What the New Pew Forum Survey Tells Us About Pagan Religions in U.S. Prisons

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 23, 2012 — 19 Comments

Yesterday the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the findings of a 50-state survey of prison chaplains.  The survey, which was endorsed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association, interviewed 730 prison chaplains, and has a lot of interesting things to say about religion in the American prison system. At first glance, there are no major bombshell revelations to drive the news cycle, leading to initial headlines like “a lot of religion goes on behind bars.” However, if you start digging into the data, especially the section on what chaplains think about the inmate’s religious lives‘, there’s a lot there that should be of concern to modern Pagans, particularly Pagans engaged in prison outreach and chaplaincy work.

First, we find out that around 1.7% of the national prison population are adherents to a Pagan or earth-based/nature religion. If you extrapolate that to the currently incarcerated population of the United States (around 2.3 – 2.4 million people) it means there’s close to 40 thousand incarcerated Pagans (Native American spirituality averages around 2.7%, or  over 62 thousand incarcerated adherents).  In addition, 34% percent of prison chaplains say that their Pagan populations are growing, with another 49% saying the population has remained stable. Only 8% of chaplains noted a decline in Pagan inmates.

Which brings us to the most contentious section on the religious lives of inmates, extremism. A sizable minority of chaplains (39%) say that extremism is “very” or “somewhat” common within Pagan religions.

No one is going to deny that some Pagan groups in prison are extremist in nature, but I want to push back a bit and contextualize this finding. First, we need to note that the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian. Of that number, an impressive 44% of prison chaplains are Evangelical Christians. I’m not saying that Evangelical Christians can’t be impartial in making judgments about what is and isn’t extremism in non-Christian religions, but I do think that most of them start out with a severe deficit in practical, unbiased, knowledge of our faiths and traditions. Also, as the Christian Post points out, “extremism” isn’t just about race or intolerance towards other groups, it’s also about “exclusivity” and “unreasonable” requests for accommodation. Both of those factors are highly subjective, and could be skewing the number higher than it may actually be. Still, even without those caveats, it should be noted that most chaplains (61%) don’t think there’s a major Pagan extremism problem.

“I agree that there can be extremism, depending upon your definition. Very, very few offenders were raised Pagan; almost all converted while inside. Now, converts in general are more fervent than cradle raised believers, but there is an extra issue for Pagans; many converted to a Pagan faith because they felt the church of their childhood failed them. This can result in some rigid attitudes. But extremism does not automatically mean a security threat. A hard nosed, rigid member of a pacifist faith is only a threat as a speed bump, for example. Yes, there have been problems in some places, some times- but a lot of that is caused by two factors: first, we ARE talking not only about fallible humans, but fallen ones as well; prisons aren’t the place to go for demonstrations of wise decision making.”Joel Monka, volunteer with Indianapolis Pagan Prison Ministry

For Pagan clergy, volunteers, and organizations trying to provide chaplaincy services to incarcerated Pagans, these statistics simply underscore the many challenges inherent in providing guidance to an often misunderstood religious movement. In 2008, Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights, saying he “found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere” and that the problem was “endemic.” Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. However, when Pagan clergy are allowed in, and Pagan inmates are given the same consideration as other inmates, truly healing moments of fellowship can happen.

“The Pew Center study on the opinions of prison chaplains was a fascinating read. I found it interesting that Earth-based religions were listed by some of them as being extremist. I volunteer with the Druids in a minimum/medium security prison in Washington State, and I can state categorically that none of my men have ever expressed extremist views in my hearing. I can’t speak for the Wiccan or Asatru inmates, but based on discussions with my fellow volunteers from the Paganfest we held in the prison last summer, these other groups in this prison aren’t particularly extremist, either.” – Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF)

Robert Keefer, High Priest of Crossroads Tabernacle Church – ATC, who’s on the Advisory Council for the State of Michigan’s corrections department, noted that relations with the local prison chaplain have been “friendly and helpful,” though he points out that ritual meetings are “limited to the 8 Sabbats currently,” and that expanding that to include Full Moon rituals and educational services have been “slow going.” Aside from bureaucratic hassles, and dealing with hostile or simply misinformed chaplains, the biggest problem we face is finding enough volunteers to deal with the large and growing number of incarcerated Pagans who want or need religious services. Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF), pointed out that “in the prison I volunteer at, if there is no volunteer, the men of that religion are not allowed to meet. This can truly be a hardship.” Thomas says that he “can only pray that our Gods will inspire the hearts of my Pagan brothers and sisters to step up and volunteer to help our incarcerated men and women lead valid and fulfilling spiritual lives.”

