Prison Reform: The Heat is on to Turn the Heat ON


Photo by Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

On January 27, 2019, as folks across the country burrowed in for record-breaking low temperatures, the heat and electricity at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn went out. A federal detention center run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, Brooklyn’s MDC is home to about 1,600 detainees at any time. For the most part, these are men and women who have been charged with—but not convicted of—a federal crime. In this country, that means that these are individuals who are presumed innocent.  Yet for over a week, as temperatures fell into the single digits, they were locked in a facility with no heat and no power.

Human rights violations—and make no mistake, this was a violation of the human rights of the detainees at the facility—are routine in jails and prisons across the country. But this particular incident resulted in days-long protests outside the facility and garnered national attention.  

The New York Times concluded that the week-long debacle was the result of “a culture of cruelty over inefficiency, of hostility over neglect.” But that kind of “culture” can be found at local jails and state and federal prisons across the country.  The question is why this time? Why did folks leave the comfort and warmth of their own homes to protest and show solidarity with the folks locked inside?  When this same facility came under scrutiny as a result of a number of allegations of sexual misconduct by guards against female detainees, the outrage felt did not spill out into the streets.  

One can only hope that recent high-profile lawsuits, protests, and media attention to our carceral state are bringing these issues out of the shadows and into center stage. On any given day, more than 2 million people are housed in American prisons and jails—some having been convicted of crimes, some merely having been accused.  And the victims of our prison-industrial complex are often drawn from already marginalized sub-populations including racial and sexual minorities and the poor.

As the nation finds itself in the grips of an “opioid epidemic,” increasingly critical views of the “War on Drugs” of the 1980s and 1990s are emerging. In 1992, Tupac Shakur noted that “instead of a war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”  Now, nearly more than twenty-five years late, similar criticisms are being made by previously unimaginable sources. Finally, no discussion of the war on drugs is complete without a discussion of the prison-industrial complex (and vice versa).

We certainly haven’t turned the page on this dark period of American history—the majority has not embraced a new or different view of what criminal justice could be and arguably should be. But I salute every person who took action—whether standing outside the MDC or making phone calls and writing letters to responsible officials or even just posting a story about the situation on their social medical account—because these are the first steps.  The first very important steps. The more we can draw attention to the human rights violations, the more we can engage in meaningful dialogue about whether this is the kind of society we want or if we can do better.


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