A possible COVID outbreak and a hunger strike at the Orange County Correctional Facility (OCCF) were two of the main topics Monday during the first meeting of the City Council’s immigration committee in 2022.
The New York City Council’s immigration committee held its first hearing of 2022 this Monday about conditions for immigrant detainees at Orange County Correctional Facility (OCCF), following a possible COVID-19 outbreak at the upstate facility at the end of January, as well as complaints alleging abuse and unsafe conditions which prompted a hunger strike on Feb. 17.
That same day, six immigrant advocacy groups—Catholic Charities Community Services, Envision Freedom Fund, For the Many, Freedom for Immigrants, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and the NYU School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic—filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties over alleged racist and retaliatory abuse, violence, unsafe conditions, and medical neglect of detainees at the site amidst the pandemic. Five days later, two New York state corrections officers at the facility in Goshen were moved out of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainee unit amid the allegations, according to a Feb. 23 letter from Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
“They [the two New York state corrections officers] will continue to work at OCCF, but not in the ICE unit, and OCCF will conduct their own investigation. That is not nearly enough,” said Amber Khan, director of the health justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
This isn’t the first time the Orange County Jail facility has made headlines in the last several years. The Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) previously investigated the facility in 2018 in response to “numerous allegations of civil rights and civil liberties violations” as well as the 2016 death of an individual in ICE custody, highlights the February complaint.
The recent instances of abuses are just part of a longer trend, according to the immigration advocates, who say their clients have been retaliated against for taking part in the hunger strike earlier this month.
“One [of our clients] in particular, was put on 15-day administrative segregation,” said Sophie Dalsimer, immigration supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, one of the three immigration advocacy groups from the New York Family Immigrant Unity Project (NYIFUP), which represents detained immigrants facing deportation. But according to Tania Mattos, Envision Freedom’s director of advocacy and policy, ICE detainees were put in segregation for seven days: from Friday, Feb. 18 to Thursday, Feb. 24.
The Bronx Defenders shared one of these redacted disciplinary write-ups, issued to someone detained at OCCF who participated in the hunger strike, with members of the Council’s committee. “Your disregard for rules and regulations will not be tolerated,” reads the document, which the public defenders organization obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request. “This office sentences you to seven days in cell confinement to be served in Disciplinary Segregation. This inmate will be credited with four days served in Disciplinary Segregation. While under Disciplinary Segregation, you will not receive any Commissary items. Please be advised that any actions similar in nature will result in more severe disciplinary sanctions.”
Advocates say hunger strikers were also retaliated against by having their food portions reduced, and that the tablets detainees have access to in the facility were confiscated and commissary funds were taken away, according to two advocacy groups.
“Confiscation of tablets and restricting access to commissary funds limits a person’s ability to communicate with their attorneys, families, and outside community,” the NYIFUP organizations said in a statement.
In Monday’s hearing, immigrant advocacy groups condemned those actions and provided testimonies from several ICE detainees they represent who are being held at the Orange County jail. Anna Meixler, speaking on behalf of the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, said that “these brazen violations of detained people’s rights and dignity—which are emblematic of the abuses and neglect endemic to the immigration detention system—demand swift action.”
“But hunger strikers are being punished with disciplinary solitary confinement, conditions continue to deteriorate at the jail, and detained people remain vulnerable to COVID-19, medical neglect, and violent, and racist abuse,” Meixler said, according to her testimony shared with City Limits.
Advocates say the hunger strike ended on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 20, after an ICE officer visited the facility on Friday, Feb. 17. An ICE spokesperson, however, denied that any official hunger strike took place at the jail, where there are currently 133 ICE detainees being held. The agency says detainees are given educational information about COVID-19 at intake, and that posters are on display in ICE detention centers in multiple languages to inform detainees about vaccination.*
In an email, Kenneth T. Jones, undersheriff at the Orange County Sheriff’s office, disputed the allegations made by public defenders and advocates.
