Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Audit: Bureau of Indian Affairs Jails Still Mismanaged

by May 26th, 2011

SUMMARY: Seven years after the problem was highlighted in a government report, a 2011 follow-up investigation reveals that despite a nearly 50 percent increase in funding, understaffing remains a problem at detention facilities in Indian Country because of poor working conditions, low pay, use of funds for other purposes, and failure by Bureau of Indian Affairs management to focus on the problem. Attrition, low morale and increased security risks are among the results. In addition, the physical condition of many of the detention facilities visited is poor.

BACKGROUND: A 2004 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that detention facilities throughout Indian Country weren’t safe and secure; that Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) managed its detention program funding haphazardly and unaccountably; and that the detention centers were being operated at below-minimum staffing levels. Partly as a result of the report, the regular two-year appropriation for Indian detention facilities, which is funneled through the BIA, grew 48 percent from 2005 to 2009, or from $43.8 million to $64.7 million. Of the 94 detention facilities, 23 are BIA-operated and 61 are operated by tribes but overseen by the BIA. The current report sought to examine what progress has been made since the 2004 report, and was based on thorough field surveys of eight Indian country detention facilities in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, plus visits to five BIA offices and interviews with four other government agency offices (see p. 14 of report for details).

KEY LINK: “Bureau Of Indian Affairs Detention Facilities,” evaluation report, Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, March 2011


  • “…since the issuance of the…2004 report, BIA failed to address staffing shortages.” Based on prisoner populations the BIA-operated detention facilities are staffed at just 38 percent of recommended levels and the tribally-operated jails at 67 percent. Officials interviewed for the report said staffing shortages were due to inattentive management; poor job conditions including remote locations, lack of housing and low salaries; the failure of many applicants to pass background checks; and slow processing of potential new employees by human resources staff.
  • Jails overseen by BIA aren’t required to use any specific amount of their funds for staffing, there is just a lump sum allocated to each BIA-operated or tribal-operated facility. When not used for hiring, monies go for staff overtime, temporary staff relocations, contract bed space, vehicles, jail overhead, and in some instances non-jail police staff, benefits, training and equipment.
  • Because of staffing shortages, correctional officers may have to work long hours at overtime pay and forgo vacation and sick days. A jail officer resigned at one facility when her maternity leave request was denied due to low staffing, and two officers at another facility quit because of long hours and no annual leave or sick leave.
  • Low staffing also affects security. At the facilities visited, understaffing also increases risks of serious incidents such as the in-custody death of a prisoner at one facility and attacks on correctional officers at another.
  • BIA for $1 million contracted with the National Native American Law Enforcement Association to improve recruitment but terminated the contract after eight months at a cost of $967,000 because of no results. BIA mishandled the contract award process and price negotiations, and got only vague statements of work to be performed and delivered.
  • The objective of the new Interior OIG report didn’t include the condition of the detention facilities, but investigators said they could not ignore what they saw. More than half of the facilities visited were in unsanitary or poor condition. Problems included “leaky roofs; defective heating, fire safety, and security systems; non-detention grade doors, windows and fencing; rust-stained sinks, toilets and showers; and an overall lack of cleanliness.”

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