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Wood shortage hampers state prison sweat lodge ceremonies

August 29, 2018
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In this Aug. 17, 2018, photo, inmates chop wood at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Fall, S.D. A shortage of donated firewood supplies is hampering sweat lodge purification ceremonies for South Dakota State Penitentiary inmates. The Argus Leader reports the sweat lodge ceremonies are usually held six times per week, but lately inmates have had to go weeks without a ceremony. (Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A shortage of donated firewood supplies is hampering sweat lodge purification ceremonies for South Dakota State Penitentiary inmates.

The sweat lodge ceremonies are usually held six times per week, but lately inmates have had to go weeks without a ceremony, The Argus Leader reported .

The inmates rely on firewood supplies donated by the city of Sioux Falls and the community for the religious and cleansing experience. But prison chapel volunteer Mary Montoya said this summer has seen the slowest rate of donations in her nearly 20 years volunteering.

“It seems to be worse this year than it’s ever been,” she said.

Some inmates instead participate in a pipe ceremony when there isn’t enough wood. But Montoya compared the alternative ritual to saying the rosary instead of going to a full church service.

The sweat lodge ceremonies also help reduce tension in the prison, said Tammy Mertens-Jones, the penitentiary’s Cultural Activities Program Manager.

Shawn Mousseau has been participating in sweat lodge purification ceremonies for years, a practice that didn’t stop when he was sentenced to prison in 2015. The ceremony is a chance for the men to pray for their families and the people they wronged on their path to prison, he said.

“These sweat ceremonies are to cleanse yourself and your spirit, to refocus on a new day and a new week,” he said. “When we don’t have wood for the ceremonies, (inmates) don’t have a way to cleanse their spirit.”

The penitentiary is seeking unwanted wood, including trees lost to the invasive emerald ash borer. Inmates can handle large tree trunks and large branches, but can’t use small twigs.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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