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Tribal Defenders: rate of Native American incarceration 'shocking'

By Adriana Fehrs

The tribal defenders hosted a movie luncheon on July 1. Attendees learned about incarceration in the U.S. and statistics of Native American inmates. From left to right: Jim Taylor, Montana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legal Director, Ann Sherwood, Tribal Defender, and Justin Kalmbach, Tribal Defender.(Adriana Fehrs photo)  The tribal defenders hosted a movie luncheon on July 1. Attendees learned about incarceration in the U.S. and statistics of Native American inmates. From left to right: Jim Taylor, Montana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legal Director, Ann Sherwood, Tribal Defender, and Justin Kalmbach, Tribal Defender.(Adriana Fehrs photo)

PABLO — CSKT Tribal Defenders hosted a movie luncheon on Tuesday July 1. The movie presentation focused on incarceration in the U.S., and Tribal Defenders Ann Sherwood and Justin Kalmbach invited special guest Jim Taylor, Montana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legal Director, to give some shocking statistics of incarcerated Native Americans.

Taylor explained that in the recent years there has been a large increase in American Indian inmates. The rates of incarcerated Native woman have increased from 17.2 percent in 1986 to 35.8 percent in 2012; largely disproportionate compared to a 2010 census report, which showed that American Natives only make up 6.2 percent of the Montana population. Even more shocking is that the average rate of incarcerated Montanans stands at 4.7 percent in 1986 and only rose to 6.3 percent in 2012.

Native Americans males have also seen an increase in incarceration rates: 15.8 percent in 1986 to 19.6 in 2012; still vastly larger than the average Montana incarceration rates.

At the Tribal Defenders movie luncheon, attendees learned that the U.S. incarcerates more individuals than any other country. According to a US Department of Justice report published in 2006, over 7.2 million people were at that time in prison, on probation, or on parole; roughly 1 in every 32 Americans are held by the justice system.(Courtesy photo)  At the Tribal Defenders movie luncheon, attendees learned that the U.S. incarcerates more individuals than any other country. According to a US Department of Justice report published in 2006, over 7.2 million people were at that time in prison, on probation, or on parole; roughly 1 in every 32 Americans are held by the justice system.(Courtesy photo)

Information collected from 512 incarcerated Native Americans in mid-2012 showed that 79 identified themselves as Chippewa/Cree, 63 identified themselves as Salish-Kootenai, and 59 identified themselves as Blackfeet – almost half of entire Native American prison population in Montana.

In the PBS Frontline premiere of ‘Prison State’, the documentary revealed that incarceration is becoming normalized. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but holds 24 percent of the world’s prison population. The U.S. continues to incarcerate more of its citizens than any other country in the world.

According to a US Department of Justice report published in 2006, over 7.2 million people were at that time in prison, on probation, or on parole; roughly 1 in every 32 Americans are held by the justice system.

Even our youth are facing incarceration - more schools are criminalizing students for the smallest of infractions such as truancy.

CSKT Tribal Defenders hosted a movie luncheon. They showed a Frontline premiere of ‘Prison State’, which focused on incarceration at the Kentucky State Prison. (Adriana Fehrs photo) CSKT Tribal Defenders hosted a movie luncheon. They showed a Frontline premiere of ‘Prison State’, which focused on incarceration at the Kentucky State Prison. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Another problem the prison systems have encountered is ‘frequent flyers’ - nonviolent offenders that often end up incarcerated soon after released from jail or prison.

Bryan Stevenson, NYU School of Law, concludes the documentary with a final note when he says, “We can not incarcerate ourselves out of our social problems.”

After the documentary, Ann Sherwood, tribal defender, explained that in the tribal prison system, many of the inmates have mental illnesses. “[The offenders] are not violent, but just fail to conform to societal rules.” Sherwood offered the idea that immediate treatment services for mental health could stave off incarceration. “Many of these individuals need a social worker, or someone to help them get situated. If I had a social worker for every attorney that would make a world of difference.”

Sherwood adds, “We need to consider alternative to incarceration. Tribal defenders are open to ideas.”

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