ACLU sues prison forbidding Native prisoner from wearing Apache headband

A Fort Sill Apache tribal member wears a headband (Photo/Fort Sill Apache Tribe)

A Fort Sill Apache tribal member wears a headband (Photo/Fort Sill Apache Tribe)

RHODE ISLAND - A Rhode Island prison system is denying a White Mountain Apache inmate his right to practice his religious beliefs by wearing an Apache headband, according to a lawsuit filed by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys in Rhode Island District Court on Jan. 24.

Since 2019, plaintiff Wolf Pawochawog-Mequinosh (formerly Brian Brownell, who changed his name in 2022) has filed four petitions with prison administration at the Adult Corrections Facility in Cranston, Rhode Island, seeking permission to wear an Apache headband. But prison administrators have repeatedly denied his requests because an Apache headband is not an approved religious item in any Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) facility.

Notably, the lawsuit notes that RIDOC allows Muslim and Jewish prisoners to wear kufis and yarmulkes, and that Native American headbands are recognized as a religious item by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Pawochawog-Mequinosh had previously identified his religion—a requirement for all inmates upon intake—as “Pagan/Wiccan”, which grants him permission to obtain tarot cards, rune stones, and attend a Winter Solstice ceremony, according to the lawsuit.

Prison administration has told the plaintiff that he could seek to obtain Native American religious artifacts, such as an Apache headband, only if he changed his religious designation from “Pagan/Wiccan” to “Other”, thereby forgoing his ability to tarot cards, rune stones and ceremony.

By denying Pawochawog-Mequinosh’s right to wear an Apache headband and restricting his ability to practice religion when his practices “do not fit within the limited and rigid religious designation RIDOC employs,” the lawsuit alleged that RIDOC has violated Wolf’s right to the free exercise of religion.

That’s a protected right under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which states that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

The lawsuit asks for a court order to allow the plaintiff “obtain and wear an Apache headband, without giving up his ability to practice other aspects of his sincere religious beliefs, including by possessing and using rune stones and tarot cards,” whether or not they align with his religious designation in DOC’s system.

The suit also asks RIDOC to “revise its policies and procedures to allow individuals whose religious beliefs and practices do not fit within RIDOC’s system of religious designations to exercise their sincere religious beliefs and practices…”

Pawochawog-Mequinosh is serving a life sentence for first-degree sexual assault, with an additional 20-year consecutive sentence for the same charge, according to state records. He was previously convicted of indecent assault and battery on a person under 14 in Massachusetts in 2000, and possession of child pornography in Rhode Island in 2015.

“I just want to be able to practice my religion and to be able to use the artifacts for my religion without unjustified restrictions, like other religions are permitted to do,” Pawochawog-Mequinosh said in a statement to ACLU.

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