Inmate's Religious Rights Allegedly Violated Within Texas Prison System
It was on January 27, 2013 when Jesus Ramos, a Maidu inmate within the Dalhart Unit prison in Dalhart, Texas, was working on preparations for his 50th birthday. Known in the prison for his baking abilities, he left some of his baked goods in his cell while he walked back and forth. In particular was his own birthday cake, which he left on the table.
The accounts from Brenda Chitwood Ramos, his wife, and an Indian Country Today Media Network phone interview with Ramos’ sister, Tina Cizek, share similar details. At one particular moment when Ramos returned to his cell to retrieve cookies and his cake, he found that a female prison guard, listed in Chitwood Ramos’ Facebook account as “N. Young,” had just shaken down his cell, stating that the cookies he had were contraband. Ramos noticed papers sticking out of his foot locker. Upon opening it is when he noticed the contents of his medicine bag had been disturbed.
Both accounts stated that Ramos said the guards were not supposed to touch his Native American items. Young’s replies included “I don’t give a shit” and “Being an Indian didn’t make him special,” said Cizek, paraphrasing Young’s alleged wording.
A grievance filed by Ramos is pending. Officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice could not disclose the contents of the grievance with ICTMN.
Gabriel Galanda, a Seattle, Washington-based attorney and member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, is the chair of the non-profit HUY, a Salish word for “We Never Say Goodbye.” The organization supports religious and rehabilitative opportunities of prisoners in the United States. Galanda said prisoners’ constitutional rights do not end upon incarceration.
“Contrary to common misunderstanding, prison inmates do not forfeit constitutional protection just because they have been convicted of a crime and are now confined to prison,” Galanda said. “They still enjoy the rights to free exercise of religion—including tribal religion—as protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Galanda said these include tobacco use, pipe and drum ceremonies. Galanda also said state prisons cannot interfere with practice of tribal religion unless the state prison “can demonstrate the compelling governmental interest and use the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”
A comment such as that allegedly made by a guard in the Texas prison system would place the state of Texas in serious risk of civil rights violations, Galanda added. He said federal law does not allow for a state employee “to disparage anybody based on race or religion. The suggestion by this state officer ‘being an Indian doesn’t make you special’ could expose the state and the officer to federal civil rights violations,” in particular the violations of a Native American and the person who practices the religion of a Native American.
Ramos, also known as “Junior” or “Chief” by family and friends, has a prior record, according to the TDCJ Offender Information Search, that includes a theft of a motor vehicle in 1984. Cizek explained that the incident was “alcohol-related.”
The convictions for which he is serving date from 2000-2001 and are listed as being “indecency with a child” and “aggravated sexual assault-child.” Cizek said that the convictions are based on allegations of his ex-wife toward their daughter with only her court testimony used against him. Cizek said the allegations were based on Ramos wanting a divorce.
Ramos and Cizek are both working on an appeal of the conviction.
ICTMN inquired about the incident with Dalhart Unit Barry Martin. Although Martin did not acknowledge the incident, he said that his unit is not supposed to house Native American prisoners, and that all Native American prisoners are supposed to be incarcerated in the Daniels Unit in Snyder, Texas, which accommodates Native prisoners.
“We’re not going to deny anybody anything,” Martin said. “We’re going to help them go where they need to go.”
Martin further added about the inadequacies of the Dalhart Unit to house Native prisoners. “It’s kind of hard to put a sweat lodge in a gym,” he said.
One possible reason why Ramos is in Dalhart Unit and is not with other Native prisoners is that, under “Race” on his Offender Information Details, Ramos is listed as “O” for “Other,” rather than “American Indian.” Martin said that if he had a Native prisoner that he “might have been a convert.”
When asked by ICTMN, Cizek said that Ramos has been involved with his culture his whole life and formerly made a living selling arts and crafts such as shields and rattles.
Cizek, who lives in Texas, thought that Ramos would enjoy being in a facility that housed other Native prisoners.
“He would probably like that,” she said. “It’s a hell of a lot closer; I wouldn’t have to take off work to go see him.”