Cold case: Feds investigating management of Sunset Park prison after week-long power outage

Inmate intervention: Feds in charge of Sunset Park prison sued for ‘inhumane’ conditions during week-long power outage
Photo by Trey Pentecost

The Feds will investigate how officials at a federal Sunset Park prison handled a week-long power outage, during which more than 1,600 inmates endured freezing temperatures and allegedly could not speak with their lawyers, leaders of the Department of Justice announced.

The federal agency’s Office of the Inspector General, an internal watchdog arm, will find out whether officials with the federal Bureau of Prisons “responded appropriately to the heat and electricity failures” caused by a Jan. 27 electrical fire at the Metropolitan Detention Center, reps for the Justice Department said on Wednesday. The probe will also determine if prison officials have “adequate contingency plans for such an incident,” according to the reps.

And a separate investigation conducted by leaders of the Prisons Bureau — an agency within the Justice Department that operates the 29th Street prison between Second and Third avenues — will evaluate the facility’s infrastructure and emergency-response protocol.

The announcement of the investigations came hours after nearly 30 pols — including Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–Sunset Park), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D–Red Hook), Rep. Max Rose (D–Bay Ridge), Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D–Coney Island), Rep. Yvette Clarke (D–Flatbush), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–New York) — sent letters to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, and the Prisons Bureau’s acting director, Hugh Hurwitz, demanding they investigate how the prison is managed, among other requests.

“The Bureau [of Prisons] is responsible for providing the humane detention of these detainees — not subjecting them to third-world conditions,” read the pols’ missive to Hurwitz, which also claimed prison employees’ “arguably abusive practices” resulted in the recent “unacceptable” conditions there.

And Justice Department officials only took action to improve those conditions after the press reported on the outage, sparking several days of protests outside the prison, the electeds alleged in their letter to Horowitz,

“Instead of offering proactive solutions and executing its emergency plan, MDC Brooklyn failed in its duties until public pressure and demands for answers reached a tipping point,” they wrote.

The Feds’ investigations must also provide more details about inmates’ treatment during the outage — when prison staff allegedly barred them from receiving medical care, clean clothes, and hot meals on some of the coldest days of the year — and uncover whether contractors worked as quickly as possible to restore power sooner than it came back on Feb. 3, the pols wrote.

And the letter to the Prisons Bureau additionally demanded responses to seven multi-part questions about the prison’s infrastructure, allegations against its staffers, why management barred the incarcerated men from meeting with their lawyers, and how the agency would “re-establish the community’s trust” and prevent similar incidents in the future.

The Justice Department announced its investigations of the Metropolitan Detention Center two days after a group of lawyers sued the Feds and the prison’s warden on Monday for violating the inmates’ constitutional rights during the power loss, and a day after a Prisons Bureau rep told this newspaper that heat “was operational despite the electrical outage.”

The rep, however, did not respond to repeated inquiries about the bureau’s definition of “operational,” and if prison staffers were manually turning down the heat.

Prisons Bureau reps also did not immediately respond when asked if its leaders will publicly answer the questions the pols posed in their letters.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.