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Crisis at Frigid, Dark NYC Prison: “A Choice Was Made Not to Treat People Like Human Beings”

Web ExclusiveFebruary 05, 2019
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This is Part 2 of our conversation with New York City Councilmember Brad Lander about the crisis at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn this weekend when reports spread widely on social media that over 1,600 prisoners were being held without heat, hot meals or electricity, including during last week’s polar vortex. Hundreds rallied throughout the weekend to protest the conditions. On Sunday afternoon, some of the protesters and family members of those incarcerated were pepper-sprayed by guards. Lander also responds to criticism of New York City’s plans to build four new jails to replace Rikers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, with Part 2 on our discussion of what happened at a federal prison here in New York this week. Protesters rallied throughout the weekend at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where more than 1,600 prisoners were forced to endure freezing temperatures during last week’s polar vortex, with no heat, no light, no hot water.

On Sunday afternoon, some of the protesters, including family members of those incarcerated, were pepper-sprayed by guards. Democracy Now! was there and spoke to family members of those inside and outside, and activists who were there, including Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour.

LINDA SARSOUR: The warden has been not responsive. Yesterday, the Mayor’s Office delivered trucks of blankets for everyone, generators. And they—lawyers from Federal Defenders went inside to see their clients, and asked them, “Did you get blankets?” No blankets. None of these people have gotten blankets. Yesterday, they told us, at 6:00 is when they got their first meal of the day. They’re not getting hot meals. They don’t have hot water. I mean, this is inhumane. It’s cruel.

AMY GOODMAN: So, after 6:30 p.m. on Sunday—let’s be very clear—after days of protest, officials said electricity was restored. But many cells still lack heat.

For more, we continue our conversation with New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, who toured the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, was standing outside during the protests with the protesters.

Thank you for doing Part 2 of this conversation, City Councilman Lander.

BRAD LANDER: Of course. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you believe the protests are what got the electricity turned on?

BRAD LANDER: There is no doubt at all. I mean, you know, the electricity went out a week last Sunday—a week ago Sunday. And until Friday, when protesters started showing up—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is the week of the polar vortex.

BRAD LANDER: The coldest days of the year, freezing in there. And, you know, when the power went out, that meant people could not contact their families by phone or by email. Much of the week, they then put the prisoners on lockdown, which they didn’t have to, but they chose to do that. So, prisoners I talked to had not showered in more than two days, weren’t able to get clean laundry and just were wearing the same shirt. You’re in your cell, which has your toilet in it, and you can’t go out and get any air. And when your dinner is delivered, if you’ve got no power—it’s late at night, your cell is dark—you can’t even see what you’re eating. People were really anxious and stressed out. I talked to one guy who needs a CPAP machine to sleep. He’s got sleep apnea. But without power, you can’t use your CPAP machine, so he hadn’t slept well in the week. Dangerous, anxious.

So—and all of that from Sunday to Thursday, with no one doing anything about it, because the protests, starting Friday and then really ramping up over the weekend, with Justice League and Linda and others showing up for a vigil and saying, “We’re not leaving until the power gets back on.” We had been told by the warden on Saturday the contractor had gone home and would come back on Monday. And then, Sunday, we were told, “Oh, the part that we need will be here on Monday morning.” But they did not want another night of protests. You know, that protest really raised the tension in the building.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s talk—

BRAD LANDER: And that got the lights back on.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests actually started not with the people outside, but the prisoners themselves clanging on the windows.

BRAD LANDER: Yes. I mean, it is the most chilling to go there. When I went there kind of before the protest started, I went out with Congresswoman Velázquez on Friday afternoon. And yeah, to have the prisoners just like banging away at their windows: “Hear us. See us. We’re human beings. We’re locked in these cells. We don’t have power. We don’t have heat.” One thing I put up, a video I took on Twitter late Saturday night, this sort of chilling and still beautiful call-and-response between the protesters and the folks on the inside, the protesters banging or drumming and then the prisoners responding from their cells. You know, awful, but also the kind of solidarity that makes change.

AMY GOODMAN: So, again, following up from Part 1 of our conversation, Mayor de Blasio has hundreds of blankets sent in, but they are not distributed to the prisoners?

BRAD LANDER: I mean, there just was not compassion shown recognizing the humanity of the folks inside these cells. There were so many things that could have been done to make it better, right? Sometimes the power goes out. Now, obviously, the most important thing to do is get a contractor to fix it, because if they had shown urgency that goes with an emergency situation, I think they could have had the power back on by Tuesday.

But even in the absence of power, you could tell people what was going on. You could arrange for visitation with temporary lighting with the family members who are outside. You could let people see their lawyers. You could distribute blankets and hand warmers. You could easily treat people like human beings. A choice was made not to treat people like human beings.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you, because you’re an elected official, got to go inside and speak with the head of the prison, Quay, the facilities manager. What did they say?

