PaganFest in Prison

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 14, 2011 — 8 Comments

One positive outcome regarding the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision regarding Patrick McCollum’s case against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is that it has focused our community’s attention on the plight of Pagans and Heathens serving time in prisons. Recently, the Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) sponsored a Pagan festival at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, WA. Together with representatives from Druid, Asatru, and Wiccan organizations, a somewhat unprecedented moment of fellowship and outreach was able to take place.


Druids and Druid chaplains in prison.

Here’s the press release sent to me by ADF Archdruid, Rev. Kirk Thomas:

In what may be a first, but at least was a very rare event, a Pagan/Heathen festival took place on Saturday, June 11, 2011 at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, WA. Since the men there cannot go to a festival, a festival was brought to them.

Organized by ADF Archdruid, Rev. Kirk Thomas, and Chaplain Eric Askren of Coyote Ridge, this festival, training, and resource event brought together experienced members of the Pagan/Heathen community along with chaplains from three other Washington State prisons for a fun and informative day with the men of Coyote Ridge. This was not only a great opportunity for the men, but it also gave the chaplains from other prisons the opportunity to learn first-hand about these fast-growing minority religions.

Rev. Thomas, a regular volunteer and the Sponsor for the Druids in the prison, brought together representatives from the Druid, Wiccan, and Asatru communities for this event.

Ashleen O’Gaea, from Arizona, attended to give workshops and run rituals for the Wiccans. A third degree priestess since 1990, Ashleen is a co-founder of Mother Earth Ministries, a Tucson based Neopagan prison ministry, as well as a well-known Wiccan author whose latest book, Enchantment Encumbered, deals specifically with prison outreach for Wiccans. Patricia Lafayllve, from Connecticut, attended to give workshops and run rituals for the Asatru. She is a past Steerswoman for The Troth and the founder of their Lore Program, and is a Troth-certified Godwoman. As an author, she has written on the goddess Freya, contributed to two books for the Troth, and has published many Heathen-themed articles to journals such as Idunna.

Rev. Ian Corrigan and Rev. Sue Parker, both from Ohio, attended for the Druids. Ian is a past ADF Archdruid and a frequent contributor to the ADF Journal, Oak Leaves, as well as an author of books on magic, liturgy and trance. Sue is an accomplished liturgist and gave a workshop on Indo-European goddesses. Together, Ian and Sue make up the musical group, Awen, and they gave a concert for the men on Saturday night.

Each faith group met separately for workshops indoors and for ritual in the prison’s outdoor stone circles, with everyone coming together in the evening for an ecumenical Unity Rite and a roundtable discussion on the subject of Magic led by the visiting Pagan/Heathen presenters.

Also attending were Joenne McGeer, head of the religious and family prison programs for the state, and Barbara Lauderdale, a sponsor for Wiccan and Asatru groups in prisons on the western (opposite) side of Washington.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

For those who want to hear more about this festival, Rev. Kirk Thomas has also posted a more personal run-down regarding the event, how it came to be, and what his experiences were.

“All in all this festival day lasted 13 hours. It was intense, but fulfilling, and I hope that similar prison festivals can take place someday in other prisons and for other incarcerated people. The mere fact that five prominent Pagans were willing to come and celebrate for a day with the men gave them a sense of validation, an understanding that they truly aren’t forgotten, and that they, too, matter in the world. And this can only be a good thing!”

In the end it will take more than litigation to bring about a sea-change in how Pagan and Heathen prisoners are treated (though legal action is also an important tool at this time). It will entail a deeper engagement from our Pagan leaders, clergy, and communities to make outreach efforts stick, and overcome generations of institutional ignorance and prejudices regarding our faiths. I think this effort, and recent efforts by other high-profile Pagan leaders like Starhawk, working in concert with our often unsung volunteer chaplains, can start to turn things around. That in conjunction with the important work chaplains like Patrick McCollum and his legal team are currently engaged in provide hope that our institutional facilities will someday  offer the spiritual and religious guidance and support necessary for Pagan and Heathen prisoners to embrace personal reform and rehabilitation.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    This was a great contribution by the visiting clergy.

    I'm sure the Black Muslims had a severely uphill climb to get corrections recognition. We can do it, too.

  • Thanks for covering this, Jason.

    It struck me the other day when thinking about this topic that there may also be something to the fact that Pagan traditions, unlike Christian ones, tend not to be salvific in focus.

    The story of the hardened criminal who repents and finds peace in Christianity even within a harsh prison system is one that's been told and retold in our culture, so that providing chaplain services to Christians in prison tends to be seen as an aspect of their rehabilitation. Whereas I suspect that, with the general misunderstanding of Pagan traditions in mainstream society, the idea that some prisoners might want free and fair access to Pagan services and religious objects is seen not as rehabilitating but as just another aspect of their deviance from the norm.

    If that plays a roll in public opinion, and public opinion unquestionably plays a roll in what policies are enacted and how they are enforced… then we as a community (or group of communities) need to focus not just on winning the legal battle, but also on highlighting how Paganism(s) can help individuals be better citizens and better human beings, what good and positive value our spiritual traditions bring to the table.

    I think work like the kind ADF has done with this festival is a definite step in the right direction! Good on them!

  • Rhett

    What a wonderful story! Well done!

  • How very, truely lovely. Well done to all involved. May the Gods bless them the way they have blessed the prisoners.

  • While I know that there have been setbacks in the problem of serving Pagans in prison, this does seem like a good move forward. Progress – happens on inch at a time!

  • Bmcgraw

    Something you all may not know is that the State of Wisconsin sent a representative early on (about five or six years ago) to Patrick’s joint effort with the AAR on prison issues–The National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association. That State really seemed take to heart the issue of religious pluralism in its prisons for all religious groups, including Pagans. 

    It is really important to work through these issues in various way: education, protests, letter-writing campaigns, lobbying, and, yes, also the courts when necessary.

    I, for one, am very glad to see such efforts create real progress as this article shows. Fourteen years of work and the new contributions of many others who are now stepping up to bring forward the harvest is very rewarding indeed!!

    • Bmcgraw

      Oopps. Typing too quickly again. I meant to say the State of Washington where this festival was held sent reps early on to the National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association. 

      That org teaches religious pluralism and creates dialogue among those states that want to pursue more enlightened policies toward religion in their prisons. The org was cofounded by Patrick McCollum and the American Academy of Religion, about 6 years ago. It has made major contribution to improving the accommodation of minority religions in prisons throughout the US. 

  • What a Great Story!!!!