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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

From the Native American Times:

Different standards for Native American prisoners in Texas
Indian chaplain defends policy

SAM LEWIN 6/27/2003

When a Christian or Muslim inmate enters the Texas prison system, he or she is allowed to attend services simply by stating their religion.

Not so for Native American inmates. They are one of two religions required to take a test to pray traditionally.

That change in policy comes as Texas officials are cutting back the number of prison chaplains administering in the system.

Cherokee inmate James Franklin is incarcerated at the Daniel Unit in Snyder.

"We have a Native American circle in our unit that (at one time) met every Wednesday. A couple of weeks ago they stopped giving half of us passes to attend the circle. They say we must take and pass some Native American test before they will let us start going again," wrote Franklin.

Officials with the Texas Department of Justice confirmed there has been a change in policy.

"Those who wish to practice the Native American religious ceremonies must accept and complete a study packet that explains the practices of that religion," DOJ spokesman Larry Todd told the Native American Times.

Todd said only one other religion, Judaism, places a similar restriction. No other denomination requires Texas inmates to pass a test to pray.

"This is not a policy to prevent offenders from practicing their religion. It is to ensure that they study and understand the religion," said Todd.

Franklin doesn't buy that.

"No other religion has to take a test, why us?"

The policy change came from the DOJ's Director of Chaplains, Bill Pierce. Contacted by the Native American Times, Pierce was unable to answer a central question: Other religions consider their practices just as sacred as Native Americans consider the prayer circle. Why can, say, a Catholic prisoner attend organized prayer simply by claiming to be Catholic, and not have to prove knowledge of Catholicism? Pierce referred those questions to Ron Teal, the chaplain contracted by the DOJ to conduct Native American prayer services.

Teal, Cherokee and Creek, said the change was instituted following a prison break in Connolly. That prison was placed on lockdown, with inmates confined to their cells. Teal said a large contingent of gang members claimed to Native Americans so they could be shipped out to a Native American unit. Inmates are placed in units depending on their stated religion.

"They were saying ‘if I claim to be Indian, I can go to another unit.' All of a sudden we have all these black Crip gang members attending our prayer service," said Teal.

Teal maintains the test is not difficult. He says questions include: What nation are you from? What is smoked inside the pipe?

Meanwhile, Texas officials are in the process of slashing jobs in the state prison system. 1500 employees are being laid off, including 66 chaplains. That means that even if an Indian inmate passes the test, the frequency of prayer services is decreasing. Franklin said services have been cut back to once a month, when they used to be held every week. Teal confirms that is correct.

Despite the reasoning for DOJ officials on requiring a test, Franklin believes it means prisoners needing spirituality in a hellish environment won't get it.

"I'm not taking a test and most of the others won't either. Some guys are looking to the law for help. I don't know yet what I'm going to do."

Related links
"Primitive" Indian religion
Tipis, feather bonnets, and other Native American stereotypes

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