NEW YORK — A congresswoman who visited a federal detention center in New York City where inmates have been stuck in cold, dark cells for days said Saturday it was "surreal" to hear the inmates banging on the walls.
"I am frustrated. This is America. In America, everyone has rights," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat whose district includes the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. "It's a violation of their human rights to be kept in the cold and not to be able to talk to anyone."
Velazquez visited the jail Friday after seeing news reports that hundreds of inmates there have spent the past week largely without heat, power or the ability to communicate with their attorneys or families.
Velazquez said she was not allowed to speak to the inmates but got access to common areas and showers. She said she and other elected officials planned to return to the facility Saturday and hoped to speak to inmates this time.
The New York Times first reported Friday that inmates at the facility had been stuck in their cells without lights or heat since last weekend when an electrical fire knocked power out.
In an emailed statement to the Times, the federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed the jail was "experiencing a partial power outage" and operating on emergency power. But the agency said cells have heat and hot water. Officials with the bureau and with the Brooklyn facility have not responded to emails from The Associated Press requesting comment.
Velazquez said she has not been able to speak with officials from the Bureau of Prisons, and the warden of the Brooklyn facility, Herman Quay, was not there when she visited Friday. "For members of Congress to reach out to the federal Bureau of Prisons and not to hear from anyone, that's outrageous," she said in a telephone interview.
Lawyers for inmates at the facility, which houses people awaiting trial or awaiting sentencing on federal crimes, have said that clients with health issues are suffering in cold cells without access to warm clothes or blankets.
Lawyers with the Federal Defenders filed a motion Thursday in Brooklyn federal court on behalf of inmate Dino Sanchez asserting that Sanchez, who suffers from asthma, "has been left to freeze in his short-sleeved jumpsuit in the dark." The court papers say jail officials have taken no steps to provide Sanchez with "an oxygen mask, clothing, blankets, or access to a habitable location that will mitigate his health risks."
Lawyers say in addition to heat, the outage has knocked out power to the computers that inmates use to email their families and attorneys and to request refills of prescription medications.
Some inmates have been able to talk to lawyers with the Federal Defenders on a dedicated line, but inmates represented by other lawyers haven't been able to call them, the lawyers said.
"I need to find out what's going on with my clients," lawyer Ezra Spilke said Friday. "They've basically been incommunicado from their attorneys since the 27th, which is when the electrical fire happened."
Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents corrections officers at the jail, have confirmed the lawyers' accounts of the jail conditions.
"They're just waiting for a disaster to happen," jail employee Rhonda Barnwell, who works in the facility's medical station, told reporters Friday. "There's only heat in the afternoons since we've been complaining today."
Velazquez said the heat situation seemed to be better when she visited the jail around 4 p.m. Friday but corrections officers were still wearing their coats. "There is light in the hallways but it's not enough," she added.
Velazquez said she asked to speak to inmates but she was not allowed to speak with them and could not see them inside their cells, although she heard them. "The inmates were banging on the walls, the doors," she said. "It was surreal."
State and city officials have condemned the federal government and the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the wake of the concerns surrounding the facility, calling the conditions they are living in "unacceptable."
Borough President Eric Adams called the conditions "inhumane" and said response from the facility "has been poor"
"My office reached out a couple days ago to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the wake of serious concerns we had received about the facility, but the response has been poor. There can be no acceptable excuse for the lack of communication and transparency pertaining to the basic health and safety of inmates. I have personally spoken with members of our Congressional delegation, and I am grateful for their leadership on this fundamental issue of justice. Inmates’ rights matter, and I encourage Brooklynites to speak out and peacefully protest.”
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted he is sending city agencies to assess the situation.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also tweeted, calling the situation "inhumane and a violation of the detainees' constitutional rights."
Assembly Member and Public Advocate Candidate Michael Blake also issued a statement, demanding an investigation on the problem.
“The inhumane conditions that inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center have suffered is unacceptable. New Yorkers in the criminal justice system are human beings and they have rights. There is no excuse for subjecting people to dangerous conditions. While conditions have improved since yesterday, heat and electricity must be provided for the entire center immediately or the inmates must be moved to safety. We demand an investigation into how this problem has been allowed to persist, and those responsible must be held accountable."
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement, "It is shocking that the government would hold people for days on end in a dark, freezing jail during one of the coldest weeks in memory."
Activists planned a rally at the jail Saturday and one group vowed to camp outside the facility until conditions improve.