Lacking jails, Navajo get boost from stimulus funds

By Felicia Fonseca
Tuba City, Arizona (AP) 10-09

The empty dirt lot between the court building and the police station here is a big reason authorities say criminals on the western side of the Navajo Nation have little fear of jail time.

A lockup that used to stand there has been demolished, and four temporary holding cells nearby mean inmates are in and out in 8 hours or less. With millions of dollars in stimulus funds on its way for new jails, that lot won’t be so empty in a few years and tribal officials are hopeful scofflaws will have a change of attitude.

“It’s hard to have a strong judicial system and have people respect law and order without the basic component of law and order, and that is a place to remove individuals,” said Hope MacDonald LoneTree, who sits on the Tribal Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Police and corrections officials on the vast Navajo Nation have long struggled with tiny, run-down jails that meant virtually none of the more than 56,000 people booked last year served anywhere near their full sentence.

By law, Navajo tribal jails hold only people arrested for misdemeanor crimes that carry a maximum sentence of one year; those suspected of more serious crimes are sent off the reservation to state or federal prisons.

The 59 jail beds in three lockups in Window Rock, and Crownpoint and Shiprock on the New Mexico side of the reservation are nearly always are full. Jails in Chinle, Kayenta and Tuba City have only holding cells.

For each new prisoner brought into the jails, another must be released. Jail overcrowding becomes a problem particularly during tribal fairs and the New Year, when inmates must be cleared out in bulk to make way for new arrests.

The $74 million in stimulus funds for the tribe announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Justice will go to new correctional facilities in Tuba City, Kayenta and Ramah, N.M., adding about 100 jail spaces.

Tribal lawmakers days later were considering a $60 million loan to finance other much-needed jails on the reservation. A master plan calls for 13 projects, including courts, detention and a rehabilitation center.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. has unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Tribal Council in previous years to approve bond initiatives to pay for such facilities.


Tuba City will be the largest of the new jails with 48 bed spaces, eliminating the need to transport inmates to the tribal capital of Window Rock some 155 miles away. New offices for probation, prosecutors, the police department, and incorporating treatment options to reduce recidivism are planned.

“Right now people just laugh because we don’t have the facility,” said Tuba City corrections supervisor Barbara Johnson. “But once the facility goes up, hopefully they will have a change of attitude. If they break the law, welcome to our hotel.”

Tuba City police Lieutenant Clifton Smith, who oversees 30 officers, said criminals well know the tribe lacks jail space and practically dare officers to arrest them.

Almost daily, Smith said a single person can be arrested, released and re-arrested the same day. He’s gotten to know many of the repeat offenders by height, weight and date of birth.

Tribal officials say the lack of jail space also has promoted a culture of fear in the community in which victims won’t report crimes and witnesses won’t testify. Police officers are attacked more often, prosecutors take cases to court uncertain of whether any punishment will result and judges must weigh the available jail space against the severity of the crime.

“It makes me a hypocrite when I say that’s my motto, ‘to protect and serve,’ when we can’t do that because there are no jails,” Smith said. “Everything is pretty much decriminalized on the Navajo Nation.”

Tribal officials have wrangled with how to ease the jail woes on the reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah for years, approaching the Tribal Council, Congress and state governments for funding.

The problem worsened when an electrical fire caused the shutdown of the Chinle jail and the Tuba City lockup was condemned after receiving multiple environmental citations.

Delores Greyeyes, director of the tribe’s Department of Corrections, said groundbreaking on the new jails should occur within 18 months and construction completed within four years. For now, she said, booking and releasing criminals will continue to be a juggling act.

“But at least we do this with an end in mind that we will in several months not have to do that anymore,” she said. “And I think that’s a relief to our law enforcement and corrections officers.”