Pulitzer Center grantee Nate Hegyi was a winner in the 2022 Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) National Native Media Awards. His reporting with Cheryl W. Thompson for the article “Indian Affairs Promised To Reform Tribal Jails. We Found Death, Neglect and Disrepair” won first place for Best Coverage of Native America in the radio/podcast category.
NAJA is a community-based nonprofit organization that “serves and empowers Native journalists through programs and actions designed to enrich journalism and promote Native cultures.” According to NAJA’s website, the annual awards competition “recognizes excellence in reporting by Indigenous and non-Indigenous journalists across the U.S. and Canada.”
"I'm deeply honored to win this award. This story would not have happened without the help of dozens of bereaved family members who had the courage to speak about what happened to their loved ones inside these jails," Hegyi said.
Published by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau, Hegyi’s investigation uncovered that at least 19 people have died in tribal jails under poor conditions and negligence since 2016. It also found that federal officials from the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), who oversee these jails, have been aware of these problems for years.
As early as 2004, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard testimony that the conditions in these detention centers were a “national disgrace” and received evidence of over 800 serious incidents, 98% of which were never reported to top officials. Congress pledged to take action. A 2011 follow-up investigation found that the BIA did not use the new funding as intended. As of 2021, problems still persisted: 42% of correctional facilities were understaffed, one in five correctional officers had not completed the required basic training, and facilities lacked essential resources like heat and clean drinking water.
"The federal government has chosen to ignore their legal obligation to provide appropriate staffing and programming in the form of medical care inside tribal jails," tribal advocacy lawyer Brandy Tomhave said in the award-winning article. "That decision has gotten people killed."
At the time of the article’s writing, Interior Department officials told NPR that they planned to contract with an outside agency to revisit the issues at the jails. The contract for this review was then given to one of the Department’s own former top officials, sparking concern among lawmakers. The review was completed in December 2021, but not released publicly; it revealed systematic neglect, according to E&E News, which obtained the report through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In February 2022, citing “concerning reports about the treatment of incarcerated individuals,” the BIA announced a series of reform efforts focusing on in-custody deaths investigations.
In a Behind the Story profile with the Pulitzer Center in 2021, Hegyi explained why tribal jails are an underreported issue: “We're dealing with folks who are entered in correctional facilities and in America, in the hierarchy of people we care about, inmates are oftentimes very much at the bottom,” he said. “Minority inmates, specifically Indigenous inmates, are way at the bottom. So while the federal government has known about this problem for years, it just doesn't get a lot of media attention.”
Hegyi’s investigation team was able to help find answers for families mourning the loss of their loved ones who died in tribal jails. “Every family that I spoke with really wanted to tell the story of their loved one and who they were before they passed away,” he said. “They also really wanted to know details. We filed multiple public records requests to get these documents from these jails, which showed exactly how someone died and which federal policies were violated.”
Hegyi says if readers should take away one message from his story, it’s that tribal jails need more trained health care providers on-site to prevent further needless deaths. Unfortunately, resources in jails come down to lack of funding, and the public needs to keep pushing the federal government for accountability.
“This story isn't surprising, right?” he asked rhetorically. “There's an expectation that the federal government is going to mistreat tribal members and there's a long history of a pattern of that and this fits right into that mold.”
In a panel discussion in November, 2021, Chris Yazzie, whose brother Carlos passed away in a tribal jail, spoke to the impact of Hegyi’s reporting and increased awareness of the problem: “I’m praying his death won’t be in vain, but will possibly be a platform that can be used [to] help people survive another day,” he said.