Hundreds of inmates have no heat or light in a huge federal jail in Brooklyn

The jail was once home to Martin Shrekli.
The jail was once home to Martin Shrekli.
Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File
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A series of electrical issues at a federal jail in Brooklyn, New York, have left more than a thousand inmates stranded in freezing cells, according to defense attorneys and paralegals.

As the New York Times reports, a series of breakdowns has set off a cascade of infrastructure and service failures, including preventing access to attorneys and prescription refills. The commissary, where they can buy additional warm clothing and snacks, has also been closed down, due to the limited electricity.

The facility’s 1,600 inmates include men and women of various security levels: While some may be connected to higher-profile cases involving terrorism or drug trafficking, many are simply awaiting trial.

Former supervising paralegal Rachel Gregory told Quartz that colleagues report accounts of “people sitting in darkness and in freezing temperatures all day long,” with the jail on temporary lockdown, or served cans of sardines rather than ordinary meals.

Gregory described groups of men “crowding around one phone begging for help, because they’ve been without heat, without hot water, without lights or any electricity since Saturday.” Federal defender Deirdre von Dornum confirmed these accounts to the Times, explaining that some used a dedicated line that connects the jail to legal offices.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Quartz. A jail spokesperson told the Times via email that the building’s “partial power outage” on Saturday had not affected heat and hot water in housing units, and that inmates were still being served meals and heated normally. Union leaders and defense lawyers rejected that account.

Brooklyn councilman Justin Brannan told Quartz he had been contacted by many people “with loved ones on the inside,” though verifying their accounts had been difficult. People have not been able to contact their family members for almost a week, he said via email, with phones and computers ordinarily used to contact the outside world no longer working.

Brannan posted a photograph to Twitter earlier this week showing all of the lights switched off inside the prison: When people contacting the prison asked why lights were out, he said, they were told it was confidential.

Problems are reported to have begun in early January, when the jail first lost power, though heating issues began in earnest last week, compounded by an electrical fire on Sunday (Jan. 27). The problems were exacerbated by dangerously low temperatures this week, leaving inmates shivering in their cells.