Councilmembers cite COVID safety concerns while visiting ICE detainees in New York

One person at the facility told City Limits that he has been detained by ICE for more than six months, but has only been given two cloth masks during that time, despite jail staff telling members from the council that they had masks in abundance.

Councilor Shekar Krishnan

There are currently 131 detainees at the Goshen, NY facility.

On Monday, New York City Councilmembers Shahana Hanif and Shekar Krishnan, along with immigration advocates, visited the Orange County Correctional Center (OCCF) to check on ICE detainees. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) state bill that would prohibit New York detention centers from contracting with ICE.

The planned visit comes months after a possible COVID-19 outbreak at the Goshen, New York, facility, a reported hunger strike by detainees there in February, and a Council immigration committee hearing that same month that focused in prison conditions.

After spending hours inside the facility on Monday, the council members held a round table discussion where they said the visit allowed them to corroborate several complaints they had previously heard from detainees, advocates and attorneys.

“Perhaps worst of all is the lack of COVID-19 protocols,” Immigration Committee Chair Shahana Hanif said in a statement. “The situation in this jail is dire and this visit confirms what we heard at our hearing earlier this year.”

Detainees are given washable cloth masks and are in charge of caring for and washing them at their own discretion, according to Councilwoman Hanif, who spoke with City Limits in a phone interview Wednesday. She outlined other concerns about COVID safety.

“Those exposed were also not tested, [and] despite the abundance of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], people deprived of liberty are given cloth masks that they must wash themselves,” he said in a statement. COVID-19 cases have increased throughout New York, though Orange County remains the only part of the state still in the “low risk” green category under CDC guidelines.

An ICE detainee, who preferred not to be identified, explained to City Limits that the last cloth mask he received was given to him two months ago. He has been detained for more than six months, but has only been given two masks during that time, he said.

When council members asked the jail deputy who was giving them a tour of the facility why detainees were wearing cloth masks, which government health officials say offer less effective protection than other types, he replied that it was for medical reasons. Later, when the council members visited the medical area, they asked the medical staff the same question, and the medical staff responded that it was a facility decision, lawmakers told reporters.

“Then there was an awkward silence,” Krishnan described by phone.

Detainees have also complained of delays in getting tested for COVID-19, something an ICE representative disputed. An agency spokesman said testing is ongoing and there have been no recent cases at the Orange County Jail. One detainee had symptoms but tested negative on April 28, according to the spokesman, who said the last time anyone tested positive at the facility was January 24.

“Comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and patients, including the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), in accordance with CDC guidance,” the spokesperson said via email. “ICE’s Office of Occupational Health and Safety is in contact with the relevant offices within the Department of Homeland Security, and in January 2020, the DHS Division of Workforce Health and Safety provided additional guidance to DHS components. to address the risks assumed and interim controls in the workplace”.

According to ICE, there are currently 131 detainees at the Goshen facility, two fewer than in February. The agency acknowledged that detainees are provided with cloth masks.

During their visit, the councilors handed out around 300 rapid COVID-19 tests and around 300 surgical masks, despite jail staff reporting they had both items in abundance.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, did not immediately respond to questions from City Limits about the COVID-19 numbers, nor did it comment on pronouncements following the council members’ visit. The Sheriff’s Office has previously disputed claims by advocates and detainees about conditions in the jail. “All of these accusations have been made repeatedly by activists at one point or another over the last 2 years and every one of them has been proven false,” a representative for the office said in a statement after the February Council hearing.

In April, 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 Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic ) sent a complaint to the US State Department of Homeland Security, following up on an earlier complaint they filed in February about alleged racist and retaliatory abuse, violence, unsafe conditions and medical neglect of detainees at the site amid of the pandemic.

There is currently only one woman detained at the facility: Anna Sorokin, also known as Anna Delvey, whose case has drawn widespread media attention and inspired a Netflix series. Councilwoman Hanif spoke with her and said Sorokin told her it had taken him a week to get tested for COVID-19.

Testing and access to medical care in jail are the two areas where conflicting accounts emerge: Officials told the visiting group that testing and medical care are readily available, emphasizing that anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 will be tested. A test can be obtained either by request, observation or report of clinical necessity, according to ICE.

But some detainees said that has not been the case. “While prison officials maintain that medical needs are being adequately met, we heard from many detainees who confirmed that this is not the case,” Hanif said.

Council members also had access to the kitchen area during their visit.

“We saw the food, it was completely unappetizing,” said Krishnan, who acknowledged that they did not check to see if the food was expired, one of the complaints raised by immigration advocates in their February letter to DHS, as well as by detainees who said that They were served “pasta everyday for lunch and dinner”. In addition, “they reported that food portions were reduced after the hunger strike,” said Tania Mattos, director of advocacy and policy for Envision Freedom. (ICE has previously denied that an official hunger strike was held at the jail in February.)

A vegetarian ICE detainee told Councilman Krishnan that he gets rice and beans every day. Sorokin informed Hanif that she was served the same thing and that there are no other vegetarian options.

Council members spoke with about 20 detainees in a common area inside the facility. “Detainees are forced to eat soft meals next to their toilets because mass meals are not allowed,” Hanif said.

“Things have not improved at the facility despite constant calls from organizations and elected officials,” said Ellen Pachnanda, attorney in charge of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents immigrants. detained immigrants. facing deportation.

This is not the first time the Orange County Jail has made headlines in recent years: in 2018, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) investigated conditions at the facility in response. to complaints of violations of civil rights and liberties. , as well as the 2016 death of an individual in ICE custody.

Hanif and other progressive lawmakers have been pushing to pass the NY Dignity Not Detention bill, state legislation that would bar New York from housing ICE detainees in its prison facilities, something neighboring New Jersey banned last year.

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