New York City inmates stuck in dark, freezing cells, lawyers say

/ CBS/AP

Hundreds of inmates at a federal jail in New York City have spent days in cold, dark cells amid frigid weather and without access to visitors or email, attorneys for the inmates said Friday. The lack of heat and power at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn was first reported in The New York Times.

Lawyers from the Federal Defenders office said there's been limited electricity, heat and hot water at the jail at least since there was a fire at the facility on Sunday. They said all recreational activities as well as visits from lawyers and family members have been canceled.

A spokeswoman for Herman Quay, the jail's warden, told the Times in an email that the building experienced a partial power outage on Saturday, but she denied that it had affected heat and hot water in the jail's housing units. Jail officials did not respond to an email and phone call from The Associated Press. The jail's website says: "All visiting at this facility has been suspended until further notice."

"My understanding is they're fully locked down in their dark cells," said Dierdre von Dornum, the lead federal defender in Brooklyn.

Von Dornum said clients at the jail have reported that there are no lights other than dim emergency lights in the corridors and no access to the computers that inmates use to request prescription medications and to email family members and attorneys.

Later Friday, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, tweeted that she visited the jail earlier in the day and that "it appears there is some restored heat, hot water & hot meals being served." However, she added, the prison was "still cold & dark" and "we weren't allowed to speak with inmates, unclear if blankets are being distributed."

"After visiting MDC again today it is clear the officials there have disregarded the basic human rights of inmates. This appalling situation needs to be fixed and I will continue pressuring BOP for immediate action," Velazquez tweeted Saturday.

This undated image shows the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Google Maps

Letitia James, the state's attorney general, also tweeted that "it is unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane to detain people without amenities, access to counsel, or medical care. … I demand answers."

Eric Phillips, spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, has been reaching out to federal officials who run the facility, offering assistance.

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents corrections officers at the jail, confirmed the lawyers' accounts of the jail conditions in interviews with the Times.

"They just stay huddled up in the bed," said June Bencebi, a case manager at the jail and the treasurer of the local chapter of the union. Union officials did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Inmates called for help by banging on windows and flashing lights, according to the New York Daily News.

Rhonda Barnwell, who works in the jail's medical station, told the News the facility had no electricity and was on a generator.

"They're just waiting for a disaster to happen," she said. "There's only heat in the afternoons since we've been complaining today. … It's been very dangerous."

Lawyers for several inmates at the jail have filed motions asking the courts to intervene, citing health risks to clients.

A motion filed Thursday in Brooklyn federal court on behalf of inmate Dino Sanchez by the Federal Defenders says that Sanchez, who suffers from asthma, "has been left to freeze in his short-sleeved jumpsuit in the dark." The court papers say that 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."

A hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday in the case of another inmate, Jose Segura-Genao, after his lawyer Ezra Spilke asked a judge in Manhattan federal court for a conference to address "inhumane conditions" at the jail.

Inmates' only access to the outside world has been a dedicated phone link to the Federal Defenders, several lawyers said, so inmates who are represented by other attorneys have been unable to contact them. Spilke said his only information about clients at the detention facility, including Seguro-Genao, has been second- or third-hand.

"I need to find out what's going on with my clients," Spilke said. "They've basically been incommunicado from their attorneys since the 27th, which is when the electrical fire happened."

Spilke said the temperature inside the building where Seguro-Genao is housed has reportedly been as low as 43 degrees Fahrenheit. The Times reported one inmate said a corrections officer found the temperature in a housing unit was 34 degrees Fahrenheit.

Spilke said Segura-Genao has no warm blanket or money in his commissary account to buy a sweatshirt or thermal underwear.

"The last time I saw him he didn't even have socks," Spilke said.

First published on February 2, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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