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Power restored after protests held outside NYC correctional facility with limited heat

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This undated image shows the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Google Maps

Officials say power has been restored Sunday night at a federal detention center in New York City where inmates had been reportedly living without heat and electricity for the past week. The Bureau of Prisons said power at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn was restored about 6:30 p.m. and staff were working to restore the facility to normal operations.

The U.S. Department of Justice said Sunday it will work with the Bureau of Prisons to probe what happened there.

"In the coming days, the Department will work with the Bureau of Prisons to examine what happened and ensure the facility has the power, heat and backup systems in place to prevent the problem from re-occurring," said Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of public affairs for the Justice Department.

On Saturday, a tense rally was held there following news reports that hundreds of inmates there have spent the past week largely without power or the ability to communicate with their attorneys or families. Outdoor temperatures had been well below freezing last week, though Sunday was warmer.

A group at the rally had vowed to camp outside the facility until conditions improve, CBS New York reports. Video posted to social media showed protesters shining flashlights on the dark correctional facility.

Earlier Sunday, some demonstrators attempted to enter the facility, and witnesses said guards drove them back with pushes, shoves and pepper spray. A reporter and photographer for The Associated Press were at the facility when a woman, whose son is being detained, tried to get into the jail.

On Sunday, an inmate was able to call through the window of his cell, which faces out to the street, to his mother below. The woman, Yvonne Murchison, was crying and upset and tried to get into the facility, where visits have been stopped.

"I'd trade places with him any day, that's my child," she said.

The jail administration did not return an email seeking comment on the clash Sunday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an investigation of the circumstances of the loss of heat and electricity by the federal Department of Justice, saying the situation was "a violation of human decency and dignity" and also raises "questions of potential violations of law."

The Democrat said he wanted answers, and those responsible held accountable.

"Prisoners in New York are human beings," Cuomo said. "Let's treat them that way."

The New York Civil Liberties Union released a statement Sunday calling on the Bureau of Prisons to "ensure that no detainee be subjected to retaliation for peacefully protesting."

"Today's confrontation between the Bureau of Prisons and family members of people jailed at MDC highlights the desperate need to address the dangerous, inhumane and unlawful conditions inside the facility," NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said. 

"Appalling situation" at the Metropolitan Detention Center

A congresswoman who visited the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for the second time Saturday said officials were not taking the situation seriously enough.

"The inmates are very, very angry and complaining," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat whose district includes the jail. "We expressed our frustration that the warden is not approaching this with a sense of urgency.

Velazquez first visited the jail Friday after seeing news reports that hundreds of inmates there have spent the past week largely without heat, power or the ability to communicate with their attorneys or families.

After being denied access to inmates Friday, Velazquez returned Saturday with fellow Democratic Congress members Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney as well as city and state lawmakers, and this time the elected officials spoke with inmates.

"After visiting MDC again today it is clear the officials there have disregarded the basic human rights of inmates. This appalling situation needs to be fixed and I will continue pressuring BOP for immediate action," Velazquez tweeted Saturday.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who represents the district, tweeted that the Bureau of Prisons had "gave us incoherent explanations and showed no sense of urgency, and little desire to address the crisis at hand."

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who represents parts of Queens and also visited the facility, tweeted the facility did not "activate a command center."

The New York Times first reported Friday inmates at the detention center had been stuck in their cells without lights or heat since last weekend when an electrical fire knocked power out. Lawyers who had been able to speak with their clients at the jail said some inmates were suffering health consequences from the lack of heat.

The Bureau of Prisons acknowledged in an emailed statement Saturday the jail "experienced a partial power outage due to a fire in the switchgear room." The bureau said a new electrical panel is being installed by an outside contractor and work is expected to be completed by Monday.

The bureau said air temperatures in the units "were within acceptable ranges" Saturday.

Velazquez disagreed. She said lawmakers measured the temperature as low as 49 degrees in some cells. "The heat is sporadic and it's uneven," she said.

Lawyers for inmates at the facility, which houses people awaiting trial or awaiting sentencing on federal crimes, have said that clients with health problems have been suffering in cold cells without access to warm clothes or blankets.

Lawyers with the Federal Defenders filed a motion Thursday in Brooklyn federal court on behalf of inmate Dino Sanchez asserting that Sanchez, who suffers from asthma, "has been left to freeze in his short-sleeved jumpsuit in the dark." The court papers say jail officials have taken no steps to provide Sanchez with "an oxygen mask, clothing, blankets, or access to a habitable location that will mitigate his health risks."

Velazquez said she heard similar complaints from inmates Saturday.

"It's a violation of human rights and also it's a matter of health issues, but also compromising the safety and security of correction officers," Velazquez said. "People are angry and they're going to express that in any way they can."

In addition to affecting the heat, the outage has knocked out power to the computers that inmates use to email their families and attorneys and to request refills of prescription medications. Some inmates have been able to talk to lawyers with the Federal Defenders on a dedicated line, but inmates represented by other lawyers haven't been able to call them.

"I need to find out what's going on with my clients," lawyer Ezra Spilke said Friday. "They've basically been incommunicado from their attorneys since the 27th, which is when the electrical fire happened."

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents corrections officers at the jail, have confirmed the lawyers' accounts of the jail conditions.

"They're just waiting for a disaster to happen," jail employee Rhonda Barnwell, who works in the facility's medical station, told reporters Friday. "There's only heat in the afternoons since we've been complaining today."

Velazquez first visited the jail Friday and was not allowed to speak with inmates, although she heard them. "The inmates were banging on the walls, the doors," she said. "It was surreal."

The conditions at the jail drew condemnation from human rights advocates.

"This is worse than countries that we denounce," the Rev. Al Sharpton said at his weekly rally. "This is disgraceful and inexcusable."

"It is shocking that the government would hold people for days on end in a dark, freezing jail during one of the coldest weeks in memory," Lieberman had said earlier.