“The Orange County Jail is one of the most accredited jails in the nation and engaging in actions such as those that you assert are happening is far below our professional standards and would be intolerable to this administration,” Jones wrote in an emailed statement that was also sent to advocates. “All of these accusations have been repeatedly made by activists at one time or another over the past 2 years and each of them proven to be false.”*
Councilwoman Shahana Hanif, chair of the Council’s Immigration Committee, said her office invited OCCF representatives to testify at Monday’s hearing in order to clarify the situation and to provide basic information, like how many detainees have been vaccinated so far at the facility against COVID-19. “But they declined our invitation and will not be appearing on Monday,” said a representative of the councilwoman’s office.
Immigration advocacy groups and attorneys claim their detained clients have suffered from a lack of access to medical care and have been subject to unsafe conditions amidst the dangers of COVID-19. An anonymous ICE detainee said that they were missing toilet paper for two days, as well as disinfectant and laundry soap, according to their testimony shared with City Limits. “We’ve only gotten fresh bedding twice in the last four months, and it takes three to four weeks to get clean clothing,” the detainee’s testimony reads. “Some of the guards don’t let you wash your bedding or clothes in between.”
Detainees requesting COVID-19 vaccines at OCCF were put on a sign-up sheet without knowing when a vaccine would become available, according testimony shared by NYIFUP, which said some of their clients waited on the list for approximately two months. Karla Ostolaza, deputy director of immigration practice at The Bronx Defenders, said three of their clients were only able to access the vaccine after City Limits published an article describing a possible outbreak at the jail facility in late January.
To date, neither ICE nor the Orange County Sheriff’s office has publicly said how many of those detained at the site have received one, two or three doses of the vaccine.
Detainees have described other issues with medical access at the facility.“They [doctors] just want to give you a pill so that you will leave. Nothing is important to them. They talk to us like we are children: ‘Are you going to take the pill or not?’ If we don’t want to take a pill, we have to sign that we refused,” reads another anonymous ICE detainee testimony expected to be shared at Monday’s hearing. “This can make us feel pressured. It seems like the doctors just want us to take the medicine but don’t care if we are not getting better.”
Daniel Atonna, political coordinator at For the Many—a grassroots organization that is based in the Mid-Hudson Valley—claims that a community member who was held at OCCF was forced to sign an agreement saying he got personal protective equipment (PPE) in March, despite not receiving any until May. “He said detainees who refused to lie on the forms were threatened with beatings and verbal abuse,” reads Atonna’s testimony.
NYIFUP providers also complained about the limitations on a detained person’s access to counsel, either by confidential in-person visits at the facility or through video or legal phone calls. Both methods of communication have suffered from constraints during the COVID pandemic, which adds to the series of logistical, technical, and communication problems immigration attorneys are facing in New York.
“Some of the people we represent understandably refuse to meet with us in person given the confidentiality concerns. Although NYIFUP providers have repeatedly requested access to the existing meeting rooms for private meetings at the facility, OCCF leadership and ICE have consistently denied our requests,” describes NYIFUP testimony.
Because of all these problems, immigrant advocacy groups are demanding the release of people in ICE detention in New York State, the termination of ICE’s contract with OCCF, and an investigation of OCCF’s conditions.
Advocacy organizations are planning a week of actions around these issues kicking off with Monday’s hearing. The Committee on Immigration also plans to hear a resolution in support of the Dignity Not Detention bill, state legislation which would terminate New York’s existing contracts with ICE, and prohibit governmental entities from entering into agreements to incarcerate immigrants in detention facilities. It follows a similar law signed in August by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
On Wednesday, elected officials in Albany will be hosting a roundtable to discuss other state bills relating to immigration policy, such as Stop Immigration Bond Abuse Act/ Break the Shackles Act, (S7475/A7770); NY 4 All Act (S3076A/A2328A); Access to Representation Act (S81A/A1961); and Dignity Not Detention Act (S7373/A7099A). And on Thursday, organizations will be rallying at Foley Square for a national day of action demanding closure of detention centers, an end to deportations and Title 42, budgets cuts for ICE and Customs and Border Protection, and for the freedom of all detained people.
*Editor’s note: this story was updated to include a response from the Orange County Sheriff’s office and additional comment from ICE.