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Weekends Behind Bars

An Indian Sacrament Behind Prison Walls

Nancy Mullane

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Spiritual leader Robin Guillen exits sweat lodge
(Nancy Mullane)
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MULTIMEDIA SLIDESHOW: Sights and sounds of a sweat lodge ceremony behind prison walls

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world -- 2.3 million Americans are currently behind bars. But that doesn't mean they don't get weekends. Their weekends are just a little different.

At San Quentin State Prison in California, there's a place of worship for everyone -- a Protestant chapel, a Jewish synagogue, a Catholic church and a mosque. In fact, half of the prison's population regularly attends some form of worship -- that's actually a higher percentage than the free population outside.

Reporter Nancy Mullane recently visited what's called the San Quentin Indian Reservation, where many of the American Indian inmates go every Saturday for a traditional sweat ceremony.

One in every 31 adults in this country is currently locked up behind bars, and the fastest-growing prison population are men and women serving life sentences. Many of these inmates qualify for a parole hearing and may get out and return to civil society.

While they're serving time, in some cases decades, many "lifers" try to reform themselves. Just about every weekend, 50 percent of the prisoners incarcerated inside California's San Quentin State Prison attend services at the Protestant chapel, the Jewish synagogue and the mosque. That's a higher percentage than the free population outside.

It wasn't until 1977 that American Indians locked up in San Quentin got a church of their own -- in the form of a "reservation" inside the walls. Now, on Saturday mornings, Indians representing a number of Native American tribes gather on the reservation for a ceremonial sweat.

The reservation is a 2,500-square-foot fenced-in oasis located out on the edge of the prison yard. It's filled with fruit trees, flowers and herbs, all planted and cared for by the Indians.

Robin Guillen is an inmate and one of the reservation's caretakers. He says all of the plants are important to the Indians at San Quentin. "You have the roses and the different trees and the grass," he says. "And everything has meaning."

Before slipping between two gates separating the reservation from the prison population out on the yard, Guillen, a Chippewa and Camanche Indian, lights a bundle of sage at the bottom of a conch shell. He holds it up to the sky and bathes himself in the smoke. Guillen says this is called smudging. "When you smudge off, what you're doing is getting rid of those negative things that you may bring into this sacred area that should not be here," he explains.

Guillen was convicted of first-degree murder 35 years ago. Today he's the spiritual leader of the Indian religious ceremony at the prison, called a sweat. Before the sweat can begin, rocks representing ancestors have to be fired so they can be used to heat the sweat lodge. Guillen carefully chooses 28 rocks from a pile inside the reservation and places them in a fire pit to be heated. The rocks represent their ancestors: "This first ancestor that I will lay here represents our Earth mother, so mother is everything that we're standing upon."

After placing the rocks in the pit, he starts a fire over the rocks using scraps of wood from the prison's furniture factory. For two hours, while they wait for the rocks to heat up, Indians sit under the reservation's trees on the cool grass.

The Indian reservation has a tenuous relationship with the prison that surrounds it. Guards can enter at any time and the warden decides whether or not the Indians can still use tobacco, a traditional part of their sacred ceremonies. For now, tobacco is seen as a violation of the prison's new anti-smoking policy and it is forbidden.

Jasper Alford, a Karok Indian, is serving 25 years to life after violating California's tough "three strikes" law. He says prison officials stopped selling tobacco to the prisoners and they stopped letting it come in from the outside. "And when it run out, it run out," he says. "Now, if you get caught with it, they write you up."

Even without tobacco, Alford says participating in sweats and other spiritual ceremonies on the reservation helps him transition from feeling like a criminal to feeling like a human being. "This is one of the few places that we can come in San Quentin where they have enough respect for our religion and our culture to allow us to practice our ways to sing, to dance to drum, to sweat."

When the rocks have turned fire white, the inmates take off their prison blues. Wearing only white boxer shorts, they get down on their hands and knees and crawl into the sweat lodge. Two fire-tenders then bring the first three burning rocks to lodge. After pushing the rocks into the lodge, the opening flap is then closed. Inside the lodge, mint-infused water is poured on top of the rocks, causing billowing steam.

The steam causes the temperature inside the lodge to jump to more than 150 degrees. Alford says the Indians have a name for the steam -- "they call that 'grandfather's breath' because he's taking your strength, all the impurities out of your body and offering them up to mother Earth so that mother Earth can put them somewhere where they won't hurt no one."

One of this day's fire tenders is Dwayne Garcia. Standing outside the lodge, the White Mountain Apache says the first time he met his father was inside this sweat lodge. He says he was sitting inside and got up the courage to ask the other Indians to pray for the father he'd never met.

"I was inside and I was praying and I said 'I'd like to pray for my father, he's ailing,'" he says. "And my dad, first time I ever met him, sitting right across from me, he said 'Thank you.' Not a good thing -- but hey, I met my dad."

After two hours of the sweat ceremony, the Indians begin to crawl back out of the lodge. Slowly, each man stands and looks up to the sky. Their bodies drip with sweat. Their white boxer shorts are covered in reddish brown mud. But their eyes are sharp.

