Juvenile detention center sits empty, unused at Red Lakeby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Two years ago, the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe completed construction of a $2 million juvenile detention center. But so far the facility hasn't housed a single juvenile. The building stands empty while the tribe wrangles with the federal government over money.
Tribal officials say the Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for the cost of running the detention program. The tribe recently filed a lawsuit against the agency to force some action.
Red Lake Reservation — The 11,000-square-foot building was completed in January 2005, but has never been used for its intended purpose. It's designed to provide minimum security for up to 24 low-level juvenile offenders. It's meant to help the tribe deal with a significant number of kids involved in drugs and alcohol, violence and gangs. These are kids who are in and out of the tribal court system, but too young to be placed in an adult jail.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs fully furnished the facility with bunk beds, office equipment and classroom furniture. John Dudley, the building's custodian, says it's all going to waste.
"It's just a beautiful building and it defeats the purpose by not having it open," said Dudley. "If they weren't going to utilize the building they shouldn't have built it in the first place. The building is here, and it's silly just to let it sit. You know, you're talking about tax dollars. Well, here's tax dollars just sitting going to waste."
The tribe built the facility using a grant from the Department of Justice. Tribal officials say the intent was to turn ownership of the building over to the BIA. It's typical for the federal government to own such facilities in Indian Country. There are BIA documents promising to provide the money to operate the detention program. The tribe is still waiting for that to happen according to Red Lake Chairman Buck Jourdain.
"A lot of times we really have to tussle with these federal agencies in order to complete projects," said Jourdain. "And in this case that's one of them, where an obligation was made to the tribe to provide a facility that would work towards rehabilitating young people... We got the funding for the building, but unfortunately the operating costs didn't pan out."
In October, the Red Lake tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Interior. The tribe seeks more than $2.5 million in damages. That's what it would have cost to run the detention program the past two years. Red Lake leaders hope the suit will force the federal government to fully fund the juvenile center.
Officials say the tribe doesn't have the money to run a detention center on its own. So instead of Red Lake's juvenile offenders getting locked up, they're being released back into the community.
Red Lake self-governance coordinator Lisa Spears says the lawsuit was a last resort.
"It's sort of past the point of desperation, I guess," said Spears. "We just don't feel like we have any other options."
Spears says the BIA signed off on the facility's architectural plans. The agency inspected the building and granted the tribe a certificate of occupancy more than a year-and-a-half ago. But Spears says in recent months, the agency has backpedaled on whether it even owns the building. She says the BIA is failing to take care of the needs of Indian tribes.
"Through the whole process we have the BIA on board the whole time," said Spears. "And now when it comes down to getting this program operations funding they're just, it's a sticking point for some reason... When they're calling us and asking us questions and all we can do is turn around and provide them with their own documentation, there's something wrong with that."
The BIA has been broadly criticized in recent years for underfunding and mismanaging detention centers in Indian Country. An Interior Department report in the late 1990s revealed jails on reservations that were dilapidated, unsanitary and unsafe. BIA officials declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.
The Red Lake juvenile detention center hasn't gone completely unused since it was built. The tribe has used it as a meeting space. Last year, the FBI used the empty building as a command center following the March 21st school shooting incident. The FBI is back in the building now, as it investigates the recent disappearance of two small children on the reservation.
- Morning Edition, 12/06/2006, 7:25 a.m.