Incarcerated people and allies rally to turn on heat and power in NYC federal jail, 2019

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Timing
Time Period:  
1 February
2019
to
3 February
2019
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Brooklyn, NY
Location Description: 
Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn
Goals: 
The return of heat and hot water as well as the ability for families and lawyers to visit incarcerated people.
 

On 5 January 2019, Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn (MDC Brooklyn), a federal jail in Brooklyn, New York that housed 1,500 incarcerated people, lost power for the first time that year for unknown reasons. Three weeks later, an electrical fire caused the entire building to lose heating capabilities as well. This loss of power and heat took place over some of the coldest days and nights of the 2019 winter in New York City (NYC). On 27 January, as incarcerated people huddled under thin blankets in cold, dark cells, the warden decided to put all people in the prison under lockdown and cancel all lawyer and family visits indefinitely.

On 1 February 2019, The New York Times (the NYT) published an article detailing the conditions of the jail. A spokeswoman for the jail's warden, in writing to the NYT, denied that the power outage affected heat and hot water. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) also denied the lack of heat and hot water; however, federal defenders reported that incarcerated people overwhelmed phone lines with calls to complain about poor heating and a lack of hot water, hot food, and lights in cells. Computers were not functioning as well, which meant incarcerated people who relied on an online medicating prescription service could not receive more medication.

The article quickly went viral as over 14,000 individuals shared it on Facebook and Twitter. The same day, Shahanah Hanif, an organizer involved in NYC based grassroots immigrant activist groups, posted a video of incarcerated people at MDC Brooklyn banging on their windows as a form of protest. The video quickly amassed over four million views.

Later that day, hundreds of family members, loved ones, and other concerned citizens gathered outside the facility to demand the return of heat and hot water as well as the ability for families and lawyers to visit those incarcerated at MDC Brooklyn. Protestors carried signs that read things like “This is Not Normal,” “Torture at MDC,” and “Turn up the heat.” Others brought signs of support for the incarcerated population, which read, “You are heard. You are loved.” Many protesters related to incarcerated people in MDC Brooklyn brought signs specifying their relative’s name, such as “We love you Gee.” Ralliers chanted, “heat is a human right,” and “no heat, that’s torture.” As incarcerated folks continued to bang on windows, a protestor named Catana Yehudah shouted through a megaphone, “stop banging for one second!” Once incarcerated folks stopped, she said, “If there is not heat, bang on the windows.” The banging began again, louder than before.

NYC 7th and 10th District House Representatives Nydia Velazquez (D) and Jerry Nadler (D), Councilmember Brad Lander, and Comptroller Scott Stringer visited MDC Brooklyn that afternoon in an attempt to determine the reality of the situation, given conflicting reports from the BOP and incarcerated individuals. Velazquez communicated through Twitter that the facility was cold and dark, and they were not allowed to speak with incarcerated people. The protest continued into the night, and many people outside said they would not leave until jail authorities restored heat and power.

The next day, 2 February, the protest escalated. Representative Nadler tweeted that he would be outside MDC with Representative Velazquez to demand immediate action from the BOP. After speaking to the protestors gathered outside the facility, the elected officials received another tour of MDC Brooklyn. Lander tweeted confirming that power was off, and incarcerated people were on lockdown and unable to leave their cells, shower, or communicate with people on the outside. He also tweeted about the protests, “There’s no doubt in my mind that the raised voices of family members, neighbors, and protestors outside is making a difference… the prisoners themselves told me so. They are grateful to be seen & heard, to have people acknowledge their humanity.”

While the elected officials finished their tour, a few dozen protestors attempted to gain entry to the facility, but riot gear-clad guards waiting just inside the doors of the jail used pepper spray to drive them back. Videos and photographs of the protestors hurt by the pepper spray also went viral. Other politicians outside of New York then began to express support on social media for those inside the prison as well as the protestors.

That evening, a van arrived from NYC Emergency Management with blankets, hand warmers, and small generators for the incarcerated people. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted about the delivery and protestors celebrated, but they reiterated, “we will stand out here till everything is on. We will occupy the streets until they get heat!” A couple of hours later, about two dozen corrections officers (COs) approached the crowd and interacted aggressively with protestors, pushing people's phones out of their hands as they attempted to record the interactions. Within ten minutes, the COs left, but they emerged again five minutes later to videotape the crowd and watch the protestors.

The next morning on 3 February, Scott Hechinger, a Policy Director at Brooklyn Defender Services, tweeted that, although MDC accepted the blankets, hand warmers, and generators, they apparently had never been given to the incarcerated people. That day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released a statement calling on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate reports of civil rights violations in MDC Brooklyn. In the statement, he said “Prisoners in New York are human beings. Let's treat them that way.” That afternoon, power and heat were restored at MDC Brooklyn. Visitation was still not allowed due to an unrelated bomb threat, but authorities allowed visitors into the facility the next day.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Anon. 2019. “Brooklyn Prison: Power and Heat Failure Sparks Protest.” BBC News, February 3. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (http://web.archive.org/web/20190408152542/https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47107326).

Correal, Annie, Andy Newman, and Christina Goldbaum. 2019. “Protesters Try to Storm Brooklyn Jail With Little Heat or Electricity.” The New York Times, February 1. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (http://web.archive.org/web/20190408152650/https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/nyregion/brooklyn-federal-jail-heat.html).

Correal, Annie. 2019. “No Heat for Days at a Jail in Brooklyn Where Hundreds of Inmates Are Sick and 'Frantic'.” The New York Times, February 1. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (http://web.archive.org/web/*/https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/nyregion/mdc-brooklyn-jail-heat.html).

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Andrew M. Cuomo. 2019. Statement From Governor Cuomo Calling on U.S. Department of Justice to Investigate Reports of Civil Rights Violations in Brooklyn Federal Prison. New York State. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190420040956/https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-cuomo-calling-us-department-justice-investigate-reports-civil-rights).

Kerness, Bonnie. 2019. “What Happened at the Brooklyn Jail Is Part of a Deeper Human Rights Crisis.” Truth Out, February 15. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190216142519/https://truthout.org/articles/what-happened-at-the-brooklyn-jail-is-part-of-a-deeper-human-rights-crisis/).

Lander, Brad. 2019. “SUNDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE…” Twitter, February 3. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190408151856/https:/twitter.com/bradlander/status/1092187820742111232).

Lovely, Garrison. 2019. “‘They're Human Beings in There!".” Jacobin Magazine, N.d. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190212215853/https://jacobinmag.com/2019/02/mdc-prison-brooklyn-freezing-mobilization-mass-incarceration/).

Nadler, Jerry. 2019. “I will be…” Twitter, February 2. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190408151940/https:/twitter.com/RepJerryNadler/status/1091716444876881921)

Scott Hechinger. 2019. “Corrections officers ran…” Twitter, February 2. Retrieved April 8, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190408152256/https:/twitter.com/ScottHech/status/1091910914650107905).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Olivia Robbins, 29/05/2019