This story discusses suicide, trauma and conditions at an ICE detention facility. Below, find resources for anyone who may need to talk.
— Marisa Demarco
A Brazilian asylum seeker who died by suicide while being held by immigration officials in New Mexico was detained indefinitely and had been unable to get clear or consistent information about when he would be removed from the prison, according to attorneys monitoring conditions inside.
Kesley Vial came to the U.S. from Brazil seeking protection, said Rebecca Sheff, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
“He was denied that,” Sheff said in an interview Monday.
Instead, Vial died on Aug. 24 at the University of New Mexico Hospital following a fatal suicide attempt a week earlier while he was held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Torrance County in Estancia, N.M.
Vial’s death is the result of abhorrent conditions and treatment by ICE and CoreCivic, the private company that runs the detention center, according to a joint statement by the Innovation Law Lab and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
Those two groups, along with Justice For Our Neighbors El Paso and the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, are demanding that everyone held at Torrance be released, that the contract be terminated, and that the prison be closed.
ICE is “undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” the agency said in an Aug. 26 news release.
ICE did not return an email on Tuesday with questions about conditions.
The agency published a similar statement on April 27 when it moved more than 100 people into Torrance less than a month after federal inspectors told ICE to get people out because conditions were so bad.
The transfers appeared to be in direct defiance of recommendations in March from the Homeland Security Department’s Office of the Inspector General and federal lawmakers to move people out of the facility.
No amount of cosmetic whitewashing by CoreCivic will cover up the truth of their callous disregard for human life, Sheff said.
“And we know that Torrance County’s routine endorsement of the ongoing brutality at this detention facility speaks for itself,” she said. “It should not have come to this.”
Despite persistent and clear warnings about the danger posed by conditions to the lives of people detained there, Torrance County hasn’t improved them, they wrote.
Concerns were even raised directly to ICE acting director Tae Johnson, Sheff said.
“The conditions have not improved, and these conditions have materially contributed to the desperation of folks inside, and despair as they’re trying to seek asylum,” Sheff said.
Sheff said she is not aware of any public statements made by any Torrance County officials about Vial’s death.
Sheff said Torrance County Manager Janice Barela handles review of the ongoing day-to-day operations and the contract, and passes invoices from CoreCivic to ICE, and payments from ICE to CoreCivic.
“The county plays an integral role in the contracting arrangement that allows people in immigration custody to be held at Torrance in the first place,” Shef said.
ICE contracts with the county, which then contracts with CoreCivic. So CoreCivic essentially stands in the county’s shoes as it operates the prison, she said.
“Without the county, none of this is possible, and so they hold an important part of the responsibility here,” Shef said. “They have their hands in this continuously.”
Barela did not return a voicemail message left Monday by Source NM seeking comment..
Deaths not inevitable
What happened to Vial is very sadly not new, Sheff said.
Not including Vial, there have been at least 72 deaths of adults in ICE detention facilities since 2015, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The House Oversight Committee found in 2020 that people imprisoned by ICE died after receiving inadequate medical care and that staff “falsified records to cover up” problems.
The fact that these in-custody deaths keep happening means that this is foreseeable to ICE and to the private prison companies that operate these facilities, Sheff said.
They know that the conditions that people are being held in are horrific, to the point that people can’t take it anymore.
– Rebecca Sheff, ACLU-NM attorney
“They bear responsibility for not only investigating this death and being forthcoming about what happened,” Sheff said, “but immediately taking all necessary steps to make sure that nothing like this happens again, in general, and particularly at Torrance.”
Vial’s death was a wholly preventable tragedy, said Sophia Genovese, senior attorney for NMILC.
“ICE, CoreCivic, Torrance County, and their contractors have all enabled a suicide,” Genovese said. “We told you this would happen, you ignored us, and now someone is dead.”
ICE brings more people into Torrance detention center, congresswoman’s staff confirms
Traumatized witnesses still imprisoned
Left in Vial’s wake are friends still held at Torrance who were among the first people who found 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,” according to the advocacy groups.
ICE’s refusal to release the detained men who tried to save Vial’s life and others deeply traumatized by his death “shows the immigration detention system is beyond repair,” said Casey Mangan, Immigrant Justice Corps fellow and attorney with Innovation Law Lab.
Shef said the ACLU is also demanding ICE not punish those who witnessed Vial’s death, so that they can seek legal counsel and pursue all options available to them.
ICE has the authority to release people who are detained at Torrance at their discretion, she pointed out. However, the agency has been categorically denying individual requests for release and deliberately continuing to detain people at Torrance, according to the groups’ joint statement.
“The only justifications they have for detaining people under the law is if they are a flight risk if they might not appear at their immigration proceedings, or if they’re a danger to the community,” Sheff said.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or considering self-harm or suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by dialing 988.
Call the New Mexico Crisis And Access Line at 1-855-NMCRISIS (662-7474).
Call or text the Peer-to-Peer Warm Line at 1-855-466-7100.
Call the Agora Crisis Center at 505-277-3013.
Here is a list of international suicide hotlines.