[The following is a guest-post from Joseph Merlin Nichter. Joseph Merlin Nichter is an author, blogger, ritualist, Freemason, Wiccan and co-founder of the Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain, Joseph provides Pagan religious services and assists with religious accommodations of minority faiths for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; he has also served the California Department of Mental Health as a religious program instructor. Joseph is the co-founder and current president of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Joseph lives in Central California with his wife and four children, where he continues to actively serve his community.]
The odds are quite favorable that the average Wild Hunt reader has experienced religious discrimination which has manifested in either social, legal, or vocational arenas. We must consider the impact this type of discrimination can have on our spirituality and self-esteem. I would argue that this form of discrimination which occurs on a daily basis within a correctional-rehabilitative environment, is in direct conflict with their goals and purpose. Nonetheless, that has in fact been the unfortunate state of affairs for quite some time.
In October of 2012 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) issued an internal memorandum containing new directives pertaining to inmate personal religious property and religious grounds. Attached was a newly drafted list of proposed religious items that would be universally approved at every prison within the state of California. Referred to as the Religious Property Matrix (RPM), the list was developed on an effort to improve the current policy which the department itself recognized as “vague and inconsistent.”
Earlier this year the CDCR released its second draft of the property matrix which contained at least 24 alterations. Some of those changes involved simple terms, but important context; for example many of the items which were limited to a small list of allowable colors had been changed to “multicolored, excluding red or blue.” This has been viewed by many as an understandable change considering that Security Threat Groups (gangs) have proven to be an enduring epidemic and colors, such as red and blue, continue to be employed as a primary mode of recognition.
By March the department felt comfortable and confident with the new property matrix and released a notification of change to regulations. These changes will ratify and implement the new religious property matrix and will also include a change in verbiage. All religious objects previously referred to as “artifacts” is being changed to “items.” Perhaps more significant is the removal of the word “Bible” from list of examples included in the states definition of the term “Religious Artifact Item” located in the 3000 block of Title 15, Crime Prevention and Corrections.
The Pagan Alliance and the House of Danu called for an Emergency Pagan Conclave to address and discuss these new changes. The conclave convened on Sunday of this past Beltane weekend in Oakland, California with several Pagan community leaders in attendance; including M. Mach Nightmare, Pantheacon organizer Glenn Turner, Sam Webster, Diana Paxson, and T. Thorn Coyle of the Solar Cross. The conclave commenced with an hour long presentation by Barbara McGraw, which was followed by narrative commentary on the religious property matrix by event organizer James Bianchi. The remainder of the event was dedicated to an open discussion forum which included a panel of experienced Pagan religious volunteers, including two primary officers from the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association.
Referred to as an “Orwellian list” (that which is not permitted is absolutely forbidden), the primary concern being expressed is that the list will place an unfair restriction on religious accommodations and related practices. But based on my own direct personal experiences, I’m inclined to embrace a more optimistic view. There has never been a consistent statewide policy or single unified list of universally approved items.
The fact is that the CDCR policies regarding personal religious items have been vague (no list) and inconsistent (no collective standard). So whenever an inmate, (for the purpose of this article, a Pagan inmate) wants a religious item such as a pentacle pendant, it must be approved by a state employed chaplain. While it may not be hard to imagine how difficult it might be to obtain such an item in such an environment, the challenge doesn’t end there. Most of the time such an item is not approved, but in the rare instances that it get approved, there is no guarantee that said inmate will be able to maintain possession of the item. If the inmate is transferred to another prison or just moved from one yard to another within the same prison, a difference in policy or social climate often results in the confiscation of such items.
The purpose of the Religious Property Matrix is to establish statewide standardization, resolve the inconsistency and facilitate the rights of inmates to practice their religion within the parameters of the correctional environment. The list will ensure all individuals, regardless of religion, will be guaranteed personal possession of fundamental items. At least eighteen of the twenty-four items listed are applicable to Pagan practices and several of the items listed are explicitly Pagan in nature such as the Wand, Tarot/Divination/Runecards, and Rune tiles. I personally view these items in particular as a significant improvement as they have been among the most difficult for me to get approved in the past.
The other concern that’s been expressed is that items which have been approved in the past, yet are not on the new property matrix will be seized. Although there will be a one year wear out period for all items not included on the new matrix, what this does mean is, yes, there are inmates that will lose some of the items they have been fortunate enough to obtain in the past. But this also means that there will be many inmates that will finally acquire items that they were never able or allowed to possess previously. There will be a loss for some and a gain for many others, but there will be state wide continuity and religious equality. Everyone everywhere will finally be granted and guaranteed basic religious items, without equivocation or discrimination. I for one consider that to be progress, for our incarcerated Pagan brothers and sisters, and for pluralism movement as a whole.
In speaking with department staff regarding the matter, they felt it is important to note that several suggestions received during the public comment period are already in the process of review and are expected to be added to the property matrix. In addition, the property matrix is not a static document. There is a process in place to continuously receive and review suggestions for improvement and the inclusion of additional items into the matrix on a regular basis. It is also important to make a clear distinction here between personal religious items and congregant items, which remain subject to approval at a facility level.
Perhaps it’s due to my own military background that I am sympathetic to the logistical, political, financial and social challenges the CDCR faces in the pursuit of its goals. But it is also due to that same background, having been discriminated against as a Pagan myself, that I am sympathetic to the religious rights and needs of the inmates. And while the department is not without its incarnations of ignorance and apathy, I have seen an encouraging trend of equality and acceptance emerging from a previously inhospitable atmosphere. Finally I’d like to take this rare opportunity to challenge the Pagan community to lend their attention and concern to an equally critical need within our circles and groves by previously incarcerated Pagans; reentry acceptance, assistance and support.
[This editorial from Joseph Merlin Nichter is part of a response to the new CDCR rule changes regarding items allowed to Pagan prisoners. I will also be reaching out to Pagan opponents of the proposed changes for their viewpoint. I’d like to thank Mr. Nichter for submitting his thoughts. As always, opinions expressed in guest editorials are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent The Wild Hunt, its editors, or staff.]