Everod Reid’s wife died from cancer last month. His daughter, who turned 11 a week later, is staying with relatives and lacks a permanent home. Reid has been in the country since 1985 but he’s held at the Hudson County Corrections and Rehabilitation Center by Immigration and Customs Enforcement because his past non-violent criminal convictions triggered an order of deportation. As a fear of coronavirus consumes his jail, he’s more desperate than ever to be released to be with his daughter and four older children, all U.S. citizens. “We’re sitting here like ducks, like mice, we don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “They’re killing us, man.”
Christopher O’Brien wants to be deported back to the United Kingdom. After finishing a 26-year stint in prison for racketeering and other charges last year, he was taken to the ICE detention center at Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen, NY. But due to coronavirus, his court date Monday to put his order of deportation into effect was postponed. Now, he feels “stuck” in an “incubator” of disease. “You see one person cough, everybody hits the ground,” he said. “Every little cough, every little thing—we’re thinking it’s the end.”
Olisa Uzoegwu went on a hunger strike at Hudson County Corrections and Rehabilitation Center after he was moved into a cell from an open dorm area—a major shift in the way immigrants are jailed that mirrors how other facilities are handling the health crisis. He is locked in a cramped cell from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. each day, and shares an open toilet with a bunkmate. “Release us,” he said. “The same way ICE came to our house to come get us... they can come get do that again [when the crisis is over].”
Coronavirus is beginning its devastating spread into the local jails where ICE detainees are held, prompting authorities to release low-level criminally charged inmates. As many as 1,000 are being let of jails in New Jersey alone. But ICE detainees—who are held on civil immigration charges as they await hearings on orders of deportation—are still locked up. And so in more than a dozen calls to Gothamist/WNYC, several of the approximately 1,500 people in ICE detention at four local county jails and one private facility said they are increasingly anxious, angry, and agitating for release.
On Tuesday, the Bergen County Jail reported it has a 31-year-old Mexican man in its custody who represents the first ICE detainee nationwide to test positive for COVID-19. He is being held in isolation at the jail and treated by medical staff there. In addition, a medical staffer at the privately-run Elizabeth Detention Center, two corrections officers at the Essex County jail, and two criminally-charged inmates at the Hudson jail have all tested positive, authorities said. Hudson is now under “lockdown,” with only four men allowed outside of their cells at any given time. Typically most detainees are allowed to roam freely around a dormitory area.
To protest conditions and demand release, detainees at all but one of the facilities have reported going on hunger and work strikes in the last week.
“We want to get help outside! Please! This is not right!” yelled a detainee at the Hudson County jail into the phone. “This is not fair what they’re doing to us, like a chicken put in a coop we cannot get outside...It’s scary, it’s scary. I’ve been in here for 27 months away from my family, away from my kids. I need somebody to help me, please, please.”
He asked that his name be withheld for fear of retaliation by ICE. He said he wants to be let out to be with his disabled mother and four U.S. citizen children. “We want to die next to our loved ones, with our family,” he said.
Listen to reporter Matt Katz's radio story for WNYC:
Medical and criminal justice experts say that once coronavirus hits a jail, it will inevitably spread rapidly. That’s why a former acting director of ICE, John Sandweg, said that ICE should use its authority to parole any detainees who, based on their criminal history, do not pose a safety or flight risk. That could mean the majority of those in custody would get out, possibly on ankle monitors to make sure they show up to future court dates.
“The goal here has to be, though, to shrink down the population so much that you can get some of that social distancing, and eliminate the ability of the virus to spread once it’s in the facility, and diminish the exposure to the ICE agents, the work force, and then the public at-large,” Sandweg said.
In the best of times, ICE detention centers have been viewed as medically insufficient. The Bergen County Jail had a mumps outbreak last year. In Hudson County, after six people died at the jail in less than a year, the medical contractor was fired. And the Essex County Correctional Facility was the subject of a Gothamist/WNYC story this year about widespread complaints over medical care.
Sources say ICE has already released about a dozen detainees from the Essex jail in Newark for medical reasons, and more are expected as ICE reviews their files.
But that’s not good enough, immigration attorneys say. A class-action lawsuit seeks immediate release on behalf of the 37,000 detained immigrants around the country. Attorneys are also filing habeas corpus lawsuits asking federal judges to order bond hearings for the oldest and most medically vulnerable, and they’re making formal requests with ICE to let their clients out. But those pleas often go nowhere.
