Suicide attempts are common at prisons throughout Indian Country, where inmates step over one another in overcrowded jails and corrections officers are so few that prisoners simply walk away from some facilities, according to a report to be released today by the Interior Department's inspector general.
The report said the prisons, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have many problems, including poorly trained guards, underfunded medical facilities and unsanitary conditions even after receiving more than $150 million in federal funding for construction projects since 1997.
The BIA is often hard-pressed to account for money it has spent, the report said. On one occasion, the agency, which the Interior Department oversees, could not provide investigators with expenditures for more than $9 million of the $11 million it received to open new facilities.
"This is one of the most condemning reports I've seen in more than 20 years of oversight work," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "It finds very little worthwhile in Indian detention centers, which are overseen by the federal government, and lots of horror stories."
The IG's report coincides with the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall.
"The museum opening is a high honor to American Indian culture. . . . A decent, humane detention system is also very important," Grassley said in a statement. "Since jails don't attract tour buses, problems there unfortunately can be out of sight, out of mind for many people. It took a lot of determination, hard work and focus to get the museum. It'll take just as much, if not more, to make real changes in Indian detention centers."
Grassley is scheduled to preside over a hearing on the matter at 10 a.m. today. Dave Anderson, Interior's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, is also expected to testify.
Anderson was not available to comment yesterday, but Interior spokesman Dan DuBray defended the BIA and the department, saying problems in Indian Country prisons "have been years in the making." Within hours of being briefed about the seriousness of the issues, Anderson responded by inspecting 39 BIA detention centers for health and safety problems, DuBray said.
"More than 1,000 physical condition repairs were completed," he said. "An investment of $5 million more than the previous year was committed to make these corrections."
Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney is expected to testify today that BIA prisons are grossly mismanaged, and that problems cited in reports 10 years ago are still visible.
"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 that was provided to The Washington Post. "Our final report . . . found clear evidence of a continuing crisis of inaction, indifference and mismanagement throughout the entire BIA detention program."
Anderson could face questions about why nearly a dozen people have died in Indian Country prisons over the past three years. The report also counted 236 attempted suicides and 631 escapes in that time period.
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 that year 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."
Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, said the panel is "looking at developing special bonding authority for Indian tribes, so they can control how funds are spent to improve their jails."