Over 2 Decades of a Flawed Criminal Justice System
ALBUQUERQUE N.M. —
It has been 25 years since the Navajo Nation was forced to close all its jails because they were deemed “not fit for human occupants” – yet the problems persist.
To this day, flaws in the systems include transportation problems, serious maintenance issues, a lack of funding, and a shortage of corrections officers.
“It really starts with not having enough police officers. Not having enough prosecutors. Not having enough judges,” Dolores Greyeyes, the director of the Navajo Nation Department of Corrections said in a phone interview. “You can see that the whole criminal justice system is inadequately funded…The nation needs to step up. The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] needs to step up, in order to curb crime,” she said.
1992: “A Failure of the Criminal Justice System”
In 1992, the Navajo Nation courts ordered the closure of all its jail facilities that were built in the 50s. Federal health inspectors deemed the jails “health hazards” and “not fit for human occupants” because of the deteriorated conditions of the buildings.
The Navajo Nation then entered an unfunded consent decree with the Department of Interior to update its facilities. However, the problem has continued for the last two decades because of lack of funding or cooperation from the federal government.
According to former council delegate and former chairwoman of the Navajo Nation Committee for Public Safety, Hope MacDonald-Lonetree, many of the jail facilities on the Navajo Nation periodically closed because of the “deplorable conditions.”
Facility closures required corrections officers to transfer inmates to another facility, which would be overcrowded, and then inmates would be released, according to MacDonald-Lonetree.
“Because of that, people in the community didn’t take public safety or law and order seriously. They knew if you committed a crime, there wasn’t a place to put you,” MacDonald-Lonetree said in a phone interview. “It was, not just a crisis of the jails, but a crisis of public safety and criminal justice, and a failure of the criminal justice system.”
The Navajo Nation reservation is 27,000 square miles across three states and is home to 150,000 people. The tribe arrests between 34,000 and 38,000 people annually. In the early 2000s, the tribal government only had 103 jail beds.
In March 2007, the total number of jail beds for the Navajo Nation dipped to only 82, even though crime on the reservation was on the rise because of methamphetamine use and poverty. By April 2007, the number of beds dropped to 59 after the closure of the Chinle facility in Arizona.
During a 2004 hearing, the tribe asked the federal government for $140 million to renovate and adequately run the jail facilities on the reservation. Currently, the Navajo Nation Department of Corrections runs six districts—Chinle, AZ; Tuba City, AZ; Kayenta, AZ; Window Rock, AZ; Shiprock, NM and Crownpoint, NM—with a $4 million dollar budget. This budget excludes juvenile facilities on the Navajo Nation.
2017: “The Nation needs to step up.”
With the current budget, the department cannot run the facilities at full capacity. Right now, the newly renovated Crownpoint has 42 beds, with an additional 20 beds for temporary holds for public intoxication. However, the jail can only employ 31 corrections officers with four support staff.
“The current amount, the $4 million for adults, 100 percent of it goes to personnel,” Dolores Greyeyes, the director of the Navajo Nation Department of Corrections, said.
According to Greyeyes, Crownpoint needs an additional 33 corrections officers to cover the three shifts required each day.
The shortage of corrections officers means the jail cannot run at full capacity. In order to meet the national standards, Crownpoint has been taking corrections officers from the juvenile facility to cover the adult facility.
Since the beginning of 2017, 40 inmates had to be moved from the unrenovated Shiprock facility to the new jail facility in Kayenta, AZ, which is over 100 miles away.
This leads to a shortage of corrections officers because it takes about six hours for inmates to be taken from one facility to the other. Transfers require officers to prepare for inmates to be moved, drive to Kayenta, AZ, and rebook inmates at the new facility.
“By the time Shiprock leaves, there is really no one in there, except one officer that is posted only for incoming inmates,” said Delvert Largo, the sergeant for Navajo Nation Department of Corrections.
Moving inmates from Shiprock to Kayenta has been due to maintenance problems with the building. Earlier this year, there was a gas leak that caused 23 inmates to be transported to the Kayenta facility.
“We get $700 thousand from the Navajo Nation under general funds and that we use for general operating supplies which is buying food, doing repairs, a lot of the miscellaneous,” Greyeyes said. This amount from the Navajo Nation covers all six adult facilities.
“The inmates have to be fed three nutritious meals a day. And then there is inmate clothing, their hygiene supplies. We have to supply all of that,” Juanita Begay, the principal accountant for the Navajo Nation Department of Corrections, said.
This year the Navajo Nation Department of Corrections saw a one-percent decrease in their general fund which provides food and basic necessities for people incarcerated at the Navajo Nation jail facilities.
“With the new administration, at the Washington level, what is going to happen next year? Personally that is my concern,” Begay said.