January 13, 2008

Prisons limit Native religion

Some American Indian inmates find few outlets to practice their traditionsThe sweet smells of red willow and sage filled the gym of the St. Louis County Jail. A long, regal pipe filled with red willow bark was passed among 10 men in blue, each inhaling deeply, escaping for a moment behind a veil of smoke.

Jeffrey Tibbetts was conducting American Indian religious ceremonies for inmates who practice the tradition, in a program that takes place each Thursday at the jail. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is concerned that not all jails offer inmates the right to practice this religion. Complaints received regarding the lack of programs at four Minnesota county jails, including Itasca County, prompted the ACLU to send each a letter.

“Native Americans have had a hard time getting their religions into prison,” said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU. “Particularly since prisons outlawed the use of tobacco. It’s a minority religion and, frankly, minorities get discriminated against.”

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