Navajos Struggle with Jail Bed Shortage

Chinle, AZ – Host intro:

It's something most Americans take for granted; when someone's convicted of a crime, they go to jail. That's often not the case, though, on the Navajo reservation. Convicted criminals on the country's largest Indian reservation typically are released less than a week after they're incarcerated. Now the problem has gotten even worse, as Daniel Kraker reports from KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau.

SFX1: sneak up sound of dispatch, office
In Chinle, Arizona, smack in the middle of the enormous Navajo reservation, sergeant Dean Hadley steps into police headquarters; literally a closet at the local community center.

AX1 Hadley: see how congested it is? Pause You know, we're in dire need here.

SFX2: post a couple seconds dispatch ambi in the clear here, then duck back under track

Last month an electrical fire shut down the 50 year old police station and jail here in this dusty rez town of about 5 thousand people. The station moved into this makeshift closet, where there's only room for a couple desks. Sergeant Hadley now works out of the cab of his pickup.

SFX3: sneak up sound of Begay punching at keyboard

Officers like Curven Begay, who's punching in a report at the station's one computer, are processing arrestees between police cars and detention vans in the parking lot outside the local fire station. Begay says they sometimes have to wait for hours.

AX3 Begay: just babysitting while we should be out there helping our community helping our people serving our people.

Prisoners are driven to the closest jail, over an hour away in the tribal capital of Window Rock. But there are only 20 jail beds there, and now only 59 on the entire reservation. Most newly arrested inmates are released within eight hours. Of the 40 thousand criminals booked into tribal jails last year, not one served their entire sentence. The federal government does prosecute felony cases on the reservation, but some dangerous criminals have been released.

AX4 Lonetree: There was this specific case where an individual was arrested once for battery, and he had to be let go because there wasn't any space.

Hope MacDonald Lonetree chairs the Navajo Nation Council's public safety committee.

AX5 He was arrested a second time just a few days later, he had to be released there was no space, the third time he was picked up, it was because his wife was so severely beaten by him she was flown to Phoenix to the trauma center there.

Local and state governments from California to Georgia are coping with jail bed shortages. Arizona's state prisons are so overcrowded they're on the verge of sending more inmates out of state. But the problem is especially severe on the Navajo Nation and other Indian reservations, where many jails were built nearly a half century ago. The Department of Justice has funded about 20 new jails on other reservations in the past decade. But there's no new funding proposed in next year's budget.

AX6 The crossroads we are at today is looking at what does the future of Indian Country detention programs hold.

Chris Chaney directs the office of justice services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington.

AX7 We don't want to throw out any band-aids out there that are going to tide things over on one or two reservations for three or four years. We want to develop a national strategy that will be of benefit to tribal corrections programs for 10, 20 even 40 years into the future.

Chaney says the BIA is helping with short term fixes as well. The Bureau is renting 10 beds for the Navajo Nation in an off-reservation jail in Gallup, New Mexico. Coconino County sheriff Bill Pribl believes a long-term strategy could include regional partnerships between tribes and counties.

AX8 It might be more conducive to add 200, 300 beds to this facility and partner with the tribe, or BIA to provide more bed space, and then to put short term holding facilities out on the rez, that they can feed into..

Coconino County recently opened a 550 bed jail. That's nearly ten times the beds on the Navajo Nation, to serve a much smaller population. Pribl says the county is fortunate that voters narrowly approved a tax increase to fund the new facility.

AX9 Had we not passed the jail district tax back in 96, we would be virtually in the same position that the Navajo tribe is now, we were at that time finding ways to get people out of jail rather than in jail.

Which is exactly the situation the Navajo Nation finds itself in now. To try to reverse that, Hope MacDonald Lonetree says the tribe recently increased its sales tax by one percent to help pay for new jails.

AX8 Lonetree: We're talking about an impoverished nation, I mean that's how much of a priority the council and the people felt the state of affairs was for detention that they were willing to tax themselves and use that money to build the facilities.

The tax hike will raise about four million dollars a year. At that rate it will take nearly a century to add the 750 jail beds the Navajo Nation is hoping for. They're hoping to make that happen much sooner, with help from the federal government.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Chinle, on the Navajo Nation.