Jails face shutdown, tribe comes to rescue
The Navajo Department of Corrections, simply put, is in dire straits.
It’s not a question of whether Corrections lacks the willingness to help people who’ve been arrested, gone through the court system and are currently serving out their sentences.
It’s money to operate its seven facilities and paying the personnel who run them that is on the verge of running out.
“I only have enough money for one more payroll,” said Corrections principal accountant, Juanita Begay, on Tuesday in Window Rock. “That’s it. And BIA hasn’t given us anymore money.”
The ‘638 contract, which should have been renewed at the beginning of the year, came to a halt when BIA and tribal officials negotiating for a new contract disagreed on “language” in it.
Begay said the feds are referring to what has always been written into it.
“BIA is holding the strings,” Begay said. “They don’t want certain language in the new contract that has been there for years and years. They said they can’t lobby on behalf of the Navajo Nation. They only receive only a certain amount and that has to be divvied up among the tribes across the U.S.”
The language BIA said it wants changed is from “Not delegating other federal agencies like the Indian Health Services to do training with Corrections staff,” to “That BIA/OJS is responsible for administering only the budget amounts allocated by the Congress and would not accept any requests for additional funds regardless that the need is much higher than what the Nation receives to provide detention services.”
Corrections employs 188 personnel throughout the reservation, with 150 of those being officers that run and operate the jails.
According to the Navajo Nation Department of Personnel Management’s website, the duties of a corrections officers include guarding prisoners and monitoring them during meal times.
Personnel has 11 positions currently open for the Tuba City Detention Center that pay an annual salary of $31,000.
To keep detention operations going, $3.9 million is needed, which helps pay the personnel. Out of that money, 41.1 percent, which comes out to $1.62 million, goes into an officer’s “fringe benefits,” Begay said.
It is also used to pay for an officer’s overtime and holiday pay.
This does not include the costs to run the juvenile jails, which have their own budget and needs.
To keep an adult inmate fed with 2,000 calories per meal, Begay said each of the seven detention facilities pay nearly $3,000 a month for food. She added Corrections was looking to cut those costs despite the mandated calorie count they had to meet.
All of that was jeopardy, but officials from the Navajo Nation’s Office of Management and Budget, Department of Justice, Corrections and the controller met Tuesday afternoon and hammered out deal that would continue paying the salaries of all 188 employees.
Begay said the tribe agreed to pay the salaries through the month of March, which totaled to $903,040. By then a new contract should be renewed, Corrections Capt. Mabel Henderson-Desiderio said.
But if the contract was not renewed, drastic actions might have to be taken, Corrections Director Delores Greyeyes said.
“What we’ll have to, in order to continue operations, we’ll probably have to close Shiprock and Window Rock, which are two old facilities,” she said. “And make a decision on which ones we’ll continue to operate on a short term basis. And it may end up being Tuba City.
“What that means is that any arrests that are made on the reservation, they’d have to be transported by the police officer doing the arrest all the way to Tuba City,” she said.
Jesse Delmar, director of the Division of Public Safety, said that won’t happen on Wednesday morning in a phone interview.
“We’re going to pay out of general funds pending approval of the contract,” he said. We’re moving forward.”
He added that no jails would jails would be shut down.
On Monday, in a report to the Law & Order Committee, Corrections reported that, in addition to funding issues, the jails in Window Rock and Shiprock were “downgraded to temporary and overnight holding facilities” because of the heating, gas leak, plumbing and ventilation problems at each jail.
After they gave their report, LOC did not offer any recommendations to help resolve the situation, said Greyeyes.
“If it was patrol, I apologize for having to compare, but this is what we’re experiencing,” Greyeyes said, “if it was patrol, they would jump on it. They’d be on the phone with the BIA, maybe introduce legislation to get emergency funding, something. But Navajo Department of Corrections, I guess we’re seen as the unwanted stepchild.”
Currently, the new detention centers require more money and manpower to operate, she added.
And with the anticipated consent decree modifications expected to be heard in the Window Rock District Court in March, adult jail populations are expected to increase, as well.
The 1992 Silver vs. Pahe case ordered the corrections department to make changes in how it operated and treated its inmates. Overcrowding, inadequate food, no medical centers, and no exercise programs were some of the changes they were ordered to correct and improve.
Since then, Henderon-Desiderio said the jail has improved with the construction of five new facilities, which meet their inmates’ needs.
Right now, both the Tuba City and Kayenta jails are at 70 percent capacity, Henderson-Desiderio said.
Henderson-Desiderio said the Department of Corrections currently is anticipating hiring 10 people, but needs a total of 71 more personnel.