GREAT FALLS — The American Indian liaison for the state Department of Corrections says he’s working to provide cultural awareness to agency staffers and to help Native American inmates prepare for their release.
Harlan Trombley told the Great Falls Tribune that after a month in the job, he’s found that corrections staff often don’t understand traditional practices such as smudging, when herbs are burned so the smoke can be used as a cleansing agent.
“They don’t know what that is or why it’s being done,” Trombley said. “A lot of what I want to do is to provide that cultural awareness.”
Trombley’s job is to make sure inmates who want to participate in such ceremonies have the materials and permission they need, said Corrections Director Mike Batista.
American Indians make up 17 percent of the population of offenders supervised by Montana’s correctional system, but are just 7 percent of state residents. Thirty-five percent of women imprisoned in Montana are Indians, while Native Americans make up 21 percent of women offenders in the corrections system — which also includes alternative programs such as drug treatment facilities.
Trombley is an enrolled Blackfeet member and Browning native who has degrees from Blackfeet Community College and the University of Great Falls. He has worked as a tribal police officer in Browning and spent a decade as a corrections officer at the Cascade County regional jail.
He said he wants to foster cultural understanding in corrections staffers.
For example many Native Americans tend not to make eye contact, considering it disrespectful, Trombley said. But corrections staffers could interpret that as a sign offenders are lying or have something to hide.
Trombley also plans to bring in mentors from tribal communities to work with offenders.
“These mentors have a lot of knowledge,” he said, adding that working in Cascade County he often saw that following traditional spiritual practices helped offenders straighten out their lives after being released.
Trombley, 40, also works to ensure families of Native American offenders understand the corrections process. He is part of an overall effort to help inmates prepare for release by finding a job, a place to live and other community resources, Batista said.
Limitations in employment, housing and continuing treatment can make returning to reservation communities difficult, Batista said. Trombley is compiling information on re-entry resources that are available.
“There’s a lot to be done,” Trombley said. “I’m looking forward to it, and I’m excited.”
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