WASHINGTON – Indian prisons are “a national disgrace” in which 11 people have died and hundreds have tried to kill themselves or escaped over the past three years, government officials said Tuesday.
An Interior Department report likened the jails to the U.S. military’s mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Earl Devaney, the department’s inspector general, painted a grim picture for the Senate Finance Committee. His report, capping a year of investigation, found at least 11 fatalities, 236 suicide attempts and 632 escapes since the Bush administration took office in January 2001.
“At the very outset, it became abundantly clear that some of the facilities we visited were egregiously unsafe, unsanitary, and a hazard to both inmates and staff alike,” Devaney said in a copy of his testimony. “Our final report … found clear evidence of a continuing crisis of inaction, indifference and mismanagement throughout the entire BIA detention program.”
Cindy Lou Bright Star Gilbert SoHappy, 16, died of alcohol poisoning in her cell at the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon earlier this year. In December 2003, an inmate who was arrested in connection with being intoxicated was found dead, hanging in his cell at an Arizona prison. A 15-year-old girl hanged herself in March 2003 in a New Mexico facility.
At some facilities, the report said, “overcrowding has become a health and sanitary issue. Many inmates sleep on mats on the floor because the jails hold two to three times their capacity.”
The report’s release coincided with the opening Tuesday of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs had 2,080 people in 70 Indian jails, detention centers and other correctional facilities as of mid-2002, according to the latest figures from the Justice Department. One jail in six held twice its recommended maximum of prisoners.
Problems chronicled by Devaney included mixing of juveniles with adults that resulted in the rape of a youth; poorly trained and inadequate numbers of staff; “countless” assaults on detention officers; and broken toilets, showers and sinks. His staff toured 27 jails and interviewed 150 BIA and tribal officials.
“I reject the notion that it’s simply a matter of money. I think it’s a matter of will,” he said in answering senators’ questions. Congress has increased BIA’s yearly budget for law enforcement, including prisons and other detention facilities, to $170 million from $149 million three years ago. Another $150 million for new construction has come through Justice Department grants since 1997, but the agency completed only two of 13 planned new jails.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, described the events in Iraq as a reminder that the way people are jailed is a measure of the United States’ commitment to human rights.
“I think the (inspector general) has it exactly right when he says these jails are a national disgrace,” Grassley said. “The IG notes that the conditions are often worse than those in Third World countries. Once again our government has failed to uphold its responsibilities to Native Americans.”
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who requested the committee hearing, said he was shocked, dismayed and angry at findings such as BIA’s inability to show how it spent $9.8 million of the $11.4 million it received this year for opening new facilities. Grassley, however, called it “not a problem of this administration, or the previous administration. This is a problem of an entrenched bureaucracy that isn’t getting the job done.”
Dave Anderson, the Interior assistant secretary who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said his agency was trying hard to correct long-standing problems. “We are making progress but recognize a lot more work needs to be done,” he said.