Culture and Community: The Complexity of Pagans in Prison

Crystal Blanton —  June 20, 2014 — 26 Comments

San Quentin Prison yard

San Quentin Prison yard [Photo Credit: Zboralski / via Wickimedia]

I recently had the opportunity with my graduate program to go into the bowels of San Quentin State Correctional Facility in San Rafael, California. San Quentin is one of the most famous state penitentiaries in California, and the only facility that enacts capital punishment in the state. There are approximately 4,000 inmates currently in San Quentin, the range of crimes span from drug possession to murder.

Crime and prisons go hand in hand. The population of prisoners in any institution is made up of a myriad of races, ages, and religions, thereby needing a host of services to address the many needs of different populations of people. Pagans can find themselves in the criminal system like any other religious practitioners. Spirituality does not make a person immune to the laws of the land.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “About 6,937,600 offenders were under the supervision of adult correctional systems at year end 2012.” This number does not include those who are under parole or probation supervision. While it is not easy to determine the number of incarcerated Pagans from these statistics, there are some resources stating that Pagans within the prison population continue to show growth.

In a Wild Hunt piece from 2012, Jason Pitzl-Waters references the results of the 50 State Chaplain survey done by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. In the article, he talks about “what the new Pew Forum survey tells us about Pagan religions in U.S. prisons.

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-% 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.

The reality is that these numbers show a significant need for continued prison ministry, something that Pagan chaplains have continued to do as a part of their service to the community. Yet there is a significant lack of understanding about the needs of prisoners in general, and Pagan prisoners more specifically. It is very common for general society to lock the realities of prison life out of the mind of the average person. Yet the reality of the prison industrial complex should be a concern to everyone, not just Pagan chaplains.

In exploring the needs of Pagan prisoners and religious services within State and Federal facilities, there are many things to consider. The racial disparities, systemic inequities, structural challenges and overall demands of prison take a toll on individuals emotionally and spiritually. Going into the various levels of the prison facility that the average person cannot see gave me a perspective for the toll that spiritual life could take on the psyche, as well as the spiritual impact that it could have.

handcuffsIf equality in access to alternative spiritual guidance is important for the well-being of all prisoners, it also lends a question of how challenging it is to get Pagan clergy to assist with a myriad of clergy needs, not just the standard Wiccan-like framework of practice with which many Pagan clergy come into service. Are prisoners able to get clergy support when they practice African Traditional Religions or even paths like Hellenic practices? Do we have the capacity as a Pagan community to provide clergy support that encompasses some of the cultural differences within our community?

In exploring this topic, I put a call out to Pagans who do clergy work and asked a couple of questions on this topic:

Are the needs for Pagan clergy services increasing within the prison population and do you find that we have adequate-enough services to address those needs?

Yes, more pagans are being incarcerated, and others at converting while in prison. As the former Correspondence Officer for COG, about 90% of all snail mail was from inmates, asking for support in writing, in person or even just somebody willing to talk to their chaplain and tell them their religion is real. We have a real need to find volunteers to answer letter, be pen pals or provide guidance and teaching, and people who can go inside and help facilitate services. Of all the people who have helped volunteer with me over the years there is only one still doing it. me. People need to be consistent. - Lisa “Ariadne” Morgenstern, HPS, and founder Dragon’s Weyr Circle

I have seen the need for Pagan religious services continually increase over the past six years. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does not employ chaplains qualified to meet these needs or provide these services, and therefore depends upon community volunteers, who lack the necessary resources to provide adequate assistance without financial support or employment from the institutions. – Joseph Merlin Nichter, Minority Faith Chaplain

I can’t speak for all prisons, just the system in which I work (Washington State). The state requires inmate religious groups to have an outside volunteer present for all meetings. This means that if a group of Druids or Wiccans or Asatru don’t have a Sponsor, then they may not meet unless the Chaplain can rustle up someone (which is very problematic). Without volunteers there can be no group worship. This alone is a major cause for the increase of clergy services in our prisons here. Also, the attitude of the prison chaplain is crucial. I’m quite lucky in that my chaplain at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, WA truly takes his responsibilities seriously, and tries very hard to make sure that everyone, including our Pagan inmates, gets an equal shake. I’m sure that this is not the case in all prisons. It can be difficult for folks in a prison to be ‘out’ as a Pagan, just as it is for so many people in the outside world. A supportive chaplain is a gods-send. – Rev. Kirk Thomas, ADF Archdruid

I believe that there is an increasing need for services to support Pagan inmates in California. Many Chaplains from the five faiths are doing their best to build relationships with Pagan clergy but many California prisons are located in extremely rural areas without vibrant Pagan (and other minority faith traditions) communities.

