An attorney for several Native American state prison inmates expects to file a motion next month in U.S. District Court to force the Utah State Prison to allow Indians to practice their religion inside traditional sweat lodges.
The motion will be the latest move in 19-month-old dispute between Indians who want to build sweat lodges for ceremonial purposes inside the Utah State Prison and State Corrections officials who say the practice would be a security risk."What this case is about is freedom of religion, plainly and simply," said Danny Quintana, attorney for several Indian inmates at the Utah State Prison.
But Assistant Attorney General Lyle Odendhahl, representing Utah State Deparmtment of Corrections Director Gary DeLand, said the prison's safety is at stake. "The number one issue is the security issue," he said.
Quintana argues that other religions are given facilities in which inmates can practice their beliefs. For Indians who practice traditional religion requiring the use of a sweat lodge, such facilities aren't available.
"The sweat lodge ceremony and Indian religion is probably the oldest religion on earth," he said, adding that most western states and the federal penal system permit inmates to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies.
In a report to the U.S. District Court for Utah, DeLand said sweat lodges, usually temporary canvas and pole shelters, aren't permitted at the Utah State Prison.
"It is unreasonable to expect the institution to allow special religious structures for each religious group," he said in the report. "The security and space requirements are too burdensome."
Odendahl, recognizing the Indian's rights to freedom of religion, said that numerous court decisions give priority to maintaining the "safety, security, management and control of the institution."
To that end, the prison administration can do anything, including regulating religious facilities, inside the prison, he said.
Quintana, however, said security issues surrounding sweat lodges have been adequately addressed in other prisons. A Montana State Corrections director told the Deseret News that sweat lodge use was successful there.
"It doesn't cause us any problems and it helps a segment of our population celebrate their religion, said Dan Russell, director of administration for Montana State Corrections.
"It's not worth fighting, it's something that may be beneficial to these people," he said, adding sweat lodge ceremonies have a "therapeutic" affect on the inmates, just as other religious ceremonies do.
Other states that permit sweat lodge use in prison include Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming andWashington, Quintana said.
But Odendahl estimates monitoring sweat lodge ceremonies would cost $6,000 to $8,000 yearly at the prison. In this era of fiscal austerity, Utah can't afford that "significant cost," he said.
The ceremony involves constructing a willow-framed structure covered with canvas. Rocks are heated in an outdoor fire and then placed in a hole inside the lodge where water is poured on them to produce steam.
Typically, several inmates gather inside the lodge, say four prayers and smoke a ceremonial pipe stuffed with grasses and herbs, Quintana said.
"None of this involves any hallucinogenic drugs. You can not go into a sweat lodge under the influence of drugs; that is absolutely forbidden by the religion," Quintana said.
Quintana said he is prepared to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court and if he wins an extended court case, he expects to have accumulated more than $100,000 in fees.
"I think it's ridiculous to use the taxpayer's money to enrich myself and deny the Indians their right to religion," he said.
Although Odendahl disputes Quintana's estimated court cost, Odendahl said keeping state control over crucial security issues in prison is worth the court battle.