The private prison company in charge of a federal immigration detention facility in Elizabeth has failed to comply with social distancing guidelines to mitigate the risk of COVID-19, the owner of the building has alleged in an amended complaint filed Thursday in state Superior Court.
Portview Properties, the owner of the building at 625 Evans Street, alleged in the complaint that the prison company’s failure to implement required measures and follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention represents a threat to the health, safety and well-being of those detained there. And, the property owner claims, that is a breach of its lease agreement. It asks that a judge terminates its contract with CoreCivic.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has an agreement with CoreCivic to hold asylum seekers and other immigrants in the agency’s custody while they await their immigration cases to be resolved.
“The physical threat to these individuals, which has been exacerbated by Defendant’s inaction, has become even more dire in light of the spread of new variants of the virus causing COVID-19,’’ the amended complaint states.
A total of 114 positive cases of COVID-19 have been recorded among the ICE population held at the facility since testing for the disease began there in February 2020. That number represents a more than 100% increase since this spring, when 51 detainees had tested positive between March 2020 and April 29, 2021, according to the complaint.
Spokesman says company is following guidelines
Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said the prison company has rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as government partners even before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at its facilities.
“Our facilities have followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which have evolved over time, since the onset of the pandemic and we’re continuing to work closely [with] our government partners to enhance procedures as needed,’’ he said.
He said the number of “confirmed cases currently under isolation or monitoring” at the Elizabeth detention facility, as of Wednesday, was seven, according to ICE figures.
More than 23,400 people are held on immigration violations across the country, with 847 of them currently positive for the coronavirus, according to figures posted on the ICE website through early this week. The ICE population across the country has increased in recent months. In April, for example, about 14,000 were in custody.
The site in Elizabeth has had the most COVID-19 cases out of the four immigration detention facilities that have operated in New Jersey since the start of the pandemic. The Essex County jail had reported 24 cases, before it stopped holding ICE detainees last month. The jails in Bergen and Hudson counties, which also house ICE detainees, have reported 26 and 14 cases respectively.
ICE’s pandemic response
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report on ICE’s response to the pandemic found that even though the federal agency had developed protocols on facility intakes, screening and testing, and social distancing, some centers reported that it was difficult to quarantine detainees at times due to infrastructure limitations. Additionally, the report found that detainee compliance with mask wearing was a consistent challenge.
In Elizabeth, Portview Properties claims in the suit, the configuration and layout of the Elizabeth Detention Facility — which was designed and constructed by CoreCivic — makes it physically impossible for CoreCivic to comply with social-distancing guidelines.
“Detainees are housed together in large, open rooms with little to no separation between them,’’ the complaint states. “Both former and current detainees housed at the [facility] have complained of Defendant’s total failure to implement the basic safety, health care, sanitation and hygiene measures called for by these guidelines and requirements.”
Portview Properties filed its initial complaint in May, seeking an early termination of its lease with CoreCivic. Despite the ongoing lawsuit, this summer ICE extended its contract with CoreCivic through August 2023 to house detainees in Elizabeth.