Abuse abounds in tribal jails leaving death in its trail

19 men and women have died in tribal jails since 2016, reveals a new investigation from NPR's Mt. West Bureau

We go to NPR for this weeks long listen and read by Nate Hegyi. Read or listen to the whole article, “Indian Affairs Promised To Reform Tribal Jails. We Found Death, Neglect And Disrepair.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time.

Ignored and neglected and dead: when arrests turn into death sentences

When police took Carlos Yazzie to jail on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico after his arrest on a bench warrant in January 2017, he needed immediate medical attention. His foot was swollen and his blood alcohol content was nearly six times the legal limit.

But law enforcement decided that he was fine, jail records show. They put Yazzie in a cramped isolation cell at the Shiprock District Department of Corrections facility instead of taking him to a hospital and then left him unmonitored for six hours without periodic staff checks as required, according to an investigative report. When a guard handing out inmate jumpsuits the next morning stopped at Yazzie's cell, the 44-year-old day laborer was dead. It would later be determined in an autopsy that he died from acute alcohol poisoning, which is easily treatable by medical professionals, experts said.

"These correctional officers are basically holding these lives in their hands with their decisions," said Chris Yazzie, Carlos' brother, who once worked as a correctional officer at the jail where his brother died but did not know the specific officers. "I don't think these people are prepared."


Yazzie is one of at least 19 men and women who have died since 2016 in tribal detention centers overseen by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), according to an investigation by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of NPR member stations. Several of them died after correctional officers failed to provide proper and timely medical care, records show. Many of the victims had been arrested for minor infractions, such as petty theft or violating open-container laws, and were awaiting trial. In some cases, BIA officials have not released details of inmate deaths, despite repeated written requests.

Federal officials have known about the mistreatment of inmates and other problems at the detention centers for nearly two decades. A 2004 federal investigation found widespread deaths, inmate abuse, attempted suicides, inhumane conditions and other issues in many of the more than 70 detention centers scattered throughout the U.S., including in Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wisconsin and Mississippi. The Interior Department's inspector general told congressional lawmakers during a hearing on the matter then that the facilities were a "national disgrace."

Seventeen years later, myriad problems remain, according to more than two dozen interviews with investigators, law enforcement, lawmakers and victims' relatives, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of documents, including autopsy reports, jail logs, internal government reports and lawsuits.

Bottom line

The phone rang. It was Pepion's girlfriend calling to say that he was in jail. This wasn't his first time. He had been arrested for disorderly conduct. He had also been drinking.

"He was in there before for being drunk," Fleury recalled in an interview at her home in Browning. "But all of his friends would also be in there."

Spending a night at the Blackfeet Adult Detention Center is almost a rite of passage for young men and women in Browning, a town on the edge of the Rocky Mountains that is home to about 1,000 residents. Police round up underage drinkers and young adults nearly every weekend for alcohol possession or open-container violations. Even Fleury had spent time in that jail, so she wasn't too concerned.

But as the day progressed, her boy still wasn't home. Fleury called the detention center every few hours. Guards told her that they were waiting until Pepion's blood alcohol content reached zero.

That was the last she heard from them.

Later that evening, a Glacier County sheriff's deputy arrived at Fleury's home to tell her that her son, a young man described by his friends as being soft-spoken and a terrific cook, was dead.

"It was just a nightmare after that," she said, crying while seated at her kitchen table. "I don't hardly remember the week after."

Read or listen to the whole article here.

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