DREAMING OF DETENTION: Overcoming the limits of federal funding on the Rocky Boy’s reservation

Story by Jor­don Nie­der­meier
Pho­tos by Tommy Martino


IT WAS mid­night in the park­ing lot of a Billings Wal­mart. The night air chilled Sue LaMere’s Ford Tau­rus. She didn’t have a blan­ket to share with her daugh­ter, so she cranked the igni­tion to blast the heat. It was all she could do to make her 12-year-old girl more comfortable.

LaMere couldn’t sleep. Cramped in the driver’s seat, her mind was fixed on the trip’s misery.

The Ford blew a tire dur­ing the 350-mile jour­ney from the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reser­va­tion. With no other options, she called a road­side tire ser­vice and it took all the money she had to get it mov­ing again.

Then the car broke down a sec­ond time. It had to be towed to a garage in Miles City. The parts alone cost more than $400. The bill forced LaMere to call her ex-husband for money so she could con­tinue on the road.

This was LaMere’s first trip to visit her son, Jared, who was locked up in a juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter in Busby, Mon­tana. She declined to talk about the crime that sent him away. Instead she focused on the sit­u­a­tion. He was her son, he was 15 years old, and she had to see him. He had not yet earned phone priv­i­leges, so con­tact with fam­ily was lim­ited to week­end visits.

The drive to the North­ern Cheyenne Youth Deten­tion Cen­ter should have taken less than seven hours. It took LaMere four days. And yet, just 10 min­utes into her drive on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reser­va­tion, Lamere passed a brand new juve­nile deten­tion facil­ity that could have housed her son.

She lamented the irony of her posi­tion as she passed by the build­ing, unaware of how long her trip was going to be. She knew that even though part of the struc­ture was built to hold juve­niles, the Chippewa Cree couldn’t afford to staff it.

After obtain­ing a $12.3 mil­lion fed­eral grant in 2009, the tribe built a new jus­tice cen­ter, con­sist­ing of tribal police head­quar­ters, an adult jail and a juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter. How­ever, the progress stopped there as the tribe failed to secure funds to actu­ally run the deten­tion center.The Chippewa Cree Tribal Justice Center opened in 2012 and cost nearly $14 million to build. The center was designed to house 30 adults and 18 juveniles, along with the Rocky Boy Police Department.

While adult inmates and the Rocky Boy’s Police Depart­ment have called the facil­ity home since 2012, not a sin­gle juve­nile has spent a night there. Instead, they’re still sent to Great Falls, about two hours away, or Busby, seven hours, depend­ing on the length of their incarceration.

The Rocky Boy’s Indian Reser­va­tion, which is as eco­nom­i­cally chal­lenged as most tribal nations, has man­aged to secure a con­sid­er­able amount of fund­ing from out­side grants to pay for pro­grams and much needed infra­struc­ture, like con­struct­ing a juve­nile deten­tion wing.

How­ever, main­tain­ing those grants, find­ing money to run the juve­nile deten­tion wing, requires cre­ativ­ity in both tribal plan­ning and grant writ­ing. On that end, the Chippewa Cree tribe has had trou­ble keep­ing up with its own successes.

LaMere said she har­bors resent­ment because she wants to be there for her child, to see him as much as possible.

It both­ers me that we have a facil­ity sit­ting there. Which I think if you’re in the busi­ness sense, you antic­i­pate and project the cost that it would take to oper­ate the facil­ity,” LaMere said. “You should have appro­pri­ated the money or planned for the money and fig­ured out the cost when you were build­ing it. That’s just part of busi­ness management.”

JIM SWAN, a res­i­dent and enrolled Chippewa Cree tribal mem­ber, is the chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of RJS & Asso­ciates, a grant-writing and man­age­ment firm in Box Elder. He also works closely with the Chippewa Cree Busi­ness Com­mit­tee, the tribe’s gov­ern­ing body, to find the out­side fund­ing nec­es­sary to main­tain ser­vices in a chal­lenged economy.

Every morn­ing Swan grabs a cup of cof­fee and prints off what he calls his “daily digest,” a list of every fed­eral grant that’s open for appli­ca­tion. Then he sits behind a U-shaped desk and scans the papers for answers to his community’s prayers.

Swan moved home to Mon­tana after liv­ing in Illi­nois and attend­ing grad­u­ate school at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago. He with­drew before receiv­ing a degree, but it was in that city that his career in grant writ­ing started. Twenty years later, he’s the CEO of the com­pany his father started.

