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Panel hears heartbreaking prison stories

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PIERRE, S.D. - Marletta Pacheca's nephew was found hanging in his cell in a South Dakota prison. His previous displays of mental health brought no help from the prison health system.

"I heard his cry; that voice will never leave my ears," said Pacheca, a Lakota from Rapid City, S.D. at a hearing of the State-Tribal Relations Committee of the South Dakota Legislature. "Why do we have to fight so hard just to find out about our relatives?

"I am speaking out because prison cost my nephew his life. It is not safe in prison."

Sometimes speaking publicly about problems American Indian inmates have in prison can get them into deeper trouble, many people told the state legislators in a session at the state Capitol.

On the heels of a state-ordered study on the proportion of Natives in the prison system, the committee heard not so much about the excessive numbers of American Indians, but their treatment.

"Who's going to help. It's a hard life, it's hard to be Indian in South Dakota, Pacheca said.

Tom Van Norman, Lakota and state representative from District 28A, said things like Pacheca's situation should not happen on his watch, and he said the committee would do something this next session.

"I am touched, I will not forget this," said Stan Adelstein, state senator from Rapid City.

"We will move forward with a heavy heart," he said.

Witness after witness before the committee had stories about inadequate health care in prison, about religious objects and practices withheld and of beatings and disciplinary actions for small infractions.

Twyla Turney's son was beaten and disciplined for trying to give another prison inmate food. Turney said she was always taught that if someone were in need of food that she and her family would help. Her son eventually paid with his life. He committed suicide. Turney said after the prison authorities informed her of his death his personal effects were turned over and she found a letter addressed to her that had never left the prison. It was her son Bill's suicide note. She had no idea he was in such a state.

"I feel nobody wants me around. It will be better without me around," the letter said in part.

A recent study commissioned by Gov. William Janklow revealed that a disproportionate number of American Indians were incarcerated in the state's prisons. The state's American Indian population is 8.3 percent, and 22 percent of the prison population is American Indian.

The Department of Corrections brought other state's statistics to the table at the committee hearing to indicate South Dakota has nothing to worry about in terms of the numbers. In Minnesota, 1.1 percent of the population is American Indian and 6.6 percent of the inmates come from that community, in Montana 4.9 percent of the population is American Indian and 17.9 percent of the prison population is American Indian.

Paul Valandra, Rosebud Lakota and state representative, said he was concerned about the figures. He said he was led to believe the figures were higher in South Dakota. The state DOC figures did not include those people held under federal laws, which he said could bring the figures up to near 50 percent. Also county and city jails were not included in those figures.

"I'm concerned that when it comes to funding, legislators will think South Dakota is not much different than other states, that there isn't a problem," Valandra said.

Jesse Taken Alive, tribal councilman from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the data from the study were manipulated, as stated by the writers of the study.

"This could end up as a massive costly study that ends up in academic profiling. I ask that the study have the involvement of the tribal community. Otherwise the media will say that the Indians were not treated that badly," Taken Alive said.

American Indian inmates under federal jurisdiction will normally serve longer sentences because of the guidelines judges must use to impose prison terms. The state has a more adjustable guideline and parole is also part of the sentence.

When an American Indian commits a felony on trust land, he or she is subject to the federal system. Anywhere else the state takes jurisdiction.

Also in South Dakota, the defendant must pay public defenders that are appointed by the court. When most of the defendants live below the poverty level that may not be an option and the defendant pleads to a lesser charge.

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Most non-Indian defendants never reach trial and receive suspended sentences or acquittals with the advice of attorneys.

Stephanie Autumn, Hopi, who works for the Council on Crime and Justice in Minnesota, said the state doesn't need another study. "We know we are over represented, we know legal equity doesn't exist. Sixty percent of the infractions in prison are based on racism and bias.

"Treatment and incarceration programs are needed and until that is done it won't reduce recidivism.

"Parole in South Dakota is a setup for failure. When the inmate gets out he or she goes home to the Pine Ridge Reservation and has to report to Rapid City. With no car or money to travel he or she will instantly get sent back," Autumn said.

Autumn told the committee members they can make a change. The committee, however, is not a standing committee and laws do not go through it. Each member acts on his or her own to educate and advocate to the larger body of the legislature. In the past the state's moratorium on nursing homes and on racial profiling have been issues the committee dealt with, but no legislation was passed to correct either.

A request by Taken Alive to change the committee to a standing committee met with resistance from committee members who said they had more time to meet with the people as an interim committee.

But what can be done?

Autumn said that pre- and post- release work should be done on a cultural basis lasting up a year before release and six months after, not the usual DOC method of 60 days prior to release.

"Create an oversight committee for religious and health issues to oversee the equitable treatment in standards. Set up cultural based programs and have American Indian case managers and it's important that American Indians work with the Department of Corrections staff.

"And make a parole officer go to the reservation; they have the budget for travel."

A similar program in Minnesota costs $485,000 and Autumn said there are 320 post release and 500 pre-release people in the program.

Equal treatment in prison has to do with perceptions and biases by guards and prison staff, witnesses said. Many people asked for cultural training for prison staff members.

There is actually no money in the budget to bring in spiritual leaders and medicine men from throughout the area.

Many of the cultural, historical and religious programs are either conducted or supervised by non-Indian prison staff, as indicated on a list of programs submitted by the DOC.

Religious objects are treated differently in certain cases. American Indian objects for the most part are secured in the prison chapels or the chaplain's offices, not allowed to be located in the inmate's cell.

Beadwork on objects is looked at as either jewelry or in one incident as gang related.

The committee heard the story of an inmate who received a beaded medicine bag from his father in order to give his son courage and enlightenment. While the son was in prison the bag was ripped from his neck by guards and he was then beaten and thrown into a suicide cell.

To the Lakota people the medicine bag is very sacred. The explanation of the incident given by the DOC to Rep. Adelstein was that the colors of the beads could represent gang colors.

"We will look forward now. Show us where beads are used as gang activity," Adelstein said.

On Nov. 14 and 15 at the state capital, the hearing room was overflowing with people, which was not the case before at other hearings.

Maybe the answers to questions posed by the mother, aunts and other relatives will be answered with the committee's help.