The Pagan Newswire Collective’s Minnesota bureau (PNC-Minnesota) has begun a new series this week on Pagans in prison, starting with an interview with chaplain and prisoner-rights advocate Patrick McCollum. McCollum specifically mentions a recent case from Minnesota, where a Wiccan inmate alleges he was denied basic religious materials.
“The only time, by law, that they can deny an inmate something is if what they ask for is a valid security issue. This must be verified as an issue first, and then upon determining that it is a security issue, they have to provide a substitute that represents the least restrictive means of accommodating their religious practice. Example; a State prison inmate in the USA who is a Sikh, who as their religious practice is required to carry a steel knife at all times. Well the prison obviously says that is a security issue. The way this was resolved in a tort case is that the Sikh was allowed to have a small cardboard knife with three small steel wires wrapped around it. The security needs of the institution were met, and the inmate was allowed to feel he was meeting his religious need. The states are now required to provide those type of accommodations. Any time they restrict something required for a religious purpose they have to show how that relates to something else.
In the Minnesota case the prisoner is asking for incense and oils to use. In the case of oils, prisons in Minnesota and across the country have allowed prisoners to have oils of all sorts. So why this person being denied this oil? The reason given was it could be used to mask odors. Well in this case that is not a reasonable argument under RLIUPA. If they really thought this was a security issue the state should offer to allow an alternate oil, like scent free sage oil, that is available. It really wasn’t about that though, they just didn’t want him to have the oil. Mainly because they could not understand the religious significance to him, and they just thought it was weird.
There is a big issue about the security aspects of combustible substances in prisons. For over a hundred years both state and federal prisons allowed inmates to smoke. They stopped it only after issues of health arose, and the issue of second-hand smoke effects on others came up. Generally speaking, those issues do not apply with incense. The institution should provide ways and places for incense to be used in religious services where is does not have those effects. It could used outside or in a ventilated room. If it is needed it to consecrate items, they can limit the amount available or the length of time it can be used. The limitations should solve the issue, in the least restrictive way without preventing totally its use. In the case of Pagans, prisons haven’t come to fully understand, since their main experience is with protestant religious practice, is the religious connection one can have with the use of incense, or a candle, or a chalice of water, or a bird feather, or a crystal. To them these are just some kind of junk. They don’t recognize that for some it could be as sacred as say, the Bible. In my tradition, to not be able burn incense, or use our particular sacred oil, that we use in our ceremony, I could not practice my religion.”
McCollum is an expert on the treatment of Pagans in the United States prison system, and has given testimony to the US Commission on Civil Rights on that issue. He is also fighting the discriminatory “5 Faiths” policy in California’s prison system, a case that has been in litigation for over five years, and is currently before the 9th Circuit. I recommend heading over and reading the entirety of this informative piece.
Future installments of this series will include interviews with Pagan religious volunteers helping inmates, what Pagan practice is like in prison, letters from Stillwater prisoners, and information about how you can help. So stay tuned to PNC-Minnesota, and I’ll be sure to highlight future installments of this series as well.