According to Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, "Suicides are a red flag. They usually signify a much larger problem. Sometimes it's because of ineffective mental health treatment, but often times it's caused by poor staffing issues."
Prison Legal News has reported extensively on human rights abuses in private immigration detention facilities, as well as the fact that private prison firms lobby on immigration-related issues and have been implicated in Arizona's enactment of a harsh anti-immigrant law, SB 1070. [See, e.g., PLN, July 2013, p.1; Nov. 2010, p.1]. Around half of the approximately 34,000 immigration detainees held in ICE custody at any given time are housed in privately-operated prisons.
Unfortunately, the rapid expansion of the immigration detainee population, including asylum-seekers and other detainees who are not criminally charged, has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in the number of mental health professionals or resources available at detention facilities.
Garcia-Mejia hung himself at the Eloy Detention Center on April 30, 2013, while Guadalupe-Gonzalez committed suicide on April 28, also by hanging.
Silky Shah with Detention Watch Network, which has often criticized the federal government's use of for-profit prison contractors like CCA, stated, "Clearly, these two individuals, sadly, weren't getting the care they needed."
The problem is not confined to the 1,596-bed Eloy prison and also extends to medical care in addition to mental health services. According to the federal government, 131 prisoners died in federal immigration custody from October 2003 to December 2012 as a result of strokes, cardiac arrest and asphyxia, including ten who died at Eloy. One of those deaths was that of another Guatemalan detainee who died after undergoing treatment for diabetes complications caused by untreated hyperglycemia. Many detainees have complained of substandard medical care at ICE facilities.
The ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security in 2008, alleging a refusal on the part of that agency to produce thousands of public documents setting forth details related to the deaths of ICE detainees, and the policies and procedures that contributed to those deaths, which ICE had failed to adequately disclose. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.26; Sept. 2008, p.30].
When private prison companies seek government contracts, they usually tout their ability to cut costs. Unfortunately, however, the brunt of those cost savings is often borne by the detainees. One of the ways that private prisons reduce costs is by cutting staff – and not just in the medical or mental health areas. Further, they are not forthcoming about immigration detainee deaths; notably, as private companies they do not have to comply with the Freedom of Information Act as federal agencies must. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.10].
ICE spokesperson Amber Cargile said ICE would perform an audit of the Eloy facility's policies and practices related to suicide prevention. "ICE Health Service Corps is conducting a thorough assessment of these incidents. The agency is also assessing Corrections Corporation of America's staffing model to ensure it provides appropriate supervision and monitoring of detainees at the facility," she stated.
That assessment comes too late, according to Victoria Lopez, an ACLU attorney in Arizona, who said, "We have been calling for a number of years now that ICE take a look at their contracts in Arizona including CCA. One of the criticisms, for many years now, about the way that ICE manages these detention centers is that there isn't adequate oversight and inspection. It's either ICE doing the inspections themselves or they contract with private auditors. There's no independent oversight of these conditions in these detention centers."
Until there is greater oversight, more preventable deaths of immigration detainees at for-profit facilities are likely to occur.
Sources: www.ice.gov, www.azcentral.com, Associated Press
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