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Indian Country Gets Stimulus Money ... to Build More Jails

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Department of Justice, through the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has brought stimulus money to Indian reservations – awarding $224 million to build and renovate tribal jails. The funding comes after years of unsuccessful lobbying efforts by Native American leaders.

The Justice Department is responsible for building detention facilities on land overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is responsible for running the facilities as part of its mission to carry out the federal government’s trust responsibility to Native Americans. The jails only house misdemeanants, as felonies are prosecuted in federal court.

The problems faced by tribal officials are many and substantial, and the Navajo Nation, located on a 27,000-square mile reservation that straddles Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, is illustrative.

Navajo officials say they are dealing with record-high gang activity and are battling chronic alcoholism and substance abuse that make domestic violence and drunk driving offenses common. With only 59 jail beds available in the Navajo Nation for almost 56,000 arrestees a year, the tribal jails have revolving doors.

“We’re always playing musical chairs – or musical jails beds,” said Delores Greyeyes, head of the Navajo Nation’s Department of Corrections. “We just pump [prisoners] through.”

It might be a good thing that most prisoners spend only a short time in jail before being released. A 2004 Interior Department Inspector General report found the tribal jails “were egregiously unsafe, unsanitary, and a hazard to both inmates and staff alike,” and that the “BIA’s detention program is riddled with problems ... and is a national disgrace.”

The federal government’s failure to provide sufficient funds for social programs and law enforcement had affected the reservation’s overall atmosphere. “A lot of crimes go unreported because there’s an impression that we won’t hold the criminal [in jail],” said Tuba City, Arizona district prosecutor Peterson Wilson.

“Our message was simple and effective: the lack of detention facilities on the Navajo Nation is creating a public safety emergency for Navajo people and their communities,” explained Raymond Joe, vice chair of the Navajo Nation’s Public Safety Committee, which lobbied Congress for assistance. Federal officials listened, and provided $224 million in funding to tribal governments in September 2009.

Navajo officials plan to build 144 jail beds in Tuba City and Kayenta, Arizona and Ramah, New Mexico with $74 million of the stimulus money. Tuba City, which is constructing a 48-bed jail, intends to offer mental health and alcohol rehabilitation counseling to prisoners.

“We don’t want to build another 100-bed facility in the future. We don’t want to go into the business of warehousing individuals like the rest of America does,” said Navajo Nation council delegate Hope MacDonald Lonetree. “We want to rehabilitate people.”

However, the sad reality of building more jail beds is that they are quickly filled, leading to overcrowded and financially-stressed facilities that tend to cut rehabilitative programs first when operating costs increase. Previously, in July 2008, the U.S. Senate approved $2 billion for Native American public safety and water projects, including $185 million to construct and renovate tribal jails. [See: PLN, Dec. 2008, p.43].

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Navajo Nation Council press release (Sept. 21, 2009),

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