A 23-year-old Brazilian national died following a suicide attempt while in the custody of federal immigration officials earlier this month, civil and immigrant rights advocates said on Saturday. Kesley Vial had been held at the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico. House lawmakers just this year called for the private facility’s closure, following a blistering watchdog report that urged the release of all detained people inside.
The official release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) makes no mention of suicide, only that Vial “was found unresponsive” and taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. But advocates said the death was a result of “a fatal suicide attempt,” and that Kelsey had been detained at the CoreCivic facility for months without any updates on his case.
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“What we do know is that Kesley was detained indefinitely at Torrance awaiting deportation and had been unable to get clear or consistent information from ICE about when he would be removed from the facility,” the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, Innovation Law Lab, and Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) El Paso said in a joint statement. They said cellmates were among first to find him “and have been acutely traumatized by his death, yet ICE is refusing to release them so they can seek the mental health care they need.”
”ICE, CoreCivic, and Torrance County share in the responsibility for Kesley’s death,” the groups continued. “This is exactly what we feared would come to pass. Our organizations and others have raised the alarm for years about the brutal and inhumane conditions at Torrance.” They note the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general, just this past March, made the unprecedented request that ICE move detainees from the facility, citing in part “egregious conditions.”
ICE’s reaction was to instead attack the integrity of the report, including accusing the inspector general’s office of staging photos. Just days after the release of the watchdog report, on March 24, the chairs of the House Committee on Homeland Security and the Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, & Operations urged DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to terminate the facility’s contract, writing that the department has itself stated it “will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.”
“The facility had previously failed an inspection by ICE’s contracted inspectors and in 2020 CoreCivic guards attacked with pepper spray people detained at TCDF who were staging a peaceful hunger strike protesting conditions at the facility,” the organizations’ statement continued.
ICE has continued denying releases, and was in June sued over its failure to provide records relating to the facility.
The Torrance facility has a deep history of anti-Blackness, facing major complaints about “severe violations” against Haitian asylum-seekers. In a sworn affidavit last winter, attorney Allegra Love said that staff has repeatedly blocked detained asylum-seekers from accessing legal counsel. “Facility staff have frequently denied the requests or have failed to respond to them for days,” she said. Advocates had also said they’d observed court dockets for Haitian asylum-seekers “moving disproportionately fast,” leading to quick deportations.
“Less than three months ago, when we requested records relating to dangerous and retaliatory conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility in the wake of the damning DHS OIG management alert, we called those records ‘a matter of life and death’ and noted the long history of unjust deaths in immigration detention,” said Casey Mangan, an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and attorney with Innovation Law Lab. “I am heartbroken and infuriated that, despite the abundance of warning signs from advocates as well as U.S. government officials and detained individuals themselves that the dehumanizing conditions at Torrance were going to end up killing someone, ICE ignored the alarm bells, resulting in Kesley Vial’s death.”
“We told you this would happen, you ignored us, and now someone is dead,” said Sophia Genovese, Senior Attorney for NMILC. “We demand the immediate closure of TCDF, the release of all people held in the facility, and meaningful accountability for Mr. Kesley Vial’s death.” Mangan said “our hearts are with Kesley’s family, and our minds are set on putting an end to the terrible and deadly injustice that is the U.S. immigration detention system.”
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