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Growing Indigenous Medicines and a Sense of Community

August 5, 2020

By Rachel Noll

DOC Communications

Flowering lavender plants beside fence line.

The Penitentiary first set dedicated ground aside for the plants. Then Kalispel Elder and Huy Advisor Francis Cullooyah blessed that ground through ceremony. Once the lavender blooms, the next step in the process is clipping the tops of the lavender plants. Individuals then remove seeds by hand for the drying process. (Christopher McGill, Washington State Penitentiary)

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WALLA WALLA – The Washington State Department of Corrections continues to take steps to ensure incarcerated individuals have opportunities to engage in pro-social programs that assist in a reduction of recidivism. By providing opportunities to work together as a team, learn more about cultural backgrounds and grow a sense of community, individuals are shown positive and helpful behaviors that promote social cooperation and caregiving.

Each program addresses different aspects of growth for the incarcerated, and in some cases, a singular program can simultaneously address multiple growth aspects. Education, sustainability and parenting programs (youtube video) are just a few of the opportunities incarcerated individuals have to learn useful skills before returning to the community.

The Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), and Huy, a tribal non-profit corporation, worked together to find a way to bring incarcerated Indigenous people closer to their cultural roots, while providing skills and resources that can be used both inside the facility and in society upon release.

According to their website, Huy’s mission is to provide economic, educational, rehabilitative and religious support for incarcerated Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the United States.

Together, Superintendent Donald Holbrook, Corrections Specialist Christopher McGill and Huy Chairman Gabe Galanda worked to create a program that would allow incarcerated Indigenous people at the Penitentiary to plant, grow and harvest plants inside the facility for religious and spiritual use by Indigenous incarcerated individuals as medicines.

The Sustainable Practice Lab, a program run by staff and incarcerated individuals at the Penitentiary, gathered the seeds and supplies needed to start the program, allowing incarcerated individuals to be involved from the very beginning.

Indigenous medicines are plants harvested for use in ceremonies such as sweat lodge. In this case, the plants are lavender, sweet grass and sage. Incarcerated participants at WSP are now able to be part of the process of growing these plants and harvesting them as medicine, from beginning to end. Often, the medicines are used to offer up prayers to a deity known by Indigenous persons as the Creator or Grandfather.

During sweat lodge, participants burn the medicines, while offering prayers to the Creator. This is a very important aspect of the Indigenous religious practice, says Galanda.

In preparation for the program last year, the Penitentiary set aside ground where the plants could be grown. Kalispel Elder and Huy Advisor Francis Cullooyah blessed that ground through ceremony, while Holbrook and McGill resolved some of the specific safety and security risks. Galanda calls the ground "sacred" and believes the facility's demarcation of it for Indigenous religious use is "powerful."

In addition to the growth of Native medicines, allowing children and family to participate in the pow wow ceremony has been a significant change for the Penitentiary (pre-COVID). Family is a very important part of Indigenous culture and this change has been meaningful for the incarcerated individuals.

According to Holbrook, pro-social programs that focus on cultural and religious beliefs are important and often show improved behavior in those that are involved. When an incarcerated individual feels connected to the work they are doing, they are motivated to maintain good behavior at all times, to ensure they do not lose the opportunity to participate in the program.

“Growing our Native American medicines at the Penitentiary helps all of us... To be able to put our energy into growing medicine is another step in our life to be able to help our people,” said Donald C., an incarcerated individual who invested his time in the project.

Previously, safety and security concerns existed regarding the introduction of these plants and medicines into a correctional setting. When the medicines arrive from external sources, they can appear visually similar to drugs, which can cause confusion upon arrival.

Growing the plants and harvesting the medicines inside the facility provides an alternative that is both safe and provides pro-social opportunities for those involved. Many individuals arrive at Corrections without an understanding of their cultural heritage. Learning more about their community can give a sense of belonging they previously did not have in society.

“Hopefully it will bring a positive ripple effect for those who get to use the medicines,” said Aaron F., an incarcerated participant. “In starting the seeds and supporting the program, the positive impact to our family, heritage and culture for future teachings, was meaningful to be a part of.”

According to McGill, the program would not have been possible without the motivation and participation of the incarcerated Indigenous people who dedicated their time and hard work into establishing the project.

“Seeing a project from the beginning provides positive affirmation and reinforces ethics,” McGill said. “When the incarcerated participants are proud of their accomplishments, and learn more about where they come from, it really improves not just their opportunities while incarcerated, but upon release as well.”

Reductions in violence, infractions and poor behavior are all positive outcomes McGill states have occurred. The participants are motivated to remain infraction-free so they are able to continue to participate in the program, leading to better relationships with the staff, reducing safety risks.

The program has been so successful that Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane has now started its own program to be able to grow Native medicines. And the progress does not stop there, as Clallam Bay Corrections Center now has plans of its own.

Partnerships, such as this one with Huy, continue to be an integral part of Corrections’ processes – without these vital relationships, meaningful pro-social programs, would not be possible. It’s all part of Corrections’ mission to improve public safety by positively changing lives, providing incarcerated participants with continued opportunities to learn, grow and become positive members of society.