Aboriginal spirituality in corrections: a Canadian case study in religion and therapy

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Aboriginal spirituality in corrections: a Canadian case study in religion and therapy.

Waldram, James B. "Aboriginal spirituality in corrections: a Canadian case study in religion and therapy.The American Indian Quarterly 18.n2 (Spring 1994): 197(18). 


The Canadian corrections community needs to realize that the Native American spiritualty programs available in correctional facilities offer therapeutic benefits for Native American prisoners. The tendancy within the corrections community is to see such spirituality programs as analogous to a Christian church service in terms of scope and effect. Actually, Native Americans receiving this service show a therapeutic response. A 13 month study at the Regional Psychiatric Center in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is discussed.

Full Text:COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Nebraska Press

Canada appears to be on the verge of substantial changes in the relationship between Aboriginal(2) peoples and the justice system. Recent research in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta has demonstrated the extent to which Aboriginal peoples are disproportionately represented in the courts and the correctional system. As the movement for Aboriginal self-determination sweeps the nation, talk is emerging of the implementation of Aboriginal justice systems, including policing, courts, and traditional laws and punishments.

The area of corrections has received considerably less attention than other aspects of the justice system with respect to the integration of traditional approaches.(3) One area of corrections which has seen some attempt to accommodate Aboriginal offenders as culturally different from other offenders, and therefore requiring other programs and services, is the provision of religious services. Known euphemistically as "Native Awareness" programs, these involve the provision of spiritual services by Aboriginal Elders to Aboriginal prisoners. However, it appears that these services have been categorized as "religious" in nature, analogous to services provided by prison chaplains. This paper will argue that the therapeutic aspect of Aboriginal spirituality is not being fully recognized in correctional programs.


The site of my research is the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The RPC is one of three such institutions in the country operated by the Correctional Service of Canada. Its mandate is to provide treatment primarily to federal offenders with sentences of two years or more. The Saskatoon facility primarily serves offenders from western and northern institutions.

Opened in 1978, the RPC has the capacity to house 106 offenders or "patients" in five units. The two main units, from which the research participants were drawn, concentrate on the treatment of sexual offenders and those diagnosed as having "personality disorders." Treatment includes a combination of group therapy, instructional groups, and individual counseling. Psychiatric and registered nurses work with psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to identify psychological and behavioral problems and to treat the patients.

Over a thirteen-month period in the early 1990s, I interviewed thirty Aboriginal offenders at the RPC, and observed a variety of psychological and traditional Aboriginal treatments. I used an ethnographic interview approach, using open-ended questions and discussion to detail the respondents' cultural and prison experiences. Aboriginal Elders who worked with the Aboriginal offenders also have been interviewed. All interviews were taperecorded. Participant observation was used to gain a better understanding of the offenders' experiences with various spiritual and traditional healing components.(4)


Aboriginal spirituality programs generally depend on the services of Aboriginal Elders retained on a contract basis, often through agencies independent of the Correctional Service. Providing such services is relatively recent, used in western Canada only since the early 1980s at the insistence of Aboriginal inmates.

The Elders offer spiritual guidance and cultural education, and are clearly the hub around which the programs revolve. Many Aboriginal offenders (perhaps one-third) lack any knowledge of their Aboriginal cultures or languages as a result of residential school or foster home/adoption experiences. For many, the Elders are able to begin the process of cultural education. More importantly, the Elders provide spiritual and, it is argued here, "healing" services. These would include guiding fasts and undertaking sweat lodges (or "sweats") in the prisons. The Elders also provide counseling for Aboriginal inmates in a manner which, on the surface, appears similar to that undertaken by Eurocanadian therapists.(5)

The other component of prison Aboriginal spirituality programming that deserves mention is the Native Brotherhoods, volunteer organizations of Aboriginal (and sometimes non-Aboriginal) inmates who meet on a regular basis to undertake spiritual services (with or without an Elder), and to discuss political, recreational, and social concerns. The Brotherhoods are often vehicles for bringing into the institutions resource people from the outside.

In general, the correctional system in Canada appears to view Aboriginal spirituality programs primarily as "religious." In other words, the services are made available because of constitutional guarantees regarding the right of the inmates to practice their religion. Recent studies done for the correctional service would bear this out, as they emphasize the struggle of Aboriginal peoples to have their spirituality services, and Elders, recognized in a fashion analogous to the chaplains.

