More than a month after thousands of people locked behind bars at a federal detention facility in Brooklyn, NY went without heat, hot water and power for nearly a week, much of the country has largely moved on. For family members of those incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), moving on is simply not an option.
Last week organizers and activists from the group Justice League NYC, along with newly-elected NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and others, met with the Northeast Regional Director of the Bureau of Prisons, J. Ray Ormond, in Philadelphia in an attempt to get answers.They expressed their concerns about what transpired at MDC that brought national outrage, including the warden’s alleged lack of urgency and failure to act appropriately, as well as similar issues that have erupted at other facilities that fall under Ormond’s northeast regional jurisdiction.
According to Tamika Mallory, one of the leaders of Justice League NYC, Ormond listened to their concerns, said that he understood the need for better communication (as family members weren’t notified properly about the lack of heat at MDC), and indicated that his office was conducting their own internal investigation along with the Justice Department’s Office Inspector General’s investigation. He urged the group to wait until these reports were complete as they would include next steps, identify what systems needed improvement and any other actions they would be taking. Ormond said that he was willing to have a follow-up meeting after the investigations are completed (in about two months), and was open to continuing to work with the group on this and other issues according to Mallory
While this meeting didn’t result in the immediate removal of MDC’s warden, Herman E. Quay, it was an important step towards a semblance of accountability within a system that has little to no recourse for those locked up or their family members. Even reaching this point was no easy task and took countless hours of focused organizing, dedication and a sheer will to seek change.
Problems in Prison
It was frigid, dark and eerily quiet when Paula, Monique and Latisha* boarded a bus from New York City to Philadelphia at 6:00 a.m. on Valentine’s Day. In many ways, it was a fitting backdrop for the long trek to the Regional Office of the Bureau of Prisons in an attempt to meet with Ormond. These women had waited weeks for answers as to why their family members suffered through a week without heat and limited power during some of the coldest weather this winter. Even more, they demanded to know why no one has faced repercussions over the inhumane treatment of inmates at MDC.
For these women, whose loved ones were among those who endured that ordeal, taking time off from work and getting on a bus before the sun has an opportunity to hit the city streets was just one more sacrifice in their long quest for accountability and reform.
“Nobody could even communicate with them [inmates] to tell them what was going on, so they started becoming frightened stuck in cold dark cells for almost a week,” said Monique whose husband has been in MDC for nearly two years.
“Could you imagine being traumatized like that?”
MDC is a virtual holding place for those awaiting trials on federal criminal charges; the vast majority of the more than 1,600 men and women there have not been convicted as of yet and while some are facing serious charges, most are accused of low-level crimes. You can also imagine that most are picked up from Black and Latino communities.
As the group on the bus highlighted, people can be held in the facility for years at a time all while awaiting trial, except this is no place anyone would want to be. MDC has a deeply troubling history of complaints and reported abuses.
While the majority of the incarcerated are male, in May of 2018, Eugene Perez, a former lieutenant at MDC was convicted of sexually assaulting five female inmates, and a few months prior, Carlos Richard Martinez, another former lieutenant was found guilty of repeatedly raping a female inmate who testified that her assault was not the only occurrence at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Armando Moronta, a former MDC corrections officer pled guilty last November to sexually abusing three female inmates. Moronta was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison.
It wasn’t until February when a polar vortex hit New York City dropping temperatures to a dangerous, single-digit low and the unlucky event of a partial power outage did a bright light suddenly shine on the significant problems inside the federal detention center. National outcry from the public emerged once everyone learned that prisoners were left without heat, access to adequate food and health care or the ability to contact the outside.
Those left helpless behind bars began screaming, banging on anything in front of them and yelling for help outside their barred windows. In time, word got out. Family, friends, and area activists began protesting bringing increased media attention and intense pressure to get the power restored.
It did eventually come back nearly a week later, but by then it was too little, too late. Attorneys on behalf of those held inside MDC filed a federal lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Warden Quay citing the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” that is unconstitutional and inhumane. The fight to get Warden Quay removed and bring systematic changes to MDC had just begun.
“When we called the jail, they said nothing to us. We just stopped having communication, no visits, nothing,” said Monique who emphasized that this wasn’t the first time that her husband was mistreated at MDC.
“He was recently in the hospital and I wasn’t even notified as the wife, I didn’t know where he was. I found out that he was in the ICU for two weeks when he got released (from the ICU) – that’s when I found out.”
Desperate for answers
The February early morning trip was organized by several advocacy groups including Justice League NYC, the Women’s March, G-MACC and others. As the chartered bus traversed down the NJ Turnpike towards Philadelphia, you could feel the restless uneasiness from the women who were clearly focused and yet still desperate for information.
“The warden needs to take responsibility for neglect and abuse,” said Paula whose husband is also an inmate at MDC.
