At least 19 people have died in tribal jails overseen by the federal government since 2016, according to an investigation by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau. As part of our ongoing coverage of mistreatment of inmates on reservations, the bureau is highlighting some of the victims and the circumstances around their deaths, which reflect decades of mismanagement, neglect and poor training. You can find more stories here. This series is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
When Chris Yazzie took over his family’s plot of land a few years ago on the Navajo Nation, one of the first things he did was burn down his childhood home. It carried too many bad memories.
“We grew up with a lot of shame,” he said. “A lot of guilt. A lot of heartache because my stepdad was a heartless man.”
His stepdad was an alcoholic U.S. Marine veteran who beat his kids. That relentless abuse drove many of his siblings towards drugs and alcohol, including his older brother Carlos. He was a large man in his mid-40s with a dark complexion and a mullet. Carlos was a hard worker with a talent for masonry – that is, when he wasn’t drinking.
“A lot of times he acknowledged, ‘Hey, I’m a drunk. I’m addicted to alcohol,'” Yazzie said.
Carlos’ addiction put him in and out of jails his entire life – including on the night of his death in January 2017. He was arrested on a bench warrant and taken to a jail overseen by the federal government in Shiprock, N.M., on the Navajo Nation. He arrived in desperate need of medical attention. His right foot was swollen and his blood alcohol content was estimated to be .461. That’s six times the legal limit.
“The vast majority of people couldn’t function at all and would be comatose at a concentration of .461,” said Ian Paul, a forensic pathologist for New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator who oversaw Yazzie’s autopsy.
Jail records show that authorities knew Carlos was intoxicated and argumentative. But they decided he was healthy enough to stay in the jail.
He was put in a cramped isolation cell. Guards were supposed to check on him every thirty minutes – that’s federal policy – but he was left unmonitored for six hours. A correctional officer found his body in the morning as he was handing out orange jumpsuits. The autopsy report found that Carlos died from acute alcohol poisoning, a condition easily treatable by medical professionals.
Back at his house on the Navajo Nation, Carlos’ brother, Chris, said his brother should have been transported to a hospital.
“The corrections officers are basically holding these lives in their hands with their decisions,” he said.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Department of Corrections declined to comment on Yazzie’s case. But jail records show that both of the guards on duty had not completed the basic required training at the Indian Police Academy. They aren’t alone. As of this April, one in five correctional officers on duty at the more than 70 detention centers overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs had not received this certification.
The training includes 400 classroom hours of CPR, first aid, and how to deal with intoxicated inmates.
“When you first come to work you are required to become certified within one year – but that does not happen,” said Ophelia Begay, a supervisor at a tribal jail in Window Rock, Ariz.
She said she’s been waiting two years to get one of her female guards certified. In the meantime, “I cannot leave her alone. She has to have someone with her all the time," she said.
Federal investigators and correctional officers interviewed by the Mountain West News Bureau said the BIA's Indian Police Academy has a chronic backlog. While uncertified officers aren’t allowed to be left alone unsupervised, that happens occasionally due to staff shortages. The result can be deadly – as it was during the final hours of Carlos Yazzie’s life.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.