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Lawsuit: Power failure at New York federal jail a humanitarian crisis

NEW YORK  — A power failure at a federal detention center in New York City spawned a humanitarian crisis worsened by authorities' response as guards wearing scarves and layers of clothing policed inmates who coped with "very cold" conditions in short-sleeve shirts and light pants, a lawsuit charged Monday.

The lawsuit filed in Brooklyn federal court by the Federal Defenders of New York cited numerous disruptions caused by the outage that resulted from a Jan. 27 fire at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

Defense lawyers have not been able to visit inmates who were reporting little or no heat, little or no hot water, minimal electricity, near total lack of access to some medical services, or access to telephones, televisions, computers, laundry or commissary, it said.

Inmates also reported smelling noxious fumes and seeing prison officers wearing masks even though none were supplied to inmates, the lawsuit said.

The Justice Department said that power was restored around 6:30 p.m. Sunday and that it was working to prevent future problems.

A message was left with the U.S. Justice Department seeking comment on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Warden Herman Quay.

Authorities violated the constitutional rights of over 1,600 inmates by denying legal visits, the lawsuit alleges. Protesters gathered outside after news reports that inmates had largely been without heat or power for a week.

The power failure caused "inhumane" conditions for inmates, and the response was "woefully inadequate" as authorities were slow to acknowledge the problem and failed to take adequate steps to obtain temporary supplies of electricity or heat and to repair damage, the lawsuit said.

It called for the appointment of a special master to inspect the lockup and unspecified damages.

The lawsuit also accused the federal government of making misleading statements to the public and courts about conditions inmates faced.

And it said prison officials were largely unresponsive when lawyers sought information about "troubling reports" by inmates.

An upbeat report from the warden about the conditions for inmates was belied by what Deirdre von Dornum, attorney-in-chief of the federal defenders office, saw when she toured the facility Friday, the lawsuit said.

She found the facility to be "very cold," according to the lawsuit, learned some inmates received only cold food for days after the fire, and observed guards in warm clothing while many inmates were in short-sleeve shirts and light cotton pants.

She also saw that lighting outages left some cells in the dark and encountered inmates who reported untreated serious medical conditions and said they had not received clean clothing or bedding since the fire, forcing one inmate to sleep on bloody bedding, the lawsuit said.

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