NEW YORK – Federal and local officials waged a “far-reaching” effort to silence criticism of the dangerous conditions and inhumane treatment at the Orange County Jail in New York, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed today. Detained immigrants faced retribution that violated their First Amendment rights after they protested abuses ranging from medical neglect to racist harassment to physical assault, according to the suit.
The Orange County Jail has a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to incarcerate immigrants while they await resolution of their months, sometimes years-long proceedings. The lawsuit’s six plaintiffs, who collectively spent years in the jail, are part of a group of dozens who started speaking out against their mistreatment in 2021 and ultimately went on hunger strike in February 2022.
“No one deserves to suffer like I did inside Orange County jail,” said Nahum Ortiz, a plaintiff in the suit. “Officers were abusive and racist. They wouldn’t give us medicine, served us rotten food, and threw us in solitary for any reason they could come up with. When we tried to speak out, ICE and the jail lashed out on us, forcing us into an isolated punishment unit and refusing to let us speak with our attorneys and families. For over a year, we filed grievances, wrote letters, and provided testimony about the terrible conditions and retaliation. I still talk to people in there and know nothing has changed. I hope this case and our work finally helps the people who are still stuck in that horrible place.”
Retribution was “swift and crushing.” Guards searched their cells and confiscated or destroyed their belongings. After the plaintiffs submitted complaints about the retaliatory punishment to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ICE agents made good on a jail official’s public threat by transferring two of them to a facility in Mississippi, separating them by thousands of miles from their young children. The same day, the remaining three plaintiffs at OCJ were placed in a “filthy, cramped, and previously defunct punitive segregation unit within the jail.”
“While I was in the Orange County Jail, my mental health was suffering, and the jail officials did not care and refused to give me the medication I needed,” said Luis Gonzalez Carbajal, a plaintiff in the suit. “After I filed public complaints and spoke to the media, they beat me so badly I have severe pain in my shoulder to this day. It feels like they targeted me because I'm an immigrant.”
The other plaintiffs are Denny Molina Cantor, Lucas Palacios Alvarado, Jeremias Lopez, and Elmer Moscoso. Filed on their behalf by The Bronx Defenders, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, the suit seeks damages and declaratory relief under the First Amendment. In addition, plaintiffs Lopez and Moscoso seek release from punitive segregation, while Molina and Palacios, who say ICE violated its own policies, seek transfer back to the New York area.
“When I was at the Orange County Jail, the guards used racist slurs and went out of their way to make our lives difficult,” said plaintiff Denny Molina Cantor. “I tried to use my voice to demand my rights through a hunger strike, and they retaliated against me in the worst possible way: by transferring me hundreds of miles away from my young daughter and my family without any warning at all. They transferred me to a place where I’m totally isolated from my loved ones.”
“The jail has tried to retaliate against me and other hunger strikers, just because we stood up for our rights,” said Plaintiff Jeremias Lopez. “We were speaking out about abusive conditions in the jail, and the putrid, rotten food, which frequently makes us nauseous and sick. The jail tried to silence me and crush my spirit by transferring me to a disgusting punishment unit that was covered in filth and bodily fluids.”
“The plaintiffs in this lawsuit put their bodies on the line to tell the public about the horrific conditions at Orange County Jail,” said Kshithij Shrinath, Legal Fellow at the Impact Litigation Practice of The Bronx Defenders. “Instead of heeding their message, Orange County Jail and ICE punished the plaintiffs for speaking out, hoping that they could sweep the truth under the rug. As long as the jail remains in the business of immigration detention, it cannot escape the consequences of its brutal actions.”
The complaint details an “environment marked by deprivation and abject suffering” in New York’s second largest immigration detention center. People incarcerated there endured medical neglect, physical assault, and rancid meat, and their access to counsel was limited, if not nonexistent. Racist harassment was also commonplace. One officer, for example, told Gonzalez he would “kill all the immigrants” at the border, and multiple officers routinely told the detained men to “go back to their own countries.”
“People in ICE detention at Orange County Jail have every right to speak out peacefully about the abhorrent and unjust conditions of their indefinite incarceration,” said Amy Belsher, Staff Attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “ICE and jail officials’ repeated and ongoing retaliation against the plaintiffs for their advocacy is not only inhumane but also unconstitutional. We are fighting alongside our clients to ensure all people detained at the jail can exercise their rights without repercussion or intimidation.”
In 2021, a group of men detained at the Orange County Jail sought to expose officials’ misconduct by filing grievances, contacting reporters and advocates, and submitting testimony to the New York City Council. This effort included a multi-day hunger strike in which they peacefully refused their meal trays.
Officials frequently sought to quash this constitutionally protected expression. In response to his particularly active and sustained advocacy, Gonzalez suffered beatings and punitive confinement. Following the crackdown after the hunger strike, then-Undersheriff of Orange County Kenneth Jones said those who filed complaints with DHS would be sent far away. After the transfers to Mississippi had gone through, Jones said, “You hate to be right.”
“Orange County and ICE officials attempted to silence and disappear incarcerated immigrants who worked together to build power and inform the public about abhorrent abuses,” said Samah Sisay, Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “These forms of retaliation, including punitive segregation and secret transfers far away from New York, were unconstitutional and require accountability and redress.”
In addition to Kenneth Jones, the defendants are Orange County, New York; Carl Dubois, former Sheriff of Orange County; DHS; ICE; and Kenneth Genalo, Acting ICE Field Office Director.
The Bronx Defenders is a public defender nonprofit that is radically transforming how low-income and marginalized people in the Bronx are represented in the legal system and, in doing so, is transforming the system itself. We have developed a groundbreaking, nationally recognized model called holistic defense that achieves better outcomes for the people we represent and the communities we serve. Staff of The Bronx Defenders who are counsel on this case include Niji Jain and Kshithij Shrinath. Learn more at bronxdefenders.org, and on Twitter @BronxDefenders and Instagram @bronxdefenders.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is one of the nation’s foremost defenders of civil liberties and civil rights. Our mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles and values embodied in the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the New York Constitution, including freedom of speech and religion, and the right to privacy, equality and due process of law, with particular attention to the pervasive and persistent harms of racism. Amy Belsher is the NYCLU’s lead counsel on this case. NYCLU staff who also work on this case include Christopher Dunn, Antony Gemmell, Lupe Victoria Aguirre, and Lourdes Chavez. Learn more at nyclu.org, and at @NYCLU on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.
You can find materials on the case here: https://www.nyclu.org/en/cases/ortiz-et-al-v-orange-county