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Innovative Program Helps Native Women Transition Out of Prison

A story about Red Lodge, a program that helps American Indian women make the difficult transition out of prison and back into society.

Ask Myrna Taylor Crazy Bull what it’s like to come back home after being surrounded 24 hours a day by barbed wire and steel bars, and like many of Oregon’s other Native women prisoners she will tell you: It’s like staying at Red Lodge.

Crazy Bull, a Cherokee, was incarcerated on alcohol-related charges in Oregon’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a “negative, gray, ugly” women’s prison, in 2004. “It was a place without humanity,” she says.

It was her first contact with the legal system after a life spent raising her family. On arrival she was strip-searched, told to keep to herself and thrust into a huge, noisy concrete room. She says making alliances with other inmates was discouraged and a few of the officers seemed bent on humiliating the prisoners. During her stint working in the prison kitchen she says she helped prepare fish that came out of cartons marked, fish bait, not suitable for human consumption.

She says volunteers from Red Lodge Transition Services came in to Coffee Creek every month as part of their program serving Oregon’s incarcerated Native women to conduct a sweat lodge ceremony. “It was like going home,” says Crazy Bull. “In the lodge, you can put all those things away, on the rocks. It was the one thing that held me together while I was there.”

Red Lodge is a program designed to help people newly released from prison reenter society. Carma Corcoran, the Chippewa/Cree chair of the Red Lodge board, says the program evolved from Native women doing work in the prisons more than a decade ago. The mission, she says, is to reduce recidivism, prevent intergenerational incarceration and advocate for religious freedom and human rights in Oregon’s Department of Corrections.

Corcoran, who is also the Indian law program coordinator at Lewis & Clark Law School, says Red Lodge is currently providing direct services for eight women, and to date has helped about 60 women, with what she claims is an 80 percent success rate. “There’s no cutoff date, which speaks to the Native American way of doing things,” says Corcoran. “I still have contact with women who have been out four to five years. As their journey to self-sufficiency grows, they don’t need us on a daily basis, but we’re here.”

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One client has made the daunting transition from prison to a halfway house to apartment. She got her daughter back and enrolled at a community college. She met with Corcoran every month to assess her long-range plans. Her latest request was for help on how to transfer to a four-year college. Another woman turned to Red Lodge when she received a traffic charge for an improperly fastened car seat. “Her plan is to be a counselor and work with families, and it just broke her heart,” says Corcoran. “She took responsibility and asked for help in presenting her case to the judge. She came over to practice with me the day before she went to court, and she got the charge reduced.” Corcoran says someone is always there for these women, whether it has been a week, or years, since they were released.

Trust is key to the program’s success. “We might be the most stable [people] they’ve known, [who ’ve] never hurt them, never not been there for them, the model of being a strong Native woman that’s ethical, trustworthy,” says Corcoran. “Many of them have families of unhealthy origin and have not had healthy relationships.”

American Indians account for less than two percent of Oregon’s population, but make up four percent of its prison population, says Red Lodge board member Tawna Sanchez, S­hoshone-Bannock/Ute, who is also the family services director at the Portland-based Native American Youth and Family Center. She believes the main reason people are shuffled in and out of prison “is because there’s no place to go when they get out.” The Red Lodge staff realized that they needed a permanent transitional home. They decided on a spot in rural outer Portland for its space to site a sweat lodge, its natural setting integral to Native spirituality, and its proximity to Portland. Local architects Nick Phoenix and John Docker contributed the building plans. To raise funds for the Raise the Red Lodge project, they decided to solicit art from Oregon Native inmates for display and sale in a 2007 art show.

That has blossomed into the impressive Native American Prison Art Project, with all of the artwork donated by the artists. Some of that art, reproduced as cards and prints, or as part of their annual calendar to benefit Raise the Red Lodge, can be viewed at The artwork is in a wide range of mediums from pen and ink to woodworking. “It’s a difficult process getting art materials into prison, and the time to do art is different in every prison,” says Corcoran. “That’s spiritual time, and it’s very meaningful for them.” Well-known community artists gift significant pieces of art to the project, too.

Another program was vital in bringing Crazy Bull out of the extreme nature deprivation she experienced in prison, where inmates were not allowed to touch the small patch of grass in front of the facility, give someone a hug or even touch another inmate’s shoulder. When Crazy Bull was released in 2007, a Red Lodge volunteer took her to Snow Peak, a foothill of the Cascade Range to pick St John’s wort as part of their Sustainable Medicine Project. Crazy Bull was overwhelmed. “It was the first time in three and a half years that I got to touch living things,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to leave. I could feel the earth. We went into the woods and found some feathers. I just kind of wandered off by myself. You don’t smile while you’re in prison, you shut that part of yourself off. It was the beginning of me being able to smile again.”

Crazy Bull is now settled back in the Willamette Valley, raising three of her grandchildren. She has been an active volunteer for Red Lodge, and in 2009 she became a board member. Prison was the lowest point in her life, and then Red Lodge came in and taught her that her life, and giving back, mattered. “The whole concept of Red Lodge,” Crazy Bull says, “is giving back to the community.”