It’s an interesting question of how we are defining Paganism as we explore these questions. Are Native American Traditions Pagan? Many First Nations people would argue both sides of this question. Native religion is considered one of the five faiths in California and this is because of years of organizing and activism of AIM, Native Leaders, and First Nations people on the inside. If we as a religious community are going to push to change the five faiths law, we must not do so in isolation or opposition of First Nations leaders and Native Chaplains.  – Claire Bohman MDiv, Reclaiming Priestess and Interfaith Minister

What kind of complications does it pose for prisoners to balance the expectations of prison life and Pagan spirituality?

Inmates frequently are met with intolerant Correctional officers who will not respect an altar set up in a cell. Items are destroyed, thrown away, confiscated, and never returned. Many inmates cannot practice with tarot for example  or runes because officials do not understand the importance of these tools to a pagan or heathen, or Druid. Watch Lockup Raw on MSNBC if you want to learn what prisoners learn. They aren’t really rehabilitating but learning to live in a system that does not prepare them for the outside, but rather forces them into gang situations.  - Lisa “Ariadne” Morgenstern, HPS, and founder Dragon’s Weyr Circle

This perpetuates a variety of conflicts, perhaps the most difficult one is an internal conflict within the inmates.

While the majority or mainstream religions enjoy all the amenities and full benefits of their faith, such as access to reading materials, and a paid chaplains to facilitate their needs; Pagan inmates have very few opportunities to celebrate and practice their spirituality which is detrimental to their personal spiritual growth and therefore, their rehabilitation. – Joseph Merlin Nichter, Minority Faith Chaplain

Outside of the question of the availability of group worship and practice, there is the issue of solitary worship in each individual cell. Most Pagans need some religious tools of various kinds, and it can be quite difficult to get permission for these. Compromises have to be made. In ADF Druidry, we use some form of the three hallows (Well, Fire, and Tree) to indicate the Cosmos, and usually this means a cup of water, a candle, and some form of stick or tree representation for the Axis Mundi. A lighted candle is out of the question. So either a once-lit but now unlit candle may be used, or even a picture of one. Even when these compromises have been made and agreed with the chaplain, rogue Officers may confiscate these items on occasion (for whatever reason) and sometimes they just disappear. Perseverance is the virtue required here. – Rev. Kirk Thomas, ADF Archdruid

At this point it seems like much of the pagan programming in prisons is Odinism (often white supremacist–my skin crawls calling this Paganism) and Wicca. I have seen less programming for Pagans of color who practice Ifa, Santeria, etc. Sometimes elements of Espiritualismo is integrated into Catholicism. – Claire Bohman MDiv, Reclaiming Priestess and Interfaith Minister

Do prisoners have equal access to religious support as Pagans, compared to other faiths?

In California there are just the five faiths represented by paid Chaplains that are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Christian/Protestant, and A Native American Spiritual Leader. Nature based services are under a chaplain of one of those five faiths. And they are not always inclined to be helpful or supporting of faiths other than their own. Pagans in CA state prisons are reliant on volunteers. At the facility where I volunteer there are pagan services on four out of five yards. One yard has Druid, Wiccan and Asatru, another Asatru, Wicca  and Kemetic, and two other yards that have Wicca. Groups. It works out to about 9 group services a week. I am an unpaid volunteer that simply cannot cover all these services. It means they don’t see me very often. I cannot be there when a family member passes and they need to be notified, or to counsel with them I don’t have regular office hours where someone could meet with me to talk. If there is an inmate who is on lockdown I cannot counsel them at their cell because as a volunteer I’m not permitted to go to their cell doors in the building. If they were in a fight and are in the SHU (solitary) I also cannot meet with them about their issues. It is heartbreaking. – Lisa “Ariadne Morgenstern, HPS, and founder Dragon’s Weyr Circle

