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I am an American Indian (Comanche), imprisoned in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Institutional Division
When I first entered prison on April 8, 1987, I knew very little about what legal rights I had at the time that actually existed. And I certainly did not know that one of those rights prohibited me from being held down and my hair forcibly cut by prison officials, regardless of my religious beliefs. Nevertheless, that is exactly what took place.
That day is so vivid in my mind, the act so offensive, that I even took an oath afterwards that I would not cut my hair ever again as long as I remained incarcerated, let alone allow any prison official to forcibly do so.
Two years later, in 1989, I made a decision. In order for prison officials to acknowledge and respect the religious rights of American Indians, it would be necessary for me to pursue whatever legal remedies existed through the judicial system. Although prison officials have the power, and an objective, in keeping me from attending school to gain a further education, they could not prohibit my access to the law library. And if I was to have any voice on how I was to be treated as a human being -as an American Indian- the answer lay "in the law." Thus began my education in civil rights law.
One of the ironies of prison life that gives me the most cause for thought is how prison officials can take the moral high road and claim how important it is for a prisoner to seek out and practice his religious beliefs, yet trample over the same when the religion at hand doesn't conform to "their" idea of what is an acceptable religion.
Such is the case where the Native American religion is concerned. While prison officials may claim they allow incarcerated Native Americans an opportunity to practice their respective tribal religious beliefs within the boundaries of maintaining good security, nothing could be further from the truth.
At present, the prison system prohibits the following practices (wich are basic tenets of Native American religious faith):
- acces to a sweat lodge,
- worship ceremonies with a medicine man,
- to carry a medicine pouch,
- to possess and use a prayer pipe, and,
- to grow long hair.
In 1993, the U.S. Congress passed a bill (Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA]), which Prsident Clinton signed into law, that would provide an individual with legal recourse to pursue a claim of religious interference. This bill became the foundation for attacking the prison system's unreasonable restrictions where the Native American religion was concerned.
RFRA came to be the only realistic chance of actually succeeding -via the federal court system- in compelling the prison system to make reasonable accommodations that would address the religious and spiritual needs of Indian prisoners.
However, what Congress and President Clinton were able to make into law, the U.S. Supreme Court was able to undo. Four years later, in a 1997 ruling, the high court held the RFRA to be unconstitutional. In doing so, the court effectively killed what opportunity existed -for prisoners like myself- to attack a prison system's infringement upon religious freedom.
Without RFRA, I lost the legal foundation to litigate a claim against the prison system. It had been my hope that someday I would have my day in court, and by my appearance -my hair clean and neatly groomed in two braids (a symbol of my pride in being an American Indian as well as conveying the religious significance attached to the same) I could present my case before the court, hoping this forum of justice would see past the purported security concerns of prison officials, and find that the reasons advanced by them for not allowing Native Americans to grow long hair was, clearly, an exaggerated response. Unfortunately, this hope was lost along with the RFRA.
For weeks after the high court's ruling I agonized whether I should cut my hair or not. From 1988 -when my hair was finally long enough again that it violated the prison grooming regulation- to September 1997, I had gone through the various punishments this system could inflict upon me: ranging from cell restriction [confinement to one's cell], recreation restriction [no opportunity to recreate outdoors or acces to the gymnasium], commissary restriction [prohibited from purchasing regular items from the prison store], the loss of good-time credits [no credits would be applied to my sentence for early consideration by the parole board or, for that matter, early release], demotions in custody housing [being housed in the most dangerous locations of the prison], solitary confinement [for months at a time], and, administrative segregation [permanent "keep-lock"]. On top of this, I endured the standard threaths of having my hair forcibly cut again, numerous racial slurs for being an Indian, and even retaliated against for exercising my constitutional civil rights. I went through all of this, had come this far, yet only to see the one opportunity that existed for legally attacking the prison's system's failure to reasonably accommodate the Native American religion disappear in one disappointing ruling by the highest court in the land.
And as it came to pass then, last September, of my own free will, I cut my hair. And the sorrow of having done so is something I will forever carry with me. Yet, with one simple haircut -a haircut that gave prison officials what they had, throughout the years, so strived to accomplish through their own oppressive tactics- every form or restriction, harassment, retaliation, threaths and racial slurs cam to a conclusion.
So, in the end, I did cut my hair. But not to appease prison officials. And certainly not because I was surrendering to them. If now, there existed even the slightest chance of further litigating this particular issue -the slightest chance of maintaining a legal position in the courts- I would never have cut my hair. However, without RFRA, no such chance exists.
I chose to cut my hair, yes. And that act will forever be a personal decision between myself and the Great Spirit. However, I have not given up the fight I have so long engaged in. I will not. I express my grief that, in a nation wich has declared itself to the rest of the world to be a leader in human rights -which includes the right that an American shall not be oppressed because of his religious beliefs- where American Indians are concerned, that right dows not apply.
From a legal standpoint, it is clear that the law is not favorable to the religious beliefs of American Indians. Yet I do not believe that the same is true where the public is concerned. In this country alone, how many citizens have some degree of Native American blood in their lineage? And how many take pride in the same! In a country with such a rich history of Indian culture, how can a prison system, in any state, be allowed to treat its Indian prisoners with such disregard, indifference and indignity simply because of their religious beliefs? For too long, and too often, the public has been kept in the dark as to what really occurs behind the walls of this prison system.
I have arrived at the conclusion then, that what the courts will not do for Indians, the public must. I have begun a campaign to solicit as much help as possible to bring this matter to the attention of the public. And that in doing so, their voice will be heard. With the public's help the Texas legislature can be moved to pass a state bill that would protect the religious rights of American Indian prisoners. This can happen. It proved successful in the states of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. If the prison systems in these states -who have just as much a security concern of any other state- can establish a policy that adequately protects the religious rights of Indian prisoners, then why not Texas?
Already, petitions are being distributed. Politicians being communicated with. The Texas Indian Bar Association is conducting an investigation. And various media organizations are being contacted. With enough public pressure the legislature of this state can be made to act. This system is not a entity unto itself, but rather, it serves the public interest. And as such, if the public desires that this system reasonably accommodate and protect the religious beliefs of its American Indians, then it should.
What can you do to help? Make your voice heard. Contact the below listed individuals and ask what is being done to adequately address the religious and spiritual needs of American Indian prisoners within the TDCJ-ID; also, let it be known that you support action in the Texas legislature to pass a bill that would protect the religious rights of Indian prisoners:
Governor George Bush, Jr.
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711
Phone: (512) 463-2000; Toll Free: 1-800-843-5789 (within the State of Texas only)
Web Site: http://www.governor.state.tx.us
The State of Texas
P.O. Box 12068
Austin, Texas 78711
Phone: (512) 463-0114; Toll Free: 1-800-735-2989
Fax: (512) 463-5949
Chief Joseph, Nez Perce Tribe, 19th century prisoner of war.
Alex Montana #448568
P. O. BOX 16
LOVELADY, TEXAS 75851