A 1988 report for the Solicitor General's office noted that "there seems to be an increase in Native culture and spiritual awareness among Native inmates" (Canada 1988a:5). Further, the report noted: Many Native offenders have special social, cultural and spiritual needs. These include the observation of such traditional group ceremonies and rituals as pipe ceremonies and the sweat lodge. For Native offenders who have not had much prior contact with traditional culture and spirituality, the opportunity for instruction and participation in these areas can become an important part of their incarceration experience (Canada 1988a:5). The report then suggests that, "beyond spiritual and related cultural needs, however, the unique program needs of natives are not well understood or documented by correctional systems." I would suggest that the extent to which these "spiritual and related cultural needs" are truly understood is questionable, primarily because of the report's view of these as religious in nature. Indeed, the report indicates that there have been complaints about Aboriginal spirituality not being recognized as a "religion" (1988a:33), and recommends that "Aboriginal spirituality shall be accorded the same status, protection and privileges as other religions," and Elders "recognized as having the same status, protection and privileges as religious officials of other religions" (Canada 1988a:34). Although suggesting that these programs appear to be having positive effects on inmates, the report fails to broach the issue of such programs as inherently therapeutic.

On the heels of this report, the Task Force on Aboriginal Peoples in Federal Corrections (Canada 1988b) recognized the "traditional Indian view" of health (Canada 1988b:13) and that services for Aboriginal offenders "must take their spiritual and cultural background into account" (Canada 1986b: 14). But the report stops short of recognizing the explicit therapeutic value of the spirituality programs, recommending only that Elders and their spiritual programs be recognized with the same status as chaplains and other religions. Only when the report suggests that "exposure to Aboriginal spirituality and culture can make a major contribution to rehabilitation" (Canada 1986b:69) of alcohol and substance abusers is the issue of therapy raised. Unfortunately, the discussion goes no further.

Recently, the three prairie provinces have experienced inquiries into the process of justice and Aboriginal peoples. (Hamilton and Sinclair 1991; Cawsey 1992; Linn 1992). The report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba (Hamilton and Sinclair 1991) is typical of all three on Aborginal spirituality programs and the employment of Elders. It calls for the recognition of Aboriginal Elders on par with chaplains, and for a policy guaranteeing Aboriginal offenders the right to spiritual services "appropriate to their culture" (Hamilton and Sinclair 1991:447).

At the RPC itself, Aboriginal offenders lamented that spiritual services were less available than in their parent institutions.(6) In fact, Aboriginal spirituality has continued to have problems being recognized as equivalent to other religions. Although the Correctional Service of Canada has established councils of advisory Elders, and is attempting to change the manner in which spirituality is treated, many Elders still feel that they are subject to discriminatory treatment at the hands of guards. The searching of medicine bundles and sacred pipes continues to be an issue in many prisons. This is in contrast to the accepted practice of allowing priests, for instance, to enter prisons without being subjected to searches or having certain items, such as sacrificial wine, inspected.


Little research (e.g., Waldram 1993) has been done on the effects of Aboriginal spirituality on Aboriginal offenders in Canada. My research suggests the spirituality programs had a significant effect on the mental health and well-being of offenders.

The offenders report that the benefits of spirituality programs tend to fall into four categories. First, spirituality programs provide a mechanism for coping with the stresses of prison life, reducing conflict with other inmates and staff, and opening up the individual to other prison programs. The sweat lodge experience in particular seems to be important. As one offender stated: It brings up my spirit, especially when I come out of a sweat, eh. When you come out of that sweat, there's nothing that can disturb you.

The second category of benefits relates to the role of Elders as therapists, a role which reflects to some extent that of other correctional staff but in a more culturally appropriate manner. Many offenders noted that they could talk more openly with Elders, indeed that it was sacreligious to lie to an Elder, and that they had a great deal more confidence in Elders than in other correctional staff. Individual counseling involved dialogue on specific Aboriginal cultures (i.e., an educational component) as well as the individual offender's life. Offenders found that the Elders were better able to understand the reserve context, the problems of alcohol and substance abuse in Aboriginal communities, and physical abuse. The Elders were highly valued because of their ability to be empathetic, a quality that was not characteristically ascribed to Eurocanadian treatment staff. According to one offender: I was talking to both of them [treatment staff and Elder] about the same problems. The reason I went to an Elder was because he was Native, you know. He understood what went on in my community, what happended to me.