No, the State of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation only employs chaplains for five major faiths. Not having a state religious representative for Pagan faiths restricts access to all the amenities, benefits and support afforded to mainstream religions. – Joseph Merlin Nichter, Minority Faith Chaplain

Again, this depends on the chaplain of the prison. I believe that in Washington State most of our chaplains want to do the right thing, and be supportive. But hidden biases can cause problems. If the chaplain is welcoming of the prisoners and their beliefs, then more of them will come forward. But if they feel that they will be ignored or not supported they may just as well stay in their cells. My chaplain is wonderful, and fully supports anyone in their faith if he believes that they are serious about what they are doing. Having said that, I have seen some bias towards the Abrahamic groups, probably due to their much larger numbers. Also, the Abrahamic religions have strict requirements for weekly (at least) rituals and meetings, and since Pagans are not peoples of any ‘book’ we have more difficulty proving the need for ritual times and meetings outside of the 8 High Days or, perhaps, the monthly Druid Moon. We as volunteers must remember that the government agencies that run our prisons are literal at best. If we don’t claim something as required for our faiths, then we very well may not get it. – Rev. Kirk Thomas, ADF Archdruid

prison

[Photo Credit: Andrew Bardwell/via Wikimedia]

The ongoing discussion surrounding Pagans who are incarcerated and the community’s role in this supportive obligation is one that has gone on for some time. Inadequate clergy services can be just as harmful as not having any at all, and yet the community appears to be limited in resources to address this need. Prisoners are potentially vulnerable to misinformation at a time when they may looking for some way to connect to meaning inside of the prison walls, and without ways to access community, additional resources or even verify information they are being told. The lack of specific requirements of training to make someone qualified to do prison ministerial duties can cause problems for the inmates and for the community at large. Furthermore not everyone has ability or skill to navigate the political and potentially manipulative dynamic of working with the behaviors of prisoners.

This is one of the most delicate,and yet important,roles we have to consider as practitioners of the craft: How do we address our incarcerated community members?

What I experienced of the prison atmosphere when I toured San Quentin is something I have yet to put into words. The looming tone of death in the air was tangible. The dehumanization of the inmates by default of being caged in horrifically-small cells, and the tightrope of pending violence in the environment are all emotionally, psychologically, and energetically taxing to one’s spirit.  Whether or not access to spiritual guidance and worship supports the rehabilitation of the prisoner or provides some peace of mind, the right to this religious support is one of great importance. I imagine that there is a great need for spiritual nourishment when you are caged like an animal and separated from your humanity.

Within the Pagan community at large, we have not seen prisoner support at the top of our service list, and many organizations appear to shy away from being a resource for those who are incarcerated. While there are some incredible individuals that give their personal time and resources to provide support to those who are behind the walls of a county, state or federal facility, we fall short in the area of larger community focus and organizational support. In my personal opinion, this is a social justice issue within the Pagan community that does not often get the attention that it needs.

If resources to clergy, mentors, materials, books, and some sense of Pagan community is not accessible to the average Pagan-practicing inmate, then we must ask ourselves if our sense of community is only viable on one side of the fence. Where are the boundaries of service, and who is worthy of receiving that? Do we practice a form of social Darwinism within our community framework, or do we need more resources ourselves to make this a priority?

The expanding umbrella of the Pagan community is still adjusting to encompass the many needs that spiritual communities contain and, as a younger community, we often find ourselves challenged in meeting a variety of needs within the complexity of society. Yet I wonder if our overall behavior towards criminality and societal concerns about the ethics of those who are incarcerated, influence the Pagan community’s ability to resolve this cognitive dissonance by disengaging with the needs of prisoners as an entire group on the macro level.

