U.S. calls Indian jails a `disgrace'
Federal bureau lambasted for rampant neglect
By Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporter
September 21, 2004
Many jails operated on American Indian reservations are unsafe, unsanitary and a hazard to inmates and staff--a "national disgrace," according to a report by the Department of Interior's inspector general to be released in Washington on Tuesday.
The report, based on a yearlong investigation, is a scathing assessment of the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, which, through its law enforcement division, operates 72 jails on Indian reservations.
"BIA's detention program is riddled with problems and, in our opinion, is a national disgrace with many facilities having conditions comparable to those found in Third World countries," according to a copy of the report obtained by the Tribune.
The detention program is "broken," according to a copy of remarks by Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney to be delivered at a hearing Tuesday in Washington before the Senate Finance Committee. The hearing will be held even as the Smithsonian Institution opens its new National Museum of the American Indian.
Many of the problems are decades old and the product of a long-standing pattern of neglect by the bureau as well as those who manage the facilities, the report states.
"Our assessment revealed a long history of neglect and apathy on the part of BIA officials which has resulted in serious safety, security and maintenance deficiencies at the majority of the facilities," the report states. "BIA appears to have had a laissez-faire attitude about these horrific conditions at its detention facilities."
The report, the result of visits to 27 detention centers as well as more than 150 interviews and a review of scores of records, documents below-standard staffing levels, unsafe and crumbling facilities, and poorly trained detention personnel.
236 attempted suicides
The report details 11 fatalities, 236 attempted suicides and 631 escapes in the past three years. And those numbers are conservative "given that 98 percent of these incidents have never been reported" to bureau law enforcement officials, according to the report. The jails range in size from two to 120 beds and the overall number of inmates is usually a little more than 2,000.
Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said Monday, "This is one of the most condemning reports I've seen in more than 20 years of oversight work. It finds very little worthwhile in Indian detention centers, which are overseen by the federal government, and lots of horror stories."
There were multiple suicide attempts by the same inmates. At the jail on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, Ariz., an inmate attempted to hang himself seven times, according to the report. In response to each attempt, detention officers merely took away the item the inmate was attempting to use--his socks, his towel--until the inmate was naked, the report states.
At the Hopi Adult and Juvenile Facility in Arizona, an intoxicated inmate died of asphyxiation in 2003, the report states. Quoting a detention officer there, the report states that guards were "more interested in cleaning up the office" than in watching inmates.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the finance committee, said Monday, "The results of the inspector general's report are absolutely appalling and shocking. Prisoners must be treated with some level of humanity and respect when they enter jails. . . .
"Many of these shameful inadequacies stem from the Bureau of Indian Affairs gross mismanagement of funds, and the Finance Committee is developing ways to create a special bonding authority, so the tribes can control how funds are spent to improve their jails," said Baucus, whose state has nine Indian detention centers.
The report was critical of the funding program for the detention centers, which it says is "haphazardly managed" by the bureau and "once distributed to the tribes, it becomes virtually unaccounted for."
Efforts to track money `futile'
Because the bureau "does not track expenditures made by tribes," investigators' attempts to figure out where money was spent "proved futile," the report states.
Investigators were unable to make sense of maintenance records, the report states, while finding evidence of "weakened and deteriorating locks on cell doors to broken windows." A review of the bureau's office that oversees maintenance and construction found the logs to be "inaccurate, improper and erroneous."
After an interim report by Devaney was delivered in June to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Dave Anderson, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, directed that $6.4 million, including $4 million for repairs, be set aside to begin to attempt to rectify some of the problems.
However, the report, in calling for a comprehensive overhaul of the detention program, states that investigators "often found that complacency and resignation were the norm--at all levels of BIA management--with no evidence of a coordinated and comprehensive strategic plan to improve and manage the detention program."
Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune
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