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On a Reservation, a Second Chance for Prisoners and Their Warden

As a school board member in Wolf Point, Montana, Ron Jackson couldn’t help struggling Native students as much as he hoped. Now some are inmates under his supervision.

Warden Ron Jackson outside the Fort Peck Indian Reservation correctional facility, where he says some prisoners didn’t get enough support as children from Wolf Point schools. (Annie Flanagan for The New York Times)

This article is a collaboration between ProPublica and The New York Times.

Every day, Ron Jackson walks into work and is reminded of his failures.

As the warden of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation adult correctional facility patrols the cells, he sees Native American inmates who might be leading productive lives on the outside if they had graduated from high school. And Jackson, a member of the Assiniboine tribe, says he feels partly responsible.

Before becoming warden, he served on the Wolf Point, Montana, school board for 15 years, 10 as its chairman. He pushed to curb discrimination in the town’s schools against Native Americans, who make up more than half of the student body but less than one-fifth of the staff. He fought for more reading instruction and other support for Native children and challenged decisions to expel them. But his efforts mostly fell flat as the white majority on the board outvoted or ignored him.

Now he’s been meeting some of those dropouts as adults on the other end of the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I still see the effects of our schools,” he said. “We got grandparents 70, 80 years old, can’t read and write because they went to these schools. Their kids are doing the same thing; they don’t care if they go to school.”

At 64, Jackson hasn’t given up. More than a century ago, the federal government opened up unused land on the reservation to white settlers, whose descendants have long dominated Wolf Point’s politics, business and school system. But corrections and policing of tribal members has been under Native control for decades, and Jackson is trying to make the most of it.

Built in 2014, the two-story correctional facility in Poplar, 20 miles from Wolf Point, has about 70 inmates at a time. It serves as both a jail and a prison; some inmates are awaiting trial, while others have been convicted of violent crimes. Jackson has shifted its focus from punishment to rehabilitation and education. One of his first acts as warden after being appointed by the Tribal Executive Board in 2016 was to gather the inmates in a circle and lead them in a prayer for redemption. He also allowed prisoners to travel overnight to powwows and other Native ceremonies. Although many of them struggle with substance abuse, they all passed drug tests on their return. This year, Jackson introduced a GED program to help inmates earn diplomas.

Inmates point to the failures of Wolf Point’s schools at key moments in their youths. Elton Lambert, 19, who was serving four months for criminal mischief, sat in gray sweatpants and an orange sweatshirt in a circular meeting room with a skylight and murals of feathers and eagles etched on the walls as he recounted getting kicked out of a Wolf Point school by second grade.

“I would get mad and walk out of the classroom and throw stuff around,” he said. “I acted out because I had a hard time reading, and I didn’t want to read out loud.”

A ceremony in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation correctional facility in Poplar, Montana, in August 2018. (Annie Flanagan for The New York Times)

Beginning at age 6, Lambert was sent off the reservation to residential treatment centers for troubled children. When he returned to Wolf Point at age 12, the school wouldn’t take him back, citing his earlier outbursts and saying that he’d fallen so far behind he’d be teased, he said.

“I wanted to go back to school because I wanted my education,” he said. “They denied me, so I just kept getting back in trouble.”

Wallace Archdale Jr., 23, who is serving 16 months for domestic abuse, said he was held back two years in middle school and then told he couldn’t graduate because he would be too old. He dropped out, he said.

“They just watch you until you mess up, so they can kick you out,” he said.

Unlike the schools, Archdale and Lambert said, the prison offers a sense of tribal community. Family lineage is celebrated and traditional religious ceremonies are woven into inmates’ schedules. Jackson built a sweat lodge where inmates perform a purifying and healing ceremony. The facility offers alcohol and drug counseling and mental health evaluations, and a women’s center conducts parenting groups and domestic violence counseling for male and female inmates.

“It helps the people on the inside to know that the warden cares for them and also tries to walk his talk as much as possible,” said Christine Holler-Dinsmore, pastor of Spirit of Life Ministries, who provides spiritual guidance to inmates. “The depths of the pain of what people have experienced here is tragic, and that’s one thing that Ron understands. Nobody here is a stranger to the struggles.”

Elton Lambert, 19, in August 2018, when he was an inmate at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation correctional facility. (Annie Flanagan for The New York Times)

Jackson was born on the reservation but grew up in Gary, Indiana, where his family moved with help from the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, a federal law that provided job training to Native Americans and encouraged them to leave the reservations for urban areas. He returned to his hometown, Wolf Point, in the late 1960s and attended the local high school. As a student athlete, he said, his Native peers nicknamed him “apple,” mocking his popularity with white students — red on the outside, white on the inside. Of more than 100 Native students in his freshman class, only he and nine others graduated.

The school “managed to weed the rest of them out,” he said.

Jackson said it was a “chore” getting his own four daughters through Wolf Point High School. “You didn’t know what the school was going to do next,” he said.

Jackson climbed the ranks on the reservation, holding jobs in law enforcement and at the local community college. He joined the school board in 1991, thinking that with more Native voices at the table, he could change the system. “Just about every time you brought up an issue on your agenda, you’d talk about that, that it wasn’t fair,” Jackson said. “Every time we had to go into executive session for a child, they expelled them.”

Wallace Archdale Jr., 23, in a cell at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation correctional facility in August 2018. (Annie Flanagan for The New York Times)

A tribal elder named him Pte Mnonga Nadambi, “Charging Bull,” but Jackson’s efforts were largely in vain. Even when he toured the schools, he was treated differently from white board members. “I walk down the hall and one of my teachers walks by and acts like I’m not even there,” he said. “I told them I am really getting tired of walking down the hall and having my own people, the guys that I sign their checks, ignoring me.”

After he lost election in 2012, the board was all white. Jackson and six other Native residents sued the school district, contending that the boundaries of Wolf Point’s school board districts discriminated against Native Americans by giving greater voting power to whites. Less than a year after the suit was filed, the district entered into a consent decree to draw more equitable district lines. Today, half the school board members are Native American or of Native descent.

Still, mistreatment of Native students persists, he said. “Nothing works here.”

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