Prison employees and inmates testified Tuesday that chilly temperatures inside a New York City federal lockup came days before a fire left some inmates without heat, light, hot water, and attorney and family visits for a week.
The extent of the damage from the Jan. 27 fire was described in detail at hearings in Manhattan and Brooklyn courts as advocates for the prisoners sought court intervention to force the federal government to be more forthcoming about problems at the Metropolitan Detention Center .
Hai June Bencebi, a prison case manager, testified in Manhattan that she wore a hat, gloves, two scarves and a coat when she worked in her prison office a week before the fire.
“It was extremely cold,” she said.
Anthony Sanon, president of a union representing about 500 prison workers, said a heating issue left some cells cold in mid-January.
“All of the correction officers were calling and complaining there was no heat,” he said.
John Maffeo, a prison manager, said there was a heating issue a week before the fire.
He said inmates received extra blankets.
“I knew it was not going to be a quick overnight repair,” he said.
Even now, he added, a permanent fix might not be in place for a year.
City Councilman Jumaane Williams said there seemed to be no emergency plan and “no plan to create a plan” when he and other legislators met prison officials last week.
“Some people seemed annoyed we were there … that we were caring about the inmates,” he said.
Donnell Murray, an inmate, testified he didn’t shower from Jan. 27 until Monday. He said he sought mental health treatment Monday because he hasn’t seen his lawyers since early January and his trial is scheduled for Feb. 19.
After the fire, “it was pretty bad,” he said. “It was dark and it was cold. I was nervous because I didn’t know what really was going on.”
Miguel Cruz, housed at the MDC in January but since released, said his cell was dark and cold after the fire.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “You’re in a cell with another person. You don’t know his mood. Anything could happen.”
During the hearing, lawyers said inmates reached out to them desperately, unaware of the problem or how long the crisis would last.
Vivian Guevera, a director of social work for federal defenders in Brooklyn, described hearing the spooky sound of prisoners making banging noises in their cells to draw attention to their plight as she approached their buildings last week.
“It was shocking to hear,” she said as tapes of the sounds were played in court. “It sounded like a cry for help. It sounded desperate and like people who wanted to be heard.”
Near the conclusion of a four-hour hearing in Manhattan federal court, Judge Analisa Torres asked a witness what she wanted the judge to do. She later toured the facility.
Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-chief of the federal defenders office in Brooklyn, said the court could appoint a neutral person to monitor the facility where most of the over 1,600 inmates are awaiting trial.
“To me, the biggest problem here is the lack of transparency,” she said.
She testified that portions of a statement released by the detention center’s warden at the height of the crisis contained wrong or misleading information.
She said the “most disturbing and harrowing” thing she witnessed during a visit to the facility last week was the lack of medical care, leaving one inmate recovering from a gunshot wound to wonder if his arm was infected because his dressing had not been changed in two weeks.
“People were frantic,” von Dornum testified of calls she received from shivering inmates who finally got access to a direct phone line to her office two days after the fire. “They were expressing real terror in a way I hadn’t heard and I got very scared for them.”
A day earlier, the federal defenders office sued the government in Brooklyn, seeking the appointment of a special master.
The Justice Department said power was restored just before the Super Bowl kickoff on Sunday and all sides agreed that conditions were vastly improved by Tuesday.