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Lisa Desjardins and Emma Lacey-Bordeaux CNN
Published: 10 August 2012

Editor's note: Embed America is a partnership between CNN Radio and CNN iReport. This series tells the story of the 2012 U.S. presidential election through the people most critical to the campaigns: the voters. CNN Radio is traveling across the country to interview iReporters on election issues close to their hearts. These issues were named important by iReporters during Phase 1 of the iReport Debate.

ROSEBUD, South Dakota (CNN) -- Whoever wins the 2012 U.S. presidential election faces multiple, serious problems in the U.S. prison system. One issue is the soaring prison population and its rising costs; but another is the issue over who makes up that population.

The problem in Todd County, South Dakota, is that too many of their young men end up behind bars.

"I think every family on this reservation has (a family member) in prison," Rose Bear Robe, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, told CNN. "It's beginning to be normal now, when people used to be ashamed of it."

The Rosebud Sioux reservation occupies all of Todd County on the southern border of South Dakota. It spans hundreds of miles of sweeping grassland spilling into four other counties in the state, and is covered with small canyons and winding creeks. That beauty contrasts with small clusters of homes in need of repair and a community clearly in need of jobs.

Bear Robe says the rest of the country, outside the reservation, does not realize the serious problems that exist on tribal lands. Huge numbers of a critical group, men, aged 18-30, are in prison rather than trying to build the community and their families, she said.

"I don't know how to explain it," said the 56-year-old who is raising her 4-year-old grandson because his dad is serving time, "but the kids really suffer because of their fathers being in prison."

Much evidence of the problem is anecdotal, in part because there is little hard data about Native Americans, including basic information like population size.

The Census Bureau groups "American Indian" and "Alaska Native" in one category. The agency's latest figures, for 2011, estimate that 8.9% of South Dakota's population is one or the other. Thus, there are no firm numbers for the Native American population by itself, but we know it is, at most, 8.9% of the population in South Dakota.

That is significant when compared with data from the state's Department of Corrections, which reported that Native Americans were a whopping 29% of the adult prison population and 38% of juvenile offenders in 2011. This pattern is not limited to the Mount Rushmore State.

"In states where Native Americans are a significant portion of the state population, we see generally very significant disparity in (incarceration rates)," said Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization which pushes for prison reform in the U.S. "Native Americans tend to be incarcerated at high rates overall."

This is apparent in data from other states.

In Montana, a 2011 report from the Department of Corrections noted, "Although American Indians represent about 7 percent of Montana's total population, they account for about 19 percent of all men in prison and 33 percent of all women in prison."

In Minnesota, the latest Census numbers show a population of 1.3 percent Native American or Alaska Native. But the state Department of Corrections in January reported that 9 percent of inmates were "American Indian."

This is a serious concern in the tribal community, both the idea that there is a disparity in prison rates and that the prison rates, in general are too high.

"Tribal leaders have been raising this concern of the use of over-incarceration," said John Dossett, general counsel to the National Congress of American Indians. "They really want to find other solutions to what is actually social dysfunction."

Dossett pointed to wide efforts at finding alternatives to incarceration, saying that too often people are locked up before anyone asks if there is a better solution.

At the same time, he said, there are major concerns that Native Americans get more and harsher punishment in what they see as an overly punitive system. This is especially true when they are outside the tribal court system.

"Tribes and tribal people often feel they're discriminated against," Dossett told CNN. He gave an example about sentiments toward state courts:

"Someone will leave the reservation, go to town, get drunk, do something dumb and if a white kid had done it, they'd call they're parents and take them home," he said. "But if its some strange native kid, they'll put them in jail."

Dossett and his organization insist that justice systems are different on different reservations and that many people are trying to improve problem areas. But he said it hasn't happened yet.

Looking back at the numbers, why is there this disparity? It's not objectively clear. While their prison rates sometimes mirror similar state figures for African-Americans, Native Americans make up such a small percentage of the national population (fewer than 2%, according to the Census Bureau) that there are few or no studies that offer an explanation for, or even an estimate of, their overall imprisonment rate.

There are complex cultural, economic and societal issues at play. And the situation is complicated by the issue of who prosecutes which crimes in Indian country.

On reservations, U.S. law recognizes the authority of tribal court systems for most minor crimes, as long as one Native American is involved. But major crimes on tribal lands, including assault and most felonies, are prosecuted in the federal system.

Crimes happening off the reservation often go to state courts.

In the federal and state prison systems, Mauer said, there could be higher numbers of Native Americans because there is a higher crime rate on reservations.

But he also theorized the disparity may come from an underlying issue in the state and federal justice systems, like racial bias.

On the Rosebud Sioux reservation, Bear Robe and others whom CNN spoke with, including a former police officer, are convinced that at least one issue is an overlooked part of the police force culture itself.

