In 1997, it became clear to a group from Jesuit Refugee Services that people held in detention in NJ were in need of pastoral care and social services. They partnered with volunteers from the Community Services of the Archdiocese of Newark to organize ways to support asylum seekers detained at the Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC).

More than 170 asylum seekers joined the volunteers to study English weekly, and a Bible study was attended by more than 125 people. The first visitors were from northern New Jersey and from the Sojourners program of the Riverside Church in Manhattan.

Volunteer visitors organized by Geri and Charlie Mulligan organized to form First Friends and continued to provide visits and support to asylum seekers detained at the EDC. Local Presbyterian churches in Elizabeth provided support; St Mary of the Assumption provided office space and the Methodist Church (UMCOR) provided initial funding.

Advocating on behalf of detainees became an integral part of the work of First Friends and holds events on Ash Wednesday, Columbus Day, and World Refugee Day to bring awareness to the isolation and trauma of detention.

The visiting program was expanded to include Hudson County Correctional Center. In 2011, Essex County, NJ entered into an agreement with ICE to triple the bed capacity for immigrant detainees to a total of more than 1,500 beds — a five-fold increase in the number of beds with five detention centers in New Jersey.

First Friends has grown in both professional staff and volunteers to meet the support and visitation needs of all four detention centers in New Jersey. In addition, First Friends is piloting community-based post-release services for those leaving detention.

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