by Kathy O’Leary
Pax Christi New Jersey

I have worked within coalitions to abolish immigration detention in New Jersey for the better part of the last 12 years. The New Jersey Jails, that double as ICE detention facilities through contracts signed by Democratically controlled county governments, have long been documented as having unsanitary conditions and dangerously poor medical care. We knew, however, by early March that the pandemic would increase the misery for incarcerated people exponentially.  

As a matter of course, incarcerated people are unable to practice social distancing, live in crowded conditions, are served unhealthy food, are denied access to healthcare and have limited access to basic hygiene. Soap is issued on a regular frequency, as opposed to “as needed”, and PPE, and cleaning and disinfecting supplies are simply unavailable. Hand sanitizer, because of its alcohol content is considered contraband. Epidemiologists and infectious disease experts have been clear since the beginning of the pandemic- the only way to avoid an outbreak in prisons and jails is to release as many people as possible and a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that incarcerated people are five and a half times more likely to contract Covid-19 and three times more likely to die from it.

By the third week of March all in-person visitation, in the three county jails in NJ that incarcerate people for ICE and the Elizabeth Detention Center, even from lawyers, was cancelled, cutting off access to people who could advocate for them. Many people in ICE detention were moved from dorms where they could move more freely, to cell blocks where they were confined to their cells for up to 23 hours per day. The growing staff shortages, as more and more people called in sick, likely due to the virus, combined with disruptions to the food supply meant meals became more meager, and were sometimes spoiled, and other times, still frozen. Each facility had its own protocols for dealing with, controlling and communicating with the outside about the outbreak but none of the official stories matched the information from family members and incarcerated people themselves of many, many people suffering from Covid-19 type symptoms and receiving little other than Tylenol. People like Erica, were forced to wonder if their loved ones would be upgraded to a death sentence after ICE refused to grant humanitarian parole.

Local officials like New Jersey’s Governor Murphy also refused to act. By the beginning of May, New Jersey had the highest prison death rate in the nation.

In May, there was a glimmer of hope for abolition, after AFSC, the Immigrant Defense Project and NYU Law filed a class action lawsuit to release everyone at the Elizabeth Detention Center due to conditions during the pandemic. In retaliation, ICE promptly deported one of the named plaintiffs, Hector Garcia Mendoza. As a result of protests at the facility, and subsequent research it was revealed that, a local company, Elberon Development Group, owned the facility and leased to CoreCivic. Elberon Development Group announced it would end its lease with CoreCivic (photo below: Whit Strub) after we began pressuring the company, politicians to which they had donated money and the institutions on which its principals occupied positions as trustees. Unfortunately, the closure likely will not happen for several years, but the lawsuit could still provide a positive outcome.  

Sadly there is still little political will to release people from jails, prisons and ICE detention let alone eliminate mass incarceration. The county governments have grown too accustomed to the money that these contracts bring in and legislators in general are unable to see the people they incarcerate as human beings.

How can you help ?

Donate: Give to this GoFundMe for Rosalba Palma so that she can be released from the Hudson County Jail and reunited with her family or to this general bond fund by First Friends of NJ & NY for all those seeking release from immigration detention in NJ.

Educate Yourself: Register here for Incarceration and Capitalism the first session of Political Education with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project including speakers from AFSC, Detention Watch Network, NYU Law School and Survived and Punished. 

Join us: Register for the #FreeThemAll phone zap happening this Friday from noon to 1:30 pm (Eastern time as we commemorate the 49th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising. Help us make sure elected officials do not deflect responsibility in addressing the public health crisis brewing inside NY and NJ’s prisons, jails, and ICE-contracted cages. Every Friday since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been pressuring local officials to FREE THEM ALL.

3 thoughts on “Prison is no place for a pandemic

  1. Hello, Kathy O’Leary!

    I attend the Friday noontime FreeThemAll zoom meetings and am always glad to hear your well-stated, grimly amused summaries of the week’s anti-immigrant antics in NJ. Thank you for the hard work that clearly goes into keeping track.

    I have recently heard about immigrant advocates who, without being lawyers, are trained to do legal work for detainees if they work for or volunteer with authorized organizations. I would like to become an advocate and am searching for an organization that could use me in that capacity.

    I have looked at the DOJ authorizations, and one of my favorite groups, the New Sanctuary Coalition, is unfortunately not recognized. Would you by any chance be able to suggest an authorized group that is looking for volunteers, please? I’d appreciate very much being able to pursue this.

    Thank you and best wishes.

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