The alleged retaliation began shortly after Ernest Francois, a Haitian immigrant in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, spoke up in a Gothamist/WNYC story about negligent medical care at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark where he’s held. 

First, a corrections officer called him a snitch. Then, he was sent to solitary confinement, known as administrative detention, for what Francois said was a fabricated infraction for being “out of place.” Later, Francois said a corrections officer pushed him so hard he injured his head, suffering back and neck pain. That incident landed him back in solitary.

But he said the most consistent harassment came via intra-jail mail from unknown sources: Doctored images of Francois’ booking photo—which are supposedly only available on a secure server—scrawled with homophobic and transphobic messages. One depicted a gun to his head. Another note had “KKK” written on it. 

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A detailed account of these allegations was compiled by Francois’ lawyer, Matthew Johnson of the American Friends Service Committee, and sent to Essex County officials before being shared with Gothamist/WNYC. Johnson demanded that officials investigate the accusations; this week, the warden agreed. Johnson also insisted that Francois be moved out of the restrictive unit where he said he’s subject to abuse by officers, and returned to the dormitory where he lived until the Gothamist/WNYC stories aired and published; that request was denied.

Essex County jails about 400 ICE detainees through a multimillion dollar contract with the Trump Administration. A county spokesman, Anthony Puglisi, neither confirmed nor denied Francois’ allegations. Puglisi said: “They are currently being reviewed by all of the appropriate entities in Essex County. We will not have an official comment until that review is complete.”

Francois, 47, was among more than a dozen detainees who contacted Gothamist/WNYC last year to claim they were neglected by the medical team at the jail, which is the largest ICE detention center in the New York/New Jersey area. They said their prolonged and chronic medical conditions were treated with little more than Pepto-Bismol, and medical staff delayed sick calls and disparaged them. County officials and its private medical provider, CFG Health Systems, denied those allegations. 

In the story, which aired and published in January, Francois said the medical staff accuses detainees of making up problems. “Basically, they’re doing what they normally do—you get sick, you get deported, they don’t have to deal with you anymore,” Francois said at the time. “But at this point I’d rather get deported than die here, you know what I mean?”

booking photo of Ernest Francois

Ernest Francois's booking photo

Ernest Francois's booking photo

Francois began speaking to Gothamist/WNYC in a series of phone calls beginning in October 2019, and one interview at the jail in December. He arrived from Haiti when he was 11, and he was a legal resident. He is the father of four U.S. citizen children. 

In 2002, he was involved in a fight in Orange, NJ, between Haitians and Jamaicans. Francois shot and killed an unarmed man who was carrying a pizza box. He was charged with manslaughter, and served most of an 18-year sentence before being released directly into ICE custody nearly three years ago. 

ICE is seeking to deport him, but Francois said that Haiti does not have a record of his citizenship there. A judge set $75,000 bail for him last year, but ICE appealed and the bail was revoked. He is currently appealing his order of deportation in federal court.

“I strongly feel that ICE is holding me hostage because you can’t deport me, you can’t release me,” he said last year. Francois said he didn’t know anyone in Haiti, which his family fled after a political dispute put their lives in danger. 

By all indications, Francois was considered a model detainee for most of his time at Essex. He was appointed by corrections staff for a $21-a-week job as the tier representative, interacting with officers about detainees’ concerns. 

“Although Mr. Francois had previously enjoyed mutually respectful and professional relationships with the correctional officers in his dorm and throughout the facility, the officers’ treatment of Mr. Francois changed dramatically upon publication of the news article in which he was quoted,” Johnson wrote in his letter to the jail.

The trouble began when Francois started getting sick last year. He said he was throwing up and experiencing abdominal pain for two weeks: “The pain that I’m feeling inside, I’ve never felt like this before,” he said at the time. But his ailment, he said, was never properly treated. It turns out, according to Johnson, that Francois tested positive for giardia, an infection caused by parasites in food or water. 

“Correctional officers at the Essex County Correctional Facility have harassed, abused, and intimidated Mr. Francois in apparent retribution for his exercise of the constitutionally protected right to free speech,” Johnson wrote to officials at the jail and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. “The officers’ conduct has included racially discriminatory elements and implied threats of violence. This behavior is not just unprofessional; it is unlawful and violates Mr. Francois’s rights under the United States Constitution and state civil-rights statutes.”

As recently as June 30th, a sergeant allegedly locked Francois in his cell and said: “You’re never going home,” and “white power.” Johnson demanded that all of the officers involved are identified and appropriate criminal penalties are levied against them. 

This is not the first allegation that Essex corrections officers mete out their own justice against whistleblowers. Another former ICE detainee at Essex, Jose Hernandez Velasquez, said he was the target of retaliation after he alleged, in a story on Gothamist/WNYC, how officers physically and sexually abused him. 

Like Francois, Hernandez Velasquez was put into solitary confinement the day the story published, according to his attorney. His movements around the jail were filmed from then on, with a corrections officer allegedly telling him: “You wanna be a star, we’re gonna treat you like a star.” He is now housed at a different detention center. County officials did not respond to questions about the alleged retaliation.

A third detainee, Carlos Sierra, said he was harassed by corrections officers after being quoted in that same January story about not receiving an MRI for nerve damage that he sustained from a fall at the jail. After the piece appeared, he said he was fired from his job in the library, where he helped other detainees as a jailhouse paralegal. He has since been released.

Elsewhere around the country during the Trump Administration, ICE detainees who have publicly spoken about their situations have alleged harassment. Three detainees in Florida recently filed a federal lawsuit claiming retaliation. Women detained in Georgia and Louisiana say they were punished, including with solitary confinement, for making videos about poor treatment that went public. And in Washington State, an undocumented immigrant who told a reporter about his girlfriend’s arrest by ICE was then arrested himself by ICE

By going public, Francois said he hopes to protect other whistleblowers. He believes that since officers repeatedly called him a “snitch” loudly enough for detainees to hear, it is an attempt to incite inmate violence against him.

“Ernest’s goal, more than anything, is simply to have the harassment stop and to protect other detainees and inmates from receiving similar treatment, in retaliation for speaking out about conditions or for any other reason,” Johnson said. “To that end, he wants the public to know what’s happening to him so that officers can’t get away with this in the future.” 

Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees, hate, and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.