Judge: Inmates can pursue sweat-lodge lawsuit
HELENA, Mont. — Five Native American inmates who filed a lawsuit over strip searches required before and after they participated in religious sweat-lodge ceremonies at a private prison in Montana can pursue part of their case, but cannot seek monetary damages, a federal judge has ruled.
“Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to pursue their claims regarding the strip searches, the alleged prohibition of essential sacred items, and one alleged retaliatory act,” U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell wrote.
However, Lovell ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to show how the prison substantially burdened their religious exercise, so they can’t seek monetary damages from the Department of Corrections or Corrections Corporation of America, which operates Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.
Lovell referred the case to U.S. Magistrate Keith Strong for a settlement conference, the Independent Record reported on March 4.
“More cooperation between the parties will go a long way toward achieving successful continuation of this ceremony in the prisons,” Lovell wrote.
The lawsuit was filed after the Montana Human Rights Commission rejected a discrimination complaint filed by John Knows His Gun, Darryl Lewis Frost, Jason Chiefstick, William Gopher and Allen Potter. Knows His Gun and Chiefstick are now on probation, according to a Department of Corrections website.
The Department of Corrections and Crossroads Correctional Center filed motions asking Lovell to dismiss the case. He heard arguments on Feb. 23 and issued his ruling on Feb. 29.
The plaintiffs were incarcerated at the private prison in Shelby in 2008 and 2009. The men claim that in 2008, before and after sweat-lodge ceremonies, the participants were subjected to “en masse” strip searches. On some occasions, the strip searches were done in a gymnasium with video cameras that at least one female guard monitored.
Prison officials said they suspected the ceremonies were being used to move contraband, although none was ever found. Attorney Ron Waterman has said the contraband suspicions were nothing more than a pretext to discriminate against the inmates.
“Plaintiffs claim the experience was ‘extremely degrading and dehumanizing’ and caused the number of inmates attending sweat lodge ceremonies to decline,” Lovell wrote. “Thus, plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the strip searches forced them to choose between abandoning their religious exercise or being subjected to an ‘extremely degrading and dehumanizing’ experience.”
Lovell said the plaintiffs may also go forward with their claim that they were prohibited from using smudge tobacco, antlers, herbs and other sacred materials, but he noted that the prison Wasn’t required to provide the materials.