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After months of requests, Native American religious sweat lodge ceremony will resume at WA prisons

Jim Bret
A sweat lodge at the Coconino County jail in Arizona.

The Washington state Department of Corrections says it plans to lift social distancing requirements for religious ceremonies after complaints from Native American inmates about the lack of opportunities to worship. 

Native American inmates say that for months they’ve been denied the opportunity to participate in Inipi (sweat lodge) ceremonies at certain prisons.

In a letter sent to the Department of Corrections earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington claimed restrictions meant to protect prisoners from COVID-19 had been “applied to Native American ceremonies with disproportionately high severity, in contrast to other religious worship activities that are allowed.”

Two months later, in June, the ACLU of Washington wrote: “Coupled with cancelled powwow celebrations last year and thus far this year, and the lack of any human contact with loved ones, this is an inhumane and untenable situation. Immediate change is necessary.”   

In a response to the ACLU of Washington and Gabriel Galanda, an Indigineous rights lawyer, Department of Corrections officials said the restrictions were part of following state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. 

DOC officials also noted that religious gatherings were allowed at facilities with no known COVID-19 outbreaks. More than 6,000 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirusin Washington state; 13 have died. 

Galanda says sweat lodge ceremonies, a purification ceremony that involves fire and stones, is key to preparing prisoners for release and recovery.

“Brothers and sisters are sharing their personal testimonials. They're offering prayers. They're asking for forgiveness, and they're healing themselves in a traditional way,” Galanda said, describing the ritual.

Department of Corrections officials say they hope vaccinated Native Americans will be able to fully participate in the ceremony by Aug. 15. 

There are approximately 15,000 people in Washington state prisons; 6%, or 850, identify as Native American.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to