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Prisons offer sweat lodges to Indian inmates

Many prisons around the country are allowing ceremonial saunas for American Indian inmates, just as they offer religious services for prisoners of other faiths.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Melvin Martin was once seething behind bars. But the Navajo inmate says these days he is feeling relaxed, respectful and reconnected to his culture — all because of weekly sessions in a traditional Indian sweat lodge.

Many prisons around the country are allowing ceremonial saunas for American Indian inmates, just as they offer religious services for prisoners of other faiths.

Prison officials have learned that sweat lodges — which are supposed to cleanse the body, mind and soul — can have a calming influence on inmates and help keep order behind bars.

Martin, 40, is serving a federal sentence for assault at the privately run Torrance County Detention Center, which has a canvas-and-willow-branch sweat lodge.

"We look beyond these wires," he said, pointing to the fences and razor wire that separate the prison from the prairie. "Me and the brothers here, we look beyond all that, even though we know we're within. Once we get the ceremony going, our minds go back home, they go back to the places of our people, our land. We can get away from this place."

It has been three decades since the first sweat lodge was built in a Nebraska prison, but native prisoners in some states only recently won access to such religious ceremonies, and others are still fighting for it.

Security a big concern
The chief objections are usually security-related. Prison officials worry, for example, that the tobacco used in the sweat lodges will find its way back into the general prison population. Also, colored beads are used in some ceremonies, and the colors could be associated with certain gangs.

In Maine, a group of prisoners is suing for access to sweat lodges or ceremonial music and food. In New Jersey, Indian inmates are pursuing an 8-year-old lawsuit over religious rights.

Lenny Foster, a Navajo spiritual adviser and head of the tribally funded Navajo Nation Corrections Project, built his first sweat lodge for inmates at Arizona State Prison in 1980 and said he has seen the positive effects.

"The intense heat or the steam, what we call grandfather's breath, opens up not only the pores, the physical aspect, but it opens up the mind and the spirit, and there's a real purification and a cleansing of the soul that takes place," he said.

He noted that a lot of the inmates are locked up because of problems with drugs, alcohol and anger.

A right and a privilege
"They need to detox and purify themselves so they have a clarity of mind and realize the mistake that they made that led them into prison," he said.

To prison officials in Torrance County, the sweat lodge is both a right and a privilege for prisoners. As long as they behave, prisoners can look forward to sweating on the weekend.

"Having an inmate spiritually look within themselves and leave their services a different person, even for a while, that's helpful to us security-wise," said prison spokeswoman Ivonne Riley. "Security is the No. 1 thing, but anything to help anybody to make it a little better, we look forward to that."

Riley said a few inmates take advantage of the sweat lodge as a way to spend time outside and smoke tobacco, which is otherwise forbidden in prison. But she said most Indian prisoners take the lodge seriously and won't do anything to jeopardize their participation.

‘They join the sunlight’
On a recent day on the prison grounds, inmates tended to a fire surrounded with lava rocks, while others draped blankets and canvas tarps over a frame of willow branches to form the lodge. They rolled and smoked tobacco, using their free hand to catch the smoke and let it wash over themselves as they prayed.

Then they disappeared into the canvas dome, not to be seen again for about an hour, as the prison guards waited in the hot sun. The silence was eventually broken by a drum beat and chanting, after which the men crawled out of the lodge, smiling and laughing and jumping in puddles left from the rain the night before.

"We tell them that they're free when they're out here," Foster said. "They join the sunlight, the fresh air, the wind."

Martin, who is from Crownpoint, N.M., on the Navajo reservation, said the sweat lodge "keeps me with a sound mind."