The third category of benefits relates to what could be termed "culturally specific" mental health problems. Some Aboriginal offenders retain strong beliefs in the power of traditional healing and in what is known as "bad medicine." Bad medicine refers to the ability of one individual to cause harm, misfortune, or illness to befall another through supernatural means (e.g., Young et al., 1989). A few offenders in this study expressed a belief in the existence of bad medicine, and a concomitant belief that they had been the targets of someone's malicious intent. Bad medicine can only be treated in a culturally appropriate manner. Likewise, only Elders can make the appropriate "protection" medicine available to individuals who fear bad medicine.

Some Aboriginal offenders also expressed a strong belief in dreams, that messages encoded in dreams are purposefully sent to them. These messages can be disturbing and require interpretation. Elders are particularly valuable in offering the culturally appropriate interpretations.

The fourth category of benefits pertains to questions of identity. Some Aboriginal offenders express profound conflicts in this area; this is particularly true of those who have been raised primarily in a Eurocanadian cultural milieu. These individuals are Aboriginal in heritage and have been victimized as Aboriginals through racism, yet know nothing of that heritage. Indeed, frequently they have found themselves ostracized by both groups: by the Aboriginal population because they appear to follow the "White way," and by Eurocanadians because they are visibly Aboriginal. The Elders, in conjunction with workshops on Aboriginal culture and history, are often able to lessen the consequences of, and sometimes resolve, this identity conflict and instill pride in Aboriginal offenders.


It would be useful to demonstrate the great potential for the "healing" of Aboriginal offenders through Aboriginal awareness and spirituality programs by presenting a case study. I have found numerous cases similar to this one, though the apparent change in this individual is perhaps the most striking.

"Jack"(7) was an individual of mixed ancestry. His father was Aboriginal, his mother Eurocanadian, and he grew up mostly in the city. I first met him at a meeting of the Native Brotherhood. My first impression of Jack was that he was an intensely angry man, who seemed suspicious of everyone and who spewed venom with every comment. He shouted angrily, denouncing the police, the judges, the RPC staff, and finally me. He was particularly upset that I proposed to examine the case management files for those offenders I interviewed. In his view, the files contained nothing but lies concerning his background, and that once something was written in the file it was seen as "truth." A man's reputation, as documented in his file, followed him everywhere, and conditioned prison officials' responses to him.

Jack's case management files generally supported my initial impression of him as an intensely angry individual. At the time he was interviewed by me, he was in his early thirties, and was doing a long sentence for a violent offense. At the time of that offense, he had been on the street just one day since completing an earlier sentence. His criminal convictions began at age 16, and he had at least seven convictions between the ages of 16 and 21. His most serious offenses included armed robbery, hostage takings and gun battles with police. He had been in institutional care since the age of twelve.

His prison record showed many incidents of violence, escape, and other problems. He had also been involved in prison hostage taking incidents, and had spent more than two years "in the hole" (segregation) and in the special handling unit, available only in some prisons and designed to handle the most dangerous offenders.(8) According to his file, "up to approximately one year ago, his behaviour in prison was disruptive, rebellious, and often a threat to institutional security." As a result, he had served time in most Canadian prisons capable of handling him. He let it be known that he hated anyone in authority, especially prison guards and believed that both the guards and some other inmates were constantly out to get him. One report stated that "he showed no signs of major mental illness, although he is very sensitive to imagined slights." A report at another institution documented that The patient had deteriorated into a paranoid agitated state and had developed some delusions concerning a couple of other inmates.... There was also considerable mood disturbance and he had in fact made a significant suicidal gesture by cutting quite deeply into his arm. An earlier attempt at obtaining treatment at one RPC had ended in failure after only three weeks, when he requested transfer back to his parent institution "because the open discussion of personal problems and the atmosphere of the unit were making him very anxious." While waiting for the transfer, Jack asked to be secluded in the most secure unit in the institution: "He has stated that he cannot handle being around other patients and staff in an open environment." An RPC psychiatric report contained the following passage: He stated that he hated people and the system had made him avoid them, especially women and now he was forced by the same system to be in this atmosphere wherein he had to deal with a lot of women. His hatred for people is very apparent.... He has poor control of his temper, his frustration tolerance is low and often has the urge to take it out on other inmates, however he did say he would never harm a female, for that goes against his self-respect. He was diagnosed as having a "personality disorder," including a substance abuse problem, "difficulty coping with stress resulting in aggressive behaviour, and difficulty interacting with authority." Indeed, many prison staff were fearful of him.