"They use the word around here, 'target,'" Bear Robe said, her head nodding to punctuate the point. "They target individuals so the cops will go after them."

Bear Robe's son Eric King is serving 20 years after pleading guilty to a 2007 incident on the reservation. He admitted to biting his then-pregnant girlfriend and to assaulting a tribal officer who responded to his girlfriend's call to police.

But Bear Robe charges that a tribal police officer targeted her family and others, and once the officer was on the scene, she insists he brutally attacked her son, not the other way around.

Bear Robe visited her son hours later in jail.

"When I went to go see him, he was all black and blue," she said slowly, her hand brushing across her forehead and temple to her arm, "The cop must have been standing on his arm the longest time because it left an imprint on his arm."

Bear Robe said her son also had a black eye, cut lip, many bruises and possibly a broken rib but she was not allowed to take photos or have a doctor visit him. A Tribal Council member who was with Bear Robe at the time confirmed her failed attempts to document her son's injuries.

CNN contacted that police officer by phone. He initially agreed to meet for an interview but later did not return phone calls to set up a meeting time and place.

That officer was fired from the police department several years ago and current officials would not comment on why he was fired or whether he may have had a personal issue with Eric King or anyone else he arrested.

"Personal vendettas?" asked Calvin Waln, a former police officer who was fired just a few weeks ago, "There are certain individuals who do that (in the police force). You see that."

Waln, who goes by the nickname "Hawkeye," insisted that he was asked to leave the Rosebud police force after he began notifying his superiors of what he viewed as cases of police brutality, flagrant civil rights violations and lack of due process.

"You're talking violations of civil rights, excessive use of force is one," the somber-looking ex-officer told CNN, continuing his list: "Spraying handcuffed suspects with pepper spray ... physical police brutality where the officers end up injuring or breaking bones themselves from assaulting somebody."

Waln could not show CNN proof to support his accusations nor could he confirm any details of Eric King's case.

In the past four years, the Rosebud Tribal Council, which has semi-autonomous power on the reservation, has fired two police chiefs amid corruption charges.

CNN spent two days on the reservation and spoke with then-Acting Chief Edwin Young, who vigorously denied allegations from Waln, Bear Robe and others.

Young is from the reservation and started his career as a police officer with the Rosebud police department 16 years ago.

"I don't see the corruption," he told CNN Radio, "All it is, is that the public doesn't have the information that they so desire ... (it's) just a misunderstanding or misinformation."

When pressed on Eric King's specific case, Young said that police files prior to two years ago are missing or destroyed.

"I have no idea what happened to those files, that was the previous administration, the previous police chief," he said, "and all those, those are gone now... somehow they destroyed all the paperwork."

Since that interview, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe reinstated the previous police chief, Grace Her Many Horses, who had been ousted amid corruption allegations.

CNN put in requests to speak with her but she did not grant an interview.

There are many well-documented underlying factors leading to crime and imprisonment, that minorities have higher poverty rates than whites. The broken trailer windows and cars in disrepair on the Rosebud Sioux reservation give a clue that the lack of an economy is inextricably woven into the culture and society of the area.

Consider this statistic from the Census Bureau: Nearly half of the people in Todd County live under the federal poverty line, making it the second-poorest county in the nation. The Department of Interior produces another gut-punching statistic: unemployment among the Rosebud Sioux tribe is over 80%.

Sociologists have documented a connection between race and poverty for minorities. And Mauer thinks those economic factors extend to incarceration rates.

"A lot of factors go into this," Mauer said, "But still we see a lot of very direct racial outcomes even in the theoretically race-neutral court system."

The United States currently leads the world in incarcerations, both in sheer number and in rate. And those numbers have been going up. The number of people in U.S. prisons nearly doubled in the 1990s, according to the Census Bureau. It has continued to go up, though by less sharp of an increase, in the past decade.

It's gone up more than 2½ times in South Dakota in that time.

This is not an issue that has come up specifically in the presidential campaign season, though President Barack Obama is well-known in Indian country for pushing through the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act, which especially adds resources to fight domestic abuse and sexual violence on reservations.

CNN asked the campaign of Republican candidate Mitt Romney for any statements, police papers or positions on Native Americans, but press secretary Andrea Saul did not respond on the record.

At an average cost for all prisons state and federal, of $30,000 per inmate per year, according to data from the Justice Department, the inmate surge is adding pressure to already tight federal and state budgets.

But in places like Rosebud, South Dakota, the costs of incarcerations are even higher. Leaders and residents alike believe the cycle of crime, accusations and prison time is costing them yet another generation of Native Americans.

And they believe no one has noticed, including the candidates running for president of the United States.

See all of the Embed America coverage here. And track the Embed team's progress on our map.

CNN's John Sepulvado and Chip Grabow contributed to this story.

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