How ‘the evil of banality’ may have enabled a humanitarian crisis at a Brooklyn jail
Over the weekend, New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie toured a jail. In one cell, he saw an asthmatic man who needed a nebulizer lying on the floor of a poorly ventilated cell, trying to suck air through the gap under the door. “As they took us inside, I saw a young man on the floor, holding a bright red inhaler, and he was saying through tears that he doesn’t know if he’s going to wake up tomorrow,” Myrie said. “I grew up using a nebulizer, so I know what it’s like to need it and not have it.” The jail was in the United States, in Brooklyn, and is the federal jail known as the Metropolitan Detention Center, or MDC. The warden, who works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Herman Quay, was standing next to Myrie during the tour. According to Myrie, Quay was unmoved. “There was no sense of urgency,” Myrie said. New York City Council Member Brad Lander, who also toured the facility, said the prison’s facilities manager was “openly contemptuous” of his concern about conditions. [Nick Pinto / The Intercept]
The MDC houses over 1,600 federal prisoners, most of whom are pretrial detainees. Power first went out at the jail a month ago, and serious heating issues began the week before last. On Jan. 27, an electrical fire knocked out primary power to the jail. As temperatures plummeted last week, the jail’s residents were kept in freezing cells and pitch black. [Nick Pinto / The Intercept] Prisoners were put on lockdown, forced “to remain in their cells without reliable heat, lights, hot food or showers for the better part of a week, a week of freezing temperatures,” according to a scathing editorial by the New York Times. All communication with family and attorneys was cut off. [Editorial Board / New York Times] But some prisoners used a dedicated phone line that connects to federal defenders’ offices to report the conditions. Federal defenders said they were flooded with calls as temperatures began to drop. “Our phone was ringing off the hook,” said the lead federal defender in Brooklyn, Deirdre von Dornum. A paralegal said, “People are frantic. They’re really, really scared. They don’t have extra blankets. They don’t have access to the commissary to buy an extra sweatshirt.” [Annie Correal / New York Times]
The Bureau of Prisons denied all requests for federal defense attorneys and others to enter, but after a judge issued an order, von Dornum was allowed inside. “When I first entered the West Building, I immediately felt the cold,” she wrote shortly afterward in a memo. “The COs [corrections officers] at the lobby desk were wearing multiple layers including scarves wrapped around their heads. Pitch black in cells. Too dark to see medication labels or food given to eat. No ability to make medical requests through the computer system. [Those] who had not previously purchased additional clothes from commissary were wearing only short-sleeved shirt and light cotton pants.” One prisoner “reported that ceiling is leaking over his bed (top bunk) and his sheets are wet, and now getting frozen. He has no other place to sleep.” Another “has Sickle Cell anemia and has not received medical care… Is cold and scared.” Another was “wrapped in towels and blankets. Having trouble breathing [and felt] his mental health degrading from sitting in cell in dark for a week.” Von Dornum later told the Daily Appeal, “One of the most harrowing aspects of my visit to the MDC on February 1, 2019, was seeing assistant warden King roll her eyes as inmates showed open wounds, described their need for psychiatric medications, and begged for light and heat.” Yesterday, the Federal Defenders of New York filed a lawsuit against the federal prison system and the warden.
I went to the MDC on Saturday, and when I approached the building, I heard a sharp clatter from above. Some people locked inside had seen me, and were communicating in the only way available, by knocking on the windows. I couldn’t see them, but I raised my hands to show that I could hear them, and tried to imagine their desperation. I felt sick. I spoke to people protesting outside, including one mother who could barely get out a sentence without crying. She said her son was inside. “If I’m cold out here in a coat and a hat, what is he feeling in there?”
After a few hours there, I went to an event called “A Night of Philosophy and Ideas,” thinking I might be able to turn my attention elsewhere. But it stuck with me. How could people who are responsible for the care and well-being of others become so numb to their pain? What were they thinking? Maybe nothing, I learned. “People who are not thinking are capable of anything,” philosopher Elizabeth Minnich said at the event. Minnich was a student of Hannah Arendt and the author of the 2016 book “The Evil of Banality.” “When we become enclosed in any kind of certainty, we are deadened and can become deadly.” Extensive evils, unlike brief acts of monstrosity, she explained, “involve perversions of whole systems; they are normalized; they persist over time; and most of all, they require vast numbers of people to do their difficult work through that time—day after day after day.” These people might be otherwise decent, she said.
But the good news, Minnich told us, was that extensive evils “depend on us, and normal people can stop them.” And this is precisely what some have started to do in the face of inhuman conditions like those at MDC. Just as every small act of degradation toward incarcerated people set the stage for this calamity, so, too, can acts of humanity turn the tide. In 2016, after the National Association of Women Judges found that women held at MDC were subjected to abysmal conditions, including no air conditioning during a heatwave, rotten food, and insufficient medical care, a magistrate judge refused to send a woman there until she was assured that the “unconscionable” conditions were fixed. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak said, “I need to consider the conditions of confinement as part of my judicial responsibility.” [John Marzulli / New York Daily News] This is an option available to judges and prosecutors across the country, every day.