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Law
Data shows little change in BIA jail population


The number of inmates at Indian Country detention facilities remained steady over the past year, according to a report released on Sunday.

The statistics showed 2,006 prisoners were housed at reservation jails as of midyear 2002. The figure is only slightly lower than the 2,080 people detained at the facilities the prior year.

In either case, the numbers show the facilities are operating at or above their capacity. Based on historical data, Indian Country jails are running at an average of 126 percent of capacity.

The report, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is the latest indication of the status quo that has long plagued Indian jails. Tribal leaders say they have complained about overcrowded and understaffed facilities for years but not have received enough federal assistance.

That could be changing with heightened focused placed on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees the jail system. An investigation by the Interior Department's Inspector General turned up widespread problems, including unreported deaths, suicides and poor conditions facing American Indians and Alaska Natives.

"BIA's detention program is riddled with problems and, in our opinion, is a national disgrace with many facilities having conditions comparable to those found in third-world countries," Inspector General Earl E. Devaney wrote in September 2004 report.

Devaney and his staff visited 27 facilities throughout the country to assess the system. They found untrained workers, underfunded jails and a general lack of accountability.

Assistant secretary Dave Anderson set up a task force earlier this year after being made aware of the problems. He said he has scrapped together $6.4 million to address some of the more immediate safety issues.

BIA maintains responsibility for 72 jails but more than half, or 46, are operated under self-determination contracts with tribes. Devaney's review found that contracted jails were more likely to be operated and managed better than those run by the BIA.

But funding problems remain, according to the report. Once the money is released to tribes, "it becomes virtually unaccounted for," the report stated. "BIA could produce little evidence of basic budget planning, budget execution, or budgetary controls."

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) has introduced a bill that he hopes will alleviate part of the problem. Tribes would be able to offer tax-free bonds to investors and use the interest to pay for new jails or make jail improvements.

"It will enable the tribes to raise money from the private sector to get started fixing these jails up without having to wait for Washington, D.C. to act," Baucus said in October

The BJS report released yesterday did not provide a detailed account of the BIA jail population. Those numbers are usually included in a separate report that is typically released every November.

Overall, state and federal authorities held 1,470,045 prisoners as of December 2003, a 2.1 percent increase. When juvenile, local, territorial, military and other types of facilities are included, this figure jumps to 2,212,475 prisoners.

Get the Report:
Prisoners in 2003 (November 2004)

Inspector General Final Jail Report:
Text | PDF

Inspector General Interim Jail Report:
Text | PDF

Department of Justice Jail Reports:
Year 2002 | Year 2001 | Year 2000 | Years 1998-1999