I was not going to write about the recent revelation that undocumented immigrants are being detained in Essex County in conditions that are, quite literally, sickening. Since the release of a report on February 13 that described serious health and safety lapses at the Essex County Correctional Facility, there have already been many news stories and editorials that have discussed and condemned the conditions it uncovered. There would seem to be little left to say on the subject.
But I have been deeply distressed for a long time that my home county has been complicit in the nation’s harsh and unjust treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, by providing a place to hold the large numbers being swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held while the government seeks to deport them. By balancing its budget on the backs of these detainees, Essex County has made me and everyone who lives here party to this injustice.
Those who have defended taking money from (the aptly-acronymed) ICE to warehouse human beings say that it is better for those who have been living in this area to be locked up close to their families, friends and communities rather than somewhere distant. That makes some sense especially in light of a report last fall that, for an eight-month period that ended last May, Essex County had the seventh highest number of “community” immigration arrests, i.e., arrests made directly by ICE rather than by state or local law enforcement, with 676. New York County—the island of Manhattan—had the third highest, with 931. Essex and New York had more arrests than any county in Arizona and Florida.
The arrest data were compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearing House, or TRAC, a nonpartisan research center at Syracuse University that gathers, researches, and distributes data about staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government.
TRAC’s most recent immigration-related report, released January 31, about new deportation cases, shows 75,165 filed nationwide for the current fiscal year (which began October 1) through the end of January. Texas tops the list with 16, 218, followed by California (12,128), Florida (9,150) and New York (7,180). New Jersey ranks seventh, with 2,754.
Those arrests and deportation cases are piling up in Essex and elsewhere, as shown by another TRAC report, which means that more people will be spending more time in detention. The report found that the number of pending cases on the Immigration Court docket, as of November 30, was 809,041, almost a 50 percent increase from the 542,411 one year earlier. New Jersey had the fifth largest increase in case backlog, measured from the October 1, 2016 start of the 2017 fiscal year through the end of November 2018. It grew from 27,457 to 44,096, a 61 percent jump. Though the total number of cases here is rising quickly, it is dwarfed by the size of the backlogs in California (146,826), Texas (119,401) and New York (108,458).
The Essex-ICE agreement has also been defended on the ground that detainees are better off here because the conditions are better than they would be elsewhere.
The February 13 report by the Department of Homelands Security’s Office of the Inspector General has now put the lie to that assertion and made it impossible for me to stay away from the topic.
The mission of the OIG, as stated on its website, is to “provide independent oversight and promote excellence, integrity, and accountability within DHS.” Other federal departments and agencies, including the Departments of Justice, Labor, Transportation, Health & Human Services, the Federal Communications Commission, and the U.S. Postal Service, all have their own OIGs serving a similar purpose.
The report was the result of a surprise inspection of the Essex County Correctional Facility, located in the eastern, port area of Newark, during July 2018.
At that time, almost 800 ICE detainees, all of them men, were being held there under a contract with ICE that pays the County more than $100 per day for each detainee.
You have probably heard a lot already about what the OIG found. Meat that was raw, spoiled, or expired. Open packages of raw chicken leaking blood over refrigeration units. “[S]limy, foul-smelling lunch meat which appeared to be spoiled” and thus capable of causing serious foodborne illness such as salmonella, listeria, and e-coli, but was nevertheless served to detainees. Expired and moldy bread, which staff were forbidden to throw out, contrary to U.S. Department of Agriculture guidance. Things were so bad the kitchen manager was replaced right away.
It is enough to make you feel queasy just hearing about it but the people detained there had to actually eat this stuff, and not surprisingly experienced vomiting and diarrhea.
The detainees complained about it, a lot, filing 200 kitchen grievances from January to July of 2018 as those who could afford to do so bought food from the commissary and one went on a liquid diet and considered a hunger strike, said the report.
Aside from the food, the condition of the facility was found to be so poor that it posed “serious health and safety risks.” This was surprising, considering that it only opened in 2004 and in 2013, won accreditation from the American Correctional Association, which is supposed to entail passing a fairly stringent review process encompassing 56 mandatory areas of compliance and 300 others.
