One person at the facility told City Limits 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 councilmembers they have masks in abundance.
On Monday, New York City Councilmembers Shahana Hanif and Shekar Krishnan, alongside immigration advocates, visited the Orange County Correctional Facility (OCCF) to check on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees being held there—part of the lawmakers’ push for a state bill that would ban New York detention facilities from contracting with ICE.
The planned visit comes months after a possible COVID-19 outbreak at the facility in Goshen, NY, a reported hunger strike by detainees there in February, and a Council immigration committee hearing that same month which focused on conditions at the jail.
After spending hours inside the facility Monday, the councilmembers held a roundtable discussion where they said the visit allowed them to corroborate several complaints they had heard earlier from detainees, advocates, and lawyers.
“Perhaps worst of all is the lack of COVID-19 protocols,” said Immigration Committee Chair Shahana Hanif in a statement. “The situation in this jail is horrific, and this visit confirms what we heard in our hearing earlier this year.”
Detainees are given washable cloth masks and are in charge of taking care of them and washing them at their own discretion, according to Councilwoman Hanif, who spoke to City Limits in a phone interview Wednesday. She outlined other concerns around COVID safety.
“Those exposed were also not tested, [and] despite an abundance of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], incarcerated individuals are given cloth masks that they must wash on their own,” she said in a statement. COVID-19 cases are up across New York, though Orange County remains the lone part of the state still in the green “low-risk” 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 he has only been given two masks during that time, he said.
When the councilmembers asked the jail’s undersheriff who was giving them the tour of the facility why the detainees were wearing cloth masks—which government health officials have said offer less effective protection than other types—he replied that it was for medical reasons. Later on, when the councilmembers visited the medical area, they asked the medical staff the same question, and the medical staff replied that it was a facility decision, the lawmakers told reporters.
“Then there was an awkward silence,” described Krishnan by phone.
Detainees have also complained of delays in getting tested for COVID-19, something an ICE representative disputed. A spokesperson for the agency said tests are being done, and said there have been no recent cases at the Orange County jail. A detainee was symptomatic but tested negative on April 28, according to the spokesperson, who said the last time someone tested positive at the facility was Jan. 24.
“Comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and patients, including the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), in accordance with CDC guidance,” the spokesperson said by email. “The ICE Occupational Safety and Health Office is in contact with relevant offices within the Department of Homeland Security, and in January 2020, the DHS Workforce Safety and Health Division provided DHS components additional guidance to address assumed risks and interim workplace controls.”
According to ICE, there are currently 131 detainees being held at the facility in Goshen, two less than in February. The agency acknowledged that detainees are provided with cloth masks.
During their visit, councilmembers handed over around 300 rapid COVID-19 tests and around 300 surgical masks, despite the fact that jail staff reported they had both items in abundance.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, did not immediately respond to City Limits’ questions regarding COVID-19 numbers, nor commented on the councilmembers’ post-visit pronouncements. The Sheriff’s Office has previously disputed advocates and detainees’ claims about conditions at the jail. “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,” a rep for the office said in a statement following February’s 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 School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic—sent a complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, following up on an earlier complaint they filed in February over alleged racist and retaliatory abuse, violence, unsafe conditions, and medical neglect of detainees at the site amidst the pandemic.
There is currently only one woman detained in the facility: Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey, whose case has garnered significant media attention and inspired a Netflix series. Councilwoman Hanif spoke to her and said Sorokin told her it had taken a week to get tested for COVID-19.
Testing and medical care access at the jail are the two areas in which conflicting accounts emerge: officials told the group visiting that tests and medical care are readily available, and stressed that any individual experiencing COVID-19 symptoms will be swabbed. A test can be obtained either by request,observation or reporting of clinical need, according to ICE.
But some detainees said that has not been the case. “While corrections officers maintain that medical needs are being met adequately, we heard from many detainees that confirmed that this is not the case,” said Hanif.
Councilmembers also had access to the kitchen area during their visit.
“We saw the food, it was utterly unappetizing,” said Krishnan, who acknowledged that they did not inspect if the food had expired—one of the complaints made by immigration advocates in their February letter to DHS, as well as detainees saying they were served “pasta every single day for lunch and dinner.” Moreover, “they reported that portions of the food got smaller after the hunger strike,” said Tania Mattos, Envision Freedom’s director of advocacy and policy. (ICE has previously denied that any official hunger strike took place at the jail in February.)
A vegetarian ICE detainee told Councilmember Krishnan that he gets rice and beans everyday. Sorokin reported to Hanif that she was served the same, and that there are no other vegetarian options.
Councilmembers spoke to around 20 detainees in a common area inside the facility. “Those detained are forced to eat bland meals next to their toilets because congregate meals aren’t allowed,” said Hanif.
“Things haven’t improved in the facility despite constant calls from organizations and elected officials,” said Ellen Pachnanda, the attorney-in-charge of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) at the Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents detained immigrants facing deportation.
This isn’t the first time the Orange County Jail has made headlines in the last several years: in 2018, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) investigated conditions at the facility in response to allegations of civil rights and civil liberties violations, as well as the 2016 death of one individual under ICE custody.
Hanif and other progressive lawmakers have been pushing for the passage of the NY Dignity Not Detention bill, state legislation which would prohibit New York from housing ICE detainees at its corrections facilities, something neighboring New Jersey banned last year.