It was a dark night — after midnight on Jan. 31 — when journalist Annie Correal received an unfamiliar email with the subject: “MDC Brooklyn Without Power.” The anonymous author wrote, “No heat, no power, no proper food. Over 72 hours in lockdown.”
Correal immediately searched the Internet for this claim, but found no trace. After contacting the federal public defender’s office, however, she soon learned there had been a fire at the jail four days prior. Since then, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn had been closed to visitors and without power, all during New York’s record cold spell that reached temperatures as low as two degrees Fahrenheit.
Further investigation was futile — the jail’s warden was unresponsive, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons laid the blame on the local power utility. Despite this silence from prison authorities, the federal public defender’s office had been inundated with calls from frantic, scared and cold inmates.
Inside the jail, the putrid odor of broken toilets permeated the air. Dim emergency lights offered the only solace in the pitch-black nothingness. Inmates crouched in cell corners, shrouded in thin layers of blankets; others furiously pounded on doors and windows. In one cell, a man known to swallow razor blades had not been given his psychiatric medicine while another lay on bloody sheets from a festering leg sore.
In M.D.C. Brooklyn, 1,600 prisoners were locked inside freezing cells for over one week. While some inmates are linked to high-profile drug trafficking and terrorism cases, many are simply awaiting trial or sentencing.
Immediately after the news reached the public, demonstrators stormed the jail. They were stopped only by a line of corrections officers with pepper spray. Families and local advocates asserted that “heat is a human right.” Social media captured the conflict, and soon, even national lawmakers chimed in.
On Feb. 3, one week after the dark settled over M.D.C. Brooklyn, the lights came back on.
This blackout is just one chapter in a longer history of brutality at M.D.C. Brooklyn: death threats against Muslim prisoners by prison guards, inmate beatings and sexual assaults. The Department of Justice has investigated these cases and has agreed to examine the M.D.C. Brooklyn incident. Yet the larger problem here remains untouched.
While the lights eventually came back on in M.D.C. Brooklyn, the American criminal justice system remains in the dark. Countless stakeholders within the jail, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the federal public defender’s office, watched as the injustice unfolded. But no one took action until the news reached the public. Why were these cries for help neglected? How are so many New Yorkers, Stanford students and Americans unaware that this even happened? Why are the incarcerated so frequently treated as subhuman — though their imprisonment is often related to non-violent offenses, an inability to make bail or simply the tint of their skin?
When considering the blackout crisis in its larger context, I can’t help but lament the disproportionate bodies of color that were thrust into the freezing cold and ignored when they pleaded for help. Our criminal justice system is inherently discriminatory. African Americans are almost twice as likely to be pulled over as whites, though only three percent of these encounters produce evidence of crime. Not only are black people about five times more likely to go to prison for possession than white people, they are also 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug crimes. Black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than white students, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline.
And inside these prisons, inmates can face cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions. The American Civil Liberties Union describes how “overcrowding, violence, sexual abuse and other conditions pose grave risks to prisoner health and safety.” Mistreatment based on race, sex, gender or disability is regrettably common. Prisoners across the country suffer from poor conditions. Like the thousands of individuals who endured the blackout crisis in Brooklyn, their calls for help are perpetually silenced and ignored.
M.D.C. Brooklyn is just one of many. The lights have come back on there, and now, we must think of who remains in the dark.
Contact Tashrima Hossain at thossain ‘at’ stanford.edu.