Protesters Try To Storm Brooklyn Jail With Little Heat Or Electricity
[Latest:A federal judge will tour the jail after the crisis over power and heat.]
Protests at a federal jail in Brooklyn that has been without power and largely without heat for over a week boiled over on Sunday afternoon, when demonstrators stormed the jail. They were stopped by a line of correction officers inside the building who apparently drove them back with pepper spray.
There were no immediate reports of arrests, the police said, and out on the street in front of the jail, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, the protests, going on continuously since Saturday afternoon, quickly resumed.
The attempt to enter the jail happened just after noon when a woman, Yvonne Morilla, 51, of Queens, walked up to the door crying, “That’s my son! You got to let me go!” The scene devolved into a brief episode of chaos, with protesters pushing against the officers.
“We ain’t going nowhere!” a man yelled. A chant broke out: “Heat is a human right!”
After apparently getting sprayed, a woman fled the building, waving her hand in front of her face and coughing. The federal bureau of prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The jail, with more than 1,600 inmates, has been running on emergency electricity since a Jan. 27 electrical fire. Inmates have been on lockdown in freezing, dark cells.
“The situation is really, really a nightmare,” Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, a Democrat whose district includes the jail, said after visiting Saturday afternoon. “It is like living in a closet without lights.”
Officials, including Ms. Velázquez, who was initially denied a full tour of the facility on Friday night, stood on the stairs of the jail after their visit and spoke to a crowd of a few hundred that had gathered for a rally to demand that the inmates get heat, hot meals and be allowed to contact their families and lawyers.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, denounced what he called a “total lack of urgency and concern” by the warden, Herman Quay, and jail management. Inmates who needed electrical power for sleep apnea machines were at risk of a stroke, Mr. Nadler noted.
When Mr. Nadler announced that contracted electricians had already left, and that power was unlikely to be restored over the weekend, the crowd grew angry.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons released a statement on Saturday night on behalf of the jail’s management, saying that a new electrical panel had been installed by an outside contractor that day and that the “facility is working to restore power as expeditiously as possible.” It expected work to be completed by Monday.
The statement continued: “Inmates have hot water for showers and hot water in the sinks in the cell. Essential personal hygiene items and medical services continue to be provided.”
On Friday night, a court order allowed the lead federal and public defender in the Brooklyn office, Deirdre von Dornum, to tour the jail for four hours. Because the electrical fire had knocked out the lights and outlets, inmates could not use computers to contact relatives or request prescription refills, including for psychiatric medications, she said.
As officials toured the prison on Saturday afternoon, the protesters outside, including many relatives of inmates there, marched around the jail chanting, “Where is the warden? Where is the heat?”
As a brass band played outside, inmates pounded on the narrow windows of their cells, in their own form of protest.
Away from the crowd, several families honked their car horns and lifted cardboard signs with messages such as “Alfredo We Love You,” searching the windows for a silhouette that might belong to a husband, father or boyfriend.
Many family members said they had not heard from relatives since last weekend and were not given any information when they called the jail. They learned about what was happening through Twitter and news reports.
Paola Gomez, 28, said she had not been able to reach her boyfriend inside the jail since last Friday. When she called the jail, she was told only that visiting hours had been canceled.
The wife of another inmate said she was told she could not send him a package containing blankets, even if she sent it through a third-party vendor such as Amazon.
The cells lie on the perimeter of the building, which allows inmates to see out into the surrounding streets but has also contributed to the cold conditions.
Elected officials said jail officials rejected an offer by the city to supply emergency generators and emergency blankets. On Saturday evening, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Twitter that the city was sending trucks with hundreds of blankets and hand warmers to the jail and that generators were on the way “whether they like it or not.”
The statement by the Bureau of Prisons said that the blankets supplied by the city would be accepted.
Speaking through union representatives, facilities workers explained that the lack of power and heat were the result of a perfect storm: The electrical panel that had gone on the fritz received power from Con Edison, and when it caught fire, the generator switch melted, too, preventing the building from switching to generator power.
Also, the heating and cooling system had been designed in such a way that the units that pull hot water up from the jail’s boilers lie near exterior walls, and their coils often freeze and break when temperatures plunge below freezing, as they did last month.
“There are structural issues with the building,” Ms. Velázquez said.
Elected officials promised to push the jail management to get electricians to work around the clock to restore power. Ms. Velázquez said that if power was not restored, she would push to have judges issue a court order to have the inmates moved to another facility.