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Congress tasks a federal watchdog to examine Indian Affairs' troubled tribal jails

The detention center on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, where at least three people have died since 2016. Congress is now directing a federal watchdog to examine the Bureau of Indian Affairs' tribal jails program.
Tailyr Irvine for NPR
The detention center on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, where at least three people have died since 2016. Congress is now directing a federal watchdog to examine the Bureau of Indian Affairs' tribal jails program.

Congress is directing a federal watchdog to examine the Bureau of Indian Affairs' tribal jails program, which has come under fire for numerous deaths.

The directive is part of the nearly $1.7 trillion federal spending bill approved by Congress this week. It tasks the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General to follow up on previous investigations into the beleaguered tribal jails program, which officials have described as a "national disgrace." The Interior Department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"The treatment someone receives while behind bars shouldn't depend on where they go, and no one should have their life at stake or health concerns ignored just because of their criminal status," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said in a statement.

Merkley, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, tucked the directive into the spending bill after an NPR and Mountain West News Bureau investigation found last year that at least 19 inmates had died at the tribal detention centers since 2016. Several of them died after correctional officers failed to provide proper and timely medical care.

The investigation found myriad other problems, including severe understaffing, poor staff training and crumbling facilities. At least one jail lacked potable drinking water, forcing jail administrators to turn to charities for bottled drinking water.

After the NPR and Mountain West story was published, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees the detention centers, ordered an independent review of 16 in-custody deaths within its jails program.

But a follow-up investigation by NPR and Mountain West found that the review was managed by a retired top law enforcement official from the Interior Department who oversaw the detention centers when some of the deaths occurred, raising questions about conflict-of-interest violations.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs then announced this year that it was making nearly two dozen reforms based on the review.

They include updated policies and procedures, stronger oversight and better standards for investigating in-custody deaths.

The omnibus bill passed this week directs the Office of Inspector General to examine whether these reforms have been enacted, according to Merkley's office. The Office of Inspector General would also investigate whether its previous recommendations have been followed. The bill increases funding for the jails program by $22.6 million.

"Last year, insightful reporting brought to light the chronic problems of detention and corrections facilities across Indian Country," Merkley said in a statement. "I led an effort to ensure funding levels are sufficient to improve recruitment and retention problems — among other things — causing understaffing."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he supported an Office of Inspector General investigation and an increase in funding for the jails program.

"I was proud to work with Senator Merkley to include language in the 2023 government funding bill that will direct the Office of Inspector General to investigate and reform the dangerous practices that have been going on at places like the Blackfeet Reservation," Tester said in a statement. "One death at a tribal jail is one too many, and I'll continue to hold the push for change until we find a lasting solution to these problems."

Interior Department spokesperson Tyler Cherry declined to comment on the directive.

The department's inspector general will have two months to begin the investigation.

This story is a collaboration from 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.

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