Pagan Prison ministers debate merits of reintegration

Cara Schulz —  March 21, 2017 — 34 Comments

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Pagan clergy, prison ministers, and members of the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program (MSOP) took part in a panel discussion at a Midwest Pagan conference on Sunday. The panel was created to assist MSOP members in understanding Pagan communities’ concerns and suggestions about reintegrating ex-sex offenders after they have served their prison terms and completed a lengthy rehabilitation process. The discussion also touched on other persons released from incarceration for felony offenses.

Front Row: Kelly Keller-Heikkila, Ian Keller-Heikkila, Rev. Diallo J Mudd, and Don. Back Row: Clio Ajana at Paganicon 2017 [Photo Credit: C. Schulz]

The panel was moderated by Clio Ajana at Paganicon, the yearly Pagan conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prison ministry panelists included Ian Keller-Heikkila, a Pagan prison minister since 2004. His wife Kelly Keller-Heikkila, also a Pagan prison minister. Rev. Diallo J Mudd, representing EOCTO, Don with Mother Earth Ministries and a prison minister in Arizona.

There were two representatives with the MSOP, who requested they not be named or quoted as they had not been given media clearance, who were there in primarily an information gathering function.

The panelists first discussed the need for more Pagan prison ministers as the fastest growing religion in prisons is Paganism. They then outlined why Pagan ministers are needed, in particular, in programs that rehabilitate sex offenders.

“Many rehabilitation programs are faith based and you need to accomplish extra steps to be released,” said Don. He noted the lack of Pagan clergy meant that those offenders who had embraced Paganism weren’t able to complete those steps while Christians had extensive resources.

Those challenges don’t end once ex-inmates of any type leave prison. In most states, ex-felons can’t have any contact with the clergy that ministered to them while in prison. They have to find new clergy and new Pagan groups to join. Yet many Pagan groups shun ex-felons, and that is especially true of ex-sex offenders.

One of the audience members was a former prison inmate. He said that he’d been out of prison for ten years and remembers how badly he needed to find a spiritual home. He said that he was always open and honest about his incarceration and finally found a Michigan- based group that welcomed him.

“For those who have never done a day in your life, when you walk into a Pagan event you are shunned. Most of the time you aren’t given a chance,” he related.

Concerns raised
One audience member pointed out that Pagans often meet in peoples’ homes rather than in public places. Another said some Pagans have already encountered predators and, as a group leader, they want to make sure they won’t be re-victimized.

Ian Keller-Heikkila responded, “When you think of a sex offender re-offending, that is very scary. But it’s more likely someone will re-offend if they have no support. If we don’t help them, who will?”

Don noted there is a less than 5% recidivism rate among Pagans incarcerated in Arizona. National recidivism rates for all federal inmates is at 30.8%.

Other attendees voiced concerns over allowing released sex offenders to take part in clothing optional events or be around children.

Panelists stressed that not all sex offenders are child molesters. They may have committed an offense when they were 12 years old and are now in middle age and haven’t offended since. Or a violent felon may have committed a crime years or decades earlier, but have been through counseling and are a very different person now from who they were when they entered prison.

Yet Don also said Pagan leaders need to practice discernment in whom they allow to join their groups, “Something as ministers we need to do, we need to listen to our gut feelings. We also need to listen to our congregation. We have to be willing to do the hard things and sometimes that means saying ‘No, you can’t join our group.’ ”

[Courtesy H. Emore] Pagan Prayer Service in Charleston 2015

Pagan Prayer Service [Photo Credit: H. Emore]

He also said there are some events that ex-felons, especially ex-sex offenders, shouldn’t be allowed to attend, “If you’ve done the work [during rehabilitation] you won’t put yourself in high risk environments. If you are a high risk sex offender, if you hear of an event that is clothing optional, that is a place that a person who has done the work won’t seek to attend.”

Policy examples
Other attendees seemed more open to the idea of allowing ex-felons in their group. One said that the person needs to notify the leader of their new group and have a frank conversations about the nature of the offense and who they are today as a person. If the leader feels comfortable after that conversation, then they are allowed to join. The initial conversation is kept confidential.

In response to a questions about whether or not Pagan religious leaders are allowed to speak with a released prisoner’s case worker, Rev. Mudd said if the person signs a release form, the case worker can speak with such a leader. He said that this can offer better information toward evaluating whether or not a former prisoner is a good fit for the group.

