Officials defend conditions at Essex County Correctional amid scrutiny

Essex County Correctional Facility, which houses both inmates and 700 immigrant detainees, is facing serious scrutiny after major health and safety violations were discovered by the Homeland Security inspector general. Thursday night it was the public’s turn to comment on the report at a hearing that was standing room only.

The report from the inspector general found conditions that included bloody, raw chicken; deteriorating mattresses; and moldy showers.

“As I previously stated, this evening’s purpose is an attempt to provide transparency and fact finding,” said Essex County Freeholder Robert Mercado.

The meeting of a freeholder subcommittee heard from the public and top officials at the facility. Essex County receives more than $35 million from ICE to detain immigrants at the facility. The county says it’ll allocate $750,000 of that to legal defense for ICE detainees.

But officials at the correctional facility did not back down when it came to defending the conditions, spending nearly two hours to do so. Phil Alagia oversees the ICE contract for the county.

“No building or facility is perfect. Neither are we, but it has to be highlighted that what was detailed in the report was corrected, and in most cases corrected within 24 hours,” said Alagia.

“ICE said there was four times in less than a year that the facility failed to notify ICE of incidents involving detainees. We are going to contest, as I did in my CDR, I didn’t agree with their findings. We had our own findings after investigating,” said Anthony Perillo, director of the ICE program at the Essex County Correctional Facility.

“More so what we want to emphasize, what we continue to want to emphasize, is no one is given a dilapidated mattress, no one is handed a mattress in that condition, given to them so they can begin their stay. Bloody chicken in a box, what the issue was, was improper handling of the food, not the bloody chicken. It was improper handling of that,” said David Boyd, deputy director of the Essex County Correctional Facility. “We had 809 grievances, which amounts to three-tenths of a percent on the meals that were served.”

Despite officials at the correctional facility saying they’ve already addressed the violations in the report, advocates say they’re not buying it.

“We don’t want to just have a verification come from the people who are running it, who were there when this happened. We need independent verification. We are not willing to just take everyone’s word for it that everything are fine anymore. This is really a demand,” said Lizzie Foley from Action Together New Jersey.

“The gentleman here from ICE made it sound like an amusement park, made it sound like a resort. Would you guys spend 30 days in that facility?” said one Essex County resident.

“You guys got to have the checks and balances that the people have told you, and you failed to do that,” said another.

“I have a questions, where is our opponent Joseph DiVincenzo, better known as Joe D,” asked Essex County resident Jay Arena.

Freeholders extended the meeting by an hour to allow everyone to speak. Mercado says the committee will produce a report on its findings based on the hearing and will meet in two weeks to discuss better oversight of the facility.