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Sweat Lodges in American Prisons (2005)

Significance of the Sweat Lodge

Sweat lodges are salient features of a remarkable number of native traditions across North America from the Great Lakes to the Southwest. From Minnesota's Mille Lacs Ojibwe to Plains communities like the Lakota to Southwestern peoples like the Navajo may use and understand the sweat lodge in different ways, but all claim the importance of preserving the integrity of the ceremony as elemental in evolving cultural traditions.

Though varying greatly from tribe to tribe, and even within a single community by different lineages of spiritual leadership, sweat lodges across Native North America involve ceremonies of prayer, healing, and renewal, involving steam emitted from heated stones within ritually constructed, highly symbolic, structures resemble the womb , are small, usually with rounded roofs, and have a single entryway facing either west or east. In the Lakota tradition, lodges are usually constructed with flexible willow poles and covered with animal skins, blankets, or canvas. Lodges elsewhere generally agree with this structural design and are built using local and accessible resources. Sweat lodges in the southwest, for example, are sometimes constructed like the traditional Lakota lodge with skins over a wooden frame, but can also be made of hardened clay. The round, circular shape of sweat lodges, pervasive across most traditions is intricately and uniquiely significant for different communities, as this discussion of Lakota lodges suggests.

Many elders and community leaders are cautious about detailing proprietary or secretive ritual knowledge concerning sweat lodge ceremonies to outsiders. Generally speaking though, the prayers, songs, and ritualized gestures of the lodge, from the design, materials, and construction of the lodge, to the heating and placement of stones inside, to the medicines involved with the steams, to the endurance of the heat, give shape and direction its personal and communal significance. Most individuals understand the challenging environment of the lodge, and the ways they physiologically and psychologically meet that challenge, as a healing, purifying, and inspiring process. The sharing of this experience creates an atmosphere of restored relations and right spirit that ca enable political negotiation, teachings of traditional knowledge, and the telling of stories. One testimony about a Lakota sweatlodge has appeared in the Argus Leader, under the title A Spirit Rekindled.

Sweat Lodges in Prison

Thousands Native people incarcerated in Federal and State prisons have expressed interest in using sweat lodges not only to maintain their personal 'religious' faith, but as a way to combat the hostile, sometimes dehumanizing experience of prison and begin their own reformative processes. Many prison chaplains and administrators have noted the benefits for inmates' rehabilitation and have been vocal advocates for sweat lodges to the community of correctional workers and administrators. Mike Linderman, speaking in the American Correctional Chaplains Association Newsletter, argued. "Since the basic concept of the sweat lodge ceremony is to provide an opportunity for its participants to cleanse themselves in order to be in the proper attitude for prayer, it causes them to evaluate their conduct, and be accountable for their actions.”

Indeed, many experts have begun to utilize the sweat lodge as a kind group therapy for Native and non-Native youth in reform programs. The author of "Sweat Therapy" from The Journal of Experimental Education notes many important benefits of using sweating as a medium for group therapy. Specifically, the author praises the process as being a "challenging experience while promoting therapeutic factors beneficial to group psychotherapy" and cited evidence that it "promoted moral-cognitive development, and fortified cultural identity."

These findings are significant in supporting a secondary claim by advocates of sweat lodge use in prison, that it is a constructive and beneficial process to all parties involved in the correctional system. According to the Navajo Nation Corrections Project, the potential for encouraging healthy growth of prisoners is tremendous, as is the potential for asserting the rights of all citizens to religious freedom. Importantly though, many advocates hasten to point out that the sweat lodge is not solely religious in nature: it is, like so many facets of Native American religious traditions, also a practice promoting health, hygiene, and general well being, with meanings that are as cultural as they are religious.

Struggles to Obtain Sweat Lodges

The United States Bureau of Prisons website states that "Inmates can observe religious holy days and wear and use religious items consistent with their faith as long as this is consistent with policy and with the security, safety, and good order of the institution." The element of subjectivity in this statement is an ambiguity that has plagued prisoners, judges, prison officials, and activists alike. For while the positive construction of the statement might seem to give deference to the rights of prisoners to practice freely, the issue of security is no insignificant trump. The legislative and judicial history of religious practice in prisons-- particularly with respect to members of minority traditions-- betrays a deep and present difference of interpretation of this subjectivity.

Ostensibly, the language used in both Bureau of Prisons and American Correctional Association documentation seems to focus on the principle of free and equal access, as found in statements like "Offenders...should be afforded the opportunity to engage in productive work, participate in programs including education, vocational training, religion..." (link here) and "Recognizing the existence of differing religious faiths, correctional systems must be guided by principles not only of voluntary participation, but of equity of opportunity for the practice of religions represented within the offender population." (link here) from the ACA website. Given the fact that mainstream religions are reguraly practiced and supported in correctional systems and given the commitment of "Bureau staff [to]...not discriminate against inmates on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or political belief" (link here) it would seem that administrators would have little room to deny prisoners rights to free practice.

