[Pnews] Locked Inside a Freezing Federal Jail, They United to Protest Their Conditions — Only to Face Reprisals

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sat Feb 16 13:53:58 EST 2019


  Locked Inside a Freezing Federal Jail, They United to Protest Their
  Conditions — Only to Face Reprisals

Emma Whitford - February 16, 2019

_Jordan remembers jolting_ awake in his cell at the Metropolitan 
Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, in the early-morning hours of 
Saturday, February 2. He had been hit with pepper spray to the face. 
Jordan, who The Intercept is identifying by a pseudonym, said guards 
sprayed and shackled him and his cellmate, then led them, partially 
blinded, to a shower area to rinse off. Next, he spent several hours in 
a “freezing” unit wearing only boxers and a T-shirt, before being 
transferred to solitary confinement.

“Their objective was to make an example out of my cellie and i,” Jordan, 
who has since been relocated to another federal detention facility, 
wrote to The Intercept.

The raid on the cell came after the men locked up on his unit — having 
endured six days without heat, electricity, phone access, or hot meals 
— decided to cover their cell doors with cardboard, towels, and toilet 
paper in order to disrupt the guards’ daily tally of incarcerated 
people. “We were tryin to demonstrate that enough was enough,” Jordan 
explained through email. “anybody with a brain and a tad bit of self 
respect would think to protest those conditions. we just wanted to be 
treated like humans.”

Later that morning, throngs of family members and others — including 
local and national elected officials — gathered outside in the parking 
lot for a weekend of protest against the jail conditions 
With the news media looking on, people inside banged on their cell 
windows. Unbeknownst to those outside, however, the Metropolitan 
Detention Center was brimming with prisoners challenging their 
conditions in other ways: large and small acts, both individual and 
collective. All of them were met with reprisals.

_Accounts from incarcerated_ people, their family members, and lawyers 
sketch a picture of widespread protests at the Sunset Park detention 
facility. People across multiple housing units undertook coordinated 
acts of nonviolent disobedience and at least three hunger strikes. 
Retaliation by Metropolitan Detention Center staff ranged from pepper 
spray and solitary confinement to shutting off toilets across entire 
units. All told, men on at least four housing units inside the jail say 
they took part in some sort of collective protest of their conditions. 
In each instance, they say their actions were met with official retaliation.

    “When I see protests of the kind that took place at the Metropolitan
    Detention Center, I conclude that prisoners have really reached
    their breaking point.”

“When I see protests of the kind that took place at the Metropolitan 
Detention Center, I conclude that prisoners have really reached their 
breaking point, because they are taking — and they know they are taking 
— very significant risks,” said David Fathi, who heads the American 
Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “Retaliation against 
prisoners who protest is a common, everyday occurrence. Prisoners are a 
population who can, with very rare exceptions, be abused almost with 

Even when Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, 
which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, toured Metropolitan Detention 
Center during the power outage, incarcerated people told him that they 
were afraid to talk about what was going on for fear of reprisals by 
Bureau of Prisons staff. “They told him guards would come up and 
retaliate,” said Robert Gottheim, Nadler’s district director, who 
accompanied him on the tour.

The risk seemed worthwhile to some. “Police in here wilding on the 
inside,” one incarcerated person said in audio from inside the jail 
obtained and authenticated by The Intercept. “They trying to make us 
like, go against each other in here, but we’re not falling for their 
traps,” he added. “Everybody just trying to keep the peace amongst 
everybody in here, no matter what walk of life they coming from. We just 
trying to stay strong, but they trying every trick in they book.”

Because sources inside the Metropolitan Detention Center fear further 
retaliation for speaking about what took place there over recent weeks, 
The Intercept is withholding the names of people who are confined at the 
jail, as well as other information that might identify them, like the 
names of their individual lawyers and family members, or the housing 
units to which they are assigned.

