Contrary to a recent report by a Montana State University scholar, Montana Department of Corrections officials say they’re diligently protecting the religious rights of American Indians in the state’s prison system.
In fact, they say, the department has recently incorporated new rules that expand religious freedoms, and most inmates, including Indians, have ample opportunity to practice any religion they choose.
“I think we’re pretty liberal compared to other states,” says Dave Ohler, the agency’s chief legal counsel. As proof, he notes that very few religious-rights lawsuits are filed by Montana prisoners, while other jurisdictions are awash in such complaints.
“We’re trying to accommodate them as much as we can,” adds Montana State Prison spokeswoman Linda Moodry, who contends the report, detailed in an earlier Independent story [“Rites and Wrongs,” March 2-March 9], is one-sided and largely inaccurate.
The 26-page document, compiled by Alexandra Witkin-New Holy, an assistant professor at MSU’s Center for Native American Studies, blasts the department for allegedly treating Indian inmates unfairly when it comes to religious practices. The study also contends that discrimination against Indians is rampant throughout the state’s criminal justice system.
Witkin-New Holy says her report is based on “a three-inch stack” of inmate correspondence, internal complaints, state and federal documents, and memos from former state Indian affairs coordinator Wyman McDonald, who retired in December. Witkin-New Holy did not seek responses from the Corrections Department before the document was released.
Now that they’ve had time to review her work, however, state administrators claim Witkin-New Holy was misled by Indian prisoners seeking sympathy, as well as increased power among their fellow convicts. They also point out that several of the conflicts cited in the report have long been resolved, while others, such as rules regarding the possession of sacred pipes, are being worked out.
“I stick behind my report,” Witkin-New Holy said last week when contacted at her Bozeman home. “There’s been a lack of clarity about what [Indian inmates] can have and what they can’t have. There’s been a trend of taking away.
“I definitely don’t think I was played off by certain inmates,” she added. “That’s just an easy way for the prison to avoid looking at this.”
Most Indian prisoners at the men’s facility are allowed to take ceremonial sweats every Saturday in a willow lodge set up outside the prison’s chapel. A tipi is also erected nearby. The prisoners sweat in approximately four-hour shifts, with the low-security side going first and the high-security side following later. Inmates locked down for disciplinary reasons and those in maximum security are not allowed to participate.
As with the prison’s other religious groups, the Indian inmates must have a sponsor and security officers present before their ceremonies can begin, Moodry says. Sponsors can come from the outside, but they must receive volunteer training beforehand. Several prison employees also serve as sponsors when outsiders can’t make the trip, she says, and contrary to the report, two Indian prisoners serve on the facility’s Inmate Council, which among other functions has a role in developing policies. Moodry also notes that smudging ceremonies, where sage, cedar, sweetgrass and other plant materials are burned, are allowed in the prison chapel. Witkin-New Holy contends, however, that Indian inmates should be allowed to use the sweat lodge and smudge as frequently as Christian inmates can use their facility.
Father Herbert Pins, a Catholic priest who works at the men’s prison, says he’s seen marked improvement in religious tolerance in the two years he’s been involved with the programs.
“I’m pretty aggressive about supporting the religious rights of all groups,” he says, adding that 22 different religions are officially recognized at the prison, including a small number of inmates who practice witchcraft.
Pins says that when he first started, “I didn’t think all religious rights were being validated, especially Native Americans.” That belief prompted him to research religious-rights issues in other areas of the country, as well as seek guidance from priests around Montana who regularly work with Indians.
The effort, he says, has led to an improved religious climate not only for Indian inmates, but for all other groups, as well. He adds that new religious programming policies that he and others helped develop were adopted by prison administrators in early December. While the religious policies and procedures aren’t perfect, things are improving, he contends.
“We’re still hammering it out,” Pins says. “Humbly, we’re realizing that we need to make some adjustments. We are doing our best to have them practice their religions.”
Steve Griffin, activities coordinator at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, says Indian inmates there are probably given wider latitude when it comes to religious activities, in part because the facility is smaller than the men’s prison. Sweetgrass, cedar and other sacred items can be burned by women inmates, but as at the men’s prison, the materials are locked up until they’re requested. Indian spiritual advisors are also allowed to visit, but the women prisoners can’t sweat because of a ban on open fires within city limits.
“We just try to accommodate as much as we can without compromising security,” Griffin says. At the new Crossroads Correctional Center outside Shelby, the state’s first privately run prison, officials say similar policies have been incorporated and a sweat lodge, used bi-weekly, sits on the grounds. Indian women at Crossroads can have their own ceremonial sweats, says assistant warden Bill Boothe.
Nonetheless, Witkin-New Holy maintains that a culture of intolerance pervades the prison system, and Indian prisoners are still getting the shaft.
“I do think there’s some serious problems there,” she says. “There seems to be a real ignorance on the part of prison officials.”