New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has signed an order calling for the temporary release of up to 1,000 inmates in New Jersey jails. The order comes in response to the rapidly escalating health crisis posed by COVID-19. There is, however, no plan to release undocumented immigrants held in detention centers across the state.
Inmates at Hudson, Elizabeth, and Essex immigration detention centers have launched hunger strikes in an effort to draw attention to unsanitary living conditions and demand release.
On Sunday, nearly 100 cars circled the Hudson County Correctional Center in a show of support for the demands of the detained. Hazard lights blinked and horns honked — an in-car, social-isolation protest outside the facility, a county jail that holds both local arrestees and immigrants apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
‘In New Jersey, everything’s closed. Why are the detention centers open?’
“Release Them Now,” read signs hung in vehicle windows. “Detention is Deadly.”
The protest was the second in a series of “car actions” organized by ICE-Free New Jersey and Never Again Action.
“We’re using our voices in the way we can,” said Jeff L. of New Jersey Democratic Socialists of America. In recent days, similar COVID-safe actions have occurred in California and Massachusetts, using cars and projecting protest images on buildings.
“Our planning process is developing as rapidly as this virus,” Hallie Berkson-Gold of Never Again Action explained. “We’ve had to pivot rapidly to adjust to immediate needs. We realized there are ways to do direct action while following COVID guidelines if you get creative with it.”
COVID-19 is seriously endangering not only inmates at correctional facilities but also employees, attorneys, and their families. Over 3,000 medical professionals have signed a letter urging ICE to release immigrants from detention.
“We remind people that Anne Frank was a victim of the Holocaust who did not die in a gas chamber, but died of Typhus — a communicable and preventable disease caught in a concentration camp,” said Berkson-Gold.
Positive cases of COVID-19 are already popping up in detention centers.
At Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, a correctional employee has tested positive for COVID-19 and eight employees are currently self-quarantined. The Hudson County facility is currently on lockdown after two inmates tested positive for the virus. A medical worker at the Elizabeth Detention Center has tested positive.
Rikers Island, although it doesn’t hold ICE detainees, is another example of how quickly infection can spread behind bars. Twenty-one inmates and 17 employees have tested positive.
Nevertheless, ICE raids continue across the country.
“In New Jersey, everything’s closed. Why are the detention centers open?” asks Jorge Torres, East Regional Coordinator of ICE-Free New Jersey.
Yesterday we surrounded an ICE Detention Center in NJ. We won’t let COVID turn detention centers into death camps.
— ✡️ Never Again Action ✡️ (@NeverAgainActn) March 23, 2020
Torres immigrated from Ecuador at 16 years old and was undocumented for seven years.
“I was afraid,” he said. “My dad, my mom, my whole family — we were always scared of the police.”
He was one of the key organizers of the actions this past weekend.
“It’s hard to be organizing and worry about people in the detention centers while also trying to protect myself, my family, and my loved ones,” Torres said. “We’re complaining about being stuck in our homes. Imagine being stuck in a cell, without your basic needs met. That pushes me to work for what is right.”
Contracts with ICE are a financial benefit for many counties, Jeff L. points out.
“It’s built into their budgets,” he said. “ICE contracts get counties in New Jersey over $100 million a year. New Jersey is one of the bluest states in the county. It’s largely Democrats who are the gatekeepers for immigrant justice. And they’re operating, maintaining and benefitting from these ICE contracts.”
Activists see the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to examine the country’s social and legal systems.
“This virus is giving us a chance to pause,” Torres says. “This is a time for us to realize that jails are not the answers for our communities. We should be spending more money on after school programs, on art in our schools. Not detaining, incarcerating and criminalizing our people.”
The release of low-level offenders in New Jersey county jails is an encouraging step for those demanding the same for detainees and inmates with underlying health conditions.
“If you can cut the prison industrial complex and it bleeds, you can kill it,” said Jeff L.
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