From broken homes to a broken system

From broken homes to a broken system

Surrounded by alcohol and abuse, Indian youths in need of support feel the isolation of incarceration

Published on November 28, 2014

PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — She sits alone in a cinder-block cell, an Oglala Lakota teenager with a long braid and tattoos. For five months she has been locked up on this remote prairie reservation for drinking and disorderly conduct.

When she behaves, she can watch television. Mostly, though, she passes the time with two books — a Bible and “The Hunger Games” — and her journal, in which she records the monotony of her long days. The journal, with an eagle on the cover, also holds the names of nearly a dozen friends and relatives who have died — some from drugs, violence or suicide.

Above:  Slippers sit on the court at the Kiyuksa O'Tipi Reintegration Center, a juvenile detention facility in South Dakota. 

"It's so boring in here," the 17-year-old says before coming to a realization that would have startled her just a short while ago: "I miss school more than anything."

For the teenager, whose name is not used because she is a juvenile, and nine other Native Americans at a facility for minors here, there is no schooling, no vocational opportunity and no counseling. There is simply detention.

OTHER STORIES IN THE SERIES:  This is one of a series of stories on crime and justice issues in Native American communities.

Dark side of the boom: North Dakota's oil boom could cost the community.

Alaska Natives: In rural villages, little protection for Alaska Natives.

New laws: A tribe in Arizona soon to prosecute non-Indians.

Children on reservations: The alarming suicide rate among young Native Americans.

Domestic violence: New laws offer protection to abused Native American women.

Their situation is emblematic of a juvenile justice system that is fundamentally broken when it comes to Native American youths. Around the country, juveniles on reservations are left to languish in cash-strapped facilities that cannot afford to provide the kind of rehabilitative services afforded to most young offenders in the United States. Because some reservations have no juvenile detention centers, offenders often are shipped to facilities far from their homes, compounding the isolation of incarceration.

A jurisdictional legal maze in Indian country further complicates matters. Indian reservations are sovereign nations. So when juveniles commit minor crimes, their cases are usually handled by the tribes. But when they commit a serious felony, their cases are generally handled by federal prosecutors, and they can be sent to either federal prison or a federal facility.

In the federal system, there is no juvenile division, and no court judges, rehabilitation facilities or probation system for juveniles. From 1999 through 2008, as many as 60 percent of juveniles in federal custody were American Indians, according to a commission that last year recommended that tribes be given full jurisdiction over Indian children and be released from "dysfunctional federal and state controls."

Advocates say Native American youths have essentially been forgotten.

"There is no systemic program to educate kids or provide services for them in detention centers," said Troy Eid, the chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission and a former U.S. attorney from Colorado. "They don't have computer instruction. They don't have classrooms. They have nothing, and their services are lacking because Congress hasn't appropriated the funding. They just sit in a cell all day."

Pine Ridge's attorney general, Tatewin Means, the daughter of the late American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, works out of a run-down building with a broken toilet and no heat or air conditioning.

Means said there is no funding for behavioral health services for children who have been sexually or physically abused. And when, as teenagers, some get caught up in the juvenile justice system, the tribe has few resources to help them.

"For the last two years, we have applied for federal grants for public safety and child protection and were absolutely shut out," she said.

An Oglala Lakota teenager sits alone in her cell at the Kiyuksa O’Tipi Reintegration Center, a juvenile detention center in Kyle, S.D. Like many Native American juveniles in detention, she is not offered significant academic programs or counseling while incarcerated.

'No place to be'

Anthony Ghost-Red Feather, 18, a senior at Pine Ridge High School, says he grew up surrounded by alcoholism and violence.

The Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is larger than the state of Delaware, covering more than 2.7 million acres of starkly beautiful, windswept Plains grasses and Badlands buttes. But the tribal communities here are racked by 87 percent unemployment and crippling poverty. Located within Pine Ridge, Shannon County has one of the highest numbers of people living below the poverty line in the nation. Families live in rotting and overcrowded public housing.

In an environment plagued by sexual assault, domestic violence and substance abuse, it is a struggle to protect children, law enforcement officials say. Many young people turn to drugs or otherwise run afoul of the law.

