[On May 13th I ran a guest editorial from Joseph Merlin Nichter on a proposed Religious Property Matrix (RPM) for California prisons. Knowing that Joseph's views only represented one perspective within the Pagan community, I reached out to the Rev. Patrick McCollum for his own thoughts on the issue. Patrick has been working as a Pagan chaplain and activist for well over twenty years. He was one of the founding members of the Lady Liberty League, and has been involved in numerous legal struggles involving modern Pagans. In 2008, he 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.”]
As a longtime activist for both Pagan and minority faith religious rights, a recent post by volunteer chaplain Joseph Nichter about the so called “Religious Property Matrix” created by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has raised serious concerns for me and prompts me to respond in detail to his thoughts and comments.
I’d like to begin first by laying a framework for the discussion by sharing a little history regarding the fight for equal religious accommodation for Pagans in the California prison system and also express why I feel I am qualified to speak to this issue.
First let me provide a little background on my own qualifications and experiences with both the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and religious accommodation in corrections in general nationwide.
In 1981, after several years working in the California prison system, I became the Statewide Wiccan Chaplain for the California Department of Corrections for all 33 California correctional facilities. This was a position that was designated by the Director of the California Department of Corrections, Cal Terhune. At that time, there were no other Pagan chaplains at any correctional institution in the United States, and so I was breaking new ground. In California alone, I facilitated multiple religious prison programs, created dozens of Pagan prison libraries, traveled from institution to institution, and interacted with as many as 1,800 Pagan inmates. I also interacted with Wardens and senior administrators at the highest level at the CDCR headquarters. Later, I was drafted by the Colorado Department of Corrections to establish a Pagan religion program for that state. Over the years, I gradually became the Pagan religious advisor or helped establish Pagan religion programs for over twenty different correctional systems nationwide, and also became a volunteer Pagan Chaplain and Pagan religious advisor for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Over the last 15 years, I have served in multiple capacities in national correctional activities, including holding prominent positions
in several of the foremost national correctional organizations. I currently serve as the Director of the National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association, one of the foremost training agencies on religious accommodation in US Prisons. The NCCDA is comprised of the highest level directors and administrators who oversee all correctional religious activities for their respective states. We currently have over 22 state’s systems represented. I am also a member of the Executive Council for the American Correctional Chaplains Association, the oldest and largest chaplain’s organization in the world with roughly 2,000 chaplain members. In addition to being on the Executive Council, I am also the Chair of the Minority Faiths Issues Committee for the ACCA. On another front, I serve as the Chaplaincy Liaison for the American Academy of Religion, the world’s largest academic body for religious studies, with over 10,000 members. I have also advised correctional administrators or been involved in correctional programs in three other countries. In 2009 I was selected by the United States Commission on Civil Rights as both an advisor and a panelist, to prepare a report for Congress and the President of the United States on religious discrimination in US prisons. Lastly, I was selected last year to author a special edition for the American Jails Magazine on religious accommodation in US jails, and am currently contracted to write the chapter on accommodating minority faiths in prisons for the American Correctional Association which represents all correctional facilities in 50 states. With all of that said, here are my thoughts and comments on the Religious Property Matrix for the California Department of Corrections.
Mr. Nichter addresses the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s (the CDCR’s) actions as though they are acting in good faith and making reasonable attempts to “standardize” religious practices to improve access to religious items for inmates. Nothing could be farther from the truth! In order to see what is really going on, one must step back and take a look at the history of the CDCR’s accommodation of minority faiths over the years, and the strategy that they have consistently used to thwart Pagan religious practices and minority faith practices in general.
