Protesters rally outside Sunset Park federal prison as COVID-19 cases rise

mdc covid
Dozens of protesters demanded that the Metropolitan Detention Center release its prisoners among a surge in COVID-19 cases on Friday.
Photo by Rose Adams

Dozens of protesters gathered outside a Sunset Park prison on Dec. 4 to decry the conditions inside the facility, which has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases and periodic heat and hot water outages over the last week, protesters said.

“We’re demanding to free anyone in the facility who’s immunocompromised,” said Eve, a protester with the activist group Sunset Park Popular Assembly, who did not give her last name. 

COVID-19 cases at Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), located on 29th Street by Third Avenue, have surged in the last week, with the prison reporting 62 confirmed cases among inmates on Nov. 7.

Most of the cases come from a seventh floor unit within the jail, where 55 inmates tested positive last week, the Daily News reported. The Bureau of Prisons website says that six employees have tested positive for the virus, although the Daily News reported that 49 had tested positive as of last week. 

Before the outbreak, COVID-19 rates at the 1,298-inmate jail have remained low — though insiders say that’s because officials don’t conduct frequent testing.

Gregory Cooper, a former inmate who was granted compassionate release on April 30, told Brooklyn Paper in June that at least a dozen of the 80 inmates in his unit showed symptoms of COVID-19 before he was released, and that the prison did not enforce adequate social distancing measures in the little time inmates were allowed to leave their cells.

“There is no social distancing,” Cooper said. “When they let everybody out for the 30 minutes, everybody is congregating, everybody is talking.” 

To reduce the spread of the virus, prison officials have instituted “lockdown” measures that protesters derided as inhumane. In addition to prohibiting visits from relatives or lawyers, the new rules dramatically reduce the amount of time detainees get outside their cells, limiting their movement to three showers per week, commissary, three showers per week, and phone calls, according to the Bureau of Prisons. 

“They’re basically in their cells 23 hours a day,” said Eve, who added that inmates usually spend most of their days outside the enclosures. “The lockdown conditions are excessive, and it seems like they’re trying to establish a new normal.”

The outbreak come as many inmates have experienced occasional hot water and heat outages over the past few weeks, organizers with Sunset Park Popular Assembly said. Officials reportedly give the inmates blankets when their heat is turned off, but the additional layer doesn’t shield detainees from the cold, activists said. 

“It seems like different units at different times are not receiving heat or hot water,” said Shauna Fitzgerald, who attended the Dec. 4 protest with Sunset Park Popular Assembly, who noted that the facility is usually uncomfortably cold. “They actually blast a lot of AC. It seems that’s what the norm is.” 

The Board of Prisons did not respond to questions about the heat outages by press time. 

Remembering Jamel Floyd

During the Dec. 4 rally, inmates flickered their lights as protesters paid homage to Jamel Floyd, an inmate who died six months ago after correctional officers pepper-sprayed him.

The Bureau of Prisons claimed that the 35-year-old inmate, who was set to be released this past October, was trying to break his cell window with a metal object and acting erratically in a manner “potentially harmful to himself and others” on June 3. Correctional officers then maced Floyd, prompting him to go into cardiac arrest, prison officials said.

Floyd was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Floyd’s mother, Donna Mays, has said that Floyd’s asthma and diabetes caused him to die from the mace. However, the city’s chief medical examiner determined that his heart attack was triggered by a synthetic cannabinoid drug combined with an underlying genetic heart condition, the medical examiner’s spokeswoman, Aja Worthy-Davis, told Brooklyn Paper.

The medical examiner’s cause of death did not mention the pepper spray. 

Donna Mays, mother of Jamel Floyd, gets choked up listening to Rep. Nydia Velazquez outside the Metropolitan Detention Center.Photo by Paul Frangipane

Donna Mays and Jamel’s father, James Floyd, drive from their home in Nassau County to MDC almost every Friday since Jamel died to protest his death, usually carrying signs or wearing shirts emblazoned with his face.

“Sometimes I wake up and I don’t know what day it is,” Donna Mays told Brooklyn Paper at a protest outside MDC on Nov. 20. “I have to take it one day at a time and moment by moment.” 

Outside MDC on Dec. 4, protester Shauna Fitzgerald said that the only justice for Floyd would be closing the prison for good.

“As an abolitionist, I believe that justice would be to shut this place down,” she said. “Keeping people inside when there’s active COVID cases is murder.”

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment by press time. 

Activists gathered outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park on June 4 support the family of Jamel Floyd, who died inside the facility when corrections officers pepper sprayed him in his cell.Photo by Paul Frangipane