Updated Feb 15, 2013 - 6:38 pm
New Navajo Nation jail faces staffing shortage
TUBA CITY, Ariz. -- The Navajo Nation opened a new jail Friday designed to ease a chronic shortage of jail beds that frequently results in people spending little, if any, time behind bars on the country's largest Indian reservation.
The four-story facility in Tuba City nearly triples the amount of beds available across the reservation, but the public celebration over the expansion didn't specifically mention the fact that tribal officials still don't have the money to fully staff the jail.
The $58 million jail will open in phases while the tribe largely looks to the federal government for help, said tribal corrections director Delores Greyeyes. She couldn't say Friday how much the tribe needs but noted that funding provided under contract by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs isn't enough.
``Navajo has never had the money,'' she said.
The Navajo Nation has a population of 300,000 people, more than half of whom live on the 27,000 square-mile reservation that stretches across three states. But the tribe has struggled with only 50 jail beds, which results in people rarely spending more than a few hours in jail, even for offenses such as breaking-and-entering and assault.
The tribe's Division of Public Safety received more than $38 million in stimulus funds for the jail- one of at least 70 across Indian Country to build or renovate correctional facilities that often are overcrowded and unsafe. The tribe chipped in nearly $20 million from a loan and an increase in its sales tax.
Tribal spokesman Erny Zah said officials were so focused on securing funding for the building that the staffing issue was overlooked. He said ``not enough time was given to looking at how the buildings would be manned once they were completed.''
Tribal officials have said the reservation's lack of jail space has promoted a culture of fear. 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.
John Billison, director of public safety for the tribe, said his 250 officers repeatedly arrest the same people when responding to calls that overwhelmingly are alcohol-related.
``They don't have a choice to be judge and jury out in the field,'' he said. ``The law says you have to arrest them and take them in. More than likely, you're going to be going back to the same house 10 hours later.''
Tuba City corrections supervisor Lt. Robbin Preston and others say they're hopeful repeat offenders and the public will no longer see the corrections system as a revolving door that allows for few inmates to serve out a full sentence. The Tuba City lockup is the first of many jails planned for the reservation.
The former Tuba City jail was condemned years ago after receiving multiple environmental citations- plants had sprung up between cracks in the floor, and light was shining through walls and a hole in the ceiling. Other jails on the reservation have suffered from electrical problems, health code violations, poor living conditions and overcrowding, which meant that only 50 bed spaces were available on the reservation.
The tribe set up four modular buildings in Tuba City to temporarily hold people brought in on charges such as public intoxication and breaking-and-entering, said Preston. Those convicted of more serious misdemeanor crimes had to be transported to jails elsewhere on the reservation, which took three hours or more to reach.
The new jail has minimum- to maximum-security cells, basketball courts, temporary holding cells, classrooms, and space to provide services such as alcohol and drug abuse treatment. It will be the largest on the reservation and eventually include services for alcohol and drug abuse, traditional healing and GED certificates.
By law, the tribe can sentence American Indians for up to a year on misdemeanor charges and impose a maximum fine of $5,000 but does not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. The federal government can prosecute those suspected of more serious crimes on reservations, if the suspect, victim or both are American Indian.
Preston said he has about 22 correctional officers for the juvenile and adult facilities in Tuba City but needs about 90 between the two. He said some vacancies are expected to be filled in the next couple of months as the tribe works with a workforce development group that is paying to have people trained at the jails. Full staffing of 155 people would also include maintenance workers, cooks and office assistants.
Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the agency provided $3.3 million to the Navajo Nation to operate its adult and juvenile programs in Tuba City in fiscal year 2012. She estimated that another $1.6 million would be available in fiscal year 2013 and in subsequent years for staffing of the Tuba City facility, which Greyeyes said wasn't adequate.
The Associated Press asked tribal officials for specifics on the number of arrests that law enforcement officers make each year, the number of people booked into tribal jails annually and funding for the Tuba City jail, giving them at least 10 days to respond. Greyeyes provided a spreadsheet with figures for needed jail staff Thursday but would not clarify Friday whether the figures pertained to only the Tuba City jail or other planned facilities, saying they didn't reflect the most recent estimate.