Lawsuit: Native American inmates ‘prohibited’ from practicing religion

New Mexico News

Four Native American prisoners, most serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes, are suing the Department of Corrections, claiming they’re not being given access to materials they need for religious ceremonies. 

All of the inmates are housed together at the State Penitentiary in Santa Fe. The inmates are Marty Begay, Lorenzo Martinez, Johnny Salazar and Ryan Begay. All, besides Salazar, are doing time for violent offenses.

M. Begay is leading the charge. He is serving a life sentence for the 1993 murder of an Allsup’s gas station clerk during a robbery.

“This is not by any means a frivolous complaint,” said Peter Simonson, the Executive Director of the ACLU.

The ACLU is not representing any of the inmates in this case but does have knowledge about claims of religious restrictions in New Mexico prisons. 

Begay filed the lawsuit in December, claiming throughout the fall of 2018 he and other Native American inmates were ‘prohibited’ by prison leaders from conducting religious ceremonies by not providing the inmates’ materials, like a lighter, drums or rattles.

“The courts have indeed said prisons need to make some accommodation for religious practice,” said Simonson.

Thirty pages of exchanges between M. Begay, the prison chaplain and the warden outline complaints over religious access going back to 2014.

In 2014, M. Begay first requested access to tobacco for ‘pipe services.’ He was allowed access to tobacco for religious purposes. But in subsequent ‘grievance reports,’ Begay claims he was not actually getting regular access to tobacco or other materials like feathers, pray ties, a choker necklace, turquoise stone or specific herbs needed.

M. Begay also said sometimes the tobacco would not be pure tobacco, saying the prison would only provide a ‘mountain blend,’ which combines tobacco with other herbs.

In correspondence between Begay and the prison, it appears the prison was trying to resolve the issues, often taking them under consideration or making changes to allow for the request.

“I think we would want to see our prison system treating all our inmates fairly, giving them all equal access to practice their religion regardless of what their crime may have been or religion may be,” said Simonson.

Simonson says letting prisoners practice their religion is mutually beneficial.

“I think it serves all of our best interests for inmates to be able to practice their religion because of the effect it can have in helping them rehabilitate,” said Simonson.

The suit also claims the prison is not giving the inmates access to appropriate clothes or food for ceremonies.

KRQE News 13 did reach out to the Department of Corrections late Thursday, but did not hear back as of news time.

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