FCC Takes Action on the Wright Petition for Fair Prison Phone Rates

For more pictures, visit http://nationinside.org/.

On December 26, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally acknowledged the exorbitant cost of phone calls for prisoners and immigrants detained across the U.S. and their families. The FCC released a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Wright Petition, an appeal to the FCC that has been ignored for the last ten years.

Filed in 2003, the Wright Petition for rulemaking calls upon the FCC to cap all inter-state inmate calling services at no higher than $0.20 per minute for debit calling and $0.25 per minute for collect calling. The FCC sought comment on the petition in 2007, but there was little movement, until this year. The recent movement is energized by the organizing efforts of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and FCC Commissioner Clyburn’s public announcement of her support of the Wright Petition in September of 2012.

At a November 15th rally outside the FCC, organized by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn reiterated her support for the Wright Petition. She announced that FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski would circulate a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Wright Petition for a vote. Over the next few months, the FCC will receive public comments as they determine how to regulate interstate prison phone calls, with an official vote of the FCC on this issue pending.

Following the November 15th rally, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Cook County, Illinois are all taking matters into their own hands, pursuing steps to lower the rates for inmate telephone calls at the local and state levels. 

State prison systems make $362 million in annual gross revenue because of exclusive contracts between the prisons and private phone corporations that provide what are essentially kickbacks to state and local governments. These payments inflate the cost of the calls by upward of 42 percent nationwide, according to Prison Legal News (PLN). This $362 million that the state prison systems rake in annually does not include the revenue generated from similar contracts between local county governments and jails that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrants in detention and telecommunication companies, which also subject immigrants in detention and their families to high phone rates.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, Maryland state prisons contract exclusively with the telecommunication giant Securus in exchange for lucrative commission payments paid to the state of Maryland. Local calls from prisons in Maryland cost 85 cents, intrastate calls cost $2.55 plus 30 cents per minute and interstate calls cost $2.70 plus 30 cents per minute. Commission payments to the state of Maryland are up to 60 percent of the price of phone calls, generating $5.2 million for Maryland in 2010.

Unfortunately, the FCC cannot ban commission payments, which are passed to those imprisoned and their families. However, 8 states nationwide have banned commission payments through legislation. In these states, the costs of calls from prison have dropped significantly. In Michigan, for example, rates fell from $3.99 plus 89 cents per minute to a flat rate of about 15 cents per minute after commissions were banned in 2008, according to data from PLN. Similarly, prison phone rates in New York dropped by almost 69% when the state banned commission payments in 2008.  California enacted S.B. 81 during the 2007-2008 session, which prohibited and phased out commission payments reducing the cost of calls from prison by 61%, according to PLN.  

It is clear that the state legislative bans on commission payments in the state prison systems have resulted in greatly reduced calling rates.  However, such state legislation has not banned commission payments to local governments.  As a result, county jails across the country that contract with ICE to hold immigrants in detention can enter into lucrative contracts with prison phone corporations and charge immigrants in detention exorbitant calling rates.  

Although the FCC cannot ban commission payments to local and state governments from telecommunication companies they contract with, the FCC can regulate and cap the cost of interstate or long distance phone rates from state prisons, county jails, and detention centers across the country, protecting both state prisoners and immigrants who are detained by ICE.

Hundreds of families submitted letters of support urging the FCC to act on the Wright Petition. These letters are part of the broader Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. Without this increased and concerted public pressure, it is doubtful that the FCC would have acted on the Wright Petition. During the coming months, the FCC will be reviewing a wide array of stakeholder input, in order to act fairly on this issue.

CIVIC urges individuals and families who have been affected by the high price of phone calls from the immigration detention system to submit letters of support for the Wright Petition to the FCC. It is important that the FCC recognize that the power to regulate interstate call rates has the potential to protect immigrants in detention as well as state prisoners. Stories of the hardship that immigrants in detention and their families must endure due to the high cost of phone calls are an important contribution to the FCC docket, as they educate commissioners about the dire consequences such costs have on the ability of families to remain in contact.

In the end, it is a question of value. If we, as a society, recognize and value the right of families to maintain contact with one another, over and above the right of corporations to make a profit, then the FCC must act to protect our family values. If you would like to submit a letter of support for the Wright Petition to the FCC, please contact Christina Mansfield, cmansfield@endisolation.org.

