Judge rules prison smoking ban infringes on religious freedoms - KOTA Territory News

Judge rules prison smoking ban infringes on religious freedoms

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James Swan has seen people find peace behind bars.

"People in prison find Jesus, they find Allah, they reach within themselves and search for answers," said Swan, President and founder of the United Urban Warrior Society.

For Swan and many Lakota people, a key part of that peace is ritual.

"Tobacco, the only purpose that it serves is as an offering of thanks to the sprit. It has always been that way," said Swan.

But South Dakota's ban on religious tobacco use in prisons and jails, to many, is a violation of religious freedoms.

"You can't violate 1st amendment rights because someone is in prison," said Terry Pechota, Rapid City attorney. 

To others, its simply a matter of safety and potential abuse. 

"When you can't have it, and you want it, you'll work harder to get it. That creates a danger in itself," said Willie Whelchel, Chief Deputy with the Pennington county Sheriff's office. 

While Department of Corrections officials declined to comment because litigation in this case is still pending, a press release from 1999 lists health care cost and ventilation issues as the primary reason for the overall smoking ban. But it wasn't until 2009 that officials also banned ceremonial tobacco use.

Now that a judge has ruled that the ban impedes on religious freedoms, both parties must work out an agreement to restore tobacco use for religious ceremonies.

"We have no problem with allowing people to practice religion, it's just what products come with that and how do we do it safely for everyone,"said Whelchel. 

"Per capita natives in the prisons is much great than anyone else. Maybe this will help them reevaluate them in their lives. Anything to rehab them should be a positive," said Swan. 

The judge's ruling now means both the Department of Corrections and the organization of native American inmates who are now spearheading the lawsuit will have to meet and forge a proposal that allows religious tobacco use.

That proposal is due by November 13th.

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