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  • mcprison mcprison Feb 16, 2001 12:59 PM Flag

    Indians sue in NM

    The Associated Press State & Local Wire

    February 16, 2001, Friday, BC cycle

    11:10 AM Eastern Time

    SECTION: State and Regional

    LENGTH: 449 words

    HEADLINE: Indian inmates sue for religious freedom

    DATELINE: SANTA FE, N.M.

    BODY:

    Nine American Indian inmates have sued New Mexico officials,
    contending they
    are being denied religious freedom and are being discriminated against
    on the
    basis of race.

    The prisoners, who seek more than $400 million in punitive damages,
    sued
    Florida-based Wackenhut Corrections Corp., Department of Corrections
    Secretary
    Rob Perry and five other prison officials, including Jerry Mondragon
    Jr., prison
    coordinator of Native American programs.

    Wackenhut spokeswoman Margaret Pearson and Corrections Department
    spokesman
    Gerges Scott had no comment because the lawsuit is pending. It was
    filed this
    month in state district court here.

    State and federal laws require prisons to let Indians practice their
    religion. Inmates must provide proof of their heritage, but then they
    must be
    allowed access to spiritual advisers and materials used for religious
    ceremonies
    on a regular basis.

    Denying religious freedom to Indian prisoners "sets back the hope,
    the
    positive outlook about life," said Lenny Foster, a spiritual adviser
    and
    director of the Navajo Nation Corrections Project, which provides
    spiritual
    counseling for Indian inmates. "It sets in a real depression, and it
    establishes
    a lot of tension, frustration and anger."

    "The trend in this country toward providing or having spiritual
    services is
    becoming very strict and stern toward Native Americans because of the
    misunderstanding and ignorance of Native American practices," Foster
    said.

    "Native American beliefs ... are not within the ordinary
    understanding of
    what religion is," he said from his office in Window Rock, Ariz., the
    Navajo
    Nation's capital.

    Some of the inmates, who belong to a group called Red Nation Indian
    Society,
    admit being involved in an April 1999 disturbance that followed
    complaints about
    denial of religious freedom at the Wackenhut-run Lea County
    Correctional
    Facility in Hobbs, the lawsuit said.

    The nine inmates allege that after they formed a self-help group in
    1998,
    Warden Joseph Williams began to dismantle the programs and activities
    they had
    set up.

    The inmates were allowed to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies,
    but there
    were problems, "including outright refusal to provide firewood." The
    prisoners
    allege they were forced to use chemically treated wood with toxins that
    could
    cause serious medical problems.

    They also allege their religious ceremonies were interrupted or
    stopped on
    several occasions, and that some of their religious items, including a
    ceremonial drum and eagle feathers, were confiscated.

    They said complaints about their treatment fell on deaf ears, "so
    that the
    abuses and racial harassment continued unabated," the lawsuit said.

 
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