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50 Years Ago: DNA takes on inhumane conditions at Gallup jail

Fifty years ago, all of the towns bordering the reservation were experiencing major problems with homeless Navajo living in the streets and panhandling to raise enough funds to buy cheap wine or beer.

That much hasn’t changed but what has changed is the way the cities and towns handled the problem. Back then, being found intoxicated in the streets was a crime and it could result in a jail sentence of anywhere from a month to three months.

While all of the towns around the reservation had a problem, the one that appears to have been affected the most was Gallup, primarily because it was the town that was the most popular for shopping by tribal members who would come by car or wagon and who would camp out for a day or two while they did their weekly or monthly shopping.

More than a hundred drunks were arrested every weekend and thrown into the city’s drunk tank.

Photographs of the drunk tank during those days showed bodies piled in top of each other in a jail cell surrounded by vomit and urine. Persons who were arrested would be taken before the magistrate judge the next day or on Monday if arrested on the weekend.

The courts had a policy of requiring individuals who had been picked up multiple times in a month, usually three or five, to go through alcohol rehabilitation.

The persons who were arrested in Gallup complained of the bad treatment to attorneys for DNA who spent most of 1969 preparing a class action lawsuit to get the practice stopped. On Feb. 10, 1970, DNA filed two lawsuits in federal court in Albuquerque to stop police from arresting people for being drunk on the street.

One suit asked for a stop of the practice and the other called for the release of all prisoners in the Gallup jail who were serving sentences for being drunk walking the streets. The lawsuit called the incarceration of the drunks “cruel and unusual.”

Gallup city officials were criticized for being more concerned about how the street people hurt the image of the city than they were about the inhumane conditions at the jail. James Fleming, Gallup’s city manger, called the lawsuits “just a last dying grasp in obtaining a little publicity.”

Ted Mitchell, who was the lead attorney for DNA on the matter, denied that the legal aid agency was filing the lawsuit for publicity purposes. “We want to assist these people in attaining and enjoying the constitutional rights everyone in this country has,” he said, adding that one of the main problems the city faces was an old, crumbling jail far too small to handle the amount of arrests being made every weekend.

“We would be pleased to cooperate with city officials in obtaining funds to build a new and larger jail,” he said. “However, as far as we know, it may be a year or more before the city has funds to build a new jail.”

He said DNA could no longer allow the constitutional rights of its clients to be ignored in the hopes that eventually the city would find the funds to build a new jail that would allow those who were arrested to be treated humanely. He said Fleming and other whites who lived in the city would not stand by and allow this kind of behavior if they were treated that way.

The few Anglos who were picked up on weekends for drunken driving were given their own cells. As for Anglos who had homes and who were picked up for public intoxication, the rumors were they would be driven home by police instead of being arrested.

Mitchell added that conditions at the jail should not be tolerated by anyone, no matter their race. “I do recall visiting the jail about three years ago and then again just a few days ago,” Mitchell said. “I was shocked at the amount of deterioration in just three years.”

In other news 50 years ago this week, the Navajo tribal government learned that President Richard Nixon had frozen funding for the massive Navajo Indian Irrigation Project.

The tribe was to have received $5.5 million to finish irrigating the first 10,000 acres of the project. That was to have been completed in 1970 with another 10,000 acres to be completed every year thereafter until the entire project would see 110,000 acres under irrigation by 1980. Nixon was not a big fan of the project. He had only put $3.5 million in his budget for that year but Congress had increased that to $5.5 million so that the first 10,000 acres could be completed.

As it stood in February of 1970, only 5,000 acres had been completed and there were serious questions as to whether this delay would allow completion of the project under its original estimated budget of $100 million. Officials for the Bureau of Reclamation were hoping that once the money was unfrozen construction of the project could be accelerated so that it could be completed on schedule.

But given the fact that Nixon was expected to do whatever he could to decrease funding during his administration, bureau officials feared completion may be delayed for several years.

This turned out to be the first of many delays in the funding of the project. Forty years after the first deadline was passed, the project is still not completed with more than 30,000 acres of land still to be irrigated. The estimated cost of the project is now more than a billion dollars and it has been decade since anyone in the tribe or the federal government has ventured a guess of when it will be completed.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.


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