Sandy put ICE detainees in danger: Opinion
Published: Thursday, December 27, 2012, 7:00 AM Updated: Thursday, December 27, 2012, 7:05 AM
Eunice Lee’s harrowing account (“Sandy trapped guards and staff at Essex County jail,” Dec. 9) of the conditions inside Essex County Correctional Facility and the damage sustained by the flooding during and after Hurricane Sandy, reminds us that it wasn’t a good idea to expand detention in New Jersey last year by adding 750 immigration detention beds to two facilities in Newark.
Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s response, when asked for more public information a week after the storm, was that “all of our detainees in the Northeast have access to hot meals, hot water, phone, etc.” Lee’s report 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 the Essex County jail, but phones were out for periods at the facilities, as was heat.
The Hudson County jail, Essex County jail and the adjacent Delaney Hall were surrounded by water from a 5-foot storm surge in the Newark Bay. The flooding outside made them inaccessible to even Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who made an attempt to get to the jail and himself had to be rescued.
Essex and Hudson county jails flooded, and some 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 County? 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? It looks like ICE was negligent.
Doremus Avenue, where Essex County jail 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, as it was in a Newark prison, Northern State.
And it happened that the electronic doors in Delaney Hall didn’t unlock, as they did in another Newark facility run by the same company, Community Education Centers. The mayhem in the other CEC facility had to be brought under to control by four law enforcement agencies. As bad as they were, the effects could have been much worse for the detention facilities.
While Hudson County’s jail was named by Detention Watch Network as one of the 10 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.
Karina Wilkinson of Highland Park is co-founder of the Monmouth County Coalition for Immigrant Rights.