County breaks off contract with ICE to make room for UC prisoners

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Just one week after announcing that the Essex County Correctional Facility will begin housing detainees from Union County effective July 1, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. announced that the county has notified ICE to remove its detainees from the ECCF. 

“We have had a very solid working relationship with ICE during the last 13 years. It has always been in the best interest of the detainees to remain close to their family, friends, attorneys and community organizations helping them in a facility that was safe and secure. Our ECCF fulfilled this responsibility very well, and we thank ICE for their partnership,” DiVincenzo said in a press release. “Governments at all levels are faced with difficult financial challenges, and we are thankful that we are able to help our neighbors in Union County. This partnership is a great opportunity for Union County to find an alternative way to house their inmates without having to operate a costly facility and for Essex County to maximize the capacity of our accredited complex and generate revenue.”

DiVincenzo said there is not sufficient space in the ECCF to house both ICE detainees and Union County inmates. The revenue Essex County receives from Union County is expected to offset the revenue it formerly received from ICE.

“The Essex County Board of Commissioners joins Essex County Executive DiVincenzo in the decision to end the contract with ICE and thereby end the confinement of ICE detainees at the Essex County Correctional Facility,” Commissioner President Wayne L. Richardson said. “It is commendable that other partnerships, particularly the recently announced agreement with the Union County Board of Commissioners, will aid Essex County in maintaining fiscal responsibility.

“This board has heard clearly and consistently from constituents concerned about ICE detainees and the county’s contract with ICE. Those concerns have not fallen upon unconcerned ears,” he continued. “I commend the Essex County Corrections Department for the transparency meetings that were held in response to the COVID pandemic and its specific impact on ICE detainees. Speaking personally, as one who believes in equality, equity and social justice, I do not condone federal policies that detain individuals for no reason other than their unauthorized entry into the United States. In my professional capacity as a labor leader, I wholeheartedly support immigration reform that creates a viable path to citizenship. It is my hope that every detained person receives an expeditious and just resolution to their situation.”

The Union County Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the memorandum of agreement with Essex County during its meeting on Thursday, April 22. On Friday, April 23, Essex County officially notified ICE of its intention to depopulate the ECCF of ICE detainees. According to the contract with the federal government, ICE has 120 days to remove detainees from the ECCF, which means there will be zero ICE detainees at the ECCF by Aug. 23. ICE will decide where the detainees currently housed in the ECCF will be transferred. On Wednesday, April 28, there were 165 ICE detainees in the ECCF.

The ICE Newark Field Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Essex County is anticipating about $11.3 million in revenue from its agreement with Union. This revenue is based on Essex County housing an average daily population of 300 inmates from Union County. Union County will pay Essex a daily rate of $104 per inmate per day. Essex County will provide video conferencing booths for Union County to conduct remote hearings and interviews with Union County inmates. Union County would be responsible for transporting Union County inmates to the Union County Courthouse for in-person hearings and for transporting Union County inmates back to Union County when they are released. The agreement is for five years, with an opportunity to extend the partnership.

County Commissioner Brendan W. Gill has voiced his approval of the move to stop housing ICE detainees.

“In my role as an at large Essex County commissioner and former president to the board, I have been a longtime opponent of the ICE contract, and I am thrilled to see County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo has decided to end this relationship with ICE. Over the last three years, I was proud to call for the end of this contract publically. Ultimately, this helped to create and fund the largest county legal aid program in the state and created the first Civilian Oversight Board in a correctional facility in the country,” Gill said in a statement. “I am happy to see we are turning the page on this chapter in Essex County history and the voices of our concerned constituents have been acknowledged and exonerated.”

Many social action groups in New Jersey had been calling for Essex County to terminate its contract with ICE for several years. While many of these groups are pleased that the ECCF will no longer house ICE detainees, they were critical of the county’s decision to end the contract due to financial and space issues, rather than due to humanitarian reasons.

“We are happy that the collective advocacy and pressure from numerous groups over many years has led the Essex County commissioners to this decision,” SOMA Action’s Immigrant Rights Committee said in an April 28 statement. “We do want to call attention, however, to the fact that this only happened because the county was able to replace the revenue generated from the ICE contract with another recently announced contract to hold incarcerated individuals from Union county. Let’s be clear: This decision was not a moral response to the calls from advocates. Rather, it is a disingenuous attempt to quiet the voices of groups like ours and our fellow advocacy groups, while continuing the county’s addiction to balancing its budget through revenues from the carceral system, which, as we know, disproportionately incarcerates black and brown people.”

SOMA Action, as well as other groups, have reiterated their support for A5207/S3361, proposed state legislation that would prevent ICE from signing any new detention contracts in New Jersey, expanding any current detention contracts in New Jersey or renewing any current detention contracts in New Jersey. 

“American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrant Rights Program welcomes this announcement, the culmination of many years of organizing and advocacy by community members, impacted individuals and their families, and immigrant rights organizations, and supports an end to immigration detention both in New Jersey and across the U.S. Detention is a tool used to tear apart families and communities and as a profit generator for government and private contractors,” Chia-Chia Wang, the organizing and advocacy director for the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrant Rights Program, said on April 29. “We celebrate the end of this contract yet are troubled that Essex County will continue to profit from the incarceration of local community members through its new contract with Union County.”

The Abolish ICE NY–NJ Coalition has firmly opposed both ICE detention in the ECCF and the replacement of the ICE contract with the Union County contract.

“It is clear that Essex County is not decarcerating but merely replacing immigrants in ICE custody with people in the Union County criminal justice system’s custody. Within the justification of their closure, county officials sought to continue to deny and gaslight the community,” the coalition said in an April 28 statement. “To be clear, Essex County’s decision to sever its existing ICE contract is not based in immigrant justice but rather that the criminalization and exploitation of immigrants is no longer seen as profitable. Essex County has made a clear commitment to the prison industrial complex.”

The coalition and other social action groups have also called for ICE to release its detainees currently housed at ECCF — as well as across the country — rather than just transferring them elsewhere. 

“The coalition opposes the continued detention of any and all people in the Essex County Correctional Facility, and all jails, prisons and immigrant detention. We believe in community not cages,” the coalition stated. “We demand that Essex County do everything in its power to ensure that the 165 people currently in ICE detention in Essex County jail are released to their families, not transferred to other ICE detention facilities, as they state they plan to do.”

Many of the social action groups that have voiced their opposition to continued incarceration at the ECCF have cited alleged mistreatment of detainees and poor living conditions. Opened in 2004, the ECCF has been accredited by the American Correctional Association, which sets the standards for correctional facilities and detention centers in the United States, American territories and some foreign countries, since 2013. It also has reached 100 percent compliance with the New Jersey State Department of Corrections every year since 2006 and has been accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities since 2007.