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‘Just Leave Them to Die’

The crisis at Brooklyn’s federal jail reveals how jails and prisons ‘are not prepared for a disaster.’

a protester holds a sign outside the Metropolitan Detention Center to protest conditions inside the jail.
A protester holds a sign outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. JB Nicholas

A crisis at a federal detention center in Brooklyn spotlights the failure of the federal government to include prisons and jails in the nation’s emergency planning, experts and advocates say.

“There seemed to be no emergency plan, and there seemed to be no plan to create a plan, just a matter of waiting,” New York City Council member Jumaane Williams said after being given a guided tour of the Metropolitan Detention Center-Brooklyn, six days after a Jan. 27 electrical fire knocked out power throughout the facility.

With 1,703 prisoners, MDC-Brooklyn is one of the largest federal jails in the country, sitting in a flood zone along the borough’s waterfront. The blackout plunged the jail into darkness, and paralyzed computer systems that are essential to maintaining humane conditions of confinement, including the provision of medical care and medication to detainees. The blackout also amplified allegations––from corrections officers and detainees––that the facility was not sufficiently heated.

The chaos mobilized prisoners’ families and hundreds of protesters, who laid siege to the crippled jail, surrounding it and chanting slogans such as “No Heat! No Peace.” Prisoners responded by banging on the windows of their cells, joining the protest outside. It took more than a week for federal officials to fully restore heat and light to jail.

When it was all over, however, protesters had clashed with guards inside the jail’s lobby. Deirdre von Dornum, the chief federal public defender in Brooklyn, accused Warden Herman Quay of lying. Brooklyn’s federal judges––all of them––held a joint meeting to decide what to do. The Department of Justice launched an investigation into the federal Bureau of Prisons’ handling of the fiasco, including “whether BOP has in place adequate contingency plans.”

The bureau itself promised to “review the emergency response and contingency planning for this type of incident.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, told The Appeal on Feb. 10 that she, too, is requesting a review of the bureau’s emergency preparedness. The audit she’s asking for would be conducted by the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency whose website describes itself as a “watchdog.” It would also examine how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and states prepare for emergencies that affect prisons and jails.

“Recent natural disasters highlight the need to examine the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) and selected states’ emergency preparedness efforts,” Duckworth wrote in her audit request.

A crisis like the one that happened at MDC-Brooklyn “can happen anywhere, at any time,” according to Melissa A. Surette, an emergency management professional. Her 2014 doctoral thesis, “Prisons and Disasters,” first detailed what she said was the failure of Congress and federal policymakers to include prisons and jails in nationwide emergency planning.

“There are almost 7,000 prisons and jails in the United States, but there is no national directive to develop emergency plans that include them. Some facilities do have a plan, but most don’t have a plan that staff know and have tested,” Surette told The Appeal.

Prisoners have been repeatedly subjected to inhumane living conditions during clearly foreseeable disasters, said William Omorogieva, a researcher at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the author of “Prison Preparedness and Legal Obligations to Protect Prisoners During Natural Disasters.”

Citing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Ike in 2008, as well as Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, Omorogieva described how the lack of preparation created brutal conditions. “Prisoners were forced to live for days without adequate food or water, medical care, electricity, air conditioning, or contact with their loved ones. They were forced to live in flooded cells, overcrowded cells, and cells full of human feces, because plumbing wasn’t functional.”

“This is absolutely a national problem,” Surette said. “You can look at federal facilities, state, county, local. It’s not specific to a location, or type of institution.”

David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, agreed. “In disaster planning as in everything else prisoners are an afterthought, if they are thought about at all. Prisons and jails nationwide are not prepared for a disaster.”

Roughly 2.3 million people are incarcerated in almost 7,000 state and federal prisons and local jails across America, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution requires the government to take responsibility for the well-being of the people it incarcerates.

“When the State takes someone into custody, the State has to provide for him the things he can no longer provide himself,” Fathi explained. “That means the basic conditions of health, and safety, and human dignity, including food, water, clothing, shelter, light, ventilation, sanitation, safety, access to the courts and medical care.”

The right to safe and humane conditions of confinement is “all but absolute,” Fathi said. “It cannot be taken away under any circumstances, even in an emergency or disaster.”

Even the prison officials whom Fathi sometimes sues agree.

Move all of the prisoners to the roof, and if they start to act out, shoot one, and throw his body off the roof, the rest will then behave.

Anonymous federal official interviewed by Melissa Surette

“Jails have custody of human beings whose lives have value. Jails have a moral obligation to care for those people who are totally dependent on them. That’s part of the fundamental obligations of a jail,” said Martin Horn, a former Pennsylvania prison chief, a former New York City Department of Corrections commissioner and a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

When it comes to natural disasters such as hurricanes and other foreseeable emergencies, Horn said, “Every jail or prison must take reasonable and prudent precautions, and have plans for dealing with everything from a fire evacuation to a plan for a hurricane to a plan for a work stoppage among corrections officers.”

