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Poor Tribal Jail Conditions Bring Call For Federal Action

The now-closed tribal jail in Shiprock, N.M.
Sharon Chischilly for NPR

The now-closed tribal jail in Shiprock, N.M.

Tribal jails can be found in some of the most remote places in the country, but their frequently poor conditions have caught the attention of those in Washington.

Attorney and Choctaw Nation member Brandy Tomhave, who focuses on tribal issues, said the way tribal jails are run reflects an uncaring philosophy toward the people incarcerated there.

“There is just a sincere, pervasive lack of care for the tribal inmate population, that they are at least treated as though they are entirely disposable and not worth the time and attention,” she said.

Tomhave commended the Mountain West News Bureau for its work reporting on the conditions at the jails, where at least 19 people have died in custody in the last five years.

“We're hoping that the reporting that you're doing will kind of be a beacon to those in Washington, D.C., who know what needs to be done, know how to do it, and have just failed to bother,” she said.

Tomhave said she’s “looking forward to being pleasantly surprised” by the Biden administration’s attention to these issues, particularly with Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo tribe, as head of the Interior Department.

“I think it is critically important that, for the first time ever, the Department of Interior is run by an American-Indian secretary,” Tomhave said.

Brandy Tomhave, attorney, Choctaw Nation member

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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.