“That was neglect and abuse on his part not just for the inmates, but for his staff. I work corrections in the city, so I know that there are institutional orders about what to do when an emergency takes place. What was the plan at MDC? What’s the plan now? Your staff, officers, supervisors, where’s the concern for your staff?”
According to Justice League NYC, Ormond had previously refused to meet with family members and the organizations. In true activist fashion, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.
“Warden Quay has to be fired,” said Mallory as she stood in the aisle and addressed the bus before it arrived in Philadelphia. “His approach to dealing with the situation has been less than professional, less than compassionate not only for the incarcerated but for family who lost touch with their loved ones. We came to talk to his boss.”
As the sun finally began to pierce through the windows of the bus, Paula led the group in prayer before they exited.
“We thank you God for the voice that you have given to each and every one of us individually that we continue to use it in the earth to make change, to bring forth change.”
When Every Life Matters
In the bitter cold, family members and advocates walked towards the federal building housing Ormond’s office for a face-to-face meeting, or at the very least, deliver an anonymous letter outlining their concerns. The fear of reprisals is very real for these women and those imprisoned at MDC where a certain code of the streets still dominates.
As the small group of about 15 people peacefully climbed the steps to reach the entrance of the building, they are stopped by officers who locked the doors to the facility and called for back-up. After a few tense exchanges between members of the group and the officers at the scene, several additional police vehicles came barreling down the street and onto the sidewalk.
“They locked the building up, put gates up, we got babies in the cold. We called ahead, we drove three hours here and they told us we could go in the building and now all of a sudden, we can’t,” said rapper and activist, Mysonne.
“We’re just showing up to figure out what’s going on,” replied a Department of Homeland Security officer, who explained that other police officers assumed that it was a protest when they saw a group of people.
A passerby chimed in saying that people should be allowed to go in one-by-one.
DHS officers tried to diffuse the situation and eventually, the group was allowed into the lobby where they awaited a representative from Ormond’s office. Framed pictures of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence adorned the wall above where the family members and organizers stood. A subtle reminder of the higher power at hand here. A short time later, Mike Carroll, Ormond’s executive assistant arrived.
“He’s not available today, but I understand you have some correspondence,” said Carroll referring to his boss.
After handing over the anonymous letters, organizers encouraged each family member to voice their concerns directly to Carroll, the only person forced to listen to their pleas.
“What made you think it wasn’t an urgency for our loved ones?” asked Monique. “No medical treatment, cold, no answers, hostility from officers. When is this going to be resolved? I had to come down here in the freezing cold just to get answers. The warden made statements saying there’s no urgency, but it was two degrees outside. The warden needs to be accountable for not having an action plan. Who’s to say this won’t happen again?”
Carroll’s phone rang.
“We’re here as concerned family members for all of those locked up,” said Paula. “Where is the care for people’s lives? You can call the ASPCA for animals, but who do you call for the thousands of people with no lights, no power, no heat, no hot water? Every life in there matters.”
Carroll’s phone rang again.
“Their rights were violated; their right to counsel and food…we want attention so that this doesn’t continue to go on,” said Latisha, whose brother has been in MDC for two and a half years while still awaiting trial. “The warden lied. He needs to be fired. We need answers, what are the next steps?”
Carroll’s phone continued to ring several more times as each of the women spoke. When he finally answered, “yes sir” repeatedly, it was clear that Ormond was on the other end.
By the end of that call, Carroll stated that he could set up a meeting between Ormond and no more than two people from the group in the near future. And with the that, the family members and organizers peacefully exited the building and boarded the bus for the journey back to New York.
“They knew we were coming and when we showed up, they put in place measures that didn’t allow us to get to who we expected to see. They called the cops, then they called other cops, labeled us as protesters, put a negative spin on our purpose all to keep us from getting answers,” said Latisha who works at the Center for Justice at Columbia University, which focuses on ending mass incarceration.
“So, this is part of the fight; it’s ongoing. While people are listening, we can really put all of our energy together to make a change. When MDC shut down, my brother couldn’t call home, so I had to be his voice. It’s the same thing today.”
As Latisha’s eyes filled with tears, Paula chimed in with these words of encouragement.
“It feels like nothing’s going to happen, but it’s happening,” she said. “You are making a difference. You said, I have a voice, so keep doing the work you’re doing. Lives will be touched and changed. I tell people from prison to purpose, and you’re an example of purpose. I am proud of you.”
Carrying the heavy load of mental, emotional and physical anguish, these women and countless others have found love, strength and solidarity amongst one another in a support group birthed out of necessity. As the ones closest to the problem, it’s only right that they be closest to the solution.
Now, they and many others like them, fight the good fight to have a voice as they eagerly await the next steps in the marathon towards criminal justice reform.