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Photo: documentedny.comThe ICE Detention Center in Bergen County, New Jersey
The ICE Detention Center in Bergen County, New Jersey. Photo: documentedny.com

Outside Bergen County Jail, Looking In

ICE detainees are on a hunger strike, and their families are worried for their safety.

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ICE detainees all share stories that are horrifying. Throughout the last couple of months, we have heard nightmares of unwanted hysterectomies, and detainees tortured and forced to sign paperwork they didn’t agree to among other human rights abuses. Everything has also been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. 

In New Jersey, a number of detainees who were first in Essex County Jail were moved to Bergen County Jail, where they’ve faced lack of water, heat, exposure to mold, and more. In response to the conditions, nine are currently undertaking a hunger strike to bring light to the issue.

A family member of one of the detainees on the strike recently spoke to AL DÍA about the experience of having a loved one in ICE custody and the fear for their well-being amid the hunger strike. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution against their loved one. 

Their name along with that of their loved one have been changed.

Jane told AL DÍA that her family migrated from Guatemala to New Jersey 17 years ago. Since then, they’ve carved out a modest life for themselves. 

Her brother John, worked installing racks and shelves in department stores before he was detained by ICE a year ago.

Originally, John was being held in Essex County Jail before being moved to Bergen County Jail two months ago. 

Now, on day 21 of his hunger strike she says John feels weak. Jane said her brother also mentioned being denied any medical care, even though he suffers from extreme headaches as a result of a previous operation that inserted metal plates in his head.

She also said that ICE agents refused to give him any medicine for the pain, and only suggested drinking water. 

“Unfortunately, the ICE agents don’t even give him water,” said Jane.

On Dec. 2, John called his sister and recounted a recent encounter with agents that brought him paperwork he needed to sign. He said they told him if he didn’t, they would take them into a cold-aired room, undress him, and inject him with nutrients in the face of his then 19-day hunger strike. 

Although they didn’t disclose what day or how soon it would happen, Jane believed the threat was placed to frighten the detainees. ICE agents have also allegedly told them that hunger strike or not, they were not going to be leaving the facility anytime soon. 

When reached for comment about the situation at Bergen County Jail, an ICE official through email said any allegations of mistreatment at the facility were “false.”

“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” they wrote.

The official also said that ICE monitors the detainees’ food and water intake and that they are under “close medical observation.”

Before John was detained, Jane shared that they spent a lot of time together at family outings and did simple things like going to church together. 

That all changed in a blink of an eye. 

Being inside a detention center, John’s worry as well as his sister’s is that he catches the coronavirus. 

He also has a young son that is being cared for by his sister. Jane says his son suffers a lot because he’s not able to see his father. When John was in Essex County Jail, she said they would at least be able to have video calls, but now at Bergen County, that is not an option for him.

“This all just makes the situation worse, and we’re deeply saddened by it,” Jane added.

Despite the current situation, Jane, John, and the rest of their family hope and expect to be released because of the hunger strike. Starving yourself is dangerous considering it affects your organs, but Jane said it’s their hope that they get liberty as a result. 

Only one person has been released from Bergen County Jail due to their hunger strike, roughly 3 weeks ago. Demonstrators with the NY/NJ coalition for the abolition of ICE continue to stand outside of the Bergen County Jail everyday this week, and plan to continue being there until the detainees are released.

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