The Ironhouse: Native Americans and Prison

Article by Brigette Sarabi

According to a recent article in the Lakota Journal, for Native Americans, problems including racial profiling, confessions obtained under questionable circumstances, frequently inadequate legal representation and processing through courts that have historically been hostile toward Indians have marred access to equal processing through the courts. The article concludes that the sum of these problems places Indians into confinement far earlier, and for less serious crimes than other Americans. There is also evidence that Indians are being denied parole opportunities much more often than non-Indians, and that this increases their time served in prison even more.

In 1999, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report called American Indians & Crime that contains significant information about Native Americans and the criminal justice system. Among the findings:

  • While for all other races, the arrest rate is significantly higher for youth than adults, Native American arrest rates are the same for all ages.
  • American Indians account for just over ½ of 1% of felony convictions across the Nation. However, the rate of felony convictions is 1 for every 200 American Indians age 18 or older, while the rate for whites is 1 out of every 300 adults.
  • There are an estimated 62,600 American Indians under correctional supervision, accounting for over 4% of the American Indian adult population. By comparison, an estimated 2% of white adults, 10% of African American adults, and less than a half of 1% of Asian adults were under correctional supervision.
  • In 1997 almost half of American Indians under correctional supervision were confined in prisons or jails. By contrast, less than a third of correctional populations nationwide were confined in prisons or jails.
  • The majority of federal cases filed against American Indians came from the states of Montana, South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico.
  • About half of all death sentences imposed on American Indians between 1973-97 were in North Carolina (11) and Oklahoma (14).

In our region, Native Americans are the majority of non-white prisoners held in Montana prisons (78%), and they make up over 20% of the non-white prisoners in Idaho and Wyoming. Approximately 3.5% of all prisoners in our region are Native Americans (source: BJS data from 1996).

Native Americans in Montana Support Racial Profiling Bill

A bill has been introduced into the Montana Legislature to track racial profiling. House Bill 189, sponsored by Rep. Bill Eggers (D-Crow Agency), would require officers to record: each routine traffic stop; race or ethnicity, age and gender of the individual stopped; nature of the violation; whether a search resulted, and if the stop or search resulted in an arrest or written citation.

Nearly all the witnesses testifying before the House Judiciary Committee supported passage of the bill, saying they personally experienced or heard anecdotal evidence that Montana officers single out racial minorities when stopping motorists or pedestrians for questioning. Sen. Gerald Pease (D-Lodge Grass), who is a BIA mechanic, said he often heard—on the high band radio—police checks on license plates from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. “When I first noticed this I thought, ‘This isn’t right’”he said.

Andrew Huff, a Helena attorney and enrolled Chippewa-Cree, said existing Montana statistics suggest a troubling pattern. Huff said American Indians make up only 3 percent of Billings’ population but represented nearly twenty-five percent of all arrests there last year.

Rep. Ken Peterson (R-Billings), related the experiences of his adopted son, who is three-quarters Crow and Blackfeet, with Billings-area law enforcement officers. “I can tell you in Billings he’s been discriminated against because he’s an Indian.” He said his son was stopped more than once by the Highway Patrol for speeding, pulled out of the car, slammed up against it and handcuffed. “The first thing they’d say is, ‘We think you fit the description of a suspect.’ And he was not driving a rez car but a $35,000 Volvo.”

As we go to press, the Montana House Judiciary Committee had taken no action on the racial profiling bill. (Source: Indian Country)

Clinton Fails to Pardon Leonard Peltier

Hope for the release of Native American prisoner Leonard Peltier was again dashed when he was not included on the list of those pardoned or given clemency before President Clinton left office. Grass-roots support for the release of Peltier had swamped the White House phone and fax lines for months before Clinton left office. Native nations and organizations sent powerful messages of support. Thousands of concerned citizens walked and prayed on behalf of Peltier’s release in New York on International Human Rights Day. But none of this was enough.

The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee issued a statement and called for a “National Day of Shame” following the denial of executive clemency. The statement said, in part, “It can hardly be gainsaid that the history of our government’s dealings with the first citizens of this country have been tragic at best, and oftentimes shameful. It is difficult to imagine a case more crucial to national reconciliation and healing than the case of Leonard Peltier. Yet a door, instead of opening, has been slammed and locked. Our society will pay the price.”  (Source: Indian Country)

Books About Native Americans & Prison


Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality, Luana Ross, University of Texas Press, 1998

Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance, Leonard Peltier, St. Martin’s Press, 1999

Native Americans, Crime, and Justice
, Marianne O. Nielsen and Robert A. Silverman, editors, Westview Press, 1996

Websites of Interest:

Native American Inmates & Families Support Group:

Selected Newspapers:
The Circle (monthly, $18/yr)
1530 East Franklin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Indian Country Today (weekly, $68/yr)
P.O. Box 4250
1920 Lombardy Dr.
Rapid City, SD 57703

Lakota Journal (weekly)
P.O. Box 3080
Rapid City, SD 57709-3080

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Justice Matters