However the complex judicial history of this issue-- rigorously documented in Religion Behind Bars, a piece by Jason Richardson and also through the Pluralism Project website-- suggests otherwise. Perhaps the most careful consideration of this issue occured in the case O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, wherein Muslim prisoners were denied the opportunity to practice the weekly Jumu'ah prayer because of logistical and security concerns. Justice Rehnquist wrote the decision that reversed the action of a Court of Appeals that had stated "Where it is found that reasonable methods of accommodation can be adopted without sacrificing either the State's interest in security or the prisoners' interest in freely exercising their religious rights, the State's refusal to allow the observance of a central religious practice cannot be justified and violates the prisoner's first amendment rights."

Rehnquist, reassessing this balance asserted that the "evaluation of penological objectives is committed to the considered judgment of prison administrators," a value he goes on to term "appropriate deference." Justice Rehnquist defends this policy within the context of the case citing, in response to First Amendment concerns, that the decision did not necessarily limit all Muslim prisoners from practicing Jumu'ah, nor did the policy restrict prisoners from finding "alternate means of attending Jumu'ah." Finally, the majority writes that the case must be assessed in terms of the "impact...of respondants' asserted right...on the other inmates, on prison personnel, and on allocation of prison resources generally."

This assessment importantly differs from Justice Brennan's, who wrote the dissent. Rather than favor Rehnquist's "appropriate deferment" policy, as it is asserted in the decision, Brennan is much more comfortable placing the burden on prison officials to "demonstrate that the restrictions they imposed are necessary," pointedly noting that "[t]he Constitution was not adopted as a means of enhancing the efficiency with which government officials conduct their affairs, nor as a blueprint for ensuring sufficient reliance on administrative expertise." Brennan insists that though mainstream society prefers to think of prison as "a separate netherworld...ordered by its own demands, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity," in fact "[n]othing can change the fact...that the society these prisoners inhabit is our own." Therefore the dissent reiterates a significant standard "laid out by Judge Kaufman in Abdul Wali v. Coughlin...that the degree of scrutiny of prison regulations should depend on 'the nature of the right being asserted by prisoners, the type of activity in which they seek to engage, and whether the challenged restriction works a total deprivation (as opposed to a mere limitation) on the exercise of that right.'" Brennan poses this standard as the best challenge to Rehnquit's notion of 'reasonableness.' Without going further into the details of this case, it is most important to understand that the the dissent insisted that given then essential importance of this right (on a Constitutional level), the prison ought to extend itself to ensure that right.

These larger legal conversations are constantly being echoed in local and state courts. In 1985, for example, a group of six inmates in a Utah correctional facility sued the state to provide a sweat lodge for their use. They claimed that “they couldn’t practice an integral part of their religion--the sweat lodge ceremony--without such a structure” (Elizabeth S. Grobsmith, Indians in Prison: Incarcerated Native Americans in Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1994. pp. 162). The state opposed the construction of a sweat lodge based on security concerns. In accordance with the guidance of the court, Utah authorities spoke with prison officials in the state of Nebraska, where sweat lodge had been sponsored and constructed on prison grounds. The Nebraska authorities pointed out the positive aspects of the lodge and noted that the security concerns they had with the construction of the lodge were resolved. In 1989, the court finally determined that the state of Utah must permit construction of a sweat lodge on prison grounds and bear the cost as they would for any other religious structure, such as a chapel, built on prison property.

In another instance of local negotiation, in August of 2003 a group of Native inmates of the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Maryland, known as the Eagle Speak Society, requested a sweat lodge from the Division of Corrections. Their request was originally denied because of security concerns, but those involved are optimistic about ongoing conversations and promise of the sweatlodge in the future. The Eagle Speak Society has agreed to let the sweat lodge ceremony be brought under controls that would dispel some of the concerns of prison officials. Maryland officials are currently gathering information from other states who allow sweat lodge practices in their prisons, and the prospects for a sweat lodge in Westover are positive.

Other states negotiate and settle requests for sweat lodges in prison in different ways. In 2002 in Maine, for instance, the state’s first prison sweat lodge was approved. A small group of inmates, known as Kwai Nidobak, or Sacred Feathers, initiated the request for a lodge and other rights pertaining to traditional Native religious and cultural practice. The process took many years, and was the first of it's kind in the state. However, all the "items have to be paid for by the inmates”: a disappointing decision, given the previously discussed guidelines of the DOP, which would seem to indicate items related to sacred practice should be supplied by the prison.

And in Massachusetts, in 2003, a group of inmates filed a suit against the state in Trapp v. DuBois. The Native prisoners felt that their right to free religious exercise was not respected by prison authorities. For example, traditional items were classified as contraband and Native people who were not members of recognized tribes were not allowed to participate in spiritual circles. Although lower court rulings on the case favored the Department of Corrections, this settlement was reached with prodding from the Massachusetts Appeals court.

