updated 9/21/2004 3:29:23 PM ET 2004-09-21T19:29:23

Indian prisons are “a national disgrace” where 11 people have died and hundreds have escaped or tried to kill themselves the past three years, government officials said Tuesday, likening the conditions to the U.S. military’s mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Earl Devaney, the Interior Department’s inspector general, painted a grim picture for the Senate Finance Committee. His report, capping months of investigation, found at least 11 fatalities, 236 suicide attempts and 632 escapes since the change of administrations in January 2001.

Its release was timed to coincide with the opening Tuesday of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs had 2,080 people in 70 Indian jails, detention centers and other correctional facilities as of mid-2002, according to the latest figures from the Justice Department. One jail in six held twice its recommended maximum of prisoners.

Problems chronicled by Devaney included mixing of juveniles with adults that resulted in the raping of a youth; poorly trained and inadequate numbers of staff; “countless” assaults on detention officers; and broken toilets, showers and sinks.

‘A matter of will’
“I reject the notion that it’s simply a matter of money. I think it’s a matter of will,” he said in answering senators’ questions. Congress has increased BIA’s yearly budget for law enforcement, including prisons and other detention facilities, to $170 million from $95 million five years ago.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Finance Committee, described the events in Iraq as a reminder that the way people are jailed is a measure of the United States’ commitment to human rights.

“I think the IG has it exactly right when he says these jails are a national disgrace,” Grassley said. “The IG notes that the conditions are often worse than those in Third World countries. Once again our government has failed to uphold its responsibilities to Native Americans.”

Grassley, however, called it “not a problem of this administration, or the previous administration — this is a problem of an entrenched bureaucracy that isn’t getting the job done.”

Dave Anderson, the Interior assistant secretary who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said his agency was trying hard to correct long-standing problems. “We are making progress, but recognize a lot more work needs to be done,” he said.

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