Following months of hunger strikes and protests by immigrant detainees and their supporters, the Essex County Board of Commissioners announced Wednesday it will end a 13-year-long relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and move people detained by ICE out of Essex County Jail by August. They will replace them with inmates from Union County (NJ) Jail.
“It’s really good news that Essex won’t be profiting off of ICE anymore but they are just replacing people detained by ICE with Union County inmates, still profiting off mass incarceration,” said Micah Jay, an organizer with NO ICE US.
Jay said transferring so many inmates between facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic — instead of releasing them — is dangerous. Still, they added, “it’s a terrible situation but maybe this provides a speck of headway.”
Essex County made $33.4 million in 2019 from holding ICE detainees in its jail in Newark and $20.9 million in 2020 when the number of detainees dropped due to the pandemic.
The lucrative relationship that Essex, Bergen and Hudson Counties — all led by Democrats — have enjoyed with ICE was the subject of The Indypendent’s May cover story. The article combined testimony from detainees who described inedible food, filthy living conditions, poor health care and the use of physical and sexual violence by guards against inmates with a look at the local political machines that have benefited from this arrangement and the activists who are challenging them.
“Journalism is the speaker phone for us,” said Imani Oakley, an Essex County-based political organizer and former legislative director for the New Jersey Working Families Party. “It can really be the tipping point, especially when you have politicians whose careers depend on them looking good in the public eye. I’m really thankful The Indypendent was able to investigate and cover this. It makes a difference. It really does.”
Essex County Commissioner President Wayne Richardson acknowledged the pressure county leaders have been under in a statement he released yesterday.
“[The] board [of commissioners] has heard clearly and consistently from constituents concerned about ICE detainees and the County’s contract with ICE,” he said in a statement released yesterday. “Those concerns have not fallen upon unconcerned ears.”
However, Essex County Executive Joe DiVencenzo made it clear that he is not acting out of altruism in his decision. “We will begin depopulating ICE detainees from the Essex County Correctional Facility because we have entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with Union County to house inmates from Union at the [Essex County Correctional Facility],” he said on Twitter.
Organizers hope that Essex County’s decision will give more momentum to efforts to force Bergen and Hudson Counties to end their contracts with ICE.
“We will have one less place where people are held in detention, so that’s one less facility to spend our energy on,” said Marcial Morales, who spent nine months in ICE detention, at both Essex and Bergen county jails. “With all this media and political action happening, I hope they will stop holding ICE detainees at the rest of the facilities.”
Just yesterday, Anthony Vainieri Jr., the chair of the Hudson County Board of Commissioners, who had been a fervent supporter of the county’s relationship with ICE, told POLITICO, “I can see us trying to get out [of housing ICE detainees] by the end of the year.”
Hudson would only end operations with ICE, Vainieri said, if they could guarantee another source of revenue, likely from housing Mercer County inmates at Hudson County Jail.
Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise said in 2018 that he would initiate a “path to exit” from the county’s ICE contract. But in 2020, signed another 10-year contract with ICE in spite of fierce protests against the measure. Unlike previous agreements, the new contract gave DeGise full authority over contract negotiations.
Bergen County’s ICE contract is open-ended and Sheriff Anthony Cureton, who is in charge of the contract, has not indicated any willingness on whether or not to end his country’s contract.
“The sheriff said that there’s nothing they need to improve and his jail is like a hotel,” Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director at the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrant Rights Program, previously told The Indypendent.
People detained by ICE at both Bergen and Hudson Counties have carried out hunger strikes over the past year in protest of the conditions at the jails and the way that ICE handles their deportation cases, often holding them in detention for years while little headway is made on their cases.
While advocates demand that the people detained by ICE at Essex County be released on parole, a spokesperson for ICE said that, “As to where the [ICE] detainees at Essex will be transferred to, [ICE] is currently considering its options both locally and nationally.”
“It’s a good thing that Essex is closing. There are too many rapes and abuse there,” says Marcial Morales. “But most likely the people at Essex are gonna be moved to Bergen County … some detainees are already being moved there. Bergen County is the worst place to me when it comes to mental pain. There is no law library, there is no recreation room. The worst part is that there’s no clean water to drink. And there’s rats.”
Essex County is anticipating roughly $11.3 million per year in revenue from its agreement with Union ($104 per inmate per night, with an est. 300 inmates a night).
Pre-pandemic, the jail held roughly 600 ICE detainees a night, but the population this week is down to 165 detainees (195 last month), which comes out to about $7 million per year in ICE revenue.
Although people detained by ICE will be moved out of the jail by the end of August, the contract between the agency and the county, which doesn’t expire until 2026, will still exist — its terms could technically be re-adopted anytime.
“Journalism can really be the tipping point, especially when you have politicians whose careers depend on them looking good in the public eye.”
Earlier this month, three people who were detained by ICE at Essex County went on hunger strike for more than 30 days. One of the men told Marcial Morales that he was beaten up before being transferred to another facility, after having fasted for 32 days.
When it comes down to it, most immigrants rights advocates are wary of Essex County’s decision, says Abolish ICE NY-NJ, a coalition of more than 20 organizations. “We reject Essex County’s carceral solution to its self-created problem of extricating itself from its chosen path of collaboration with ICE’s racist agenda of detention and deportation. We demand more imaginative visions of justice,” it said in a press release yesterday.
ICE is currently seeking to create more detention space in Jersey. In 2020, they released a Request For Information (RFI), exploring the possibility of building two new 900-bed detention facilities in the state. In January, New Jersey state legislators introduced legislation that would bar local governments from renewing expiring agreements with ICE and prevent public and private detention facilities in the state from signing new contracts.
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