Fully Experience the Joy of the Holidays!

Yesterday, on CIVIC’s national visitation monthly call, we practiced a short breathing exercise just to center us and bring us into the present moment.  I think for many of us it’s hard to celebrate this joyous season knowing that over 32,000 mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters—immigrants in detention—won’t be with their families for the holidays.

But its crucial, epecially in this time of year, to take care of ourselves.  This NY Times opinion by Maria Konnikova, The Power of Concentration, talks about meditation and mindfulness.  The University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.

In order for us to truly be able to engage the world and be supportive to the men and women we have become friends with in detention, its important to take care of ourselves.  One of my mentors and close friends sent me an email recently where she encouraged me to take care of myself:  

“I know sometimes it’s really hard to celebrate anything fully when the people you’re surrounded by, the ones you’re advocating for, are struggling so hard to maintain just a tiny bit of hope. Please remember…just like on an airplane, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first if you want to be able to help anyone else. The same is true in the kind of work you do. You have to take care of yourselves first in order to press on in this most important mission.”

Please take time out to breathe, to meditate, and to fully experience the joy of the holidays!

From Arkansas…

Visit a Detained Immigrant
By Sara Mullally

Originally published in the Arkansas Times, this article was written by CIVIC Leadership Council Member Sara Mullally about visiting immigrants detained in Arkansas.

Everyone should take the time to visit an immigrant in jail, prison or a detention center. It is an eye-opening experience that will redefine the comfortable line you’ve drawn between yourself and those inside. I participate in a program through Arkansas Interfaith Conference, where the only goal is to provide a friendly visit to an immigrant in jail. Immigrant detainees often have no visitors for one or many reasons. Their families fear having to present an ID or may have no way to get to the jail, and some detainees simply have no family for miles. Immigrants can be taken into custody over something as petty as a traffic violation. Once they are in the immigration system, they may be transferred multiple times while awaiting trial or deportation. While detainees are shipped to what can be deplorable, dehumanizing facilities, their families are left in the dark, wondering where their loved ones will end up. The detainees say that even visits from perfect strangers help them cope. It helps them feel human again, rather than being relegated to some Alien Identification Number. As visitors, we gain so much. Through connecting with these forgotten people, our views on immigration and criminal justice are influenced by what happens to the real people we have come to know. Afterwards, we can’t look at our society with the same naive eyes. It’s transformative to see how our government policies affect children, friends, families, and communities. The policies championed at the Capitol take on a different hue when viewed from the perspective of a beleaguered stranger, shielded from the public’s view.

You’ve got mail! You’ve got a visitor! You’ve got a friend! And it means the world!

As communities across the country continue to discuss how they can work together to end the isolation of men and women in immigration detention, the idea of pen pals keeps surfacing.

While there are over 20 visitation programs across the country, there remains over 200 detention facilities without a visitation program.  CIVIC’s Pen Pal Program is designed to connect volunteers in any part of the country with people in immigration detention who do not yet have visitors.

CIVIC’s Pen Pal Program promotes principled relationships between men and women in immigration detention and supporters outside the walls.  CIVIC’s Pen Pal Program is open to non-U.S. citizens and undocumented individuals.  To learn more about writing to immigrants in detention, check out the simple guide below created by the Restoration Project in Florence, Arizona.  To become a Pen Pal, email CIVIC at info@endisolation.org.

Writing to Immigrants in Detention

by The Restoration Project

Living inside of an immigration detention center isn’t easy. Some people have said they felt lonely, confused, bored, afraid. Being separated from family, friends, and all that is familiar is stressful. Being treated like a prisoner, while awaiting an unknown outcome, can take a tremendous psychological toll. Some—like the men being held in the Pinal County Jail—do not even have a chance go outside. Often the food is unfamiliar, bland, and limited. Phone calls cost several dollars a minute and therefore are out of reach financially for many.

Your letter can become solace, encouragement, and a very real connection to the outside world in the midst of this difficult time in someone’s life. When we write to men and women being detained we are making a human connection across the walls and barbed wire. We are honoring the dignity of every human being—something not always done inside the centers. Your letter also sends a message to the person receiving it and the others around him or her, that someone knows they are there. They are not alone. They have support. Some people have said that guards treat them better when they receive letters and visitors.

