Wanbli Wiconi Tipi Center

Lock ‘Em Up With a Hug: Native Detention Programs Connect Youth to Community

Christina Rose

The following is the final part of a three-part series looking at the past, present and future of the juvenile justice system in South Dakota and how it pertains to Native youth. This installment examines Native programs looking to reconnect youth with tribal communities rather than sending them to a state-run detention center.

Isolation and punishment mark the hierarchal system of America's juvenile justice system that regularly inflicts yet another painful wound upon Native youth. Rather than exclusion, bringing the youth back into the community is the goal of tribal nations in South Dakota.

In South Dakota's jails for adults, sweats and pipe ceremonies, Native American Church, Prayer Ties, access to medicine men, women and spiritual leaders, drum groups, and Lakota Culture Class, are made available to inmates. But for the same state's incarcerated Native youth, exposure to culture is limited to an annual field trip to Crazy Horse Mountain for Native American Day, one cultural meal a month, a pow wow, and a hike up Bear Butte.  Only the STAR Academy, one of the three state institutions, has a Native American Troop: Lakota Ways and a Native Studies program, according to South Dakota’s State Tribal Relations Committee Overview of South Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Native American Programs and Services, April 2015.

RELATED: Terrible Racial Disparities’ Not Fixed With SD Juvenile Justice Reform

While 30 percent of the youth in South Dakota’s juvenile detention program are Native American, only .15 percent of the staff is a member of a minority according to South Dakota’s Department of Corrections Performance Based Standards report released in January.

Things are different in the tribally run programs. At the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Youth Wellness and Renewal Detention Center, Wanbli Wiconi Tipi, approximately 90 percent of the staff are tribal members, and culture is considered by staff to be the most important aspect of their program.

“Sending the youth far from home wasn't a good way to try to rehabilitate our young people,” said Miskoo Petite, Facility Administrator at Rosebud Sioux Tribe Corrections Services. “A lot of people were upset with the idea of locking up a juvenile. A lot of people didn't think that was the answer for our youth. Because of that, this facility was built. It’s different from other facilities in the country,” he said.

RELATED: ‘Cooked to Death’: Inside South Dakota’s Juvenile Justice Reign of Terror

Petite said one major difference is the amount of programs provided for the youth, including moral reasoning, values, culture and language classes. “Usually facilities are built for 70 percent residential space and 30 percent programming space.” Those numbers are reversed at Wanbli Wiconi Tipi. “If we are going to lock up our kids, we are going to provide services. We are not going to let them sit in jail and be punished,” he said. Rosebud also partners with other organizations to offer prevention activities within the communities.

Wanbli Wiconi Tipi was featured in the book, “Juvenile Law Violators, Human Rights and the Development of New Juvenile Justice Systems by Eric L. Jensen (Editor), and Jorgen Jepsen (Editor). In a chapter written by Barbara Mendenhall and James Dumesnil, Wanbli Wiconi Tipi’s detention supervisor, Pat Bad Hand said the goal of the center is “to help the youth regain and reclaim an understanding of their tios’paye, the concept of relatives, ancestry, one’s name, one’s circle and one’s life.”

“A lot of young people haven’t been taught in a big way who they are,” Petite said. “They might have forgotten that. We have sweats and it’s very important to the youth. It is probably the most healing aspect of our program.”

Petite added that while they have not yet measured the data, many of Wanbli Wiconi Tipi’s graduated youth who later committed federal offenses had not participated in the ceremony classes. “We can’t say just because they didn’t go to ceremonies, they committed crimes, but we do know how powerful and effective it is, so we try to do it as much as we can,” he said.

Creating a better home life is emphasized by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Children’s Court which can mandate parental participation in Wanbli Wiconi Tipi. In certain cases, parents are required to be assessed and complete treatment. “The Children’s Court works with us to try to provide a holistic service approach to our young people,” Petite said.

According to Joan White, program manager for the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe's sex offender and parole office, “South Dakota has the highest rates for locking up youth in the country. I don’t think any of the tribes in South Dakota would put their kids in a state facility. We try to work with the kids and try to keep them in the community.”

Sisseton has avoided using detention facilities by implementing a Teen Court through the Roberts County ALIIVE program. “That has been pretty successful from diverting youth from the system. Young people get to judge other young people,” White said.

The teen court takes youth, ages 12 – 18, who have been charged with low-level crimes such as underage drinking, marijuana, truancy, and shoplifting. Sara McGregor-Okroi, executive director of ALIIVE, told ICTMN that the youth are sent to teen court by either the state or tribal courts. “In a perfect world we would get more from the state,” she said. “We do get more from the tribal court, and it does work.”