Although Jack had originally rejected my request for an interview, eight months later he was more than willing to sit and, in his own words, "do the best I can." This remarkable turnaround will be discussed shortly. First I would like to elaborate on his past from information obtained in that interview.

Jack's father had grown up on a reserve, but Jack had spent relatively little time there as a child. His formative years were spent in the city, and he never learned his Aboriginal language. He had very little cultural knowledge of his people.

It is evident that his childhood was quite disturbing, filled with alcohol abuse and violence: My dad was an alcoholic and my mom, she used to take lots of beatings, lots of screams, stuff like that. And I saw my father rape one of my sisters. And then I said, "fuck that shit," and I ran away from home. His description of his prison experiences was considerably more graphic than what his record described: I find the time I spend in the jail wasn't easy, either. I watched a few hostage takings, took part in a riot...had both guards tied. I spent six years in the SHU out of fourteen years...The rest I spent in normal population, but I was bad ass up there. They kicked me out of [one province]...they booted me out after a few years there...they transferred me back [to another prison] ...got in a riot there. They made me spend two and a half years in the SHU over that. I come out of the SHU and [my home province] didn't want me. So they sent me to [another province]. [There] I did the same thing. I escaped...did lots of pipings, stabbings...So spent lots of time in seg[regation] and they just booted me out...When I arrived at [one prison], there, they [guards] tried to torture me, tried to hang me, smashed three of my ribs. I got nineteen stitches in the back of my head. They really did put a number on me. And all those friends that I had when I first came in when I was sixteen, most of them today are dead. The pigs killed them. So I don't know, I got a hatred, a hatred. I just can't handle them around me.

Despite his relatively weak links to his Aboriginal heritage and his pale complexion, he was subjected to racism and taunting as a child. His response was to fight, and he was cajoled by his father if he appeared to have lost any such encounter. After witnessing his father rape his sister, on two occasions he attempted to kill his father but was charged only once, with assault.

The most pleasant memories of his childhood were the brief times he spent on the reserve, ironically often the result of trouble he had encountered while in the city. He stayed primarily with his aunt and uncle, and received a cursory introduction into Aboriginal culture and spirituality. On the reserve he found a refuge from the racism of the city.

Despite this early exposure to an Aboriginal culture, by the time he entered prison as a young adult he know very little, and he would ultimately experience a personal and spiritual awakening. He explained his reasons for becoming involved in the prison's Aboriginal awareness and spirituality programs: I see some of my friends, they were there before me--they were in the SHU and when I hit [the prison] I don't know, I saw a change in those guys. They were fucking nuts like me before...I couldn't understand how come they were changing like that. And they used to tell me, "You try this, you listen, you see. You try this and you see." So I put myself into it, and I believe it today. It was in prison that Jack experienced his first sweat, and began to learn more about Aboriginal culture. But his real awakening came when he entered the RPC and began to work with the Elder: When I started to talk to that guy it was easy to relate to him. He knew a few of my friends. That was our first conversation there, of a couple of people we know and we talked about that. And then we talked about myself. And I was sitting in my cell one day and I said, "Fuck, that's not my dad. That's what I would like to have fucking gone to my dad [for]." So to me he is a friend, he is a dad. He's everything, that guy. And that was the first person to come along and be willing to put everything on the line for me, so that means lots to me. That was the first person that came along, crossed my road and asked me if I wanted help, and was willing to give me a hand.... And you know for me that means a lot, because I never had anybody come along and ask me those things before. I wish somebody did, but it never happened. Then Jack added reflectively: Now it's funny. I never feel that I want to beat anybody up. I never feel I want to escape. I never feel like taking hostages no more. I just want to be out with [the Elder] and learn about my people, and learn about me. Learn about me more.

This remarkable change was noticed by RPC staff. Reports in Jack's case management file stated: Since being at RPC, [he] has developed a relationship with the Native Elder. The Elder has offered him ongoing support in the community.... On the unit, [his] participation in groups has been consistent. He has always been attentive, but his active participation is limited.

