Vivianne Guevara’s work with the Federal Defenders of New York had taken her to the Metropolitan Detention Center many times, but the incessant pounding sound coming from inside the Brooklyn waterfront jail that day was unsettling.
“It sounded like a cry for help, and I don’t know Morse code or anything, so I couldn’t tell if anybody was trying to send a message, but it sounded desperate, and it sounded like people who wanted to be heard,” said Guevara, director of client and mitigation services for the public defender organization.
“It was shocking to hear,” said Guevara, who videotaped the banging of inmates she could not see.
During a hearing Tuesday before US District Judge Analisa Torres, Guevara described the impromptu protest by hundreds of inmates in freezing cells. The same day, Torres toured the troubled lockup, which is embroiled in a widening crisis over alleged inhumane treatment of prisoners.
“Everybody was kicking their steel door,” said defense attorney Ezra Spilke, who represents an MDC inmate and attended the tour. “It was jarring and loud and it was because they wanted to get our attention. More than one person yelled, basically, ‘It’s not right what they’re doing in here’ and ‘Don’t forget about us.’”
The disturbing jail conditions have come under scrutiny from judges, defense lawyers and politicians and led to public demonstrations outside the MDC. The Justice Department’s Inspector General on Thursday said it was investigating the handling of electrical and heating problems that followed a switch gear room fire and partial power failure at the facility last month.
Attorneys for the Federal Defenders of New York, which has filed a lawsuit alleging that MDC violated the constitutional rights of inmates by suspending legal visits for part of last week, have called for an independent investigation.
The federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment about Torres’ tour of the facility or calls for an independent probe. The bureau has said there was emergency lighting during the outage and heating and hot water systems were not affected.
Tuesday’s hearing and tour of the MDC provided a rare glimpse inside the lockup, where inmates described days in the dark and freezing cold – without adequate medical or mental health treatment – as prison staff worked in coats, gloves, hats and scarfs.
This is how bad it got for some of the more than 1,600 MDC inmates, according to a 204-page transcript of Torres’ hearing and jail tour:
One inmate said he took a noose away from a suicidal cellmate
The tour started in MDC’s special housing unit, where inmates are kept in solitary confinement under the most restrictive conditions.
Torres spoke with inmates through small openings in their cell doors. She repeated what they said for the benefit of the court stenographer, as well as the defense lawyers and MDC lawyers and officials who accompanied her.
One inmate described the “mental breakdown” of his cellmate while the power was out, according to the court transcript. The outage rendered “emergency buttons” to get the attention of guards ineffective.
When the inmate finally reached an officer to tell him his cellmate was suicidal, “I think they took it as a joke,” he told Torres.
The inmate said he “physically had to take … literally had to take the noose out of his cellmate’s hand.”
“He was trying to kill himself,” the inmate said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Torres said.
“Thank you for being worried about us, ma’am, and treating us like human beings,” the inmate told the judge.
“I’m very worried about you,” she said.
His cellmate pointed to parts of the ceiling where water still dripped.
“You can see it, it is abundant, it is plain as day,” the judge said.
“He is a mental health patient, and he was feeling suicidal and no one came to help him,” she added. “He said the temperature dropped to freezing. They had nothing in there, they had no thermal shirts.”
There was no hot water, the cellmate said. The food was cold.
“We couldn’t see, we couldn’t read,” he said. “We couldn’t read the Bible because we couldn’t see. I couldn’t do my legal work.”
‘It was like sleeping under a waterfall’
The judge peered in the cell of another inmate.
“I can see abundant water damage,” Torres said.
“Toward the back is a rectangular shaped cell. On the ceiling you can see copious amounts of paint peeling and hanging from the ceiling. The ceiling is painted white, but the water damaged area has a kind of a golden tone to it. It almost looks like wet tissues hanging from the ceiling.”
She asked the inmate about the damage.
“I just heard you say it was like sleeping under a waterfall.”
The inmate said they could not shower because the water was cold.
“He says they didn’t care for you,” Torres said. “If you tried to get an extra blanket, they ignored him.”
‘Black, blotchy mold’ in some water-damaged cells
One inmate showed Torres “a very dingy, yellowed blanket that is obviously water damaged.”
There was “mold on top of the florescent light,” she said. “It’s a black, blotchy mold.”
Another inmate showed the judge a rash on his left arm that he said was from dripping water. There was no heat or hot water for two weeks, he said.
Yet another inmate said he had been waiting to see a doctor since last week. He said he has colitis and suffers from mental health issues.
“I was locked in my cell,” he said. “I used the bathroom maybe over the course of 15 to 20 times. My toilet was shut off all night. And then on top of that I have a rash.”
The inmate said that when he showed an officer his bleeding rash, “they said it’s above my pay grade.”
“So sorry to hear that, sir,” the judge said.
‘Bandages on for over three weeks’
Another inmate told the judge that he has glaucoma and needed to visit a hospital.
“They haven’t taken me yet. And then I also got these bandages on for over three weeks. They still didn’t take me out the building to change the bandages.”
Deirdre von Dornum, Attorney-in-Charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, told the judge she had spoken to a prison lawyer and official about the inmates’ needs a week earlier to no avail.
“I’m certainly hoping you get to see the doctor soon,” the judge told the inmate.
Spilke, the defense attorney, said prison officials cranked up the heat and had the lights on for the tour, but the medical care of inmates was still being neglected.
“I think more people should go see what I saw,” he told CNN. “No one is blaming any single person. … It’s a serious problem. These are human beings. I think the takeaway is we need transparency desperately.”