Like most tribes, the Chippewa Cree rely heav­ily on fed­eral grants to pay for every­thing on the reser­va­tion their oper­at­ing bud­get can’t cover. But res­i­dent grant writ­ers like the ones work­ing at RJS & Asso­ciates are an unusual occur­rence on a reservation.James “Jim” Swan is the CEO of RJS & Associates, a small grant-writing firm that’s based out of a modest house near Rocky Boy Agency. Swan and his grant-writing team have brought more than $300 million to the Chippewa Cree tribe.

Jim Swan is an asset to the com­mu­nity, and he knows it.

Rocky Boy is lucky to have us here. We’ve been very suc­cess­ful for our tribe, our school dis­trict, our col­lege. We’ve helped out other reser­va­tions, but just the fact we’re based phys­i­cally here really helps our tiny reser­va­tion,” Swan said.

Since 1996, the firm secured more than $300 mil­lion in grants. Much of that money went to Rocky Boy’s. They’ve funded pro­grams like the drug court, cre­at­ing an option for drug offend­ers to receive treat­ment over incar­cer­a­tion. The firm also helped cre­ate a recre­ation cen­ter and found grants to con­struct the jus­tice center.

A lot of the time, our clients just know: ‘We have this issue, and we have some sort of vague ideas how we might tackle it,’” Swan said.

Swan takes those ideas and for­mu­lates a con­crete plan with goals and objec­tives and sees the project through to the point of eval­u­at­ing how effec­tive it was after implementation.

IN 2009, RJS helped the Chippewa Cree tribe secure the fed­eral grant to build the new deten­tion facil­ity and police head­quar­ters. The tribe also used more than $1 mil­lion of its own money to con­struct the new Chippewa Cree Tribal Jus­tice Center.

Accord­ing to tribal offi­cials, when the tribe applied for the grant that paid for the con­struc­tion of the jus­tice cen­ter, the Chippewa Cree planned on receiv­ing the oper­at­ing money for the facil­ity from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. How­ever, they only received a third of what they expected.

The cen­ter con­sists of two wings that are nearly iden­ti­cal. Each side has 18 cells, nine for men and nine for women, with a con­crete slab topped with a thin pad for a bed, a stain­less steel toi­let and sink, and a mir­ror bolted to the wall.

Sue LaMere toured the build­ing after con­struc­tion and has seen where Jared could have spent his time.

LaMere’s son could have played cards on a con­crete pic­nic table in a com­mu­nal area that occu­pies the space between the cells and the outer secure wall. Inmates are allowed to social­ize there, and he would have been with peo­ple from his community.

The closed juvenile detention center also affects family members of the juveniles, such as Sue Lamere. Her son, Jared, committed a more serious offense, so the tribal courts decided he needed to be incarcerated for a longer period of time. Her son has spent the last two years in a Bureau of Indian Affairs’ facility in Busby, seven hours away on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.He could have eaten meals from the full kitchen and played bas­ket­ball in the jus­tice center’s indoor recre­ation room.

LaMere also saw the vis­i­ta­tion area, a room, just min­utes from her home, that she said would have ben­e­fited her son more than anything.

Jared has been detained on the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion for more than two years.

At first LaMere tried to visit him every cou­ple weeks, depend­ing on her finances. It was dif­fi­cult telling her son she couldn’t make it if he asked her to come when he had a hard week.

You don’t want to tell your kid that’s in jail, incar­cer­ated, that you can’t come down because you don’t have the money,” LaMere said. “We have to fig­ure out, like, I’m going to skip this bill this month because I need to be there for him.”

Now she vis­its about once a month and makes sure she has extra funds to cover any emergencies.

AN EMPTY juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter could say good things about a com­mu­nity. All the chil­dren obey the law and their par­ents. They go to class and they never drink, smoke, or mess with drugs. But in Rocky Boy’s, they export their trou­bled youth.

The grant cov­ered only con­struc­tion costs. Oper­a­tional expenses seem to have been over­looked. The tribe still has not man­aged to find a way to pay for staff because of the more exten­sive needs of juve­nile detention.

The tribe would have to pay for edu­ca­tion pro­grams and hire tutors. Cor­rec­tions offi­cers would be required to undergo addi­tional train­ing to mon­i­tor minors. The facil­ity would also need trained, spe­cial­ized counselors.

The jail sits empty because the tribal gov­ern­ment can’t afford the required personnel.

