Navajo Nation, dwindling jail space, poor conditions prompt change 5-2-07

CHINLE, Ariz. (AP) - With only about 80 jail beds on the sprawling 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation, authorities increasingly face a quandary when they catch a suspected crook: Who should be locked up and who let go?

The guy who beats up his wife? The drunken driver? The alleged thief?

“But what do you do when you don't have jail bed spaces? It's a revolving door, and it's going faster,” said Dolores Greyeyes, director of the tribe's Department of Corrections.

Last year, police on the reservation made roughly 39,000 misdemeanor arrests. Of those, some 36,000 were released early.

The problem has been exacerbated in recent months. In April, the jail in Chinle was shut down after an electrical fire; late last year, a lockup in Tuba City was condemned.

Three other jails can house inmates long-term, but tribal officials have expressed concern over two of those - Window Rock and Shiprock, N.M. - because of old sewer lines and outdated electrical system. A sixth jail in Kayenta serves only as a temporary holding cell.

At the Tuba City facility, plants have sprung up from between cracks in the floor and light shines in through a hole in the ceiling and through cracks in the walls, said Hope MacDonald LoneTree, chairwoman of the tribal council's Public Safety Committee.

In Window Rock the jail's medical area doesn't have a hand-washing sink. In the men's lockup, a toilet, faucet and shower leak, leaving puddles of water near inmates' beds. Last November, a toilet backed up, creating a layer of sewage that led to a weeklong closure of the jail, said corrections supervisor Barbara Crawford.

At the Crownpoint, N.M., jail, the walls are ridden with cracks and some walls have begun to separate at the corners, said Samson Cowboy, director of public safety.

By law, the Navajo tribal jails hold only people arrested for misdemeanors; those suspected of more serious crimes are sent off the reservation to state or federal prisons.

In January, the Tribal Council approved a 1 percent increase in sales tax on the Navajo Nation that will go toward funding judicial and public safety facilities. It's expected to generate up to $4 million a year, but relying solely on that income would mean a new jail facility is at least 12 years away, said Kee Allen Begay, chairman of the tribal council's Judiciary Committee.

Meanwhile, Begay and other tribal officials have been lobbying Congress for funding to build the facilities.

MacDonald has made two trips to Washington, D.C., in the past two weeks, testifying on what she calls a “horrendous situation” on the Navajo Nation. She is seeking $2.2 million in emergency funding from Congress that would cover temporary repairs, overtime and mileage costs to transport inmates to other facilities, and the leasing of bed spaces at off-reservation jails.

MacDonald said other tribes also are lobbying in Washington for funding for detention facilities.

“For many tribes, this is their top priority,” she said.

On the Navajo Nation, if tribal officials find the money, they would build 13 facilities - five large, three medium, four small and one rehabilitation center - at a cost of $372.7 million.

For now, some inmates are being transported to off-reservation jails in New Mexico and Arizona, and to the already crowded Window Rock, Shiprock and Crownpoint lockups.

Chris Chaney, deputy director of the BIA's Office of Justice Services, said the agency has offered to contract with McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico to provide 10 bed spaces for the Navajo Nation at the county's detention center.

Chaney said the BIA has hired an independent contractor to inspect jails across Indian Country and will work with tribes over the next 18 months to come up with a long-range plan for new jails.

“There are serious needs for detention programs across the United States in Indian Country,” Chaney said. “There's a very urgent need to come up with a plan that makes sense, not just for the next year or the year after, but what makes sense 10, 20 even 40 years later.”

The Navajo Nation receives funding from the BIA for corrections staffing, but the bureau does not provide construction, operations or maintenance funds because the jails are tribally owned.

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the tribal council to approve bond initiatives to pay for new jails, courts and police stations.

As for concern about criminals being released early, “I don't think the public really needs to worry about that. If we really need to contain somebody, we have facilities to put them in,” Shirley said, referring to off-reservation lockups.

“The preference is, of course, we need to have them in our own jails,” he said, “but we're working very diligently to do just that.”

One day last month, the Shiprock jail was over capacity by 18, Crownpoint by 4 and Window Rock by 17. It's not unheard of for three girls to be placed in one solitary confinement unit at Window Rock - with two sleeping on the floor and one on the bench, Crawford said.

The number of inmates is regulated by a consent decree issued by a Navajo district court judge in 1992. Under the decree, each inmate must be allowed 50 square feet of space in holding cells and 15 square feet in drunk tanks. It came as the result of complaints of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and access to health care.

During sentencing, judges have to weigh the seriousness of the charges individuals face and consider what jail space will allow, said Mabel Henderson, program supervisor with the Corrections Department.

“Sometimes the court will look at the cases, and they say, 'OK, we need bed spaces for more major offenses,' so all the minor charges are, at that point, released,” Henderson said. “...They've seen a lot of these people that have been charged over and over that have come before their court, but they just can't house them.”

In addition, the staffing levels aren't adequate to properly monitor all inmates, Henderson said.

“We're supposed to have a ratio of one to 10, but a majority of the time, there's only one staff (member) per shift,” she said.

A September 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Interior inspector general found that 79 percent of detention facilities across Indian Country regularly fell below minimum staffing levels. The department looked at 27 facilities, including some on the Navajo Nation.

Cowboy said he believes the Navajo jails never were meant to house many criminals because people were supposed to follow the principle known as “k'e” - maintaining relationships through kinship and having respect for oneself and others.

But Cowboy said the culture has changed, and there is more crime.

“The whole Navajo Nation is denying we have an issue here, a whole societal issue,” he said.