Because your letter will mean so much to many of the people you write to, here are a few things to understand before you make a commitment to write to those being detained.

• We write as friends. We are not writing as lawyers, doctors, or social workers. We are one human connecting with another human being in solidarity as we seek to honor the dignity of all. Do not attempt to give legal advice. 

• Keep your promises. Don’t make commitments you can’t keep. If you say you will write to someone, you must. Your letter means so much more than most of us can possibly imagine. You may not be able or willing to do what someone asks of you—call family, send money, etc. That is okay. Know your own boundaries. And talk with a facilitator of the writing project when questions arise.

• Do not take away someone’s power. While they may be in a temporarily vulnerable position, many immigrant men and women in detention centers are some of the most courageous, intelligent, gifted, resourceful people you may have the privilege of meeting. Do not romanticize them as the “detainee” or victimize them to the point of taking power away from them. Many have been successful business people, survived horrendous situations due to their own resourcefulness, traveled the world to arrive here, learned to speak several languages, attended university, and been leaders in their families, towns and schools.

• Be aware of your own power. You have more “power” than detained immigrants, due to your freedom and status in this country. Be careful to not abuse the power difference. And never do for someone what he or she can do for themselves.

• Keep in mind your letters may be read by a guard. Be tactful and conscious. For example, if you talk about immigration or the detention system with anger or disgust, it may be the detainee that will be the one who will suffer from your words, not you. We are here to be compassionate friends. And to love everyone. 

• Be sensitive to the fact that the person reading your letter may be inferring messages differently than you imply due to their current circumstances. Loneliness, power differences, and language differences could play into the person being detained misunderstanding you, or feeling more intimately connected to you than you intend.

• We have a strict no-proselytizing policy. It is not appropriate to try to convert anyone to your religion. It is important to give the detained immigrant the power to guide the conversation. If they bring up religion, then you may discuss the topic on their terms. Be careful to never make it seem like participating in a certain religion is necessary to receive letters from you. Keep in mind that it could be members of your religion that persecuted them in their home country. It is sometimes religious persecution that has caused someone to flee his or her home, so religion in general may be a complex and painful topic. Some people may have faced death due to their beliefs, making it even more inappropriate to try to convince them to adopt your religious beliefs. All that said, if the person finds strength from their faith, it is appropriate to encourage them in their own faith. This may mean Christians mail Muslim prayers or poems to someone they are writing to. Even if you are not a person of faith, if religion is important to the person you are in contact with, you may want to ask for instance how their faith is sustaining them. Just remember that you are a friend there to uplift detained individuals through their own beliefs, not as a proselytizer seeking to convert.

• We fully support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Some people have fled their country because of attempts on their life due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. We do not believe that being LGBT is a sin and will never attempt to change anyone. We go far beyond tolerance. We celebrate the gifts of LGBT people.

• Talk about your questions with a facilitator of the writing project as they come up. Not every situation can be covered here, so please do not hesitate to speak with a facilitator about your questions by phone or email. 

• Keep a record of when you write and email this by the end of each month to your writing facilitator. You can simply say: I, (your name), wrote (number of letters) to (name of person you are writing) who is in (name of facility) in (month). It’s also important to let the facilitator know if the person you are writing was transferred to another facility, released, or deported. It is helpful if you want to add something about how it is going. Of course if there are any concerns or questions please contact a facilitator as they come up.

Thank you for taking the time to build a hopeful, encouraging, human connection through letter writing to those detained in immigration centers. You are part of building a human network of hope, solidarity, and tangible support. Honoring the dignity of every human being is the foundation for this lifeline of hope. Thank you for being part of this network.

New Visitation Program at Aurora Detention Facility

CIVIC is excited to announce the launch of the first visitation program in Colorado.  The visitation program is run by Sarah Jackson of Casa de Paz.  Here is a little more about the visitation program in Sarah’s words:

Colorado immigration detention, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, CIVIC, immigration detention visitationOne of our programs just launched is the visitation program. We have all the volunteer trainings and debriefs at our home, where men and women recently released from detention also can stay for a couple of nights while they’re waiting for transportation back home.

We have six volunteers who have gone through the training and visited people in immigration detention! 

