A special plot of land has been set aside at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. It is sacred ground that has been blessed by tribal leaders from the community outside. And it’s been devoted to a work program that allows Indigenous inmates to grow medicinal plants needed in traditional ceremonies, such as sweat lodges.
The program is a partnership with Huy, an Indigenous nonprofit advocacy organization. Jeremy Barclay, the tribal liaison for the state Department of Corrections, says it addresses a number of issues.
“For one thing, from the facility safety lines, growing these medicines on the inside allows everybody to feel more comfortable knowing what plants are being used for medicinal needs, that the lavender is truly lavender and that there's no contraband,” Barclay said.
The ceremonies help Indigenous inmates reconnect with their roots, he says, and with community on the outside that provide much-needed support. The lavender is now in bloom in Walla Walla, along with sage and sweetgrass.
For Indigenous rights advocate Gabe Galanda, it’s hard to find words for how profound it is knowing that vibrant sweetgrass and sage and lavender are now blossoming inside the state penitentiary. He says it’s well established that reconnecting Indigenous people to their traditions provides an important path for renewal.
“We've seen through sweat lodge ceremony and other religious activity within state prisons a real opportunity for indigenous relatives to find a new way,” Galanda said. “Or to re-find that way to the extent that they had it and lost it.”
But those ceremonies require specific plants. And there were often issues getting them through security. So, Galanda and Huy, which he chairs, suggested the prison’s work program start growing them. The Department of Corrections said yes.
“You now have those plants being grow by Indigenous peoples, for Indigenous peoples, harvested by Indigenous peoples,” Galanda said. “And ultimately used by Indigenous peoples in traditional ways for sake of spiritual rehabilitation.”
The program is being replicated at state corrections centers in Spokane and Clallam Bay.