The “New Normal” for Immigration Detention in New Jersey

A Call for Environmental Testing and ICE/County Accountability in Sandy Aftermath

By Karina Wilkinson, Co-Founder of Monmouth County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Kwilkinson_act@yahoo.com

Newark, NJ – In case anyone needed reminding about why it wasn’t a good idea to expand detention in New Jersey by adding 750 beds last year to two facilities in Newark, the Star Ledger reported Sunday on conditions inside Essex County Jail and the damage sustained by the flooding during and after Hurricane Sandy.  The account is harrowing and the pictures, disturbing.

Originally published in the Star Ledger. Water lashed against the main entrance glass doors of the Essex County Correctional Facility on Doremus Avenue in Newark. This video surveillance footage was taken Monday, Oct. 29 at 10:18 p.m.

When I emailed ICE to ask for more public information a week after the storm, the response I got was that “all of our detainees in the Northeast have access to hot meals, hot water, phone, etc.”  Sunday’s report on Essex jail reveals that wasn’t the case in the immediate aftermath of the storm: “For four days, inmates had no hot showers and were served cold food.” I’m not sure when phone service was restored at Essex, but phones were out for periods at the facilities, as was heat.

Hudson County JailEssex, and the adjacent Delaney Hall were surrounded by water from a five foot storm surge in the Newark Bay.  The flooding outside made them inaccessible to even County Executive DiVincenzo, who made some sort of heroic (?) attempt to get to the jail and himself had to be rescued

Essex and Hudson County jails flooded inside, and detained immigrants in ICE’s custody had to be moved to higher floors. The three facilities together are under agreements that allow them to house as many as 1,500 ICE detainees, two thirds of the detention capacity of the state.  How could ICE or the counties ensure the safety of people in their custody when access was cut off – for two days in the case of Essex?

There is a long-standing joke that the Essex County jail evacuation plan has to involve boats, which isn’t so funny anymore. ICE needed to do its due diligence on the disaster plans for New Jersey facilities. What is ICE’s evacuation plan for detained immigrants in New Jersey?  And what type of disaster would it take to trigger it, if not Sandy? Was there any thought to reassuring the public or getting information out about the status of the facilities in the aftermath?

Doremus Avenue, where Essex and Delaney Hall are located, has many sites contaminated with chemicals, and the nearby Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority lost power and released hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage during the storm. Residents of the Ironbound district of Newark are being advised by the EPA to use “N95” respirators to enter homes that were flooded, partly because of a nearby Superfund site. The EPA needs to test affected facilities to determine whether they are still inhabitable.

It happened that the detention facilities’ back-up generators weren’t overwhelmed, and power wasn’t completely lost for a week, like it was in a Newark prison, Northern State.  And it happened that the electronic doors in Delaney Hall didn’t unlock like they did in another Newark facility run by the same company, Community Education Centers (CEC).  Four law enforcement agencies were called in to bring mayhem under control in the other CEC facility.  As bad as they were, the effects could have been much worse for the detention facilities.

While the Detention Watch Network named Hudson one of the ten worst facilities in the country, this is a reminder that ICE shouldn’t be using any jails for immigration detention. Detention is not supposed to be punishment.

Monmouth County Coalition for Immigrant Rights renews its call for ICE to end unnecessary detention of immigrant men and women, to prepare adequately for disasters and states of emergency and to provide up to date information to the public.  We also call for EPA testing of the facilities affected by the Newark Bay storm surge.