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Activists demand oversight after detainee deaths

PHOENIX -- Human rights groups Wednesday demanded more transparency and independent oversight of the nation's immigration detention centers after two Guatemalans committed suicide at an Arizona facility where half of all detainee deaths occurred this year.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced last week that the two detainees had killed themselves at the Eloy Detention Center located about 70 miles from Phoenix. The suicides were three days apart and marked the third death of an Eloy detainee since December. In all, six detainees nationwide have died in custody this year.

``Suicides are a red flag,'' said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, in a telephone interview Wednesday. ``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.''

Another detainee found 24-year-old Elsa Guadalupe-Gonzales hanging in her cell April 28. She was arrested for allegedly being in the country illegally and had been detained since March 20 as she awaited immigration hearings.

Jorge Garcia-Mejia, 40, was also found hanging April 30 in an apparent suicide. Garcia-Mejia, who also went by the name Jorge Garcia-Maldonado, was found unresponsive in his cell by staff conducting afternoon security checks. He was pronounced dead at 2:45 p.m. He had been detained at the facility since March 23 after an arrest for assault.

The Eloy Detention Center is a 1,596-bed, minimum-security facility run by Corrections Corporation of America. A spokesman for the facility referred all questions Wednesday to the company's national spokesman, who did not return a request for comment.

Immigration officials said mental health professionals and the facility chaplain are conducting group counseling sessions for detainees because of the suicides. They also plan to provide further suicide prevention and awareness training for detainees and facility staff. Immigration officials said they are assessing the Eloy Detention Center's staffing plans to ensure they provide appropriate supervision and monitoring of detainees at the facility.

ICE ``is committed to ensuring the safety of immigration detainees in its custody,'' said spokeswoman Amber Cargile. ``As such, ICE Health Service Corps is conducting a thorough assessment of these incidents.''

Immigration officials visit the Eloy facility every day to assess living conditions and ensure compliance with federal detention standards. A broader inspection occurred as recently as January, and the facility was found to be in compliance.

Activists said they don't trust the government to adequately evaluate its facilities.

``Clearly, these two individuals, sadly, weren't getting the care they needed,'' said Silky Shah, a spokeswoman for Detention Watch Network, which has called on the federal government to end its relationship with Corrections Corporation of America.

The national ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security in 2008 for refusing to turn over thousands of public documents detailing the deaths of immigration detainees held in U.S. custody. Soler said the federal government has continued to provide little information about policies and practices at privately run facilities like the Eloy Detention Center, raising questions about adequate training, health care and staffing levels. Soler said she is concerned private corporations are prioritizing profits over detainee safety and cutting corners.

Of 131 detainees who died in federal custody between October 2003 and December 2012, 10 had been detained at the Eloy facility. They died from strokes, cardiac arrest and asphyxia. Before the suicides in April, the most recent death associated with the Eloy Detention Center occurred in December, when a detainee who was also Guatemalan died after undergoing treatment for diabetes complications caused by untreated hyperglycemia. Immigration officials say the detainee did not disclose his health condition until he became ill.

Of 1,528 immigration detainees at Eloy as of May 8, 413 were Guatemalan.

There are suicide prevention posters in English and Spanish posted in the detention center.

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