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08-30-2003, 01:10 PM
Prison, American Indian inmates settle lawsuit
By SHAWN WHITE WOLF
Helena Independent Record

HELENA – Montana State Prison officials and American Indian inmates reached a settlement out of court recently over alleged religious discrimination by prison officials.


The inmates’ complaint pinpointed 16 different ways in which prison officials allegedly misused Department of Corrections policies to shut down or limit American Indians’ traditional religious practices while allowing non-Indian denominations to function with less or no intrusion.


Even though prison officials agreed to settle with the complainants, the settlement agreement states that prison officials aren’t admitting to any violation of law or other wrongdoing.


Inmates Manuel Redwoman, Danny A. Arledge, Wayne Brown and Bill Smock filed a complaint against the MSP with the Human Rights Bureau in November 2002.


The inmates said prison officials belittled and oppressed American Indians by limiting and/or confiscating religious materials or by direct verbal attacks on American Indian ethnicity, culture and religion.


For example, inmates stated that their dream catchers, rattles, medicine wheels, bone chokers and medicine bags were confiscated under a policy that stated the items must be store bought and ordered through Father Pins, a Catholic priest, or such items were considered contraband.


Corrections officials didn’t return telephone calls Wednesday.


Another complaint stated that American Indian decorated feathers and medicine bags were being confiscated because of the colors and designs of the beadwork.


Inmates said the colors and designs in the beadwork represented a person’s standing and clan within a tribe.


The inmates in several of the complaints said that other denominations, like Catholic, Buddhists and Muslims, were all allowed their religious items, such as the various styles of religious related beadwork or hats.


Chaplains and spiritual advisers from various denominations, under a “Religious Programs and Services Policy,” also received a budget that provided for adequate delivery of religious programs and services.


However, the inmates stated that prison officials have yet to provide a budget to allow American Indian spiritual advisers to come into the prison.


Still, the High Side Prayer Warriors, a spiritual group, said they were told that no outside organizations were allowed to donate their religious items.


The prison policy states that any religious supplies, such as items needed for prayer times, have to be donated from a certified national body of a particular religious group.


The prayer warriors felt that under this policy the tribes and Indian alliances should be allowed to donate religious supplies as other faiths are allowed to do.


In addition, inmates stated that prison officials have allegedly made direct verbal attacks on both American Indian inmates and American Indian volunteers.


In some instances, the inmates alleged that prison officials referred to the volunteers who enter the prison for traditional American Indian religious activities as “Indian lovers.”


The settlement included several revisions to the prison’s religious policy statements.


The prison’s policy statement on religious programs and services was revised to prevent discrimination against any faith groups.


The objective of the new policy is to equitably distribute religious resources for the benefit of all offenders and to protect the religious rights of inmates of all faiths.


Also, prison officials agreed to provide one religious coordinator position and two non-denominational religious adviser positions.


A revision of another policy included statements that said religious activities, in consultation with religious advisers, are open to the entire inmate population, without regard to race, color, nationality or, ordinarily, creed.


The revision to the searches and contraband control policy now states that a prison official wishing to search a medicine bag and pipe is only allowed to do so visually, rather than inspecting the items by hand.


Other policy revisions included changes in various religious activities that pertained to give-aways, sacred herbs, beading and sweatlodges.


The settlement stated that prison officials agreed to implement and enforce the terms of the settlement with the American Indian inmates within six months.



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Reporter Shawn White Wolf can be reached 447-4028 or shawn.whitewolf@helenair.com.


Thursday, July 10, 2003