December 12, 2022

A suicide attempt and new report emphasize deteriorating mental health conditions at Torrance County Detention Facility

A man detained at Torrance County Detention Facility has attempted suicide in response to his conditions, according to his legal counsel, just as a newly released report details the failures of mental health care at the facility.

Since August, three men have reportedly attempted suicide at migrant detention facilities in New Mexico. The first man, Kesley Vial, died by suicide in August at Torrance. Another man housed at the Cibola County Correctional Center attempted suicide in October and survived. Raphael Oliveira do Nascimento, a Brazilian, attempted suicide at the Torrance facility on November 30, Ian Philabaum, codirector of Anticarceral Legal Organizing at Innovation Law Lab, said. Oliveira do Nascimento also survived.

Ryan Gustin, director of Public Affairs for CoreCivic, said that “much of the recent information being shared regarding our Torrance County Detention Facility is neither accurate nor reflective of our policies, procedures or values.” Gustin provided a link to a statement that defends reported conditions at Torrance.

An ICE spokesperson did not confirm or deny the attempted suicide but said ICE “is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” 

“The ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) and based on the medical needs of the individual. Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment individuals arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All people in ICE custody receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to medical appointments and 24-hour emergency care. Pursuant to our commitment to the welfare of those in the agency’s custody, ICE annually spends more than $315 million on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to people in ICE custody. At no time during detention is a detainee denied emergent care,” the spokesperson said through email.

Oliveira do Nascimento’s reported suicide attempt came on the heels of a newly released report conducted by Humanitarian Outreach for Migrant Emotional Health or H.O.M.E., a Texas-based organization that began talking to detainees at Torrance in 2021. Jenifer Wolf-Williams, executive director of H.O.M.E., told NM Political Report that the majority of detainees are asylum seekers fleeing desperate conditions. They are likely to be already suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s extremely common, if not universal, that everyone there [at Torrance] would have a trauma experience in their history. This makes them more vulnerable the next time trauma happens,” she said.

Wolf-Williams said that for someone fleeing dangerous conditions to arrive in the U.S. seeking safety then “put in an environment where they are harmed and controlled by the U.S. government would increase their sense of hopelessness.” 

“They can’t think of another place where they can be safe, so their sense of hopelessness is compounded,” she said. 

The deportation process, which migrant advocates have reported can be confusing, can compound the migrant’s sense of hopelessness, Wolf-Williams said. 

Wolf-Williams said the most striking pattern she saw among those H.O.M.E. interviewed was that “so many of them talked about having suicidal thoughts but also said ‘we don’t want anyone at Torrance to know this.’”

She said the interviews were conducted over multiple meetings that began in 2021 and said H.O.M.E. interviewed 10 individuals.

She said the detainees her organization talked to knew that H.O.M.E. had no connection to ICE or CoreCivic, the for-profit company that operates the facility, but they still expressed fear about talking to the H.O.M.E. evaluators freely.

“They still expressed fear because of fear of solitary confinement. It was striking because it was so pervasive,” she said.

A complaint filed by several organizations who represent or support migrants in detention detailed the care Oliveira do Nascimento received just before and after his suicide attempt. After a guard yelled at him, he reportedly asked to see a psychologist and was told he would have to wait. When returned to his cell, he attempted to take his own life.

Oliveira do Nascimento has been in detention for six months, according to the complaint. Philabaum, who is part of Oliveira do Nascimento’s legal council, told NM Political Report that when Oliveira do Nascimento first arrived at Torrance, he was a different man than what he has become.

“When we first met him, he was one of the most upbeat people we were working with inside Torrance,” Philbaum said.“He was trying to energize the guys to work together for their individual cases.”

But after a month his demeanor changed, Philabuam said. 

“He became less communicative, less engaged. He moved away from advocacy. His sole focus now is not being detained at Torrance anymore,” Philabaum said.

Philabaum said he and his colleagues are worried for Oliveira do Nascimento’s safety now and communication with him has been limited and difficult.

After Oliveira do Nascimento’s suicide attempt on Nov. 30, officials put him in solitary confinement in a “suicide smock,” which Philabaum described as an open hospital gown that is sleeveless, hangs on the shoulders and connects with Velcro strips on the sides. The room is freezing cold and difficult to sleep in, according to the complaint. Philabaum said Oliveira do Nascimento experienced shame and felt stigmatized because he “basically felt naked.”

“It accentuates how we treat asylum seekers; the description of how people experiencing suicidal ideation while in custody, does that fit the description of a proper response to someone who comes to us for protection? When they arrive we torture them in prison where there is little oversight and keep them in isolation,” he said.

Wolf-Williams that in H.O.M.E.’s evaluations of the migrants housed at Torrance, they found patterns of “the officers were dehumanizing the clients but even the mental health care providers didn’t take the care they were providing seriously.”

“Even the mental health care providers were deemed unsafe [by the migrants],” Wolf-Williams said.

Philabaum said Oliveira do Nascimento questioned the choices officials made regarding Oliveira do Nascimento’s care after his suicide attempt.

“If conditions at Torrance led Raphael to attempt to take his own life, instead of taking him to a hospital for treatment, he was not asked if he wanted to speak to someone else. He was sent back to the same people who caused him to take his own life. How is it his captors and torturers are going to resolve the issues that caused his attempt on his own life?” Philabaum asked.

Wolf-Williams said the diet the migrants are fed while in solitary confinement consists of raw carrots, celery and raw garlic.

“I think of that as very strange. That would be a choking hazard, not only a punitive and horrible starvation diet,” she said.

Wolf-Williams said there is “abundant research that shows that solitary confinement increases depression, suicide risk and hopelessness. 

“Someone from a healthcare field should know these things. These are not supportive mental health care practices. My opinion is, they have to know that what they’re doing is harmful,” she said.

Philabaum said conditions at the facility have worsened in recent months, despite the Office of the Inspector General’s repeated recommendation that all detainees be removed from the facility, the reported hunger strike that several of the migrants engaged in to bring attention to their conditions and calls from members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation to remove the migrants.  

Related: Heinrich, Luján urge ICE to terminate contract with CoreCivic over Torrance County Detention Facility

“Not only have the conditions worsened, they have become retaliatory,” Philabaum said.

Philabaum said there are only 11 migrants left at Torrance, even though it has enough bed space to house more than 500 migrants. Due to contractual agreements, ICE pays CoreCivic $2 million a month for the empty bed space, Philabaum said.

Philabaum said he believes ICE is getting ready to transfer more migrants to the space in the coming year.

ICE did not confirm this.

What happens to Oliveira do Nascimento is unclear. Philabaum said he told ICE he wanted to be deported back to Brazil because his only goal now is to leave Torrance. But due to a data breach in late November, in which the personal information of 6,000 migrants held in ICE custody appeared on the ICE website for five hours, ICE is continuing to hold Oliveira do Nascimento because his name and information was one of the 6,000. Philabaum said at least six men at Torrance were notified by ICE that their names and personal information were leaked in the data breach.

Philabaum said that since Oliveira do Nascimento’s suicide attempt, efforts to speak with him have been limited and he is worried about Oliveira do Nascimento’s continuing mental health condition.

“The isolation he experienced, his inability to be a part of his community, the uncertainty about what is happening with his case, the way he was engaged by staff and ICE, he couldn’t take it anymore,” Philabaum said of what led Oliveira do Nascimento to attempt to take his life in November.