A government ethics watchdog group sued the Justice Department on Tuesday to obtain records related to the inhumane conditions that inmates at a federal detention center in Brooklyn were subjected to during the so-called polar vortex earlier this year.
American Oversight, a nonpartisan organization, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., after the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons allegedly failed to comply with time-limit provisions of the group’s public records request.
In its lawsuit, American Oversight contends that they submitted four requests under the Freedom of Information Act in late February seeking information on how agency officials responded to the frigid temperatures at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn a few weeks earlier.
MDC Brooklyn made headlines in late January and early February when videos of detainees begging for help through their windows during a period of extremely cold weather went viral.
A partial power outage at the detention center on Jan. 27 plunged parts of the facility into total darkness. Inmates were reportedly locked in their cells for days as temperatures inside dipped to near freezing. Power wasn’t restored until a week later.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Prisoners at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility in Brooklyn, respond to family members and people protesting the prison conditions in February.
American Oversight requested records of communication between Justice Department officials and their staff regarding the severe conditions at the detention center as well as records of complaints filed by detainees.
Under federal law, agencies must respond to FOIA requests with either the requested documents or a determination of which documents they will be producing or withholding within 20 business days (or 30 business days if the agency cites “unusual circumstances”).
In this case, the DOJ and BOP have not produced or even identified any documents that they plan to produce after roughly 100 business days, a spokesperson for American Oversight told HuffPost.
“These tragic stories that we see time and time again from the Trump administration have real people at the heart of them,” Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, told HuffPost. “Through their emails and correspondence, we can see how [senior officials] reacted, whether they were callous or compassionate, whether they moved heaven and earth to respond to a real crisis.”
“The public has a right to these documents,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any question that the events that we’re trying to learn more about were dramatic and problematic and are probably not something that the Trump administration would like to talk about.”
Neither the DOJ nor the BOP immediately responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
The abhorrent conditions at MDC Brooklyn last winter prompted outcry across the country, with activists and community leaders showing up outside to protest.
No one should ever be subject to such cruel conditions, especially at the hands of our government. Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said during a public briefing on the incident in February that he suspected the jail’s heating system was never adequate and that officials had failed to act with urgency or compassion ahead of and during the cold weather crisis.
The incident sparked an ongoing investigation by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General, but criminal justice advocates say that’s not enough.
“I have no confidence that they’re going to do the kind of searching inquiry that’s necessary here to make real and lasting change,” David Patton, executive director of Federal Defenders of New York, told HuffPost in February.
Evers described the inspector general’s investigation as “an important tool for the public to have faith in the institutions,” but said calls for accountability must be amplified by Congress, the media and outside watchdog groups like his own.
His group has also filed lawsuits against the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection for records related to the treatment of migrant detainees.
“The way we treat our most vulnerable populations is reflective of our values,” Evers said in a press release announcing the DOJ lawsuit Tuesday. “No one should ever be subject to such cruel conditions, especially at the hands of our government. We need to know how the Trump administration and prison officials handled this disastrous situation.”
RELATED COVERAGE MDC Brooklyn Has Long Been A Frigid Hellhole. The Polar Vortex Just Made It Worse. Download REAL LIFE. REAL NEWS. REAL VOICES. Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard. Join HuffPost Plus