BIA announces effort to improve conditions in tribal detention centers

By: - February 14, 2022 1:25 pm

(Photo by Alex Potemkin / Getty Images)

Reforms are underway for tribal detention centers run by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Sixteen people died while in custody over a four-year period. 

The policy changes — which are largely focused on training and transparency — were announced Monday and are based on completion of the Interior Department’s three-month internal probe after NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau investigated conditions there. That work showed that “poor staff training and neglect led to several inmate deaths that could have been prevented.” 

News reports also said correctional officers routinely violated federal policy and standards by not checking on inmates enough. “In one instance, a 22-year-old man died in a holding cell, but his body wasn’t discovered for nearly three hours,” journalist Nate Hegyi reported.

The Interior Department contracted a third-party to handle the investigation into the 16 deaths from 2016-2020. BIA funds 96 correctional facilities, including in New Mexico, and operates 26 jails. Tribes run the additional 70 that receive federal funding. 

BIA will oversee the changes through the Office of Justice Services.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland is leading the effort for the Interior Department that includes 28 different actions that could lead to greater accountability and transparency about how people are treated in tribal detention centers.

“This plan is based on the principle that we must recognize the dignity and humanity of the people in our custody,” said said Newland (Ojibwe).

While bullet points for the plan are released, the complete report is not publicaly available, “because it contains some protected information, protected personal information,” Newland said. He said the Interior hopes to release the report, “as soon as possible.” 

So far six of the 28 proposed actions to lay groundwork for reform are complete, according to the Interior Department.

This includes setting an investigative timeline for case files to be reviewed and submitted within the agencies.

The effort has specific goals to try and establish reform in policy, training, operations, interagency agreements and information technology.

At the top of the list waiting to be completed: an update of policies and procedures to address people who die in-custody at these facilities.

Newland spoke with reporters Monday morning and is expected to give a presentation at the National Congress of American Indians Executive Council Winter Session.

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.