Health Care at New Jersey Immigrant Jail Is Substandard, Watchdog Groups Say

By NINA BERNSTEIN

THE NEW YORK TIMES

MAY 12, 2016

Jennifer, left, and Marilyn Fernandez in Harlem. Their father, Nelson, suffered medical neglect in the Hudson County Correctional Facility as an immigrant detainee, according to a complaint filed Tuesday.

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Nelson Fernandez and his daughter Jennifer were still asleep when agents from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement knocked at their door early one morning two years ago. The next minutes were a terrifying blur to Ms. Fernandez, a United States citizen, who recalls armed agents swarming through their small Manhattan apartment and taking away her father, who is disabled by a rare autoimmune disorder and dependent on blood thinners to prevent fatal clots.

Mr. Fernandez, a legal permanent resident for 26 years, suddenly was facing deportation to the Dominican Republic, based on a 1992 drug conviction for which he had already served probation. He was not facing new criminal charges. But like thousands of New Yorkers held annually in immigration detention, he was taken to a county jail under contract to federal immigration authorities: the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, N.J. There, unable to contact his family, he was soon bleeding internally and pleading for medical care.

Mr. Fernandez’s case is one of 61 described as part of a pattern of substandard medical care at Hudson in a civil rights complaint filed on Tuesday with the Department of Homeland Security. The administrative complaint, brought by two citizens’ coalitions that monitor conditions in immigration detention sites across the country, urges federal authorities “to immediately intervene to ensure the health and safety of current and future immigrants detained at Hudson,” either by ending its contract with the jail, which is paid $110 a day for each detainee, or appointing an independent investigator to swiftly inspect and improve the jail’s health care policies and practices.

The eight-page complaint, a last attempt to seek an administrative remedy before a lawsuit can be filed, describes Hudson as one of the three worst detention sites among 53 monitored by the coalitions, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, known as Civic, and First Friends of NJ NY. The groups noted that the private health care provider at the Hudson jail, CFG Health Systems, is seeking a five-year contract renewal at a cost of $29.4 million, to be voted on in two weeks by the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders. They urged the board to meet with advocates to discuss the complaint before that vote.

Other cases cited in the complaint include a Queens man with a brain tumor taken into custodybefore his scheduled surgery, who suffered worsening headaches, dizziness and seizures for nearly four months before advocates succeeded in winning his release. The man, Claudel Dor, 36, now fighting deportation to Haiti, said in an interview that jail health care employees denied him the medication he had been taking to shrink the tumor, saying it was too expensive.

A jail spokesman declined to comment on the complaints, saying detainees were a federal responsibility. CFG Health Systems did not respond to several messages seeking comment.

To advocates, the very nature of these complaints underscores how little has changed since 2009, when the Obama administration announced an ambitious overhaul of the immigration detention system, garnering front-page headlines. The system, a hodgepodge of local jails and for-profit prisons, had come under fire for mistreatment of detainees and substandard medical care that sometimes ended in detainees’ deaths. The administration promised to establish “a truly civil detention system” under more direct federal oversight.

“The egregious conditions still continue,” said Sally Pillay, program director for First Friends. “I think ICE really has to be accountable here.”

In an email, Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security, said that when the complaint was received by the department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, it would be evaluated and further steps considered.

“Over all, the safety, well-being and housing conditions of those in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are of utmost importance to the agency,” she said. “ICE remains committed to ensuring that all individuals in our custody have access to high-quality medical and mental health care.”

Since January 2014, 121 people detained at Hudson have submitted medical grievances, with corrective action taken in fewer than 3 percent of the cases, the complaint said, blaming Immigration and Customs Enforcement for inadequate oversight.

One detainee filed multiple requests for specialty care, to no avail. When he was taken to his court hearing, the complaint said, he was so weak and short of breath that the judge called 911 so he could be taken to the hospital. There doctors discovered that he had a pacemaker with a battery that needed immediate replacement.

Other cases include a diabetic woman who is rapidly losing weight because she receives insufficient insulin, according to the complaint, and a 71-year-old woman who says that she has lost most of her sight during her confinement without being able to get an eye exam. Both remain in detention.

In Mr. Fernandez’s case, by the time he was taken to a hospital from the Hudson jail, doctors told him he had a blood clot near his heart. But the agency’s response to an emergency complaint by Civic was to speed up his deportation, the complaint said.

A New York judge agreed within weeks of his detention to reopen his 1992 conviction, which had involved a hasty guilty plea to possessing less than a gram of heroin during a period when he struggled with addiction. Mr. Fernandez said that he thought he had pleaded to possession, a misdemeanor, but that the record shows his offense as possession with intent to sell, a deportable felony.

The reopening of his case came too late — he had already been deported from the United States, leaving behind his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his six children, all citizens, the youngest age 7.

“My life is there,” Mr. Fernandez, 45, said in a telephone interview from the Dominican Republic, the sound of chickens in the background. His sole remaining relative, an aunt, has taken him in. His twin daughters, one a paralegal, the other the executive assistant to a Manhattan chef, send him $50 to $100 a month.

“There’s no treatment for me here,” he added.

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