Kelly Keller-Heikkila is a Pagan religious group leader in addition to her duties as a prison minister. She said her group evaluates every prospective member carefully and doesn’t focus on if they have been previously incarcerated or not. “When a new member wants to join our group we don’t ask if they were in prison, we ask what’s their story.”

She said they see if their story sounds good or if they feel the person is hiding something or if it seems inconsistent with their behavior. They look at the person, not if they have a prison record. “Predators can be men or women and may not have been caught yet.”

Becky Munson, who oversees programming and entertainment for Paganicon, noted Paganicon was one of the first Pagan conferences with an official safety policy. She said Paganicon doesn’t vet attendees, and they do have ex-felons who attend the event.

“Everyone is welcome here as long as they conform to our rules.”

Munson added that they do, however, check the backgrounds of any adult who wishes to present a workshop for children. Ms. Munson said, “You can layer your policy and be mindful of your more vulnerable attendees while still welcoming wider populations.”

Ms. Ajana asked how many attendees’ groups had a written policy on violent offenders and encouraged groups to create one as a best practice.

Resource allocation vs a valuable resource
Panelists and attendees both talked about the challenge of already stretched resources being used for something as time intensive as evaluating and monitoring an ex-felon if allowed into a group. One attendee said if they had to choose between evaluating and working with five non-felons or one felon, they need to use their resources on the people who haven’t been incarcerated for a violent offense.

Rev. Mudd said people have to make the call on whether or not they should deal with the issue at all. However, he said ex-felons can be valuable resources for their community, “We have guys in the prison system who have worked with one God for decades. They have valuable information and experience we need.”

Don agreed. “There’s a Gothi I know who, when he calls Odin, Odin is there!”

The Pagan prison ministers summed up what they hope attendees will take back to their groups. They said most ex-felons want to be open and honest about their background, but our community needs to do our part. “Our community needs to do our own shadow work. We need to stand up and say we will welcome them,” said Ian Keller-Heikkila.

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Memory lane. We had an ex-offender in a UU church-sponsored men’s group for whom I was designated church liaison. All the vetting we did was me asking the guy’s sponsor if the offense had been violent, which sort of peeved the sponsor, but I had an obligation to the other members. Not much vetting, but it turned out all right. (The offense had not been violent.)Years later a child molester who had yet to be held to account (other than socially, which was severe) and was still being kid-gloved by his wife, wanted to join my coven, having been booted from the one he was in. My High Priestess/wife vetoed it on the grounds that ours was a teaching coven and we had responsibilities to the others. (Yes, we think along parallel lines. Sometimes.)Do ex-offenders of any sort belong in a circle? That gets deeper into what passes for ecclesiology in Paganism. What are our covens, groves, etc. for? Do we have a mission to bring seriously bent souls into healing contact with the spirit? Do our obligations to our members in place override any duty to the next person to walk in the door? Some may see this as a Christian cultural overlay that we need to expunge to be true to ourselves. Others, as part of what we aspire to as a minority religion in the West, like seminaries, soup kitchens and compensated clergy. I agree with Don; sometimes you have to just say no.Can someone break out EOCTO for me? I will take a wild guess that the first two letter are for “ex-offender.”

    • Damiana

      One of the most creepy, manipulative verbal interactions I ever had was with a sex offender who wanted to reenter a UU community.

    • Don D. Davis

      Ex-Offender Correctional Treatment Organization – This is a place where offenders who have completed their incarceration sentence but are deemed too risky to release into the community are commited to. Usually it is a unit in a State mental hospital.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker


  • I don’t think there can be a universal rule. Like Baruch Dreamstalker, I think the first concern should be the focus of the group. What are they willing to risk?

    Much depends on the person. One of my pet causes is the sex offender lists. Not everyone agrees why a person is a sex offender, much less how serious the offense. Personally I don’t think a forty year old should have sex with a fourteen year old, but I don’t think an eighteen year old with the fourteen year old is as serious a case provided the sex was consensual.

    Is it a serious sexual offense if someone was sunbathing nude in their backyard? What if a eight year old saw them?

    So that whole definition of sex offender is iffy. There are serious sex crimes that should be punished. There are not so serious “crimes” that shouldn’t be.

    And that’s before someone has shown if they have reformed or not.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I read of an adult man on a sex offender list because he secured the services of a prostitute when he was a minor!

      • *nods* I can believe it. Some of the laws are just so far out of control.

        And good luck if you ever get on one of those lists. They are almost impossible to get off of once you’ve been “marked.”

