God and Man at Stillwater

CHAMBERS ET AL. v. Wood et al. is shaping up into a hard-fought battle over inmates' religious freedom at Stillwater state prison, and should, by the time a decision is handed down in U.S. District Court later this year, redefine the balance between prisoners' constitutional rights and the Department of Corrections' ability to limit them.

The suit, filed last fall and amended in December, charges that prison officials have "with deliberate and evil motive" systematically restricted the spiritual practices of Native Americans incarcerated at Stillwater, and lists a host of examples ranging from the desecration of sacred items--eagle feathers tossed in a toilet, medicine bags and pipes seized--to the curtailing of traditional sweat lodge and prayer ceremonies. On another, related motion for temporary relief, the 15 plaintiffs also allege that prison officials have conspired in acts of retribution against members of the American Indian Folklore Group who initiated the suit--transferring two leaders to other prisons (one to maximum-security Oak Park Heights, one to Iowa, both without explanation), segregating others, conducting unusual cell searches, and severely limiting the time and conduct of group meetings with attorneys and advisers, all with the aim of splintering the movement and dissuading other inmates from joining forces.

"What we've got here," plaintiff's attorney Jordan Kushner said last week, "is the first case in Minnesota filed by Native American inmates under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act"--a piece of legislation passed by the 1993 Congress intended to safeguard First Amendment rights to religious expression, and which has prompted several successful suits by inmates in other states. "Prisons are such an obvious place where government can restrict one's religious rights. The ways in which these [Native American religious] practices are misunderstood and disregarded are astounding. With this suit, we're demanding equal protection under the law."

The 39-page complaint reads as much like a legal document as a lay manual on indigenous spirituality as a "way of life" for Lakota/Dakota and Ojibwe inmates. The most serious charges include the absence of a paid Native American consultant "in equity with other employed Chaplains, Catholic priests, Orthodox and Christians" available to inmates on a daily basis; new policies that ban the use of sacred objects such as personal pipes, sage, headbands, and beadwork, as well as denying access to meetings with medicine men and spiritual advisers; the habitual separation and segregation of native prisoners in remote cells; and the requirement that ceremonies take place in the Christian chapel on site, a rule the plaintiffs find especially objectionable.

For their part, several of the 13 named DOC officials have filed affidavits defending Stillwater's actions. Associate Warden David Crist and others cite "security concerns for staff" as the motivation behind many of the new procedures affecting native inmates. Ceremonies were relocated from the cafeteria--where they'd been held for years--to the chapel because, Crist said, "the cafeteria contains all of [Stillwater's] food service equipment, which consists mainly of large, heavy, expensive appliances... that could potentially be utilized as weapons."

Steve Hokonson, Stillwater's chaplain since 1993, said that as of January 1, sage and cedar burning would be permitted only in the chapel rather than in private cells, due to the possibility that inmates might use sacred pipes to mask the odor of marijuana--an explanation that plaintiffs call specious, as drug use is considered incompatible with traditional beliefs. The chaplain said he arranged for purification and smudging ceremonies, along with a 10-minute evening group prayer, as a good faith commitment to "providing opportunities for all inmates to practice their faith," though only one Native American (Christian) inmate is known to have attended. The chapel, according to Hokonson, is a nondenominational ecumenical space appropriate for all religions--outfitted with a podium, a piano, and, should need be, a "removable cross."

The Minnesota correctional system is noted for having one of the largest Native American populations in the country. By all parties' estimates, there are 75 inmates at Stillwater who practice in the traditional way, and all have either signed onto the request for class-action status or supported the suit by petition. As a basis for the complaint, which is asking for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, they point to a recent study which found that only 7 percent of Native American prisoners who practiced indigenous religious rituals while incarcerated reoffended, compared to nearly 40 percent of those who did not--evidence, they say, that accommodating traditional practices behind bars is not only good for the individual spirit but good for the prison system as a whole.

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