Heather Thompson, a former assistant U.S. attorney in South Dakota who prosecuted many cases from Pine Ridge, put it bluntly: "There is no place for our kids to get help."

The one Boys and Girls Club is often closed because of a lack of funding. The nearest population center, Rapid City, with a population of about 70,000, is more than 100 miles away.

Although Pine Ridge is technically a "dry" reservation, just over the line in Nebraska is the tiny town of White Clay, which is lined with stores that sell alcohol to Pine Ridge residents; day and night, they can be found leaning against buildings or lying on the ground intoxicated.

Tony Ghost-Red Feather, 18, said he grew up surrounded by alcoholism and violence. He said he was bullied at school and that some of his friends and relatives ended up in the juvenile detention center. He considered suicide on two occasions. The only things stopping him were his younger siblings, whom he was mostly responsible for raising.

"I had a knife in my hand," he said, recalling one episode. "I was sitting in the dark outside and crying. I was going to either slit my wrists or go at my throat or my stomach."

A 17-year-old on the reservation said she, like Ghost-Red Feather, grew up in the shadow of alcoholics and domestic violence. She started cutting herself when she was 15.

Sometimes she uses a cigarette lighter to burn her arms.

"I do it to feel the pain," she said. "Burning takes everything off my mind."

On four different occasions, she was sent to the juvenile detention center for offenses including disorderly conduct and running away, a criminal violation. It was, she said, "no place to be."

"You're mainly just looking at cement walls," she said. "There were no teachers or counselors. They woke us up to take showers and clean up. Then, we were just sitting there."

On reservations, at-risk Native American youths find few places to turn

Play Video

On Pine Ridge and Rosebud, two of South Dakota's largest Indian reservations, many Native American teenagers find themselves caught between broken homes and a broken justice system.

Barriers to improvement

Detention facilities explicitly for Native American youths are operated by an amalgam of entities.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs runs three of the 23 juvenile detention centers in Indian country. Fourteen of the facilities are run by tribes but are overseen and funded in part by the BIA. The remaining six are funded and run by tribes.

Several of the facilities operated by the BIA, an agency within the Interior Department, have been beset by problems. A facility in Lower Brule, S.D., has been closed for a year because of structural problems. On Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, a more than $7 million center constructed with Justice Department and tribal funds has been empty for more than four years because it was not built to code. The new building will continue to be run by the BIA when it opens.

Dozens of facilities that had been built are now vacant or seriously underutilized because operating funds haven't been provided, according to a panel of Indian-country experts that presented a report last week to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Juveniles arrested on those reservations have to be sent to other reservations, sometimes hundreds of miles away.

Much of the criticism of the juvenile justice system for Native Americans is centered on the removal of young offenders from their communities, a practice that critics say makes it even more difficult to rehabilitate them. The BIA acknowledges the situation presents challenges for families but said there are not always alternatives.

Photo gallery

In an environment plagued by assault, domestic violence and substance abuse, it is difficult to protect children, law enforcement officials say.

Click on the image for more scenes from South Dakota.

"If we had the ability to have a fully staffed juvenile detention facility at every reservation, that would be absolutely the best way to do it," said Darren Cruzan, the deputy director of the BIA's Office of Justice Services. "But we know that is unrealistic based on the ability to build safe juvenile detention facilities and staff them appropriately."

A member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Cruzan said the BIA is taking steps to try to improve services for juveniles in Indian country. But he stressed the difficulty of developing education programs, saying that "a lot of the juveniles that we're getting are kids who aren't in school or have dropped out of school."

Tribal members who testified before the Indian Law and Order Commission, a congressionally mandated panel, said that detention facilities on reservations lacked adequate education programs because there was no funding. The BIA, however, disputes that criticism.

"I hear the same concerns, that it's not in there and it's not happening," Cruzan said when asked about criticism that there are no education programs in some facilities. "But when I hear those things I get with our chief of corrections. The conversation is, 'Hey, just assure me that we have education in these facilities.' And the answer is always, 'Yes, we do.' "

The Kiyuksa O'Tipi Reintegration Center, Pine Ridge's juvenile detention center, is funded and overseen by the BIA but operated by the tribe. A BIA document indicates that there is an education program. Inside, there is a classroom with desks and computers.

However, there are no teachers, no counselors and no academic programs.

