Prisoners Needlessly Endangered by Polar Vortex

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For many people, the polar vortex of the last week was a wake-up call to the unpredictable consequences of climate change. For many other people, the shocking consequences of the polar vortex opened their eyes to the very pressing need for criminal justice and prison reform in the United States.

It became public knowledge late last week that a federal prison in New York, Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, did not have adequate heat, hot water, electricity, or warm food for the inmates. Although federal prison officials were quick to claim that conditions weren’t as bad as the public feared, state officials and representatives that toured the facility were horrified by the conditions inside, which included temperatures as low as 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Dozens of protesters crowded in the frigid temperatures outside the prison, some of them staying overnight to stand in solidarity with the individuals inside.

On January 5th, the prison lost power, which may have damaged certain systems. This caused issues with the heating around January 20th, which gave officials more than enough time to brace for the long-predicted polar vortex. With more than 1,600 people inside, the prison turned both dark and cold. Some of those inmates are not even convicts; they are still awaiting trials. Although the power was turned back on on Sunday, February 4th, the inmates here went days without proper services and care.

The events of the last week have made it very clear that most state governments and utilities programs do not have adequate infrastructure and safeguards in place for drastic temperature shifts that will likely occur with increasing frequency as climate change accelerates. This is concerning for everyone, as individuals risked their lives to drive to work and some people died at their jobs were on their college campuses.

Unlike those individuals, whose deaths, while tragic, were the results of personal choices, the inmates in the New York facility could not call in sick to work, skip a day of school, stay home to avoid the cold, or otherwise control their exposure to the freezing temperatures and dangerous conditions. Because of their incarceration, those individuals were completely at the mercy of the federal government. The fire in the prison that impacted the heat and electrical systems also impacted the ability of the prison to shift to generator power. The federal government should have immediately taken steps to address the issue, regardless of the expense involved, especially when the heating issues began right before a massive, predicted, cold front moved over the East Coast.

It was heartening but also heartbreaking to see that the mayor of New York City had to force basic supplies, like blankets, generators, and hand warmers, on the prison. Although he did not technically have authority over the prison, he spoke up about the dignity and health of the inmates, which is something that the federal officials in charge of that prison did not seem very concerned about last week.

Although there are no reports of fatalities related to the conditions in the prison last week, the situation could have turned out very differently. Our country needs to seriously reevaluate the number of individuals we incarcerate. We also need to have a long, difficult conversation about the way that we treat our inmates and how we can better allocate resources to protect them and contribute to rehabilitation, rather than punishment, while they are under federal or state custody.

For previous Ladybud articles about prison, click here.