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Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs on Monday announced a series of reforms for the tribal correctional facilities it oversees after reviewing the deaths of 16 inmates.

The agency did not make public the report of its review, making it difficult to gauge what led to the actions that it says will protect the rights, dignity and safety of tribal members taken into custody.

“The report is undergoing a review right now because it contains some protected personal information, but it's our goal to share what we can as soon as possible,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland told reporters.

The review and reforms come after an NPR story last year on deaths in tribal jails. The Bureau of Indian Affairs directly operates about one-fourth of the 100 correctional facilities under its umbrella. Tribes operate the others under contract with the BIA.

At least 16 inmates died in those facilities from 2016 to 2020. A three-month BIA review of the deaths was launched last fall. It was done by The Cruzan Group, LLC. consulting firm, which includes the former director of the BIA'S Office of Justice Services Darren Cruzan, at a cost of nearly $83,000, according to online public records.

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Newland said he's aware of the scrutiny surrounding the contract for Cruzan's group to investigate the workings of an agency he once led. As a political appointee, Newland said he wasn't involved in the process.

“But I do work to make sure our process is ethical and fair,” Newland said. “I intend to make sure this contract was awarded in an ethical and fair manner and that it adheres to law and regulation.”

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said Monday he's reviewing the reforms to ensure the federal government upholds its responsibility to Indian Country under treaties and other acts.

“Sen. Tester is deeply concerned that a former official was hired to investigate conduct that occurred under his own watch and believes the BIA needs to act with complete transparency about the investigation and its findings,” a spokeswoman for Tester, Sarah Feldman, said in a statement.

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The review focused on the fairness and effectiveness of investigations of in-custody deaths, Newland said.

The more than two dozen reforms — some of which have have been put in place already — include policy changes to enable investigators to respond more quickly to in-custody deaths and report about those investigations monthly to the Office of Justice Services. Other reforms focus on training, and working with other federal agencies to define the roles of investigators and on healthcare.

NPR reported on the Cruzan contract earlier this month and published its investigative story last June on deaths in tribal jails, though it put the number of deaths at 19 from 2016 and 2020.

The media outlet said poor staff training and neglect led to several inmates' deaths. NPR also found violations of federal policy that meant correctional staff didn't check on inmates in a timely manner, and about one-fifth of correctional officers hadn't completed required basic training.

Government watchdog groups, congressional testimony and other advocates have raised similar concerns for years.

While the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn't release the review report that led to the reforms, NPR obtained a copy.

The 127-page report found evidence of employee misconduct, falsified reports and shoddy investigations by the BIA and the FBI — two federal agencies that respond to crime on tribal land, NPR reported.

The review also found that some employees in tribal jails weren't properly trained and lacked supervision.

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