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South Dakota prisons show improvement

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PIERRE, S.D. - The South Dakota Department of Corrections reported it has made some improvements in conditions for American Indian prisoners, but advocates assert that more must be done.

For years prison conditions and treatment of American Indian inmates has been a major complaint by family members and advocates while changes were slow in coming. Culture, religion and racial issues are at the forefront of the complaints of mistreatment by prison guards and administrators.

The Secretary of the Department of Corrections, Tim Reisch, reported to the State-Tribal Relations committee of the state legislature that changes have been made and some inmates can now attend funerals of immediate family members and some objects previously prohibited can now be held by inmates in their cells.

Tribal liaisons will be located on every reservation to filter through complaints and questions and language classes are available at some of the states facilities.

Although several prisons now are including culturally-specific programs including the Red Road for alcohol and drug abuse training, the training does not occur in the early stages of incarceration, but in the latter stages, Reisch said.

The Department of Corrections added Lakota language classes to the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, and pow wows were extended from four to 10 hours at two facilities and practice times for drums and dancers were also increased.

The main state prison in Sioux Falls still has rigid restrictions, but the explanation was that prisoners there are a greater flight risk than at other locations.

South Dakota, as state studies and information from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights shows a disproportionate number of American Indians incarcerated in state facilities. That does not include the federal prisons, which also have more American Indians according to the population percentage than non-Indians.

Community advocates claim that early parole, or parole on time will help to lessen the pressure on prisons. South Dakota added 728 beds to its system and by 2010 there will again be three inmates to a cell, Reisch said.

He said that the success indicators for not returning to prison are a job and housing.

"If the person is living in a mission the chances of success are significantly lower. Under the old system of parole we would have more people in prison, studies tell us," Reisch said.

"We need to know how to put more Native Americans on the work force. There is also a disparity in staff training between the juvenile and the adult side. We need on-going training and some are not getting cultural sensitivity training."

For many family members the Department of Corrections has been untouchable and almost unwilling to make changes that would result in proper rehabilitation and spiritual well being of an American Indian inmate.

"We are glad for your willingness to make changes. We are here to listen to concerns from people and you, the DOC as well," said Sen. J.E. "Jim" Putnam, R-Wagner.

"We commend you for your willingness to make changes and we are seeing some movement," he said.

But not all concerns of the past have been addressed. Rep. Tom Van Norman, D-Eagle Butte, a Lakota, asked about the administrative segregation practices, which include more American Indians than non-Indians.

"We do have guidelines, but I don't know the actual percentages of people by race," said Bob Dooley, warden at the Springfield facility.

Reisch said he discovered that administrative segregation was used at a higher than normal basis than other states in the Sioux Falls facility, but that adjustments had been made.

"If the perception is true, then we need to do something about it," said Stan Adelstein, chairman of the committee.

Community members attended the State-Tribal Relations Committee hearing, but were not allowed to address the officials from DOC and presented their cases after they had been dismissed by Chairman Adelstein.

The DOC officials will be called back to the committee in January to address other issues and meet with the public.

"I am receiving letters saying there are changes," said Marletta Pechega, Lakota, Rapid City. I turned to you for changes and you didn't let me down," she told the committee.

Marletta lost a nephew to suicide in prison. She has testified before state committees on prison reform and is an advocate for prison inmates.

"You made them [the inmates] visible. They request an ombudsman on the outside, someone they feel comfortable talking to."

She said the pow wows at the Sioux Falls facility are still lonesome without the families. Also personal property goes missing and when guards search personal items they often times drop eagle feathers on the ground.

She said there were a lot of good guards, but if there were a way to track the write-ups of inmates and identify those guards who should not be there it would be helpful.

Twyla Brown Turney lost her son to prison suicide two years ago and still feels the pain. "I still expect him to call." It was two weeks after her son Bill was found dead in his cell that she received a letter postmarked to her, written long before his death. The prison did not mail it to her. It indicated his intent. She said she had no idea he was suicidal.

The committee asked the DOC officials to submit reports on numbers and percentages of American Indians that are sent to administrative segregation and for what reasons. They also want to see other data on various issues within the state prisons for men, women and youth.

The next meeting of the State Tribal Relations Committee will be during the next session of the legislature on Jan. 14 and 15.