Fifteen detained and previously detained immigrants at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, have lodged a complaint with the Department for Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on Tuesday, alleging mistreatment and abuse at the facility.
The groups that filed the complaint on behalf of the immigrants — Freedom for Immigrants, the Center for Constitutional Rights and UnLocal Inc. — are urging DHS to open an investigation into the conditions and reports of misconduct by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials at the facility.
The organizations are also imploring ICE to terminate its agreement with Bergen County, and to release the detained immigrants from the facility.
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The 13-page complaint includes testimony of medical negligence, sexual assault, religious discrimination and retaliation against detained immigrants for speaking publicly about the conditions inside of the jail. An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on the complaint.
In the complaint, several immigrants alleged that medical professionals did not provide any or adequate treatment for medical conditions.
Romeo Konneh, a detained immigrant held at Bergen who was diagnosed with diabetes and the HPV virus a few months into ICE detention, said that the doctor inside the facility refused to treat him and told him that he was “making things up,” the complaint said. “I am afraid to lose my life because this doctor won’t treat me,” Konneh said on an April 30 call to the Freedom for Immigrants hotline, spelled out in the complaint.
ICE officials also declined to give Konneh a low sodium food tray specifically designated for people with diabetes, the complaint said. Because of this, has been feeling weak, dizzy and has experienced blurred vision.
Additionally, ICE has declined to release individuals from detention who are at greater risk of contracting severe COVID-19, the complaint said, refusing to follow court orders which specify that ICE must review cases of individuals who may fit this description.
Another detained immigrant, Steven Guilmeus, told the group Freedom for Immigrants that he was sexually assaulted by an officer, the complaint said. While the bed sheets were being changed on a morning in late March, he had to leave his room and an officer “purposefully touched his private parts,” he said, an action that falls under ICE’s own definition of sexual assault. “Steven then told the officer he cannot touch him inappropriately,” the complaint said. “And the officer said, ‘you can’t do anything about it.’”
Along with ICE officials mistreating individuals held inside Bergen, hygienic conditions in the jails are “deplorable,” the complaint said. Immigrants have described seeing larvae in the food they were served, receiving soiled sheets to use for their beds and having to cram sheets under their doors so that mice would not come into their rooms.
“There is larva in our food. The bathrooms are disgusting. The laundromat is disgusting. There is a rodent infestation,” said Jean Claude Wright, a detained immigrant who outlined what he saw inside the facility to Freedom for Immigrants.
Bergen County Jail has been rife with signs of unrest in recent months. Activists have protested outside of the facility to push for the release of all detained immigrants as transfers have escalated from the four New Jersey ICE detention centers. In early June, 14 protesters were arrested outside the jail as they attempted to stop the deportation of a detained immigrant. Individuals inside of Bergen continue to participate in hunger strikes in an effort to build up an outcry about the treatment of detained immigrants at the facility.
As of late June, there were 38 detained immigrants held at Bergen. The current contract with ICE at the Bergen County Jail does not have an expiration date, but the facility is not taking new detained immigrants, Bergen County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Keisha McLean previously told Documented.
In calls with Documented, detained immigrants at Bergen have detailed similar experiences as those reported in the complaint. The food is often rotten, individuals repeatedly get sick inside the jail and sometimes the only option is to drink water from the bathroom sink because there is no other water available, said Marcos Castillo Hidalgo, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was nine years old. He served almost a year in prison for a criminal drug conviction before being transferred to ICE detention.
“If it was up to me, I would have stayed in prison for this whole year that they’ve been having me here,” he said in an interview. “I was in better conditions in prison.”
In the complaint, immigrants also alleged religious discrimination, one man said they were kept inside for more than 22 hours a day, and another said that officials called him derogatory names for reporting alleged abuse inside of the jail to ICE in Washington D.C.
“Bergen County Jail is plagued by unconscionable human rights abuses, and there must be immediate action from DHS and the CRCL office to stop this chaos,” Tania Mattos, Policy and Northeast Monitoring Manager at Freedom for Immigrants, said in a statement. “The abuses that occur here are endemic to the entire immigration detention system. This complaint underscores the urgent need to shut down not only this ICE jail, but all detention centers.”
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