Corrections Report: Native Americans Faced Strip Searches

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A new report says that Native American inmates were subjected to group strip searches before and after sweat-lodge ceremonies at the private Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby; but the Department of Corrections said the findings do not indicate a problem of discrimination.

The lengthy report stems from complaints of discrimination at the prison that have culminated in an ongoing human rights complaint from The American Civil Liberties Union.

The Department of Corrections and the governor’s office released their own detailed report Wednesday. They said the agency first heard of the complaints of mistreatment against Native American inmates last August and that the ACLU of Montana got involved shortly later.

Corrections spokesman Bob Anez said the agency believes the report found some individual issues that could be resolved, but does not find a “systematic pattern of racial or religious discrimination” as charged in original complaints. He said it appeared some of the issues resulted in a breakdown in communication down the command chain.

The ACLU had a different take, saying the investigative report clearly shows inmates were mistreated.

“Their report confirms there are serious problems at Crossroads Correctional Center,” said ACLU Montana Legal Director Betsy Griffing.

The investigators said in Wednesday’s report that the sweat lodge grounds were extremely muddy and had no drainage, that an inmate was burned after antlers used to move hot rocks were confiscated, that guards made inappropriate comments about the Indian ceremonies, and that few inmate grievances were substantially addressed.

The investigators did not draw conclusions on whether the cited issues ran afoul of policy or rules or would require corrective action.

Crossroads Correctional Center operates under a contract with the state. The company that runs it, Nashville-Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America, said it is still reviewing the report.

“The company takes this report very seriously and intends to respond in detail to our customer, the MDOC, following the thorough and methodical review that this report deserves,” company spokesman Steve Owen said in a statement.

The report investigators wrote that they were unable to verify several charges, including allegations that grievances were ignored and shredded, that female guards watched strip searches and that inmates were retaliated against for complaining about the situation.

The report said the core issues, however, surrounded the sweat lodge ceremonies. They said conditions at the lodge were inadequate.

Warden Sam Law told the investigators that he ordered the strip searches based on a belief that the ceremonies were being used to move contraband. The warden said the searches were stopped after no contraband was found.

But he said he did not know group strip searches were being used.

The investigators said that they could not determine how many of the searched took place because the ACLU and private attorney Ron Waterman of Helena would not allow them further access to the inmates outside of a formal litigation process.

The Corrections Department said strip searches have a place in the prison system as a legitimate tool, but has not determined if they were being used appropriately in this situation.

Anez said some of the issues identified in the report have already been fixed, such as an improvement to the sweat lodge grounds.

“I think this was a very sincere and thorough effort by the Department of Corrections to look into the allegations,” Anez said. “This is really a step in the process of dealing with these issues.”

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