  • Wolf Wylde

    The Devil is in the Details. But ya better be damned sure of the details or the Devil will bite you in the ass. The biggest questionable is the statutory clause. But an Adult molesting a minor child should always end up in death for the adult. Boundaries are boundaries . . . and screw the pissy fluffy bullshit.

    • Wolf Wylde

      PS – Yes I am damn sure sick of this bent towards pedophilia in society. Humanity has come miles from seeing children and young females as sexual prey. It is to note that the world as a whole has grown away from this, yet many people seek to hide their vile shit within the shroud of alleged paganism. As a Creature of The Goddess, walking in the footsteps of the God . . . I protect the weak and innocent . . . that is MY Nature.

      • Tauri1

        “Humanity has come miles from seeing children and young females as sexual prey. ”
        Well, I guess you’re ignoring the sex trafficers and Southeast Asia where girls are sold into sex slavery, or how about the kids who think that streaming a gang rape on Youtube is a cool idea? What about all the news lately of nursing home “aides” sexually preying on old women? Or how about our “president” boasting about grabbing the genitals of women and it being “okay”? NOT!!!
        The truth is humanity has NOT come miles from seeing children and young females or females in general as “sexual prey”. There’s still a long way to go.

        • Damiana

          Unfortunately, you’re right, Tauri1.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker


    • Just so we’re clear, one of my own personal rules for sex is “Consenting adults only.”

      With that being said, my grandmother married at 16. It wasn’t all that unusual in that time and place and it was a better situation than what she had. She’d been orphaned for years and passed from relative to relative.

      I accept that the age of consent is probably the best compromise that we can come up with, but I think that sometimes when we enshrine “universals” into law that brings a new set of problems.

      I’ve known 14 year olds I would trust with my life. And I’ve known 35 year olds I wouldn’t trust to tie their own shoes.

  • Damiana

    This article is thoughtfully written and certainly explores an issue, albeit in a limited way, given that it is focused on this Con and this relatively small group.

    The subject reminds me of the push in Witches and Pagans Magazine a few years ago in featuring Pagan/Heathen inmates. Pretty manipulative attempts, in my opinion.

    This article is thoughtfully written and certainly explores an issue, albeit in a limited way, given that it is focused on this Con and this relatively small group.

    The subject reminds me of the push in Witches and Pagans Magazine a few years ago in featuring Pagan/Heathen inmates. Pretty manipulative attempts, in my opinion.

    Also manipulative/slanted tidbits:

    -“If we don’t help them, who will?” I don’t know, and I don’t much care.

    – That’s great about the low recidivism rate among Pagan criminals in Arizona, but the info was uncited. We should just take Don’s word for it?

    – And the last paragraph
    of the article? Very manipulative and misleading. How do they know most felons want to be honest and open about their background? We certainly don’t “need” to welcome them. This sort of attempts to guilt others into accepting a pet social justice issue is another nasty problem in Pagan/Heathen/witch circles as well as other progressive communities. As a long time activist and changemaker with a track record of collaboratively building community and improving legislation to enhance the lives of thousands of people, I know what it takes to convince people that a particular issue is deserving of people’s time and attention. These prison ministers utterly failed beyond my reading this article and commenting. I’ve been around felons, sex offenders and career criminals. There is only one that I’d have welcomed in my home and my spiritual circle.

    • I’ve not researched it, but as an Arizona resident that seems a little off to me.

      • Don D. Davis


        This is only Neo-Pagan Offenders in Arizona that I tracked through 2010.

        • I’m not trying to cast doubt on your work. It just doesn’t seem to make sense. Just off the top of my head, is this southern Arizona or northern Arizona? Along the Phoenix-Tucson corridor, you’re never really that far from cities. North of Prescott it’s not unusual to drive an hour or two to the next town. The population changes too. In northeastern Arizona it’s mostly Navajo with some Hopi and others thrown in. There are some neopagans here, but we survive by being very good neighbors. In the southern part of the state, Hispanics are a much bigger proportion of the population.

          I admit I have a bias against single-source statistics. And hey, it’s my state. Like I said, I’ve not done the research, but it seems off

          • kenofken

            I think it’s an interesting area of study. In order to make meaningful comparisons between religious and non-religious inmates or those who became/actively practiced Pagan religions, we would need to account for many other factors and controlling for their effects.

            Pagan ex-cons may in fact have significantly lower recidivism rates. Is that due to the influence of their religion or the fact that modern American Pagans (and probably incarcerated Pagans) tend to be white, middle class, suburban and educated, and probably have more support systems and options to avoid recidivism post-release than do many of the general correctional population.

