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
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
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
“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
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
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.