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What Do We Do Now?

Flavia Alaya

Sunday night, January 8, the 2000 odd inmates of the County jail in Paterson NJ were in total lockdown. There’d apparently been a screaming melee involving a number of prisoners and guards during the day. At least three men were in solitary, they said, recovering from pepper-spray and charged with incitement to riot.

A familiar jail scenario? Not really, not even for Passaic County Jail (PCJ), already known to readers of these pages—and notorious elsewhere—as a brutal hellhole for federal detention of immigrants the government wants to deport, most of them from the New York Metro area. Needless to say, it's a hellhole not in Iraq or Guantanamo but barely 15 miles from Times Square, and for the past three years it's also been a lightning-rod for civil rights activism on behalf of immigrant detainees in the U.S.

Spoonfed by the spokesman for Sheriff Jerry Speziale, the local cable news channel Sunday night and the local paper Monday morning both report that PCJ’s rioting inmates were detainees, their hijinx inspired by some 30 placard-carrying marchers (myself among them) opposite the jail on Sunday afternoon. A News 12 video clip shows us plodding around in front of St John's Cathedral chanting: "Free, free, free the detainees!" Every hour the anchor authoritatively repeats, without challenge, the official statement that protesters had "sent word" to the detainees inside "to be disruptive." Hearing this from the lockdown of their own living-rooms that night, listeners can confirm what they already believe: that the police are on the case, protecting them from these reckless radicals on the street fomenting riot, no less than from the rioting criminals inside.

Only one problem with this picture: except for the march, none of it’s true. We learn late Monday from a regular contact/informant inside, when he's finally allowed to make a phone call: No, no riot, people. Absolutely nothing amiss. Everything "quiet, calm, cool" inside the whole day on Sunday and through the night. A reporter for the North Jersey Herald-News gets separate confirmation; the newspaper corrects by Tuesday, the article quoting the jail spokesman as having "mis-spoken." He now vaguely morphs the disruptive inmates into noisy "federal prisoners" in another section of the jail.

Three days later the facts are still fuzzy. No one says which "federal prisoners." Did anybody really shout? scream? get pepper-sprayed? Who knows? who cares? The damage is done, and so is officialdom’s essential damage control. By Thursday the story has moved off, official "mis-speak" has blackened the detainees as "dangerous criminals”—again—and slandered their supporters, all in a day's work.

But this story has more ironies than Sophocles. First up you have to know that ICE's beleaguered contract with Passaic County Jail—object of more than three years of relentless attack by detainees themselves in concert with civil rights, human rights, and immigrant activists/advocates (and the subject of two targeted articles here in CounterPunch)—is over. OVER. DONE. We’ve won. The detainees have won. The hundred or so remaining since the announcement are being moved, ten, maybe twenty at a time, to other facilities.

REPEAT: THERE WILL BE NO MORE DETAINEES IN PASSAIC COUNTY JAIL, no more uncharged immigrants dealing with its miserable food and filthy, fetid conditions, deprived of space and light and air and exercise, routinely insulted and abused, intimidated by the Sheriff’s favorite snarling attack dogs, delivered vicious beatings on hair-trigger excuses, suffering the neglect of virtually every medical need.

Better yet, it’s our arch-enemy himself, Sheriff Jerry Speziale, the swaggering Count of Passaic County, who’s declared the marriage over. Either he’s delivering a preemptive strike in anticipation of getting a public slap from Homeland Security’s Inspector General and his audit squad, or ICE is writing him a pass, letting him save his clean-cut face, having presumably slipped him warning about what the audit might show-and-tell about his miserable, substandard facility. (Timeline: auditors finish up, report due in late February; Sheriff announces late December the end of the contract as of February 1. What would you think?)

The Sheriff has to be pissed off, all the same. As reported here in October, he’d actually pulled a Jesus Christ in August and thrown the auditors out of his jail, after which he’d swanked down to DC to give them a piece of his mind. This was just before he sent a rescue mission of the County’s Finest down to post-Katrina New Orleans, who made news not for their compassion but for their siren-screaming convoy doing 95 mph through Virginia on their return trip. (See: The quoted conversation between Speziale and the Augusta County, VA, Deputy is priceless.)

We activists are no Oscar-winners in victory, but Sheriff Speziale knows what to do with defeat. Here he was on a recent Lou Dobbs Show (CNN), national hook-up, telling it like it is:

DOBBS: And your reason for terminating the program straightforwardly, it's just more trouble than you think it's worth?

SPEZIALE: It's definitely more trouble than it's worth. There are so many advocacy groups out there. There's demonstrations that cost overtime to the taxpayers of Passaic county, it's really not worth it.

Well, thanks, Jerry! We didn’t know you cared! Yet the frank truth is that over the three years of this fight you could count on one set of fingertips the serious demos we organized that counted more than a few hardcore stragglers toting signs. Only two events brought out serious police force, including this past Sunday’s, when (go figure) there were at least thirteen Sheriff cars and vans along the curb and and maybe 40 visible cops controlling 25-30 mostly middle-aged protesters and detainee families, minding the sidewalk and keeping out of the way of St John’s parishioners attending 1 o’clock mass.

What really griped him had to be the relentless self-organizing among the detainees themselves: the petitions, the hunger strikes—dozens of them over the three years, some only one or two men at a time, others involving entire units—not to mention the support we gave them: the jail visits, the press conferences and press releases and conversations with reporters, the AP and National Public Radio and Telemundo stories, persistent communication between inside and outside, them and us. You better believe it was trouble.

Of course Dobbs has to get in one more lick on behalf of beleaguered prison guards:

DOBBS: Bill Tucker just reported that you can't even discuss these incidents where your officers are abused or attacked violently.

SPEZIALE: Correct.

DOBBS: Because of the conditions under the federal contract?

