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Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez

Representing the 7th District of New York

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Lawmakers Press for Answers, Following MDC BK Heat, Power Outage

Lawmakers Press for Answers, Following MDC BK Heat, Power Outage
February 6, 2019
Press Release

Dual Letters Seek Independent Probe, Answers from BOP

Washington, D.C. – Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) have led 26 of their House and Senate colleagues in writing letters to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, seeking answers following heat and power outages this week at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.  
 
“When I visited MDC this past week, it was clear there was a humanitarian crisis unfolding, and that the leadership there had acted with complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of those inside,” said Velázquez, whose district includes the facility. “We want answers, accountability and, most importantly, an ironclad commitment this won’t happen again. Even before these most recent outrageous events, MDC has been a troubled institution, and I want to see the problems there rooted out once and for all.” 
 
“Having toured the MDC facility twice over the weekend, it is painfully clear that the officials in charge did not see this crisis as an emergency, despite the clear risks to the lives of the detainees,” said Nadler. “All Americans, including prisoners, have a right to be treated with decency and respect, and this episode shows a complete failure of caring, planning and supervision at the facility.  The Bureau of Prison’s callous indifference for the health and safety of the detainees is immoral, as was their complete lack of urgency in repairing the problem.  While I’m grateful our intervention was able to help get the contractors back on site and power restored a full day earlier than MDC officials estimated, I will be requesting the Department of Justice Inspector General investigate the failures of BOP so we can prevent this from ever happening again, and will examine the possibility of holding a hearing to explore this issue further.”
 
In a letter to the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General, the lawmakers request an examination of MDC, including, among other issues, whether the institution followed its own emergency protocols during the outage, an examination of the facility’s chain of command, whether contractors lived up to the terms of their contracts in repairing the heating and ventilation systems and what medical care was provided during the crisis.  
 
A second letter, addressed to the Acting Director of BOP, asks the agency a series of questions such as: whether the agency has experienced previous power and heat outages in recent years; details on the heating system’s inspection history; and whether BOP would consider appointing a special investigator or monitor to oversee changes at the troubled facility. 
 
In addition to Velázquez and Nadler, the letters were signed by Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY); Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as well as Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY); Adriano Espaillat (D-NY); José E. Serrano (D-NY); Nita M. Lowey (D-NY); Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY); Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY); Eliot L. Engel (D-NY); Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY); Ayanna Pressley (D-MA); Grace Meng (D-NY); Thomas R. Suozzi (D-NY); Max Rose (D-NY); Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC); Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY); Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY); Tony Cárdenas (D-CA);  Mark Pocan (D-WI); Brenda Lawrence (D-MI); John Lewis (D-GA); Cedric Richmond (D-LA); Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ); Bobby Scott (D-VA); and Katherine Clark (D-MA).
 
Text of both letters are below and .pdfs are online here and here.
 
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First Letter: 
 
February 6, 2019
 
 
Michael E. Horowitz
Inspector General of the United States Department of Justice
U.S. Department of Justice
Office of the Inspector General
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Suite 4706 
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001
 
Dear Inspector General Horowitz:
 
We are writing to express concerns over recent events at the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, NY. This past weekend, it was reported that over 1,600 detainees and employees at the correctional facility remained in a building that had serious heating and electrical issues for nearly a week during polar vortex conditions.  The grave nature of these circumstances were muddled until press coverage revealed the extent of the MDC’s problems.
 
We believe there are ample grounds for your office to review the conditions at Brooklyn MDC. It is still unclear why the facility had prolonged issues with heating and electricity. It is understood that the facility kept detainees on lockdown without appropriate access to medical services. Further, attorneys and paralegal staff reported that detainees lacked access to extra blankets and could not purchase extra sweatshirts at the commissary during the height of this crisis. All the while, it is alleged that management at MDC did not activate and follow their emergency plan.  
 
The lackluster response from the facility’s leadership cannot be categorized as anything less than inappropriate given the circumstances. Instead of offering proactive solutions and executing its emergency plan, MDC Brooklyn failed in its duties until public pressure and demands for answers reached a tipping point.  Leadership at BOP facilities must be consistent with our values, and ensure that detainees have access to humane shelter conditions. The arguably abusive practices arising out of this incident, including the fact that detainees were kept on lockdown in near-freezing conditions, is unacceptable.  
 
Given the above, we request: 
 
the Evaluation and Inspections Division review the Management practices at this facility—such review should also examine whether the MDC fully followed its emergency plans. Such inquiry, in addition, examine the chain of command at the facility, including the respective decision-making authority that is in cases when the warden is not physically present at the facility; 
a review of medical care given to detainees during this period, including the lack of electricity for CPAP machines and the exacerbation of conditions such as asthma by the cold conditions; and 
 
a review of the extended denial of access to counsel for detainees by MDC, leaving detainees unable to address their cases or assert their rights about these conditions during this time period;
 
an audit of whether contractors at MDC fulfilled their duties related to repairing or replacing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), electrical, or similar infrastructure on or about the week of January 28th, 2019. Such audit should also examine whether contractor malfeasance was a contributing factor leading to the loss of heat and electricity on or about the week of January 28th, 2019.
 