A great deal of [his] efforts at identification of self have been through the Native Brotherhood. He has worked closely with the Native Elder ... In fact, they have bonded to the extent that [Jack's] plans for MS [mandatory supervision] release are to reside with the Native Elder. RPC staff members were quite surprised by the change in behavior. By the time I interviewed Jack, he had been at the RPC almost fourteen months, and the intense, angry man had given way to one who readily smiled and joked with the staff. It is simply not possible to say to what extent the work of the RPC staff, and prison therapists at other institutions, contributed to this remarkable change, relative to the work of the Elder. A report in Jack's file stated that, beginning in 1986, he had started therapy with a prison psychologist, which signaled "the start of a change in his behaviour which continued throughout the eighteen months he was [there]." But there is no denying that the man who presented at the RPC appeared to be as angry and tense as any person could be.

Jack's view of his change places the responsibility more firmly with the Elders he has worked with, and particularly the one at RPC. But other aspects of the RPC program have contributed as well. Jack states: A year ago, I wouldn't talk to anybody. I wouldn't talk about myself. I would fight all the time. At least once a day I would fight. I don't say that to try to look bad or nothing, but that's exactly the way I was. I was really hurt and I learned how to talk about that hurt. Talk about it. Spend lots of time with the Elder. Spend lots of time with those psychologists down in the psychologists' office here. Spend lots of time by myself, reading those handouts they gave to me.

According to Jack, the Elder has been instrumental in helping him remain calm and deal with the stresses of prison life, stresses which contributed to his poor incarceration record: Usually lots of time [the Elder] used to come and fuck I wasn't ready to go, you know? And ... I fought four times and I used to ask [the Elder], forget the sweat because I was so angry inside. [But] I would go in that sweat and I would pray hard and I would ask him for understanding and that did help me. No matter what anybody says, that did help me. One particular incident seems to have been the turning point for Jack. Despite having been abused by his father, Jack was particularly troubled when news of his father's death reached him, followed by news that he would not be allowed to attend the funeral. Indeed, he was so upset that the security staff became nervous that he might become violent. The Elder was there to assist: I asked [the Elder] for a special sweat, there he made a special sweat. He made two rounds instead of three. And it was for me and my father. And I was sitting down and I asked him for more, more understanding. I went through what basically I went through when I was a kid. I talked basically about all my life ... the pain and the hurt. And he showed me how to pray, how to get a better understanding of myself. And since I did that, I do feel better, because when you grow up like that, you just keep those things inside you. That's why you become so bitter. Jack's story was corroborated in a separate interview with the Elder. The Elder explained that Jack broke down and cried in the sweat as he related his story and particularly his difficult relationship with his father. Because of his image in prison as a tough "con," this was something he simply could not let himself do; but in the security of the sweat lodge, alone with the Elder, his true pain came out. The Elder saw this as a turning point.

Jack's relationship with the Elder was quite different from that he had established with the nurses and other staff at RPC. He suggested that there was a great deal he would not bring up in his counseling sessions with the nurses, and chastized them for always looking at their watches to gauge session time. As Jack said, "[it's] hard to trust when you see a person act this way." In his estimation, he had obtained some benefits from the group therapy sessions, but his lack of trust of the staff clearly inhibited his participation. In contrast, his work with the Elder was built upon a foundation of trust. His respect for the Elder stemmed, in part, from his respect for the knowledge the Elder had gained over the course of his life, and he contrasted this with the knowledge of the nurses: How come somebody twenty-four years old, twenty-five years old, can sit down in front of you and talk to you about life when you're a lot older? I don't know. To me it's hard to understand. If somebody is able to talk to me about life, somebody is going to be older than me, somebody that has seen more than me ... I can learn from that person. Somebody younger than me didn't even go through half what I've gone through. How can I learn from that person?

