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Rites and Wrongs

Report cites dismal religious rights for Indians in prison

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Most every Saturday, rain, sleet or shine, the Montana State Prison Prayer Warriors erect their tipi and pull tight the lashings of their homemade sweat lodge, under the watchful eyes of guards.

Situated between the low-security compound and “max,” where the worst of state’s convicts reside, those twin emblems of Native American culture seem sorely out of place next to the prison chapel, the embodiment of the dominant class. But while the white man can still lock and chain the prison gate, an uneasy truce with the Montana Department of Corrections enables at least some Indian inmates to set themselves free each week before their Creator. It is a slim spiritual existence, but one that keeps the most devout aligned to the mental place they need to be.

“The philosophy of the thing is to pray along the lines of the Sun Dance and the Pipe Dance for their survival while they’re in the joint, especially for the young guys,” says Wyman McDonald, a member of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes who recently retired from his job as Gov. Marc Racicot’s state coordinator of Indian affairs.

But cultural renewal can be fleeting for the inmates. Indian prisoners in maximum security, as well as others who are locked down for disciplinary reasons, are not allowed to partake in the weekly sweat. And while white Christian inmates—if they keep their noses clean—are allowed a variety of religious privileges, Indian prisoners are prevented from fully practicing their native rites, according to a new report by Montana State University researcher Alexandra Witkin-New Holy.

Witkin-New Holy, an assistant professor in MSU’s Center for Native American Studies, contends Indian inmates’ religious rights are being violated at the prison, and they’re treated in the same racist manner as on the outside. McDonald, who frequently visited Prayer Warrior prisoners when he worked for the state, says he agrees.

“Having the sweat is a continual problem,” McDonald says, explaining that the prison requires “supervisory security” and outside sponsors to be present while Indians prisoners pray and sing. “They don’t have that for any other race but Indians. But every week is a problem. They go through the same bullshit.”

According to McDonald and Witkin-New Holy, who reached their conclusions independently, prison officials have reneged on agreements with the Prayer Warriors, confiscated sacred pipes and rattles, emptied medicine bags, and displayed an overall intolerance of native peoples and rituals.

“The pipe to them is their life raft,” McDonald says. “They didn’t need to [take away] that. There’s no tolerance at all.”

“Native Americans should be able to pray at the sweat lodge, with smudge, and with the sacred pipe as frequently and as easily as Christian inmates can pray at the chapel,” Witkin-New Holy adds in her study.

Corrections officials were asked to respond to the allegations and suggestions raised in the report, but no one contacted had yet seen the 26-page document, which was completed just before McDonald left office in December. Prison spokeswoman Linda Moodry promised responses later this week.

Rep. Carol Juneau, a Browning Democrat who has taken a strong interest in justice system issues, notes that 34 percent of all inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison and 17 percent of the men’s prison population are Indian. That compares to Indians numbering less than 7 percent of Montana’s total population, according to 1990 Census figures.

Witkin-New Holy and McDonald contend that Native Americans could be more easily rehabilitated if they were allowed to incorporate more of their native ways, especially in treatment and training programs. But now, they say, Indians lack social standing inside prison, as well as outside. Until that status changes and Indians retain more power within the system, their rights will continue to be diminished.

“Socially sanctioned racism can and does seep into every level of the criminal justice system from the numbers of police arrests, severity of charges, sentencing, treatment by corrections officers and parole board decisions ... ,” Witkin-New Holy writes in her report, which primarily focuses on the men’s facility. “Most will probably admit that all things being equal, whites are more likely to get a fairer shake than Indians in Montana’s criminal justice system.” Witkin-New Holy, who used inmate correspondence, state and federal documents, and memos from McDonald to bolster her report, recommends that the state, among other provisions:

• Conduct a statistical and qualitative study comparing Indian prison sentences, actual time served, and other justice-system decisions in comparison with their non-Indian brethren.

• Immediately hire an Indian advocate and counselor who could serve as a liaison between inmates and the corrections department.

• Provide anti-bias and other cultural training for all prison employees.

• Develop and implement policies designed to curb racial harassment of Indians within the prisons.

• Hire more Native Americans at all levels of the department, including administration.

• Allow maximum-security inmates and those in lockdown to have weekly sweats, at a minimum, and access to sacred items.

• Expand prison access for Indian spiritual leaders, and help pay for their travel, as is done with some Christian clergy.

• Adjust grooming policies so inmates can wear their hair, including headbands, in conformity with religious customs.

“Native American religions are unique, unwritten, and little understood by non-natives ... ,” she says. “If the Department of Corrections is unwilling to take such steps to protect the free-exercise rights of Native Americans, then the state Legislature should step up and do so before expensive and time-consuming litigation further erodes relations between all concerned parties.”

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