Hunger strikes have broken out in three ICE detention centers in New Jersey as detainees protest what they describe as deteriorating conditions and a failure to adequately address the potential spread of COVID-19.
At the privately operated Elizabeth Detention Center — where a medical worker tested positive for COVID-19 this week in the first confirmed case at an ICE facility — at least one dormitory of approximately 40 detainees refused meals on Friday.
“They’re not taking any measures to protect us,” said a detainee at the facility, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “They haven’t done any cleaning. We spent three days without soap.”
The detainee said that the detention facility has done little or nothing in response to the confirmed COVID-19 case. He and his fellow inmates remain housed in a single large room with bunk beds, and new detainees have continued to be brought in from the outside.
They have not been supplied with hand sanitizer or any personal protective equipment. Guards are not using gloves or masks. He and the other hunger strikers are demanding to be released — or at least that no new detainees be brought into the facility.
“There’s a lot of fear, because if they bring in an infected person, we’re all going to get infected,” said the detainee, an asylum seeker from Central America who was apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. “If anyone gets something here, then we all get it, because we all breathe the same air.”
At the Hudson County Corrections and Rehabilitation Center — a county jail with a contract to house ICE detainees — inmates began a hunger strike Wednesday, with others joining them Thursday. This follows an ongoing hunger strike at the jail in Essex County, which was first announced Tuesday.
A detainee who was released from the Hudson facility on Wednesday, who asked to be identified only as Nick, says he was placed in isolation this week and tested for COVID-19 with no explanation. He was then told his test results were negative and returned to the general population. The detainees in his dormitory had been moved from a single, open hall into individual cells, each one housing two people. Nick described the rooms as tiny, filthy, and freezing. Each room has a single toilet with no cover, which the detainees are only allowed to flush twice an hour.
The detainees are still brought into common areas once a day in groups of around 20, but are not told to exercise any precautions, Nick said. They were given one source of hand sanitizer this week, which quickly ran out.
Olisa Uzoegwu, who has been detained at the Hudson facility for 18 months, was moved into a two-person cell on Monday. He stopped eating on Wednesday.
“The cells stink. The toilets don’t flush. There’s never enough soap. They give out soap once a week. One bar of soap a week. How does that make any sense?”
“They say they are locking us in so we can be protected,” he said. “But they don’t do anything different. The cells stink. The toilets don’t flush. There’s never enough soap. They give out soap once a week. One bar of soap a week. How does that make any sense?”
Panic has spread across the facility, but personnel have failed to communicate clearly about the ongoing crisis.
“We can actually watch the news,” Nick said. “That’s how we know what’s going on, and that’s how we know we should wash our hands, try not to touch the phone, things like that. We do all these things because we watch the news, not because the facility is trying to enforce that kind of behavior.”
“When you’re in here, you get frustrated and you want to give up on everything,” said Uzoegwu. “It breaks you down. Who knows how long this is going to go on?”
ICE has not confirmed any additional cases of COVID-19 among staff or detainees in New Jersey. When asked if facilities had done any testing, Rachel Yong Yow, an agency spokesperson, did not answer the question directly, instead pointing to national policy that says ICE testing complies with CDC guidance.
Yong Yow directed further questions to the facilities themselves. Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, the private prison giant that runs the Elizabeth detention center, directed all questions to ICE.
James Kennelly, a spokesperson for Hudson County, said two detainees at the facility had been tested for COVID-19 with negative results, and that new detainees are screened for symptoms of the virus and returned to ICE if symptomatic. He defended conditions at the facility, saying inmates are given hand sanitizer upon arrival and that cells are “cleaned regularly and are heated.”
Attorneys who represent detainees at the Hudson and Essex County facilities say inmates are reporting threats and intimidation by guards when they’re heard discussing conditions on the phone. Because detention centers across the country have already canceled in-person visits from family and attorneys as a precautionary measure, this means detainees are increasingly isolated and in the dark.
“I don’t see why we should take ICE at their word,” said Sophia Gurulé, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders. “It’s clear that their main interest is to erase people in their jails and obfuscate the truth from the American public.”
Thousands of doctors and hundreds of advocacy organizations have sent open letters to ICE this week demanding the agency release all detainees to protect them from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Some advocates are asking ICE to prioritize the release of inmates with underlying health conditions. The Legal Aid Society and Bronx Defenders filed a federal lawsuit Friday demanding the immediate release of several clients detained in New Jersey with diabetes, lung and heart disease, and other conditions that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
ICE announced this week that it would scale down enforcement operations to focus on people with criminal records. However, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security subsequently walked back that announcement on Twitter, and immigration attorneys are skeptical that it would make much of a difference anyway.
“Their definition of criminal has basically been anyone who’s ever had any contact with the criminal justice system,” said Allison Wilkinson of the Legal Aid Society. “So I don’t necessarily trust that to mean they’re actually going to limit enforcement.”
Advocates around the country are concerned that COVID-19 will inevitably break out in ICE detention centers, and that when it does, the facilities will be badly ill equipped to handle the crisis. Advocates and researchers have documented often fatal structural failures in medical care at ICE facilities for years, and ICE facilities have recently struggled to contain outbreaks of mumps, chicken pox, flu, and tuberculosis.
“On a normal day, conditions in immigrant detention are extremely dire,” said Rebecca Gendelman, a legal fellow with Human Rights First. “There’s limited access to medical care, the care is often not adequate, and neither are hygiene and cleaning. And all this is before there’s a global pandemic.”
Nick, the detainee who was recently released from the Hudson facility, said it’s not uncommon for detainees with medical complaints to have to wait two or three days to see a doctor, or to have to request medical assistance multiple times before they receive it — if they receive it at all.
“It’s well known between us inmates that sometimes, when you get sick, it’s kind of like winning the lottery if you get to see a doctor,” he said.
Cover: This Dec. 10, 2008, file photo shows a row of beds at the Elizabeth Detention Facility, a CoreCivic immigration facility in Elizabeth, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)