Jack was subsequently transferred to another prison to await his release on mandatory supervision.(9) His release plans at the time centered on continuing his work with the RPC Elder. In fact, the Elder had invited Jack to work with him as his helper, an opportunity which Jack initially could not resist. He had been in prison since the age of sixteen, and now he stated emphatically, "I don't want to fuck up the next thirty years." However, he also recognized how seriously institutionalized he had become, and that he still required treatment in order to adjust on the outside: Actually, I seriously believe I've hurt a lot of people and I have to try to make up for it. More sweats to go through. More suffering I have to give for the people that I made suffer all my life. I wish to help some other people like [the Elder]... I want to be working with some kids, try to give them understanding, talk with them. Because I remember when I was a kid, that was one of my dreams. To see somebody come along, sit down, kind of talk with me and tell me what's wrong. I never had that happen when I was a kid, and I know when I was a kid I was needing that. So maybe that is the way I will pay back ... But I am not going to go [home] until I am strong. Until I can walk on my two legs without no worry. That is the time I am going to go there. In the end, Jack's release plans were changed, and he went to reside with a sibling (but not in his home community). Two years after his release, the Elder was able to report that he was still out of prison, and had been in contact several times over that period. The Elder's invitation to come stay at his place remains open, but it is difficult for newly released offenders to obtain permission to travel outside their parole jurisdictions. It is not known the extent to which Jack has remained involved in Aboriginal spirituality.(10)


Sam Gill (1983:107), in summarizing the elements of Aboriginal "religion" noted that: Quite clearly, matters of health and healing are not restricted to conditions of a simple physiological and biological order, but rather these matters are laden with meanings and concerns that reach the highest cultural, and even cosmological, levels. The state of health speaks to Native Americans of the conditions of the world in which they live. Consequently, matters of health and healing are commonly central to the religious concerns of many Native American tribes. Anthropologists, and others who have studied religious and healing systems in various cultures, reinforce Gill's assertions. For instance, Foster and Anderson write that:

In many non-Western societies ... the dividing lines between medicine on the one hand and religion, law and society on the other hand are much less distinct. In these societies religion and medicine, or etiological beliefs and social control, may be inextricably intertwined in the same institutional context. The efficacy of medical systems in these societies must therefore be measured by their ability to successfully play roles that lie far beyond the cure of illness and the maintenance of health (1978:125). But can spirituality, broadly conceived, be considered therapeutic? Foster and Anderson (1978:125) have suggested that the efficacy of any treatment must be seen in its proper cultural context, and the ability to "satisfy the expectations of the people served" is crucial. In this sense, what is considered "therapeutic" is largely socially and culturally defined, which is not surprising given that "illness" itself (as opposed to "disease") is also socially and culturally defined.

The pivotal individual in these healing traditions are the shamans, healers, or medicine men and women. Alland (1970:128) has described these individuals as "social adjudicators as well as religious functionaries" who treat "social cause rather than disease." Hence, the inter-relationship between the religious and the medical is clear not only in terms of social institutions and cultural practices, but also in the many functions of the healers themselves.

A considerable amount of research has been undertaken on the parallels between religion and psychotherapy, and especially the therapeutic aspects of religious or spiritual activity (Dozier 1966; Kiev 1973; Ness 1980; Pattison 1973; Skultans 1976). In some ways, Eurocanadian religion seems to have drifted away from the therapeutic component of spirituality (although certain denominations, such as the Pentecostals, engage in "miracle healing"). This seems to be the case with Eurocanadian and correctional views of Aboriginal spirituality: recognizing its religious nature is relatively easy but accepting spirituality as complementary to, or as an alternative to scientific, biomedical, or psycho-social treatment is considerably more problematic.

Do traditional healers "heal?" Many anthropologists have written that traditional medicine is particularly useful in the treatment of psychological and psychiatric problems (Kleinman and Sung 1979; Jilek 1982). Even the Canadian government has accepted this position, as evidenced in the submission of the Department of National Health and Welfare to the Special Committee on Indian Self-Government (the Penner report): We have come to appreciate very much the relevance and the utility of traditional approaches, particularly to mental health problems-approaches which address the suicide rate, approaches which address addiction problems. We believe that in areas such as those the application of traditional medicine and native culture perhaps can be more successful than anything we could offer in terms of contemporary psychiatric approaches to those kinds of problems (Penner 1983:34). This is quite an overwhelming show of support for traditional Aboriginal medicine, all the more significant in that National Health and Welfare has no concrete evidence if, and how, traditional medicine actually works. Indeed, it may simply be an act of faith on the government's part, taking at face value assertions of the efficacy of traditional medicine, perhaps mindful of the political "incorrectness" of questioning such practices precisely because of the wider cultural issues. Yet, among those who study traditional medical systems around the world, there is considerable concern regarding the weak methodological approaches which have been brought to bear on this question (Anderson 1991; Weibel-Orlando 1989).

