By Brenda Flanagan
“They’ll put you in the box. They’ll send you in the hole,” said Alix Takouezim.
Takouezim, a human rights advocate, says, whether you call it the box, the hole or solitary confinement it’s punishment inflicted by guards at three county jails on immigrant detainees who’d spend 10, 20, even 30 days at a stretch locked up in a tiny cell with one window for 23 hours a day. But for what?
“Talking back to the guard, having an argument over who’s going to watch the TV with the other inmates,” said Takouezim. “Those will warrant in Essex County, Bergen County, Hudson County jails — they will send you in the box for very, very small things that happen.”
“It’s very frightening,” said Micheal Reeves.
Liberian national Reeves spent a year held with other immigrants at the Hudson County jail while seeking political asylum. The same guards that run the jail also oversee immigrant detention.
“They would threaten you for simple things,” he said. “They throw you into solitary confinement.”
He described detainees after being released after a month in the hole as being stressed and terrified.
“It’s like a lost sense of time. Just throw them in a cell and lock them up. People would come out and not even know how long they’d been in there,” Reeves said.
“What we are hearing out of the detention centers is horrible. These are already traumatized people,” said Bonnie Kerness, Director of the Prison Watch Project.
The American Friends Service Committee and other advocates released a report called “23 Hours in the Box.” It detailing abuses involving solitary confinement. Technically, immigrant detainees are held in civil detention and Immigration and Customs Enforcement lists general guidelines for confinement. However, advocates say the feds exercise minimal actual oversight. Guards at lockups like Essex report to the county and apply New Jersey prison laws, Takouezim says.
“We find a lot of inconsistencies across the board on how it is applied,” she said.
For example, fighting in Hudson County drew an average 13.1 day sentence in the hole, the report says. The same offense called for an average 11.1 days in the Bergen County facility. Disruptive conduct had 4.3 days in solitary in Hudson and 10.5 days in Bergen.
“The facilities would use it in a way to control the people in the facility. They use it to intimidate the inmates in the facility and they use it so often,” Takouezim said.
Each county is as if it’s their own fiefdom. There’s no ‘upstairs.’ There’s no one I can go to next,” said Kerness.
Essex County referred us to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but officials there did not respond to our request for comment. A recent UN report said spending more than 15 days in the box should be considered torture.