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Glyn Vincent Headshot

The Right to Be Heard

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Imagine this: In 2008, your fiancé is out on his bicycle and he gets stopped by the police for riding on the wrong side of the street. A database check turns up a deportation order in absentia that dates back to the 1980s that was supposed to have been resolved by an attorney. While this matter is straightened out, your fiancé is sent to an immigration detention center in New York City where, almost two years later, he remains locked up, without having seen an immigration judge. And his lawyer refuses to file anymore paperwork until he gets paid more money.

To make matters worse, last month the New York City detention center is closed and he is sent, along with other detainees, to a county jail in New Jersey. There are no weekend visiting hours at the new facility. So, since you have a full-time job, you can no longer visit or see your fiancé.

Nor, it turns out, can you call him. The private phone company, which has a monopoly on this jail's inmate's calls, charges such exorbitant fees and rates (89 cents a minute plus a connection charge of $ 1.75 in addition to other charges) for out-of-state calls that your prepaid voucher runs out after only three short conversations. You might be forgiven after spending hours dealing with this company's labyrinthine customer account requirements and its circuitous recordings for getting exasperated. You might better understand why some detainees in your fiancé's detention center have become so incensed by usurious phone costs and other issues - their access to adequate medical treatment and outside news - that they have gone on a hunger strike.

You might even wonder, if it's possible that this is happening in our country and that your husband-to-be is imprisoned within a few miles of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately, this disturbing scenario is all too real; it was recounted in a recent article in The New York Times by Nina Bernstein. The couple in question is Desiree Williams, who lives in Mount Vernon, and her fiancé Orville Wayne Allen, who Bernstein identifies as "a longtime New York State resident." Mr. Allen and approximately 260 other New York detainees were recently moved to the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny, New Jersey, where the hunger strike took place on Monday.

The strike is now over and the detainees are eating, James Kennelly, a spokesman for Hudson County and the jail assured me. "Understandably, there was some anxiety and confusion over policies amongst the detainees when they were first moved from New York City," he said. "We are doing the best we can to listen to the detainees concerns and issues."

Kennelly emphatically denied the claim made by some detainees in the Times article that the leaders of the hunger strike had been put into isolation or transferred to other, more distant detention centers. "There is absolutely no truth to that. No punishment has been meted out to any of the current inmates," he said.

Hudson County was doing its best, Kennelly told me, to accommodate a recent request by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house these detainees. The jail has no intention, much less a policy to isolate detainees from outside news sources or their families (the detainees were granted unlimited visitor rights). He acknowledged, though, that television viewing hours in the jail were restricted and that the facility did not necessarily provide inmates with newspapers (unless they subscribed or were brought in by visitors).

The phone service at the jail continues to be an issue. A company called Global Tel Link was contracted by the state (which gets a hefty commission on the call charges) to provide service to New Jersey's county jail inmates, most of whom make only local calls. Officials concede the company's out-of-state rates need to be lowered and that their service is a source of frustration for immigration detainees (I called up Global Tel and after two rounds of recorded messages was told to leave my number and await a call back which never came). Kennelly said the phone issue was a bureaucratic problem that would be resolved. "But it's going to take time," he said.

That's of little comfort to detainees like Mr. Allen, who have already wasted years in jail. For them having access to affordable phone communication is more than a mere convenience; it's a lifeline, and a right. Immigration policy reform is a large and complicated question that needs to be addressed(see Rep. Luis Gutierrez's piece on the Huffington Post national page). But, in the meantime, it's up to the Obama administration, which implemented this transfer of detainees, to make certain their rights are protected.