FORT DUCHESNE — Members of the Ute Tribe who do the crime will now be doing the time 145 miles away from home or more, after the Bureau of Indian Affairs shut down its detention center here last month.

The bureau began housing newly arrested inmates in the Duchesne County Jail on Feb. 11, under a contract with the sheriff's office, according to jail commander Lt. Todd Johnson. Johnson said his facility has accepted a few tribal prisoners but had none in custody when he spoke.

"We're going to hold their new arrests and warrants," the lieutenant said. "We're just a temporary holding place for them to do court locally."

The BIA is paying $55 a day to house its inmates in the county jail and is responsible for all transportation and medical expenses. Johnson said tribal inmates cannot be bailed out in Duchesne and cannot be released into the community on their own under the terms of the agreement.

"The only way we release them is if we get an order from the tribal court," he said, "and they are not to be released to themselves. BIA will come and pick them up or another officer will pick them up and take them home."

Inmates not released after an initial court appearance will be transported by Moffatt County, Colo., corrections officers to their facility in Craig, 145 miles away from the reservation.

Moffatt County Jail Commander Lt. Dean Herndon declined to discuss details of his agency's contract with the BIA but confirmed that there were three inmates facing tribal charges being held in the jail there.

Ute Tribe Business Com- mittee Chairwoman Maxine Natchees said the closure the Fort Duchesne jail occurred without any formal notice to tribal leaders.

"We had no notice whatsoever," she said. "They didn't even give us a letter; there was just a verbal notification."

Natchees said the Business Committee is primarily concerned about the relocation of inmates to other states and the burden it places on families that will have to travel to visit incarcerated relatives. Natchees said some inmates facing longer sentences could be transferred to the McKinley County Jail in Gallup, N.M., a 17-hour round trip from the Uinta Basin.

"That is a major concern," the chairwoman said.

According to Natchees, BIA officials decided to close the jail due to unsafe conditions for inmates and officers, and due to a lack of "qualified, trained staff" to man the facility around the clock. But the chairwoman said the bureau knew about these problems after the results of an audit of tribal jails were released nearly two years ago, yet did nothing to resolve them.

In September 2003, the Office of the Inspector General for the Interior Department conducted a national survey of jails in Indian country. Researchers traveled the U.S. visiting 27 of the 72 Indian jails and interviewing more than 150 BIA and tribal officials. The results were released in a written report one year later that detailed the countless difficulties plaguing reservation detention centers.

"BIA's detention program is riddled with problems, and in our opinion, is a national disgrace with many facilities having conditions comparable to those found in Third World countries," the report stated. "BIA appears to have had a laissez-faire attitude about these horrific conditions at its detention facilities."

Investigators reported crumbling buildings with cell doors that didn't lock and officers working alone supervising multiple offenders. Many facilities were operating well below acceptable staffing levels, they said. And the lack of a reporting system was so complete that senior BIA officials were unaware of 98 percent of the serious incidents "including deaths and suicides" in the jails visited.

"BIA has failed to provide safe and secure detention facilities throughout Indian country," the report concluded, before proposing aggressive reforms to remedy the situation.

It's unknown whether the Fort Duchesne detention center was one of the jails visited by investigators during the 2003 study, or whether officials in charge of the jail implemented any of the recommendations made in the inspector general's report.

Calls to local BIA corrections officials for details on the conditions of the jail and its closure were referred to the agency's regional office in Phoenix. Officials in Phoenix forwarded requests for information to the BIA Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Numerous calls to that office went unreturned.

Natchees said the Ute Tribe has begun studying ways to build a new detention facility closer to home. She said the Business Committee plans to seek funding wherever it can be found but may have to dip into tribal funds to make the project a reality.

"We view this as a short-term solution," she said of the BIA's decision to move inmates out of state. "It's been a difficult situation."


E-mail: geoff@ubstandard.com