With only about 80 jail beds on the sprawling 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation, authorities increasingly face a quandary when they catch a suspect: Who should be locked up and who let go?
Last year, police on the reservation made roughly 39,000 misdemeanor arrests. Of those, some 36,000 were released early.
Samson Cowboy, director of public safety at the tribe’s Crownpoint jail, said he believes the Navajo jails never were meant to house many criminals. People were supposed to follow the principle known as “k’e”—maintaining relationships through kinship and respect.
But the culture has changed, and there is more crime, he said.
“The whole Navajo Nation is denying we have an issue here, a whole societal issue,” he said.
By law, Navajo tribal jails hold only people arrested for misdemeanors; those suspected of more serious crimes are sent off the reservation to state or federal prisons.
But for those who remain, the problem of overcrowding and dilapidated jails has worsened in recent months. In April, the jail in Chinle was shut down after an electrical fire; late last year, a lockup in Tuba City was condemned.
The Navajo Nation receives funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for corrections staffing, but the bureau does not provide construction, operations or maintenance funds because the jails are tribally owned.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said he has been largely unsuccessful in persuading the Tribal Council to approve bond initiatives to pay for new jails, courts and police stations.
The council did approve a 1 percent increase in sales tax on the Navajo Nation that will go toward funding judicial and public safety facilities, but the $4 million a year it is expected to generate would only provide for a new jail facility in 12 years time, said Kee Allen Begay, chairman of the council’s judiciary committee.
Tribal officials have been lobbying Congress for funding to build the facilities. In the past two weeks, they have asked for $2.2 million in emergency federal funding to cover temporary repairs, overtime and mileage costs to transport inmates to other facilities, and the leasing of bed spaces at off-reservation jails.
Navajo tribal officials hope to eventually raise $372.7 million to build 13 facilities—five large, three medium, four small and one rehabilitation center.
For now, some inmates are being transported to off-reservation jails in New Mexico and Arizona, and to the already crowded Window Rock, Shiprock and Crownpoint lockups.