Washington Interior Department officials say they believe that several recent deaths in American Indian prisons are the result of natural causes and suicide, not alleged abuses and poor conditions that are the subject of an internal investigation.
Dave Anderson, head of the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, dismissed a comparison between the allegations involving American Indian prisons under investigation by Interior's inspector general and the U.S. military's mistreatment of Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison.
"I don't think there's any comparison at all," said Anderson, who said the number of deaths ranged up to fewer than a dozen.
"From what I understand, it's nothing out of the ordinary compared to what goes on in any other jail system," he said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. "My understanding is that these are all either natural causes or attempted suicide. It isn't because of some type of abuse, from what I understand."
Anderson said the Bush administration moved quickly to deal with any problems once he learned of a BIA-funded investigative videotape of the prisons prepared by Ed Naranjo, a retired law enforcement official with the bureau.
"This administration has taken this seriously, and we have reacted immediately on the things that were brought to our attention by this tape," he said. "What you have here is nothing out of the ordinary, none of which had been done by guards."
"In any prison environment, you're going to have a certain amount of improprieties," he said. "Those are all things that are being investigated."
Anderson said the videotape came to his attention three weeks after he became BIA administrator on Feb. 2. It showed deteriorating prisons, some more than 30 years old, that had disorganized evidence rooms containing guns, lacked running water or heat and had broken plumbing, he said.
Within a week, Anderson said, BIA created a task force and assigned 100 people to investigate. It also redirected $6.5 million in its budget to immediate repairs on plumbing, windows, locks and other structural problems.
The Interior inspector general, Earl Devaney, is handling the independent investigation into the prison deaths as part of a nationwide look at deteriorating conditions in prisons on tribal lands. The office was tightlipped.
Scott Culver, a senior investigator for Devaney's office, said Friday, "We're conducting an assessment on Indian country jails," but he did not elaborate on the details.