LaMere lost con­tact with her son even before he was sent to Busby to serve his sentence.

Steve Henry, lieu­tenant of oper­a­tions of the Rocky Boy’s Police Depart­ment, said chil­dren charged with seri­ous crimes are sent to the near­est active deten­tion cen­ter in Great Falls, 100 miles and nearly two hours away.

Some­times, youths are hand­cuffed to chairs for up to four hours, wait­ing to be transported.The juvenile detention center sits empty not because of lack of crime, but because of lack of funding. Jim Swan, his late father Robert Swan and their grant writers secured $12.5 million of the $14 million required to build the structure, but it was not enough to run the entire center. The tribe managed to open the adult side using their compact dollars.

Send­ing juve­niles to Great Falls does not come free either. Accord­ing to Henry, it costs the tribe $210 for every day the child is detained.

Henry said his daugh­ter was sent to Great Falls juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter before being held in Busby.

He said she faced racial prej­u­dice by some of the staff mem­bers there and he ques­tions the qual­i­fi­ca­tions and knowl­edge of the peo­ple pro­vid­ing treatment.

Rus­sell Hoell con­sid­ers him­self a full-time activist and was once a court advo­cate in Rocky Boy’s. He has had two chil­dren go through the juve­nile crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, and he said the Great Falls deten­tion cen­ter is not a good place for Chippewa Cree youth.

Accord­ing to Hoell, the offi­cers there don’t know the chil­dren under their supervision.

He said there are mul­ti­ple self-identifying gangs on Rocky Boy’s, and when they get sent to Great Falls, that is not taken into con­sid­er­a­tion. When they are detained in the same hold­ing areas, vio­lence can break out, accord­ing to Hoell, who said his son was a mem­ber of one of the gangs.

The Great Falls Juve­nile Deten­tion Cen­ter is the clos­est option for the Rocky Boy’s Police Depart­ment, but in some cases, they have no option at all.

Police in Rocky Boy’s can’t detain minors arrested for pos­ses­sion of con­trolled sub­stances or intox­i­ca­tion. Great Falls won’t accept juve­niles for such small offences. Juve­niles fre­quently skip court dates and because of exist­ing tribal laws they aren’t punished.

Henry said this is all well known on the reser­va­tion, and juve­niles take advan­tage of it.

Tribal police can’t hold intox­i­cated chil­dren at the jus­tice cen­ter long enough to sober up, and Henry said the depart­ment is forced to release them back to the same envi­ron­ment that caused the ini­tial arrest. Some­times that leads to a juve­nile being arrested mul­ti­ple times in one day.

I’ve taken a kid home, I dropped her off,” Henry said. “(I) stood there at the door, said, ‘You going to go in and go to bed?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I’ll behave.’ Got in my vehi­cle, got to the end of the block, and dis­patcher is send­ing me right back to the house because she’s fist-fighting with mom.”

ROCKY BOY’S Busi­ness Coun­cil mem­ber Dustin Whit­ford said the tribe doesn’t even want to use the word deten­tion when describ­ing the new facil­ity. He said the focus should be on treat­ment and recov­ery for men­tal health and addiction.

Sue LaMere’s son is set to be released this month but she said he could have ben­e­fited from time spent in the facil­ity Whit­ford imagines.

After his incar­cer­a­tion, he was coun­seled for anger man­age­ment issue,s and doc­tors have diag­nosed him with ADHD and bipo­lar dis­or­der. LaMere said the diag­noses changed fre­quently and it cre­ated frus­tra­tion for her fam­ily. She never spoke to his health care providers because of the dis­tance. She felt dis­con­nected from his treatment.

Lenore Myers-Nault is the direc­tor of White Sky Hope Cen­ter, an addic­tion treat­ment cen­ter on Rocky Boy’s. She said fam­i­lies can some­times become a bar­rier in the reha­bil­i­ta­tion process for teens, but fam­ily sup­port is vital for success.

Roland Nez, the adult probation officer for the Chippewa Cree tribe, says hello to an inmate on the adult portion of the detention center. Nez is the tribe’s only adult probation officer, so he has made contact with almost every person that is incarcerated. While she thinks incar­cer­a­tion is more harm­ful than help­ful for less severe offend­ers, she said it can be pro­duc­tive for trou­bled youth who lack sup­port from their families.

We’re not focus­ing on jail-based pro­grams, but it’s hard to get peo­ple through the door,” Myers-Nault said. “The fam­i­lies are like, ‘I don’t want my chil­dren in jail, but they’re still deal­ing with addictions.’”

