Navajo Nation built jails larger than needed

Posted at 7:17 PM, Oct 02, 2015
The Navajo Nation wasted more than $30 million in federal funds by building two jails much larger than needed, depriving other tribes of stimulus money to address their justice systems, according to a new report by a federal watchdog.
The tribe received $70 million in stimulus funding from the Justice Department in 2009 to construct jails in Tuba City and Kayenta on the Arizona portion of the reservation. A 2007 master plan called for an $18 million jail in Tuba City with 48 beds and a $20 million jail in Kayenta with 32 beds.
Those numbers jumped to $38.6 million and 132, and $31.7 million and 80, respectively, without any documented approval, said the report released this week by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.
At least three projects on other American Indian reservations could have been funded had those jails complied with original plans, the report said.
"Of particular concern are other tribes who likely had a greater need and applied but were denied for these Recovery Act funds so the Navajo Nation could receive $36.5 million in excess funding to build one facility that remains unopened and another facility that is 82 percent vacant," the report reads.
The Tuba City jail opened in 2013. Kayenta is built but has not opened.
Stimulus funding to American Indian tribes was meant to address decades-old jails that were falling apart and unsafe for inmates. The Navajo Nation -- the country's largest American Indian reservation -- received more than one-third of the money available for tribal jails, the tribe said in 2009. Tuba City was the largest single grant awarded.
Before the new jails were built, the Navajo Nation had less than 60 jail bed spaces on its 27,000 square-mile reservation and judges constantly were evaluating whether they could sentence defendants to time behind bars. The tribe also decriminalized some acts because of the lack of jail space, but it has since reinstated criminal penalties.
Officials with the Navajo Nation and the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance said the sizes of the facilities never increased and the projects were closely monitored. The tribe said the 2007 master plan presented prototypes for facilities that needed to be adapted for specific projects.
The tribe defended the size of the jails, saying it never went beyond the original stated square footage and never mentioned specific bed counts in its grant applications. The Justice Department said a formal change of scope wasn't required because the size of the jails weren't specific to bed counts.
The average number of inmates, by any estimate in the report, doesn't come close to filling the jail beds at Kayenta or Tuba City. The tribe said judges would sentence convicted offenders to jail if the space is available.
"It is better for the Navajo Nation to have larger jail capacity in these new facilities rather than having to fund and construct larger facilities in five years' time," the tribe wrote in response to the report.
The tribe also said it's looking for ways to generate revenue at the jails to fund staff, including leasing space to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and charging jail occupancy fees. The corrections and public safety directors, as well as a spokesman for the president's office, didn't immediately respond to requests for additional comment Friday.
The report also faulted the Navajo Nation for poor financial controls and failure to properly vet contractors. Most of the recommendations have been addressed, but the allegations related to the excessive size of the jails and two planning grants are unresolved.
While the tribe received funding for building the jails, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs funds the operation and maintenance through a contract with the tribe. The BIA said it can provide 40 percent of requested funding for tribal correctional officers, or 25 of the 63 needed at Tuba City and 20 of the 51 needed in Kayenta. That means the jails will remain largely empty, the report said.
BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the Kayenta facility hasn't received a certificate of occupancy, but funding has been set aside for the facility. Budget shortfalls are common throughout Indian Country. Tribal jails are being replaced or expanding while funding for operation and maintenance stays the same, she said.
Other jails on the reservation have suffered from staffing issues. In 2013, the Crownpoint jail in New Mexico shut down everything but a holding area for intoxicated people because it had only eight of the 51 correctional officers it needed to operate effectively.