On Friday night, February 2, 2019, my Twitter feed exploded with news of the “power outage” at the Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn. There were protesters and news stories trending about inmate health and safety.
It appears the New York Times broke the story, with the headline “No Heat for Days at a Jail in Brooklyn Where Hundreds of Inmates Are Sick and Frantic.” The frantic nature of the story was certainly increased by the protesters outside the facility advocating for inmate rights. Additionally, we were at the tail end of an incredibly cold week, referred to as the “Polar Vortex.” So, the stars had aligned for an uncomfortable and scary incident for those incarcerated. I’m certain I’d experience fear in the same circumstance.
As the New York Times reported, most of the accounts were described to them by Federal Public Defenders who represent the inmates. The inmates were limited in communication with the outside world, but were able to communicate with defense counsel in some instances. It appears heat was the primary complaint, although there were claims of limited hot water access.
In the article above there seems to be a disagreement between different stakeholders (i.e. warden, union officials, public defenders, and inmates) as to whether there was an electrical or heating problem and which one was causing the problem. For our purposes, the cause of the event does not matter. We’re interested in response.
On Monday, February 4th, a lawsuit was filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) and warden, as described in this article from NBCNews, “claiming the jail kept inmates in “inhumane” and unconstitutional conditions during a dangerously cold week.”
Did you expect a lawsuit would not be filed? This is a legal blog. Of course a lawsuit was filed. Many questions arise. Was the treatment inhumane? Was it as frigid in the facility as reported? Did prison officials fail to provide humane care? It is hard to say from the publicly reported facts. We are unlikely to know, until a FBOP investigation is completed and/or discovery made public.
Nevertheless, I thought it would be helpful for us to get a better understanding of jail and prison policies and procedures from a correctional expert witness.
Jail Management Expert Witness Donald Leach:
Donald L. Leach, II, is a Jail / Corrections Management expert with over 30 years of experience. He has 20 years of consulting experience on jail management issues nationally, focusing on Risk Management for jails and jail operational methodology. Mr. Leach has served as an expert witness for 5 years, in both State and Federal court. His services are available to counsel for both Plaintiff and Defense and include case review, testimony, and consultation for jail and prison issues. You can learn more about his practice at: https://www.dlleach.me/.
As I often do, I posed several questions to Mr. Leach, and he provided answers to those questions. I have posted them verbatim below.
Nick: Are there health and safety requirements for jails/prisons when experiencing inclement weather?
Mr. Leach: The same requirements for providing humane living conditions exist regardless of weather. The Court has not specified what those conditions have to be, unless addressing an individualized case, but they have to fall within a general range of adequate conditions of confinement. This is in a normal situation. When inclement weather, such as the cold hits, then more leeway is typically given because it involves a relatively short period of time.
Nick: Do jails/prisons have policies and procedures in place for responding to a loss of electricity/heat?
Mr. Leach: More likely than not, FBOP has policies and procedures for managing the loss of electricity and heat. These are generally short-term events and are addressed as such. A close reading of the news articles coming out indicates that while conditions may be unpleasant they are far from life threatening. Depending on the facility design, adequate light may be obtained from natural sources-such as daylight. Evening hours may involve the use of lanterns placed in common areas. Again, these are typically short term events and like you address them when the lights at home go out, jails and prisons have similar policies. Additionally, I would be surprised to find that there are no emergency generators that provide general lighting and power life safety systems.
Nick: Assuming a lack of heat and electricity occurs in a jail/prison, while temperatures outside are below freezing, how should correctional personnel address the issue?
Mr. Leach: I would recommend issuing extra blankets, sheets. If additional clothing is available for issuance, provide that. If the weather has not significantly impacted commerce, then possibly an emergency purchase of thermal tops and bottoms. Extra materials would be issued to the female inmates who seem to suffer from the cold more than the males.
Nick: There were concerns about certain at-risk inmates (elderly and those with medical needs). How would you address medical concerns in a similar situation?
Mr. Leach: The administrator may have to consider temporarily transferring those inmates to neighboring facilities. We would do this on a regular and common enough basis, lasting only until the situation is rectified. Agencies will typically work together to overcome these situations. Today it’s freezing temps but tomorrow it may be plumbing!
Mr. Leach: There has to be some prior planning for emergency situations such as this. A general outline of actions to take would be appropriate. The details would be decided based upon available resources and issues. For example, you can plan on transferring the elderly and medically fragile but what if the roads are closed. Keeping a stock of emergency supplies, such as extra blankets may be appropriate, or in dry areas it may be pallets of water. This is going to be geographically determined.
There it is folks! I’ll try to be ahead of the curve on the next major story to likely result in litigation.