Ailing Justice—New Jersey: Inadequate Healthcare, Indifference, and Indefinite Confinement in Immigration Detention
Every year, the U.S. government locks up hundreds of thousands of immigrants despite the existence of effective—and cost-effective—alternative-to-detention programs. Detention itself can be traumatizing, and the conditions in immigrant detention facilities are harsh and often inhumane.
Detained immigrants—held under civil, not criminal, authority—are forced to endure a range of hardships, from dirty drinking water to harassment to solitary confinement. Many also receive inadequate medical and mental health care. These conditions can cause severe suffering, long-term physical and emotional damage, and avoidable deaths. They also compel some refugees to withdraw claims for protection.
While the unnecessary detention of immigrants is a longstanding problem in the United States, it has gotten worse in recent years. Under President Obama, the U.S. government put in place a policy of using detention to attempt to deter migrants—including asylum seekers fleeing persecution—from coming to the United States. The Trump Administration has adopted an even more aggressive and punitive approach, in line with the President’s executive order calling for asylum seekers and migrants to be detained for the duration of their proceedings.
In February 2018, Human Rights First researchers visited the three principal facilities that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses to detain noncitizens in New Jersey: Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility, the Essex County Correctional Facility, and the Hudson County Correctional Facility.
The Elizabeth Facility, operated by CoreCivic, has capacity to hold 304 people. The Essex and Hudson facilities each holds approximately 700 people in ICE custody, as well as people in criminal justice proceedings. The Elizabeth and Hudson facilities house women and men, while the Essex facility houses only men.
A team of legal and health professionals joined our staff on these visits, which included tours of the facilities, meetings with ICE and facility staff, and individual and group interviews with over one hundred detained immigrants. Based on these visits, the opinions of the legal and health professionals, in-depth research, and our twenty-plus years of experience providing pro bono legal representation to asylum seekers detained in New Jersey, we report the following:
- Many asylum seekers and immigrants remain in unnecessary, lengthy, and prolonged detention—some for over a year—due to a lack of access to viable release mechanisms, including parole.
- Detention harms their medical and mental health, creates barriers to access to counsel, and hurts their chances of securing relief from deportation.
- Asylum seekers and other immigrants languish under harsh and inhumane conditions, conditions essentially identical to those in many criminal correctional facilities. Many detained immigrants, particularly non-English speakers, endure frequent racist comments, harassment, and discrimination from medical and correctional staff.
- Many detained people report substandard or denial of medical care, long waits to be seen by a medical professional, and a lack of proper medication.
- Despite widespread interest in—and need for—mental health services, including supportive psychotherapy, insufficient availability at two of the facilities and fear of punitive treatment force many detained people to cope on their own.
- Additionally, even when mental health services are provided, they are often inadequate to address the serious mental health problems of some detained immigrants.
- The suicide watch program at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, despite recent reform, may actually discourage people from seeking mental health care and may contribute to suicidal inclinations.