Inside Montana State Prison: Tribal religious and cultural freedom

Balancing safety, security, and religious and cultural freedom and expression
Sweat Lodge.jpg
Posted at 6:31 PM, Jan 03, 2024

HELENA — Religious and cultural freedom and expression is a right guaranteed to citizens here in America. The same right extends to those incarcerated in detention centers. This week MTN visited Montana State Prison and found out how the detention center strikes the balance between religious and cultural expression and security and safety for staff and inmates alike.

“It gave me that sense of direction of who I am. Because the life that I’ve been going down... it wasn’t, I landed here,” says inmate Aaron Matt, a Member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Matt was leading a pipe ceremony at the prison when MTN visited. He agreed to speak with us but asked that we not film the ceremony.

The prison provides a mix of tobacco and kinnikinnik through the inmate welfare fund that Matt and the other inmates smoke as part of the ceremony. They are allowed to hold this ceremony once every other week. That is less frequent than it has been in the past. Matt and others like Paul Lamere of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy Band want to see more time allotted for these ceremonies, a frequency that was once offered.

“It’s a struggle for us as Native Americans to practice our religion in this place,” says Lamere.

Terrie Stefalo, Religious Activities Coordinator at MSP admits that the frequency of religious ceremonies has been cut back. She cites staff shortages and Covid. Staffing hit a critical shortage in 2022 when correctional officer vacancy rates at MSP pushed 40%.

“Covid was the beginning of the having to re-imagine religious programming in that kind of setting. So, yes, and then staffing,” says Stefalo.

Stefalo says that the prison makes every effort to accommodate the religious and cultural activities of each individual from Catholic to Muslim and Jewish to Indigenous religions.

Outside the religious activities center sits a bare willow branch sweat lodge, held together with colorful bailing twine. Nearby sits the fire pit where the inmates are allowed to build a fire and heat the rocks used in the sweat.

“Religious programming has a calming effect on the inmate population. The religious activity center is a place they can come to and just be themselves,” says Stefalo.

There is a balance that prison administration has to strike between safety and security and allowing a religious practice. And it can lead to tension, including when religious items are handled for security purposes.

“I understand that I’m in prison. I understand that I don’t have the liberties. I understand that they have security and they’re there for a reason,” says Matt.

The prison recognizes that a high population of inmates are Native American. In a courtyard between security gates, beneath murals depicting Native American imagery, the Department of Corrections Native American liaison Terry Boyd explains.

“For Montana State prisons, 19% of the population are Native Americans. Having a Native American liaison, being able to come out and speak to those inmates and have them bring up any concerns or requests, you know, just giving them a voice, basically, that's the biggest thing,” says Boyd.

“It’s something that the prison can't take that from them. That is their cultural upbringing. And it's a religious right to be able to practice their faith,” says Stefalo.