One American study of prison spirituality programs and their effect on Aboriginal recidivism rates and substance abuse was inconclusive, due in part to a lack of a proper measure of treatment "success" (Grobsmith and Dam 1990). Nevertheless, there exists a strong belief among incarcerated Native Americans that "celebration and revitalization of indigenous religion is a more successful avenue to achieve sobriety and rehabilitation," and that such participation precludes the use of alcohol and drugs (Grobsmith 1989:144, 145). In another American study, Bachman (1991:479-480) quoted a prison psychologist who noted that involvement in spiritual activities resulted in significant positive behavioral changes for participants. An earlier Canadian study by Jilek and Roy (1976:210) established a link between a lack of exposure to a "traditional Indian lifestyle" and the early onset of criminal activity, and noted that "positive Indian self-identification was associated with experiencing educational and therapeutic benefits from incarceration." Unfortunately, we are left to speculate about the possible relationship between involvement by offenders as part of their quest for an identity and positive therapeutic outcomes. Couture (1992:209-210) has addressed this concern: The issue of the rehabilitative value of a Native religious/cultural program has been raised several times. Fairness would require a comparison with short-term and long-term results of other rehab programs, keeping in mind that this program has barely started, and also keeping in hand testimony of several Native service organizations who attest that there are a small but growing number of Native inmate "recoveries" attributable to Native spiritual influences. The primary argument lies in the inherent validity of Native spirituality and religion. Coming back to our case study, the positive therapeutic effects of the Aboriginal spirituality program were evident in Jack's case, but it is not possible at this level of analysis to separate the spirituality benefits from those of the other RPC programs. Even the Elder who worked with Jack saw his work as only a part of the overall treatment, and this is probably the best way to view it. However, developing a better understanding of the contributions of the spirituality component is important. While some patients at the RPC appear to combine in an eclectic manner the spiritual treatments with those offered by the RPC staff, many patients noted areas in which the two were in conflict. Furthermore, the "how" and "why" of the efficacy of these programs needs further investigation. The first reason would be to demonstrate specifically what aspects of the spirituality programs are working, and how, so as to enhance these aspects of the programs. Such an investigation would ease the integration of traditional approaches with current correctional programs to develop a more coherent treatment strategy. At the present time, the correctional system seems not very interested in examining what goes on under the guise of "spirituality" programs, in a manner reflective of biomedicine's disinterested attitude toward traditional medicine in general.

In addition, some aspects of spirituality programs may actually cause some degree of harm (e.g., Ness 1980:175). Some Aboriginal offenders in the original study demonstrated identity confusion linked to their participation in spirituality programs: their personal views of their "Indianness" were challenged when presented with certain elements of Aboriginal spirituality.

To suggest that the correctional system needs to view Aboriginal spirituality programs as therapeutic leads to other more complex questions. If we are to argue the therapeutic benefits of these programs, are we also suggesting that they be critically and scientifically examined in the same way as are other programs for offenders? Clearly, to suggest this is to invite controversy for, in spite of a few examples (e.g., Young et al. 1987, 1989), traditional Aboriginal healers in Canada have been reluctant to have their healing documented and assessed. Such an approach will require extensive dialogue with the healers themselves. Nonetheless, to fail to address this issue will likely mean that Aboriginal spirituality programs remain fundamentally "religious" in scope and outside the parameters of correctional therapeutic programs. The implications of this have been experienced for many years. Some Elders continue to be searched, resulting in the desecration of sacred bundles, pipes and other spiritual objects. Some Elders have reacted by refusing to bring certain items into prisons, which greatly reduces the kinds of services they can offer. Elders are rarely thought of as being part of an offender's treatment team, are rarely if ever consulted about an offenders progress, and have little input into case management assessments. They experience many scheduling conflicts in their activities; they are told when sweats will be held, and for how long. One Elder reported that he once was told he had fifteen minutes to undertake a pipe ceremony (he declined, of course, because such ceremonies take considerably longer). Many prison officials openly wonder why Aboriginal spirituality cannot be practiced just like the Christian religions, for instance through a one-hour service on Sundays. The idea that a traditional fast requires four days of isolation is foreign to them and seems absurd. There are even some officials who openly question offenders' involvement in spirituality, suggesting they simply use it to get out of other programming, or burn sweetgrass and sage to mask the smell of marijuana.


