For the second time in a year, the Yakama tribal jail is the subject of a federal investigation, this time because of the attempted suicide of a 17-year-old boy who may have been held there in violation of regulations.
TOPPENISH, Wash. — For the second time in a year, the Yakama tribal jail is the subject of a federal investigation, this time because of the attempted suicide of a 17-year-old boy who may have been held there in violation of regulations.
The boy was in satisfactory condition this morning at Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center after jailers found him hanging in a cell last Friday.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs operates detention centers and pays for tribal-run jails.
It was not clear whether the Yakama Nation violated federal regulations by housing the teen in its jail, BIA Special Agent John Oliveira said from Portland. Earlier this year, the BIA ordered tribes to stop housing juveniles in the same facilities as adults.
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“Right now we are going to conduct an investigation and see if proper procedures were followed,” Oliveira said, adding that the FBI also will investigate.
Citing the ongoing investigation, federal and tribal officials wouldn’t say why the youth was arrested, or how long he had been in the jail.
Tribal Council Vice Chairman Virgil Lewis said a plan to contract with Yakima County fell through over costs, and the tribe has no other place to detain juveniles.
“What are we to do?” Lewis asked. “It’s a very difficult situation; somehow we are going to have to find a way to house our juveniles.”
The tribe has operated the jail since the late 1960s, but the BIA could take over operation if the tribe isn’t meeting federal requirements, said Davis Washines, Tribal Council chairman and former tribal police chief.
The attempted suicide last week came on the heels of an earlier investigation after an inmate hanged himself in June. The earlier death prompted a critical report of all Indian jails by the Interior Department’s inspector general.
The Yakama lockup was highlighted in the report, which tribal officials called unfair.
Ricky Owens Sampson, 39, used a towel to hang himself from a broken light fixture on June 25. His body was not discovered for eight hours because the jail was staffed by only one person, who also was serving as a dispatcher.
Friday’s attempted suicide had tribal police and some tribal officials pondering whether to temporarily close the jail, Lewis said, adding that officials were awaiting a full report.
Sampson’s family is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the BIA.
Because of funding constraints, the jail is staffed by only two jailers who double as dispatch officers each shift, Washines said.
“I do think we need to look internally and see where we need to make improvements,” he said.
The jail has to compete for scarce funding with about 70 others, with grants usually going to the most needy jails, he said.
Despite the harsh federal report in September, another BIA report gave the Yakama jail an average grade compared with tribal jails throughout the country, Washines said.
The last time the tribe applied for extra funding for the jail, the Yakama Nation ranked No. 25 of 50 applicants, and only the top 10 received additional money, he said.