Washington state takes steps to respect Indian prisoners' religious rights

An article in the Seattle Times explains how in 2010 the Washington state Department of Corrections stripped American Indians in its 12 prisons of virtually all their religious and spiritual practices when a religious programs manager outlawed tribal sacred medicines, barred fry bread and salmon for breaking traditional fasts, and altered what inmates could store as sacred items.

On June 9, however, Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail signed various Indian religious-freedom reforms into agency policy before Gov. Chris Gregoire and tribal leaders.

The author states: “Remarkably, the state not only corrected its gaffe, but also embraced the notion of Indian self-determination as a solution. The unexpected turnaround began, quite surprisingly, with an apology. Last summer after eight tribes wrote the governor decrying the discriminatory practices, Vail met with tribal leaders. Instead of blaming the state budget crisis or mincing First Amendment law, he simply said he was sorry. He and his agency made a mistake. He promised to fix that mistake.”

Nez Percé Indian law professor Doug Nash provided historical perspective at a recent Seattle University Law School forum. In 40 years of representing Northwest tribes, frequently against state government, he could not recall another situation in which tribal and state leaders resolved their differences with an apology followed by a concerted joint effort to fix the situation — in other words, not via federal or state court litigation catalyzed by discord.”

Read more.

I litigated cases like this in the 1990s against Oregon state prison officials. We also negotiated issues about providing sweat lodges for inmates that did not entail litigation. It is a pleasure to see tribal and state governments work together to settle these kinds of issues.

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