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Report finds Bureau of Indian Affairs is falling short on prison reforms

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said it was reforming tribal jails. The announcement came after an NPR investigation found at least 19 people had died in the jails since 2016, often due to a lack of medical care or poor staff training. The bureau promised dozens of reforms, but a new federal report says inmates continue to die. New Hampshire Public Radio's Nate Hegyi explains.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that last fiscal year, at least four inmates died and 46 attempted suicide in tribal jails. That's the most deaths and attempted suicides the agency has recorded in nearly a decade. The bureau also found that several of the 80 tribal jails nationwide continue to struggle with overcrowding and staff retention. Nearly a fifth of all their correctional officers quit between 2019 and 2022.

SUE PARTON: Our correctional facilities are really understaffed.

HEGYI: Sue Parton is president of a union that represents correctional officers in tribal jails. She says they have quit in droves in recent years because of low pay, bad working conditions and a slew of temporary transfers - when guards are forced to move, sometimes hundreds of miles away, to fill in a staffing gap.

PARTON: It's pretty demoralizing for a lot of the employees, especially in corrections who are not that highly paid, and they struggle to be away from their family and their community.

HEGYI: Late last year, Congress appropriated nearly $23 million to help increase staffing and retention. The money didn't arrive in time for its effects to be reflected in the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Congress also directed the Interior Department to take a hard look at the jails. A preliminary investigation found deplorable conditions in at least three in the southwest. One had to be evacuated after a snowstorm for fear it would collapse. And investigators found leaking pipes and gaping cracks that allowed adult inmates to look into juvenile cells. Testifying at a Senate budget hearing earlier this month, Bryan Newland, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the agency needs more money than Congress appropriated last year.

BRYAN NEWLAND: I think it's been well documented. Our jails across the BIA system are in poor condition. And we've also come up with an ability to rank them to prioritize which ones should be replaced, but we need the dollars to do that to make sure the people in our care and custody get the treatment they're entitled to.

HEGYI: On Thursday, Newland will face another round of questions at a House oversight hearing.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Before joining New Hampshire Public Radio in February 2022, Nate covered public lands, federal agencies and tribal affairs as a reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, a consortium of NPR member stations in the region. Nate's work has aired on NPR, BBC, CBC and other outlets.
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