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As Coronavirus Threat Loomed, Detainee Says NJ Jail Made No Changes

“The officer’s routines and procedures never changed,” a former detainee said

Max Siegelbaum

Mar 23, 2020

Hudson County Correctional Facility. Photo: Mazin Sidahmed

Roughly a week before Hudson County Correctional Facility announced it had two confirmed cases of the coronavirus within its inmate population, immigrant detainees in one wing of the jail passed around a petition. The guards were still bringing in detainees off the street into the dorm, one former detainee explained. The petition was to ask them to stop. “The officer’s routines and procedures never changed,” Alberto, a recent detainee at Hudson County said.

The detainees had heard about the spread of the coronavirus through the television news in February and were starting to get worried, he said. One day late last month, social workers and guards came into the dorm where they were all held and put up signs for the detainees to wash their hands, he said. Besides that, he noticed no difference. ICE continued to bring newly arrested people into his dorm, Alberto said, despite the protests of people around him.

Alberto is an asylum seeker from a country in Central America who was arrested at the border last summer. Alberto is not his real name as he preferred to speak anonymously as he’s afraid of being detained again. He was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in New York late last year and was brought to Hudson County. He was given a bunk in a large room that would swell in size to about 60 people when the jail guards would bring in new detainees who were arrested by ICE, he said.

Hudson County did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

The agency is facing increased pressure to release detainees due to the deadly spread of COVID-19. The Center for Disease Control recommends that Americans avoid gathering in groups of ten and wash their hands regularly, two things that are impossible in a detention setting. ICE has also come under scrutiny for the medical care it provides for immigrants detained in its custody. This fiscal year, 10 immigrants have died in ICE custody. An analysis by ProPublica of reports written after people died in ICE detention found that the agency has difficulty handling contagious diseases. 

Other than posting signs around the dorm, Alberto said he noticed no difference in protocol as fears of the coronavirus threat spread. Every Tuesday they would get the same rations: a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste and a roll of toilet paper. The detainees are tasked with cleaning the jail and are paid $1 per day for their efforts, he said.

Alberto was released on bond and is now awaiting instructions from the immigration courts, which have frozen all non-detained cases over the coronavirus. He’s looking for a job, but now with the threat of virus growing, he hasn’t been able to find work. He was skeptical that the jail staff could stem the spread of the virus. 

“You do everything together – everyone eats in the same area, everyone sleeps in the same area, there’s no personal space,” he said. If someone contracted the virus, he said, it would likely continue before the jail detect anything. “I don’t think they would be able to notice or tell.”

A spokesperson for ICE sent Documented a list of measures the agency says it’s taking to combat the spread of the coronavirus in detention. “This includes the use of N95 masks, available respirators, and additional personal protective equipment,” the guidance says. The agency says it screens new arrivals for fever or respiratory symptoms and observes them for a “specified time period.” Detainees without fever or other symptoms are monitored for 14 days. 

Many of the immigrants who are arrested by ICE in the New York metro area end up in detention in the Elizabeth Detention Center, Essex County Correctional Facility, the Bergen County Jail and the Hudson County Correctional Facility. Last week, a member of the medical staff at the Elizabeth Detention Center tested positive for the coronavirus. Fifteen Bergen County jail inmates were placed in quarantine after a corrections officer tested positive for the virus this weekend. Last week, detainees announced they were going on hunger strike at Hudson, Essex County Correctional Facility and the Bergen County jail over the poor conditions they’re held in, they say. 

On Monday, The Legal Aid Society and The Bronx Defenders requested a temporary restraining order to immediately free clients who are at high risk of COVID-19 from local immigration detention centers. The two organizations filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York that sought the immediate release of seven detainees on the grounds that continuing to detain them would constitute “deliberate indifference to the risk of serious medical harm in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.”

Max Siegelbaum

Co-executive Director of Documented




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