Death in Detention

Congressman Grijalva calls for Justice Department investigation into suicide of undocumented man at private prison

The autopsy shows that while undocumented immigrant Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun was being housed in a privately run Eloy prison in May, he shoved a sock down his throat and choked on it.

Deniz-Sahagun, 31, was a troubled inmate. The autopsy report, by Pima County Forensic Pathologist Gregory L. Hess, notes that Deniz-Sahagun arrived at the Eloy Detention Center on May 18 with "delusional thoughts and behaviors" and was placed on a constant watch because he was threatening to kill himself. On May 20, the guards reduced the constant watch to cell checks every 15 minutes, which evidently gave Deniz-Sahagun enough time to swallow his knee-high orange sock and end his own life.

In the wake of his death, rampant rumors were coming out of the prison, where Corrections Corporation of America detains undocumented immigrants under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Phoenix-based Puente Human Rights Movement announced that 200 people were refusing to eat, calling for an end to abuse and exploitation, but INS officials have told the press that no hunger strike was underway.

The conflicting stories had had Southern Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-CD3) calling for a Justice Department investigation last week, complaining that "some of this information is seeping out of the seams, as opposed to being reported and addressed outright."

Later in the week, after news broke that Pima County officials had ruled the death a suicide, Grijalva told the Weekly he had "every confidence" in the Pima County Medical Examiner's conclusion. But he still wants a Justice Department investigation into the circumstances of the death and other allegations of abuses in the prison rather than relying on a report from ICE and CCA.

"I don't want to jump to a conclusion," Grijalva said. "I'm saying that the only way for us to reach a conclusion is by taking it out of the hands of the people who are doing the investigation right now."

For Grijalva, the episode highlights the problem with the federal government's contracts with private prisons to detain undocumented immigrants who run afoul of the law and end up behind bars. He says the federal government's contract to maintain 34,000 private prison beds pushes INS to keep undocumented immigrants behind bars

"When you have a law enforcement agency subjected to a quota system, it's going to drive incarceration and it's going to drive when people go in and when they go out, because you have a guaranteed minimum," Grijalva said.

ICE does not have an actual quota that requires a minimum of 34,000 people be behind bars, although previous Homeland Security officials pushed to maintain that number. Under current Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson, the agency has been willing to allow beds to go empty—a policy that led to a contentious exchange between ICE Director Sarah R. Saldana and Texas Republican Reps. John Carter and John Culberson at an April U.S. House Appropriations Committee meeting.

Saldana told the congressional panel that the agency "does not detain people just for the heck of it; we detain people based on what the law tells us, and that is, 'Is this person a flight risk? Is this person a threat to public safety?' Those are decisions that our very seasoned officers are out there making every day."

Culberson replied that perhaps the law should be changed from requiring ICE to "maintain" 34,000 beds to "fill" 34,000 beds. "We want you to use 34,000 beds," Culberson said.

Grijalva said the Obama administration was taking the right step in allowing some beds to go empty but political pressure is still driving ICE to keep undocumented immigrants behind bars rather than release them into the community.

"They are under pressure from members of Congress," Grijalva said. "Like it or not, that does have an impact."

Southern Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-CD2) doesn't support congressionally mandated quotas for incarceration of undocumented immigrants, according to her spokesman, Patrick Ptak. McSally "believes we need consistency in enforcing the law based on circumstances that can change from day to day, not arbitrary quotas," Ptak said.

While she didn't echo Grijalva's call for a Justice Department investigation, McSally's office will follow the ICE investigation and "take action as needed," Ptak said.

Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick (D-CD1) said via email the reports of detainees dying "are very troubling and indicate these facilities may need greater oversight."

"If ICE is relying on for-profit prisons to house its detainees, then ICE has a responsibility to ensure these facilities are properly run," Kirkpatrick said.

Grijalva, who was set to visit privately run detention centers in Texas this week, said federal contacts with the private-prison industry put too much of a profit motive into incarceration.

"We spend $2 billion a year and 64 percent of that goes to the private prison industry for detention in this country," Grijalva said. "They don't want to see a drop in that."