Questions remain over deaths at county correctional facility
Woman was sentenced in Weehawken court for DWI
by Al Sullivan
Reporter staff writer
Aug 06, 2017 | 2575 views | 0 0 comments | 111 111 recommendations | email to a friend | print
INMATE
ANOTHER DEATH IN COUNTY JAIL – Medical treatment for county prisoners will get closer scrutiny after two people died in a month while in custody.
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A 48-year-old woman, sentenced in Weehawken Municipal Court to 180 days in jail in 2016, died at the Hudson County Correctional Center on July 14 as the result of a yet-undisclosed cause. James Kennelly, spokesperson for Hudson County, confirmed that Jennifer Towle died in the jail’s infirmary at about 1:49 a.m. She was a resident of Sparta.

“Her body was transferred to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Newark for an autopsy,” he said. “The results will be available in 30 to 45 days.”

She was picked up outside the Lincoln Tunnel near 19th Street in Weehawken on June 20, 2016, around 4:15 p.m. “after a road rage incident was telephoned into the police desk,” according to an incident report from the Weehawken Police Department. She was charged with DWI and an assault on an officer.

Because her offense was the third DWI offense, this was a mandatory sentence, Kennelly said.

Towle’s death came a month after the death of Rolando Meza Espinoza, 35, who died from internal bleeding and other issues on June 10 after he was transferred from the jail to Jersey City Medical Center. Unlike Towle, Espinoza was being held at the county jail as an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainee for alleged immigration offenses.

Committee to look into health issues at the jail

Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise and Freeholder Board Chairman Anthony Vainieri announced two weeks ago that the county administration and Board of Freeholders will cooperate in an independent review of the facts and circumstances surrounding the death of Espinoza.

In a resolution passed by the freeholders on July 11, four members, Chairman Vainieri and Freeholders Albert Cifelli, William O’Dea and Anthony Romano, will join administration medical and professional staff designated by DeGise on the “Ad Hoc Medical Review Committee.”

There is a concern that the jail may not be addressing the medical needs of inmates both held for ICE as well as those in the regular inmate population.

The committee will be focused on several key areas, according to county officials.

“The things we are primarily looking at is the process that takes place both with an initial intake on a person’s medical condition when they are admitted as well as when they are taken to either the infirmary or JC MC,” said O’Dea. “Particularly, we think that there needs to be an outside medical professional that reviews the recommendations for treatment, and either signs off or recommends a different course of action. Also, checks on medications that are needed and making sure the proper ones are being prescribed. There also needs to be a periodic check on patients’ progress.”

Menendez and Booker raised health concerns earlier

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez over the last few years has been very concerned with health issues and the civil rights of those held in the Elizabeth Detention Center, the largest ICE detention center in the state.

In early June, just prior to Espinoza’s death, Menendez and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker were among several legislators that issued a public letter to John. F. Kelly, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, raising concerns about multiple reports of inhumane conditions in immigration detention centers.

“The senators,” according to a press release, “have received a number of reports that under the Trump Administration, detained immigrants are not receiving adequate medical attention when they need it.

‎“We have received multiple reports of detainees ending up hospitalized due to delays in treatment, or because they did not receive needed medication, or because of the lack of treatment plans provided for people with serious mental illness after being released from detention facilities,” the letter said.”We have heard deeply troubling accounts from community members of the dangerous and unhealthy conditions in immigrant detention facilities. Since October of last year, eight people have died in ICE custody, seven of whom were being held in private, for-profit detention centers.”

The United States has the largest number of immigration detentions in the world, detaining approximately 380,000 to 442,000 persons per year. Hudson County detainee population varies but was last reported at more than 600.

Committee will look into basic rights of inmates

Hudson County has always been considered a venue more conscious of prisoner rights.

O’Dea said the committee will be looking to create a formal independent medical advocacy review committee. This committee, he said, should have a medical professional, a freeholder, and five activists involved in advocating for rights of inmates/detainees.

The purpose of this committee would be threefold: all detainees/inmates would be able to contact the committee if they felt they were not receiving proper treatment/care; the committee would meet on a regular basis to review with outside medical professional the quality of care being provided; and the committee would also have access to make unscheduled visits to the Hudson County Correctional and Retention Center (HCCRC) to check on medical services and to speak with individuals at the facility concerning any complaints related to care.

“The committee would also be able to bring in people from HCCRC and any outside provider to question them about issues raised by detainees/inmates or brought to their attention by any other source,” O’Dea said.

First Friends of NJ NY, a volunteer visiting group that helps provide some resources for detainees, noted that the freeholders voted to award a five-year $29.4 million contract to CFG Health Systems last year, the company responsible for the health care of inmates. O’Dea said the committee would look into that contract as part of its investigation.

“Most detainees have no legal rights, and might be better off in a regular prison,” said Rev. Birgit Solano, pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Weehawken, a member of First Friends in an interview earlier this year.

First Friends member Lorna Henkel in Secaucus has raised concerns about the detainees in Hudson County and elsewhere, focusing on their lack of rights and access to health services. Some of her concerns seemed to have been borne out by the death in June.

She said she and others have been advocating for oversight for more than a year before the county awarded the $29.4 million contract.

“First Friends and NJAIJ and others who spoke at the freeholders meeting basically wanted the creation of an independent medical oversight committee,” she said. “We have been asking for that for long time, and there have been medical complaints brought about HCCRC. There was concern that something serious would happen.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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