At least 19 people have died in tribal jails overseen by the federal government since 2016, according to an investigation by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau. As part of our ongoing coverage of mistreatment of inmates on reservations, the bureau is highlighting some of the victims and the circumstances around their deaths, which reflect decades of mismanagement, neglect and poor training. You can find more stories here. This series is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
For decades, the Shiprock Detention Center in the northeastern part of the Navajo Nation has been deteriorating.
The plumbing is rusty. There’s a mold problem in the kitchen and the boiler room. Combined with a faulty ventilation system, that all leads to an unpleasant smell.
“Kind of a mix of sulphur, rust and some kind of sewer smell. Oh my God, I’ve been sick coming in here,” says Delores Greyeyes, head of the Navajo Nation’s Department of Corrections, while leading a tour of the 62-year-old building in northwest New Mexico.
Greyeyes’ voice echoes off the concrete floors and walls, which are cracked in places and covered with chipping blue and pink paint. In each room, she points to a different structural problem or safety hazard: leaky pipes, exposed electrical wires, outdated cell bars that pose a suicide risk.
“These bars have probably been here since the building’s inception. And look, anyone can just wrap something over, jump down and hang themselves,” she says.
The ventilation issues also prevent staff from regulating the temperature of the building. At times, the jail has lacked potable drinking water and staff had to turn to charities for donations of bottled water for inmates to drink.
Funding for this jail comes from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees more than 70 tribal jails across the country as part of the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribal nations. But Greyeyes says the agency provides her department with less than half of what it needs to run the Navajo Nation’s correctional system.
“Our need is probably between $14 and $16 million to run the six adult facilities [on Navajo Nation,] but we get $6 million a year,” Greyeyes said. “It’s a constant battle, continuously vying for money.”
For years, Greyeyes says her requests for increased funding to address problems at the Shiprock jail have gone unfulfilled. In March, her department closed the Shiprock jail, citing unsafe conditions.
Greyeyes believes the facility is beyond repair, and that the Bureau of Indian Affairs needs to fund the construction of a new jail in Shiprock. But she’s not holding her breath.
'No broken ground, only broken promises'
About 150 miles southwest of Shiprock, the Hopi Reservation has been without a correctional facility since the Bureau of Indian Affairs condemned its jail in 2016.
Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma testified during a congressional hearing in February that the tribe keeps hitting brick walls as it tries to solve the problem.
“We fought for funding to replace the facility, which was secured [from the Department of the Interior] in 2017. However, since that time there’s been no broken ground, only broken promises,” Nuvangyaoma said, explaining that the department still has not hired a contractor to begin construction.
In the five years that it’s been without a jail, Nuvangyaoma said the Hopi community has not been truly safe.
“Law enforcement have to transport prisoners to jails 80 miles away, which takes officers off the reservation for several hours,” Nuvangyaoma said.
In his written testimony, Nuvangyaoma said criminals are aware that they’re less likely to be incarcerated for petty crimes on the reservation and have been “emboldened” by the situation.
“The tribe requested assistance from BIA headquarters and Congress. But things continued to get worse,” he said.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has been facing the same problem since its jail in Lame Deer, Montana, was closed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in early 2020. Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines have joined the tribe in calling for the jail to be re-opened.
“The federal government has the responsibility to ensure public safety in Indian Country, but time and again the Bureau of Indian Affairs has failed to live up to that responsibility,” Sen. Tester wrote in a press release. “I’m going to keep BIA’s feet to the fire until the Northern Cheyenne Tribe receives the adequate public safety resources and control over law enforcement services it needs to keep families safe and the community secure.”
In Shiprock, with the jail closed, inmates need to be driven more than 100 miles south to be booked into the Navajo Nation’s Crownpoint correctional center. Greyeyes says that long drive poses challenges, but that many inmates are likely glad to be transported here.
The Crownpoint jail was built in 2013. It’s clean and well-ventilated with modern safety features and an advanced security system. Inmates have access to a well-stocked library, educational programs, and a gymnasium and outdoor recreation area for exercise.
“This is what we want to be able to provide the people that come to stay with us,” Greyeyes said. “I can't say enough about how the new facilities really make the environment different for the inmates that come in through the facility.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t build this jail. The Navajo Nation did after the old Crownpoint facility fell into disrepair. Greyeyes says the tribe was backed into a corner by years of federal underfunding.
“Our people gave up land, gave up resources to the federal government, and in exchange, the federal government said it would provide us with these services,” Greyeyes said. “What the Navajo Nation tries to do is enforce that treaty responsibility. But we’re getting the crumbs. We’re getting the bare bones.”
Greyeyes sees the Crownpoint facility as a symbol of a tribal corrections system that’s not fundamentally broken, but starved of the funding it’s owed.
After months of repeated written questions and public records requests from NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau, Interior Department officials said they now plan to contract with an outside agency to examine the troubles plaguing tribal detention centers.
"Under Interior's new leadership, we are seeking increased funding and conducting a comprehensive review of law enforcement policies, practices and resources to ensure that BIA detention center staff are adequately trained, that our facilities are upgraded, and that we respect the rights and dignity of those within our system to the fullest extent," BIA Director Darryl LaCounte said in a written statement.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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