Detained immigrants demand release from New Jersey jail due to heat wave

HACKENSACK, New Jersey (WABC) -- Attorneys for immigrants detained at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack are demanding they be released amid the heat wave and reports of broken air conditioning at the Hackensack facility, and Eyewitness News took an exclusive tour of the jail to check on conditions.

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, and the Bronx Defenders -- which are providing free legal representation to detained immigrants through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project -- sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement demanding the release of their clients due to the conditions, with temperatures in the mid-90s every day.

"As a heat wave scorches New York and New Jersey, a growing number of our clients have reported that the air conditioning systems in several units of the Bergen County Jail have failed and that they are enduring oppressive and dangerous conditions," the letter read, in part. "The soaring temperatures and lack of ventilation are especially dangerous as detained immigrants and staff continue to face the threat of the spread of COVID-19 within the facility."

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However, our tour found conditions that felt suitable and comfortable for ICE detainees, inmates and staff working in the jail.

Sheriff Anthony Cureton said he routinely checks on inmates to make sure their basic needs are met.

"There have been moments that a circuit may break," he said. "Our 24-hour staff turn it back on, and it's resumed within moments."

The attorneys argued that lockdowns and prolonged confinement to small cells imposed by jail officials, ostensibly to protect people from the spread of the coronavirus, are adding to the extreme discomfort and health risks of the heat given the limited air circulation in those small spaces.

Jail officials said detainees and inmates can file any grievance by filling out a form and jail officials say they have seen no formal internal complaints about the cooling system. Additionally, the hospital unit has not treated anyone for overheating.

"We haven't had anyone make any sick calls referring to the heat...or dehydration or any of that," Bergen County Jail Medical Director Dr. Michael Hemsley said.

ICE uses the Bergen County Jail to hold detainees, and those currently inside the facility are all from New York City and includes sex offenders and robbery suspects.

Still, the attorneys called for their release.

"There is no reason for people to be incarcerated as they fight their deportation cases in immigration court," the letter read. "ICE and local jail officials have repeatedly shown their inability to handle public health emergencies and are responsible for an ongoing humanitarian crisis. As detention conditions continue to threaten the health and safety of detained immigrants, we demand the release of our clients from Bergen County Jail and renew our calls for the immediate release of all people currently in ICE custody and an end to ICE raids."

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