"The judges expressed considerable doubt about the validity of the trial court decision and the total ban of the Lodge in Massachusetts prisons. At the conclusion of the argument, the court stated it would stay its decision for 14 days, to allow time for the Department of Corrections to initiate settlement negotiations with the appellants; failing that, the court indicated it would rule in favor of appellants" (Peter d’Errico, "Native American Indian Spiritual Freedom in Prison"). Faced with the prospect of losing the case in the appeals court, the Department of Corrections chose to settle the case out of court. Under the terms of the settlement, "Purification Lodges will be constructed and operated at the North Central Correctional Institution, Norfolk, and the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center" (Trapp v. DuBois, Settlement Agreement). The agreement also included specific guidelines and procedures for the construction and operation of the sweat lodges. The settlement also contained stipulations that a sweat ceremony be held once a month. This settlement agreement is a comprehensive document that lays a solid groundwork as an example for sweat lodge disagreement resolution that could be applied effectively in other cases.

Activists concerned with cases that, unlike Trapp v. Dubois, were not resolved in a positive settlement, have gone so far as to bring their cause to the United Nations, issuing this statement asserting that restrictions on religious practice in prison amounts to a violation of guidelines established by the UN Human Rights Commission. Led by Lenny Foster, a longtime advocate of Native rights in prison, working with the International Indian Treaty Council submitted these grievances concerning the treatment of Native prisoners. The IITC and Foster also submitted this letter to the UN's "Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance. This issue has slowly gained national attention, and has been taken up in earnest by groups like the Dakota-Lakota-Nakota Coalition and Native American Prisoner Support.

The Case of Darrell Young Elk Rich

Darrell Young Elk Rich was arrested for the sexual assault and murder of four young women between June and August of 1978 in the Sacramento Valley of California. The crimes were especially brutal, and a jury convicted Rich, despite his plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Young Elk claimed to have a disease that cause him serious violent outbursts followed by periods of remorse for his actions that may have been committed while in his previous state. The jury sentenced Rich to death on January 23, 1981. This decision made Rich, a member of the Cherokee nation, the first Native American to be on death row in California since it reinstated the death penalty in 1977.

Throughout his time in prison, Young Elk was a model inmate, not causing any problems for guards or his fellow prisoners. He was never a danger to anyone in the prison and showed remorse for his actions every day. Also during his time in prison, Young Elk studied his Cherokee heritage, of which he previously knew very little. He began to learn to write and speak the Cherokee language and began seeing a spiritual advisor. In his studies, Rich, who began to use the name Young Elk, given him by his spiritual advisor, learned of the significance of the sweat lodge and its physical, emotional, and spiritual healing properties,. San Quentin prison, where Young Elk was incarcerated, had a sweat lodge on the premises, as did 95 other prisons across the country, which had been used by Native American inmates for sweat lodge ceremonies since the 1980s. When Young Elk petitioned the prison authorities to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies, he was denied because he was a death row inmate not integrated into the rest of the prison population.

Before he was to be executed, Young Elk made a plea for a last rite. He wanted to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony before he died. “There, he could truly express his remorsefulness in a way that is acceptable to the Spirits with his prayers, sacraments and offerings” (James S. Thomson, “Dead Man Praying”). The ceremony was to be conducted by Leonard Foster, a Navajo spiritual advisor who had performed a similar ceremony with Darrick Gerlaugh, a death row inmate in Arizona, before his execution a year earlier. The ceremony occurred peacefully, with no risk to the security or stability of the prison.

Despite this previous successful ceremony with a death row inmate, San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford denied Young Elk’s last request, citing security concerns involving all death row inmates. It is not apparent what these security risks were, especially considering Young Elk was at the time a weak man, weighing only 140 pounds. In addition, Young Elk had suffered a spinal injury and had to be transported around the prison by wheelchair. When faced with this denial of his last rites, Young Elk appealed to the federal courts, Governor Gray Davis, and President Clinton, not asking them for a stay of execution, but asking them to help him leave this world in a manner congruent with his religious heritage. However, neither authority offered support. The State of California executed Darrell Young Elk Rich by lethal injection at 12:13 am on March 15, 2000. He was never allowed to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, which would have served as his last spiritual rites.


The case of Darrell Young Elk Rich does not represent a step forward in the negotiation of inmates' rights to religious freedom. While certainly security concerns must be addressed in any inmate gathering, the fact that so many cases like Darrell Young Elk's seem so readily dismissed by some state officials does not reflect the complexity at the center of this issue. As evidenced by the Trapp v. Dubois settlement and elsewhere, the reality of Native inmates' right to religious practice in prison has been acknowledged in the courts. This action has paved the way for further discussion of religious rights of prisoners that one hopes will lead to fairer resolution of situations like Darrell Young Elk's, and others where, for example, sweat lodges are allowed but are not treated with proper sanctity by prison officials, unaware of the central role in plays in the spiritual life of many inmates. This issue is of present and growing importance, as the rights of incarcerated persons are increasingly limited in the face of budgetary shortfalls and detention philosophies of a post 9/11 world. Recognizing the significance of minority religious traditions is an important way, especially in the face of an unstable global-political atmosphere, of maintaining America's constitutional commitment to ensuring the religious freedom for all people.

Originally drafted by Jacob Stroub. Revised by Matt Hooley

Prepared by Student Researcher Juni Muskrat

Updated on September 19, 2005

Posted on PLN's website by permission from The Pluralism Project at Harvard University (

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