The Bureau of Prisons, which runs the federal jail, declined to answer a 
list of questions about protests and reprisals at the Metropolitan 
Detention Center, citing an ongoing investigation. “Allegations of 
misconduct are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken 
if such allegations are proven true,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

_On one locked-down_

unit, according to two lawyers who each spoke with their clients there, 
residents were initially let out of their cells one at a time at 
mealtimes to retrieve a tray of food, but were ordered back into their 
cold, dark cells to eat.

On February 1, the sixth day of the power outage, one man from this unit 
decided to make a gesture of resistance, sitting down to eat his dinner 
in the unit’s common area — where the dim illumination of the emergency 
lights allowed him to see his food. Within seconds, as others looked on 
from their cells, eight guards in riot gear entered the area and removed 
the man in handcuffs, leaving those who witnessed the events to assume 
that he’d been moved to solitary confinement on the Special Housing 
Unit, or SHU.

The next day, February 2, no breakfast was ever served, even to those 
with diabetes and other medical conditions. When the first meal of the 
day finally came at 4:30 in the afternoon, guards in riot gear loomed 
over the food distribution to make sure no one tried to disobey again. 
At this point, the entire housing unit decided to go on a hunger strike. 
“Among themselves,” one lawyer said, relaying their client’s description 
of events, “they decided that they didn’t want the peaceful protest of 
their fellow inmate to mean nothing.”

    “They went on a hunger strike because they weren’t getting their
    meals at proper times. He said people are in there, different kind
    of gangs, and everybody’s united.”

At least two other housing units also organized hunger strikes to 
protest their conditions during the power outage, according to lawyers, 
family members who have spoken with men on those units, and one 
incarcerated person.

“They went on a hunger strike because they weren’t getting their meals 
at proper times,” said a loved one of an incarcerated person who took 
part. “He said people are in there, different kind of gangs, and 
everybody’s united.”

While there’s a Bureau of Prisons rule that forbids “Conduct which 
disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the 
institution,” no regulation says that people detained at the jail have 
to eat their food. That doesn’t mean the hunger strikes weren’t 
dangerous. “Corrections officials generally react quite strongly to even 
the most peaceful and rule-abiding of protests, so things like refusing 
a meal or some sort of quiet protest can be risky,” said Betsy Ginsberg, 
a professor and the director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Cardozo Law 
School, who represents clients at the Metropolitan Detention Center. 
“I’ve certainly heard of cases where people are severely disciplined, I 
think on a theory that a showing of that kind of use of authority is 
going to prevent further unrest or protest.”

On all three of those housing units where men collectively refused food, 
jail staff shut off the valves to the toilets in all of the cells, 
according to accounts relayed to lawyers. Confined to their cells on 
lockdown, deprived of light, the men on these units now found themselves 
shivering on their bunks with their heads inches from toilet bowls 
nearly overflowing with festering feces.

Jail staff has the capacity to shut off toilets from each housing unit’s 
control room, both in order to prevent contraband from being flushed 
away during a raid and to make sure that no one deliberately floods the 
housing unit by stopping up a toilet. But Fathi of the ACLU said toilet 
shut-offs are also a long-established technique of mass retaliation.

“It’s something that should almost never be done,” Fathi said. “Courts 
have been very clear that a working toilet is a necessity of life to 
which prisoners are legally entitled and depriving them of that for 
anything more than a very short time for a very compelling reason is 
presumptively unlawful.”

Retaliation during the blackout sometimes seemed arbitrary. On one unit, 
guards took a man out of his cell and into solitary confinement after he 
asked them when the heat would come back on, according to a lawyer who 
spoke with a client housed there. The remaining men on the unit took the 
move as a warning not to complain about the conditions. Another man on 
the same unit told his lawyer about an incident in which guards 
forcefully extracted a man from his cell using pepper spray and took him 
to the SHU after he complained about needing to take a shower.

Five times daily, according to the federal jail’s handbook, guards at 
the Metropolitan Detention Center conduct “the count,” during which — if 
they’re not already locked down — prisoners must return to their cells 
and be tallied. One man told his lawyer that even as he remained locked 
down in a lightless cell with no explanation, guards continued to 
mockingly repeat their ordinary call: “Lights on for the count!”

