By Andy Newman, Christina Goldbaum and Annie Correal - NY TIMES
From the depths of a federal jail on the Brooklyn waterfront, the sound reverberated: a polyrhythmic pounding like a hailstorm on the roof of a shed.
It was the sound of hundreds of men in freezing cells at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, a jail that was virtually without electricity and largely without heat for over a week. With the jail on partial lockdown, inmates were unable to use phones to call their loved ones, but their percussive banging could be clearly heard to those outside, and to the world beyond.
The inmates banged anything they could — shoes, their fists — against any surface they met: the walls and windows and bars of the jail that holds them.
Sunday morning, when protesters unfurled a long paper banner across the street from the jail that said “You are heard you are loved,” the inmates banged their approval.
When Catana Yehudah, whose brother Jason Smith is serving a gun possession sentence at the jail, led a chant through a megaphone — “No heat, that’s torture” — the inmates banged louder.
Ms. Yehudah, 50, called for quiet. “Stop banging for one second!” she yelled. The barrage subsided.
“If there is no heat,” she shouted, “bang on the windows!”
The inmates, nearly invisible behind the windows, pounded louder and louder, the fusillade filling the wide empty street.
Around 6:30 Sunday night, electricity was restored. But it was not clear if problems with the heating system, which are unrelated to the electrical failure, had been fully resolved. On Sunday afternoon, some of the jail had heat but many cells did not.
Prisoners banging out complaints is nothing new, of course. Every old prison movie has a scene where the inmates drag their tin cups along the bars to make a ruckus.
At the Metropolitan Detention Center itself, there is a long tradition of loved ones down on the street shining flashlights up at the prisoners in greeting, and prisoners responding by making noise or waving their own reading lights.
Vincent McCrudden, a former inmate at the jail, recalled how excited prisoners got to see people down below.
“They’re freezing in there,” said Mr. McCrudden, 57. “They’re stuck with their cellies. So it’s nice — it’s incredible — for them to know people are out there.”
But the pounding has taken on a new resonance since Friday when The Times revealed that most of the 1,600 inmates at the jail had been kept on lockdown in cells without electricity since a Jan. 27 electrical fire. When temperatures outside plummeted to 2 degrees, many cells were virtually without heat.
When Catana Yehudah, whose brother is serving a gun possession sentence at the Brooklyn federal jail, led a chant through a megaphone, the inmates banged louder. (Yana Paskova for The New York Times)
“The knocking is triggering, it has similarities to the sounds in slave ships, the sounds of solitary confinement,” said Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers of the protests that have run continuously since Saturday. “The knocking is a symbol of distress and a cry for attention.”
Sunday afternoon, hours before the power was restored, the protests outside the jail grew unruly. A woman, Yvonne Morilla, 51, followed by other demonstrators, walked up to the door crying, “That’s my son! You got to let me go!” With that, the protesters entered the building and tried to bypass the security checkpoint.
They were stopped by a line of correction officers inside the building who drove them back with shoves and, apparently, pepper spray. One woman fled the building, waving her hand in front of her face and coughing.
There were no immediate reports of arrests. Lawyers from the federal defenders’ New York office said that the pepper spray seeped into the visiting room where they were waiting to speak with clients, forcing them to leave the building. Federal prison officials did not respond to questions about whether pepper spray was used.
There has been unrest inside the detention center, too. People were injured in an altercation at the jail on Sunday, said a person who had been briefed on the situation but not authorized to speak publicly. The Fire Department confirmed that three people were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, but did not release additional details.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called on the federal Department of Justice to determine whether conditions at the jail violated the inmates’ civil rights.
“No one in New York should live in fear that they may freeze to death alone in the dark,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “These allegations are a violation of human decency and dignity. They also raise questions of potential violations of law.”
Federal Bureau of Prisons officials are due in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday for a hearing ordered by Judge Analisa Torres in response to what she called “disturbing living conditions.”
As protesters massed in front of the jail Sunday afternoon, a paper airplane fluttered down from the third floor and landed on the sidewalk.
There was a handwritten message on it: “Call my family tell my wife I’m O.K.,” with a telephone number.
After the power was restored, the inmates had one more way to signal their families outside. They flicked the lights on and off in their cells, as cheers erupted down below.
Lynette Griem got a call from her jailed husband, Tyquan Griem, about 10 minutes after the lights started to flutter.
“They just turned the lights back on. Everything is back on,” he said on speakerphone, which was held close to the megaphone for the crowd to hear. “You all did your job. I’ve got to thank you for real.”
His 2-year-old daughter, Malaya, perked up at the sound of her father’s voice echoing through the street.
“It feels amazing to hear his voice, to know he’s actually O.K., that he’s all right now,” Ms. Griem said.
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