Congressman José E. Serrano

Representing the 15th District of New York

Appropriations Chairs Write to Federal Bureau of Prisons About Living Conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn

Feb 6, 2019
Press Release
Full Committee Chair and Subcommittee Chair Have Budget Oversight Over the Federal Prison System, Demand Answers for Last Week’s Failures

Washington, DC – Representatives Nita Lowey, Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, and José E. Serrano, Chairman of the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, sent a letter today to the Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) expressing frustrations about the conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, and demanding more details about the Bureau of Prison’s policies related to repairs during emergencies, inmate and staff safety during weather emergencies, and whether these procedures were followed last week. This past Friday, news outlets reported widespread inmate protests at the MDC Brooklyn facility after it had been without heat, electricity, and running water for a week following an electrical fire.  New York City and the rest of the Northeast was experiencing single-digit winter temperatures when the disruption in HVAC, electric, and water services took place. The failure of critical electrical systems also left inmates and staff unable to communicate medical needs.

“We understand that heat, hot water and electricity have been restored at the MDC and that BOP is taking steps to assess and address the repairs and equipment necessary to repair damage and ensure such a situation is not repeated.  We also understand that the Department of Justice and BOP are investigating the causes of this situation and how it was handled, and how it can ensure MDC has backup systems in place to prevent the problem from recurring.  However, this incident raises significant concerns.  The Bureau of Prisons has a responsibility to ensure the care and safety of those employed at and incarcerated in its facilities, and we believe that the Bureau has failed to live up to those responsibilities in this case,” the members wrote, followed by a list of questions the seek clarification on BOP emergency policies and spending as the fiscal year 2020 appropriations process begins.

The full text of the letter is below.

February 5, 2019

Hugh J. Hurwitz

Acting Director

Federal Bureau of Prisons 
320 First St., NW 
Washington, DC 20534 

Dear Acting Director Hurwitz,

We write to express extreme frustration about the conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) Brooklyn.  We believe that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) can and should do more to ensure the health and safety of inmates and employees at its facilities in light of the funding that BOP receives from this committee.

On Friday, news reports first indicated that the MDC Brooklyn facility had been without heat, electricity, and running water for at least a week following what appeared to have been an electrical fire.  Under normal circumstances, the failure of such critical infrastructure would have been disturbing.  However, as you know, New York was undergoing unseasonably cold weather, with temperatures in the single digits.  As a result, the loss of critical HVAC and electrical systems within MDC Brooklyn led to low temperatures within the facility, and left inmates (and staff) in extremely cold conditions, and unable to communicate medical needs. 

We understand that heat, hot water and electricity have been restored at the MDC and that BOP is taking steps to assess and address the repairs and equipment necessary to repair damage and ensure such a situation is not repeated.  We also understand that the Department of Justice and BOP are investigating the causes of this situation and how it was handled, and how it can ensure MDC has backup systems in place to prevent the problem from recurring.  However, this incident raises significant concerns.  The Bureau of Prisons has a responsibility to ensure the care and safety of those employed at and incarcerated in its facilities, and we believe that the Bureau has failed to live up to those responsibilities in this case.

To better understand the needs at BOP facilities in New York and across the nation, we request answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the process for expedited repairs in emergencies?  How long does that process usually take?  Who is responsible for ensuring that critical services are restored in a timely manner?
  2. What is the process for ensuring inmate and staff safety during weather emergencies?  Were those procedures followed here?
  3. Were any expedited repair and safety procedures followed at the MDC Brooklyn facility?  If not, why not?
  4. For the last five years, please provide a list of all federal prison facilities in which a critical system failed (water, heat, HVAC), as well as the time it took to repair such systems.
  5. For the last five years, please provide a list of all facilities in which a critical system (water, heat, HVAC) failed during a heat advisory or extreme cold advisory.
  6. What is the procedure for evacuating a facility where inmate and staff safety cannot be assured?  Was that process considered in the case of MDC Brooklyn?
  7. How much funding currently remains in the Buildings and Facilities account?  If so, why was it not used to facilitate urgent repairs?

Our federal prison system should act as a model for our states and localities.  In this instance, there was a serious failure of oversight and responsibility.  We expect a more proactive and urgent response going forward to problems at MDC Brooklyn and any other BOP facility. As we begin the fiscal year 2020 appropriations process, we believe it is imperative to receive the information needed regarding these issues in a timely manner.  We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,