Jack McNeel
Winona Stevens, a Ho-Chunk member and program manager of United Indians of all Tribes

Prison Survey Reveals Cultural Needs and Benefits

Jack McNeel

Washington State prisons hold tribal members or descendents from 230 tribal nations. Approximately 900 inmates are housed in the 12 facilities across the state. But other than just numbers, what are their demographics?

How are the various “Circles” in each institution faring and how much rapport do they provide?

The organization known as United Indians of all Tribes Foundation wanted to know more about the tribal diversity in prison and the extent to which Native cultures were being practiced at each facility. A survey was organized and conducted at each facility to provide answers.

Winona Stevens, a Ho-Chunk member, serves as program manager and headed up the survey. She explained the Department of Corrections (DOC) attempted a survey a few years ago but Native inmates refused to participate, concerned it might be a way for DOC to pump them for information about their tribes.

This later survey was planned with three parts to include both custody and administrative staffs, but lack of staff response early in the survey led to focus on offender response only.

Some inmates were still reluctant to respond, partly because they didn’t understand who was conducting the survey. Despite that, 366 people participated. Over half, 194, were enrolled tribal members. Another 27 were unenrolled, 73 were Asian Pacific Islands and 4 were South American Natives.

A number of facts emerged. Fifty-five percent identified themselves as “urban,” or having grown up in cities or suburban communities, while 33 percent said they grew up mostly on reservations. Seventy-nine percent of the 52 women were mothers while 66 percent of the 314 men were fathers. Seventy-one percent of the Circle members were between 21 and 40.

The importance of the Circles should be noted as 28 percent answered they first learned of traditional ways while in prison. Part of that can likely be explained by the fact that 61 percent of those surveyed have been in foster care, lived with extended family, had been adopted, or were placed in a group home, so had less access to their culture. Eighty-eight percent do not speak their language.

The question about education revealed that the highest level for most Circle members was earning a GED, some 33 percent. Sixteen percent had completed high school. Seventy-seven percent participated in education programs offered by DOC and for those that didn’t it was primarily due to availability of classes or programming.

Many also showed interest in getting support from tribal colleges or through correspondence courses. Learning tribal history and language rated highly in their interest, along with vocational training.


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