Jail Builds Sweat Lodge For Native Inmates

By Laurel Morales
December 11, 2014
Laurel Morales
Shannon Rivers, member of the Akimel O'odham Tribe, leads the purification ceremonies for the Coconino County jail inmates.

Half of the inmate population at the Coconino County jail is Native American, and their recidivism rate is high. In an attempt to change that, the jail offers various recovery and job-skills programs. It has even built a sweat lodge.

Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil said jails don’t often offer such programs because the length of an inmate’s stay is unpredictable. A person can be jailed for less than a day to several years awaiting trial and a possible prison sentence.

“While they’re here, we believe we should do everything we can to hopefully improve their lives so they won’t come back,” he said. “The alternative is they just languish and sit in jail and watch television.”

Four different classes were going on at the same time. Behind dark glass, dozens of inmates in blue jumpsuits sit in plastic chairs, listening to a counselor discuss how to make better decisions.

Just outside the jail but not beyond the razor-wire fence, a sweat lodge frame sat beside a fire pit. Shannon Rivers stoked the fire, preparing to lead a purification ceremony.

Jim Bret, Coconino County Detention Facility Program Coordinator
The rebar frame is covered with blankets. Then Shannon Rivers pours water over hot rocks to create steam.

Rivers will cover the frame with blankets and create steam by pouring water over hot rocks. He will then lead about a dozen inmates in prayer.

“My job here is to help these men down a path of sobriety,” Rivers said. “How we do that is through these ancient ceremonies, because what we know is a lot of the Western ways aren’t working. If we have 50 percent Native people in this jail, we have to ask why.”

Rivers, a member of the Gila River Indian Community, does similar ceremonies at the Tucson prison. He said he’s seen men connect with their traditions like this one and, once out of jail, stay in recovery.