The data given to us here by the Pew Forum is a boon. Even taking into account the Christian lens through which most of this data was obtained and filtered through, it gives us needed information is discussing and addressing the needs of Pagan prisoners. It underscores the challenges, and affirms what many already suspected: that the Pagan population in prison is growing, that the institutional chaplaincy is disproportionately Christian and conservative in makeup, that extremism (whatever its true extent) is an ongoing concern, and that we simply don’t have the volunteers or institutional muscle in place to properly address prisoner’s needs. Just as it is on the “outside” our growth continually outstrips the pace in which we can train clergy or build institutions and services. In short, we have a lot of work to do.

This report is a first foray into the many issues and concerns raised by this data, and I’m committed to continuing this conversation for as long as it needs to happen. I’m already in communication with several other voices from within the Pagan community on the issue of prison chaplaincy and the topics raised by this survey, and hope to spotlight them in the coming weeks and months.

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Three days into the campaign and I’m less than $150 dollars from reaching my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven’t pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://ladyimbriumsholocron.wordpress.com/ ladyimbrium

    I personally find this to be a fascinating topic and one that means a lot to me given the kind of work I do and the kind of work a lot of my friends do. I’m not in a good geographical location to get any sense of larger diversity in this country’s incarcerated population. I can only say that locally very little has changed. Thanks for the article!

  • Robert Puckett

    I haven’t read the full report yet, but I would suspect that the “extremists” that they claim within the pagan category are white supremacist Odinists.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Indeed, the section on religious extremism specifically cites: “Racially based beliefs are held by Odinist/Wotanist inmates and members of the Nation of Islam.”

      Interestingly, that section begins talking about extreme religious beliefs — one chaplain includes a tiff concerning salvation between two Christian groups — and gradually shifts to discussing extremism, not exactly a one-for-one replacement. Tucked into the former are requests for religious accommodation that the chaplain considers outre. Clearly a lot of this is subjective. (A couple of breakouts delve into that with a study of who finds whom extreme by faith cohort.)

      It’s not surprising that Muslims top the list: they include both those traditional Muslims holding rigid theological views, and the Nation of Islam with its well-known racial views; *and* they are on the wrong end of the perception game with Christian chaplains.

      Then there’s a gap, followed by other faith cohorts in gradually decreasing order, with us on the top. From the analysis we know that “us” includes Odinist/Wotanist eurocentrism and Santeria requests for accommodations.

      So, should we regard this as a statistical artifact? Or a finding with some kind of content? Right now I’m inclined to the artifact end, but I keep listening.

      A point of context: In prison, gangs are often more influential than the guards. If you’re in prison and you’re not the Amazing Hulk, you want to belong to a gang for your own protection. Gangs often break out along ethnic lines. That is the setting in which the system looks at organizations of inmates.

  • http://www.MotherEarthMinistries.org/ O Gaea4MEM

    I’m the writing priestess for Mother Earth Ministries-ATC, a Neo-Pagan prison ministry, and currently answer over 80 letters/month, from all over the country.  Of those, about half are from men and women writing to us for the first time.  How many are new to Paganism isn’t something I record — though it will be now — but in the 12 years I’ve been doing this, I haven’t seen anything I’d call extremism.  Inmates share frustration and anger at the discrimination they experience against their religion, but that’s to be expected.  Happily, inmates also report some progress.  What all of us are doing is working — slowly but surely.

  • Rev. Kirk Thomas

    The chaplain at the prison I volunteer at is an evangelical Christian, but is also devoted to the spiritual needs of all the men there. As long as the inmate is serious about their faith, and requests pass what he calls the “straight face” test, he does everything in his power to help. I can say that not only has it been a pleasure working with him, but I also consider him a friend. Knowing him has greatly helped me face my own issues with Christianity, and I believe that I am a better man now as a result.

