Sixth Amendment

Many federal inmates in Brooklyn are largely without heat for a week; suit claims lack of lawyer access

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Prison bars.

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Updated: The U.S. Justice Department said Sunday it will work with the Bureau of Prisons to investigate why a federal prison in Brooklyn had limited power and heat for the past week, leaving many inmates to endure cold cells as outside temperatures dropped well below freezing.

A Justice Department spokesperson, Wyn Hornbuckle, said power was restored to the Metropolitan Detention Center at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, the Associated Press reports. Hornbuckle said the Justice Department will work to determine what happened and how to prevent a repeat of the problems.

In a lawsuit filed on Monday, the Federal Public Defender’s Office is asking a judge to appoint an independent monitor to investigate, the New York Times reports. The suit alleges the facility violated inmates’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel when it barred visits with lawyers. Inmates have also been denied visits with their families, the suit says.

More than a half-dozen judges are considering conditions at the prison, the New York Times reports. One judge was planning to tour the facility on Tuesday. Another ordered the facility to allow inmates to once again meet with their lawyers.

Protesters who tried to enter the prison on Sunday were driven back by guards who pushed them and apparently used pepper spray, according to AP and the New York Times.

The public defenders’ suit says the jail went on lockdown after an electrical fire and power failure on Jan. 27. Conditions were already bad as some heating units began to fail amid dropping temperatures, the suit said.

After the fire, federal prison officials were “largely nonresponsive” when lawyers sought to discuss the conditions, the suit says. When there was a response, prison officials offered explanations that were inconsistent with conditions described by inmates, according to the suit.

After obtaining a judge’s order, the attorney-in-chief of the federal defenders in Brooklyn was able to visit the facility on Friday.

The availability of heat and hot water varied by unit, according to a declaration by the lawyer, Deirdre von Dornum. In one area of the building, inmates appeared to be wrapped in blankets and towels in an effort to keep warm. Some inmates said leaky ceilings were wetting their already cold sheets.

Lights were not on in any cells, though hallways had emergency lighting. Inmates said they were not able to request prescriptions or medical care because the computers weren’t operating.

The New York Times first covered the conditions in a Feb. 1 story.

Updated on Feb. 5 to report on judges’ rulings.

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