Jordan and his unit mates decided to cover their cell door windows with 
towels and paper in order to interrupt this routine. “You’re not helping 
them in terms of feeding them or anything else, so why should we allow 
you to do a count?” Jordan’s girlfriend told The Intercept, explaining 
their rationale.

The day after guards pepper-sprayed Jordan and his cellmate, Rep. Nydia 
Velázquez, D-N.Y., visited the men in the segregated housing unit, where 
she says she heard Jordan’s story just as he relayed it to The 
Intercept. Velázquez, whose district includes the Metropolitan Detention 
Center, spoke to reporters and activists immediately after touring the 
facility. “I spoke to both of them,” she said. “They are doing well 
under their circumstances. Just because they covered the glass to 
protest the treatment they felt wasn’t fair, they were used as an 
example to the other inmates.”

    “It was a very simple note. It just had a phone number and said
    ‘Please tell my wife and family that I’m OK.’”

_Sabrina Shroff, a_ lawyer with the Federal Defenders of New York, stood 
in the parking lot outside the Metropolitan Detention Center on the 
morning of February 3, as temperatures finally crept into the 40s. It 
had been a week since the federal jail lost power. Shroff had been 
promised that this morning, for the first time in a week, she and other 
defense attorneys would be allowed inside to meet with clients to help 
them prepare for upcoming cases. But when she arrived, she was told that 
once again, lawyers and family members were barred from entering.

As she waited in the parking lot to see if jail officials would change 
their mind, Shroff gazed up and was surprised to see a paper airplane 
drifting down from one of the high windows. She followed it as it 
drifted in the air, but a prison guard stationed outside got to it 
first. Fortunately for Shroff, Velázquez, the House member, was also 
outside the jail, preparing to make another inspection of conditions 
inside. Shroff persuaded Velázquez to retrieve the paper plane.

“It was a very simple note, written in blue crayon on a visit form,” 
Shroff said. “There was no name attached. It just had a phone number and 
said ‘Please tell my wife and family that I’m OK.’”

Shroff tried repeatedly to reach the family over the next few days, but 
was unable to. The cellphone account attached to the number was out of 

The paper plane was just one instance of incarcerated people inside the 
Metropolitan Detention Center trying to get word out as the power outage 
dragged on — efforts that went up against tough odds and, in some cases, 
were met with punitive measures.

The growing protests in the parking lot outside the federal jail a week 
after the power outage provided a few opportunities: In addition to 
sending winged notes, incarcerated people lucky enough to have windows 
in their cells could answer questions from the demonstrators below, 
knocking on their windows in response. “Bang on your windows if you 
still don’t have heat!” a woman called out over a bullhorn from the 
parking lot on February 3. A clattering chorus echoed back the reply.

This kind of direct communication may have made prison officials 
uncomfortable. One woman says her brother saw guards with nonlethal 
beanbag guns walking along his housing unit after the lights were 
restored. They were “trying like to intimidate them,” she said, “telling 
them, stop banging on the windows, they have the lights now, what are 
they banging for?”

“It’s really stressful to him,” she added. “They’re treating them like 
animals and telling them, ‘Y’all getting treated like this because y’all 
don’t know how to act.’ But … how do you act when you’re in that 

Others had taken still more risky measures. On January 31, five days 
after the power went out, men on one housing unit took the opportunity 
of a brief respite from lockdown to gather in a cell and shoot a video 
on a contraband cellphone. “It’s freezing in here,” one said, a shirt 
around his head. Flipping the switch to no effect, the men demonstrated 
that the lights in the cell weren’t working. Neither was the toilet. 
People on the unit were getting sick, one of the men said — “They treat 
humans worse than animals.”

Within days, the video was circulating on social media and posted to the 
site WorldStarHipHop. People incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention 
Center aren’t allowed cellphones and, according to lawyers with clients 
on the housing unit, the response from jail authorities was swift. Men 
suspected of making the video were taken from their cells and put in the 

Another man said he believes that he was sent to the SHU because of 
Facebook posts made by someone outside the prison that drew attention to 
conditions inside.

