$200 Million, Jailed Immigrants and a Democratic Bastion Under Fire



Oct. 14, 2019

Protesters have targeted the Essex County Correctional Facility, which holds about 800 people who have been arrested on immigration charges. 


In 2011, lawmakers in Essex County, N.J., agreed to house detained immigrants at the local jail in exchange for what would eventually add up to around $200 million from the federal government. Across the country, hundreds of other local communities were shoring up their budgets with similar deals.

But that decision has turned into an unexpected source of tension as critics who oppose President Trump’s immigration policies have pressured the county to end to the contract. Protesters regularly amass outside the Essex County Correctional Facility carrying “Abolish ICE” signs. Activists pack public meetings demanding the county pull out of the agreement.

Lawmakers in the county, a longtime Democratic stronghold in one of the bluest regions in the nation, are now caught between their reliance on steady income from the federal government and anger from a more activist left.

“The failure of New Jersey Democrats is a microcosm of the larger Democratic Party to take any bold stand on immigrant rights,” said Whitney Strub, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and a local activist.

The ire has increased this year, after government reports detailed what inspectors called egregious conditions at the jail. Chicken blood was dripping over food in a refrigerator; inmates were eating moldy bread and slimy, foul-smelling lunch meat; and an officer’s gun was left unattended in a bathroom. Separately, the Essex County prosecutor is investigating allegations that guards stripped two immigrants and beat them this year.

Essex County lawmakers, who say they have improved conditions at the jail, point to pragmatics. The county receives a day rate for each detainee it holds, which last year totaled about $35 million. It now houses about 800 immigrants in addition to its regular population.

“Government cannot fund itself entirely on property taxes, so it is important that government find other sources of revenue,” Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive and one of the most powerful Democrats in northern New Jersey, said in a statement. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Nearly 200 jails nationwide, including in nearby Hudson and Bergen Counties, have similar agreements to hold people who have been arrested by federal immigration authorities. A few counties in California, North Carolina and Texas have ended contracts with the federal government after protests.

Officials in Hudson County, which received about $27 million to house immigrants in its jail in 2018, reluctantly agreed to end their contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year after local religious leaders filed a lawsuit and a protest outside the county jail grew so large it nearly stirred a riot inside.

But Essex County has resisted similar calls, despite its deep Democratic ties. The jail is in Newark, the home of Senator Cory Booker, a Democratic presidential candidate who has proposed to virtually eliminate immigration detention. A spokeswoman for Mr. Booker did not respond to requests for comment on the federal detention contract.

Mr. DiVincenzo has argued that the agreement is better for immigrant communities. Being detained in Newark means people can stay closer to their families and more lawyers who are equipped to handle their cases, his administration has said.

The Essex County jail holds one of the largest immigrant populations among county jails nationwide, and it has repeatedly been singled out by federal authorities for poor conditions.

In March 2016, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security conducted an investigation into the jail, according to internal documents reviewed by The New York Times.

The report, which has never been released publicly, found that immigrants were not being given medication for chronic illnesses for days after they arrived and that they were using plastic trash bags to microwave food purchased from the commissary. Inspectors also noted that the jail’s satellite kitchens, showers and dormitories were covered in dust and dirt, posing a health risk.

The department’s internal watchdog released an additional report this year detailing conditions found on a surprise visit in July 2018, including dilapidated, moldy infrastructure and rotting food. The kitchen manager, who worked for a private contractor, was fired on the spot.

Jail officials told The Times on a tour there this year that the problems were immediately resolved after the visit from inspectors.

“We are proud of our proactive approach to meet the needs of our detainees and the high standards of care that we have set for our facility,” Al Ortiz, the director of the Essex County jail, said after the report came out in February.

In recent interviews, immigrants detained at the jail and lawyers who represent them disputed that the situation had improved.

The inmate who found the loaded weapon in the bathroom, who has since been deported to the United Kingdom, said that after he reported his discovery, he was removed from his job on cleaning duty as punishment.

Demosthenes Gumalo, a 58-year-old immigrant from the Philippines who was released from the jail in February, said “everything stayed the same” after the inspectors’ visit. “We still had stomach pains sometimes, diarrhea, the food was still bad,” he added. “I couldn’t eat it.”

This summer, the jail fell under more scrutiny after two immigrants, José Hernandez and Wilson Peña, said they had been beaten by corrections officers in May. The men were transported to a hospital for treatment, their medical records show.

The episode started when Mr. Hernandez began to argue with an officer who would not give him a lunch tray, the men said. As officers beat Mr. Hernandez, Mr. Peña objected from behind glass in a nearby section of the jail, Mr. Peña said. The two men were then taken to an intake area, where Mr. Hernandez was put in a shower, beaten, pepper-sprayed and doused in hot water, he said.

Mr. Peña said he was then stripped and beaten. “I thought I was going to die with each punch,” he told The Times in a phone interview.

Both men were later taken to University Hospital in Newark. Their medical records show that they had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as pain in their joints, backs, necks and chests.

They were returned to the Essex County jail within hours, where they say they were placed in solitary confinement for nearly a month.

An internal investigation at the jail found that the claims were unsubstantiated. The Essex County prosecutor’s office has since opened its own investigation. Jail officials declined to comment on that inquiry.

The allegations and the federal reports landed at an opportune political moment for those calling for an end to the detention contracts. Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat who took office last year, has tried to position the state as a liberal bulwark against the White House. While he has not commented on the contracts, his broader stance against Mr. Trump has put pressure on local Democrats to respond to criticism from left-leaning advocates.

Still, in Essex County, only one local legislator, Brendan W. Gill, has called publicly to end the deal with the federal government. In July, the county renewed its contract with G.D. Correctional Services, the food provider that had been cited by federal inspectors. All but two of the county’s nine legislators voted in favor of renewing the contract.

Activists say their calls for increased accountability have been repeatedly blocked by Mr. DiVincenzo’s administration and ignored by other legislators who are reluctant to challenge a figure so powerful in local Democratic politics.

Mr. DiVincenzo’s office has defended his interaction with advocates, saying that he is open to the creation of a civilian body to examine the jail. He has agreed to allocate $750,000 from the county budget to provide free legal services to immigrant detainees there.

That has not pacified critics, who accuse the county of profiting from immigration policies they see as unjust.

“There is no way to defend this contract anymore,” said Kathy O’Leary, regional coordinator at Pax Christi, a Roman Catholic peace movement.

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