As a vicious cold snap descended on parts of the United States last week, reports started to emerge of darkness and freezing conditions inside the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn: Prisoners forced to “huddle up” without food, light, heat, or hot water, for extended periods of time, unable to make calls to family or access proper medical care.
It took days of public outrage and prisoners banging on the walls for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to send extra blankets and emergency power. On Saturday, BOP, which remains without a permanent director following former director Mark Inch’s resignation last May, released a statement confirming the conditions. Around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, electricity, heat, and hot water were restored. A lawsuit has since been filed on behalf of the prisoners citing a “humanitarian crisis” and a violation of their 6th Amendment rights.
BOP’s failure to treat prisoners with dignity and respect is abhorrent. Federal authorities should immediately repair infrastructure, adequately plan for extreme temperatures and other comparable emergencies, and quickly provide for the basic needs of those in custody.
Inhumane conditions in confinement are not just a problem within the criminal legal system – it also rears its head in the immigration context. In 2018, Human Rights Watch documented the abusive conditions migrant mothers and children faced while being held in hieleras, or frigid holding cells.
On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the oversight of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the parent agency to BOP. Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker should be ready to answer questions about the DOJ’s role in examining what went wrong and ensuring prisoners’ safety and livelihood, preventing such abuse from happening again.