New hope for oversight at Essex County jail | Editorial

Posted Oct 27, 2019

Essex County’s powerful executive, Joe DiVincenzo, has just agreed to bring on a panel of outside experts to oversee his jail in Newark, after an outcry over inhumane conditions and alleged abuses.

His lockup is one of the biggest in the nation with a multi-million-dollar contract to hold immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now, he says he’s placing it on the cutting edge of incarceration reform.

It’s great to see the county executive take steps to invest in oversight, along with other local officials. That this was in reaction to intense public pressure does not make it any less valuable.

This jail let conditions deteriorate until it got caught by the inspector general for ICE, who cited harsh conditions like rotten food, strip searches and overuse of solitary.

An immigrant detainee has alleged he was beaten by guards and sexually assaulted in a shower. And one of the non-immigrant detainees committed suicide while tied up in a straightjacket, a smidge suspicious.

Going forward, this new task force will be able to visit the jail with one hour’s notice to interview witnesses when it gets a complaint about conditions, and it will make recommendations in a report.

Will these reports always be made public? Freeholder President Brendan Gill, who backed the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in pushing for reform, told us, “Absolutely, yes.”

But DiVincenzo hasn’t yet made that same commitment. Before the final vote to create this group, they should spell that out in clear language.

Still, this is a solid starting point, as ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha says: “Although the proposed ordinance does not contain all the features required for true accountability, it provides a critical step forward.”

At a packed public meeting last week, advocates called for language that ensures all the reports are made public, the community is allowed to nominate board members and the task force has unfettered access to the jail and its records.

For example, the group’s executive director is currently tasked with deciding which jail records are released to the task force and might provide only a redacted summary for “sensitive or confidential records.” That seems vague. Can we get better language to ensure transparency?

The man tapped for this position, Jose Linares, was the first Hispanic federal chief judge in New Jersey and helped force reforms at the old Essex County jail. He has a long record of experience, which could be a great record.

But he was also the judge who let David Samson spend his sentence in his country estate, after the former Port Authority chairman extorted United Airlines for the “chairman’s flight.”

And we don’t know who will hold this job in the future. The board’s transparency shouldn’t depend on that person. It must be defined in the ordinance.

Also, why must the task force wait for the jail to complete its own investigation before it steps in? DiVincenzo’s spokesman argues that if the jail ends up handing a case over to the prosecutor’s office, a task force probe might interfere. But the vast majority of the time, jail investigations are not criminal in nature.

If implemented well, this task force could be a nationwide leader in oversight of jails and prisons. If not, it just becomes another rubber stamp. Either way, the outcome will reflect on county officials, including “Joe D.”

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