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New Protections for Religious Rights of Native Prisoners

Native spiritual gatherings in prison
are essential to the survival of tribal communities.

Wabanaki Legal News, Spring 2009 edition
by Paul Thibeault (opinion)

The Sipayik Criminal Justice Commission has been negotiating with the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) about restrictions on the rights of Native prisoners to practice traditional Indian religion. The negotiations were supported by the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission. As a result of these efforts, some big changes have been made:

  • Native prisoners have more access to spiritual leaders and religious materials.
  • The first-ever sweat lodge ceremonies have been held at some of the prisons and the Commissioner has agreed to have sweats at all state prisons at least four times per year.
  • In February the Maine Department of Corrections formally adopted new written rules. These rules will protect the gains that have been made and will promote better solutions as new issues come up in the future.

One of the key parts of the new rules is the formal recognition of the Wabanaki Tribal Advisory Group, appointed by the Tribes in Maine to advise the State prison authorities on Native religion. The Advisory Group includes members from all of the tribal communities in

Religious freedom for prisoners is an important issue in the context of the relationship between the Indian Tribes in Maine and the State. Compared to non-Indians, a lopsided
number of Native people, especially young adults, are confined in Maine prisons and jails. The Settlement Acts give the State jurisdiction over serious crimes on reservations by Indians. Otherwise, many of the Native American prisoners in Maine would be held in Federal and Tribal prisons rather than state prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is governed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It has policies that allow more access to Native spiritual practices than Maine has allowed in the past. The Tribal jails that exist in many parts of Indian Country allow even greater access to Native religion.

The interests of both the Tribes and the State will be served by the removal of unnecessary barriers. The new policy will promote both prison security and rehabilitation. Indian spiritual ways are rooted in a communal connection to the natural world. Prison environments make it hard for isolated Indian prisoners to hold on their traditional ways. Access to ceremonies with other Native prisoners can help them to keep their sense of personal identity, and build up their capacity to deal with the difficult challenges of prison life.

In much the same way that the Indian Child Welfare Act promotes tribal survival by preserving the connection of tribes to their children, Native spiritual gatherings in prisons are a cultural lifeline to tribal members who might otherwise be lost as human resources to their tribes.

Spring 2009

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