Trapped in the Freezing Cold: Federal Defenders File Lawsuit Against the Metropolitan Detention Center

Written by Julia Wingfield


Last week’s “Polar Vortex”, caused sub-zero temperatures and high-speed winds to grip the east coast. New York City was particularly affected by this weather pattern—with temperatures plunging into the single digits. It was so cold that firefighters, combating a fire in a commercial building, took turns warming up on nearby buses. Schools, services and businesses shut down, and people hunkered down in their homes to stay warm.

At the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail located in Brooklyn, the inmates were not given such an option. At the end of January, an electrical fire knocked out the power in most of the building, which resulted in inmates being confined in their cells, without hot water or heat.

As news of the conditions reached the general public, both the warden of the jail and the Bureau of Prisons initially denied there was any loss of power, claiming inmate housing conditions had been minimally impacted.

After dozens of interviews with staff, inmates, and inmates’ family members, this proved not to be the case. The week-long blackout resulted in freezing cold temperatures inside the cells. Inmates could see their breath, food was served undercooked, and to keep warm inmates filled cans with water and used contraband lighters to heat them. Inmates were kept locked in their cells for twenty-three hours a day in the dark and cold.

After public outcry and a series of protests, on February 3 power was restored. A few days later the Bureau of Prisons opened an investigation into the conditions of the jail. The Justice Department, in their oversight capacity of the Bureau of Prisons, released a statement, declaring they were “committed to the safe and humane living and working conditions of all inmates and employees.”

Not the First Accusation of Mistreatment

This is not the first time the Metropolitan Detention Center has been accused of mistreatment. Investigations by the Inspector General have been opened in the facility before.

First, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, investigations showed that staff were physically abusing Muslin inmates. These inmates were slammed into walls, and staff threatened their lives while they were behind bars. The Inspector General has also looked into other physical abuse. Both in 2002 and in 2006, investigations were opened after claims of staff beating inmates.

More recently, in 2013 and 2016, the Inspector General opened investigations into officers who were accused of sexually assaulting female inmates. After the investigation, three staff members were convicted. One of the staff members was convicted of repeatedly raping a victim and threatened to send her to solitary confinement if she reported it.

The Lawsuit

As a result of this pattern of mistreatment, and because of the recent conditions in the jail, the Federal Defenders of New York have filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Detention Center. According to the Federal Defender’s office, ““The I.G. previously has investigated M.D.C. and issued harshly critical reports. But nothing has changed.”

The complaint names both the Bureau of Prisons and the jail’s warden as parties to the lawsuit. After outlining the conditions at the jail, and the Bureau of Prison’s lack of response to those conditions, the complaint states two causes of action.

First, the Bureau of Prisons violated the inmates’ Sixth Amendment right to Counsel. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that, “in all criminal prosecution, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

During the blackout, the Bureau of Prisons cancelled nearly all legal visitation to one of the buildings from January 27 until February 4. No detailed information was provided to defense attorneys regarding the reasons for these cancellations. Additionally, no information was provided to attorneys about the “dire” conditions in the Metropolitan Detention Center. The Federal Defender argues that these actions substantially interfere with the right to counsel, and constitute a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

Second, the complaint claims the Bureau of Prisons violated their own regulations, the Administrative Procedure Act. These regulations require wardens to “provide the opportunity for pretrial inmate attorney visits on a seven-days-a-week basis.” Additionally, they prohibit the limitation of the frequency of visits for all inmates, requiring wards to “make every effort to arrange for a visit.” The Federal Defender argues that these failures show the BOP’s inability to follow its own regulations is “arbitrary and capricious and contrary to the law.”

The complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, specifically the appointment of an outside monitor for the jail.

The Bureau of Prisons continues to underscore their narrative, with their lawyer arguing that the conditions only affected a handful of inmates, which does not warrant the appointment of an outside monitor. They also point out that the conditions have been fixed.

Ultimately, the Bureau of Prisons is investigating into the conditions of the jail, and the effect those conditions had on the inmates. The question remains: will this internal investigation be sufficient to address any mistreatment? The pressure of a lawsuit, and the public outcry, may be enough to push the Bureau of Prisons toward change.


Complaint for Petitioner, Federal Defenders of N.Y., Inc., No. 1:19-cv-00660-MKB-SMG, (E.D.N.Y 2019).

Annie Correal and Joseph Goldtein, ‘Its Cold as Hell’: Inside a Brooklyn Jail’s Weeklong Collapse, N.Y. Times, (Feb. 9, 2019.

Benjamin Weiser and Ali Winston, Brooklyn Federal Jail Had Heat Failures Weeks Before Crisis, Employees Say, N.Y. Times, (Feb. 5, 2019.

28 C.F.R. §551.117(a).

28 U.S.C. § 543.13(b), (d).

5 U.S.C. § 706(2).

Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.