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Native American says North Carolina prison has denied his right to religious practices

By Sarah Nagem and Rachel Baldauf

As a Native American, James Conley likes to mark the harvesting of corn in late summer with a ceremony to honor the earth and celebrate new beginnings with prayer and dancing. 

But Conley, who is incarcerated at Tabor Correctional Institution in Columbus County, says the state prison has denied his right to take part in Green Corn ceremonies and other Native American traditions, including prayer circles, since July 2020. 

Conley, 39, filed a federal lawsuit last year against the prison’s warden, Jamie Bullard, and three other prison officials. In the civil case, filed in North Carolina’s Eastern District, Conley accuses the prison staff of violating his constitutional right to practice his religion. 

“I just want to represent for the people and bring awareness to the wrong that has been done to the people, and is being done to the people right now,” Conley said in a recent interview with the Border Belt Independent. 

The defendants – who also include Mark Barnhill, associate warden; George Baysden Jr., assistant superintendent for programs; and Marcus Hovis III, regional clinical chaplain for North Carolina’s south central and western regions – denied the allegations in court records. 

In a written statement to the BBI, the N.C. Department of Correction said prayer circles were temporarily discontinued at Tabor Correctional Institution during the COVID-19 pandemic to help prevent the spread of the disease. 

“Since the COVID emergency has lifted, prayer circles have been permitted at Tabor Correctional when the individuals approved to lead the prayer circle are present,” the department said. 

But the prison, which can house about 1,700 people, currently does not have a community volunteer to lead the ceremonies, according to the department. Those who follow Native American religious traditions “are currently practicing their faith through individual private devotion.” 

Those incarcerated at the prison who selected American Indian as their religious preference have access to a corporate worship pipe and can buy other religious materials like headbands, prayer feathers and ceremonial herbs, according to the department. 

Conley said he and other Native Americans at the prison enjoyed the prayer circles and other ceremonies, which often include drums, sweetgrass, headbands and kinnikinnick, an herb mixture that can be smoked.

“These ceremonies provided a time for reflection, mindful awareness of self and to cleanse the spirit, heart and mind of all negativity,” Conley wrote in a letter to the BBI. “We were allowed to adorn and decorate pipes and small pieces of regalia with bead work, leathers and feathers to connect with our ancestral heritage, while showing pride in being a Native American Indian.” 

Conley has been behind bars since 2008, when he was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2006 shooting death of Clem Jones outside a Pembroke restaurant in Robeson County.

The North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services is helping Conley with the lawsuit against prison officials, court records show.

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office, which will represent the prison officials in the case, have asked for a trial to be held in February, court records show. Naz Ahmed, a spokesperson for the office, declined to comment on the case, citing “ongoing litigation.” 

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