Navajo jails
Criminals at Navajo holding facilities like this one in Kayenta, Ariz., are usually released within a day of being booked. Kayenta and two other towns will get new jails next year, thanks to a grant from the Justice Department. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times / October 26, 2009)

Reporting from Tuba City, Ariz. - More than 50,000 people are arrested across the Navajo reservation each year -- yet there are only 59 jail beds here.

Officials say the lack of jail space has led to a revolving door for criminals, most of whom are released within a day of being booked, and few of whom serve out an entire sentence.

"It's been a horrendous situation," said Hope MacDonald-Lonetree, a Navajo council delegate. "You can't assure the safety of the police and judges and the prosecutors when you have the perpetrators running around. And it affects the courts because people aren't willing to be witnesses."

Tribal leaders are hoping that may change soon, thanks to a $224-million Justice Department stimulus grant that has been set aside to build and repair jails on Indian land. The Navajo Nation, the country's largest tribe, received the biggest share of the money -- more than $74 million for the construction of three new jails.

The jails will add 144 beds to the Navajo reservation and will house alcohol counseling programs to help curb the high rate of repeat alcohol-related arrests, which corrections officials say is the main cause of overcrowding.

The money comes after years of unsuccessful Navajo lobbying for more federal help with law and order.

The federal government is required to fund jails on reservations as part of its trust responsibility to the nation's tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs pays to run jails on Indian land, and the Justice Department pays to build them.

But the BIA has a bad track record with tribal jails -- a 2004 Interior Department Inspector General report of Indian detention facilities found that some "were egregiously unsafe, unsanitary, and a hazard to both inmates and staff alike."

The Justice Department has for the last several years had an annual budget of less than $10 million to construct facilities and fund repairs for the 80 or so existing jails on reservations across the country.

Indian advocates say overcrowded and underfunded tribal jails have contributed to disproportionately high rates of crime in Indian country. According to a Justice Department survey, Indians experience almost twice as much violence as the rest of America.

On the Navajo reservation, which straddles 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, tribal officials say gang activity is at an all-time high, and chronic alcoholism and substance abuse have helped make domestic violence and drunk driving common. (these can be treated with things other than prison)

There have been no jail facilities constructed here since a juvenile facility was built in the 1980s.

Two years ago, two of the tribe's main jails were condemned and closed, leaving just three jails, in the towns of Shiprock, Window Rock and Crownpoint. Those facilities -- cinder-block structures built in the 1950s and 1960s -- are barely habitable, corrections officials say, and are so overcrowded that jail workers are frequently forced to release prisoners early to make room for new ones.

"We're always playing musical chairs -- or musical jail beds," said Delores Greyeyes, who heads the Navajo Nation Department of Corrections. "We just pump [prisoners] through."

Navajo courts are responsible for prosecuting only misdemeanor crimes -- such as burglary, battery and drunk driving -- and the maximum punishment for a conviction is one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Inmates accused of committing felonies are transferred to prisons off the reservation and are prosecuted federally.

Peterson Wilson, the prosecutor for the Tuba City District, one of nine judicial districts on the Navajo Nation, said, "A lot of crimes go unreported because there's an impression that we won't hold the criminal." And prosecutors and judges are disinclined to push for harsh sentences when they know there's no place to house criminals, he said.

He hopes the new jails, which will be built next year in Tuba City; Kayenta, Ariz.; and Ramah, N.M., will help fix that.

Tuba City, the biggest town on the reservation, received the largest single Justice Department grant -- $38 million for a 62-bed jail. It will offer inmates mental health and alcohol rehabilitation counseling.

Although alcohol is illegal on the Navajo Nation, alcoholism is widespread, and the vast majority of inmates are booked for public intoxication. Jails have become a catch-all for people who need help, McDonald-Lonetree said. She hopes the rehab programs will help stop that.

"We don't want to have to build another 100-bed facility in the future. We don't want to go into the business of warehousing individuals like the rest of America does," she said. "We want to rehabilitate people."