          • It would be interesting, no doubt about it. Maybe that’s what’s bothering me. The way this reads it’s a conclusion but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of evidence.

    • Don D. Davis


      The 5% figure was derived from my personal research in working with Neo-Pagan Offenders and tracking their releases over the first year of freedom. 99% of recidivism happens in the first year of release from incarceration. 80% of that figure in the first 90 days. Usually, after 6 months the Offender’s likelihood of re-offending and going to jail is very low.

      • Damiana

        Thank you, Don. Are there any stats on the long term recidivism rates that you’ve tracked?

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Do you have any statistical recidivism breakout between offenders involved with religion in prison and those who were not?

    • You know, rereading this whole thread, that’s another thing that bothers me.

      Are pagans supposed to be ministering?

      When someone comes to me for help, I judge if help is necessary, needed, and deserved. I don’t just rely on my own judgement, but there have been only a handful of times when I’ve been “overruled.” I’m not in this to save souls, I’m in this to leave the World a little better than how I found it.

      • Don D. Davis

        You hit a homerun there, Neo! Our greatest service is to leave things better than we found them. To that end, if there is to be a path to a better life for the Ex-Offender we need to take them as a new member into our respective communities and allow them to prove their redemption and dedication to serve on their chosen Neo-Pagan path.

        • You’re a little free there with that “we.”

          I agree that some should never have been charged with a crime, much less punished.

          But if it weren’t for the wolves, the deer would kill the forest and then themselves. Mostly a wolf stays a wolf, no matter how much we may want a hound.

          I think they need to prove themselves before a community can take them in. The community is not responsible for the actions of an ex-offender unless they choose to be with all the risk that entails.

          • Don D. Davis

            No community is responsible for the individual acts of any member. That being said, there needs to be concise and enforceable boundaries in a community. Vetting is necessary when an Ex-Offender wishes to be a part of something that is not an open to the public gathering. The community needs to decide what offense(s) is(are) considered unforgivable and unredeemable and be up front with that as a reason the Ex-Offender will not be welcome.

          • I think I’m less interested in what the community says and what the individual shows.

  • kenofken

    While I appreciate the message that being an ex-con does not tell a person’s whole life story, I don’t accept the idea that we all have some sort of responsibility to accept these folks into our groups or to give them a strong presumption of acceptance. Those who are called to specifically minister to those in and around the penal system have my utmost respect and admiration. For many of the rest of us though, rehabilitation is not our skill set nor priority in our practice and associations we form to further that practice.

    If you’re going to go down this road in helping convicts, I would urge you to do so with eyes wide open and a degree of skepticism which at least matches your compassion. I would acknowledge that as the largest prison state in human history and one with the worst social justice and human rights record among developed nations, we have a lot of people who get locked up for bullshit reasons. Some are innocent, and many others fall deeply into the criminal justice system for reasons of race and socioeconomic status as much as their deeds.

    It’s also true that some of even the worst offenders can turn their life around and grow into very different people. The problem is that sorting those people out from the incorrigibles is an extraordinarily tricky and often dangerous business. Even the best and most experienced people in the legal and psychology professions get it wrong. If you don’t have any background in prison ministry or some similar source of street smarts, you’re going to be chum in the water when you get involved with felons.

    Let’s start with the idea that religious practice in prison is a marker of virtue and a genuine desire to reform oneself. Sometimes it is. Plenty of other times, it’s a way to polish one’s image for the parole board or to secure additional freedoms or privileges within prison. It’s entirely possible that a released convict may also have similar motivations for wanting to connect with a religious group in the community. Those on electronic monitoring, for example, will frequently look for legitimate activities to secure additional “movements”, which can then be exploited for other reasons.

    Vetting these folks is not easy for anyone, let alone amateurs. Career criminals in particular tend to be extremely manipulative and adept con artists. They know how to read people, how to spin a very sympathetic narrative of themselves, how to fake contrition and sincerity and how to tell people exactly what they want to hear. Nobody is more charming when they want to be than a domestic abuser, for example. And we tend to think of pedophiles as the trollish-looking guy hovering in a van by the playground. In reality, most were highly regarded salt-of-the-earth stand up men in their communities.

    They also tend to be very good at lying to themselves. Of course none of them want to go back to prison and in the abstract want to reform, but aren’t willing or ready to do the deep personal work needed to break out of that pattern. Many have deep-seated mental and substance abuse issues which will be well beyond your capabilities and which will torpedo even the most sincere efforts to go straight.

