February 6, 2023

A detention heart on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana, the place no less than three individuals have died since 2016. Congress is now directing a federal oversight company to overview the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ tribal jail program.

Tyler Irwin for NPR


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Tyler Irwin for NPR


A detention heart on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana, the place no less than three individuals have died since 2016. Congress is now directing a federal oversight company to overview the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ tribal jail program.

Tyler Irwin for NPR

Congress has directed a federal oversight physique to look into the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ tribal jail program, which has been criticized due to the various deaths.

The directive is a part of a virtually $1.7 trillion federal spending invoice authorised by Congress this week. He directs the Dwelling Workplace’s Workplace of Inspector Normal to proceed earlier investigations into the besieged tribal jail program, which officers have referred to as “a nationwide shame.” The Division of the Inside oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“The remedy of an individual behind bars shouldn’t rely upon the place they’re going, and nobody ought to endanger their lives or ignore well being issues simply due to their legal standing,” mentioned Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon. assertion.

Merkley, who’s a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, included the directive within the spending invoice after an NPR and Mountain West Information Bureau investigation final yr discovered that no less than 19 inmates had died in tribal detention facilities since 2016. A few of them have died. after correctional officers failed to offer correct and well timed medical care.

The investigation uncovered many different issues, together with extreme staffing shortages, poor workers coaching, and collapsing tools. At the very least one jail lacked ingesting water, forcing jail directors to show to charities for bottled ingesting water.

After the NPR and Mountain West story was printed, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees the detention facilities, ordered an unbiased overview of 16 deaths in custody as a part of its jail program.

However a subsequent investigation by NPR and Mountain West discovered that the overview was led by a retired senior legislation enforcement official from the Division of the Inside who oversaw the detention facilities when a few of the deaths occurred, elevating questions of battle of curiosity violations.

Then the Bureau of Indian Affairs introduced this yr that it was implementing practically two dozen reforms based mostly on the overview.

These embrace up to date insurance policies and procedures, stronger oversight, and higher requirements for investigating deaths in custody.

The omnibus invoice handed this week directs the Inspector Normal’s Workplace to look into whether or not these reforms have been handed, in response to Merkley’s workplace. The Workplace of the Inspector Normal can be investigating whether or not its earlier suggestions have been adopted. The invoice will increase funding for the jail program by $22.6 million.

“Final yr, insightful reporting highlighted the continual issues of detention and correctional services in Indian Nation,” Merkley mentioned in a press release. “I’ve led efforts to safe enough ranges of funding to deal with recruitment and retention challenges, amongst different issues inflicting staffing shortages.”

Senator John Tester, D-Montana, mentioned he helps the Workplace of Inspector Normal’s investigation and elevated funding for the jail program.

“I’m proud to have labored with Senator Merkley to incorporate language within the 2023 Public Funding Invoice that directs the Workplace of the Inspector Normal to research and reform the harmful practices that happen on locations just like the Blackfoot Reservation,” Tester mentioned in an interview. assertion. “One loss of life in a tribal jail is simply too many, and I’ll proceed to press for change till we discover a sustainable resolution to those issues.”

Inside Division spokesman Tyler Cherry declined to touch upon the directive.

The division’s inspector normal has two months to begin an investigation.

This story is a collaboration between the NPR Station Investigation Staff, which helps native investigative journalism, and New Hampshire Public Radio. Nate Hegy left the Mountain West information bureau and moved to New Hampshire Public Radio in February.

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