The Essex County Correctional Facility has a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house nearly 1,000 immigrants as they await deportation hearings or their removal from the US. In July, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, visited the detention center unannounced and witnessed an array of "unsanitary and unsafe conditions," unreported security incidents, and other serious violations, according to the report.
Inspectors found that about 800 men had been living in conditions that posed "significant threats" to their health and safety, detailing "slimy, foul-smelling lunch meat," moldy bread, and mildew-covered housing units.
They also reported finding open packages of raw chicken "leaking blood all over refrigeration units" and staff serving hamburgers "that were foul smelling and unrecognizable."
In interviews, detainees said the food caused infections, vomiting, and diarrhea. One man said he started a liquid-only diet because the meals were so horrific. Over a period of six months, the men filed 200 kitchen-related grievances, with comments like, "For dinner, we were served meatballs that smell like fecal matter."
According to inspectors, the dining situation was so substandard that ICE and facility leaders replaced the kitchen manager during the visit.
Photos of the housing units show mold and mildew covering the walls and "unsanitary" showers, large leak stains on the ceilings, and tattered mattresses tied together with sheets to keep the stuffing from falling out.
"We observed two of the leaks dripping directly onto detainee beds," officials wrote. "Mold in the showers extended into the hallways leading to the showers."
ICE requires that all detainees get to spend time outside, but the detention center had no outdoor space. Instead, inspectors say the facility had erected "large
glass enclosures inside detainee living areas with mesh cages at the top to
allow in outside air."
The report notes that ICE had promised to build a soccer field at the facility when it started housing detainees there in 2010, but never did.
"ICE officials have never documented concerns regarding outdoor recreation in their weekly inspections or cited the facility for failure to meet this detention standard since it began housing detainees," inspectors stated.
Essex County also repeatedly failed to notify immigration officials about incidents involving detainees, the report added.
In April 2018, an immigrant found a county jail guard's loaded gun in a bathroom while he was cleaning as part of his job duties. He reported the weapon, but the detention center never told ICE about the incident, which is a contract violation. Facility leaders suspended the guard for 45 days and admitted to inspectors that they had instructed the detainee "not to discuss the matter with anyone else," according to the report.
It was the fourth time in less than a year that the detention center did not report issues involving immigrants, despite ICE previously citing the facility for not telling them about "fights and hospitalizations for mental illness," inspectors wrote.
The report concluded that ICE and the facility promised to address and fix the poor conditions.
On Wednesday night, Essex County's Board of Chosen Freeholders announced that they will be holding a public hearing regarding the facility.
"After reviewing the report in detail, it is clear a follow up inspection is a prudent course of action," Kyalo Mulumba, a spokesperson for the Freeholders, told BuzzFeed News, adding that the board will "convene an ICE subcommittee meeting within the next 30 days to address any additional concerns."
Despite the report's findings, county and jail officials have said the facility provides "a clean, safe, and secure environment for its inmates and staff," and has an unblemished record, having earned "100 percent compliance ratings from the state for the past 10 years."
"Every year we are inspected eight to 10 times," Anthony Puglisi, a spokesperson for the county, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday. "The inspection from the OIG was the first negative inspection we have had and we are taking these recommendations very seriously and, in fact, have already addressed the concerns outlined in the report."
He added: "It is not the horrible place the report makes it out to be."
A few days before DHS released its damning report, however, the nearly 800 men were held in their cells from Feb. 4 to 8 as officers combed through their units looking for contraband, county officials said.
Lawyers representing some of the detainees told WNYC that immigrants were kept in their two-man cell for the entire four days. Some in high-security wings were only allowed out of their room for 10 minutes per day, they said, and the lockdown encompassed civil detainees, who have not been charged with crimes.
"When the Essex County Correctional Facility receives credible information about security threats, it initiates a lockdown so that a search can be conducted to collect any contraband," Puglisi said. "This is done to protect the safety and security of the detainees and officers. Because maintaining the security of the facility is our highest priority, detainees are maintained in their cells while searches are conducted; they are returned to their regular routines as soon as the searches in their area are completed."
Puglisi did not explain what kind of security threat yielded the four-day lockdown, but said that detainees often hid contraband in mattresses and then used sheets, shoe strings, or other materials to tie them back up. Inspectors pointed to the dismal state of the immigrants' mattresses in their report.
ICE contracts with 206 detention facilities across the US, according to the DHS inspector general, paying them millions of dollars to house and care for more than 32,000 immigrant detainees.
In New Jersey, WNYC reported stated that three county jails were collecting $6 million a month from ICE. From January 2015 to March 2018, payments to Bergen, Essex, and Hudson counties increased 46%.
The Essex County facility, where the inspection took place, gets about $117 a day per immigrant detainee and have had a contract with ICE since 2008, according to Puglisi.
Last May, the jail reportedly made about $3 million from working with ICE.
In another report released Jan. 29, the DHS inspector general reviewed 106 facilities and concluded that ICE has repeatedly failed to hold the centers accountable for consistently failing to meet performance standards.
From Oct. 1, 2015, to June 30, 2018, there were more than 14,000 documented instances, including sexual assault, in which detention centers did not comply with federal rules and jeopardized the "safety and rights of detainees," according to the report.
ICE also issued waivers to jails with deficient standards, exempted them from complying with others, and withheld information about their contracts "with key officials," inspectors found.
Since 2016, ICE has paid the 106 contracted facilities more than $3 billion overall to house immigrants.