Sound emergency planning includes several elements, according to the National Institute of Corrections. Besides security emergencies and tactical plans, it should address natural disasters and other catastrophes, such as mass medical emergencies. The plan should also establish a clear chain of command and be consistent with overall policy.

The plan should be checklist-driven, with its basic mechanisms applicable to other institutions in the system, but tailored to the specific institution at issue. The plan should include a plan for training on and practicing the different plans. Finally, it should “include detailed policies, procedures, and resources for dealing with the aftermath,” the National Institute of Corrections says.

As essential as robust emergency planning is for prisons, official data on actual prison emergency planning are scarce, except for a self-reported survey conducted in 2002-03 by the National Institute of Corrections. The survey queried the federal Bureau of Prisons and the departments of corrections in all 50 states. Of the 51 prison systems, 41 agreed to participate but only 34 returned completed questionnaires.

Out of the 34, three had no emergency plan at all.

While 31 said they had a plan on paper, only 28 claimed to have the necessary infrastructure to carry out the plans. Some prisons had general plans, while others had plans specific to particular emergencies but not others. Most of the specific plans dealt with fire and security breaches––only 18 departments said they had specific plans for dealing with natural disasters.

A decade later, Surette, the emergency management expert, surveyed prison officials about their emergency planning for her thesis.

“This was a question many didn’t want to answer,” she said. “Some said they have a plan, but it’s locked up in a box and nobody has access to it. Other people said we have a plan on paper, but we don’t know what it entails.”

Then there was the anonymous federal official involved in the response to Hurricane Katrina, quoted in Surrette’s thesis saying point-blank: “Move all of the prisoners to the roof, and if they start to act out, shoot one, and throw his body off the roof, the rest will then behave.”

Another official told Surette, “Just leave them to die.”

Being left to die in a flooded New Orleans jail wasn’t the worst part of Hurricane Katrina, it was being left among the living in a fenced-in football field after being “rescued,” said Paul W. Kunkel Jr.

“It was a special kind of hell,” Kunkel said. “It was like a concentration camp.”

Kunkel was a teacher from Toledo, Ohio, at the end of weeklong road trip with a childhood friend. They had been busted on Bourbon Street for public intoxication and were in separate cells in the city jail when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Kunkel said that when the water rose inside the jail, corrections officers locked him and four other men in a cell built for two and vanished.  

“They left us to die,” Kunkel said. “I was locked in there for three-and-a-half days without foot, water, toilet. Because the guards had abandoned the jail.

“After we thought we were gonna die, they came in and they cut the bars open.”

Kunkel waded through chest-high water to get outside and into one of the boats used to rescue detainees, he told The Appeal. From the jail, Kunkel was bused to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and placed in a fenced-in field with up to 4,000 other prisoners, according to the civil rights lawsuit he filed in 2006. Kunkel was held in that field for five days before being taken to another prison.

Each prisoner was given one blanket. There was no shade or shelter. There were no bathrooms.

Corrections officers stood outside the yard, throwing peanut butter sandwiches over the fence. “Whoever could grab it, they could grab it,” Kunkel said.

Some evacuees were beaten and slashed. Others were raped. The violence “was rampant and went unchecked by correctional officers,” according to a report by the ACLU.

Kunkel spent 38 days behind bars before being released; his friend spent 40. Charges against both were dismissed. A federal jury found that their constitutional rights were violated and awarded damages, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the award and threw out most of their lawsuit. Kunkel said he received $1,000.

Federal legislation enacted after Hurricane Katrina codifies into federal law that prisoners’ lives aren’t a priority. The legislation, called the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, requires the inclusion of disabled people and even house pets in federal emergency planning, but not prisoners.

“We should want to protect prisoners no different than we want to protect pets,” Surette said.

The Department of Homeland Security, which has overall responsibility for national emergency preparedness, did not respond to a request for comment, but FEMA did.

“Emergency management planning is the responsibility of states and local jurisdictions,” FEMA spokesperson Michael Hart wrote in an email. “Comprehensive Preparedness Guide 101 encourages emergency management planners to engage the whole community in their planning efforts, which would account for including prison populations and those with household pets.

“FEMA considers it vital to care for all populations during an emergency,” he wrote.

Kunkel is retired and lives in Nevada. Now 57, he called including pets but not prisoners in federal disaster planning “disturbing,” adding, “They didn’t seem to care.”

Cynthia Myers is Kunkel’s wife. She was his girlfriend in 2005, when he disappeared. It took her 30 days just to find out whether he was alive and another 10 to free him.

“What happened to Paul was horrific,” Myers said. “He still suffers post-traumatic stress from it.”

“Honestly, it was a nightmare,” Myers said. “It’s still a nightmare when I think of it.”