Jack's transformation was nothing short of extraordinary. He is not exceptional in comparison with others in this study, but his case is particularly noteworthy because of the great distance he has traveled, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually, in such a short time. The Aboriginal spirituality program which he has experienced has clearly had a profound therapeutic effect, although the dynamics of that effect are not well understood in relation to other RPC programs. His case demonstrates the extent to which Aboriginal people have little trouble combining traditional and biomedical/psychological approaches in seeking treatment (e.g., Waldram 1990a, 1990b).

Aboriginal spirituality programs have a "healing" component, and are not simply educational and religious programs narrowly defined, as the Correctional Service tends to view them. Offenders are not always able to articulate precisely how that healing works, but the data suggest it is no longer possible to deny its existence. It would not be prudent to suggest that Aboriginal spirituality represents a therapeutic "magic bullet;" it holds great promise, yet there are no magical solutions in the area of forensic treatment. To formally recognize the therapeutic nature of these programs raises many difficult questions, and the answers to these can only be achieved through extensive dialogue between Aboriginal healers and spiritual leaders, on one hand, and correctional service treatment personnel on the other. The current system of disinterested non-communication between the Aboriginal and biomedical healing systems appears to be having some detrimental effect on the spirituality programs, in that restrictive conditions are placed on the spiritual activities, under the assumption that these are, after all, "religious" in nature and therefore analagous to the work of the various Christian denominations in the prisons. It is suggested here that in failing to consider the inherently therapeutic nature of Aboriginal spirituality, the ultimate loser becomes the Aboriginal offender, an individual whom everyone, from government ministers on down, suggests requires special attention.


(1)The research upon which this paper is based was funded, in part, under contract to the Correctional Service of Canada. However, the views expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the service. The author acknowledges the support of the Correctional Service of Canada, and in particular Drs. Arthur Gordon and Steve Wong, and the psychology and treatment staff at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon. The author also wishes to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of those Aboriginal Elders and offenders who agreed to be interviewed.

(2)The term "Aboriginal" is used in this paper to collectively identify all peoples recognized in the Canadian constitution as "aboriginal"; this includes the "Indian, Inuit and Metis" peoples. The uppercase is used for "Aboriginal" in keeping with current Canadian usage. The term "reserve" is used in Candad but is analogous to the American term "reservation."

(3)Recently, the Canadian government and the Correctional Service of Canada announced plans to construct two new facilities for Aboriginal offenders, one at Maple Creek, Saskatchewan for females, and the other at Hobbema, Alberta for males. It is not clear at the time of writing the extent to which traditional approaches will be incorporated in the development of treatment programs, though most observers expect this to occur to some extent.

(4)The research reported here was but a small component of a larger study of the cultural characteristics of the Aboriginal offenders and the way they interact with the RPC staff and programs as cultural beings.

(5.)In fact, individual Elders are quite idiosyncratic in their spiritual practices in prison, depending in part on their own cultural traditions and views as to what is appropriate for a prison setting. For instance, not all Elders will bring sacred pipes or bundles into prisons.

(6)Since this research was first commenced, the availability of Aboriginal programs and Elders has improved significantly at the RPC.

(7.)"Jack" is a pseudonym. Certain details of "Jack's" life have been altered to ensure anonymity, without sacrificing the integrity of the case study. for the same reason, his own words are reproduced here with some editing.

(8)The Special Handling Unit is not the same thing as "segregation." Most prisons have a segregation unit, used to punish inmates who have committed institutional infractions, or to isolate them from the other immates because of fears of violence. "Jack" has spent time in both segregation ("the hole") and the SHU.

(9.)Mandatory supervision release is now known as "statuatory release," and means that the inmate is released automatically at the two-thirds point in his sentence, though there are exceptions. This form of release is not identical to parole, for which the inmate must apply, but both types of release come with conditions such as where they live, curfews, and abstention from alcohol and drugs.

(10.)It is apparent that many Aboriginal offenders find it difficult to continue to follow the spiritual path once out on the street. Not only are they faced with the many problems associated with their past (such as their criminal record and old friends still following a criminal lifestyle), but they are also ill-equipped to pursue spiritual activities outside the heavily regulated prison environment.


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Thomson Gale Document Number:A15829118

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