In January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that by February 26 it would be transferring roughly 250 detainees from the privately run Varick Detention Center in Manhattan to the Hudson correctional center in Kearny, New Jersey. About 12,000 people annually, mostly New Yorkers who would be held at the Varick center, will now be distributed to facilities outside the city. ICE claims it is making the transfer to provide "outdoor recreation space and visitation services," but civil rights advocates paint a darker picture.
"We view this as a lose-lose situation," says Udi Ofer of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which, along with numerous other New York civil rights organizations, is disturbed that ICE is shifting people from one intolerable facility to another and not releasing them. The groups also worry that the move will deprive the Varick inmates of their free legal services.
The conditions at the Varick center were certainly dismal. On February 16, following months of requests and an ACLU letter on behalf of the The Nation and the investigative fund of The Nation Institute, ICE granted its only media tours of the facility, allowing confirmation of complaints in a September 2008 petition from Varick inmates. The dorms are packed with rows of narrow beds, fifty in all; the law library has dated resources; there is no privacy; and there is no natural light, ever.
The agents hosting the tour seemed embarrassed and emphasized the upcoming transfer as we looked through a long hall window at men slouching, feet on the floor, using their beds as backless chairs. The men, most in their 20s to 30s, were wearing tan and orange uniforms, color-coded to match their criminal histories; many in Varick have no arrest record. (No one locked up in an ICE facility is charged with a crime. Any criminal sentence has been served; most are pursuing claims in immigration courts.)
A new report by the NYCLU documents poor medical care, abuse by guards and inadequate meals. The same problems were described in the 2008 petition, from "201 Varick Street 4th floor," which stated that although inmates were given a Detainee Handbook, "almost nothing is followed" and "if we try to put a complaint we are threatened to be moved to worse facilities," maybe even Hudson. Although ICE is citing "visitation" as a reason for the transfer from Varick, Hudson visitation practices violate ICE detention standards.
In June 2008, three months before the Varick petition was released, ICE inmates at Hudson had penned their own petition. It began by noting that they had already been punished for two earlier petitions, one describing someone dying "due to reckless medical treatment" and another publicizing their "inhumane treatment."
Unlike the Bureau of Prisons, ICE operates and supervises its 350 jails without regulations, only voluntary "standards," an anomaly civil rights attorneys find appalling. "If you’re going to be one of the largest jailers in the world, it is a good use of your time to create enforceable regulations," says Amy Gottlieb, director of immigrant rights for the American Friends Service Committee in the New York area.
This lack of accountability explains why a century of hunger strikes, petitions, reports, commissions, lawsuits, news coverage and promises are only leading to more hunger strikes, petitions, reports, commissions, lawsuits, news coverage and promises.