  • Nicole Youngman

    What I find odd about the data here is the methodology–this is based on the chaplains’ *opinions* of to what degree different groups are shrinking, growing, or extremist, not an actual count of how many inmates identify with which religions or the inmates’ own stated opinions/attitudes that someone might consider extremist. So I’d take the data with a lump of salt, which feels a bit odd to say about a Pew study when they’ve done a lot of good work on religious belief/practice in the past.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I would certainly never use this study as a prison census. The basic idea seems to have been to quantify prison chaplains’ “take” on the institution, and that was one of the ways they tried. It’s probably going to be valuable to chaplains and those who sponsor them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lamyka-L/649965363 Lamyka L.

    What are the Pagan Chaplaincy organizations out there that you know of Jason? I’d like to spread the word with a well-informed and recommended list. I’d like to support them however I can.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Circle, ATC, ADF, and The Troth all have prison outreach programs.

    • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

      I cannot speak for any of these orgs, but here are my thoughts: The way that a lot of Pagans can help is by accepting former inmates into their religious groups rather than treating them as pariahs.  Chaplains who head up congregations, circles, etc. are not allowed to have contact with the prisoners once they leave.  You can’t minister to someone in prison then offer to minister to them on the outside.  

      If you cannot do ministry yourself, offering material support for volunteers (most have to pay for gas and food out of their own pocket) and being supportive of your prison ministers are just a few ways to help.  Hope this helps!

      • Mia

        “You can’t minister to someone in prison then offer to minister to them on the outside.”

        That’s odd, why not?

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Probably to keep prison religious groups from becoming outposts of gangs on the outside, with chaplains acting as go-betweens. As I said elsewhere, this is the lens through which the system looks at any organization of prisoners.

  • Mia

     Is it really that surprising to see “extremist” views in jail anyway? With Muslims, that usually given as a reason why they’re in jail in the first place, because Muslim extremist=terrorist in America’s current views.

    With pagans we’re extreme in all sorts of ways. Even someone who claims to be a witch talking to fairies in the garden can be said to be extreme in their views, because most people in America don’t do that.

    So yes, I agree that the lens through which this study is viewed is heavily Christian in nature, and I find it interesting that the pagan population is growing in jails.

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    Pagan Educational Network has prison ministry information.

  • Sam Webster, M.Div.

    A fascinating read, thanks for posting. One question that comes to mind is about our credibility in the prison system. Since few to none of the Pagan chaplains have seminary degrees none of the Christian chaplains will view much of what we have to say with any respect. Perhaps even rightly so. For example, here we have a statement about Pagan ‘extremism’ existing or not from a Reverend and Archdruid who is not in an academic sense qualified to make such a statement, right or wrong. Without the educational basis, no religious professional will take him, or us, seriously.

    Not only must we develop schools that grant the Master of Divinity degree as does Cherry Hill, but it must also do so in a credible manner, which sadly, Cherry Hill does not.

    In the space of religious professionals those who have gone through a qualified and accredited seminary have a voice. Those who have not are mere amateurs. Unfortunately, too many of our chaplains have not actually had such training and as such have no standing, even if given a chance to speak. I honor them for their efforts on our behalf, but they simply do not have the power to cause the changes we wish to see.

    • Snowhawke

      While I understand your point, I respectfully disagree. Numbers make a difference. I have no such credentials and my work within the prison system over the past eight years has made very tangible differences to hundreds of incarcerated prisoners.

      I am a druid priest with no seminary degree. In all my years of working on behalf of prisoners, I have never been asked about credentials. I am a member of the Maine Pagan Clergy Association. We were contacted by the prison system in Maine to ask for a volunteer. I wasn’t asked if I had a seminary degree or even if I was licensed clergy. My showing up has made a difference. And my efforts have changed behavior at prisons across the country where I have had an opportunity to write to chaplains.

      My thoughts are these; if we can get outside volunteers at every prison, it will make an enormous difference. Having a nation-wide organization for pagan prison ministry with a few thousand members would have a profound influence on the behavior of the prison system towards incarcerated prisoners. States need to create their own clergy associations as we have in Maine. We have made huge progress with the State recognizing clergy status for pagans in Maine. We are able to license clergy and it makes a difference in prison ministry, hospital visitation and conducting legal weddings.

