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Investigators fear worst in review of BIA jail system

Investigators at the Department of Interior have discovered nearly 50 deaths, suicides, attempted suicides and prisoner escapes at a handful of Bureau of Indian Affairs jails, the majority of which were never reported or documented.

Interior's Office of Inspector General began a review of BIA jail facilities last September. While a final report is not expected until the end of the summer, the office made public an interim report this week.

The interim report mirrors testimony Inspector General Earl E. Devaney gave to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last Wednesday. The information shocked and surprised the chairman and vice-chairman of the panel, Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

"This has been the most depressing hearing I have ever participated in," Inouye said after two hours of testimony.

The interim report was actually completed in April. As of that date, investigators had visited only a small number of facilities in the BIA's 74-jail system.

"While we have only visited 14 facilities, our anxiety is heightened by what we have found and in anticipation of incidents that we have yet to discover," the report states.

In the 14 facilities alone, investigators found six deaths, four suicides and two non-suicides since 2001. Of these incidents, only one had not been reported to BIA officials.

The recent death of Cindy Gilbert Sohappy, 16, in a holding cell at Chemawa Indian Boarding School in Oregon was classified as as a non-suicide.

The interim report shows 30 attempted suicides, the majority of which were not reported or documented. Seven of the incidents occurred at a facility on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, which has 103 beds for a 100,000-plus population. Six occurred at a facility on the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona that is regularly overcrowded.

The report also shows 12 escapes, the majority of which were not reported or documented. Three occurred at a facility on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. At the hearing last week, tribal leaders from the state described their jails as among the worst in the system.

"For the most part, the correctional officers at these facilities convey stories of prisoner escapes with an air of casual inevitability," the report states.

The facility with the most incidents was the Shiprock Adult Detention Center in Shiprock, New Mexico. The report notes one suicide, seven attempted suicides and two escapes -- all of which went unreported to BIA superiors.

"We are faced with criminals who have total disregard for our criminal justice system, because their government cannot incarcerate them without putting them at significant physical and health risk," Hope MacDonald-LoneTree, a Navajo Nation council delegate, said at the hearing.

For the past four years, the Department of Justice has released statistics showing that Indian Country jails are overcrowded and underfunded. Most are operating above capacity at a given date of the year.

Yet government officials who testified at the hearing said no new money is being allocated for repair and construction. Assistant secretary Dave Anderson said he had to scramble to put together $6.4 million earlier this year to address immediate problems.

The OIG's report is believed to be the first comprehensive look at the BIA jail system. But the agency's Office of Law Enforcement Services has known of similar complaints for years. A 2001 OLES audit of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, for example, revealed major non-compliance, including the failure to inspect jail facilities, where adults and juveniles were jailed together. Detainees often went unsupervised and the facility was prone to escapes, the audit said.

Interim Jail Report:
Text | PDF

Senate Hearing :
Witness Testimony | Real Video

Indian Country Jail Reports:
Year 2002 | Year 2001 | Year 2000 | Years 1998-1999