Dire State of Jails in Indian CountryPosted by Joseph Myers on April 14th, 2009
The Burns Institute is proud to present our first blog from one of our Board members—Joseph Myers. Mr. Myers runs the National Indian Justice Center and brings to the BI the perspective of Indian Country. We are proud to share his thoughts on this blog. – James Bell, Executive Director
The Indian reservations of this country are studies in extremes; from perceived overconsumption from gaming to substandard housing, inferior educational and medical facilities, to inadequate justice systems. When it comes to the juvenile and criminal justice systems, Native communities face widespread disparities in charges, length of stay and average age of incarceration as compared to non-Indians. The median age of a non-Indian prisoner is 34, yet the median age of an American Indian prisoner is slightly under 20.
As someone who works to ensure the administration of justice in Indian country, I have seen the mediocrity of Indian jail facilities cause great harm to those incarcerated in them. Indian reservations are occupied by more than 500 Indian tribes and were established from their inception to be “separate and apart” from the emerging American society. The reservations signified imprisonment through isolation and served as an alternative to outright genocide. Today, when an Indian is convicted of a crime under tribal law, punishment amounts to serving time in a tribal jail if one exists. Many Indians, born and reared on isolated reservations, endure a life of psychological imprisonment that can even result in suicide when substandard facilities become too much to bear.
On the Yakama Reservation in eastern Washington, for example, a young Indian man committed suicide several years ago. The jail was shut down and remains closed today, so the tribe contracts with the county sheriff for beds in the county jail. While off-reservation bureaucracies get paid for Indian detainees, on-reservation alternatives to detention remain inadequate.
Although sending detainees off-reservation has problems, sadly, sometimes it is worse to keep tribal members in local tribal institutions because of the state of the facilities. For example, the Blackfeet jail in Browning, Montana has been condemned for the past 15 years; yet, it is still being used on a regular basis. The Blackfeet Reservation is situated on a vast windswept plateau just east of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. The grueling winters trap community members inside during winter storms. On the weekends, its jail is overcrowded with adults and juveniles. Bad things happen under these conditions! Sexual and physical assaults are not uncommon. The Ft. Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho also uses a jail that has been condemned for several years. Fortunately, the tribal council has just approved construction of a new facility.
It is not all bad news for detention in Indian country. Indeed, a state-of-the-art detention center has been constructed on the Gila River Reservation in Sacaton, Arizona, and a similar facility has been built on the Ute Reservation in Colorado. But such new facilities are few and far between. We need more federal and tribal funds and coinciding leadership that embraces alternatives to incarceration for Indian youth and adults. The feds are proposing more money for jails instead of ideas and funding for alternatives. We know that there are evidence-based practices off-reservation that are too often neglected in Indian country. The cycle of crime and dysfunction continues without the federal government being creative in bringing them to Indian country.
We need a new vision of community supervision while maintaining the safety of tribal members. Our need is significant since only Indians can be convicted of violating a tribal criminal statute and sentenced to serving time in an Indian jail. Moreover, because of federal sentencing guidelines, Indians get the least access to sentencing alternatives or leniency in length of incarceration. This issue was highlighted in the Civil Rights Commission Report released in 2000. But little has changed since then, and the leadership of Indian country must engage new ideas instead of total reliance on jails.
This is a complex problem that will only be addressed when Indian Country is no longer seen as a supplement to other justice reforms. We need investments in combining the best-proven justice innovations and our traditions as Indigenous people. There is no better time than now, when change is in the air.
Joseph A. Myers (Pomo) is the Executive Director of the National Indian Justice Center and sits on the Board of the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI).
Related links: http://www.dlncoalition.org/dln_issues/incarcerated_indians.htm