Two New York state corrections officers at the Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen have been moved out of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee unit amid allegations of “racist and retaliatory abuse, violence, and medical neglect,” brought by six public interest groups.
The transfers were detailed in a Feb. 23 letter from the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams.
“The government takes allegations of abuse or detainees very seriously,” read the letter from Williams, shared in redacted form by advocacy groups. “The Undersigned was informed today that OCCF has moved two of the OCCF guards referenced in the February 17 CRCL Complaint outside of the ICE detainee unit.”
The corrections officers will continue to work at the jail, according to the letter. CRCL refers to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Williams’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Orange County Undersheriff Kenneth Jones confirmed the actions in an interview with Gothamist but said it was “standard procedure” in light of the allegations and should not be interpreted as an admission of wrongdoing.
“Until we can reach a conclusion we will try to limit interaction” between officers and detainees, Jones said, adding that there were numerous “unfounded and malicious complaints” brought by immigrant rights advocates against corrections officers.
The Orange County Correctional Facility houses undocumented immigrants from New York City, including detainees who were transferred there after three detention facilities were closed in New Jersey following reports of abuse detailed by human rights groups and WNYC/Gothamist.
The recent instances of abuse, according to the complaint, are “part of a longer trend.”
The reports that are coming out of Orange are consistent with numerous other reports ... these detention centers are fundamentally sites of human rights violations of the gravest order.
"Over the last several years, OCCF’s appalling conditions have been the subject of multiple complaints, lawsuits, and media reports,” reads the letter, noting that CRCL had investigated past episodes, “most disturbingly, the 2016 death of an individual in ICE custody at OCCF.”
“The reports that are coming out of Orange are consistent with numerous other reports from other detention facilities across the country,” said Chiraayu Gosrani, of the New York University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. “What they really show is that these detention centers are fundamentally sites of human rights violations of the gravest order.”
A Feb. 17 letter to the CRCL and other divisions of the Department of Homeland Security detailed allegations of physical and retaliatory violence committed by corrections officers against immigrant detainees. It was signed by six organizations: Catholic Charities Community Services, Envision Freedom Fund, For the Many, Freedom for Immigrants, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and the NYU School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic.
The groups are calling for the release of all immigrant detainees “to their communities” and termination of ICE’s contract with the Orange County Correctional Facility, based on a record of systemic abuse.
In one episode from Feb. 5, the letter alleges that a detainee referred to as “L.G.C.,” “who has cognitive disabilities and suffers chronic suicidality, was thrown to the ground, kicked, beaten, and handcuffed by at least seven officers after an interaction" with an officer.
That followed an alleged incident from Jan. 1, as described by a detainee identified as “Andres.”
“It was six officers against one unarmed man. The officers jumped on him, hitting him. One of them was holding him down and another had his knee on the man’s neck. They pepper sprayed him and wouldn’t let him move. He was yelling for help. But we couldn’t do anything. We thought that if we said anything more, they would torture us as well…”
Gosrani said detainees were frequently subjected to racist taunts.
“We’re talking about folks being called the N-word, guards remarking that Africans have a certain kind of smell, being told ‘Go back to your f_____ country,’” he said.
In an affidavit, a detainee referred to as “Benjamin” said, “The officers at OCCF seem to have a racial hatred for Hispanic people. They don’t like when we speak in Spanish.”
He also said medical care was being withheld.
“I have been asking for help for over a week and haven’t heard anything. I feel really bad. Many of the men have complaints like this.”
The complaints over abuse – in addition to allegations of religious discrimination and the frequency of “spoiled, stinking food” – prompted dozens of detainees to conduct a hunger strike at the facility, the New York Daily News reported last week.
In his affidavit, detainee Benjamin said the hunger strike had resulted in retaliation: “After the incident, I was locked-in for five days as a punishment, just because they didn’t want to pay attention to our grievances. This made me feel like a criminal, but I’m not a criminal; I’m only here because of my immigration situation.”