My name is Ralph Dunuan, I am of Filipino and Coast Miwok descent. As a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG) and Tribal Sons, I strive to promote cultural awareness and education. As an activist, I work to ensure that positive cultural programming and education is available to people on the inside of prisons.
I am currently housed here at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, WA. As life in general finally begins to grasp at something we can once again recognize on both sides of the walls, some of us will consistently remain under the thumb of an oppressive state.
On Oct, 12th 2022, James Key (Deputy Assistant Secretary of COVID-19 Operations), the Department of Corrections liaison, sent out a memo to all staff and the incarcerated population revising its "safe start" outlook for COVID protocols. What DOC meant by "safe start" is their version of how to work through the revision of COVID-19 restrictions in Washington prisons. Within this memo, Mr. Key outlined what restrictions would be lifted from facilities, such as visiting and programming within its walls (see memo “Re-Improving Programming Access” on the DOC website.) Over the last few months, almost every facet of DOC has seen revisions on their COVID restrictions; all but one, the spiritual practices of our Native American population.
During the length of the pandemic, our Indigenous communities have been hit hard, more so when we consider the generational traumas within our histories. We have once again seen what spiritual oppression looks like by the state, especially within the Washington State correctional facilities.
As it currently stands, Inipi ceremonies (sweat lodges) in the correctional facilities are only being allowed to an individual that has been vaccinated. Anyone who has stood by their belief to not receive the COVID-19 vaccination can at best be in the designated sweat lodge area for a partial amount of time, without full participation of the ceremony, and then must return to their living unit while the rest of the participants perform the ceremony.
As restrictions are lifted for visiting, extended family visiting (EFV), and programming, we as an Indigenous community are still being held to a more restricted standard than any other religious program that is practiced within the DOC. These protocols have been pushed back so much that unless the facility is on a "facility wide outbreak" status, staff are no longer tested before coming into the facility. Even those who are fortunate enough to be able to participate in the EFV program (trailer visits that allow spouses to stay for up to 48 hours) are only subjected to a RAT or rapid test.
So with these things in mind, I myself have to wonder what justification can DOC have for placing such harsh restrictions on our Indigenous spiritual practices? No other religious practice has been put through such spiritual persecution by a state entity for over half a century. Our sisters in the women's facilities are being forced to endure even greater spiritual oppression than the men's facilities. The department of corrections cannot give any rational reason for such treatment. In the past, we have been told that it's because Inipi ceremonies cause individuals to sweat in close proximity to one another, however, visit rooms are being allowed food once again, which can be shared, EFVs also allow the possibility for an exchange of bodily fluids. So this reasoning that individuals are caused to sweat in close proximity is in turn unreasonable. Especially with restrictions being lifted in every other way within facilities.
Given COVID is now a part of life and a daily risk we are forced to navigate at the discretion of the lifestyle of an incarcerated individual or member of staff at the prison, none of it is reason enough to continue to impose harsh restrictions on one group of people. If you have come to this same conclusion after reading this, then I encourage you to send an email to Cheryl Strange, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections, and pose these questions to her! Let's give the head of the DOC the chance to speak for herself on why she continues to allow her department to impact the Indigenous community within the walls of DOC in such an oppressive way?
To send your questions to the head of DOC, send to Cheryl Strange
Here is a prompt you might be inclined to use:
"ATTN: Cheryl Strange, Secretary of the Department of Corrections Secretary Strange, I am a concerned community member writing in regards to your department's consistent oppressive treatment of Native Americans within your custody. I would like to know why your department is lifting restrictions in every part of your many facilities but your indigenous populations' spiritual practices (i.e. sweat lodges )? As a concerned citizen I am asking that ALL facilities allow its indigenous population to practice their spiritual beliefs in accordance to their traditional customs, and without the threat of repercussion based on a vaccination status."
If we do and say nothing, everything we value disappears!
Written by: Ralph Dunuan
For more in depth conversations on this topic contact me at:
Ralph Dunuan #801445
Washington Corrections Center
P.O. Box 900
Shelton, WA 98584
Thank you for your time and concern towards this issue.