Speziale dodges, not yet ready to tell us what the press reveals only yesterday—that the County has never had a formal contract with ICE, that all of this has been done on a handshake. Instead he goes here for a more philosophical point:

SPEZIALE: See, what happens here is the INS detainees, the perception is that most of the people are someone that crossed over a border or overstays on a visa to be here for the American dream. In reality, these are people that crossed over that border and then stole the American dream by committing a felony, by committing a murder, by committing a rape, or a sodomy, and we can't even discuss that.

There’s got to be another sidebar in why these jail spokesmen always accuse prisoners of “sodomy” on family shows.


Every solution creates another problem, right? So we’ve won. But we're not quite sure what to do with this victory—or even if it IS a victory. Sure, we‘ve got what we wished for. What’s next? Will these same detainees, dropped into this slimy slammer because of some petty visa violation or the mistake of calling attention to themselves, or because they once did a crime that the government, ex post facto, has termed a “deportable offense,” now be carted off to places maybe a shade less barbaric than PCJ? After their interviews with IG auditors, some thirty of them had actually published a December 17 petition demanding the end of PCJ’s contract, over their own signatures. Would they be singled out for special new abuses? Punitively sent off to facilities hundreds, if not thousands, of miles distant from families—lawyers—us?

It’s why we’re still out there, marching, or one of the reasons. "First Passaic, now the rest!" isn't just a cocky victory chant. It’s a declaration of the work still needing to be done. And not just in New Jersey. Hundreds of thousands remain in detention in this country—in what people have to grasp as another national scandal of alien internment—rounded up at work, off the streets, out of their beds, thrown into whatever dungeons are at hand, really, pretty much anywhere in the U.S. And for every Passaic County that calls it quits, there’ll be another county somewhere, with officials like our own Freeholders who see nothing in an ICE contract but a rich revenue stream. Dobbs had Victor Cerda, former Director of ICE, putting it in a nutshell: “You have plenty of people, plenty of municipalities willing to pick up whatever slack exists…. The New York field office has already identified other facilities in the New York, New Jersey, area to accomplish our mission."

He’s right. That’s millions a year @ $77 dollars/day/detainee, or whatever the local market will bear, count ‘em: hundreds of thousands of immigrants under the punitive provisions of those immigration laws left to rot in more Podunk county jails while the authorities process their cases, their pleas for refuge, for asylum, for the same second chance afforded citizens who’ve done time and cleaned up their act—citizens who, according to a recent New York Times estimate, number some 640,000 of us a year! But the detainees are different: men, women, sometimes even children, jailed, effectively without application of Bill of Rights habeas protections, without charges, without access to lawyers, with nothing but the legal-print promise that their incarceration has to be limited to six months, and nobody to enforce it for them. And if they protest their deportation, the meter is turned off.

Actually no one says it better than they do, 35 detainees still in PCJ after the Sheriff had announced the end of his contract. This, their second petition in two weeks, actually made it to AP, its bad grammar more wrenching even than its plea, because it tells us about the struggle, the longing, for justice in this supposedly democratic society:

We immigration detainees in the custody of ICE are demanding immediately release from punitive detention here at Passaic County Jail, and ICE and not to be transfer to another jail where immigration detainees will be subjected to more and more punitive detention by Passaic County and other jail (ICE).Noted that these immigration detainees are not criminals and don’t have any criminal charges pending against them, but the immigration detainees are treated as notorious criminals jail behind bars. For years, months without legal representation the immigrant detainees constitutional rights are in limbo with ICE.

The immigration detainees are treated as criminals but don’t have the same rights as criminals to attorneys and a jury trial, and put in jail for months years. NOW where is our constitutional rights freedom for all USA.

We immigration detainees are held in legal limbo with department of Homeland Secuirty to deprived them of there life and liberty and place the detainees behind bars without having a criminal charges against them. It’s unconstitutional to deprived human beings of there life and liberty and most of all there families.

Many of the immigration detainees are in jail for the Immigration Custom Enforecement (ICE) for months and even years and many detainees never gets a chance to reunite with there families, parents are being taken away from there children. Where are the family ties laws. The immigration services just disregard there laws to make money off of there poor detainees keeping them behind bars for many years…Immigration judges are deliberately extending detainees cases for many months to keep detainees in jail to profit off of them. It’s a big racketeering by the DHS and the contracted jail.


The day before we marched, ten more detainees were transferred to Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, a few miles east of Paterson. Representatives of Bergen County Peace & Justice Coalition were with us out there on Main Street. A few hours after we broke up they shot us this press release:

The Department of Homeland Security” Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency continues to hold tens of thousands of immigrant detainees without charges or trial. These detainees are being held in county jails around the country, especially in New Jersey. In Bergen County, over a hundred detainees are held in the jail, in violation of their basic Constitutional rights. Bergen County gets $28,000 a year from the Federal government for each detainee they hold.

The Bill of Rights protects everyone, everywhere, from being held without charges by the US Government. It makes no distinction between citizens and non-citizens, or detention within or outside the US border. The Bill of Rights puts limits on the action the government can take at any time. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says that “No person … shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

The detainees have been charged with no crimes. They must be freed.

We demand that the Freeholders end the contract with ICE, stop holding the detainees and stop selling our rights! We have succeeded in ending the ICE contract at Passaic County Jail. Bergen is next!

Maybe our visionary friend the Sheriff should get the last word here:

SPEZIALE: I think that the United States government is going have to come up with their own detention facilities, because regardless where you put these detainees, the advocacy groups and the demonstrations will continue, and you're just going to have problems for other facilities

Thanks again, Jerry. Your mouth to God’s ear.


Flavia Alaya is a retired professor of literature from Ramapo College, and a founding member of the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee. She lives and writes in Paterson, NJ, and can be reached at

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