An unexpected moment. Waiting inside the detention center is typically boring. Not much going on…maybe some kids playing and a few side conversations happening. But today was different. I was waiting with another volunteer to visit a man, when a lady caught our eye. She was frantically stuffing a coat into a full backpack. She kept repeating, “I should’ve bought a bigger backpack. I should’ve bought a bigger backpack.” She was packing the bag her husband would receive once he was deported. And she couldn’t fit the  coat in. Desperately her voice began rising and she became more and more frazzled. They could tell she was trying so hard to give her husband one little gift which would make his new life in Mexico a little warmer.

Suddenly, the guard stepped out from behind the desk. Preston and Sarah immediately thought he was going to ask this woman to leave because she was making such a scene. He slowly walked toward her, heavy boots stomping on the ground. And just as he came within a couple of feet to the backpack, he outstretched his hands and did something completely unexpected. He began folding the clothes as tight as he could to try and make all the items fit inside the small bag.

The woman stopped what she was doing, looked up and simply smiled. They began working together and within five minutes the bag was full of all the things she brought – including the coat.

What we witnessed was powerful. We saw two humans, two different lives, come together to reach one goal.

The power of visitation. Two of our volunteers visited two brothers who were being detained inside the same detention center at the same time. One of the brothers
confessed, mid-visit, that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to talk to anyone. He thought perhaps the visitor would be boring and just preach the whole time. The last thing he wanted was someone telling him the decisions in life he had made were bad and he deserved where he was.

At the end of the visit, he couldn’t express more thankfulness for the time they spent to come say hi and be his new friend. He said, “I didn’t think anyone would come, but you did, and for that, I cannot stop smiling.”

It’s OK if your don’t speak Spanish.  I doesn’t speak great Spanish. But, I try so hard. One day I visited a man whose first language is Spanish and really understands little English. But, we managed to find ways to communicate using body language and gestures. After about thirty minutes of struggling to put sentences together, I heard the guard came in to announce our time was up. We gave each other a final goodbyes and I turned to leave. I turned back and looked over her shoulder. The man whom I had just visited had wrapped his arms around his shoulders, mimicking a hug. This was one thing I knew how to translate perfectly. A huge smile washed across my face and I hugged him back.

Visitation is about community.  Dante is a DJ in Denver. His life isn’t impacted on a daily basis with immigration policies tearing families apart. One day, during a meeting, one of the DJ’s he employs casually mentioned his brother was being detained. And, because of his status, he could not visit his brother. Dante immediately wanted to help so he offered to visit. He made a list of all the things the family wanted to pass along, and after completing a short training at Casa de Paz, he visited this young man. The next week Dante went back to visit him again, and this time he was told the man was no longer there. Fearing the worst, Dante called his employee to see what was happening. He thought he had been deported. However, he quickly received great news because he learned this man had been released and was actually spending Thanksgiving with his family.

Visitation is about welcoming. One man had been held inside the detention center for over four months. Nobody knew he was there because his whole family lives in Mexico and he didn’t want them to worry. When we realized he wanted a visitor, we went into action as soon as possible because four months with no outside contact is something we hate to hear about. We heard from the volunteer that during their time together he said, “It’s so rare for two angels like you to come visit. Nobody does things like this anymore. Thank you.”

Join the visitation movement in your town.  Email us at info@endisolation.org!

New Visitation Program at Santa Ana City Jail

In the United States, 100 miles north of the US-Mexican border, sits the Santa Ana City Jail, “home” to approximately 64 gay and transgender asylum seekers and other immigrants from across the world.  In 2011, the National Immigrant Justice Center filed the first multi-plaintiff complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) on behalf of 17 LGBT asylum seekers and other migrants who were subject to abusive conditions in U.S. civil immigration detention at the Santa Ana City Jail.  Among the complaints were a pervasive denial of medical care for chronic conditions, sexual assault and physical abuse by both guards and other people in immigration detention, and an overreliance on solitary confinement.

In response, CRCL and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) created the first dedicated protective custody unit for gay and transgender individuals in immigration detention at the Santa Ana City Jail.  It remains the only protective custody unit in the country.  CIVIC visited the Santa Ana City Jail with the intention of bringing friendship and support to people held there in immigration detention.  A blogpost from a visitor volunteer with one of CIVIC’s newest affiliated visitation programs, Friends of Orange County Detainees is below.  CIVIC aslo obtained Santa Ana City Jail’s intergovernmental service agreementthe modified IGSA, and additional modifications that explain the cost per bed and the training city jail officials receive. 

