PHOENIX – Selso Villegas knows the criminal justice system well. His daughter has battled a drug addiction for years, so for the past decade, he has cared for his grandchildren, including two grandsons who have been incarcerated. But as an American Indian, Villegas and his family face additional hurdles.
“We were conquered and we were put on reservations, isolated,” said Villegas, executive director of water resources for the Tohono O’odham Nation. “So I think our biggest problem for young men and women is that we were stripped from our social development.”
Villegas’ grandsons are a part of a disproportionately large group of American Indians held in southern Arizona jails. Data from the Safety and Justice Challenge – which is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – shows that Native Americans are 1.8 times as likely as white Americans to be booked into a Pima County jail.
“Racial bias and racial bias compounded by poverty or economic struggle really make certain communities much more vulnerable to getting involved in and trapped up in the criminal legal system,” said Valena Beety, a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
Villegas blames colonization for the situation Native Americans are in today.
“We were conquered, and we’re put on reservations, isolated,” he said. “So I think our biggest problem for young men and women or men is that we were stripped from our social development.”
Every year in the United States, more than 10 million people are jailed, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Safety and Justice Institute says about 75% of them are behind bars for nonviolent offenses related to traffic, property, drug or public order offenses. And, since 2000, the Native American jail population nationwide is up 85%, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
The vast majority of people in jail are awaiting trial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of any crime. And jail time for any reason can have a cascading effect.
“Even three days of being in jail can mean you lose your job,” Beety said. “That can mean you’re abandoning your children legally, so your custody of your children could be in question.”
The Arizona Department of Health Services and Yavapai County Community Health Services confirmed Arizona’s first known case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant on Dec. 8.
Although some initial data from the South African Medical Research Council indicates the Omicron variant may have less severe symptoms than previous mutations, health officials advise the public to receive vaccinations or booster shots if they have already gotten vaccinated.
Pfizer-BioNTech released preliminary results from a non-peer-reviewed study showing the Pfizer COVID-19 two-dose vaccination series will somewhat neutralize the omicron variant, but three doses is most effective.
“I think that this finding from Pfizer should be reassuring and should reaffirm to people how important it is for them to get a booster and if they are not vaccinated to please seek vaccination as soon as possible, especially with the holidays coming up,” Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said during a Dec. 8 press conference.
As scientists race to understand Omicron, vaccines are the best option to avoid national shutdowns. Cullen said that people who are vaccinated protect themselves, their families and their communities.
“While it is not the only way out of this pandemic, it is an essential component for us to be able to move forward and to start recovering,” Cullen said.