Wanted: Real oversight of Joe D’s cruel jail for immigrants | Editorial

Posted Mar 1, 2019

Joe DiVincenzo really blew it. Turns out that while the Essex County political boss was hosting lavish retreats in Puerto Rico, he was even scrimping on moldy bread for immigrants, in the jail he runs in Newark.

And lying about it. Days after his jail flunked a surprise July inspection by the feds for serving nasty spoiled food, harvesting colonies of mold in living areas and hushing up security breaches like a gun left in a bathroom, “Joe D” called us to say everything was great.

The immigrants that his county’s being paid millions by the Trump administration to jail are treated quite well. He even put his deputy on the phone, to claim his jail is “by far the best correctional facility in the state of New Jersey and in the United States of America.”

In fact, it was a horror show, we learned from the audit released last month. Joe D can no longer be trusted to provide humane care. And we can’t let Essex officials keep secrets, now that we know they have a record of poor conditions.

Their caginess about a bizarre, week-long lockdown in February is only the latest example. Advocates for the immigrants say the warden told them at the time that the lockdown was “routine.” Now the county says “a credible report of contraband” was threatening safety, and the last lockdown like this was two years ago.

It won’t say what the contraband was. All we know is, lawyers told Matt Katz of WNYC that some immigrants were held in their cells for the entire five days, isolated from visiting family or even a bit of sun – a claim the county rejects, saying their routine returned to normal after two days.

This is important because a 2013 directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement says segregation should be as limited as possible for immigrants, who are civil, not criminal, detainees. But there’s no actual cap on the number of times or length of days the jail can do this, with no public explanation.

Cells were ransacked, and one man told Katz that even a cup he bought at the commissary was confiscated. The jail says it has no record of this, but something like that counts as contraband.

And is it a coincidence that ripped mattresses were also confiscated and replaced, just days before the anticipated release of the report from the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which cited this as one of many poor conditions?

We don’t know. Joe D’s spokesman claims, unconvincingly, that the county didn’t know anything about what the report would say. They provided little information about the lockdown, citing, as always, “security” issues.

But they have a proven record of cruelty and injustice after this latest audit and have lost all credibility. What we need is new accountability. The county freeholders, led by Brendan Gill, trusted Joe D, and it turned out to be a mistake. Now they say they’ll hold a hearing to re-examine the jail’s contract with ICE. Good.

Yet that’s not enough. The Department of Corrections also needs to provide more oversight, given the appalling findings by the feds, which county officials failed to report honestly to ICE or the media.

And a civilian review board should be established for this jail, to hold it and the freeholders accountable to the public, as we do for troubled police departments. County jails are generally left to run themselves, with little external oversight. But clearly, we need more outside eyes watching over Joe D. He’s earned it.

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