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For Alaska Natives: extermination by incarceration?

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - With their clanging metal doors, acrid odors, harsh fluorescent lights and towering fences rimmed with barbed wire, Alaska's prisons are like many others, with one remarkable difference: 37 percent of Alaska's prison population is Native, a significantly larger segment than any other state.

By contrast, 15 percent of the overall Alaska population is Native, and some say the incarceration disparity is part of a larger policy of oppression and inequitable treatment.

"I think it's easier to convict Native people than other defendants or ethnic groups," said Ethan Shutt, general counsel for the Tanana Chiefs' Conference, an Athabascan Native rights organization.

"Police and prosecutors seem to be more vigorous in pursuing Native defendants, and jurors seem more willing to believe the authorities and disbelieve the defense when Native defendants are on trial," Shutt said.

Cultural differences also contribute to the problem, he said.

"Native defendants are much more likely to confess once they're apprehended," Shutt said. "They often confess on the spot for cultural reasons."

"Once you have a confession, you have an instant conviction," he said. "You also have longer sentences because there are no opportunities to plea bargain. Native defendants end up serving more time."

In 1991, an Alaska anthropological research team commissioned to study the Native incarceration issue concluded that "when indigenous people find themselves enmeshed in the conventions of EuroAmerican legal institutions, unequal justice is likely to result."

The socioeconomic status of many Native defendants is also pertinent, said Caroline Brown, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Brown has worked extensively with Native family services organizations and tribal courts.

"I think that socioeconomic factors are relevant in many crime statistics," she said. "Nationally, people who are classified as criminals, Alaska Native or otherwise, are not in the upper socioeconomic strata."

Shutt agreed that socioeconomic factors have a hand in maintaining the high percentage of Alaska Natives within the criminal justice system.

"Raising the economic status of Native peoples would help," he said. "A primary factor correlated with criminal activity is poverty."

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Substance abuse is also a contributing factor, Shutt said.

"The first thing is to lower the substance abuse rate," he said. "If you look at broad national studies, substance use during commission of crimes is very high."

The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) houses many of its inmates in private prisons in Arizona. Prisoners are shipped out-of-state, often for long periods of time. This contractual arrangement has alarmed many Native organizations and families, Brown said.

Alaska's Arizona prisoners "are not able to participate in potlatches and other cultural activities that are available in Alaska," she said. "This cuts off connections to their families, cultures and kinship systems."

While some Alaska prisons provide cultural activities geared specifically toward their large Native prisoner populations, they have ultimately failed to reduce the disproportionate percentage of Native inmates.

The Alaska DOC did not return repeated phone calls.

Alaska's grim statistics are mirrored within lower 48 prisons: In Montana, South Dakota and other states with significant Native populations, Indians are far more likely to be imprisoned and far less likely to be afforded lenient plea bargains or probation than members of other ethnicities.

Because certain reservation crimes fall under U.S. government purview, many federal prisons have Native incarceration rates comparable to Alaska's state prisons.

The foreboding steel and concrete of Alaska's prisons are oddly juxtaposed with the state's pristine natural beauty.

America's propensity for incarcerating Native Americans is strangely contrasted with the stories and songs of utter freedom that resound within the Native mind.

In both Alaska and the lower 48, Native America's collective soul suffers and weeps for its sons and daughters who languish within America's prisons.

Dave Stephenson, a Tlingit Indian, is Indian Country Today's Alaska correspondent. He can be reached by e-mail at