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Death, Neglect and Despair in U.S. Tribal Jails

by Daniel A. Rosen

An investigation conducted by the Mountain West News Bureau and NPR recently found that at least 19 men and women have died in the past five years in tribal jails overseen by the Interior Department, among other serious problems in the detention centers.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) oversees more than 70 tribal detention centers spread across the U.S. Officials there have known about the mistreatment of prisoners, in-custody deaths, inhumane conditions, attempted suicides, and other problems at least since 2004, when a federal investigation revealed the issues. The Interior Department’s own inspector general called the prisons a “national disgrace.”

Several of the 19 deaths in just the past five years came after guards failed to provide timely medical care. And many of the arrestees were in custody for minor infractions like petty theft or breaking open container laws. The BIA has refused to release details of some deaths, even after multiple requests.

NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau recently conducted dozens of interviews with investigators, lawmakers, law enforcement, and victim’s families, and reviewed hundreds of pages of records including lawsuits, jail logs, autopsy reports, and internal government reports—and found that the same problems remain.

Carlos Yazzie was arrested on a bench warrant in early 2017 and tossed in an isolation cell at the Shiprock jail on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, even though he was severely inebriated. Guards failed to check on him for over six hours and he was found unresponsive the next morning. He died of acute alcohol poisoning, an easily treatable condition. His blood alcohol level was 0.461, or more than six times the limit, a potentially fatal dose

“These correctional officers are basically holding these lives in their hands with these decisions,” Carlos’ brother Chris Yazzie said. Chris was a guard at the same jail once. “I don’t think these people are prepared,” he added.

Federal policy for an “extremely intoxicated” prisoner is to transfer him to a health care facility for examination, but neither guard on duty had completed the required basic training, and neither followed the policy.

Indeed, the NPR report found 20% of guards hadn’t completed the required training in CPR, first aid, and suicide prevention. It also concluded that poor training and neglect by staff led to several preventable prisoner deaths. The report found that guards at several jails violated federal policy and standards by failing to check on prisoners and ensure medical care. Another finding noted that many of the jails are in a state of disrepair, with one lacking even potable drinking water. Finally, the investigation concluded that the jails are severely underfunded by Congress.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana, who sits on the Indian Affairs Committee, called NPR’s findings “deeply disturbing,” and said they warranted an “immediate, transparent” official investigation. “Where policies are found to have failed, we will work to fix them and ensure it does not happen again,” he said in a statement.

House Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, who chairs the Indigenous Peoples Subcommittee, said the BIA jails’ problems are “heartbreaking but, sadly, not new.” She says she intends to boost funding for the jails and eliminate the Agency’s endemic budget shortfall.

In another incident, 37-year-old Joe Snell collapsed while exercising in a common area at a federally operated jail on the Spirit Lake Tribe Reservation in North Dakota. Neither of the guards on duty rendered aid, though the BIA says both were trained in CPR and in the use of defibrillators, which were available.

“Why are all these people working there?” Joe’s sister Michelle Snell asked.

“When someone collapses like that, they really should go for [the defibrillator] because that’s the lifesaving maneuver,” said Ian Paul, a forensic pathologist with the New Mexico medical investigator’s office.

The paramedics on scene initiated CPR upon arrival, but Joe Snell had already suffered a fatal heart attack, according to his sister. The North Dakota State Forensic Examiner’s office refused to release the autopsy to confirm her suspicions, citing state privacy laws.

Federal policy in such a circumstance states that guards should “initiate all available rescue options” if a prisoner’s life is in danger. BIA officials cited an unnamed preexisting medical condition that prevented them from doing so in Snell’s case, though his sister was unaware of any such condition.

As of early 2021, NPR found that one in five guards hadn’t completed the 400-hour basic training program in first aid, handling emergencies, and suicide prevention. In 2018, roughly one in four working guards had failed to finish the training. New hires have a year to do so, but it often takes longer, according to NPR’s interviews with guards.

The 2004 report by Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney was blunt. “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,” Devaney told Congress when he testified about it.

At the time, Senator Timothy Johnson of South Dakota said, “I hope this will not be one of those ‘gathering dust’ reports.” But that seems to be exactly what happened.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, reportedly declined NPR’s request for an interview on this matter.

While Indian tribes are purportedly sovereign nations, reservations are considered territory for law enforcement purposes with serious crimes being investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by the local U.S. Attorney’s office. The tribal jails tend to hold prisoners accused or convicted of misdemeanor offenses and are operated by tribal authorities. 



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