Prison smoking ban won’t apply to religious ceremony

Las Vegas Sun

By Cy Ryan
Friday, July 24, 2009 | 1:50 a.m.

CARSON CITY – Despite a newly imposed ban on smoking at Nevada prisons, American Indians will still be able to puff tobacco in their ceremonial pipes during their religious ceremonies.

Howard Skolnik, director of the state Department of Corrections, has told a state advisory Indian committee that the pipe smoking practice will be allowed to continue as long as there are not abuses.

Skolnik and Senior Deputy Attorney General Janet Traut expressed concern that many non-Indians would invade religious ceremonies in the sweat lodges just to get a smoke.

There’s a rumor at the prison that a single cigarette is going for $50, she said. “Inmates really value it.”

The smoking ban applies to both inmates and staff.

Regulations allow only those who have ties with Indian tribes or groups to participate in the sweat lodges ceremonies.

Concern has been expressed that some non-Indians have participated in the religious ceremonies for a long time. Skolnik told members of the Advisory Committee on the Treatment and Religious Freedom of American Indian Inmates in Nevada Correctional Facilities that he is willing to consider those individual cases.

Rocky Boice, a member of the advisory committee, said after the meeting that the prison system has been trying for several years to dissolve the sweat lodges. Boice, a sweat lodge leader who visits the various prisons in Northern Nevada to conduct ceremonies, said he feels the prison is in violation of “a lot of federal laws” involving freedom of religion.

“It’s something that we have got to keep working on,” said Boice. “We have got to keep these ceremonies going. It’s all the Native Americans have in there, the right to practice their native spirituality.”

The sweat lodge is a circular structure in the prison yard, covered with blankets or other materials. Rocks are heated on the outside by fires and then brought into the lodge and placed in the center. Water is poured on the rock to produce steam.

The Indians sing and pray and at the end of the ceremony smoke the pipe. Boice said the smoking of the pipe releases the prayers of the inmate. And these are “purification ceremonies” says Boice.

“The Native American religion is the oldest in the United States and we have to defend it,” said Boice.

Boice also complained that the raw food at these ceremonies was banned. But Skoknik told him this was done by the state Health Division. Cooked food is allowed in these ceremonies where the Indians sit around the heated rocks during the religious offerings.

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