Stop blowing off abuse allegations at Joe D’s jail | Editorial

Posted Dec 11, 2019

An immigrant detainee who claimed to have been assaulted by guards at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark had indeed been beaten up by multiple people, a doctor said.

A medical report showed signs of injury to his genitals – which the man said were stepped on by an officer.

It’s hard to imagine any prosecutor in the world who would say it’s not important to interview the alleged victim in a case like this.

Yet Essex County prosecutors reportedly didn’t bother to talk to the man, Jose Hernandez-Velasquez, or to another immigrant detainee who also said he was beaten up, before concluding that it didn’t happen.

That’s according to Lauren Major, the lawyer for the second man, Wilson Pena Lojo, who is in regular communication with Hernandez-Velasquez’s attorney.

Another good example of why we need better outside oversight of this jail.

Deplorable conditions were long allowed to fester under the management of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and horrifying allegations of abuse continue to emerge.

The latest was reported only yesterday: Another ICE detainee alleges that guards stood by and let inmates twist his right foot until his ankle broke.

Today, the county is finally expected to take an important first step toward transparency, by voting to create a panel of civilian experts to investigate complaints at this jail.

It has the potential to be a really meaningful reform, although it’s troubling that DiVincenzo still won’t commit to always making all of its reports public – particularly given his jail’s disturbing record of secrecy.

The case of Hernandez-Velasquez and Lojo demonstrates why there’s so little trust in internal investigations.

Both men said they were brought into the shower area, where there are no cameras, for a beating. Hernandez-Velasquez said he was punched about 30 times and hit with a broomstick, and that when he fell to the ground, an officer stepped on his genitals, according to a WNYC report.

As soon as they got back from the emergency room, guards threw both men into solitary confinement for at least a month, during which time Major says they were not permitted to contact a lawyer.

Hernandez-Velasquez now faces charges that he assaulted officers. But the county Department of Corrections’ own internal affairs unit found the guards did nothing wrong, which was good enough for the office of acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens.

Only under public pressure did the prosecutor agree to take another look. “Both video footage and witness statements contradict the detainees’ version of events in crucial areas,” Stephens’ office recently concluded.

Yet there are no video cameras where the alleged beating occurred. The only witnesses were corrections officers. And how can prosecutors fully assess the credibility of the potential victims without even interviewing them?

His office wouldn’t comment, citing the confidentiality of its internal investigations. We know this altercation began in a public area and was observed by many detainees, before the men were taken down to the showers.

Yet the prosecutor’s office told Major it had interviewed the guards, and only one ICE detainee, she says. Perhaps there is video footage to show who instigated this. But regardless, how could prosecutors not interview both alleged victims about what later took place in the shower, the central issue here?

“I think this is definitely a great example of why you need someone with some independence looking into these allegations,” Major said. “It seems like there wasn’t a good faith effort to get to the bottom of this.”

There’s an inherent conflict of interest when prosecutor’s offices investigate their law enforcement colleagues. The proposed civilian oversight board could ensure that all witnesses are interviewed, review any video footage and make recommendations to the jail.

Putting cameras in a shower raises privacy issues, but they might be placed to capture everyone entering and exiting the area, for instance. The jail says it is also looking into using audio recording in the showers.

Cameras elsewhere are pretty meaningless if you leave a place for guards to potentially assault inmates in secret. And so is a civilian oversight board, if it doesn’t operate with full transparency.

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