As Members of Congress, it is our responsibility to ensure that detainees are treated fairly and afforded humane living conditions while in federal custody. Given the severity of these circumstances, we request a formal response from your office no later than ten (10) calendar days from the date of this correspondence. 
 
 
Sincerely,
 
 
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Second Letter: 
 
February 6, 2019
 
Hugh Hurwitz
Acting Director
Bureau of Prisons
320 1st Street, NW
Washington, DC 20534
 
Dear Acting Director Hurwitz:
 
We are writing to express serious concerns about the treatment of detainees by the Bureau of Prisons’ Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, NY. As you are aware, this facility was the center of a significant number of protests after it was reported that over 1,600 detainees and employees remained in a building that had heating and electrical issues for nearly a week.  Reports suggest that such issues are mutually exclusive: heating issues began at the facility when boilers (and associated coils) began to freeze,   and an electrical panel caught fire, which in turn melted a back-up generator switch. The fire prevented the facility from switching to emergency power.  
 
As a result, detainees were kept on lockdown, in near-freezing conditions, with limited or no access to their lawyers or loved ones.  Furthermore, it is understood that the facility kept detainees on lockdown without appropriate access to medical services. Attorneys and paralegal staff reported that detainees lacked access to extra blankets and could not purchase extra sweatshirts at the commissary during the height of this crisis. Expecting detainees to purchase items at a commissary due to incidents that are entirely under the BOP’s responsibility is unacceptable. All the while, the Bureau failed to provide adequate and timely remedies to the heat and electrical issues at the facility. 
 
Such conditions, coupled with a dismally slow response time during a polar vortex , draws serious questions to the response mechanisms currently employed by the BOP and warrant further discussion over its current shortcomings. Alarmingly, it is our understanding management at MDC failed to activate and follow their emergency plan.  
 
The Bureau is responsible for providing for the humane detention of these detainees—not subjecting them to third-world conditions. Therefore, we demand you take the incident at MDC Brooklyn seriously and immediately initiate an investigation. As you undertake this investigation, we request you provide us with answers to the following questions regarding current concerns at MDC:
 
1. Prior to this heating and electrical fire incident, when was the last inspection of MDC Brooklyn’s electrical and air conditioning infrastructure? 
 
a. Were there any issues with facility infrastructure in the last five calendar years that caused the heat, air conditioning, water, or electricity to be offline for more than three consecutive days? If yes, please provide details of each instance.
 
b. A concern highlighted in media reporting is that the coils transporting heat though the building froze. What is your plan to insulate or rehabilitate the facility’s infrastructure and units to prevent such issues in the future? 
 
2. It is understood that the contractors tasked to fix the electrical panel issues may have had to order special parts in order to do so. Why are such parts not kept at the facility in case of extenuating and emergency circumstances? 
 
a. Are such considerations part of the facility’s contingency plan? 
 
i. Is MDC Brooklyn’s current contingency plan inadequate based on this incident? 
 
3. Why did MDC Brooklyn staff not attend to the medical needs of the detainees, particularly those with conditions such as asthma that were exacerbated by the conditions and individuals who were placed at risk due to lack  of electricity for CPAP breathing machines?  What plans does BOP have to take care of such needs at its facilities in the event of the onset of such conditions?
 
4. Why were detainees denied the ability to meet with counsel for extended periods, and how will you prevent this from occurring in the future?
 
5. What review and accountability mechanisms will your agencies employ to investigate, reprimand or restructure the current leadership of MDC Brooklyn?
 
a. Should your agencies decide to restructure or change leadership at MDC Brooklyn, how will you inform the public of such decision?
 
b. Would you consider appointing an emergency monitor, investigator or other appropriate staff from BOP to oversee necessary reforms of the culture and operating practices at MDC Brooklyn?
 
6. Based on this weekend’s events, it is clear that the BOP’s lack of responsive action during this incident has seriously undermined the public’s trust in this facility. What is your plan to re-establish the community’s trust?
 
7. How will your agencies use this incident to prevent similar occurrences at other facilities operated by the BOP?
 
As Members of Congress, it is our responsibility to ensure that all Americans, including detainees, are provided the full rights afforded by our laws. Any transgression that limits such right, including limited access to basic shelter needs, must be fully investigated and remedied. 
 
Given the severity of these circumstances, we request a formal response from your agencies on MDC’s issues no later than ten (10) calendar days from the date of this correspondence. Your responses will be critical for Congress’ role in ensuring that BOP’s facilities will be able to handle harsh weather conditions without compromising the health and safety of those in federal custody. 
 
Sincerely,
 
 
 
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