Program seeks to help Indians stay out of prison


WHITE EARTH INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn. — Eight men huddle around a drum as a haze of burnt sage hangs in the air. The drummers, all of whom have done time in prison, sing a song that honors the pipe and tobacco used in

traditional American Indian ceremonies.

The purification ritual was part of the Red Road Home program, which aims to help former inmates from the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations stay out of prison.

It aims to slow the revolving door by teaching them American Indian cultural and spiritual practices, such as sweat lodge ceremonies and talking circles. Minnesota Public Radio reported Tuesday there are early signs of success, but the program may soon run out of funding.

The Bemidji-based Red Road Home has received $300,000 over the last three years from the Department of Corrections, but the money runs out in July. Given the state's $5 billion deficit, the department anticipates budget cuts, like every state agency. The depth of the cuts hasn't been decided, but corrections officials say it's clear that programs like Red Road Home will be on the table for elimination.

While American Indians make up less than 2 percent of Minnesota's total population, they account for more than 8 percent of adult offenders in the state's prison system. They're also more likely to reoffend and get sent back to prison.

About half of the 100 or so ex-offenders who return to the three Ojibwe reservations served by the program each year become active in it.

Robert Thompson, 38, has been part of the group since he got out of prison last fall. He has served time for domestic assault, driving under the influence and dealing methamphetamine.

"My whole family is like alcoholics and stuff, but also was dealing drugs," Thompson said. "That's how I grew up and that's what I knew."

Thompson, who is now attending White Earth Community College, said he is committed to sobriety and to learning his language and culture.

"This is who I am today. If it wasn't for this program, I don't think I'd be there," he said. "Honestly, to tell you, I'd probably be back in prison."

The program is less than three years old and has worked with more than 140 clients. Those who stick with it head back to prison about a third less often than those who quit, said Terry Kemper, outreach coordinator for Red Road Home.

Indians who return home from prison face huge challenges, said Kemper, who was born in prison and grew up in foster homes. He served 12 years for killing his girlfriend. After his release in 2008, he dedicated himself to helping other former prisoners.

"One of the things that you hear from ex-felons is that ... it's easier to go back to prison than to deal with these things we face out here," Kemper said. "Our communities right now in Indian Country are really struggling."

Those struggles include high rates of alcoholism, unemployment and suicide.

The corrections department has been criticized by some in the Indian community for not welcoming traditional teachings and ceremonies inside prison walls. Some studies show the traditional approach is more effective with Indians than other models.

A former head of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Joe Day, said Indians are allowed to practice their culture to some degree in prison, but prison personnel are not well trained on what Indians consider sacred. Guards get only limited information about feathers, drums songs and tobacco use, said Day, who has worked with the department to develop ways to help Indians re-enter society.

"Their not understanding or accepting our traditional values is probably the key aspect of this," said Day, a member of the Leech Lake Band. "But how do you change a whole organization to do that, because there is so much misperception about who we are?"

According to David Crist, deputy commissioner of the agency's facilities division, one obstacle to running traditional programs for Indians is that there is a shortage of credible traditional leaders willing to come into the prisons and give guidance to offenders.

"In the absence of that, offenders offer their own interpretation of culture and traditions that often they don't really understand themselves," Crist said. "And it's when that happens that I think we find some tension between the legitimate security needs of a facility and the desires of offenders to practice their traditions."


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