Hackensack, N.J.—Advocates called for urgent action to reduce the population at the Bergen County Jail following reports on Tuesday that a 31-year-old man detained at the facility had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. This follows the diagnosis of a staffer last week and a string of public health failures at the jail. In recent days, immigrant rights groups have called for the Newark ICE Field Office to take action to stop the spread of the virus, the New Jersey Supreme Court has acknowledged the need to reduce the prison population, and the Department of Homeland Security’s own doctors have warned that immigrant detention facilities are a “tinderbox” if coronavirus spreads in them. Following Tuesday’s report Faith in New Jersey called for the immediate release of all people held at the Bergen County Jail who do not pose a physical risk to the community, releasing the following statement:
The report of the first coronavirus diagnosis for someone detained at Bergen County Jail is deeply troubling. On a typical day, the conditions in the jail are unsanitary and disgraceful. Given the jail’s inability to control mumps and tuberculosis outbreaks in recent years, we have no reason to believe the sheriff can prevent this outbreak from turning into a preventable public health catastrophe.
This threatens the lives of those inside, of the facility’s staff and of the broader community. Many of those locked up inside are being held for minor offenses or civil immigration infractions, and all of them are all God’s children. Sheriff Anthony Cureton, DOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks and ICE Field Office Director John Tsoukaris must take immediate action to release all people who do not pose any physical risk to the community so they can follow CDC guidelines and the governor’s order to practice social distancing and preventive hygiene. This will allow the facility to focus on implementing public health measures within the jail with a population that is small enough to socially distance and to have its needs met by the jail’s feeble healthcare system.
It’s incredibly irresponsible that DOC and ICE have allowed the coronavirus to reach those locked inside the state’s county jail system without taking any substantial action to reduce the population in its facilities. It’s critically important they do so now—before it’s too late to prevent a widespread tragedy. As people of faith, we are committed to fighting until they do, and until the immigration and criminal and legal systems of our state recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people.
The Bergen County Sheriff’s Office has contracted with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrant detainees on behalf of the federal government at its 1,150 bed jail. Last summer, the jail was forced to institute a quarantine in the face of a Mumps outbreak. New Jersey’s county jails have a notoriously bad health record, with one study finding they had the highest death rate of any large system.
Sheriffs in other counties have begun reducing their jail populations—both by arresting and booking fewer people into jail and by releasing people held for minor offenses or put at high risk by the coronavirus. The Philadelphia Police Department stopped arresting for low-level offenses last week and the New Jersey Supreme Court on Sunday ordered county jails to release inmates serving less than a year on municipal court convictions or probationary sentences.
While ICE enjoys wide discretion over who they detain and release, they have not yet responded to calls to release immigrants held in detention.