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New Navajo jail faces staffing shortage

TUBA CITY, Ariz. (AP) — An Arizona tribe that has long struggled with tiny, rundown jails is unveiling a new adult detention center Friday, but it won’t immediately begin filling with inmates.

The new 132-bed lockup in Tuba City on the Navajo reservation instead will open in phases because the tribe lacks enough money to fully staff it, said tribal corrections director Delores Greyeyes. The tribe is looking for a solution that includes searching within its own programs for funding and asking the federal government for help. Greyeyes couldn’t say Thursday exactly how much the tribe needs.

The Navajo Nation’s Division of Public Safety received more than $38 million in stimulus funds for the facility that also will house the district court and law enforcement. The award was 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, partly from an increase in the tribe’s sales tax in 2007.

Tribal spokesman Erny Zah said tribal officials were so focused on securing funding for the building that the staffing issue was overlooked.

“In there, some oversight was not enough time was given to looking at how the buildings would be manned once they were completed,” he said. “What’s worse than having a completed building that’s unmanned is an incomplete building that can’t be manned in the first place.”

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.

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 Tuba City corrections supervisor Lt. Robbin 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 facility and others under construction are expected to ease jail woes across the reservation. Preston and others say they’re hopeful repeat offenders and the public no longer will see the corrections system as a revolving door that allows for few inmates to serve out a full sentence.

“I hope (this) would put a little bit more accountability on them for the laws they break, knowing we have a long-term facility to hold them,” Preston said. “I think it’s going to take individuals to spend some time in this environment.”

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.

The Navajo Nation operates its correctional system through a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. An agency spokeswoman did not respond to requests for information on how much money is provided to the tribe and whether it will increase with the opening of new jails across the reservation.

Another jail in Crownpoint on the New Mexico side of the reservation is expected to open next month. Tribal officials have plans for others in Pinon, Dilkon, Kayenta and Fort Defiance in Arizona, and in Shiprock and Ramah in New Mexico, Greyeyes said.

Tribal officials have said the reservation’ 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.

The new Tuba City jail will be the largest and eventually include services for alcohol and drug abuse, traditional healing and GED certificates. By law, the tribe can hold people for up to a year on misdemeanor charges and impose a fine of up to $5,000. The federal government can prosecute those suspected of more serious crimes and send them to federal prison if they’re convicted.

“Now, are we going to change the behavior they’ve been living over these years? No,” Preston said. “But I’m hoping we’ll open the eyes of some individuals to know they can change.”

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