In roughly 1979, over thirty years ago, Pagan inmates in the California Department of Corrections began asking to be treated equally and to have equal religious accommodation in California prisons as required by law. You see, while people who are incarcerated in the United States loose many of their constitutional rights when they go into prison, the law is very clear regarding their religious rights. All incarcerated persons no matter what their faiths, retain their religious rights in prison! That is … they retain the right to both practice their religion without coercion or discrimination from prison custody staff, prison administrators, prison chaplains, and the California government in general. Included in these constitutional protections, is the right for religious practices of all faiths to be treated and accommodated equally. Then on top of that, the federal court long ago added an additional twist to religious accommodation in prisons. The courts ruled that while in all other instances the government is constitutionally required to stay out of the business of religion, in prisons, they have a special duty to actually help facilitate religious practices for inmates, because inmates are institutionalized wards of the state and as such do not have free access to be able to facilitate their own practices or to obtain their own religious items or access to clergy. This gives the CDCR a special mandate to actually advocate for inmate’s religious needs.
Instead of doing so when Pagans came forward and asked the CDCR for equal accommodations in California prisons, the CDCR took the official position that Wicca, Witchcraft, Druidry, Heathenism, and related beliefs, were evil and “against God and the Bible” and would not only not be accommodated in California prisons, but would be actively quashed. All Pagan books were officially labeled as pornographic or as security threats and our religious items were openly referred to as instruments of satanic practice or devil worship.
Around this time, a Wiccan inmate named William Rouser challenged the state’s position and took them to court in the Ninth Circuit federal court case Rouser vs White. Rouser asked the court to order the CDCR to comply with the Constitution and to make them provide him with at least basic services including a Wiccan Chaplain, scheduled Wiccan religious services, and access to his religious items. The CDCR fought Rouser tenaciously for years using the full power of the State to both intimidate and discourage him. They put him in solitary confinement and took many other actions to try to stop the practice of Paganism in California prisons. After around twelve years of litigation with the state denying Pagan religious services at every turn, the Martin Luther King Civil Rights Clinic at the University of California at Davis took Rouser’s case. When it became obvious that Rouser was going to win, the CDCR utilized a tactic that they have now become famous for … they offered to settle the case.
In the settlement, the CDCR agreed to allow Rouser several very basic religious artifacts, and to provide him with both access to a Wiccan Chaplain and at a minimum, access to participate in the eight Wiccan Sabbats. The court added to the settlement agreement that other inmates could also attend the Wiccan services, and that the services must be posted as a part of the regular chapel schedule.
I was recommended to serve as Rouser’s chaplain, and thus began my career in Pagan chaplaincy and as an advocate for Pagan prisoner’s rights.
Immediately and from the very beginning after the settlement, the CDCR proceeded to break every aspect of the settlement agreement. On one occasion where I reminded administrators from the California Department of Corrections that they were under a court order to provide these services, they responded, “You don’t see any federal judges here now, do you!” It was then that I first learned that the CDCR uses the tactic of settling minority religion cases in order to get them out of the direct overview of the courts, and then proceeds to violate the settlements knowing that it takes years for the inmate to get back into court. In Rouser’s case after he won the settlement, it took 15 years for him to actually get back into court to get the judge to make the CDCR comply, and they are already violating that second order! Rouser’s is not the only Pagan prisoner’s religion case with a similar story, there are many!
During the years that Rouser battled, many other inmates also litigated their rights with exactly the same results. During that time, in addition to helping CDCR administrators develop policies more in line with Federal mandates, I also went to work to fight for equal religious accommodation for all of our Pagan traditions, both in California and in many other states. I successfully won the rights for inmates to both practice and for them to possess many religious items. Each item in California was a battle with total opposition by the CDCR. In every case, there was no legal justification for the state’s position. There was no security threat or penalogical interests involved, just arbitrary denial with lots of conversations about how allowing Pagan religious items and practices in prisons was evil or immoral. Even so, we made progress, and over time we gained a number of rights already guaranteed by our Constitution.
