Arrest Wardens to Stop Cruel and Unusual Punishment

By Chandra Bozelko

February 15, 2019 5 min read

"Sick and frantic" was how inmates at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn were described as they lived without heat or light for several days at the beginning of February, during one of the most brutal cold snaps in history. The New York Times reported that inmate living quarters were colder than 34 degrees.

Even with a complaint by public defenders on Thursday, intervention by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., on Friday, and blankets dispatched by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Saturday, the heat wasn't back on until Monday, Feb. 4.

If anyone did this to a dog, they'd be arrested.

All 50 states have statutes that prohibit abuse of animals. Twenty-eight of them, including New York, have criminalized leaving dogs in extreme heat. In 2017, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed Libre's Law, a statute that criminalized leaving a dog tied up in the cold.

There's no corresponding law for people because it's self-evident that keeping a human being in extreme temperatures, particularly ones that can be fatal, is a human rights violation.

Yet despite how obvious is this imperative, the same deadly temperature extremes develop every summer and every winter in prisons. And rather than take action to prevent this, we perfect futility with investigation after investigation into "what happened."

Velazquez announced another inquiry on Wednesday to into how "the incident (at MDC) impacted prisoner's well-being and if jail officials did enough to try and solve the problem," as if the answer isn't clear: Inmates were frozen and no one inside the facility did anything about it.

It's not an investigation we need; we need consequences for the people who are responsible for creating these conditions or for allowing them to persist. The systematic temperature abuse of the 1,600 people in MDC Warden Herman Quay's charge should be sufficient to have him arrested as if he did this to a dog. At the very least, wardens who simulate Arctic conditions in their facilities should be removed from their posts. But they never are.

It's not as if mistreating people in custody isn't prohibited. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution forbids human rights violations of persons in government custody. Under the Constitution, inmates can sue their jailers on the grounds that they're victims of cruel and unusual punishment.

Yet history tells us that legal or administrative complaints take too long and achieve too little.

One lawsuit alleging extreme heat conditions in Texas during the summer of 2008 — a season that killed 10 inmates — was dismissed before it was even tried. The plaintiff, Eugene Blackmon, had to endure three more summers only to be denied relief.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Blackmon's case and he eventually settled it for $8,000, but complaints of extreme conditions continue in that same prison today — alongside denials of that anything's wrong. Even after the deaths and the payouts, no one's been fired or arrested, and Texas prison officials say they still don't take the temperatures inside their facilities.

The more immediate problem-solving process for inmates — the federal prison grievance procedure — is so wrought with loopholes that it's not a viable option to restore humane conditions.

Wardens are supposed to reply to written complaints in three days but they can legally take as many as 90 days, roughly the length of a season. And, by then, the passage of time dissolves the conditions, albeit until the next annual stretch of extremes.

Of course, it's not an ideal plan to arrest our way out of systemic human rights abuses; the inhumanity at the Brooklyn prison shows the harm of purely retributive processes.

But if legislatures have spoken and said that anyone who subjects animals to extreme and torturous conditions should be arrested, then that type of accountability should apply here, too, lest we admit that we think prisoners are not only subhuman but subanimal.

Courts and administrators can't or won't fix these temperature extremes in time to help prisoners. We need to prevent these conditions from developing in the first place. Focusing on accountability for wardens looks like the only option to keep thousands of people from being subjected to conditions that are cruel, but not unusual enough.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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