July 13, SANTA FE -- An American Indian inmate vowed to fast until death after a district judge on Thursday denied his request to perform religious ceremonies inside a maximum-security state prison.

"They just gave me a death sentence," a pale, weak Elton Bear Eagle Chavez told his supporters as he left the courtroom of state District Judge Stephen Pfeffer.

Chavez, a Lakota Sioux, has been on a hunger strike for the past 17 days, protesting the Department of Corrections' recent decision not to allow sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies at the Penitentiary of New Mexico's North Unit near Santa Fe.

"I am taking this all the way to my death," he said, as his supporters pleaded with him to give up the hunger strike.

Chavez, 36, has been hospitalized at the prison's infirmary for more than two weeks and for the past two days has refused to accept intravenous feeding, Assistant Public Defender Nina Lalevic, his lawyer, said.

Corrections Secretary Rob Perry said Thursday the department has already obtained a court order to force Chavez back on the intravenous glucose drip.

"We want to make sure Mr. Chavez doesn't critically hurt himself," Perry said.

Chavez filed a petition against the Corrections Department, asking Pfeffer to overrule the department's policy on Indian religious ceremonies.

Chavez contended that the department violated his religious freedom by illegally confiscating ceremonial articles, including a pipe, tobacco, eagle feathers, eagle claws, a drum and a ceremonial whistle.

He also argued that the sweat lodge is "the foundation of my life."

Under prison policies for the maximum-security units, officials have barred smoking and all religious ceremonies, Indian and non-Indian, for security reasons.

The pipe ceremonies no longer are allowed because of the smoking ban.

Lalevic told the judge that the Native American Counseling Act guaranteed her client the right to perform sweat-lodge and pipe ceremonies inside the prison.

The law says American Indian inmates are allowed at least six hours a week for religious activities, she said.

But Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline Medina argued that allowing Chavez to perform religious ceremonies would put undue economic constraints on the department and could endanger the lives of inmates and guards.

Pfeffer disagreed that Chavez's religious rights were violated and agreed with the state that allowing Chavez to perform religious ceremonies would endanger security.

Chavez, serving a 13-year sentence for attempted murder and criminal damage to property, was sent to the prison's most restrictive unit for his role in inciting a riot at Lea County Correctional Facility over access to traditional religious ceremonies for Indian inmates.

Lalevic said she would appeal to the state Supreme Court.
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