accused the federal government of making misleading statements to the public and courts about conditions inmates faced. And it said prison officials were largely unresponsive when lawyers sought information about “troubling reports” by inmates.
An upbeat report from the warden about the conditions for inmates was belied by what Deirdre von Dornum, lawyer-in-chief of the federal defenders office, saw when she toured the facility on Friday, the lawsuit said.
“Inmates were wrapped head to toe in towels and blankets,” von Dornum said in a telephone interview on Saturday.
“Their windows were frosted over. Even more disturbingly perhaps for the inmates, their cells were pitch black and they don’t have flashlights.”
She said senior officials at the jail were “indifferent” to the problems during her tour even as guards complained to her of the cold.
One inmate, Dino Sanchez, has only a short-sleeved jumpsuit, a T-shirt and a single standard-issue thin blanket to keep him warm, according to a court filing by his lawyer. Sanchez has asthma, which the cold has exacerbated, and fears collapsing in the dark without anyone noticing and coming to his aid, his lawyer in a court filing.
Nydia Velazquez, who represents parts of New York City in the US House of Representatives, was one of the politicians who visited the jail on Saturday. She said the Bureau of Prisons was disregarding inmates’ rights.
“This appalling situation needs to be fixed,” she wrote on Twitter. She noted that some heat had been restored, but that the heating system was still “not at fully capacity” and that staff at the jail were still complaining about the cold on Saturday.
Hugh Hurwitz, the Bureau of Prisons’ acting director, told politicians in telephone conversations he agreed that conditions in the jail were “unacceptable”, according to Velazquez.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a brief statement that the conditions at the jail were unconstitutional and demanded an immediate fix.
Judge Analisa Torres ordered the Bureau of Prisons to produce witnesses at a hearing in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday to explain how the complaints raised by inmates’ lawyers were being addressed.