McGregor-Okroi said only 3 out of 38 youth in the past year have not completed their requirements and in a six month look back, none of those who completed the program have reoffended. “Those outcomes are absolutely unbelievable,” she said. Considering the rates of recidivism in the state system is 33 percent for Native males and 24 percent for Native females, as reported by the state’s overview, ALIIVE’s program appears to be working.

ALIIVE’s teen court jury is made up of youth who themselves have faced the teen jury. A point system is assigned to the offense and a teen may choose from a variety of activities to fulfill his obligation to the court. Taking a class, community service, interviewing a police officer or a teacher offers fairly low points while cultural selections such as sweat lodges or spending time learning language with an elder are assigned higher points.

“Things that reflect culture are given a higher point value to attract the youth. They might get 1 point for an hour of community service but they might get 7 points if they go to sweat. We are trying to pull them towards the cultural aspects because we believe it is a protective and preventative factor,” McGregor-Okroi said.

To prevent recidivism among youth released from the state system, ALIIVE is hoping to soon offer another program. Developed by Dustina Gill, Sisseton-Wahpeton, her Young Ambassadors program will be based on her own experience with a national program by the same name, offered to selected individuals for leadership training. Gill will offer leadership training for youth termed delinquent by the state; those who are usually overlooked for skill and character building programs. The new program is ready to go but is still seeking funding.

Counseling for the entire family will be included in Gill's program. “The state removes kids from their homes, incarcerates them, and then places them back in the home, and they don’t have the tools to help them when they come home,” she said.

Gill said the state’s detention system dooms the youth to fail. “They come back and fail simply because they lack support and return to the same environment that may have caused them to fail in the first place. Within two weeks they give up. The state puts the youth on a long-term probation and if they relapse, they get thrown back in. By the time they turn 18 to 21, their life is pretty much gone, and it’s so preventable,” she said.

Phillip Whiteman, Northern Cheyenne, and Lynette Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota, work with youth through their non-profit Yellowbird and The Medicine Wheel Model. They feel South Dakota misses an opportunity by using punishment and incarceration. “When the youth act out it’s really a call for love. We need to provide opportunities through day-to-day interactions, or through programs to remind and reconnect them. We have to love them back into balance.”

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Submitted by WinterWindTeacher on
The article is excellent and makes a very important point, the children are acting out because they need love. The program that is being offered sounds dynamic and healthy. That youth feel disaffected and turn away from others and themselves and that is seen and understood and every good effort is made to help a youth offender to find themselves and to return to their state of wellness within their culture so that they know they are needed and do have an important place is positive. It is highly commendable work that is being done. It is a case in point of what happens when cultures have been torn, oppressed and broken, they are not easy to put back together. The brunt of the responsibility belongs to those who smashed them down but they sit idle. Thank goodness for those dedicated individuals who do the impossible and heavy lifting to secure a nations future to live on and lift out of history's conflagration. These are some excellent teachers, healers, warriors, hero and heroine making that are putting back together a living nation. It's got to take a lot of heart and imagination to not lose a single one, not one human being. I think the father is of the same mind, he would not lose a single soul, not one and is patient to bring each child back into the home and divine loving. That is a fine people, a true people living. Mother Earth and father Sky must be smiling for the loving strength to endure all the heart breaking and working to mend those minds to return to their soul soil of human being. Honors and blessing for the intelligence that guides the truth of any real nation, security is in the hands of your children because of their fine human being, love and intelligence and the creativity to know their destiny is the heart beating in their culture the nation will live on and fulfill its sacred path, the journey in the life eternity for meeting the challenge to live and fulfill human being. Congratulations. Many thanks for putting out the state of warning for those who lost and fell into the depression that messed up their thinking that somehow they could not be worthy of a joyous destiny, that no one cared about them or they did not matter, could not be true. That was a lie of walls that were built up around them but are being torn down. Messages let in somehow and bombarding their heads with not good enough, simply someone's corrupted thoughts spilling into you from another world you don't need to know. Let the lie die not you. 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You are her blessed child to assist her in making sure her many children are doing well so she won't have to worry and work so hard. Please do not feel she does not care or know your sadness, there has been so much sorrow from those who do not care and are leaving. It is sad when any brother or sister don't give a damn. Return to mother earth so she can be well again. Those who chose to go to hell - there was nothing you could do, it is what they wanted after all. Stay here with those who care than mother earth will be well again. Dance with everyone, it will be a good day to see mother earth up and feeling well again. It will be joyous to be dancing in the circle of her love, holding each other blessed life there can be no sadness in any of us, no it can not be, not even in thought. Love did that, took even that thought and disposed of it where it belongs, not here with our mother earth and her children dancing around and smiling and mother earth smiles and laughs. 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