ELOY — A lawsuit filed in Pinal County Superior Court faults the operators of an immigration detention center for failing to prevent a man from killing himself while in custody nearly three years ago.
Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun was found choking inside his cell at Eloy Detention Center on May 20, 2015. Staff observed the 31-year-old’s face to be blue and swollen.
Paramedics were called and attempted to resuscitate the detainee. By 6:09 p.m., a doctor from Banner Casa Grande Medical Center declared Deniz-Sahagun dead.
An autopsy report showed he choked on an orange sock, and a toothbrush was found in his stomach.
His death spurred protests and hunger strikes outside the detention center from advocates seeking better conditions for detainees. Politicians called for an investigation, the family held press conferences — all in an effort to find out what happened to Deniz-Sahagun.
His was the fifth suicide reported at the Eloy facility since the mid-2000s, a high number compared to other detention centers across the country.
The detainees who preceded Deniz-Sahagun hanged themselves with bed sheets or shoelaces.
An analysis by National Public Radio in 2016 determined that the prison had the highest number of deaths in the country. The Arizona Republic made the same determination in 2015.
The prison’s history of suicides is now being used to argue that the center’s operators were at fault for Deniz-Sahagun’s death.
In a wrongful death lawsuit filed last summer, the man’s surviving family accuses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and operator CoreCivic of gross negligence for not implementing a suicide prevention plan that could have avoided Deniz-Sahagun’s death.
ICE contracts with CoreCivic, a private company, to operate detention centers like the one in Eloy. The centers are for the civil detention of individuals suspected of being in the country without legal authorization.
Rebecca Merton monitors detention centers for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, a national nonprofit aiming to stop immigration detention. She said one reason more deaths may occur in Eloy is because of its rural location. This isolation makes it less likely for issues to get attention and the community to voice opposition, she said.
The CIVIC group has been publicly critical of the privatization of detention centers, accusing the business model of having a monetary incentive to detain immigrants.
“We don’t believe in caging people for profit,” Merton added.
Court records show Deniz-Sahagun was arrested by federal agents five days before his death after entering the country through Douglas. He allegedly expressed fear that someone was going to kill him.
On May 17, Deniz-Sahagun was transported to a Tucson hospital after injuring himself inside a holding room. He reportedly told medical staff he was attempting to break his own neck because he feared Mexican coyotes, a term commonly used to describe people who bring others into the United States illegally.
The following day, U.S. Border Patrol agents transferred Deniz-Sahagun to the Eloy Detention Center. A nurse reported Deniz-Sahagun sounding incoherent and appearing anxious. He was then placed in a unit within the center’s general population.
A few hours later, he was transferred to another unit after he requested to be placed in protective custody, believing his cellmate was trying to kill him. A sergeant and case manager attempted to interview Deniz-Sahagun the following morning, but he refused to answer questions.
According to the lawsuit, Deniz-Sahagun then tried escaping out the unit’s door and had to be forcibly restrained. Staff reported him screaming that a cartel was after him and he wanted to die.
He was taken to the medical unit and proceeded to scream in fear for his life. A doctor later determined Deniz-Sahagun was suffering from a delusional disorder and ordered him to be placed on suicide watch. He was taken to another cell and the doctor prescribed psychotropic medications to be administered.
But Deniz-Sahagun was not given the medicine, court documents show, because a health services administrator determined the drugs would be inappropriate because the detainee appeared to be in a calm state.
On the morning of May 20, a doctor evaluated Deniz-Sahagun again and noted he appeared stable and no longer posed a danger to himself. The lawsuit mentions this doctor wasn’t aware the detainee hadn’t been given the anti-psychotic medications originally ordered.
He was then removed from suicide watch and allowed access to normal clothes and hygiene supplies. About nine hours later, Deniz-Sahagun failed to respond to calls from staff and was found choking in his cell.
A 2016 report released by Human Rights Watch quoted medical experts who found fault with how staff chose to take Deniz-Sahagun off suicide watch and should have considered the option of hospitalization.
The lawsuit faults CoreCivic for not adequately documenting interactions with Deniz-Sahagun, not providing a thorough evaluation from a psychiatrist, and not conferring with doctors before deciding not to administer the prescribed medication.
CoreCivic declined to comment on allegations in the pending litigation, but documents filed by its attorneys show the company rebukes the argument that staff was negligent.
The defendant noted the many steps employees took in response to Deniz-Sahagun’s erratic behavior and asked the court to reject any argument that CoreCivic was negligent in providing the sock and toothbrush he later used to kill himself. Detention officers had no reason to deny him those items, the defense argued in court documents.
The plaintiffs argue the multiple suicide deaths at the Eloy facility suggest CoreCivic was indifferent about implementing a plan to better respond to detainees at risk. As an example, the plaintiffs cited a lawsuit in New York where city officials were blamed for not taking measures to prevent suicide deaths at a bridge, which had a high occurrence of people jumping off.
“It is impossible to determine whether the actions of CoreCivic’s officers were reasonable without a plan that takes into account the significant, foreseeable risk of suicide that exists at (Eloy),” the plaintiffs recently wrote in court filings.
Betsy Grey, a law professor at Arizona State University, said it’s common for plaintiffs to argue defendants are negligent because they notice a reoccurring problem and fail to address it. She cited the example of restaurant owners repeatedly not cleaning a salad bar. Then one day a customer slips and falls on some lettuce.
But the case against CoreCivic is different, Grey added, because it involves a suicide — something inherently hard to blame another party for.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the lawsuit due to its pending nature. However, the agency emphasized that lack of comment shouldn’t be construed as agreement with any of the plaintiff’s allegations.
“Our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the (Dept. of Homeland Security’s) mission, uphold our laws while continuing to provide our nation with safety and security,” the agency stated in an email to PinalCentral.
The parties will continue arguing their case, as they’re scheduled to appear in Superior Court next month.