Despite promised reforms, inmates are still dying in tribal jails : NPR

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A handprint smeared on the window at the Navajo Nation Detention Center in Shiprock, NM, on April 13, 2021.

Sharon Chischilly for NPR

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Sharon Chischilly for NPR

A handprint smeared on the window at the Navajo Nation Detention Center in Shiprock, NM, on April 13, 2021.

Sharon Chischilly for NPR

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

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

It is the most annual deaths and suicide attempts recorded by the BJS since 2016. The number of suicide attempts has almost doubled since 2021, according to the study, which also found that more than half of all prisoners who were held in prisons during that time. same period of time have never been convicted of a crime.

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

“It is always sad to see reports like this, especially only one year after the Department of the Interior promised to work to solve these issues,” said the Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. The committee provides oversight of the BIA, an agency of the Department of the Interior. “Such tragedies certainly require further investigation.”

The study, done every year, surveyed the 80 prisons in Indian Country. Prison officials, who report the information themselves, are not required to participate. Six prisons do, according to BJS.

The reforms were announced back in 2022, following an investigation

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

It followed 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 deaths in custody since 2016. Most of the victims had been arrested for minor violations. The investigation found that BIA officials had known about the problems for years.

The investigation by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau also showed that many of the deaths occurred after correctional officers failed to provide timely and appropriate medical care, and that poor staff training led to several deaths of ‘prisoners who could have been avoided. Officials have called the tribal prison program a “national disgrace.”

Interior Department spokesman Tyler Cherry acknowledged Thursday that the BIA’s corrections program has been “under-resourced” for decades, but said many of the reforms promised in 2022 have been implemented.

When asked, Cherry would not say what 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.

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

The agency is also working to boost the 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 wage for tribal law enforcement officers. -law. The starting pay for the agency’s cops is currently $46,000; correctional officers start around $40,000. Cherry said the pay could go up to $30,000.

Members of Congress say the findings are ‘disturbing’ and demand accountability

Friday’s report comes almost a month after the Department of the Interior 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 leaking plumbing, broken lights and, most significantly, a broken air conditioning unit in the women’s detention pod. Temperatures regularly climb above 100 degrees in the summer on the reservation. Staff at another prison told investigators they fear their building could collapse due to serious structural issues, including falling cinder blocks.

The IG’s investigation also found that, in some cases, BIA building officials ignored these issues and rated facility conditions as “good.”

“Many of these issues appear to have been exacerbated by inaction over time and will likely require more funding and effort to repair than if they had been addressed in time,” according to the IG’s investigation.

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

“This is not just 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, prison or not.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), called the reports “very disturbing.”

“I will be working with my colleagues to hold the BIA accountable and find a legislative solution,” Tester told NPR.

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

During budget hearing last weekBryan Newland, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, 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 in the BIA system are in bad shape,” Newland said. “We also have the ability to rank them to prioritize which ones should be replaced, but we need the dollars to do that and to make sure that 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 increased funding for its public safety division, which includes prisons and staff

“There’s a lot of guilt about how we ended up in this situation, and these problems have been going on for decades,” Merkley said. “We must strengthen accountability and invest in staff and infrastructure. Lives are at stake.”

This story is a collaboration by 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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