By Karen Vance:

The little I used to know of the plight of people in immigration detention came from Quaker discussions of prison reform, in general.  But as the mother of a transgender son, when I learned I might visit transgender immigrants in detention as part of a visitation program to a segregated LGBT unit in Santa Ana, CA, I knew it was time for me to become personally involved.

Santa Ana City Jail, immigration detention, LGBT in immigration detention, prison and LGBT, gay and transgender immigrantsI entered the detention facility for a pre-visitation tour organized by CIVIC not knowing what to expect.  It is a jail that houses both “ICE detainees” and pre-trial inmates.  The building is a modern part of a civic center complex.  I climbed an impressive flight of exterior stairs to enter the front door.  The three male ICE agents who came to greet us in the waiting area, as well as the female in charge of the “non-sworn” (read non-union) guards were all, I believe, Latino.  Non-union is important; although ICE has an intergovernmental service agreement with the City of Santa Ana to house immigrants in detention at the city jail, we were told multiple times during the tour that it is a “revenue generating” facility.  Despite the profit made by the detention of immigrants, these guards probably have neither the salary nor benefits of sworn officers in California.

The building was full of long empty corridors, much like a hospital.  Missing was the friendly and encouraging smile of passersby.  The pods, from the interior, appeared to wing off this warren of corridors.  When I first walked into the fourth floor LGBT pod, I was nervous but felt some warmth.  While everyone, male and female, was dressed in orange and many sat as though waiting at a bus station, others talked.  There were men and women playing basketball outside on a concrete patio.  This was certainly no place for anyone of them to be, but I sensed nothing obviously draconian.  As it turns out, my perception was truly off.

Before we were to visit with groups of these individuals as part of our tour, the ICE agents allowed time for questions.  This is when the true nature of this so called LGBT pod began to emerge.  We were first told that there were no Lesbians on this unit.  Since Trans women can certainly be Lesbians, I understood this to mean that no cisgender (people who remain in the gender they were assigned at birth) women are on this unit.  ICE clearly lacked sophistication in notions of sexual identity for Trans women.  Alright – but things got steadily worse.

I asked about the Trans women who had fully transitioned surgically.  We were told that none existed within the entire system of immigration detention, or at least none had come through the Santa Ana City Jail.  Alright – can’t be true but if dark suited ICE agents with coiled communication devices in their ears want to tell me this, in their jail, I will not challenge them.  Next, I was told that there are absolutely no female-to-male Transgender people in the entire immigration detention system.  I am shocked and taken aback, but voice no concern.  They are denying the existence of all men like my son, who are most certainly somewhere in the system.

Any hint of warmth has left my body.  I am feeling rather cold.  What ICE has decided to tout as “LGBT detainee detention” is simply and clearly the prison systems’ standard version of gender segregation:  everyone who still has a penis is to be housed together.  As it has always been.  Yes, Trans women and Gay men feel marginally safer.  But this is not reform.

We walk into a glassed conference room in full view of the pod.  I can’t help but wonder if these ICE agents listen to us as well as watch us.  Three separate groups of eight people each come through and talk for twenty minutes.  Food is bad, medical services almost unobtainable.  To my relief, hormones are available though there can be a lag of up to five months before receipt.  Asylum seekers are here, mixed with others, and receive no counseling.  And to my deep, wrenching and pervasive regret, Trans women are told by some guards to use their male names and masculine pronouns.  For Gay men or Trans women to express any femininity, to use other than their “big boy” voices, is to risk possible lockdown.  This is draconian.   This denies the core of the Trans women’s very being.  This is gratuitous cruelty.

All pretenses remaining, if there were any remaining, that this is an LGBT pod, are gone.  I come later, to visit an asylum seeker and I will return to visit her.  I shake as I remember and write this.  If the topic of Transgender Detainees is new to you, it would be hard to overstate their horrifying experiences with the penal system:  through sexual assault, solitary confinement, bullying from guards, lockdown and all other sources.  Our challenge, in the Santa Ana City Jail, now, is to reeducate/train the LGBT pod guards in gender identity and expression.  They are said to have received training, but the training was either poor or minimal, at best.  This might mean the cruelty they inflict on these men and women in immigration detention is deliberate, or at least, ignorant.  Perhaps they believe it is for their own good.  I am not sure how to close this entry, except to say that our work is wide open.  As a Quaker and a mother, I try to experience and to bring light.  I reach out to you to support and to be supported.

