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Protesters Converge On N.Y. Detention Center After Power Outage


As the polar vortex gripped New York last week, a federal detention center in Brooklyn suffered a power outage. That meant more than a thousand inmates were confined to their cells with little light or heat during the bitter cold. NPR's Shannon Van Sant reports.

SHANNON VAN SANT, BYLINE: The lights are back on at the Metropolitan Detention Center after more than a week with little heat and hot water. Over the weekend, families of inmates gathered outside the jail to protest inhumane conditions...


VAN SANT: ...And some said they were driven back by police officers using pepper spray. Inmates also pounded the windows and doors in protest, asking for basic needs to be met.

DAVID PATTON: The conditions are really quite frightening.

VAN SANT: David Payton is director of Federal Defenders of New York and visited with the inmates. Here is how he described the situation on Sunday.

PATTON: The facility is running just on emergency lighting in the common areas, but the cells themselves have no lighting. So when the sun goes down, it's basically pitch-black inside the cells.

VAN SANT: Many of the inmates in the facility are awaiting trial for drug and immigration charges. Patton said inmates wore short-sleeved, flimsy uniforms similar to hospital scrubs and struggled to stay warm. The people he met inside the jail, he said, were frantic.

PATTON: I talked to one man who was in tears because he has severe asthma and he didn't have the inhaler he needed. I talked to another man who had nine different medications and his hands were going numb from not taking medication at the right time.

VAN SANT: New York City Council member Brad Lander represents Brooklyn. He also visited the facility over the weekend, where temperatures in cells hovered below 50.

BRAD LANDER: What was the most horrific, most troubling, was the attitude of the prison officials that we talked to.

VAN SANT: Landers was trying to push authorities to get the power restored.

LANDER: We talked to the warden, who was, you know, disinterested and lackadaisical, and to a facilities manager, who really was openly contemptuous of us.

VAN SANT: Work crews got the power back up Sunday evening, a relief to inmates. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said the conditions were a violation of human dignity and has called for an investigation into why it took so long. Shannon Van Sant, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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