Power and heat were restored Sunday to a federal detention center that had been without electricity and mostly unheated for a full week.
The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, had until Feb. 3 only backup power after a Jan. 27 electrical fire disrupted power in the building. The U.S. Department of Justice announced Feb. 3 that power and heat had been fully restored to the building by Sunday evening.
More than 1,600 inmates are incarcerated at the facility; most of them are awaiting federal trials and have not yet been convicted of crimes.
During the week-long ordeal many inmates had no heat, hot meals, or lights in their cells, according to the New York Times. Some were also reportedly without hot water.
The federal Bureau of Prisons denied that heat and hot water had been affected in housing blocks, the New York Times reported on Feb. 1, though accounts from prisoners, visitors to the prison, and staffers said that cells were unheated.
The inmates were on partial lockdown for several days.
Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), who toured the facility, described conditions in the unheated cells as a “nightmare,” akin to “living in a closet without lights.”
Winter temperatures in New York plunged last week to as low as 2 degrees Fahrenheit; New York City officials sent blankets and hand warmers to the facility on Feb. 2. Aid groups sent socks, sweatshirts, and extra blankets.
Inmates who use electrical sleep apnea machines were at an elevated risk of stroke without the machines, and inmates were unable to request prescription refills, including for psychiatric medicine, the New York Times reported.
The Bureau of Prisons said it worked as quickly as possible to resolve electrical and heating issues at the jail, although protesters said that jail officials did not work quickly enough, and complained Friday when it appeared that electrical contractors left the job site in late afternoon. Justice Department officials have promised a thorough investigation.
Protesters attempted on Sunday to enter the jail. They were deterred by police and corrections officers, some of whom used pepper spray to deter the demonstrators, who mostly returned to protesting after the melee. Some of the protesters said they were relatives of men incarcerated at the detention center.
As they attempted to enter the jail, some demonstrators chanted “heat is a human right.”
In 2014, Pope Francis called on “Christians and men of good will” to “improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom.”
“The deplorable conditions of detention which are observed in various parts of the planet, are often genuinely inhuman and degrading deficiencies, often the result of the penal system, at other times due to the lack of infrastructure and of planning, while in more than a few cases they represent the arbitrary and unscrupulous exercise of power over people deprived of freedom.”
Fordham University theologian Charlie Camosy told CNA that “If you are leading a life in which you feel comfortable and at home in our current culture, then there is a good chance you aren't living out the fullness of the Gospel.”
“It is deeply counter-cultural, but Christians are called to see the Face of the Lord in prisoners, who are among the ‘least ones’ that Jesus explicitly mentions in Matthew 25. What we do to prisoners we do to Christ. A shocking thing to think about when we think about the inmates at MDC Brooklyn,” Camosy added.
At the Brooklyn jail, inmate cells face the outside of the building. While power was out, inmates could often be heard and seen banging loudly against narrow cell windows from darkened cells, on some occasions waving small lights and appearing to be shouting.
After power was restored, inmates flicked the lights in their cells on and off, while protestors gathered in the streets below cheered.