There were leaking ceilings in detainee living areas, two of them dripping directly onto detainee beds. “Unsanitary” shower stalls had mildew, mold, and peeling paint, with the mold so extensive that it stretched into the adjacent hallways. Housing unit mattresses were so bad that detainees were tying the seams with bed sheets to keep the filling from spilling out. The bed pillows, which were built into the mattresses were “completely flat and dilapidated.”
Though ICE standards require detainees be allowed outdoor recreation time, there was no outside space for it at the facility. ICE seemed to be at least as much to blame for disregarding its own standards since the report mentioned that ICE was going to build a soccer field when it started sending detainees to Essex in 2010 but never did, and over the years, it never documented any concerns on the issue.
There was even a loaded handgun, left in a staff bathroom–one routinely cleaned by detainees–rather than stored in a locker as required. The detainee who found it notified the guards and no one was injured but the facility’s response was to instruct the detainee to keep quiet about the incident and not to report the slip-up to ICE, again in violation of requirements. The guard got a 45-day suspension.
The failure to let ICE know was the fourth time in less than a year that the facility failed to notify it of issues involving detainees, including fights and hospitalization for mental illness, noted the report.
The OIG was not the first indication of problems at the Essex facility. In February 2018, just a few months before the OIG’s surprise visit, Human Rights First released its own report on three detention facilities used by ICE in New Jersey: the Essex and Hudson County Correctional Facilities and the privately owned and operated Elizabeth Detention Center. Its report, Ailing Justice: New Jersey—Inadequate Medical and Mental Health Services in Immigration Detention, found similar complaints of raw, spoiled, or expired food and the lack of outdoor recreation space. Broader in scope than the OIG report, it mentioned additional issues such as inadequate and undrinkable water, insufficient or damaged clothing and hygiene products, and inadequate and delayed medical care, and the report criticized immigration detention as often unnecessary and prolonged.
The OIG report concluded with a single recommendation: that ICE “conduct an immediate, full review” of the Essex facility to insure compliance with ICE standards. It required ICE to “review and ensure compliance with” those standards regarding food safety, facility conditions including leaks, bedding, and outdoor recreation areas, and unreported security incidents.
The report notes that ICE concurred in the recommendation, commenced the review process, and initiated action to ensure compliance with standards. Specific steps taken included improving food storage inventory procedures, replacing the food services manager, and conducting daily inspections of the food services area along with weekly spot audits. Detainee housing units were cleaned and disinfected, with walls and ceilings repaired and painted and worn mattresses replaced. There is to be a detailed follow-up inspection within six months and discussion with facility mangers on the feasibility of an outdoor recreation area.
There were also several Contract Discrepancy citations issued which were being evaluated for imposition of contract penalties against the facility, which will hopefully provide a disincentive for future lapses.
Let us hope that conditions really have improved and will stay that way. But even if all the problems found by the OIG are eliminated on a permanent basis, the fundamental problem remains that Essex County remains part of the machinery that is crushing and destroying people. And any penalties that are imposed are likely to pale in comparison to the millions from misery that Essex is raking in.
The latest County budget, for 2019, presented to the Freeholders on January 11, anticipates that $42.7 million of the $761.6 million total will be generated by housing immigration detainees, federal inmates, and Gloucester County inmates. That $42.7 million, amounts to 5.6 percent, which means that more than one of every $20 that Essex County plans to spend this year will be coming from those contracts.
It is an increase in both actual amount and proportion of budget from 2018, whose $725.9 million budget included $35.7 million from the same sources, or only 4.9 percent.
When the County boasts that it has held the property tax increase to under 1.5 percent for the last seven years, below the state’s two percent cap, and that Moody’s recently gave its bonds the highest possible rating, And, for the first time ever, it is hard not to believe that it is the ICE money that has made this possible.
It would also appear that ICE money has helped pay for a spending spree at the County’s Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange.
For example, just last year, the Zoo opened a new exhibit of pink flamingos, featuring a pool, a “nesting island,” and an artificial waterfall, with an accompanying 1000-square foot indoor area, that cost $3.2 million to build. Does anyone else see the irony of using money gained from warehousing people in substandard conditions to pay for luxe accommodations for birds? Even more so when some of those birds are from the Caribbean, the same part of the world as the majority of the people detained.