New Coalition Organizing to Support Immigrants Detained in Plymouth, Massachusetts

(originally published by Enterprise News.com)

 Last week, Christina Mansfield of CIVIC met with representatives of the Brazilian Immigrant Center (BIC), the Brazilian Women’s Group (BWG) and Boston United for Families: Resist the Raids (BUFF) to discuss how to support immigrants who are detained in Massachusetts and their families.  The group plans to use a manual CIVIC developed, entitled, “A Guide to Touring U.S. Detention Facilities and Building Alliances,” (being released on December 18th to honor International Migrants Day and the December Visitation Month of Action).  The manual outlines how to use a policy Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued in 2011, called the Visitation Directive, in order to start a Community Visitation Program.

The new coalition has decided to focus its effort on supporting immigrants who are detained by ICE at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  While immigrants detained at the Suffolk County Facility in Boston benefit from the consistent community support of the Refugee Immigrant Ministry (RIM), the Plymouth County facility lacks any consistent community presence.  The coalition plans to request a tour of the Plymouth County Correctional Facility sometime in February.  As part of the tour, the group will also have the opportunity to interview and talk with immigrants who are detained in Plymouth to learn about their needs and how the coalition can organize to address them.   CIVIC will assist the coalition in how to use this tour as the first step in starting a consistent Community Visitation Program at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility.  The coalition has identified and reached out to other immigrant rights organizations in the area, inviting a representative of each to accompany the group on the tour, in the hopes that these representatives will act as the point of contact for future community organizing. 

Community Visitation Programs end the isolation of men and women in U.S. immigration detention by providing them with a volunteer visitor who may act as a friend and advocate.  Visitor volunteers help to connect immigrants in detention to their family members, to pro-bono legal counsel, and other networks of support.  Community Visitation Programs are often the only regular outside presence in U.S. detention facilities, placing visitor volunteers in a unique position to protect against human rights abuses in detention and ensure that each person is treated with dignity.  If you are interested in joining CIVIC’s movement to end the isolation and abuse of immigrants in detention, please email info@endisolation.org.  Christina Mansfield and Christina Fialho, Co-Executive Directors of CIVIC, can provide one-on-one and sustained capacity building support to groups that would like to start a Community Visitation Program in their community.  Visitation programs transform communities by engaging community members in what is happening in their own backyards.  As a result, immigration detention is no longer an invisible practice because visitors are sharing stories from within detention with their families, friends, churches, and schools – building awareness and hope.  



The “New Normal” for Immigration Detention in New Jersey

A Call for Environmental Testing and ICE/County Accountability in Sandy Aftermath

By Karina Wilkinson, Co-Founder of Monmouth County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Kwilkinson_act@yahoo.com

Newark, NJ – In case anyone needed reminding about why it wasn’t a good idea to expand detention in New Jersey by adding 750 beds last year to two facilities in Newark, the Star Ledger reported Sunday on conditions inside Essex County Jail and the damage sustained by the flooding during and after Hurricane Sandy.  The account is harrowing and the pictures, disturbing.

Originally published in the Star Ledger. Water lashed against the main entrance glass doors of the Essex County Correctional Facility on Doremus Avenue in Newark. This video surveillance footage was taken Monday, Oct. 29 at 10:18 p.m.

When I emailed ICE to ask for more public information a week after the storm, the response I got was that “all of our detainees in the Northeast have access to hot meals, hot water, phone, etc.”  Sunday’s report on Essex jail reveals that wasn’t the case in the immediate aftermath of the storm: “For four days, inmates had no hot showers and were served cold food.” I’m not sure when phone service was restored at Essex, but phones were out for periods at the facilities, as was heat.

Hudson County JailEssex, and the adjacent Delaney Hall were surrounded by water from a five foot storm surge in the Newark Bay.  The flooding outside made them inaccessible to even County Executive DiVincenzo, who made some sort of heroic (?) attempt to get to the jail and himself had to be rescued

Essex and Hudson County jails flooded inside, and detained immigrants in ICE’s custody had to be moved to higher floors. The three facilities together are under agreements that allow them to house as many as 1,500 ICE detainees, two thirds of the detention capacity of the state.  How could ICE or the counties ensure the safety of people in their custody when access was cut off – for two days in the case of Essex?

