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.]