"Funding ran out two years ago," one official at the detention center said.

Outside the Kiyuksa O’Tipi Reintegration Center sits a traditional sweat lodge, a dome-shaped hut used to experience the ceremony of purification and prayer.

Rehabilitating youth

About an hour and a half drive across the northern Great Plains is a juvenile detention facility for Native Americans that looks and feels altogether different.

Unlike in Pine Ridge and other reservations, there is no barbed wire surrounding the center. Inside, students learn to carve in a woodshop, work out in a gymnasium and participate in “smudging,” a ceremony of burning sage and cedar to cleanse a person and keep away negative spirits and energy.

The Wanbli Wiconi Tipi Youth Wellness and Renewal Center, located on the Rosebud Reservation, houses about 250 teenagers each year and is run by Miskoo Petite, who grew up in the community.

“We are trying to integrate traditional Lakota cultural information, and rehabilitate our youth by bridging the gaps they might have with their identities and who they are,” he said.

Unlike other juvenile centers, where a majority of the building is used for detention, 70 percent of the space is used for programs.

“I have had juveniles tell me directly that they would rather be in the juvenile detention center in Rosebud than at home,” said former Rosebud attorney general Mato Standing High.

Like Pine Ridge, Rosebud — home to an estimated 25,000 people living on about 900,000 acres of tribal land — is overwhelmed by dire poverty. Over a two-year period, 47 teenagers committed suicide on the reservation, Petite said. At least two children a day are victims of a crime or exposed to abuse and neglect, school violence or domestic violence, according to Standing High.

For all its problems, however, the juvenile detention center is striving to rehabilitate young offenders. Outside sits a traditional sweat lodge, a dome-shaped hut, for them to experience the ceremony of purification and prayer.

The juveniles attend classes and are taken on field trips to places like the Wounded Knee memorial on Pine Ridge, where they learn more about their history and the day in December 1890 when the U.S. Cavalry massacred an estimated 300 men, women and children of the Great Sioux Nation. (Many on the reservation prefer to refer to themselves as Lakota rather than Sioux, a term meaning “little snake” that they say was given to them by their enemies.)

“It’s jail, but they give you a chance to do things here — go to the gym, play ball, learn Lakota [the language] and go to school every day,” said one teenager who said he had been housed in three other juvenile detention centers.

Law enforcement officials credit Petite with running a facility that is considered among the most progressive in Indian country. At the same time, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson of South Dakota is working closely with the tribes to keep Rosebud juveniles out of the federal system whenever possible and allow them to be sentenced in tribal court.

“This is a really poor, very remote reservation,” said Eid, the chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission. “But when the tribes have some control over their systems, they don’t warehouse kids. They make sure there’s education, including for the ones who misbehave.”

Petite, however, is still dependent on grants from the BIA and the Justice Department to operate his programs. And as with many health, education and law enforcement programs throughout Indian country, tribes have to compete against each other for funding. Every couple of years they have to reapply to keep programs running — or they end. Petite will soon lose his clinical psychologist because the federal grant funding her has ended.

The panel of Indian-country experts that met with Holder this week said that tribal juvenile justice programs are “grossly underfunded,” saying it is “unacceptable” for federal agencies to provide grant money limited to three years. The panel recommended that grant-based, competitive criminal justice funding for Indian country be replaced with a permanent budget.

In Petite’s view, one the best programs at Wanbli Wiconi Tipi centers on an organic garden planted by staff and kids, a beehive and a greenhouse. The program is designed to remind tribal youth of their history of living off the land and to instill in them an appreciation of nurturing life.

“We donate the vegetables — tomatoes, chili peppers, cucumbers — to our elders or use them in the kitchen,” Petite said.

During a recent tour of the facility, however, Petite seemed reluctant to open the door to the greenhouse. When he did, there was a stench of decay. The greenhouse had been overtaken by weeds.

“Our federal grant for the program recently ended,” he explained. “We just don’t have the additional staff to keep this garden going.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Miskoo Petite, administrator of the Wanbli Wiconi Tipi juvenile detention center, stands outside the center’s greenhouse, which was used for a program to remind tribal youth of their history of living off the land and to instill in them an appreciation of nurturing life. The greenhouse was overtaken by weeds after a grant ended.

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