Report finds health and safety violations at Essex County jail with ICE contract

Essex County Correctional Facility Director Al Ortiz took NJTV News on a tour of accommodations for more than 700 immigrants it’s currently detaining for ICE. A federal Homeland Security surprise inspection last July documented violations like: multiple unreported security problems; leaking ceilings, moldy showers and hallways; slimy lunch meat; bloody, raw chicken and expired meat patties. The report stated the issues “pose significant health and safety risks at the facility” and alarmed immigrant advocates and officials — including Gov. Phil Murphy.

“Any amount of inhumane conditions for anybody incarcerated is completely unacceptable and it’s incumbent on all of us to get to a better place than that,” he said.

“I thought we were doing good, but obviously, we learned,” said Ortiz. “Today we know that we got to be more diligent, and whatever have you. Step up our game. We can always do that.”

Ortiz showed NJTV News how the jail’s addressing problems raised in the report. ICE prohibits cameras in detention facilities, but he showed off dorms and bathrooms where leaky ceilings had apparently been repaired, peeling walls steamed cleaned and repainted, and moldy showers fitted with new, laminate walls that are easier to clean. Ortiz blamed the leaks on a recently tarred roof and heavy rains.

“The staining on the thing, that was tar. And water was seeping, we moved the individuals from there. That’s why we tarred it,” said Ortiz. “We’re testing now to ensure that we don’t have mold.”

On Tuesday, the kitchen was clean and organized under a brand-new manager where food’s properly stored, dated and served to each dormitory and cell pod. Ortiz disputed the report’s claim that food was contaminated.

“That food was not tested. Going forward, we will be testing any type of food issues. But we have yet to have — in the ten years since our medical director’s been here — never had any issue of salmonella, E coli, staphylococcus, whatever have you. Occasionally, somebody gets a tummy ache. That’s normal,” said Ortiz.

But the report’s difficult to dispute when ICE — which pays Essex more than $100 per detainee per day — concurred with the inspector general’s findings.

“All I’m saying to you is we are fixing the problem. ICE can say what they’re saying, but they’re here. They have individuals here every day. And we’ve been doing this for many years, and we’re trying to always improve. So what they say, I can’t speak for them,” said Ortiz.

ICE could punish Essex for these violations by deducting 5 percent from paid invoices. It said in a statement, “ICE Headquarters is evaluating the responses received from ECCF” and that ICE ” … utilizes a layered approach to monitor detention conditions at facilities, with processes in place to implement corrective actions in instances of non-compliance to ICE detention standards.”

County officials have stated they’re in the immigrant detainee business to raise revenue. But Ortiz disagreed with the notion that the facility’s administrators were cutting corners to save money and maximize the county’s profits.

“No, no. I’ve been here 12 years. I wouldn’t be here today if that was the case.”

ICE will schedule quarterly meetings at the jail. A follow-up inspection is expected to occur in six months.