Native Americans over-represented in Indian Country prisons

Dakota Digest - 12/18/2009

by Cory Klumper
Mike McCurry is a rural sociologist at South Dakota State University. He led a program with the state extension service to study native issues. A recent report shows since 1940 Native Americans have been over-represented in the prison system. This means that there are more Natives in prison than there should be statistically. McCurry says Native Americans found their way from rural areas to cities around the same time.
McCurry says there isn’t one specific cause that drives more Native Americans to crime but he says education is one of the more difficult problems.
“It’s almost as if you drop out of school and get your reservation for the prison system the same day,” says McCurry. “It’s not that 100 percent but it’s pretty rugged. And of course part of dropping out of school is not being able to cope with a social organization where you have a lot of controls on you.”
McCurry says no matter what the causes are for crime in Indian Country, the perpetrators end up in prison a lot faster than non-native criminals. He says some of this has to do with the lawyers that represent native clients.
“People who pay for their own attorneys tend to get shorter sentences,” says McCurry. “I think it also comes from knowing you’re had anyway so it doesn’t make a difference you might as well cop a plea and go in.”
Other elements of reservation life make natives more likely to end up in prison. The use of alcohol and drugs is a significant factor. Filmmaker Milt Lee says 80 percent of all prisoners, regardless of race, are in jail due to drugs or alcohol. Lee is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and has made documentaries about Indian country for the last 35 years. Lee says one thing that can help keep people out of prison is connection with family.
“Most people don’t’ really grasp how closely connected we really are to our biological parents,” says Lee. “So somebody ends up in jail because they steal a car or they get drunk or high and do something crazy and they’re in jail for several years. A lot of times people will basically say ‘that person is no longer in our family’.”
But Lee says shunning imprisoned family members can lead them away from a needed connection. He says those people are more likely to commit another crime after release.
“They’ve shown that people who are connected to their parents that are incarcerated, if they are truly connected and they visit them on a regular basis the rate of recidivism does down by 66 percent,” says Lee.
South Dakota Secretary of Corrections Tim Reisch says the state prison system does encourage visitation. He says some family members are automatically allowed while others need to be added to a ‘visit list’ by the inmate. Reisch says the major factors keeping people from coming back to prison are family, employment, and shelter.
He says the economic situation on many reservations presents a hard choice between family and employment.
“When you look at the Native American population and the reservation system, the lack of jobs and all the economic second and third-order effects of that lack of employment really put those folks at a disadvantage,” says Reisch.
Reisch says it’s not just native people that can suffer socioeconomic disadvantages. He says statistics show all minorities are over-represented in prison populations.
One of the things Milt Lee says can work especially well to keep native people out of prison is connection to spirituality.
“If they embrace Lakota spirituality, start to attend inipis or ceremonies on a regular basis, maybe even sun dancing. These things have made huge differences for people who haven’t been raised in a traditional way,” says Lee.
Many ceremonies and cultural activities are allowed on prison properties. Corrections Secretary Tim Reisch says there is even a native-focused chemical dependency program called ‘The Red Road to Recovery’. He says these programs go hand-in-hand with tribal liaisons to make sure the prison system is sensitive to native culture.
Filmmaker Milt Lee says the problem is complicated, but even small changes can help.
“You’ve got all kinds of things that if there were other things that help to support people maybe these things wouldn’t count,” says Lee. “But if there aren’t, chances are things aren’t going to go well and it’s easy to end up in jail.”
 Lee says studies show no matter how hard a person’s life gets, they aren’t destined for prison. He says community support through education, spirituality, and economic development has proven to keep people from turning to a life of crime.


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