Daniel Nelson of Lakota People’s Law Project stands in the center of The Day of Empathy talking circle in downtown Rapid City and records the prayer song which opened the event. Photo by Richie Richards / Native Sun News Today

Native Sun News Today: Community comes together to talk about Indian inmates

Indian incarceration rates surpass white rates by far
By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

RAPID CITY – On March 5, Racing Magpie in downtown Rapid City opened its doors for a talking circle to discuss incarceration rates and the circumstances of Native Americans in the criminal justice system in South Dakota.

As part of a larger movement, the group met as part of The National Day of Empathy. This day was a “day of action to generate empathy on a massive scale for millions of Americans impacted by the criminal justice system”, according to cut50.org.

The discussion panel in Rapid City was primarily regarding the incarceration of tribal members in South Dakota and the disproportionate numbers of male and female inmates in state prisons who are Native American.

Part of the mission of the Day of Empathy is to create a safe space for former-inmates and families of past and present inmates to come together and discuss the impact of their lives in the community. Victims and those affected by criminal behavior were invited to talk about the impact of being a family member to an incarcerated individual and the burden the family bears. This was a discussion based on the criminal justice system’s effect on tribal families.

Racing Magpie has been a central meeting place for Urban Indians in the Rapid City area to meet and discuss topics of politics, social issues, community challenges, art and other movements related to tribal members in the Black Hills town. Among these issues is the high incarceration rate of Native Americans in Pennington County Jail and the South Dakota Department of Corrections.

Nearly thirty individuals gathered at Racing Magpie whom represented several organizations in the area; including Community Conversations, One Rapid City, MMIW He Sapa, and others for the event sponsored by Lakota People’s Law Project.

The Day of Empathy discussion was put on by Chase Iron Eyes, Daniel Nelson and Robert Horse, all of Lakota People’s Law Project. Horse led the discussion and opened remarks regarding his own incarceration in the South Dakota state penitentiary system; he was released in February, 2019, after serving nearly twenty years.

Family members and former inmates discussed the impact of serving time and having to take on the responsibilities of the incarcerated individuals. Tears and laughter was shared in a safe space for sharing stories of deep tragedy and family challenges. Prayer and traditional songs helped to heal the wounds opened during the talking circle.

Robert Horse, 35, has hit the ground running since being released from prison last month. Using spiritual, physical and emotional health practices, Horse has maintained his traditional ways learned in prison by going to sweat lodge ceremonies and community events which empower tribal needs in Rapid City.

“We joined a national organization called, Day of Empathy. Basically, what we are doing is bringing awareness to the mass incarceration to people across the country. But more particularly, in the state of South Dakota, we are here for Native incarceration rates,” Horse said.

“Currently, we have a state population (Native American) of between 8 and 10 percent. The male prison population is between 29 and 33 percent and the women’s prison is at 63 percent,” Horse said of the high numbers of tribal members in state prisons. These numbers obviously do not represent the state population and Horse feels this needs to be addressed legislatively. “I feel the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.”

Horse said he would like to see some type of reform brought on a state, county and tribal level which will help to reduce these high incarceration and recidivism rates. His focus since coming out of prison has been to bring re-entry programs for inmates into discussion in the community. He feels that there are not enough being done to serve inmates being sent back into society following years of incarceration; many times these inmates have not been rehabilitated, educated, and prepared for life outside of prison.


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Contact Native Sun News Today Correspondent Richie Richards at richie4175@gmail.com

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