Power outage hits FCI Ray Brook
Union president says lights, alarms were down for 14 hours
RAY BROOK — On Tuesday night, when National Grid switched power off for a planned outage for transmission line upgrades, the Federal Corrections Institution at Ray Brook went dark.
The power was completely out from 7 p.m. on Tuesday night to 9 a.m. on Wednesday, according to Darrell Pilon, the president of AFGE Local 3882, the union representing FCI Ray Brook’s corrections officers.
“There was nothing,” he said — no lights, no electricity and no phones. “Staff couldn’t call in or out.”
For 14 hours, the prison’s alarm system for doors and fences, its camera system and its phone system were all down, he said.
“Those fence alarms are everything to us,” said Brian Eggleston, a corrections officer at the prison.
COs got around with flashlights and inmates had no sources of light. Pilon said it created an “eerie effect.”
Staff couldn’t charge their radios. Pilon said their batteries typically last 16 hours and they had extras.
Because the outage had been planned, Pilon said inmates were locked in their cells. Every cell has a window, he said, but there wasn’t much moonlight that night.
“It was just as dark for them as everyone else,” Pilon said. “But they don’t have flashlights.”
“We didn’t even have emergency lights in the units,” Eggleston said. “Its black, black, black. You can’t see anything.”
Pilon said this could have been avoided.
When power goes out at the prison, its system is supposed to transfer over to an emergency generator. That transfer switch is not operational, Pilon said. When National Grid switched the power back on it “fried electronic components of the generator.”
“They have to manually transfer it, which is extremely dangerous,” Pilon said.
The electricians at the prison are qualified to work on up to 600 volts, he said. This transfer involved them working with 13,200 volts.
Pilon said an electrician flew in from California to try to repair it, but was not successful.
Instead, the prison used a generator that could be pulled behind a tractor trailer. It costs $13,000 a week to keep it there, even if it’s not used, Pilon said. If it’s used, it costs $22,000 every 40 hours, he said.
He said grid power had been restored by Thursday evening. Pilon said the generator transfer system is 18 years old.
Pilon said the BOP has known FCI Ray Brook’s generator transfer system has been faulty for months.
On April 19, he said a snowstorm knocked out power at the prison for 10 minutes. That’s when he learned about the faulty transfer switch. He said he put in a grievance, citing staff safety, and asked for funding to fix it. It would cost around $300,000 to fix. Pilon said the BOP’s northeast region office confirmed the prison needs the money for the upgrade but said
they wouldn’t be getting the funding.
The prison has around $6 million in outstanding “IOUs” from the BOP, Pilon said. He’s not optimistic that the BOP will pay for new generator equipment.
“Even right now. The power goes out tomorrow, unexpected. If it’s off-shift, you’re waiting roughly an hour,” Pilon said.
He said prison workers would have to contact one of the two people who could transfer power — both of whom live an hour away — to manually switch the power to the generator.
“It puts everyone at risk, not only staff, but inmates and visitors,” Pilon said.
Pilon said in April he was in the kitchen with 20 inmates when the power went out. It was tense, he said.
North Elba town Supervisor Derek Doty said Tuesday night’s scheduled power outage wasn’t supposed to include the North Elba/Ray Brook area. He said the outage was “only (for) the people within the municipal power circuit for the village.”
Kimball Daby, the village’s Electrical Department Superintendent, thought that FCI’s power was sourced through National Grid, which led maintenance during the scheduled outage. Neither Daby nor Doty had heard about the generator failure at the prison.
Doty was aware that the prison’s phones were down as a result of the power outage because local officials had been trying to contact the prison about signs that were put up on Sunday by Pilon’s union. The signs, which were removed Thursday because they exceeded the town code’s limit on sign sizes, warned that the prison is “dangerously understaffed.”