Hennepin County will pay to build two sweat lodges at the Adult Corrections Facility in Plymouth for American Indian inmates who want to attend ceremonies.

The County Board approved a $30,000 contract in April with American Indian OIC to construct the lodges and facilitate the sweat lodge ceremonies beginning this summer through the end of the year.

Catherine "CJ" Johnson, Hennepin County's director of community corrections and rehabilitation, said the sweat lodges are a culturally specific way to address the spiritual needs of Indigenous inmates — and hopefully reduce recidivism.

"Sweat lodges serve spiritual, cultural and practical purposes for Indigenous peoples," Johnson told the County Board during an April committee meeting. "It is a place to connect with the creator and to nurture and restore order and balance in life."

Native Americans make up less than 1% of the state's population but account for about 9% of prisoners in Minnesota's criminal justice system, according to state data.

The Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility in Plymouth, commonly called the workhouse, typically holds prisoners for less than a year. The demographics of the population fluctuates, with about 10% of the 142 current prisoners identifying as Native American.

Lyle H. Iron Moccasin, re-entry coordinator with American Indian OIC, said he has been doing outreach with prisoners for two decades and has seen the positive impact of cultural ceremonies such as sweat lodges and talking circles.

"The individuals who participate in these spiritual activities and events have a much lower rate of recidivism," Iron Moccasin said. "It is a connection back with the culture. It is an outlet. A way of expressing yourself."

The plan is to construct separate lodges for the men's and women's facilities. Once they are built, Johnson estimated that each month up to 10 inmates would attend one or two ceremonies.

Rich Antell, a spiritual elder who will oversee construction of the lodges, said there are several at state corrections facilities that have been popular with Native American inmates. He is in the process of collecting tools and materials to build the lodges and hopes they will be completed in June.

"It is a way for individuals to identify with their culture and to experience something powerful and tap into that unseen world," Antell said. "It is very healing. It helps to go in there and let things go. People feel reinvigorated."

Hennepin County commissioners praised the idea of helping American Indian inmates better connect with their culture and community. They asked county corrections officials to see if there was a good way to measure the success of the program.

"I'm a huge fan of this," said Commissioner Angela Conley, who noted the impact of other sweat lodges in the community. "It's very powerful."