Juvenile detention center sits empty, unused at Red Lake

Detention room
The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe built a juvenile detention center nearly two years ago, but so far the facility has gone unused. The tribe is suing the federal government to get money to operate the center. Tribal self-governance coordinator Lisa Spears walks through the fully furnished building with custodian John Dudley.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

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.

Buck Jourdain
Red Lake Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain says the tribe has tried for months to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund the detention program. He says filing the lawsuit was a last resort.
MPR file photo

"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.

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"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."

It's sort of past the point of desperation, I guess. We don't feel like we have any other options.

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.

Red Lake's unused juvenile detention center
The empty, 11,000-square-foot juvenile detention center hasn't gone completely unused. The tribe sometimes uses it for meeting space. The FBI used it as a command center following the March 2005 school shooting incident. The FBI is using it again now as it investigates the disappearance of two small children on the reservation.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"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.