Under an agreement signed last month, Seattle-based United Indians will provide religious services in the state’s 12 prisons, which, as of Dec. 2010, hold 1,620 American Indian/Alaska Native-affiliated inmates (though the actual population could be much more because many inmates don’t identify themselves as Native). The goal of the effort is to not only help offenders gain a greater sense of who they are but also to assist them transition more seamlessly into their respective communities.
“It’s extremely important for Indian Country to work collaboratively with the DOC to ensure Native inmates can freely exercise tribal religion, particularly as a means of rehabilitation and preparing them for their return to tribal communities and mainstream society,” said United Indians Vice Chairman Gabriel Galanda.
United Indians will begin by conducting a needs assessment to determine what Native American inmates need in terms of Indian religion and spirituality. It will also administer the contracts and training of Native religious service providers, including the DOC’s Native chaplains, which, Galanda said, will bring some authenticity to the program. The types of religious services that it will provide include sweat lodge and change of seasons ceremonies, summer pow wows, drumming circles and one-on-one spiritual outreach to inmates.
Before this partnership, Native inmates in Washington prisons were being deprived of their religious rights, Galanda said. The number of sweat lodge ceremonies that they could participate in had been reduced; tobacco and other sacred herbs and medicines were banned as were frybread, salmon and other traditional foods used in spiritual ceremonies.
In Aug. 2010, the Swinomish, Lower Elwha Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Suquamish and Puyallup tribes and the Yakama Nation sent letters to Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and DOC Secretary Eldon Vail to express their concerns over the treatment their incarcerated tribal members were receiving. They demanded the restoration of these inmates’ religious rights.
“This partnership will enable the Department to more effectively and efficiently meet the religious requirements and cultural needs of the Native community while maintaining staff and offender safety,” said Vail.
Galanda said, “United Indians’ oversight of tribal religious programming is a spectacular exercise of Indian self-determination, in a space where that is not often allowed — state prisons.”