Dejan Nikolic, who has lived in the country for 32 years, has cognitive challenges and Hepatitis-C, which he said he does not receive medication for at the Hudson County jail. A habeas corpus lawsuit seeking his release was rejected last week, and a special request to ICE for emergency release given his mental and physical health, and the pandemic, was denied. He alleges that an ICE officer told him: “Don’t worry. We’re going to let you out the day before you die.”
“Anyone could just look at the documents in the record we submitted and see that he’s being treated extremely unfairly and inhumanely,” Nikolic’s attorney, Molly Lauterback, said.
In separate phone calls, detainees at all facilities made the same complaints: Lack of access to soap, cleaning supplies, gloves, and masks. Officials from ICE and all four facilities have repeatedly denied any shortcomings, and said they’ve stockpiled soap, cleaning supplies, and food for the long haul. None of the jails offer gloves or masks to detainees.
A statement from the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office said there is “disinfectant spray, a bleach-based solution to sanitize floors and surface space, hand sanitizer, and soap in every housing unit at the jail.” It added: “The administration is encouraging both staff and the jail general population to use these tools often and liberally.”
But the few cushions of daily detainee life are indeed being cut back: Barbershops, religious services, access to law libraries, and in-person meetings with attorneys. Detainees are spending more time locked in their cells, for social distancing purposes, which a consortium of immigrant advocacy groups calls “de facto solitary confinement.”
Incoming employees are screened when they enter the jail for each shift. But most frustrating for detainees is that as recently as late last week, new people arrested by ICE kept coming into their units, possibly carrying the coronavirus.
At the Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York, ICE arrivals are isolated for 2 weeks in their own cells in case they exhibit symptoms. But even though they’re in cells alone, detainee Jose Hernandez Velasquez said these new men are still living in his unit, on his floor. And the rest of the unit is freaked out by the sight of the medical staffers—in white suits, gloves and masks—who come into the unit twice a day to take temperatures of the isolated detainees.
“They shower in the same showers we do. They use the same phones. They eat from the same trays,” Hernandez Velasquez said. “They use the same pens as we do, they cook in the same microwave, they heat up the same food, they sit in the same chairs.”
Orange County Undersheriff Kenneth T. Jones said that none of the new detainees held in cells are exhibiting symptoms, and others on the unit are not at risk. He said they are following the advice of the medical authorities and keeping the isolated detainees six feet away from the others. “[Detainees] play for advocates—’you gotta let us out, because it’s coronavirus, you gotta let us out,’” Jones said.
Meanwhile, many immigration court hearings are postponed due to the virus. And that means Orange detainee Christopher O’Brien can’t even see a judge to get approved for the deportation he said he wants. “I’d rather just be deported and be done with it,” said O’Brien, a native of the United Kingdom. “I’m so desperate I don’t care where my freedom is at, as long as I’m free.”
O’Brien was transferred to Orange last week after finishing a 26-year prison sentence for racketeering and other charges. With many court cases on hold, he’s locked up indefinitely—and, he says, is vulnerable to infection.
“We’re at the mercy of God you could say, because no one else is protecting us.”
Unable to stage traditional protests, immigrant activists are supporting detainees by driving their cars in front of the jails—they were at Essex’s jail in Newark last week, and Hudson’s jail in Kearney on Sunday—blaring their horns and hanging signs from their back windshields. The groups Never Again Action and ICE Free New Jersey are planning another protest Friday in Hackensack, NJ, where the Bergen County jail is located.
Advocacy groups are also pushing both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Phil Murphy to invoke “emergency powers” to empty the jails, and they’re raising money to bond detainees out as soon as possible. In the least, they’re asking Murphy, whose state has four ICE detention centers, to use his position to press ICE on releases.
But Murphy blew off two questions from reporters about that possibility over the last four days. He deferred to the Attorney General’s Office on the matter of whether he can release ICE detainees, but a spokesperson there said this wasn’t the state’s jurisdiction. Murphy also may want to avoid infuriating the Trump Administration, and depriving three Democratic-run counties of the many millions of dollars they collect from the federal government to jail immigrants for ICE.
Detainees watch TV news and listen to WNYC, they said, so they’re aware that the death total from the pandemic is increasing. They’re most concerned about still being locked up when a loved one at home dies.
“If we have to starve we have to starve,” said Nathan Duenas, who’s at the Orange County jail. “If we have to lock ourselves in the gym we’re gonna lock ourselves in the gym. We just want freedom.”