There is a long-standing joke that the Essex County jail evacuation plan has to involve boats, which isn’t so funny anymore. ICE needed to do its due diligence on the disaster plans for New Jersey facilities. What is ICE’s evacuation plan for detained immigrants in New Jersey?  And what type of disaster would it take to trigger it, if not Sandy? Was there any thought to reassuring the public or getting information out about the status of the facilities in the aftermath?

Doremus Avenue, where Essex and Delaney Hall are located, has many sites contaminated with chemicals, and the nearby Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority lost power and released hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage during the storm. Residents of the Ironbound district of Newark are being advised by the EPA to use “N95” respirators to enter homes that were flooded, partly because of a nearby Superfund site. The EPA needs to test affected facilities to determine whether they are still inhabitable.

It happened that the detention facilities’ back-up generators weren’t overwhelmed, and power wasn’t completely lost for a week, like it was in a Newark prison, Northern State.  And it happened that the electronic doors in Delaney Hall didn’t unlock like they did in another Newark facility run by the same company, Community Education Centers (CEC).  Four law enforcement agencies were called in to bring mayhem under control in the other CEC facility.  As bad as they were, the effects could have been much worse for the detention facilities.

While the Detention Watch Network named Hudson one of the ten worst facilities in the country, this is a reminder that ICE shouldn’t be using any jails for immigration detention. Detention is not supposed to be punishment.

Monmouth County Coalition for Immigrant Rights renews its call for ICE to end unnecessary detention of immigrant men and women, to prepare adequately for disasters and states of emergency and to provide up to date information to the public.  We also call for EPA testing of the facilities affected by the Newark Bay storm surge. 

Immigrant Rights Groups Declare December National Visitation Month

A Growing Network Aims to End the Isolation and Abuse of Detained Immigrants

At this very moment, there are more than 32,000 individuals in U.S. immigration detention, many of them far away from their families and completely separated from the outside world. To alleviate their isolation, communities across the United States are participating in the National Visitation Month of Action organized by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).

Men and women are in immigration detention while they determine their immigration status.  Those detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) include lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, crime victims, and survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking—many of them with U.S. citizen relatives and deep ties to local communities.

“This holiday season while people across the country gather with friends and relatives in celebration, thousands of families will be torn apart by immigration detention,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder/executive director of CIVIC.  “As these men and women are in civil, non-criminal custody, they have no right to a court-appointed attorney, a free phone call, or visitation.”

CIVIC fights for a right to visitation and connects detained immigrants to a community of support and advocacy on the outside.  These innovative visitation programs offer not only friendship, but also connections to legal, medical, and post-release support. Visitation programs create a consistent community presence in otherwise invisible detention facilities, placing CIVIC volunteers in a unique and vital position to protect the human rights of detained immigrants and ensure each person remains connected to the outside world.

The Month of Action marks the three-year anniversary of the national visitation movement’s struggle to end the isolation and abuse of detained immigrants.  Today, CIVIC’s grassroots, volunteer-based network is vast and growing, with the goal of starting 18 new visitation programs in the next 2 years.  With coordinated actions occurring during the month of December in over 20 cities in 15 states, CIVIC advocates are rising up to address the serious effects the U.S. immigration detention system has on human life. 

This month, visitor volunteers are supporting hundreds of immigrants, like Ana who was detained for over a year even though she was a victim of human trafficking.  Her experience highlights the unnecessary cruelty that plagues the civil immigration detention system.  She was torn away from her 8-year old daughter, sexually assaulted by male guards, and thrown into solitary confinement.  CIVIC ended Ana’s isolation and abuse by visiting her weekly for over a year, connecting her to an attorney, and reuniting her with her 8-year old daughter. 

To celebrate this Month of Action, CIVIC is hosting a kick-off virtual fundraiser to raise $15,000 by the end of the year, with all proceeds going toward the creation of 3 new visitation programs in 3 months. To support this work or take part in this National Visitation Month of Action, visit www.endisolation.org.


If you would like more information please visit CIVIC’s Press Kit and call Christina Fialho at 385-21-CIVIC or email her at CFialho@endisolation.org.