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Crystal Blanton

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Crystal Blanton is an activist, writer, priestess, mother, wife and social worker in the Bay Area. She has published two books ("Bridging the Gap" and "Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World"), and was the editor of the anthology "Shades of Faith; Minority Voices in Paganism." She is a writer for Sage Woman and Patheos' Daughters of Eve blog. She is passionate about the integration of community, spirituality and healing from our ancestral past, and is an advocate for true diversity and multiculturalism within the Pagan community.
  • Diotima Mantineia

    Thank you for this, Crystal. Your comments are right on target. It is difficult service, as you pointed out in the article — prison atmosphere, staff prejudice, restrictions on what they can do and have — but very rewarding. Those who do this work get a real chance to make a difference in someone’s life. I’d encourage anyone who can to get in touch with a local facility and offer your services as a volunteer.

  • Joseph Jones

    Hello, my name is Joseph Jones and I am a parolee in California. I want to thank you for the article, it is long in coming. For having been a pagan man in prison, I know first hand how important it is for all pagan inmates to have a pagan minister. When you talked about the feeling of just walking through San Quentin, the feeling of fear and looming death, that is how every man and woman feels; even after they leave, every day. Without the assistance of a pagan Chaplin, I personally have had my cell alter destroyed, I have even been humiliated and degraded for being an open pagan. There is more of a need for assistance to all the men and woman of all the myriad faiths of paganism, to help them keep their sanity, to keep who they are, and not fall into the “prison training” of the gang and violence. I have seen to many men change in less than a month, from a decent person to a manipulating, vile person in there. I can only speak for myself, but the reason I did not fall to the easy pray of the prison system is because I had two beautiful boys I was waiting to see, and I had great help from a Pagan Chaplin, Joseph Merlin Nichter. Without his help, guidance and kind words, I may have not been the person I am today. In truth, there is a dire need for assistance for the pagan community in all prisons. I belive that, through my understanding of my faith, without perfect love and perfect trust, we can never truly help each other. We are merely working for self.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Thank you for your witness, Brother Jones. May you successfully maintain your parole.

      • Joseph Jones

        Thank you. I shall be completed with my parole this January. I truly hope that more people are able to help all those inside the gray walls.

    • Crystal Blanton

      Joesph, Thank you so much for giving us a personal reflection of the impact services in Prison had on you. It is so important for us (as a community) to hear about the needs of the many populations within our community. Thank you

      • Joseph Jones

        I’m glad I could be of some help. I wish it was in better situations, but non the less I hope I can help in any way I can.

  • Deborah Bender

    Crystal’s post mentions several difficulties which get in the way of providing religious support to incarcerated people. Problems like lack of paid chaplains and obstacles to prisoners’ obtaining tools are fairly straightforward and can be mitigated with persistent attention.

    An issue that wasn’t mentioned comes up whenever an organization I belong to is asked to give more help to pagans doing prison visits. Even discussing it is divisive and I haven’t heard many suggestions on what to do about it.

    If representatives from our community develop relationships with prisoners while they are inside, what happens when those prisoners are paroled or have served their time? Prisoners who regularly attend pagan services within prison walls are going to expect that when they return to society, they will be welcomed into the pagan community and continue those relationships. The values of most pagan religions say that you don’t just drop someone with whom you have formed a religious relationship.

    When prisoners have parole hearings, they are asked to show that they have job prospects and a place to live. They surely are going to ask the prison volunteers for help in getting those things through their community contacts.

    Some witches say that people who were witches before they were convicted of crimes are welcome to return to the community when they get out, but people who find the Craft during their time in prison are not welcome to join the community. These witches are adamantly opposed to witchcraft organizations giving organized support to prison work because they don’t want to form relationships that will result in ex-cons being introduced into our midst.

    Until these concerns are addressed and resolved, community support for prison work will be halfhearted and grudging, at least in the community I hang with. I would especially like to hear what Pagans who have been doing prison work for awhile have to say about the re-entry question.

    • http://www.oddmodout.com/ Ruadhán J McElroy

      Absolutely agreed.

      It’s one thing to say “yeah! there should be more of Teh Pagginz in Pris Ministry!” –it’s another to, you klnow, actually be a part of the support network of prisoners ministered to, like people in other religions do.

