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Feds built juvenile detention facility on Red Lake Reservation -- and it's never been used

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Five years ago, construction was completed on a juvenile detention facility built on Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota. It has never housed a single young person, and remains empty to this day.

“We have a facility that was built under that policy that has remained empty for five years because there’s no money to operate it at all,” Sen. Al Franken said in an Indian Affairs Committee hearing today, adding afterward: “There’s actually a lawsuit involving this. They were promised this, and now they’re trying to get the money to run it.”

Franken said commitment to operational funding was detailed by Kevin Gover, then assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Clinton administration, in a letter to tribal leaders of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe.  Franken held the letter aloft as he demanded answers about why the promised funding never arrived.

The letter reads in part: “The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] will continue to be responsible for requesting funds for staffing and physical facility operations and maintenance requirements for new facilities constructed through the [Department of Justice] grants funds, as well as existing BIA-owned detention facilities within our budget request.”

A 2000 Interior Department memo includes a similar line: “The Office of Law Enforcement Services [of the BIA] will be responsible for requesting funds for staffing and program operations in these facilities.”

The detention center was built using grant funds from the Department of Justice like the ones referenced in the 1998 memo, officials said, and was completed in January, 2005. No operations funds have yet arrived.

Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, told Franken that the funding policy laid out in those Clinton-era memos remains Department policy today. (Video of the exchange, which comes at the 7:48 mark, can be seen below.)

BIA officials said after the hearing that the question on Red Lake funding is whether the facility is a jail, which they operate, or is built to deal with other things like youth programs, which they generally don’t. I asked if Echo Hawk’s answer to Franken indicated that the BIA should have funded the Red Lake facility and was told that they couldn’t comment because that specific facility is the subject of litigation.

One person who will comment is Red Lake chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr., who wrote about his tribe’s empty detention center in a scathing Indian Country Today editorial titled “BIA shows uppity Indians who’s boss.”

“Our juvenile jail was finished and ready to open in 2005. BIA put $500,000 worth of furnishings in it. But after BIA law enforcement bureaucrats realized we were going to operate it under self-governance authority, BIA refused to fund its program operation. So our new juvenile jail sits empty to this day, five years later, and our kids lack basic juvenile justice services,” Jourdain wrote. “After we sued, a federal judge found last year that the BIA breached its funding promise and still, the Interior Department won’t settle the case and pay up so we can open the jail.

“Our new juvenile jail is an empty monument to the wasteful and vindictive attitudes of some BIA officials against tribal self-governance. I have begun to think we should take a cue from other national monuments and charge admission and give tours,” he continued. “Thus far, no one with the power and spine to change things has been to visit Red Lake to tour our empty jail and do something about it.”

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Comments (2)

Al Franken gets right on many things that need correcting. Truly good to see!

So who in the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Bush years was in charge of this funding debacle? Some political appointee with no competence like "Heck of Job Brownie"? Is he or she still embedded in the BIA? Was the agency too focused on gaming and casinos, where the real money is? Just asking.