July 13, 2021, Newark, N.J. – Fifteen immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody today lodged a multi-individual complaint with the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) calling for an investigation into ongoing abuses, including medical neglect, violent retaliation, COVID-19 negligence, religious discrimination, sexual assault, and overall intolerable conditions at the Bergen County Jail (BCJ) in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Filed by Freedom for Immigrants, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and UnLocal Inc., the complaint includes direct testimony on incidents of abuse in April and May of this year. The complaint describes a pattern and practice of deplorable standards of care that fail to meet even ICE’s own protocols, a culture of fear where immigrants are routinely retaliated against for speaking out, and blatant racial and religious discrimination in decisions related to medical care and release from detention. Moreover, officials at BCJ are violating federal court orders by denying release to individuals who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the complaint.
Those at BCJ who speak out against the conditions and ICE’s continued denial of release are met with violent retaliation and coercion by the agency, often involving the use of pepper spray. “Every time you make a complaint against an ICE official they retaliate,” said one individual in the complaint, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “Every time we raise our voices there are consequences,” they continued.
In one incident on May 7, 2021, immigrants across the entire ICE prison were pepper-sprayed, and ICE subjected seven people to solitary confinement, where they had no access to a shower for 30 days. In another instance, corroborated by several individuals, a young man was beaten by officers and dragged down the steps after seeking to peacefully intervene as an officer placed his knee on the back of the neck of a 50-year-old Black man.
“Bergen County Jail is plagued by unconscionable human rights abuses, and there must be immediate action from DHS and the CRCL office to stop this chaos,” said Tania Mattos, policy and northeast monitoring manager at Freedom for Immigrants. “Everyone in the jail must be freed and returned to their loved ones and communities. Transfers will not be enough, because, the truth is, the abuses that occur here are endemic to the entire immigration detention system. This complaint underscores the urgent need to shut down not only this ICE jail, but all detention centers.”
“Immigrants detained at Bergen County Jail are fighting for dignity and their basic human rights, but instead of following simple protocol, officials at Bergen continue to silence and retaliate against immigrants through the use of solitary confinement, transfers, beatings, threats, racial slurs, and taunting,” said Samah Sisay, attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “We demand an investigation into these abuses and an end to the ICE contract at Bergen.”
The complaint details several instances of egregious and life-threatening medical negligence, including discrimination from ICE medical personnel. “The doctor once told me that ‘If you don't like the way that I'm talking to you, go back to your country,’” recalled Romeo Konneh, one of the individuals named in the complaint.
COVID-19 has spread rapidly in the facility as ICE continues to violate basic safety protocols at the jail. The appalling conditions and lack of sanitation – worsened by rotten food and mosquito and rat infestations – severely exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in the prison setting. “The water isn’t clean,” said Marcial Morales Garcia, who was previously detained at the jail. “And a lot of the time the sinks don’t even work, so you have to drink out of the toilet.”
In addition to calling for an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the groups urge ICE to terminate the Intergovernmental Services Agreement (IGSA) with Bergen County and release everyone who remains in the jail back into the community.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.