Throughout this long process, the CDCR also utilized another tactic to minimize minority faith rights. This tact involved two fronts. First, they formed Religious Review Committees, both at the institutional and at the state level to review and approve or disapprove religious items. This was to give them legal cover in court so that they could say that they had not arbitrarily made the decision to deny religious items, but instead, that a qualified body of diverse religious experts had made the decision. The only problem was that the CDCR wouldn’t allow any representatives from the minority faiths to participate on the committees. In other words, they stacked the committees with members of the very faiths who had been fighting the advance of Pagan practice in prison to begin with. They had Rabbis and Protestant ministers, and Catholic Priests deciding what was appropriate and allowable for Pagans to have access to. The other and considerably more ominous tactic the CDCR used was to search for Pagans who would be willing to support the CDCR’s position, in exchange for money, recognition, or position. This has happened several times over the years, and when stepping back, was quite obvious to any informed onlooker. The CDCR has always had access to members of our community who are well known to be experts on Pagan practices to consult, but instead, the CDCR always searches out individuals who they can manipulate instead. They have also drafted so called experts on Paganism who are Christian ministers, to both testify against us and to determine what appropriate practices are for our community.
The CDCR has not stepped up in good conscience as Mr. Nichter has indicated; instead, they have actively and intentionally blocked all minority faith advances as much as possible for many years. They have neither conducted themselves with integrity or moral fortitude in the past, and they have done little to give us reason to believe that they can be trusted now!
In recent public documents and court testimony it has come to light that the CDCR has actively destroyed thousands of court ordered documents relating to discrimination toward Pagans, used coercion, committed perjury, and spent millions of taxpayer dollars fighting a religious war to quash Pagan faith practices.
In examining the Religious Property Matrix and its development, it is clear that no credible experts on Pagan practices were consulted, and the end result is the removal of many already established and approved religious items from Pagan inmates. Under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, inmates are allowed any religious items that are not a safety and security risk to the institution. Since most of the items being taken away in the new Religious Matrix have been allowed for years without any safety or security issues, there is no credible argument that they have now all of the sudden become a problem. The Matrix also changed the term “Religious Artifacts” to “Religious Items”, a seemingly small and inconsequential distinction. But again, being educated as to the facts reveals that the devil is in the details. Religious Artifacts are protected items under law, requiring that staff handle them with respect and that a specific procedure must be followed to insure their safety. For example, they can only be inspected in the presence of the inmate, and a supervisor must be informed and sign off before they can be removed or destroyed. Religious Items on the other hand, can be summarily handled, removed or destroyed at any time by any staff member without consequence and with no recourse on the part of the inmate. This is a huge change in policy and definitely not designed to forward religious tolerance or accommodation.
There is a long history of California correctional staff disrespecting Pagan religious items. For years they have regularly destroyed them without reason, made jokes about them, or called them devil worship. The designation of Religious Artifact was instigated to protect against such actions. Now it is being taken away. No small act!
We as a community must take great care in publically supporting CDCR policy that takes away our rights as it makes it appear as though there is a justification for their actions. Also, if we do choose to speak up on behalf of our community, we must first have in hand documents authorizing us to do so. When I fought for the items that already have been approved in the CDCR, I received official letters of authorization and support from many Pagan traditions, leaders, and individual solitary practitioners nationwide. As a result, I have been able to speak on their behalf.
I closing I’d like to say that I respect Mr. Nichter’s work to help serve our prison community and I fully support his efforts to continue in that direction. I was his mentor in that regard. His efforts at Pantheacon this February to establish the new National Pagan Chaplains Association is commendable, and as soon as we get some members and time under our belt I believe we can become a credible organization. I also believe that Mr. Nichter’s family ties to the CDCR administration may help open doorways in the future that may have been more difficult in the past. We need more people like Joseph to step forward and learn the ropes in the prisons and we need more people to educate themselves more widely both about inmate’s religious rights and also the history of religion in corrections so we can make good decisions as a community going forward.
While it’s true that the Religious Property Matrix provides inmates with a list of items that they are supposed to be allowed access to, they already had legal access to those items before the Matrix came out and so it hasn’t changed anything in that regard. But in publishing the Matrix, the CDCR has cleverly taken away access to many other items that were also already approved, and that is the change that the Matrix is truly designed to make!