  • Valentine McKay

    I have just finished supervising the prison ministry internship of a student at Cherry Hill Seminary. This student combined the excellent training she received at CHS with her own strong sense of empathy and justice, and completed her internship with flying colors. Although I’ve worked with incarcerated adolescents in a different capacity, I learned a great deal from her about ministry in a women’s prison. I can say with confidence that although prison ministry– particularly Pagan prison ministry– is perhaps one of the most challenging callings in existence today, the inmates at this particular prison were fortunate to have her there.

  • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

    This article and the responses raise many good questions, issues and troubling realities. As a longtime Chaplain in jails and streets and now a teacher at Cherry Hill Seminary, I find interest among naturalistic minded students to reach out, or in, to this underserved population near to most of us. Cherry Hill has good courses to help encourage future Chaplains. Of course, as this article points out, we have major obstacles in the “Preacher Chaplains” (and uninformed administrators) who will not be inclined to assist this branch of work. There is much to be done!

  • KhonsuMes Matt

    Thank you for this article, Crystal. I would like to share just a bit about San Quentin itself. There is an active Pagan Circle at SQ, led and moderated by Macha NightMare (who I’m sure will speak up here as well and elaborate further). The program is run under the (supportive) Native American Spiritual Leader. There are a number of initiatives in the works there, whose thunder I will not steal from Macha when she speaks here. I and several others in the Bay Area are supporting the Circle and Macha in various ways, and slowly expanding the resources and opportunities for inmates at SQ.
    One point I’d like to make is that we are actively discussing and working toward rituals that are not Wicca based – Hellenistic and Kemetic so far. The logistic details (and yes, compromises) are myriad. But the door is open and opening further.
    Consider, everyone, helping out some place close to you!

    • Deborah Bender

      Macha mentions that her volunteering at SQ receives support from the Native American Spiritual Leader. The CA correctional system gives five named religions special recognition and privileges to operate that other religions don’t have; Native American Religion is one of the five. As long as some religions are more equal than others, volunteers wanting to provide services under the auspices of any other religion are allowed to do more if a representative of one of the five named religions is willing to help them. This regulation is under legal challenge, but reforming our state’s correctional system is like beating on the Berlin Wall with a rubber mallet.

      I’m bringing this situation up not to complain but to point out a benefit from pagans doing interfaith. The benefit runs both ways. In this instance, a Native American spiritual leader is helping a Witch who wishes to provide religious services to inmates. In other situations, Wiccans in the interfaith community have spoken up for the rights and dignity of practitioners of indigenous religions, with happy results.

      Spanish and Anglo settlers in California came close to destroying all indigenous religions and people. The resources and most of the land were stolen. Despite that horrible history, a Native American Spiritual Leader has been willing to help Macha out. In this instance, mutual respect and cooperation may be creating a small healing from a history of genocide.

      • KhonsuMes Matt

        I wholeheartedly agree. And when it comes down to making change happen, a lot of it is small steps. Whether in interfaith, prison work, or the cooperation of the cross-tradition group of people supporting the SQ Pagan Circle.
        I have begun the process of participating in the interfaith effort as well, because I think it is important and it can only help to have pagans from many traditions (mine is Kemetic) visible in that arena. Small steps. Small steps.

  • Macha NightMare

    As Matt says, I have been working with the Wiccan circle in San Quentin for nearly a year; I go in twice a month.

  • Macha NightMare

    FYI,

  • http://meetup.com/Novices-of-the-Old-Ways-Midwest/?a=mm2_l6 Tamrha WitchoftheEast Gatti Ri

    This is a great article. Thank you, Crystal! In my work within the Indiana DOC, at a men’s facility and a women’s facility, I have found much of what is detailed in this article to be true: Support depends on the cooperation of administration as well as the individual Chaplains. The Gods have blessed the volunteer Pagan Chaplains that I work with in the Indianapolis Pagan Prison Ministry (IPPM) with fantastic Chaplains who do their best to support our Pagan and Wiccan Circle, inmates and Volunteers.

    At the same time, Corrections Officers and Administration who do not understand these paths can often confiscate items, take away reading materials, not allow in reading materials the men and women purchase, etc. We work hard to have transparency, and IPPM works hard to educate those within the system about our paths. The rights of these Pagan inmates often depend on the volunteers coming into the facilities to stand up for them and keep a constant finger on things so they are not forgotten or pushed aside.

