Arizona jail inmates can use sweat lodge

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- A northern Arizona jail has returned to allowing sweat lodge ceremonies for Native American inmates after a seven-year hiatus.

The Coconino County jail, where half the inmate population is Native American, held its most recent ceremony earlier this month, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.

At least a dozen inmates already have participated in the religious purification ceremony, a common ritual among many Native American tribes.

"Some of them will share why they're here (in jail), what brought them here," said Shannon Rivers, an indigenous rights advocate who facilitates some of the ceremonies. "And many of the men will cry and get emotional because it's a place to relieve themselves emotionally."

Sweat lodges are commonly used to cleanse the body and prepare for hunts, ceremonies and other events. Rocks are first heated in a fire pit and then brought inside the sweat lodge. The stones are placed in a small hole in the ground and water is poured onto them. The resulting steam causes those inside to sweat.

The Coconino County Sheriff's Office first operated a sweat lodge at the jail in 2001. But officials closed it in 2007 because smoke was getting into the ventilation system.

Jim Bret, the jail's program coordinator, began looking for funding to revive the sweat lodge when he was hired in 2008. A circular rebar frame in the jail yard covered with heavy blankets becomes a usable sweat lodge.

Offering the ceremony is no different than offering other worship services to inmates of every faith, Bret said.

"This kind of ceremony is another thing that they can use to focus better on what they need to do - and we hope they do - when they leave here," Bret said.

The jail has held three ceremonies so far including one for female inmates, which was led by a woman. Rivers led the other two and has been doing the same thing at a prison in Eloy for the last several years. The Coconino County jail now plans to conduct a few every month starting in January.

Sweat lodge ceremonies became a topic of discussion after three people died in Sedona in 2009 following a session led by self-help author James Arthur Ray, a non-Native. Jail officials say keeping the inmates safe is the main priority.

"The safety and security of the inmates is paramount, but we want them to experience this ceremony," Bret said.