One of the first inmates to leave the sweat is Frank Gomes. He's a Yurok and Pomo Indian. He stumbles over to a cold water hose and uses it to wash the mud off his body. Gomes says the cold water feels like he's jumping into a cold river. "It's like being reborn, literally. The songs, the prayer, the stages of life that we tend -- it's a beautiful ceremony."

Now clean, the men put their prison blues back on. The fire is put out. Then Robin Guillen picks up a flute he carved and plays for his mother, who recently passed away.

Then the prison's bells ring out. It's time for all inmates to return to their cells for the day's head count. The Indians leave the reservation, and walk back across the yard.

More stories from our Weekends Behind Bars series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By duane garcia

    From clear lake, CA, 08/25/2014

    I am Duane Garcia ,the fire tender in this story ,.after sh finished the story,we all asked for the site she have it and ,I lost it ,and I have not been back to prison or jail since 2008 I'm doing great ,I looked for this piece for six years and just found it by total luck one mind one body one spirit, ah ho to all my relations ,I come in a threat way ,with love in my hart for all creatures, and all living things ah ho and may your sones have many many grand children for everyone .ah ho

    By patti jablonski

    From Harrisburg, MO, 04/04/2014

    Great Story...I have helped with donations to the spiritual group in Sandstone, MN. There is more that needs to take place in order to help these guys with what they are trying to do. Spirituality is a way to bring about change in attitudes and behaviors. Isn't that what prison and jails are supposed to be achieving? If the aim is rehabilitation thereby cutting recidivism then it stands to reason that spirituality is the first step in that direction.

    By sedadhcdgk sedadhcdgk

    From New York, CO, 03/01/2014

    cejBS4 btiwsbedimnj, [url=http://mrpoxrxudnjf.com/]mrpoxrxudnjf[/url], [link=http://jjjoqtwztwse.com/]jjjoqtwztwse[/link], http://ehtsjshvgcrl.com/

    By Daniel Rindge

    From Newburyport, MA, 08/29/2013

    Dear NPR

    The Native American "Sweat Lodge " at San Quentin
    Prison is a sanctuary of Peace in a very dark
    place. Robin Guillen is a remarkable and
    gifted leader of his Native community.
    To try to bring peace and healing to oneself
    and others is a very daunting goal in
    the Prison Community of convicted Murderers,
    Assaulters, Rapists, Thieves and Con Men.
    The lives of those who are victims of these men
    can never be same. However, It is good that
    these men are trying to find Peace for their

    Daniel Rindge

    Artist, Cartoonist, Illustrator,
    Graphic Designer, Caricature Artist



    From NEWBURYPORT, MA, 09/04/2011



    From NEWBURYPORT, MA, 09/04/2011


    By anthony willburn

    From topeka, KS, 06/10/2010

    in one of my past incarcerations the native inmates were interviewed by students doing there thesis on native american lack of religious rights in the california dept. of corrections....can't remember the year but the school is berkeley university it was also video recorded

    By Johnny Sartuche

    From Visalia, CA, 07/01/2008

    I am an ex-con who has now been out prison since 1992. I myself found myself while in prison being that it was the first time in my life, I was a sober man. My Native brothers got me involved in the native beliefs. Today I am preserving my cultural back ground work with my dad trying to save our language. So there is something good coming out of these religious rights. Thanks for the story. Wyeek shim (take care)

    By Vicki Burleson

    From Ogden, UT, 07/01/2008

    I found this article to be a refreshing change from ‘prison stories’.
    There is a tendency in society to want to discard people once in prison.
    We need to really become aware and face the fact that a majority of them will
    be released and we need to begin to take responsibility as a whole community
    for what is being released and how. This is a good and positive step, I
    appreciate that Nancy took the interest and time to shared this story.
    Thank you, Vicki

    By carrie deatherage

    From warner springs, CA, 07/01/2008

    I thought this was a graet story I am glad they can practice their religon

    By Kathleen Guillen

    From Santa Rosa, CA, 06/30/2008

    Thank you Nancy and NPR, for providing those of us who live "outside" the walls of prison, a glimpse of what can be found "inside"; to see, smell and hear the beauty/sacredness that is a Native American sweat ceremony!

    Moreover, hopefully, your interview will show others in free society,that reform from criminality is possible-and that many people have/are recovering their mental health, making amends and staying well through their personal spiritual practices.

    Kudos Nancy and NPR! Plz do more good work like this.

    May You Walk In Beauty

    By Jan Young

    From Marblehead, MA, 06/29/2008

    I was fortunate to catch this story while doing errands around town. Nancy's story was intriguing. I am happy to know that facilities like San Quentin respect all religions and have an area that is a now a reservation. Nancy, what a great story, keep up the great reporting.

    By Venida Korda

    From Van Nuys, CA, 06/28/2008

    How about a heartfelt story about one of the victims of the one of the
    San Quentin inmates?

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