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News / Northwest

At least 6 suicide attempts at Tacoma ICE facility, 911 calls show

Murray and Cantwell have criticized ICE for what they characterize as the agency’s overuse of solitary.

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: April 11, 2024, 7:39am

Over a period of less than three months this year, the federal immigrant detention center in Tacoma has seen at least six, possibly seven, suicide attempts, according to audio and records of 911 calls.

On Tuesday, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights shared the audio and records of dozens of calls it obtained through public records requests, covering a period of Jan. 1 to March 18. Six calls were related to people held at the Northwest ICE Processing Center attempting to kill themselves through hanging or asphyxiation.

In one call, a facility nurse said the 28-year-old woman who tried to asphyxiate herself that March day had made a suicide attempt only a few days earlier, suggesting a seventh attempt not documented in records the UW center received.

On March 11 and March 13, detention center staff called in not one but two suicide attempts. A staffer who made one of the March 11 calls reported a 20-year-old man from India who tried to hang himself was now coughing and crying.

Yet another call may or may not have concerned a suicide attempt: A man jumped or fell from an upper tier of the building.

Information about the rash of suicide attempts comes as researchers, activists and members of Congress are trying to understand why 61-year-old Charles Leo Daniel died March 7 at the facility, which holds immigrants in deportation proceedings and is run by the Florida-based GEO Group. Neither U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement or the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has given a cause of death.

Daniel was in solitary confinement for almost the entire four years he was held at the detention center and for more than nine additional years before that while serving time in state prisons for second-degree murder.

Activists and Democratic politicians, including Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, have criticized ICE in the wake of Daniel’s death for what they characterize as the agency’s overuse of solitary.

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Many studies have shown prolonged isolation causes and worsens mental health problems.

ICE declined to comment about the prevalence of suicide attempts at its Tacoma facility.

Phil Neff, a research coordinator at the UW center, said the 911 disclosures are particularly concerning because they seem to represent an uptick.

If there has been a recent increase in suicide attempts, it’s unclear why.

The center previously obtained emergency dispatch records for the period between August 2017 and April 2023. In those five and a half years, dispatchers labeled 12 calls as suicide attempts (though there might have been more attempts because they can also be labeled medical incidents). The most in any given year during that period was six in 2018, according to Neff. This year, there were that many in a quarter of the time.

Suicide is a pressing issue across different types of correctional and detention facilities. The downtown Seattle jail had four suicide deaths in a recent 12-month period, an unusually high rate compared to jails nationwide.

ICE’s Tacoma detention center has had one known death by suicide in recent years. In 2018, Russian asylum-seeker Mergensana Amar was taken off life support after attempting to hang himself.

But the number of suicide deaths only reveals a partial picture, failing to show how many people have tried to end their lives.

Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with the group La Resistencia, which opposes detention of undocumented immigrants, said the 911 records released to the UW center “shows the level of desperation is way higher than we can ever imagine, or that we were aware of.”

People held at the detention center and their advocates have for years complained about what they’ve said are abysmal conditions, including inadequate food and health care. ICE and GEO have said they adhere to rigorous standards.

ICE’s detention standards, revised in 2016, mandate at least eight hours of suicide prevention training for all employees responsible for people held in custody. Instruction should explain why detention facilities “are conducive to suicidal behavior” and how to recognize cues that people might be on the verge of fatally harming themselves. The standards also require that someone at risk of doing so be immediately referred to a mental health professional.

Mora Villalpando speculated the possible increase could be because the facility is holding more asylum-seekers sent from the northern and southern borders than in the past. Already traumatized by the events that led them to the U.S., these migrants arrived looking for safety and their subsequent incarceration generated despair, she said.

A 2021 study by researchers from Harvard University and other institutions found a pronounced increase in suicides of people in ICE detention over the decade ending in 2020. Much of that happened in the decade’s final year, likely driven in part by stresses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers also noted a 2020 Congressional investigation that “revealed major issues in mental health care inside detention centers including delayed psychiatric appointments, placement of patients with mental health disease in solitary confinement, and falsified observation logs for suicidal patients.”

“Such gaps may result from chronic staffing shortages,” the researchers added, citing an issue also plaguing the federal detention center in SeaTac, which holds people charged with crimes.

Among the recommendations of the Harvard researchers and their colleagues: increasing mental health staffing and ending the use of solitary confinement.