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Inmates continue to die in tribal jails despite promises of reform

A handprint stained on the window at the Navajo Nation Detention in Shiprock, N.M., on April 13, 2021.
Sharon Chischilly for NPR
A handprint stained on the window at the Navajo Nation Detention in Shiprock, N.M., on April 13, 2021.

Despite promises of reform by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, inmates at tribal jails overseen by the federal agency continue to die, according to a new report released on Friday.

At least four inmates died and 46 others attempted suicide from July 2021 through June 2022, according to the report by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Three of the four deaths were from suicide. The report did not disclose the cause of the other death.

It is the most yearly deaths and attempted suicides recorded by the BJS since 2016. The number of attempted suicides nearly doubled from 2021, according to the study, which also found that more than half of all the inmates who were held in the jails during that same time period were never convicted of a crime.

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The 15-page report also found that some of the beleaguered jails continued to wrestle with overcrowding and staff retention. At least six facilities faced chronic overcrowding and the number of correctional officers dropped by nearly 20% between 2019 and 2022 – a loss of 250 employees.

"It's always saddening to see reports like this one, especially just a year after the Department of Interior promised to work on solving these issues," said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The committee provides oversight of the BIA, an agency of the Interior Department. "Tragedies like these certainly warrant more investigation."

The study, done annually, surveyed all 80 jails in Indian Country. Jail officials, who self-report the information, are not required to participate. Six jails did not, according to BJS.

Reforms were announced back in 2022, following investigation

In February 2022, the BIA announced more than two dozen reforms aimed at "protecting the rights, dignity and safety of those in custody." The proposed changes included beefing up staff training, improving recruitment and retention, and doing better "interagency coordination with federal partners" to guarantee that inmates are safe and hold correctional officers accountable.

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It came on the heels of an investigation by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau in June 2021 that found a pattern of misconduct, mistreatment and neglect that led to at least 19 in-custody deaths since 2016. Many of the victims had been arrested for minor infractions. BIA officials knew about the problems for years, the investigation found.

The examination by NPR and Mountain West News Bureau also revealed that many of the deaths occurred after correctional officers failed to provide proper and timely medical care, and that poor staff training led to several inmate deaths that could have been prevented. Officials have called the tribal jails program a "national disgrace."

Interior Department spokesperson Tyler Cherry acknowledged on Thursday that the BIA's corrections program has been "under-resourced" for decades, but said most of the reforms promised in 2022 have been implemented.

When asked, Cherry would not say which specific reforms have been put in place or are still being implemented.

"The BIA will continue its work to reform the corrections system in Indian Country with available resources," he said in a statement.

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Cherry pointed out that attrition rates within the BIA's law enforcement and corrections programs have declined by half since May 2022, but did not elaborate.

The agency is also working to boost salaries of BIA law enforcement, including correctional and police officers. A bipartisan bill – the Strengthening Tribal Law Enforcement Act – was introduced in the Senate earlier this year, which would allow the BIA to increase the minimum pay for law enforcement officers. Starting pay for agency cops currently is $46,000; correctional officers start at around $40,000. Cherry said that pay could increase by as much as $30,000.

Members of Congress say the findings are 'troubling' and call for accountability

Friday's report comes nearly a month after an Interior Department inspector general investigation found significant health and safety issues at three tribal detention centers in the Southwest. One facility on the San Carlos Reservation in southeastern Arizona had leaky plumbing, broken lights and, most significantly, a broken air conditioning unit in the female detention pod. Temperatures regularly hover above 100 degrees in the summer on the reservation. Staff at another jail told investigators they fear that their building could collapse due to severe structural issues, including falling cinder blocks.

The IG investigation also found that, in some cases, BIA building officials ignored these issues and rated the facility conditions as "good."

"Several of these issues appear to have been exacerbated due to inaction over time and will likely require more funding and effort to repair than if they had been addressed in a timely fashion," according to the IG investigation.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, described the jail conditions as "deplorable."

"This is not only a funding problem but also an accountability problem; we need to do more to address it," he said in a statement to NPR. "No person should be subjected to these conditions, incarcerated or not."

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), called the reports "deeply troubling."

"I'll be working with my colleagues to hold the BIA accountable and find a legislative fix," Tester told NPR.

Merkley and Tester successfully spearheaded an effort in December to appropriate $22.6 million to increase funding for the jails program.

During a budget hearing last week, Bryan Newland, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department, told Merkley's subcommittee that his agency is requesting more funding for maintenance and operations at the detention centers.

"I think it's been well-documented – our jails across the BIA system are in poor condition," Newland said. "We've also come up with an ability to rank them to prioritize which ones should be replaced, but we need the dollars to do that and to make sure the people in our care and custody get the treatment they're entitled to."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is asking lawmakers for a$62.1 million increase in funding for its public safety division, which includes jails and staffing

"There is plenty of blame to go around on how we ended up in this situation, and these problems have been festering for decades," Merkley said. "We must strengthen accountability and invest in staffing and infrastructure. Lives are at stake."

This story is a collaboration from NPR's Station Investigations Team, which supports local investigative journalism, and New Hampshire Public Radio. Nate Hegyi left the Mountain West News Bureau for New Hampshire Public Radio in February 2022.

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(Editor's note: Nate is no longer a member of our staff, but you can still enjoy their stories here.)