Red Lake tribal officials frustrated by dispute that keeps detention center empty, unused

Red Lake's unused juvenile detention center
The detention center at Red Lake is designed to hold 24 juveniles, but the facility has never been used. The tribe believes the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for providing money to operate the facility. Red Lake officials have been trying for seven years to secure funding from the agency. BIA officials say they're working on it. Pictured in this 2006 file photo is former self-governance coordinator Lisa Spears and custodian John Dudley.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Red Lake tribal officials say they're frustrated over a funding dispute that has left a juvenile detention center empty and unused since it was built by the federal government seven years ago.

The $2 million juvenile center sits behind the tribe's main criminal justice complex in Red Lake. A 13,000-square-foot building paid for by the U.S. Department of Justice, it was designed to provide minimum security detention for up to 24 juveniles. But the center never opened.

"It's frustrating and at times hopeless," Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain said.

Jourdain said the tribe has tried since 2005 to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pay for the center's operation. He said the bureau promised to provide the money, but never has.

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The bureau approved the original architectural plans and inspected the completed building. It even provided furnishings. But in 2006, Jourdain said, the bureau began backpedaling on its pledge to fund operations.

After the tribe sued the Bureau of Indian Affairs in federal court, a judge agreed the bureau was in breach of contract. Last spring, the tribe settled out of court for $2 million. But that still didn't force the agency to provide funding.

As a result of the dispute, tribal judges have fewer options to deal with juveniles and sometimes place serious young offenders in adult detention, Jourdain said. But first-time offenders who may be runaways or involved in other non-violent crimes are either sent home, or placed in state-run detention centers — far from their family and culture.

Detention room
Red Lake's 13,000-square-foot juvenile detention center was built seven years ago but remains empty and has never been used. The facility, pictured in this 2006 file photo, is at the center of a funding dispute between the tribe and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Requests to tribal court officials for data on how many juveniles are typically adjudicated in the court system went unanswered.

Jourdain said after seven years of fighting with the bureau, tribal officials have made little progress on the detention center and are starting to consider other options for the empty building. They include using it to house the tribe's chemical dependency program or other tribal services.

"We're open to anything at this point," he said. "All we really want to do is run a good holistic program to get these kids back in school, off the streets, off drugs... and get them out of the criminal justice system and get them back into productive lives."

A Bureau of Indian Affairs official contends the original facility didn't meet the agency's definition of a detention center. But current agency officials are unable to explain why the facility has been allowed to sit empty all this time.

"I certainly understand where folks would be frustrated by that, but I don't think there has been any lack of effort," said Darren Cruzan, deputy director of the bureau's Office of Justice Services. "So I'm looking forward to being able to come to a resolve on this and I think working together we can be tremendously successful and not look at it as a failure."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been broadly criticized for mismanaging and underfunding detention centers in Indian Country. In a 2004 report, the Department of Interior concluded that the bureau failed in its responsibility to tribal detention facilities and that managers allowed the detention program to languish.

The Red Lake tribe's relationship with the bureau is complicated because Red Lake is self-governed. Unlike most tribes, Red Lake manages its own affairs and runs its own programs.

Dave Conner, Red Lake's acting self-governance coordinator, said funding from the bureau supports programs ranging from natural resources to education and family services but it falls far short of the tribe's needs.

"Even though the Bureau has a responsibility that's based in a number of federal laws to provide funding for basic government services, there has not been nearly enough money," Conner said. "Most programs operate on less today than 15 years ago, so it's a daily struggle to provide basic government services that the federal government is responsible for."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs did boost funding to law enforcement efforts on reservations across the country. Agency statistics show a 40 percent increase in money for law enforcement operations from 2005 to 2010. But Red Lake officials claim the money went disproportionately to tribes where the bureau runs the government.

A Red Lake analysis shows that tribes administered by the bureau received increases that were twice as large as self-governed tribes. Red Lake's tribal chairman claims the empty juvenile detention center shows that the bureau punishes tribes that seek more independence from the agency.

Al Pemberton, a Red Lake tribal council member, said the tribe can't afford to run a juvenile detention facility itself. Modest revenues from the tribe's three casinos already go to other youth programs, as well as elderly services and infrastructure needs.

"It's a shame to have a building like that just sitting there deteriorating as we speak," Pemberton said. "You build a building and then they can't fund it. There's something wrong there."

For seven years, Red Lake has paid the bills to keep the lights on and minimally maintain the facility.

Red Lake officials still hope to meet with the bureau officials to discuss the detention center. Agency officials say they're working to make that happen.