In moving swiftly this week to eliminate rules against a religious sweat lodge for Indians at the Utah State Prison, a U.S. district judge was hardly breaking new ground. Courts in other states have ruled the same way and sweat lodges are presently allowed in 19 state prison systems.
The decision to allow Indians to have a sweat lodge is not unreasonable. Such a structure has clear religious and cultural value for the inmates. That, plus the fact there are only six Indian prisoners in the Utah institution hardly make it a huge problem.The issue should have been resolved between Indians and the State Department of Corrections without a two-year struggle that eventually ended up in court, particularly in light of the wide experience in other prison systems. Utah was just about the only Western state that didn't allow sweat lodges.
A sweat lodge is a tent-like structure made of willow poles and blankets and heated with rocks warmed over an open fire. Meditation and religious ceremonies are conducted in the dark, hot atmosphere by small groups of Indians.
Utah corrections officials have been fearful that a sweat lodge would allow groups of inmates to gather for lengthy periods in circumstances where they were out of sight of guards.
This could permit Indian prisoners to take drugs, construct weapons, or even attack one another - activities that pose a significant threat to prison security. That possibility is real and makes guards and other officials nervous.
Given the kinds of people who populate prisons, some abuse of the sweat lodge privilege is perhaps inevitable, but the problem does not seem severe enough to deny the construction of a sweat lodge.
In essence, that is what Judge Thomas Greene ruled. He said that a sweat lodge was part of Indian religion and could not be prohibited under First Amendment rights without some evidence that prison security would be put at significant risk.
Prison officials are not left entirely helpless in this matter. A sweat lodge could be searched before and after each use. Prisoners also could be searched as they enter and leave.
If a sweat lodge has religious value and can help Indian inmates keep out of trouble or turn their lives around, then it can be a tool for rehabilitation instead of being regarded as only a potential threat to prison security.
Allowing a sweat lodge will make for easier relations between the Indian community and corrections officials and give Indians the sense that their religion and culture are respected - as they should be. There will be no direct cost to the state since Indian organizations are ready to provide the few basic materials needed to build a sweat lodge.
The state would be well-advised to abandon any idea of trying to appeal the case. It should move quickly to allow the sweat lodge to be erected and work out ways to handle concerns about security.