In the midst of New York’s frigid weather last weekend, Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn, a pre-trial federal detention center for low-level offenders, lost power and heating. What started out as a small electrical fire in the jail’s control room escalated into a multi-day crisis with intense confrontations between government agencies and local protesters, capturing the nation’s attention.
The incident at MDC Brooklyn was not only unconstitutional, but also a clear violation of human rights. In light of this, what happened at MDC Brooklyn reinforces the need for more radical solutions to criminal justice reform, and in the context of this situation, the need for prison abolition. While this idea might seem extreme upon first glance, the overall goal of prison abolition is to foster a transformation in our mindset with regard to how we treat our incarcerated population.
This new way of thinking favors rehabilitation and restoration instead of punishment and retribution. Given this most recent event and the overwhelming evidence of the flaws in our justice system, it is clear that we need to rethink how we achieve justice in our society. Within this context, the idea of prison abolition becomes one that is both noble and necessary.
In attempting to understand how last weekend’s power outage occurred and went unnoticed, we can begin to see the failures of the justice system. While the spokesperson for the prison’s warden states that the incident began on Saturday, federal public defenders began receiving calls from prisoners with complaints as early as Thursday, contradicting that claim. Families and friends were denied entry and forced to wait outside the jail, as their loved ones could be heard yelling for help from inside, using small reading lights to capture people’s attention. Over the course of the incident, the government repeatedly misled the public about what was happening, and even assaulted protesters who attempted to enter the prison.
What makes matters worse is that, in spite of the crisis, the prison staff somehow managed to maintain their cruelty. First, they violated the constitutional rights of the prisoners to counsel, which has now resulted in a federal complaint on behalf of the prisoners by public defenders. Second, the Bureau of Prisons actually refused the aid offered by the city’s government officials as well as by private citizens. According to reports from those who toured the jail, despite accepting nearly 600 blankets, the prison staff didn’t actually hand them out. Keep in mind, temperatures reached as low as two degrees on Thursday, and most of the prison population are pre-trial offenders. In other words, citizens of this country who have not yet been convicted of a crime were incarcerated for days without basic necessities in extreme conditions. And while this is a glaringly obvious problem, the real issue is the absolute disregard with which the prison staff treated the prisoners and their lack of concern in alleviating their condition. Ultimately, it is this disposition of apathy and indifference that most accurately reflects the current attitudes of the administrators of the justice system.
Thankfully, the situation has been resolved — power and heat have been restored and the incarcerated have re-established contact with their attorneys and families. Aside from the immediate aftermath, many have wondered what happens next? Ultimately, the answer to this question is the goal of prison abolition, to provide a meaningful and substantive solution to the problem at hand.
When thinking about the incident at MDC Brooklyn, it’s important to understand it not as a one-time event, but as a flaw ingrained within the justice system. What happened this weekend wasn’t really the result of a small electrical fire, but rather the consistent dehumanization of the incarcerated population.
This dehumanization is most obviously seen through the reluctance of the prison staff to accept and distribute aid. They simply deemed their case unnecessary and treated these prisoners as if they were unworthy of even the smallest human comforts like warmth or light. This is the central problem of our justice system, as it is for any system that is concerned with punishing prisoners as opposed to reforming individuals.
Robbing the incarcerated of their humanity does more to reproduce crime than it ever will to solve it. If justice is to truly be achieved, our society and institutions must serve to encourage their humanity rather than strip it away. Conceptually, this is a difficult task, and while there are many different paths towards potential change, the first step must be to recognize that our current system is no longer viable. The business of forgiveness is extremely messy, but no one’s case deserves to be deemed unnecessary.
By its very existence, our humanity demands care and attention. The most vulnerable shouldn’t be punished for their vulnerability. Instead, we should devote particular care and attention to their cases, in the hopes that it strengths our humanity as a whole.
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Email Cole Stallone at [email protected]