What the Polar Vortex Has Done to New York City's Jails

After one of the coldest weeks in nearly thirty years, various parts of the United States have gone without power and essential resources like food and water. Many of the areas consist of state or city-run jails. One of which is the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, a prison situated near Park Slope.

The Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center houses over 1,600 inmates, a relatively large prison in comparison to others in the state. After the cold front that devastated nearly the entire U.S., inmates at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center were without heat for over a week. Although this may not seem as bad as it sounds, because of the polar vortex that has affected nearly our entire nation, these inmates were left for frostbite in temperatures reaching 4 degrees Fahrenheit in New York City. The polar vortex was a mix of low air pressure and wind that when mixed to together creates a fast-spreading frost.

This was considered a humanitarian crisis after prisoners were heard screaming and banging on the walls in order to gain attention from outsiders. The reason for this outburst is, the prisoners were left inside jail without the basic necessity of hot water, heating, hot food, or light. The temperatures in many states reaching record lows. In Illinois alone, there were at least five deaths due to the cold weather.

Much attention was brought to this issue after a protest with loudspeakers was held to address the lack of basic needs the government has provided for these prisoners. Many people who had friends or family in jail were major advocates for the lawsuit. This lawsuit, later on, became a judge inspecting the jail after the week-long period the inmates froze for. A section of the Eighth Amendment states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This amendment prohibits prisons from imposing harsh penalties upon their inmates. Freezing prisoners fall under the category of the Eighth Amendment, leaving the prison under the scrutiny of both the law and the public’s eye. As the protesters walked by the jail, promoting the lawsuit, they yelled: “Move them out!” This encouraged the inmates inside the jail to tell protesters what types of conditions they were in.

When students at City and Country heard about the vile conditions these inmates were in, they responded with disgust.

Hanna Kenyatta, XIIIs, said “I don’t think that it is fair that the government would leave these prisoners to freeze in single digit weather… Even though these people have committed crimes, they are people too. No person should be treated like this.”

“Where have the government’s morals gone?” said Felix Gaddie after hearing about the situation in the Brooklyn Detention Center. What Felix meant by the “government’s morals” was that he was questioning Felix believed that no matter the circumstance, the government was accountable for each and every one of their citizens. Along with this, Felix thought that any good person would never let anyone, innocent or not, live in a completely frozen state. To add to his point Felix said, “This is cruelty. The government is responsible for catering to everyone’s needs.” This refers back to the Eighth Amendment where it is stated that the government is prohibited from promoting harsh punishments. This case in fact, has been debated that the people who run the jail, have violated this amendment.

Cade Stow, XIIIs, believed that “it couldn’t have been prevented.” Cade said that the reason for this is that the prison system in the U.S. is very corrupt and that unfortunate events like this occur constantly mostly due to a lack of money going toward prisons. This type of response was very similar to the other responses this question received. Students believed that no one, not even someone who has committed a crime, should have to suffer days on end without the crucial element of heat.

Although it is difficult for the government to provide resources during certain situations such as this cold front, it is no excuse that they left people to freeze in below freezing temperatures. As many students and others have said, I would agree that it is inhumane to not provide the basic need of heat. It was clearly expressed that this action from the government was unacceptable and should be prevented if a situation like the past cold front happens again.

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