    One of my priorities within my Priestess work is providing a place for these men and women to land once they are released and return home. As the HPS of Novices of the Old Ways ~IN, I welcome my former offenders to our public events and classes. I encourage them to contact me, to find us on social media, meetup, witchvox, etc. I find it extremely sad that other communities are not as welcoming as mine is. Those who are a part of Novices have welcomed ex-offenders in as warmly as they have anyone else. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Walking with them through their sentences, and walking out with them is part of my work. Providing them community and contact once they are home is essential, I find, to the work they were doing inside facility walls… and helps them integrate back into their lives, most always stronger and set on a positive path. Novices, and the contact they have with me is just a small part of that success, I’m sure, but it is a part!

    “Furthermore not everyone has ability or skill to navigate the political and potentially manipulative dynamic of working with the behaviors of prisoners.” This stuck out to me… as it is a reality. This is one of the more challenging aspects to this work, and an area that I think I could use help in. If the Pagan Clergy had more resources for this aspect of the work, it would be brilliant… any suggestions?

  • Macha NightMare

    Tamrha, I think it would be beneficial if you IPPM were in contact with the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Assn. founded by Joseph Nichter. We need to talk with each other, share resources, etc. If there are other Pagan correctional chaplains out there, or organizations of same, I’d like to see us network.

    • http://meetup.com/Novices-of-the-Old-Ways-Midwest/?a=mm2_l6 Tamrha WitchoftheEast Gatti Ri

      Macha! Thank you for this resource! I’m filing out the membership forms and browsing the info on the NPCCA site now. This is great stuff :)

  • Kevin Emmons

    Snowhawke here from Maine. Thank you for writing this article. I read something similar last year written by Starhawk. I wrote the following response to her article. With some minor changes, I think it is still relevant.

    As a long-time pagan priest involved in Pagan prison ministry, I have written hundreds of pagans in prisons across the States. While some states are much more supportive than others, there is a definite prejudice against pagans of all traditions in our prison system. I hear the same stories over and over again. While it is no easy thing to be a Christian, Jewish or Muslim in prison, it is doubly difficult if you are Pagan. There is an ongoing struggle for Paganism to find legitimacy in this country, especially within the prison system.

    What is needed to bring equality is for the greater Pagan community to get involved. It is vital. Without the outside Pagan community stepping up and helping their fellow Pagans in prison, Pagans will continue to have their constitutional rights trampled upon within the prison system.

    I work on behalf of the Druid College and the Maine Pagan Clergy Association, and worked for many years for the Druid Network. I reached out to all the other Druid organizations asking for help with prisoner requests for training material and mentoring in Druidry. After years of asking, I only have three other people willing to help. We need more pagan priests to step up and get involved. As I said, it is vital the outside community come together, not only to address the kind of injustices mentioned in this article, but to do the ongoing work of helping our pagan brothers and sisters who are incarcerated. Most of them will get out of prison some day and a vibrant spiritual life will help them find the strength to leave prison behind and build a decent life for themselves. We need to help them do so as the system is failing miserably.

    What continually affects the few, eventually affects the many. I still see people in this country hiding their pagan beliefs out of fear. I hope that as a community, we can evolve past this. There is strength in numbers and now is the time for Pagans of all traditions to come together as a whole and help assure our religious freedoms are being respected. While I may have a completely different theological view of paganism than the author, I am pleased to see an article that helps to expose the truth about what Pagans face in prison. As part of the Maine Pagan Clergy Association, I know from experience that getting people from our many traditions to agree on a definition of “paganism” is a real challenge. I think though, we can all agree on the following:

    1. All of Nature is sacred

    2. We seek direct relationship and communion with the Divine (however one defines that word)

    3. Self-responsibility and living with honor is at the core of our pagan values

    It is my opinion these common threads can bind us together as a community. We share more in common than in difference. And we most certainly shouldn’t let our differences divide us. My personal view is, one of the core strengths of paganism is it celebration of diversity. Hopefully we can all embrace the label of “Pagan”. It will help. Each tradition struggling individually isn’t working. I have encountered many prisons where Wiccans can have a group but Druids can’t. Druid groups can gather but witches can’t. These labels divide us. And division isn’t helpful. If we all claim the label of Pagan first and then state our tradition, we can make huge progress in this country.

