An Indian Sacrament Behind Prison Walls

June 28, 2008

Author: Nancy Mullane

Source: Weekend America

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world -- 2.3 million Americans are currently behind bars. But that doesn't mean they don't get weekends. Their weekends are just a little different.

At San Quentin State Prison in California, there's a place of worship for everyone -- a Protestant chapel, a Jewish synagogue, a Catholic church and a mosque. In fact, half of the prison's population regularly attends some form of worship -- that's actually a higher percentage than the free population outside. Reporter Nancy Mullane recently visited what's called the San Quentin Indian Reservation, where many of the American Indian inmates go every Saturday for a traditional sweat ceremony.

One in every 31 adults in this country is currently locked up behind bars, and the fastest-growing prison population are men and women serving life sentences. Many of these inmates qualify for a parole hearing and may get out and return to civil society.

While they're serving time, in some cases decades, many "lifers" try to reform themselves. Just about every weekend, 50 percent of the prisoners incarcerated inside California's San Quentin State Prison attend services at the Protestant chapel, the Jewish synagogue and the mosque. That's a higher percentage than the free population outside.

It wasn't until 1977 that American Indians locked up in San Quentin got a church of their own -- in the form of a "reservation" inside the walls. Now, on Saturday mornings, Indians representing a number of Native American tribes gather on the reservation for a ceremonial sweat.