    I’m not discouraging anyone from considering inclusion of ex-convicts, but I would urge them to do so very cautiously. If someone is worth considering, take the time to do some deep research. Talk to them, yes, but also secure releases to talk to their parole officers or others who can speak to their conduct and progress. Dig into past arrest and court records. See what big picture emerges from all of the data points and go from there. Make sure the prospective member understands that trust is incremental and earned. One factor I would consider in admitting ex-cons is how “ex” they in fact are. If someone has been out for years and has a stable record of working and staying out of trouble and sober etc., they’re going to get a different consideration than some guy who got out last week and just talks a good game. I would also consider carefully how the nature of the offense comports with my own values. The fact that the state treats one offense more seriously than another does not mean I would evaluate it the same way. A guy who did hard time for growing medical marijuana is going to get a whole lot more consideration from me than a guy who “only” habitually exposed himself to adult women.

    How we weigh the risks and benefits is going to vary with the nature of our Pagan groups. For much of my Pagan career, I worked in Wiccan or Wiccan-style covens. It is a very intimate and vulnerable mode of practice. It’s typically done inside someone’s home, may involve skyclad work and always involves a degree of spiritual intimacy which is impossible to even explain to someone who has not experienced it before.

    I’m not doing that with just anyone. I’m at the point where I won’t consider anyone for that sort of group who is not a mature adult who displays a certain amount of self-mastery and stability. When I co-ran such a group, I turned away a lot of people for things far less outwardly serious than criminal convictions. Some were mentally ill, which I have nothing against in and of itself, but they were clearly not getting treatment. Some were guys whose only interest was the prospect of being around unclothed women. Some were just flakes or people who were living in poverty out of lifestyle choices or various kinds of dysfunction. I’m just not dealing with that. I haven’t raised any kids of my own, and while I’m open to that even in my mid-40s, I’m damn sure not going to be raising adults who can’t get their acts together at a minimal level. I’m also not circling with them in private settings. My religion is about creativity. Those who aren’t capable of that work are just a power drain.

    I wouldn’t discount an ex-convict just for the fact of their past, but they’re going to have an uphill climb to convince me to take them on.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Let’s start with the idea that religious practice in prison is a marker of virtue and a genuine desire to reform oneself. Sometimes it is. Plenty of other times, it’s a way to polish one’s image for the parole board or to secure additional freedoms or privileges within prison.My take on this starts with the question, Why are there prison chaplains in the first place? The implicit underlying assumption is that involvement with religion advances rehabilitation. (And therefore Paganism must be treated no differently from Abrahamic religions, but that’s another rant.) The motives of the offender in getting involved are in this view secondary and indeed may change over time as exposure deepens. My $0.02.

      • Tauri1

        “Why are there prison chaplains in the first place? The implicit underlying assumption is that involvement with religion advances rehabilitation.” It comes from 19th Century religious folks believing that “involvement with religion advances rehabilitation.” The history of that subject is too long and involved to get into here, but I’m sure if one was interested in pursuing that, there would be excellent resources that could be found, even on the internet. Then there’s this very recent (2005 as opposed to 19th Century) article from CBS news: www . cbsnews . com / news / rehabilitation-through-religion/

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Yeah, the word “penitentiary” has the same root as “penitence.” That clip was interesting, thanks. My sympathies are torn: I agree with Barry Lynn that forcing post-release benefits through the keyhole of religion probably violates Church and State, but I love stories of offenders who got themselves straightened out howsoever.

          • Don D. Davis

            Prison Chaplains are supposed to facilitate the needed spiritual tools and support for any inmate making a reasonable request. This is regardless of the Chaplain’s primary spiritual path. So, a wise Chaplain doing their job has a resource guide to reach out to the Neo-Pagan clergy in the community nearest to their facility.

    • Damiana

      Thank you for so widely and thoroughly expressing yourself. I’ve likely had much more contact with felons and registered sex offenders than many occultists, and as I said in my post, there’s only one who’s be welcome in my home and that I’d include in my spiritual practice.

      I had a sex offender as a neighbor, as well as his ex-con roommate. There’s no way I’d have allowed them in my house – you could sense their calculating, predatory natures. They were okay neighbors, but they were never allowed in our house. To me that’s analogous for spiritual practice, especially because many practitioners belong to small, intimate groups, not larger congregations.

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