The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has announced it will close its jail by the end of the year.
In a news release late Wednesday, the tribe said it has been attempting for the past two years to reduce the cost of its operating budget. In 2019, for instance, the tribe’s budget was cut by more than $14 million.
Looking for areas to cut in the upcoming 2020 budget, the tribe said council members decided this week to shut down the detention center, which it said “serves very few Southern Ute tribal members but costs millions of dollars to operate.”
Lindsay Box, spokeswoman for the Southern Ute tribe, did not respond to requests for comment. Attempts to reach council members were also unsuccessful Thursday.
According to the tribe’s news release, the detention facility was opened in 1999 and has the capacity for 57 inmates. But in recent years, the number of inmates at the jail has declined. This year, for example, the detention facility has had an average daily inmate population of about 13 people.
Most of those inmates are not Southern Utes, the tribe said.
The Southern Ute tribe said it costs about $2 million a year to operate the detention center, and by shutting it down, it expects to save anywhere from $1.5 million to $2 million.
In light of the closure, inmates will instead be sent either to the La Plata County Jail or the Archuleta County Jail when that facility opens in 2020.
Inmate overcrowding, staff shortages and budget issues have been well-documented at the La Plata County Jail.
The La Plata County Jail housed an average of 190 inmates a day in 2018, and that number seemed to be on the rise this year. Capt. Ed Aber, the jail’s top administrator, said there is one jail staffer for every 38 inmates.
Aber, however, said he doesn’t expect too much of an issue housing inmates who would have been detained at the Southern Ute jail. He said once Archuleta County’s jail opens, the absence of 22 or so inmates from Archuleta County who are kept in the La Plata County Jail will free up some room.
Aber said the Sheriff’s Office is working with the Southern Ute tribe to come to a financial agreement for housing inmates.
“The numbers are not huge,” Aber said. “And we obviously will try to come to an agreement.”
Calls to the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office were not returned Thursday morning.
When news of the closure hit social media, Southern Ute members criticized the decision, saying the tribe’s sovereignty is compromised by sending Native American inmates off tribal lands.
Some members said the Southern Ute government and council members have not properly communicated with the community about the decision.
Box did not respond to The Durango Herald’s questions on those topics.
In the news release, the Southern Ute tribe said, “The Tribal Council realizes the Detention Center benefited some Southern Ute tribal members. It was helpful to have a facility on the Reservation close to the inmate’s friends and family.
“However, due to the high cost and the small number of Southern Ute tribal members who benefited from the service, maintaining the Detention Center was not in the economic interests of the Tribe. It is best if these funds can be used for prevention services that benefit the membership more broadly.”
The tribe said it is still deciding what to do with the detention center building once vacated.