New Jersey to release 1,000 from COVID-19 confinement

New Jersey will release about 1,000 people from its jails in what appears to be the nation’s broadest effort to address the risks of the highly contagious coronavirus spreading among the incarcerated, just as a coalition of over 30 organizations called on Governor Phil Murphy to exercise his emergency power to immediately release all people held pursuant to contracts with ICE in the county jails as well as all those held at the Elizabeth Detention Center.

The groups, led by Resist the Deportation Machine, sent the governor a letter calling on him to “act swiftly in the interest of public health and safety not only for those in the jails and detention center, but also for the public at large.”

The letter affirms the position expressed by the American Friends Service Committee, Newark People’s Organization for Progress, and other criminal justice advocates who called for the immediate release of all non-violent prisoners, all elderly or sick prisoners and all prisoners nearing their release in New Jersey’s penal facilities.

“We make this demand out of concern for the people detained by ICE in the state of NJ, particularly those that, out of anxiety and desperation, have begun hunger strikes to protest their continued detention during a global pandemic,” said Jorge Torres of ICE Free NJ.

Covid-19 has already been confirmed in the case of a guard at Bergen County, two inmates in the Hudson County Jail, and a health care worker at the Elizabeth Detention Center.

The threat of a major coronavirus outbreak in New Jersey’s jails and the Elizabeth Detention Center is imminent.

People locked up in immigration detention are extremely vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease due to their deprivation of liberty, deteriorating health while in detention, physical proximity to others who may be infected, and the track record of inadequate medical care in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) custody. 

Over three thousand medical professional demanded on March 19 that ICE release the detainees now. Doctors employed by DHS itself have warned of “tinderbox” spread unless the detainees are released.

“Jails and detention centers are not sealed environments. They require significant outside staffing from rotating shifts,” said Yael Webber of Never Again Newark. “The concentration of people, plus the rotation of people who come from different parts of the community through these facilities, makes them much more vulnerable.”

“In addition, what happens within the jail is sure to spread to the local community,” said Webber. “In order to control the spread of the virus, it is imperative that these people be released and not simply transferred to another detention facility hundreds of miles away.”

New Jersey’s chief justice, Stuart Rabner, signed an order authorizing the release of inmates serving certain types of sentences in county jails as the number of coronavirus cases in detention centers nationwide continues to mount.

From 2010 to 2016 NJ Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, a coalition of organizations concerned about the overuse and abuse of immigration detention, published a series of reports, in cooperation with the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, which documented the poor conditions in immigration detention including, lack of access to clean drinking water, inedible and spoiled food, abuse of solitary confinement and inadequate and denial of access to medical care. 

From 2016 to 2018, ACLU, Detention Watch Network, Human Rights Watch, and the National Immigrant Justice Center released three reports detailing how inadequate medical care has contributed to numerous deaths in ICE custody.

The dangerous and deadly effects of coronavirus are exacerbated in confinement, where people incarcerated are often malnourished due to rotting food and are denied information on the most basic of measures to prevent exposure of the virus.

“The governor cannot leave this urgent matter of public health and safety up to an agency that continues to show callous disregard for human life and health.  It is imperative that he take action to protect the entire community by clearing the jails of all those who can be released without endangering public safety” said Alejandro Jaramillo, an organizer with Cosecha NJ.  

“The same federal administration that bungled the job of keeping this disease out of our country has relished the tough guy image that comes with draconian immigration policies,” said Lisa McCormick, another anti-deportation activist. “People who came to America seeking freedom and prosperity do not deserve a death penalty, even if they broke some rules of procedure or found here a situation that they could not leave.”

Reports by NJ Advocates for Immigrant Detainees:

Locked Up But Not Forgotten – 2010

Immigration Incarceration: the Expansion and Failed Reform of Immigration Detention in Essex County, NJ-2012

23 Hours in the Box: Solitary Confinement in NJ Immigration Detention-2015

Isolated in Essex: Punishing Immigrants Through Solitary Confinement – 2016

DHS’s own report on conditions inside the Essex County Jail

Issues Requiring Action at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, NJ – 2019

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