HEADLINE: Indian inmates sue for religious freedom
DATELINE: SANTA FE, N.M.
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.