Hunger Strike at Passaic County Jail
- A Few Hundred Yards Away
9/11 detainees at the Passaic County Jail conduct a hunger strike to
protest alleged abuses. The NJHRDC is supporting their effort, and
demonstrating outside the jail.
On a humid July afternoon in Downtown Paterson, amidst a thin, moving
crowd of shoppers and pedestrians, a small group of about 8-10
protestors stood across the entrance of Passaic county jail. They
held up signs that read, "Support the Hunger Strike," "Free Detainees
Now!", and "Stop Civil Rights Abuses".
They handed out flyers to a few curious passersby who slowed down to
assess the situation. The flyers explained the background of their
protest on one side and offered a "Know your legal rights" crash
course on the other. A few police officers guarded the entrance of
the jail, watching the protestors with a cautious calm.
It was Tuesday, July 22nd, the second day of a picket campaign that
the members of its organizers, the NJ Civil Rights Defense Committee
(NJHRDC), hope will continue to grow in numbers until their demands
are met. At the center of these demands is the release, or at least
an improvement in the conditions, of two middle-aged immigrant
detainees who have languished behind the walls of this jail for over
a year. The men, Nigel Maccado, 54, and Hemnaouth Mohabir, 41, may
not have had much in common when they first arrived in the United
States, but they do now.
Both men are natives of far away lands- Maccado is from India and
Mohabir is Guyanese- who now find themselves detained in Passaic
County Jail for an undetermined length of time. Both face deportation
for crimes they committed many years ago. And now, both are on a
hunger strike to protest their alleged mistreatment at the facility.
For over 30 days, according to his supporters at the NJHRDC, Nigel
Maccado has refused solid food, subsisting only on water and juice.
Hemnauth Mohabir joined him 10 days later, and now has been on the
hunger strike for almost three weeks. Nigel Maccado, NJCRDC says, has
a heart condition, and is being denied medication. Neither man is
allowed any contact or visits from their families.
During its press conference on Friday, July 18th, at the corner of
Grand and Hamilton Streets in Paterson, the NJCRDC referred to a
letter it claims to have received from Mohabir. The letter, dated
June, 24, 2003, alleged physical and verbal abuse by the corrections
officers, shakedowns accompanied by dogs, and a poor diet being
offered to inmates, among other things. Mohabir protested once before
by going on a hunger strike.
For their part, the officials at the Bureau of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement, as well as the Passaic County Sheriff's
Department, have denied the allegations in recent interviews given to
the local media. They have routinely maintained that the jail's
conditions meet state and federal standards.
Two weeks ago, in an interview with The Herald News on July 11th, the
spokesman for the Passaic County Sheriff's Department, William Maer,
referred to the hunger strike as a "cheap publicity stunt." In that
interview, Mr. Maer also disregarded the NJHRDC's claims that the
hunger strikers were losing weight. "In the past, it has appeared
that individuals on similar hunger strikes have sneaked food and had
little or no weight loss," Mr. Maer explained.
The Herald News interview can be found at:(North Jersey Media Group)
In a telephone interview on July 25th, Mr. Maer stood by his earlier
comments. He said he was unable to answer specific questions
regarding the detainees' health and weight loss, but said that both
detainees are screened everyday, and that they are "fine." Regarding
Nigel Maccado's heart condition and alleged denial of medication, Mr.
Maer said that Maccado's health is being monitored everyday, and that
he "receives all the medication that he needs."
Recently, officials at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs
Enforcement in Washington blocked a privacy waiver signed by both
detainees that authorized the Sheriff's Department to make their
medical records public.
Maccado and Mohabir's hunger strike is not the first of its kind at
this facility. It is, however, the longest in the jail's recent
history. There have been similar allegations of abuse, resulting in
similar strikes by other detainees, in previous months. These
included a hunger strike that lasted over week by six detainees back
in January of 2003, resulting in a partial victory for five of those
detainees who were moved to Hudson County Jail, which is said to have
better conditions than Passaic County Jail. However, one of the
detainees, a Palestinian named Abdel-Muhti, was moved to York County
Jail in Pennsylvania and placed in solitary confinement for months.
The months following the September 11th attacks brought a stream of
men, mostly of Middle Eastern and South Asian decent, through the
gates of Passaic county jail. The jail, like several others in the
country, has been under an Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGA
contract with the INS which allows it to house federal immigration
detainees as they await processing of their cases). In exchange, the
Passaic County Jail receives approximately $77 per day for each
detainee it houses (OIG Report, 6/03). Passaic County jail housed
more detainees in the wake of September 11th than any other facility
in the country.
With the swelled numbers of detainees came allegations of
mistreatment and, at times, physical and verbal abuse. A few
detainees have carried out hunger strikes in the past to protest
In response to increasing public and civil rights groups' concerns
about detentions and the conditions under which the detainees were
living, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG)
conducted a review to examine the living conditions of the
immigration detainees at various holding facilities between March
2002 and March 2003. The review acknowledged some practices and
conditions at the Passaic Jail that did not meet the INS standards,
as well as a criticism of the Newark Department of INS for not
providing sufficient oversight of the detainees. However, the
negligence addressed by the review was attributed to the rapid influx
of the detainees and the confusion it created in the months following
9/11. Click here for more info: Special Report.
The NJHRDC has taken issue with that part of the report, as well as
to its longstanding opposition of the Passaic Jail's IGA contract
with the Department of Homeland Security. The NJHRDC say that it is
not a thing of the past as is implied in the report, that it is
taking place now. They called on the OIG for an immediate
investigation into the abuses that, they say, are still taking place
in detention facilities, including Passaic County jail. Click here
for more info: Here
"The Passaic County Jail is a 50 year old facility", said William
Maer. Although "it is certainly in need of certain upgrades, the men
and women who work here work tirelessly to provide adequate service
to its inmates".
The men and women who volunteer with the NJHRDC disagree. They hold
on to their picket signs hoping to inform the local community of the
constitution and the civil rights that they say are being violated "a
few hundred yards away".
"The response of the community has really been positive", said one of
the activists, John Sargis, as he handed a flier to a woman on that
second day of pickets. One could not help but notice the occasional
gestures of support coming from the passing cars-- a smile or a nod
here, a wave or a honk there-- but there was also the look of
apprehension and uncertainty on many faces, especially those who
seemed to be of Middle Eastern or South Asian decent.
"I would tell them not to be afraid, to speak out for their rights",
Jannette Gabriel, another member of the group said. "We have a system
in place to inform people of their civil rights, and to offer help to
anyone who needs it". Click here for more info.
The outcome of the current hunger strike remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, life goes on as usual on the noisy, cramped streets of
Downtown Paterson, New Jersey. Hundreds of people and cars pass by
daily, glancing curiously at a group of protestors standing across
the street from a group of uniformed police officers. Awaiting its
fate is the quiet turbulence- one that has been caused by a hunger
strike underway behind the solemn walls of Passaic County jail-
only "a few hundred yards away."
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