The power is back on at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and the street outside is relatively silent, but it shouldn’t take a week without heat during a polar vortex and hour after hour of hands hammering on windows, to sound an alarm about conditions in federal lock up.
The Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn is a holding jail mostly for people awaiting federal trial, just a few miles from downtown Manhattan. It’s a grim, recreation-less place, more like warehouse than house, rife with abuse, including sexual abuse, even in the best of times.
The end of January, as a record breaking freeze hit the Northeast, were not the best of times in the lock up. For at least a week, as far as we know, as many as1,600 inmates at MDC lost heat, light, electricity and access to phone and internet and attorneys and family visits.
We don’t know for sure how many shivered in the cold for how long because although it’s a federal facility, which is to say, it’s publicly funded, it’s the opposite of public. City officials got access last week, but only after a protest, only after those hands started hammering on those walls and windows in panic.
That rapping was the most chilling sound I heard all week, until the President’s State of the Union Speech where he started bragging about bilateral action on criminal justice reform, the so called First Step Act.
As he spoke, the light and heat were back on at MDC but nothing Congress has done, or even talks about doing will change the ongoing shame of American lock up. Last year’s slight reforms do nothing to change the reality that the US shuts away 2.2 million people in 3,000 jails and 1,500 state and federal prisons. The government takes charge and promises to care for the people it detains, but there’s no way to check. Total control comes with total lack of accountability. The First Step Act won’t change anything about that, any more than a few more blankets will help the detainees in Brooklyn.
As outraged as New Yorkers claim to be about the behavior of the feds, Mayor Cuomo and the city have not closed Rikers yet, and they’re still committing to building more prisons. Brooklyn organizers fighting for No New Jails say problems of abuse, neglect, and dereliction are endemic to prisons, and MDC’s not unique. Federal prisons in Texas have been sued for having no air conditioning. In 2013, Californian inmates went on hunger strike over lack of healthcare and food to eat. We don’t need silence. We need noise. The same ruckus we’d hear if our government ran huge secretive warehouses of dads and daughters and mothers and sons who were rich, or more of them white. The problem’s not the freeze, it’s the incarceration, and our silence.