The Hill and Jameson Annex, which is part of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo by Richie Richards

Native Sun News Today: Sudden death of Indian inmate saves lives of others

Sudden death of inmate saves three lives

Larry Black Bear becomes organ donor
By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

PIERRE – On Christmas Eve, an inmate in the South Dakota Department of Corrections (SDDOC) was declared brain dead after suffering from a brain aneurysm in the Jameson Annex in Sioux Falls.

Inmate Larry Black Bear, 46, had gone to the Health Center in the prison on December 23 complaining of a bad headache, pain in his shoulders and back and a metallic taste in his mouth. An inmate found Black Bear unconscious in the bathroom the following morning.

After being rushed to the hospital, tests revealed the inmate had suffered from a brain aneurysm which caused massive bleeding on the brain.

Black Bear died shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve. Black Bear was a donor and his organs were able to save the lives of three strangers in immediate need of surgeries.

Up until this point, he had no symptoms or signs of a brain injury or illness.

Black Bear had been in prison since 1993, following a conviction for manslaughter in which he received a 160-year sentence for first degree manslaughter in Meade County.

Larry Black Bear
During his 24 years in prison, the inmate had been involved in teaching others Lakota culture and language despite having “little opportunity for improvement inside the walls”. He was a fire keeper during the sweat lodge ceremonies; a sacred role for any person in our out of prison.

Fellow inmates claim his rehabilitation was self-driven and motivated by developing and fostering a relationship with his higher power; in this case, Tunkasila. Welding classes are not available for in inmate serving 160 years.

Often times, when inmates enter into the prison system, they lose contact with loved ones for various reasons as days become months, months become years, and years become decades. In Black Bear’s case, it was outside volunteer Mary Montoya, assistant to the Secretary of Corrections, Mike Standing Soldier and prison officials present in the hospital as Black Bear lay dying.

Both Black Bear’s parents are currently in a nursing home in Rapid City.

At approximately 1am following his death, Black Bear was rushed into surgery to remove his liver and kidneys. According to Mary Montoya, “his liver saved the life of a 33-year old critically ill woman. His kidneys went to a man and woman in their 50’s.

Despite the horrific nature of Black Bear’s crime, the Lakota value system and teachings brought this man to place of peace and giving, as he made the critical decision to save lives after taking a life.

In the male prison system, Native American inmates refer to each other as “brother”, both as a term of endearment but also to honor the surrogate nature of the family structure developed within the wire fences and heavy steel doors that is missing in their daily lives.

SDDOC inmate, Robert Horse wanted the outside world to know “Not all inmates are bad. People change and become better”.

As indicated in the eulogy written by his “brothers” inside the prison, Black Bear’s presence will be missed and his memory will live within the barren buildings in Sioux Falls for many years to come. Part of the Black Bear’s eulogy reads:
“As many old-timers continue to complete year after year inside our state prison, many of us who complete these years get to know each other as brothers and become a family of men…Larry was deeply, culturally oriented in the principles of the Lakota identity which were a central point in his life.

“You could find Larry watching our sacred fires at our sweat lodges and praying over our sacred pipe...You could always expect his best Native American craft and bead work on dance outfits seen in the powwows throughout the prison system.

“His love for the people became his ultimate goal and redemption his mission. This belief was mirrored in decision to become an organ donor. Now, three people benefit because of his love and compassion for others.”

Black Bear applied and was denied parole on five occasions since becoming eligible with his original parole date in 2013.

Because Black Bear was sentenced in 1993, he was ineligible for automatic parole. The law changed in 1996, which made inmates having to go before a parole board to plead their case for parole.

Many inmates feel there is no support for prisoners during their incarceration by tribal leaders or tribal nations, outside of the few visitors who come in during quarterly conferences and powwows held at the South Dakota Department of Corrections men and women prisons in Pierre, Springfield and Sioux Falls.

The outside support needed from tribes includes re-entry programs, educational tools, language and cultural materials, housing and job contacts once released, and physical support through participation in prison powwows and conferences. The inmates feel forgotten at times.

If an inmate can prove outside support from tribes and families, this would increase the possibility of parole and release. The recidivism rates and incarceration rates for Native American inmates are among the highest in the South Dakota and the nation, according to local and national studies.

The bonds formed in prison become life-long relationships, as the Native American inmates often times come from tribal communities, raised under the same socio-political environments. The inmates have similar upbringings and similar needs.

Larry Black Bear did not make it out of prison alive, but through his donation, he was able to cast his spirit out into free society through the three strangers he helped on Christmas day, 2017.

Black Bear was cremated and his ashes were given to longtime inmate supporter and Rosebud Sioux Tribal Member, Rita Means, to be taken to his family.


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Sudden death of inmate saves three lives
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