BRAD LANDER: There was really a range from kind of lackadaisical disinterest, like, “Oh, yeah, there’s a problem; you know, the contractor will be back on Monday,” to really outright contempt for the idea that we were there trying to speak up for the prisoners. It was really disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this news that guards maced protesters?

BRAD LANDER: So, I was on the inside, actually. I could see that from the other side of security. Congressman Nadler and Comptroller Stringer and I happened to be in for a follow-up visit.

And a group of family members, led by a mother of a prisoner who was in the building, some other elected officials and protesters came into the lobby of the building. At that time, the door to reception was just open. I mean, they just—they opened the door. They walked in. This mother said, “I need to see my son.” She felt very urgent about it. There were a lot of people.

But rather than, you know, try to say, you know, “You can’t do that right now,” the guards swarmed down, started pushing the protesters back out, trying to push them out the door. One of the guards sprayed pepper spray. Actually, I then saw they rushed a guard back to where we were, who was having like a panic attack induced. We could all feel the pepper spray. Thankfully, there were not any injuries, and there were not any arrests.

But it was—you know, again, this was where sometimes protest raises the tension level, the banging of the prisoners, them saying, “Help us! Help us!” That’s freaking out the guards. The dynamic of tension was necessary here to elevate the urgency of the situation, which should have been done by the Bureau of Prisons starting on Sunday, a week ago. And the fact that it took a week and that level of protest to get them to say, “You know what? We should get the power back on.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, even when the power went back on, supposedly Sunday night at 6:30—

BRAD LANDER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —prisoners were saying they were not feeling heat.

BRAD LANDER: So, there’s a bigger problem here. I saw the power. The power is back on in the building, and that makes a big difference.

AMY GOODMAN: And you could see the light outside.

BRAD LANDER: You could see the light.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a prison you can see.

BRAD LANDER: And the joyous cry that went up, that also was a kind of different sort of celebration outside and inside. You know, outside, we’re all cheering. Inside, they’re flickering their lights on and off. That’s also quite, quite beautiful. So—and now they can come off lockdown. They can call their family members. They can go out of their cells. So, a whole range of things that are possible.

But there is—there is a couple of bigger problems here. One is that the heat plan in the building is just inadequate for the coldest days of the year. And so, if it’s freezing again next week or the week after, there are going to be a lot of cells where it’s just too cold for people to sleep. And that’s going to be a bigger problem to fix. You can’t just fix a big building’s heating system overnight. So we need real change there. And then we also want to know: Why was there not an emergency plan in place? And what are the protocols when something like this happens? And how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, a number of people are calling for Quay’s resignation. In the first part of our interview, we heard from Elizabeth, who was afraid to give her name. She has a relative inside the prison. She said that Quay has repeatedly lied about the conditions inside the prison, said the heat also went off last year for three or four days, which you confirmed, City Councilman. What about the next time this happens? And do you think Quay might resign?

BRAD LANDER: Well, look, you know, we need pretty thoroughgoing reform at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This is a peek into what mass incarceration does to us, and it’s not a lot better at our city or our state level. You know, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports to the Justice Department, which reports to the president. So, if we want reform of the prison system, I don’t know that we’re going to get it from the warden at this facility. We’re going to need change a lot higher up the ladder than that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is very significant. I’m speaking to you. You’re a city councilmember. You’re not in charge of MDC, though it’s a major prison, jail, in Brooklyn, of 1,600 people. Talk about why they’re in jail.

BRAD LANDER: Yeah. So, there’s a mix of people in there, a lot there in pretrial detention. So, many there who have not been found guilty of anything. And if we had—

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning they can’t afford bail.

BRAD LANDER: They can’t afford bail, just like at Rikers. And, you know, I don’t know the numbers at MDC, how many are there because they can’t afford bail. There are some people that are serving their sentences. You know, a mix of sort of drug offenses, some white-collar offenses. It used to be a place where there was a lot of immigration detention. We did protest after protest after protest, and there’s not as much immigrant detention. Overwhelmingly men, although there’s a different building, that did not have the loss of heat and power, where there are some women.

And yes, this is like what we do. While people are awaiting their trial, which they have a right to, we detain them in conditions which are inhumane even when the heat and the power is on. It’s like living in your bathroom, right? Your toilet is right there. You can barely go out. You haven’t been found guilty of anything. Yes, and that part of it, we do at the city level on Rikers, we do at the state level in our facilities, too.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I’m going to ask you about Rikers, in that you’re a city councilman, so you’re not in charge of this federal prison, this federal jail, run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Jerry Nadler was out there Saturday and Sunday. He’s a congressmember, a federal position.

BRAD LANDER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s now become head of the House Judiciary Committee.

BRAD LANDER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Because the Democrats took control of the House. The significance of this for MDC?

BRAD LANDER: Yeah. Well, first I want to give some props also to Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, because she and Jerry were out there together, and it’s her district, and she’s a great champion.

