Surprise inspection finds ICE detention center falling far short on food safety

Photograph: Shutterstock

Another controversy has erupted over federal treatment of illegal immigrants, this time focused on how detainees are being fed. 

A surprise inspection last July of a New Jersey facility used as a detention center by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) revealed gross disregard of food safety fundamentals, as detailed in a  report issued by the Office of Inspector General last month. The glaring lapses detailed by inspectors included rotting meats and moldy bread being served to the 928 male detainees. 

Employees of the facility were instructed via posted orders, photographed by the inspectors, that no bread be discarded. Instead, the scraps were turned into bread pudding after two or three weeks of being collected in plastic garbage cans.

“We observed open packages of raw chicken leaking blood all over refrigeration units and identified slimy, foul-smelling lunch meat, which appeared to be spoiled, held in the refrigeration unit,” read the report. “Although this mishandling of meats can spread salmonella, listeria, and E. coli, leading to serious foodborne illness, we observed facility staff serving this potentially spoiled meat to detainees.”

The food handling, in general, was so substandard that ICE and facility leadership had the kitchen manager replaced during our inspection,” the report noted.

The lapses were illustrated in photos included in the report. Further information came from interviews with detainees of the facility, the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, N.J. The interviewees reported that consumption of the food had caused vomiting, diarrhea and at least one stomach infection. 

“It gets worse every day,” one detainee told the inspectors. “It literally looks like it came from the garbage dumpster.”

The report noted that the facility fell short of reasonable standards in areas beyond foodservice. For example, it recounted an instance where a detainee had found a loaded gun in a bathroom, where it had been left there by a correctional officer. In addition, the incident was not reported as required to authorities, a violation of protocol.

The report advised ICE to bring the program up to the immigration agency’s own standards. 

That message was underscored by a memo included in the report from John Kelly, who was acting as inspector general since that post has been empty. Kelly, White House chief of staff at the time the memo was drafted, ordered ICE to make the changes and issue a wrap-up report after the changes have been made.

Around the time the memo was drafted, Kelly resigned from his White House post. 

The report did not say the problems encountered in the Newark facility were typical of the feeding operations of other ICE-related establishments. But it did say the visit to Essex confirmed media reports about ICE detention facilities failing to meet reasonable sanitation standards. Those assertions have not all been focused on the New Jersey detention center.

The discoveries are likely to stoke the controversy over ICE’s handling of immigrants who are apprehended at the nation’s borders because they lack the needed documentation to legally enter the United States. Among the blasted processes were separating children from their parents, holding those children in federal facilities and returning them to their countries of origin, sometimes without their parents. 

FoodService Director tried repeatedly last year to learn how the children were being fed during their detainment. Government agencies and major contractors did not respond to the requests for information. 

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