Lock ‘Em Up With a Hug: Native Detention Programs Connect Youth to Community

Rather than exclusion, bringing the youth back into the community is the goal of tribal nations in South Dakota.
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UPDATED November 11: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed comments to Joan White, when they should have been to attorney Bob Jones. Joan White did not provide any quotes or information for this piece, other than to confirm one fact. We deeply regret the error.

The following is the final part of a three-part series looking at the past, present and future of the juvenile justice system in South Dakota and how it pertains to Native youth. This installment examines Native programs looking to reconnect youth with tribal communities rather than sending them to a state-run detention center.

Isolation and punishment mark the hierarchal system of America's juvenile justice system that regularly inflicts yet another painful wound upon Native youth. Rather than exclusion, bringing the youth back into the community is the goal of tribal nations in South Dakota.

In South Dakota's jails for adults, sweats and pipe ceremonies, Native American Church, Prayer Ties, access to medicine men, women and spiritual leaders, drum groups, and Lakota Culture Class, are made available to inmates. But for the same state's incarcerated Native youth, exposure to culture is limited to an annual field trip to Crazy Horse Mountain for Native American Day, one cultural meal a month, a pow wow, and a hike up Bear Butte. Only the STAR Academy, one of the three state institutions, has a Native American Troop: Lakota Ways and a Native Studies program, according to South Dakota’s State Tribal Relations Committee Overview of South Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Native American Programs and Services, April 2015.

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While 30 percent of the youth in South Dakota’s juvenile detention program are Native American, only .15 percent of the staff is a member of a minority according to South Dakota’s Department of Corrections Performance Based Standards report released in January.

Things are different in the tribally run programs. At the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Youth Wellness and Renewal Detention Center, Wanbli Wiconi Tipi, approximately 90 percent of the staff are tribal members, and culture is considered by staff to be the most important aspect of their program.

“Sending the youth far from home wasn't a good way to try to rehabilitate our young people,” said Miskoo Petite, Facility Administrator at Rosebud Sioux Tribe Corrections Services. “A lot of people were upset with the idea of locking up a juvenile. A lot of people didn't think that was the answer for our youth. Because of that, this facility was built. It’s different from other facilities in the country,” he said.

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Petite said one major difference is the amount of programs provided for the youth, including moral reasoning, values, culture and language classes. “Usually facilities are built for 70 percent residential space and 30 percent programming space.” Those numbers are reversed at Wanbli Wiconi Tipi. “If we are going to lock up our kids, we are going to provide services. We are not going to let them sit in jail and be punished,” he said. Rosebud also partners with other organizations to offer prevention activities within the communities.

Wanbli Wiconi Tipi was featured in the book, “Juvenile Law Violators, Human Rights and the Development of New Juvenile Justice Systems by Eric L. Jensen (Editor), and Jorgen Jepsen (Editor). In a chapter written by Barbara Mendenhall and James Dumesnil, Wanbli Wiconi Tipi’s detention supervisor, Pat Bad Hand said the goal of the center is “to help the youth regain and reclaim an understanding of their tios’paye, the concept of relatives, ancestry, one’s name, one’s circle and one’s life.”

“A lot of young people haven’t been taught in a big way who they are,” Petite said. “They might have forgotten that. We have sweats and it’s very important to the youth. It is probably the most healing aspect of our program.”

Petite added that while they have not yet measured the data, many of Wanbli Wiconi Tipi’s graduated youth who later committed federal offenses had not participated in the ceremony classes. “We can’t say just because they didn’t go to ceremonies, they committed crimes, but we do know how powerful and effective it is, so we try to do it as much as we can,” he said.

Creating a better home life is emphasized by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Children’s Court which can mandate parental participation in Wanbli Wiconi Tipi. In certain cases, parents are required to be assessed and complete treatment. “The Children’s Court works with us to try to provide a holistic service approach to our young people,” Petite said.

According to attorney Bob Jones, “South Dakota has the highest rates for locking up youth in the country. I don’t think any of the tribes in South Dakota would put their kids in a state facility. We try to work with the kids and try to keep them in the community.”

Sisseton has avoided using detention facilities by implementing a Teen Court through the Roberts County ALIIVE program. “That has been pretty successful from diverting youth from the system. Young people get to judge other young people,” White said.

The teen court takes youth, ages 12 – 18, who have been charged with low-level crimes such as underage drinking, marijuana, truancy, and shoplifting. Sara McGregor-Okroi, executive director of ALIIVE, told ICTMN that the youth are sent to teen court by either the state or tribal courts. “In a perfect world we would get more from the state,” she said. “We do get more from the tribal court, and it does work.”

McGregor-Okroi said only 3 out of 38 youth in the past year have not completed their requirements and in a six month look back, none of those who completed the program have reoffended. “Those outcomes are absolutely unbelievable,” she said. Considering the rates of recidivism in the state system is 33 percent for Native males and 24 percent for Native females, as reported by the state’s overview, ALIIVE’s program appears to be working.

ALIIVE’s teen court jury is made up of youth who themselves have faced the teen jury. A point system is assigned to the offense and a teen may choose from a variety of activities to fulfill his obligation to the court. Taking a class, community service, interviewing a police officer or a teacher offers fairly low points while cultural selections such as sweat lodges or spending time learning language with an elder are assigned higher points.

“Things that reflect culture are given a higher point value to attract the youth. They might get 1 point for an hour of community service but they might get 7 points if they go to sweat. We are trying to pull them towards the cultural aspects because we believe it is a protective and preventative factor,” McGregor-Okroi said.

To prevent recidivism among youth released from the state system, ALIIVE is hoping to soon offer another program. Developed by Dustina Gill, Sisseton-Wahpeton, her Young Ambassadors program will be based on her own experience with a national program by the same name, offered to selected individuals for leadership training. Gill will offer leadership training for youth termed delinquent by the state; those who are usually overlooked for skill and character building programs. The new program is ready to go but is still seeking funding.

Counseling for the entire family will be included in Gill's program. “The state removes kids from their homes, incarcerates them, and then places them back in the home, and they don’t have the tools to help them when they come home,” she said.

Gill said the state’s detention system dooms the youth to fail. “They come back and fail simply because they lack support and return to the same environment that may have caused them to fail in the first place. Within two weeks they give up. The state puts the youth on a long-term probation and if they relapse, they get thrown back in. By the time they turn 18 to 21, their life is pretty much gone, and it’s so preventable,” she said.

Phillip Whiteman, Northern Cheyenne, and Lynette Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota, work with youth through their non-profit Yellowbird and The Medicine Wheel Model. They feel South Dakota misses an opportunity by using punishment and incarceration. “When the youth act out it’s really a call for love. We need to provide opportunities through day-to-day interactions, or through programs to remind and reconnect them. We have to love them back into balance.”