The Bizarre Case of the “Sacred Clown” Prison Medicine Man

Inmates and Clergy – General Rules of Law

In my Constitutional Law class we discussed that prisoners were originally considered “slaves of the state.” They had no constitutional rights.  Prison rules and regulations were upheld if they had the slightest “legitimate penological interest.”

Currently, inmates don’t forfeit their first amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. Wardens must make “reasonable accommodations” for religious practices, worship, and diets.

However, a prisoner’s right to practice religion is not absolute.  The courts generally defer to the expertise and discretionary authority of correction officials. But if the regulations are unnecessarily restrictive or unreasonable, they will be struck down.

Prisons must also provide inmates with access to clergy. Prisons sometimes enlist volunteer clergy and even staff chaplains

The “Backwards” “Sacred Clown” Prison Shaman

“Sacred Clown”

A bizarre case of a prison providing a spiritual counselor involved an inmate named SapaNajin. He was a Native American prisoner who demonstrated a genuine need for a spiritual counselor.  So, the prison officials appointed a Native American Indian shaman/medicine man

“Heyoka” “Contrary”

Unfortunately, the shaman was a “heyoka,” “contrary,” or “sacred clown.” He had taken a vow to do everything backwards.  He walked backwards.  He would say “no” when he meant “yes.”  His ceremonies were performed in reverse, and he behaved irreverently during the sacred parts.

SapaNajin protested that this was not the type of spiritual counselor he had in mind.  The prison officials refused to find a new shaman.  SapaNajin sued.

The court ruled that the inmate was not entitled to a medicine man of his choosing.  It was acceptable for the prison to provide him with a “sacred clown.”  He asked for a shaman, and they gave him a shaman. Period. Poor guy! (SapaNajin v. Gunter, 857 F.2d 463 (1988))

Sacred Clown” “Contrary”
“Sacred Clowns”

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