    So please, if you are willing, no matter what your tradition is, find a way to help out with the vital work of supporting Pagan prisoners. If we can make progress here, its reverberations will hum with power and beauty throughout many aspects of our lives as Pagans here in the States.

    Peace, beauty and inspiration,
    Snowhawke /|

  • David Oliver Kling

    Last year I spent a lot of money flying to Texas to interview at four different Texas prisons for a position as a Chaplain I (since the TDCJ – Texas Department of Criminal Justice – would not conduct phone interviews). Sacred Well Congregation, who I am ordained with and who endorses me for specialized ministry, has been working with the TDCJ on how to effectively minister to offenders within their system. The TDCJ headquarters was open to having a Pagan/Wiccan Chaplain but advised that I would need to apply through the system which meant interviewing with the warden and regional chaplain.

    In order to qualify to serve as a chaplain in the TDCJ you need a high school diploma (if you have four years of ministry “experience”) or a bachelors degree (with courses in theology/religion but not necessarily a ministry degree). You must also have an ecclesiastical endorsement (i.e., ordination from somewhere).

    I applied with two bachelors degrees: one in Philosophy and another in Religious Studies. I also have a Master of Divinity (with a specialization in Black Church and African Diaspora Studies) and 4 Units of Clinical Pastoral Education (i.e., a year long specialized internship in chaplaincy). I mention this to indicate I was an extremely qualified candidate.

    One of the regional chaplains who interviewed me talked about having encountered Sacred Well Congregation volunteers working within some of the Units within her Region. Of the four interviews I had I think I did well and in one of them I believe I did very well but I received no phone call with a job offer.

    I have a friend who worked for the TDCJ as a chaplain (he has recently gone onto working at a hospital as a chaplain) and he asked around it was like, “Oh, we’d love to have a Pagan chaplain in our system but not in my prison..,” said various Unit Wardens.

    I would love to work as a correctional chaplain. But I think most Unit/Prison wardens think, “It would be great to have someone on the ‘inside’ to call, but just not in MY prison….”

    Being a volunteer can be rewarding and is certainly meritorious. However, there comes a time when we as a community need to stand up and say we are just as good as every other cleric/minister/priest out there and we need to be compensated for our work, time, and ability to do effective ministry (and might I add not only to Pagans but to everyone spiritual, religious, or otherwise).

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    We get hundreds of letters a year from prisoners; mostly we point them to other groups that specifically do prison ministry. Our one outreach program is that we provide free (classic paperback) subscriptions to prison chaplains and librarians upon request. (We can’t offer them to individual prisoners, there’s just too many requests.) If you know of a prison chaplain/librarian who wishes to have Witches&Pagans magazine made available to incarcerated Pagans in his/her institution, have them write to us: Witches&Pagans magazine, P O Box 687, Forest Grove, OR 97116. Only written requests on official letterhead can be honored due to USPS postal regulations regarding “requested” free subscriptions.

    • Crystal Blanton

      Thank you Anne! That is a really nice resource to have for some of the Chaplains.

      • Anne Newkirk Niven

        We also do SageWoman free subscriptions the same way, but only for women’s correctional facilities.

        • http://www.oddmodout.com/ Ruadhán J McElroy

          What about for trans women who have been placed in Men’s facilities? It still happens.

          • Anne Newkirk Niven

            Witches&Pagans is available to all regardless of gender; SageWoman only to women’s correctional facilities. We have had problems in the past with male prisoners posing as females (NOT transgender folks, but male predators) in order to write to our SageWoman readers so we no longer send free SageWoman subscriptions (to libraries and chaplains) to male-only institutions. We realize that this is not a perfect solution, but it’s the best we can do at the moment.

  • http://www.oddmodout.com/ Ruadhán J McElroy

    I wonder if Hellenion is still taking a “we don’t want no prisoners!” stance? That really disappointed me to see that on their discussion list a few years ago.