Old habits die hard at the Bergen County jail. During the AIDS epidemic I visited an inmate at its then fortress-like, depressing facility under investigation from federal officials. From the main entrance on the right was a room where I had to talk with the inmate through opaque dirty glass using a phone. His face showed bruises, he described having been beaten by officers, and was not receiving his medication. He died shortly thereafter.
Matt Katz, who wrote the definitive account of Christie’s early years as governor, today says that even in its new facility (see above) it operates under outdated detention guidelines and forbids what are known as “contact” visits. In a WNYC article he explains that immigrants are allowed to meet with their attorneys face-to-face, but when spouses, children and friends come to visit they are separated by a glass partition and must speak through a telephone.
More than 500 immigrants picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are detained at the Bergen County Jail. Katz quotes one immigrant with no criminal record who said he was able to hug his wife and two young children when he was jailed at Hudson County Correctional Facility but ICE transferred him to Bergen County Jail where the visits through the glass were too difficult for his 3-year-old son, who is autistic. “It’s hard for him to actually focus talking to me on the phone, much less bringing him here at the glass.” The man said he suffered from depression, and did not get to see his son before he was deported for overstaying his visa.
Sheriff Michael Saudino, entrenched in office since 2011, says the ban on contact is in place to keep contraband, like weapons that could be used to hurt sheriff’s officers, from being smuggled into the facility. Nonetheless, other ICE funded sites do allow contact visits.
Recently I was talking with a sergeant and two correctional officers at the jail who claimed that Saudino spent insufficient time at the facility. In Bergen County the sheriff is an elected official. They explained too much of his effort was spent on re-election.
While Hudson County, following months of protest, is moving to end its contract to detain immigrants at its jail, Bergen County is not. Saudino says it’s his duty to cooperate with any law enforcement agency, regardless of who is in the White House. In Bergen County he operates as a constitutionally distinct law enforcement agency, and he alone decides whether to work with ICE.
All told, the county is on pace to collect about $15 million this year from ICE toward the sheriff’s department’s $80 million annual budget. Even though the county budget benefits from ICE money, the county freeholders don’t vote on the contract and are therefore a step removed from it. With Democratic County Executive Jim Tedesco and two freeholders up for re-election in November there has been little local protest.
Later while the AIDS/HIV crisis continued I also visited the new facility – a cleaner, more modern, much improved jail. Nonetheless advocates, detainees and immigration lawyers decry the use of pepper spray and restraint chairs to suppress detainees who act out, the minimal outside recreation time, and the poor food.
While the freeholders and County Executive say, “The president’s immigration policies have not been humane or compassionate,” they point out that the sheriff’s department has jurisdictional control over the jail. These officials appear eager to hold on to their revenue. They are are aiding and abetting Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” inhumane immigration schemes and are failing to take a moral stance on the issue. They should find a way toward a Sanctuary County approach, end the “no contact” policy, reduce their collaboration with ICE to only what is absolutely necessary and end Bergen County detention of ICE immigrants.