The Bureau of Indian Affairs should immediately take steps to turn around a poorly managed Indian prison system that has seen at least 10 inmate deaths and hundreds of escapes and suicide attempts over the past three years, federal investigators said yesterday.

Inspector General Earl E. Devaney of the Interior Department told a Senate panel that potentially life-threatening conditions at many of the 74 detention centers on Indian reservations pose dangers to inmates and guards alike.

"Nothing less than a Herculean effort to turn these conditions around would be morally acceptable," Devaney testified at a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, after summarizing the preliminary findings of his office's ongoing investigation of the state of Indian prisons.

David W. Anderson, who became assistant interior secretary for Indian affairs in February, agreed that prison conditions are "totally unacceptable" and assured lawmakers that changes are underway.

"We have not treated this as business as usual," he said.

The 74 detention centers on reservations held 1,699 adults and 307 juveniles, according to federal figures from 2002, the most recent available. The BIA's Office of Law Enforcement Services operates 20 of the prisons and provides funding for 46 others, while eight facilities are run by tribes.

Devaney said his investigators and auditors have visited 27 of the detention centers since September. Although their final report will not be ready until August, the findings indicate that guards lack professional training and that most facilities are physically run-down and "deplorably maintained," providing ample opportunities for escape, he said.

At one prison, handcuffs were used to lock the chain-link fence around a recreation yard because inmates had learned the combination of the primary lock. Wire-mesh windows at one facility were so decayed that prisoners could easily remove them.

Even more troubling, Devaney said, was the lack of response by corrections officers and facility managers to such poor conditions and the many escape and suicide attempts. Investigators catalogued 209 suicide attempts and 413 escapes at the 27 prisons they visited. They also found five inmate deaths by suicide and another five attributed to medical problems such as seizures, appendicitis and alcohol poisoning, he said.

Only five of the deaths were reported to BIA managers. Those that were reported include that of Cindy Gilbert Sohappy, a 16-year-old who died on Dec. 6 of alcohol poisoning three hours after she was placed, intoxicated, in a holding cell attached to an Indian boarding school in Salem, Ore. The IG and the U.S. attorney's office in Portland, Ore., are investigating the case, which has raised concerns about a lack of monitoring of detainees.

Anderson said that the holding cell at the school is no longer used, and that no juveniles are being held in adult facilities. He said the BIA is working to improve reporting channels. And he noted that the BIA will spend $6.4 million on prison operations this year, up from $1.4 million last year.

"It shows that we have reacted swiftly to take care of the things we can immediately take care of," he said.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the committee chairman, and other lawmakers said the problems, especially the many suicide attempts, were worse than they imagined.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore) said: "I'm fearful we have an epidemic. BIA really needs to get on top of this, and we need to make sure they have the resources they need."

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said: "I've sat through many hearings, and this is one of the most depressing."