Washington State prisons hold tribal members or descendents from 230 tribal nations. Approximately 900 inmates are housed in the 12 facilities across the state. But other than just numbers, what are their demographics?
How are the various “Circles” in each institution faring and how much rapport do they provide?
The organization known as United Indians of all Tribes Foundation wanted to know more about the tribal diversity in prison and the extent to which Native cultures were being practiced at each facility. A survey was organized and conducted at each facility to provide answers.
Winona Stevens, a Ho-Chunk member, serves as program manager and headed up the survey. She explained the Department of Corrections (DOC) attempted a survey a few years ago but Native inmates refused to participate, concerned it might be a way for DOC to pump them for information about their tribes.
This later survey was planned with three parts to include both custody and administrative staffs, but lack of staff response early in the survey led to focus on offender response only.
Some inmates were still reluctant to respond, partly because they didn’t understand who was conducting the survey. Despite that, 366 people participated. Over half, 194, were enrolled tribal members. Another 27 were unenrolled, 73 were Asian Pacific Islands and 4 were South American Natives.
A number of facts emerged. Fifty-five percent identified themselves as “urban,” or having grown up in cities or suburban communities, while 33 percent said they grew up mostly on reservations. Seventy-nine percent of the 52 women were mothers while 66 percent of the 314 men were fathers. Seventy-one percent of the Circle members were between 21 and 40.
The importance of the Circles should be noted as 28 percent answered they first learned of traditional ways while in prison. Part of that can likely be explained by the fact that 61 percent of those surveyed have been in foster care, lived with extended family, had been adopted, or were placed in a group home, so had less access to their culture. Eighty-eight percent do not speak their language.
The question about education revealed that the highest level for most Circle members was earning a GED, some 33 percent. Sixteen percent had completed high school. Seventy-seven percent participated in education programs offered by DOC and for those that didn’t it was primarily due to availability of classes or programming.
Many also showed interest in getting support from tribal colleges or through correspondence courses. Learning tribal history and language rated highly in their interest, along with vocational training.
Asked about spiritual beliefs, over a dozen religions were mentioned. Red Road was the most common response followed by Christianity, Native American Church and Shaker.
Most children of inmates are being cared for by family members. When asked what would make the circles stronger, many supported having children attend the annual powwows. This has since been allowed.
Cost is a major hurdle and of the 44 percent who don’t receive family visits it’s for lack of money. Over half the people who do visit a family member in prison struggle with transportation costs.
Most institutions had a single Circle but others have multiple security levels where inmates can’t mix so had more than one Circle. Questions were directed at the Circles to gauge the needs of the members and the group as a whole. 24 percent of the members said the most benefit comes from traditional religious and cultural teaching.
Group support, fellowship, and unity were reported as strong aspects of Circles. When asked what else would benefit the groups, tribal and community support rated highest, followed by more time for fellowship. Asked what tribal organizations could be of service, the most frequent answer was the tribe.
The survey also indicated a need for better communication between Circles and DOC staff plus the lack of understanding by staff of Native culture and religion. 97 percent also indicated interest in learning their tribal language.
“Incarcerated tribal members have overwhelmingly showed their eagerness for the opportunity to learn their own language,” Stevens said. “Considering that many of our languages are border-line extinct, Circle members willing to learn their language are a benefit to their tribes. I hope tribes will step up and support the Circles in their efforts to give back to the community in this way.”