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Inmates rehab through spirituality
Prisoners at Fort Smith correctional facility harvest sacred plants for traditional ceremonies held at NWT jails

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Saturday, September 5, 2015

Prisoners are using sweetgrass and sage to rehabilitate themselves thanks to a new program rolling out at jails across the territory.

NNSL photo/graphic

Ingredients used in a smudging ceremony, including a feather, a small fire, sweetgrass and sage, have been collected by prisoners for traditional ceremonies in correctional facilities across the NWT. Officials say the ceremonies go a long way towards rehabilitating the convicts. - photo courtesy of the Department of Justice

Last month, inmates and staff from the men's correctional facility in Fort Smith traveled to traditional gathering areas in order to harvest sacred plants. Those plants are used in purification and smudging ceremonies as well as in sharing circles which are held in correctional facilities territory-wide.

Priscilla Lepine, co-ordinator of the offender program at Fort Smith, said inmates are given the chance to harvest so that they can learn what kind of landscapes to go into to find the sacred plants.

"We teach them how to harvest respectfully and then we take them back to the facility and teach them how to prepare it for storage and use," she said. "Some of the inmates have been to (drug and alcohol) treatment centres in the south where this is used as part of the programming for healing journeys. So they know about these plants and they participate in both the smudging ceremonies and sharing circles. Some of them take them back to their communities."

Pat Burke, the acting warden at the Fort Smith facility, said that when they hold the smudging events it is also viewed by inmates as a cleansing ceremony.

"There are no ties to the crimes that they committed when they do the ceremonies. It's a personal thing. When they do the sharing circles, a lot of times they will rid themselves of the guilt, some of the animosity towards themselves and it works in a very calming manner towards their rehabilitation," Burke said. "A lot of crimes are derived from anger and other issues."

Both Burke and Lepine have participated directly in the ceremonies.

"We do it in the morning to start off their day to put them in a reflective mode," Lepine said. "When we are there with them we try to get them to think about what path they are going to walk during the day - how they are going to deal with any negative imaging they come across and what decisions and choices they are going to make for themselves so that they connect what they are doing in the morning with the smudging and sharing ceremonies with the rest of their day and the activities they are doing."

Female inmates in the NWT also have the opportunity to be involved in the ceremonies but it is not mandatory programming for any of the inmates. Because the smudging ceremonies involve an open flame, by order of the fire marshal they have to be held outside or in a teepee on site.

Burke said that he doesn't feel that programs like these are too lenient and take away from the penalty aspect of the inmates' sentences.

"I think that when you wake up in a locked cell every morning and you have to follow the programming - I don't think it's exceedingly harsh but I don't it's being mollycoddled either," Burke said. "We've come a long way from the chain gangs of the seep south. There are a lot of rights that even inmates have."

Non-aboriginal inmates are also welcome to participate in the traditional ceremonies.

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