      We need to organize.

    • Snowhawke

      While I understand your point, I respectfully disagree. Numbers make a difference. I have no such credentials and my work within the prison system over the past eight years has made very tangible differences to hundreds of incarcerated prisoners.

      I am a druid priest with no seminary degree. In all my years of working on behalf of prisoners, I have never been asked about credentials. I am a member of the Maine Pagan Clergy Association. We were contacted by the prison system in Maine to ask for a volunteer. I wasn’t asked if I had a seminary degree or even if I was licensed clergy. My showing up has made a difference. And my efforts have changed behavior at prisons across the country where I have had an opportunity to write to chaplains.

      My thoughts are these; if we can get outside volunteers at every prison, it will make an enormous difference. Having a nation-wide organization for pagan prison ministry with a few thousand members would have a profound influence on the behavior of the prison system towards incarcerated prisoners. States need to create their own clergy associations as we have in Maine. We have made huge progress with the State recognizing clergy status for pagans in Maine. We are able to license clergy and it makes a difference in prison ministry, hospital visitation and conducting legal weddings.

      We need to organize.

    • Anonymous

      I find this question a bit silly, honestly. It’s my experience that many, MANY “religious professionals” are working without seminary degrees. The vast majority of Evangelical clergy of my acquaintance (and I went to an undergraduate school that cranked them out by the hundreds) have nothing higher than a Bachelor’s degree in “Ministry” “Missions” or “Bible”. They don’t lack credibility as pastors on the ground, or in practical situations like hospital or prison ministries. The reason they don’t need a seminary degree but perceive Pagan clergy as needing one is a matter of bias, not credibility. 

      I’m neither anti-seminary education, nor against the idea of a more structured and trained Pagan clergy, but I don’t buy the idea that Patrick McCollum or Rev. Thomas need an M.Div. to talk about extremism and be credible.

  • Snowhawke

    I am a volunteer clergy person at a prison here in Maine. My experience has been very positive. I had the chaplain state that the Wiccan Group was the best group in the whole place, very positive, working to make the prison more green with recycling and starting a prison garden so all the prisoners got more fresh vegetables. They had the best attitude and really worked at living their faith. They have never had any problems with the group creating trouble. This was volunteered to me by the Christian chaplain.

    That said, there is extremism – even in a small state like Maine. The extremism I have encountered in my eight years of writing druid prisoners has always, without exception been white supremest Astatru/Odinist groups.

    What will make a difference is for all of us to get involved with supporting our incarcerated pagan brothers and sister and to speak out against this white supremacy whenever we encounter it. To me, this supremest slant is a debasing of our highest spiritual ideals. It has no place in paganism. Paganism is inherently non-hierarchical as Nature is non-hierarchical. A large voice speaking against it will isolate the affect these groups have on other pagan groups. And this is vitally important. I have encountered such discrimination at prisons because of the behavior of Supremest Astatru/Odinist groups. The prisons will deny all pagans the right to gather due to the trouble created by these other groups. It is sad but understandable given how little is known about paganism by the Christian chaplains. This will not change until pagans on the outside get involved by the thousands. We need to do this.

    I have personally written to hundred of pagans who have said that they have written every pagan (usually druid) organization they could get an address for and I was the only person to respond on behalf of the Druid Network. I don’t say this to boast, but rather to point out just how far we have to go to make this change. We are all volunteers. We don’t get paid for this work. We don’t have national and State organizations paying us. I understand just what a commitment it is to work as clergy. We need to get our other pagan clergy people to step up and help. We need to craft a communal consciousness to our pagan community. These prisoners are in need of help. They are the most sincere practitioners of our pagans traditions that I have encountered. Most become pagans in prison because it offers something real to them. Let’s all work together to make a difference. Let’s help make sure their civil rights are being honored. Most of these prisoners will get out of prison some day. Having them feel part of a greater community while shut off, having supported and mentored their groups while in prison and accepting them back in the pagan community when they get out, will only help to make them better citizens and much less likely to experience recidivism.

    Any druids out there wanting to help, please contact me at snowhawke gmail.com. I have a couple of hundred prisoners looking for Druidry training material and mentoring.

    Snowhawke /|