But now, thanks to the fact that Democrats have taken control of the House, Congressman Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Bureau of Prisons is part of the Justice Department. House—the House Judiciary Committee has oversight of the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons. So, now, what could not have happened, you know, just a short few weeks ago is that they can do real oversight of what’s going on here, can subpoena records, can look at what the heat has been on different days of the year, can understand why there wasn’t an emergency plan in place, can ask questions about the warden and what accountability he should face.

AMY GOODMAN: Some guards, prison guards—

BRAD LANDER: They can’t fire him.

AMY GOODMAN: —took temperature—

BRAD LANDER: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —and said it was freezing.

BRAD LANDER: And the union here, the AFGE union, was very important to getting this—

AMY GOODMAN: American Federation of Government Employees.

BRAD LANDER: Thank you—was really important in calling these conditions to our attention. Also the Federal Defenders of New York were really critical to calling this to our attention. So let’s be grateful for the work of those public defenders and those union workers, without which we would not have known what was going on.

But now, Congressman Nadler has committed. He was out there Sunday, and he said, “We’re going to get some problems fixed when the lights go back on. But there’s bigger problems here, and we’re going to have to have real accountability.” And thanks to Democratic control of the House and his commitment, I think we’ll get it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, right now, this is the Justice Department, which—whose leader is the non-Senate-approved Matthew Whitaker.

BRAD LANDER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s in charge of judiciary, which is in charge of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

BRAD LANDER: And he appeared before Congressman Nadler’s committee, you know, a week or two ago. So, yes, that’s—

AMY GOODMAN: But you are in charge of Rikers.

BRAD LANDER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what’s going on now at Rikers.

BRAD LANDER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it suffering any of these kind of problems?

BRAD LANDER: Well, part—

AMY GOODMAN: This is a vast city jail.

BRAD LANDER: Absolutely. Part of the reason why we need to close Rikers—I mean, part of the goal there is to really reduce the number of people that are in jail awaiting trial and are just there because they’re too poor to afford bail. But part of the reason why we have to close Rikers is because it is a inadequate facility to have human beings in. It really is. The buildings are old. They were built badly, just like this building was built badly. We don’t have eyes on them. We’re not able to make them decent places. So, while we want to reduce the number of people who are in jail awaiting trial, and don’t have anybody in there just because they’re too poor to make bail, we do need facilities, for those people who are in jail or prison, that are humane. And we don’t have that on Rikers.

And this is an object lesson. Keith Powers, who chairs the council’s corrections committee, which oversees Rikers, was out, as well, on Saturday. He’s already—he’s a new councilmember. He’s just been in about a year, but he’s toured Rikers a number of times. This was his first time inside the federal facility. And he was saying, you know, we need to use this to keep pushing us forward, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Mayor de Blasio, who has talked about and endorses the closing of Rikers, has a plan to build new jails in New York City to replace Rikers. Your thoughts on this massive jail expansion, and also to community groups like No New Jails that are fighting against these proposed jails?

BRAD LANDER: Yeah, I mean, I think two things are true. We want to do broader work at the city, state and federal level to reduce our reliance on incarceration, not to have people there, to have bail reform so nobody’s just in jail because they’re too poor to make bail, to enable people to be released while they’re awaiting trial. In New York City, I do think closing Rikers down is critical.

And we’ve reduced the number of people in jail on any night from 20,000, now down to about 8,000. Our goal is to get it down to 5,000. I’d love to see it go below that. But I think we probably, for now, do need to build 5,000 much better—beds in better facilities, that are humane, that are closer to courts, where people can see their families.

So, I do think the right plan is what the Lippman Commission proposed, which is close down Rikers, build borough facilities—there should be five. I don’t know why Staten Island gets to not have its facility, but there’s only four in the plan. But yes, I think these borough-based jails, even though the idea of building new jails is distasteful—I don’t like it—I think we have to do it, so that we can get that lower cap. It can’t be an expansion. We’ve got to build 5,000 beds instead of 20,000, close Rikers down—

AMY GOODMAN: But No New Jails is saying we shouldn’t do that, we should—we have to overhaul the criminal justice system.

BRAD LANDER: Of course we have to overhaul the criminal justice system, and I’m really sympathetic with No New Jails. But I fear that if we don’t build the new ones, we’re just going to leave Rikers open, because we do have people that are in jail. And if we leave Rikers open first, there’s still 20,000 beds there, so the numbers could go back up. And the conditions are inhumane. So, I would prefer to see us close down Rikers, build those new smaller facilities. They’re going to look big. I mean, they look big from the point of view of the neighborhoods where they are. Maybe we should spread them out a little more. But we need to build those new facilities so we can close Rikers down.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to thank you so much for being with us, New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, who toured the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn this weekend, was out there in the protest standing right next to Jumaane Williams, who is the New York city councilman who addressed the crowd. And you can go to the Part 1 of our discussion about the freezing prison in Brooklyn MDC, that holds over 1,600 men.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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