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Deaths In Tribal Jails Continue Despite Promises Of Improvement

keith_skunkcap.jpg
Tailyr Irvine/NPR
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Keith Skunkcap outside his home in Cut Bank, Mont.

For years, poor conditions in tribal jails have led to investigations and promises to improve. Yet in the last five years, nearly 20 people have died in tribal jail custody, most incarcerated for minor offenses.

One of them was Brandy Skunkcap, who died in a Blackfeet Reservation jail in Montana. According to an investigation by the Mountain West News Bureau, her death came after correctional officers violated federal policy by failing to immediately administer first aid.

In 2017, the National Congress of American Indians, an advocacy group that represents tribal communities, passed a resolution urging Congress for additional money to place medical personnel in tribal jails, arguing that the current situation "exacerbates the already challenging problem of health disparities for American Indians."

Mountain West News Bureau reporter Nate Hegyi, who led the investigation into the deaths, said the far-flung nature of the jails and federal bureaucracy create inconsistencies in the medical services that are offered.

“Each each jail is responsible for kind of penciling out a contract with the Indian Health Service,” he told State of Nevada “And they're also a federal agency drastically underfunded and understaffed that run hospitals and other health clinics on reservations.”

He said those factors also inhibit family members and others from learning more about what happens at the jails.

“You're dealing with a jurisdictional quagmire when it comes to Indian Country,” Hegyi said.

Tribal advocates want to see improved medical care in the jails, including more on-site staffing by healthcare professionals, something that’s routine elsewhere in the federal prison system.

“The federal government just hasn't acted on that, and that's what they want to see changed,” Hegyi said. “They want to see Congress fund on-site medical personnel in these jails.”

Editor's Note: Nevada Public Radio's Native Nevada podcast focuses on issues facing tribal members.

Nate Hegy, reporter, Mountain West News Bureau

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
(Editor's note: Nate is no longer a member of our staff, but you can still enjoy their stories here.)