For 3rd Hudson freeholder meeting in a row, public comment revolves around ICE contract

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For the third Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting in a row, public comment revolved around the agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with speakers again calling to end the deal.

By John Heinis/Hudson County View

Prior to the public portion, the board voted on at least two agenda items of note: purchasing 800 mattresses for the Hudson County Correctional Facility for $168,000, as well as 10 new vehicles for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.

Specifically, the HCPO was seeking 10 Chevrolet Malibu LS 1FL Sedans for $167,760.

Both items passed easily, with the mattress purchase being approved unanimously (9-0) and the vehicles being approved 8-1, with Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea (D-2) voting no.

At the November 24th freeholder meeting, the ICE contract was renewed for up to another decade, after just over 10 hours of discussion, by a vote of 6-3.

During that session, over nine hours were dedicated to remarks against renewal, which included testimony from former detainees being read into the record alleging deplorable conditions, and even sexual abuse, at the Kearny facility.

Ron Edwards, the head of Hudson County corrections, said at last night’s meeting that a detainee that was at the facility between 2016 and 2018 told a completely different story in a letter written to him dated November 30th.

“I remember you coming through the tier to have meetings and address our concerns. I remember you addressing the visitation policy and allowing us to see our kids. Physically and mentally, spiritually and emotionally, you have addressed all those needs,” Edwards, who attended the meeting in person, read into the record.

“A lot of people were telling the freeholders lies about your facility, talking about things that happened in places like this. I was there. You were there every day. We can’t let people that say those uninformed statements and never went to the jail and saw the differences that you made and others that take the responsibility of housing seriously.”

O’Dea questioned if Edwards recalled who this person is, what they were charged with, and if they had served time elsewhere, all of which he said he was not sure of off hand.

The freeholder also pointed out, as he has previously, that the overwhelming majority of ICE detainees in Hudson have either served time or been for prior convictions or were simply detained for their immigration status – yet still remain in the jail.

If the goal of reading the letter was to quell some of the activists frustrations, that effort fell well short of the mark, evidenced by what was said during a roughly four-hour public speaking portion.

“Hearing about the reception of a temporary restraining order against peaceful protesters and the county executive referring to those peaceful protesters, and I quote, as ‘terrorizing my neighborhood and threatening my wife and I,'” began Jersey City resident Alex Gillette.

” … I think it’s beyond disgraceful that a sitting county executive would use these terms so near to the date (of the domestic terror incident anniversary). Furthermore, it’s even more disgraceful that a sitting freeholder, Anthony Romano, has been accused of physically assaulting a community organizer during a peaceful protest.”

While Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise has the power to unilaterally cancel the ICE contract, he has been adamant that he will not cave to public pressure from progressives, despite protests at his home that began on Thursday, December 3rd.

The protests continued for six days before a judge granted temporary restraints that will hinder protests at his home in the foreseeable future.

Four people were arrested for contempt of the order the following evening and activists have vowed to challenge the order.

Even if the order stands, yesterday evening made it quite clear that this issue is far from over.

“It’s not secret that there’s not only racism in America, but there’s a whole lot of racism in Hudson County, and in fact, many of those sit on this board,” began Kason Little, who said he lives in Elizabeth.

” … The current administration had the audacity and wanted to sign onto the restraining orders to restrain me and other innocent protesters from doing our due diligence … to hold you accountable. Let me say this: if you can’t take the heat, stop sitting in those damn seats.”

Next up, Andrew Jong, of Jersey City, expressed disdain for Edwards’ previous remarks about the quality of living for the detainees.

“I just want to say based on the comments I heard tonight, it would sound like this ICE facility is a five-star hotel the way y’all are talking about it. Sound amazing, sounds like I would love to be there! We know that’s not true,” he said.

“It sounds like you really care about the individuals who are in detention right now: we know that’s not true. You know how we know: because you promised in 2018 that you that would end this contract. But here we are in 2020 and under the guise of a Biden presidency, you vote to renew it.”

Jong also demanded to know what steps were taken to try and get out of the ICE agreement over the past two years, which didn’t yield much of a response.

“Not even worth telling you sir,” answered Freeholder Chair Anthony Vainieri (D-8).

He later asked his freeholder, Jerry Walker (D-3), for his input in the matter, to which he said he already put his views on record and would welcome a dialogue off line.

The constituent input didn’t get any more favorable from there.

“Here in Hudson County, the place that I call home, there’s a county executive who would exercise the same repressive tactics to silence constituent voices and distract from the one thing that actually matters,” Amy Torres, of the Hudson County Progressive Alliance, said through tears at the podium.

“Not protests, but that you are profiting off of the suffering and detention of immigrant communities that did not have it as easy as those of you whose families came here when there were no records on votes. When you could just walk right on through Ellis Island. That doesn’t happen any more. ”

Torres is one of the defendants named in the court matter regarding protesting at DeGise’s home, where Freeholders Vainieri, Anthony Romano, Kenny Kopacz, Caridad Rodriguez, and Al Cifelli are plaintiffs along with the county executive.

She also is one of the two women who filed the assault complaint against Romano.

From there, the hits just kept on coming and didn’t appear to be easing up any time soon around nine o’clock.

“You had mentioned ‘law and order’ during the last meeting multiple times, so you want law and order. Well, give these immigrants just that. Most of them already served their time, as Mr. O’Dea has mentioned: is that not your law and order right there?,” questioned Nadia Rakowski, of Hoboken.

“This board constantly presents straw man arguments and platitudes, gaslighting statements, to justify taking blood money from an institution that is in one business and one business only: crimes against humanity,” exclaimed Jersey City resident Gary Spingarn.

As the meeting began to wind down a bit after 10 p.m., Marc Devens, another Hudson County Progressive Alliance members, read aloud several contributions from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (NJ ELEC) website.

Some related to MAST construction, who he identified as donating thousands to DeGise – his second largest donor to date –¬† the Hudson County Democratic Organization, and several freeholders.

They are also the same company that renovated the jail back in 2004.

Without saying it outright, he expressed concerns about pay-to-play violations, particularly if MAST is hired to build, expand, or renovate a detention center in Hudson County in light of a request for information (RFI) from ICE.

Later, in response, Edwards said that the county had not responded to the RFI and that he had not corresponded with ICE in at least six months.

The final speaker of the evening, Elijah Stevens, who addressed the board around 11:15 p.m., said he was a New York City resident who held strong opinions about the testimony Edwards presented earlier.

“You all pat yourself on the back about providing services as a way to sort of assuage your own guilt about the kind of conditions people are subjected to in detention … What you’re doing is not something to pat yourself on the back for,” he said.

” … You can cut the bull***, that’s all.”

The meeting was then adjourned without taking any formal action on the ICE contract.

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