“It’s definitely causing a lot of stress for my family,” his loved one 
told The Intercept on February 11, a week after electricity was 
restored. “We can’t speak to him. It’s hard to sleep at night not 
knowing what he’s going through. My children can’t speak to their dad. 
They’re scared for him.”

_Cold and left_ in the dark, the people locked up in the Metropolitan 
Detention Center were unable to leverage even official channels made 
available to complain about poor conditions. Under Bureau of Prisons 
protocols, incarcerated people can file formal complaints using a 
standardized form called a BP-8. Filing a BP-8 is the first step toward 
getting grievances about jail conditions addressed.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 required prisoners to exhaust 
the Bureau of Prisons’ internal grievance system before they are allowed 
to assert their rights in court. The result, say critics of the law, has 
been the weakening of one of the only mechanisms for independent 
oversight of jails and prisons. The act “allows prison officials to 
control prisoners’ access to the courts,” says Fathi of the ACLU. “They 
can do that by making their grievance system slow and technical and 
complicated, or just by making grievance forms unavailable.”

Grievance forms were indeed scarce at the Metropolitan Detention Center 
during and after the power outage, according to lawyers with the Federal 
Defenders who received a torrent of calls from many of the housing units 
inside. The clients complained that guards were denying requests for 
forms and telling anyone asking for them that “they were out of BP-8s.” 
When news of this reached Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-charge of the 
Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, she immediately 
emailed Nicole McFarland and Adam Johnson, the jail’s legal liaisons.

“This is unacceptable,” von Dornum wrote. “Please let me know when and 
how this will be remedied.” McFarland wrote back: “I promptly looked 
into this issue and learned that there are BP-8 forms available 
throughout the facility.” Later that day, according to reports the 
Federal Defenders of New York got from their clients, BP-8s began to 
appear on the housing units.

As the people in MDC began to fill out the forms, however, many of them 
realized that there was another hurdle: They couldn’t submit the forms 
without the signature of their housing unit’s staff correctional 
counselor; but on several units, counselors were nowhere to be seen.

    “Given the severity of the conditions that week at MDC, I’m
    concerned that these detainees may have been targeted for reprisals
    by senior leadership.”

One person who did manage to submit a complaint about the conditions of 
the past week soon had cause to regret it. According to his lawyer, 
within hours of submitting his BP-8, the man was taken from his cell 
while guards rummaged through and confiscated everyday items in what the 
man took to be retaliation for his complaint. Von Dornum said she has 
received multiple reports of people being subjected to disruptive cell 
searches after filing grievances in the days since the power outage.

_The power is_ back on at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. 
As a result of public outcyy and lawmakers pressure, the Department of 
Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has launched an investigation 
into the response to the heat and electricity failures at the jail. 
Whether the scope of this inquest will include allegations that staff 
punished people for protesting their conditions remains unclear. In a 
statement to The Intercept, Velázquez said that any Department of 
Justice investigation should include these allegations of retaliation. 
“Given the severity of the conditions that week at MDC, I’m concerned 
that these detainees may have been targeted for reprisals by senior 
leadership,” she said.

Last week, when regular visitation resumed at the Metropolitan Detention 
Center, Jordan’s girlfriend was able to visit him for the first time 
since he’d been placed in the SHU. During the visit, she says, he 
described what he had endured, including the pepper spray and shackling. 
“He’s doing OK for the most part, but he’s still kind of jumpy,” she 
recalled. “Like, you know, when you hear a door open and you are jumping 

Jordan later summarized the cold, dark conditions that precipitated his 
unit’s protest. “Those are conditions that dog fighters subject their 
dogs to to make them more vicious,” he wrote. “leave em in the dark n 
feed em once in a while. it has a psychological effect on you.”

“Unless we speak out it’ll continue to go unnoticed and swept under the 
rug,” he added. “Right is right and wrong is wrong.”

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