Protest for release of people incarcerated hits Elizabeth

On Friday, April 17, family members of immigrants incarcerated in NJ, community members, faith leaders, immigrant advocates, political activists and social justice organizations joined in a “driving protest” to urge Governor Phil Murphy and John Tsoukaris, ICE Field office director, to act immediately to release all people in immigration detention in New Jersey’s county jails as well as all the Elizabeth Detention Center.

The organizations supporting the event include, Action 21, Cosecha New Jersey, Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War, Green Party New Jersey, Jobs & Equal Rights for All Campaign, Never Again Action, Lazos America Unida, NJ5 Indivisible, and Pax Christi New Jersey.

This was the seventh driving protest calling for the release of people incarcerated by ICE that has been organized in New Jersey since social distancing orders have been in place.

The Elizabeth Detention Center is the oldest detention center in New Jersey and it comes with a sordid history that includes a riot and avoidable deaths.

A series of articles in the NY Times regarding the tragic death of Boubacar Bah from a head injury sustained while he was detained at the Elizabeth Detention Center and complicated by a denial of medical care, thrust the facility into the national spotlight in 2008.

“Help! They are Killing Me- that is what Boubacar Bah cried out as he lay on the floor of an isolation cell suffering from a brain injury ,” said Alejandro Jaramillo, an organizer with Cosecha. “Today people from inside the walls of the Elizabeth Detention are still crying out in fear for their lives.”

“Today, people who have tested positive for Covid-19 are living in a small cramped room where they are placed for quarantine, with little medical care and a lack of soap ,” said Jaramillo. “The rest of the people who are detained there live in open dorms. They sleep in beds five feet apart as they watch the people around them get sick and they are served spoiled food. If this were a kennel for dogs it would have been shut down.”

Unlike the jails that have seen significant reductions in their populations since at least March of this year, the Elizabeth Detention Center maintains pre-pandemic numbers with 309 people in detention at the facility.

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.

The coalition members have reason to be concerned over the cleanliness of all the New Jersey facilities and the limited access to healthcare for detainees held in NJ.

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.

For over 20 years, the Elizabeth Detention Center has been the site of protests calling for an end to the inhumane, unjust and unnecessary practice of incarcerating people who are seeking asylum or who are simply suspected of being in violation of immigration laws.

In recent years it has also been the site of civil disobedience. In 2013, eight people were arrested after they formed a human chain and blocked the road. In 2019, 36 people were arrested as they blocked the entrances to the center.

“We keep coming back here to witness at the site of such great injustice. This is where immigration detention in NJ began. It has always been a place of sorrow and suffering and death of spirit if not of the body. Our pleas and our protest are all that more needed and all that more urgent now,” said Kathy O’Leary, coordinator for the New Jersey Region of Pax Christi.   

Report 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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