Millions Wasted on Nearly Empty Tribal Prisons, Audit Finds

Entrance sign at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Southeastern Utah
Statue of a Navajo Family Welcomes Visitors to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Southeastern Utah. Robert Alexander/Getty Images Archive

In Arizona’s Navajo Nation, two brand shiny new and expensive tribal prisons -- paid for by taxpayers -- sit practically empty, far oversized and without enough money to run them, according to a federal inspector general.

In his audit report, Justice Department Inspector General (IG) Michael E. Horowitz found that of the $70.3 million in economic stimulus grants to the Navajo tribe to build the badly-needed adult correctional facilities, more than $32 million had been improperly spent on the jails’ “excessive” and “larger than planned” size.

According to Horowitz, both the Navajo Nation and the Justice Department had failed to exercise proper oversight over the planning and construction of the jails.

While both tribal officials and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) -- the source of most of the funding -- were aware that size and cost of the jails was becoming excessive, neither had taken “sufficient action” to trim the project in order to curb costs, according to the IG auditors.

Covering more than 27,000 square miles in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the Navajo Nation is home to more than 250,000 people. Like other tribes, the Navajo Nation has been plagued by dilapidated, overcrowded jails.

Federally-recognized Indian tribes and the U.S. Justice Department share jurisdiction over criminal justice on reservations. Major felonies, like homicide and kidnapping are prosecuted by the federal government, while tribal government prosecutes lesser crimes.

Most construction of jails on reservations is funded by federal government grants.

Size Does Matter, IG Says

During construction, the two new jails located in Tuba City and Kayenta, Arizona, grew from their originally planned prisoner capacities of 48 and 32 beds to 132 and 80 beds, respectively, according to the IG’s report.

IG auditors contended that based on crime rates on the reservation, the increases in the jails’ capacity was excessive. Specifically, from 2008 to 2014 the average number of prisoners housed in the old Tuba City jail ranged from 14 to 22 inmates, with a high of 49. The average occupancy for the old Kayenta jail ranged from 7 to 11 inmates, with a high of 24 during the same period. 

However, in a letter to IG Horowitz, the BIA pointed out that the Navajo Nation had been forced to stop prosecuting certain crimes, because the old jails were no longer fit to house convicts in humane conditions as required by a federal court order.

BIA Can’t Afford Guards

“The excessive size of both facilities creates increased costs for operations and maintenance staff,” wrote the IG auditors.

As a result of the size increases, the Navajo Nation can now afford to hire only 40% of the number of tribal correctional officers need to staff the larger-than-needed jails, noted IG Horowitz.

“Currently, the Tuba City facility only has 10 correctional officers to operate the 132-bed facility,” auditors reported. “As a result, only 2 of the 11 pods can be used.”

Due to general lack of proper contract oversight on the part of both the BIA and Navajo Nation, “there is an increased risk that the Tuba City and Kayenta facilities will not become fully operational due to a lack of funding,” stated the audit report.

Specifically, the BIA told the IG’s office it could, at best, eventually afford to pay only 25 of the 63 guards required at the Tuba City jail and 20 of the 51 needed at the Kayenta jail.

Although opened in 2013, the Tuba City jail is only 18% occupied today, while the completed Kayenta jail remains unopened.

The IG recommended that the Justice Department should require the Navajo Division of Public Safety, which got the grants, repay the extra $32 million in construction costs incurred by the government during the course of construction.

Justice, BIA and the Navajo Nation Disagree

The Justice Department, however, responded that it “does not believe these facilities are excessive,” contending that the increases in inmate capacity were carefully analyzed, planned and documented. 

The Justice Department simply “does not believe these facilities are excessive,” period, wrote the department’s director of the Office of Audit, Assessment, and Management for the Office of Justice Programs Ralph Martin in response to the IG’s report.

Martin, however, conceded that his office “recognizes that there appears to be some discrepancy with the recommended size for the facilities,” compared to the original plans for the jails as completed in 2007. But he said that the increases in capacity were badly needed by the Navajo Nation to correct the “deplorable conditions” in the old jails.

The BIA responded that it “supports tribal justice systems' ability to use correctional facilities as a tool to provide for public safety, as well as to apply correctional programming to offenders to reduce recidivism rates by addressing domestic violence, gang violence, substance abuse and other serious crimes.”

And the Navajo Nation stated that the reservation crime statistics used by the IG’s auditors are misleading, because tribal judges has been forced to stop prosecuting lesser crimes due to the lack of adequate humanely suitable prisoner housing at the old jails.