Lawsuit: NYC prison violated inmates' 6th Amendment rights

Brooklyn detention center lost power in cold snap

By CNN'S STEVE ALMASY, MIMI HSIN HSUAN SUN, TAYLOR ROMINE, YELENA DZHANOVA AND ELIOTT C. MCLAUGHLIN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
Drew Angerer/2019 Getty Images

Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center

(CNN) - A nonprofit legal organization has filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, where inmates were subject to cold and darkness as a result of a fire in the switch gear room that caused a partial power outage.

The Federal Defenders of New York, which represents low-income people accused of federal crimes, alleges its clients' constitutional rights were violated when legal visitation was suspended entirely between January 28 and Saturday.

Legal visitation resumed Sunday, but it lasted fewer than four hours before attorneys were escorted out because of pepper spray being dispersed in the visiting room, the lawsuit alleges.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to assistance of counsel for defense.

The lawsuit also claims the federal Bureau of Prisons was untruthful in a Sunday press release in which it claimed all inmates received medical attention and that heating in the building was not affected by the power outage.

An attorney with the nonprofit visited MDC Brooklyn and observed "very cold" temperatures and inmates widely reporting they were not receiving necessary medical treatment, the lawsuit states.

The organization is requesting a hearing to "evaluate the conditions of confinement that are infringing the constitutional rights of inmates at the MDC and require the Defendants to supply information about those conditions" and appoint a "special master" to inspect the facility and "undertake the fact finding necessary to determine whether Defendants are protecting the constitutional rights of inmates in their custody," the lawsuit states.

In response to the lawsuit, the Bureau of Prisons said in an email, "We do not comment on matters that are the subject of legal proceedings or pending litigation."

Previously, the Bureau of Prisons said heat to the building is provided by a boiler, which wasn't affected by the power outage.

"The electrical power at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility at MDC Brooklyn was restored at approximately 6:30 p.m., Sunday evening. With the heat and hot water operational, and the restoration of electrical power, the facility can now begin to return to regular operations," US Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.

It continued, "In the coming days, the department will work with the Bureau of Prisons to examine what happened and ensure the facility has the power, heat and backup systems in place to prevent the problem from reoccurring."

The restoration of power came after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on the Justice Department to immediately investigate the circumstances at the detention center.

Cuomo said the allegations are a violation of human decency and dignity for the inmates, and may be illegal. Temperatures have been dropping into the teens at night.

"Prisoners in New York are human beings. Let's treat them that way," Cuomo said.

New York Attorney General Letitia James added in a statement, "It is unacceptable, illegal, and inhumane to detain people without basic amenities, access to counsel, or medical care."

Protesters gathered outside the building on Saturday. Some carried signs with the words, "Shut it down," "Torture at the MDC," and other sayings.

Some tried to force their way into the entrance of the prison but were pushed back by guards using pepper spray.

The facility houses 1,654 inmates. According to the Bureau of Prisons website, "(Such) facilities are institutions with special missions, such as the detention of pretrial offenders; the treatment of inmates with serious or chronic medical problems; or the containment of extremely dangerous, violent, or escape-prone inmates."

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