The polar vortex that plunged regions of the United States into record breaking low temperatures has begun to ease up. The impacts, however, are only just beginning to be assessed. Regions in the midwest saw windchill temperatures in the negative double-digits, approaching temperatures colder than those in the Arctic Circle, which led to several weather related deaths and a homeless population scrambling to find shelter. The consequences of these temperatures were not contained to the midwest, however. Temperatures in New York City approached zero over this past week, and for inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, whose facility has been experiencing power and heat outages since Thursday, the impacts are bordering on irreparable.
The Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison, houses over 1,600 inmates, who range in age, gender and crime conviction. Some inmates are being held for connections to drug trafficking and terrorism cases, while others are still anonymous New Yorkers who are awaiting their trials. No matter their background or conviction, they have been living without hot water, hot food or heated cells for several days.
However, the story is convoluted. The prison administration, including the warden and the warden’s spokesperson, as well as representatives from the Federal Bureau of Prisons have told news sources that cells were still receiving heat and hot water, and that prisoners were being fed hot meals every day. Interviews and statements from inmates and prison workers contradict this; they say their cells are dark with no heat, and are being fed canned food.
The power and heat outages are reported to be caused by separate issues. The heat failed when the water from the boilers froze in the frigid New York temperatures, and the power failed when an electrical panel problem resulted in an electrical fire. These problems have allegedly caused freezing conditions in the jail for days now, with officials reporting a solution that won’t arrive until Monday.
Although the temperature reports differ, the New York Times states that one corrections officer recorded the temperature of a housing unit at 34 degrees, and claims that prisoners’ cells are even colder. Beyond that, requests for extra blankets or clothes have yet to reach the prisoners, who have been banging on the walls of their cells to catch the attention of individuals outside — to alert the public that they are slowly freezing to death.
Without power, individuals are unable to use computers to contact family members or even refill critical prescriptions. For some, their medication, and time, is running out. Federal defenders have advocated for inmates to be moved, at least those in dire need, to a nearby building, also run by the prison, that is virtually empty save for a few female inmates, but the defenders have received no response.
Freezing inmates in this New York prison is just one more instance of how the United States prison systems are in need of reform. The justice system also frequently receives critique for how they handle the treatment of mental illnesses within their institutions.
In an interview with the National Public Radio, a former Illinois federal inmate, Ashoor Rasho, tells the story of how his prison sentence was increased because of his lack of mental health treatment. Rashoor stated that he would spend between 22 and 24 hours a day in his cell, which had walls so close he could spread his arms and touch both sides at the same time, which led to violent outbursts and an increased sentence for assaulting prison workers.
Rasho told NPR, “Even if they would label us schizophrenic or bipolar, we would still be considered behavior problems. So the only best thing for them to do was keep us isolated. Or they heavily medicate you.”
Rasho, along with 12,000 other inmates sued the state of Illinois Department of Corrections in 2007, and in 2016 the state agreed to provide better treatment with facilities and work towards reform, but a federal judge has recently ruled that care remains “grossly insufficient and extremely poor.” The facility has failed to hire enough staff to treat mental health patients, and inmates are still waiting for extended periods of time for treatment.
This issue extends beyond just the state of Illinois. Mental Health America, a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing the needs of those with mental illness in America, reports that there are roughly 1.2 million individuals in jail with mental health illnesses. A separate study by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013 stated that upwards of 3,000 individuals they surveyed received life sentences for non-violent crimes such as selling $10 worth of marijuana or stealing a jacket. Out of these individuals, roughly 65 percent were black, and many of them faced mental health issues. These inmates will now spend the rest of their life in prison, without access to the treatment they deserve.
The prison and justice systems in the U.S. need serious work. As the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, we should be taking steps at both the federal and state levels to make sure inmates are receiving fair treatment. This means making sure inmates don’t freeze in their cells when temperatures plummet. This means hiring enough educated and experienced staff that can provide treatments for inmates with mental health issues. This means recognizing that if we wish to fix the system, the focus should be on reform, not punishment, and reform cannot happen if inmates are not provided resources for their most basic needs.