Although Myers-Nault said White Sky has no com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the jus­tice cen­ter regard­ing juve­nile ser­vices, she does have staff trained to work with youth.

Whit­ford said pro­vid­ing the ser­vices in-house would also allow them to incor­po­rate cul­tural aspects in their treat­ment. Even though the Busby juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter is located on a reser­va­tion, it’s a dif­fer­ent tribe and that needs to be con­sid­ered because there are dif­fer­ent cus­toms and beliefs.

LaMere thinks the dis­tance from his fam­ily has been more dif­fi­cult for him than any­thing and hin­dered his long-term goals. His grand­mother is ill, and because of the dis­tance, he never gets to see her.

He shouldn’t have had to go to all these places and be incar­cer­ated some­where when we have our own facil­ity that’s here. You know we don’t have the money to run it, we don’t have the trained staff to do it, but if he had been here at least he would be with our own peo­ple,” LaMere said.

I think he could get more help. He would be more com­fort­able. He would be, I guess, calmer. Calmer because his fam­ily would be around him and he would not have the lone­li­ness that he has to live with.”

JIM SWAN said pro­grams with­out self-supporting busi­ness plans often die when the fed­eral dol­lars stop com­ing in. Devel­op­ing a plan to keep pro­grams run­ning after their grants end has become more impor­tant to get­ting fund­ing in recent years.

We have to think about sus­tain­abil­ity three years down the road, five years down the road, know­ing full well things are going to change,” Swan said.

Accord­ing to him, the state of econ­omy and chang­ing project lead­er­ship are two of the biggest fac­tors that lead to changes in avail­able financ­ing. He has to “look through a crys­tal ball” when he writes an appli­ca­tion and try to pre­dict how the tribe can get through unfore­seen obstacles.

When the tribe real­ized it would not have enough money to oper­ate the juve­nile facil­ity, it was left scram­bling for a shot in the arm. They iden­ti­fied and applied for a grant with the poten­tial to open the juve­nile wing of the jus­tice center.

Beau Mitchell, the Rock Boy’s plan­ning and devel­op­ment direc­tor, said the Edward Byrne grant is highly com­pet­i­tive but could get the ball rolling on a path to the center’s sus­tain­abil­ity. He said get­ting the money to open the facil­ity would cre­ate pos­si­ble rev­enue streams that could at least par­tially cover its oper­a­tional costs.

Like Jim Swan, Mitchell left the reser­va­tion to pur­sue his edu­ca­tion but came back to make a pos­i­tive impact on his community.

The busi­ness coun­cil called on him to find ways to free up money for the tribal ser­vices, and he decided to take a pro­gres­sive approach.

They asked how they could make cuts. Instead, I looked how to make rev­enue,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell wrote a busi­ness plan out­lin­ing steps the tribe can take to make the juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter self-sustaining. He said instead of pay­ing to send kids to Great Falls, they can open their facil­ity to neigh­bor­ing reservations.

It’s con­flict­ing because your oper­a­tion is con­tin­gent on peo­ple com­mit­ting crimes,” Mitchell said.Steve Henry, lieutenant of operations for the Rocky Boy Police Department, and fellow officers have to deal with the consequences of a non-functioning juvenile detention center on a daily basis. Juveniles have caught on to the fact that if they cooperate with the office, they are merely cited and can evade detention.

But he thinks that it makes good busi­ness sense. The tribe can offer a ser­vice and make it the best avail­able by hav­ing a con­ve­nient loca­tion and offer­ing higher qual­ity treat­ment by incor­po­rat­ing other tribal enti­ties like White Sky Hope Center.

We have all the pieces here. We just need to orga­nize them and put them together,” Mitchell said.

Accord­ing to Swan, pro­grams with mea­sur­able suc­cess, like grad­u­a­tion rates or recidi­vism reduc­tion, have a bet­ter chance at sur­vival even if they aren’t self sus­tain­ing. He can use that data to make an appli­ca­tion for another grant more competitive.

If Rocky Boy’s juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter opens, the suc­cess of the facil­ity and its pro­grams will improve its odds at receiv­ing future grant money, thereby mak­ing ser­vices sus­tain­able, if not grant free, in Swan’s opinion.

The best way I’d like to approach the sec­tion of sus­tain­abil­ity on the front end really doesn’t fly so well, but we’re going to come back and ask you for another grant. If we’re telling the truth, that’s likely what we’re going to do.”