For the last eight years, members of Ár nDraíocht Féin : A Druid Fellowship have worked with prisoners in the Pacific Northwest. They have working groups of male prisoners in Coyote Ridge and Stafford Creek correction centers in the state of Washington. When someone from the Coyote Ridge ADF group was transferred to Stafford Creek, he began to organize the second group indicating organic growth of the program. There is also an ADF group in one female prison in Oregon. The number at the three prisons is small, less than 50 prisoners in all.
About eight years ago, a prisoner requested spiritual help from ADF. Before that request, there was no formal prison outreach through the organization. When Rev. Kirk Thomas met with that prisoner, he discovered other prisoners had an interest, presenting a challenge.
ADF consists of solitaries and groups, called groves, the members of which must hold public rituals, but such public rituals cannot occur behind prison walls. Members had to develop a special structure to hold group rituals in prisons. Leaders on the clergy council of ADF have created prison worship groups for Pagan prisoners. Each prison worship group has to have an ADF-approved volunteer from outside of prison. The prison worship group also needs a supportive chaplain within the prison. The chaplain can name one of the prisoners to be the organizer of the group.
Thomas reported that the members of the clergy council have given a great deal of support to this project. He now has now broadened his outreach to include the Asatru. Currently, he is writing on a book about Druid prison work. When complete, ADF will send that book to prisoners when they request information.
Washington state prison rules prohibit prisoners from accessing the internet. This makes it difficult for Pagan prisoners to access online resources. ADF training consists of online material and required books for study; now a system has been set up for inmates to obtain this material. The Druids will send prisoners hard-copy printouts of the online material.
Prisoners have almost no money, making it difficult for them to access the books required for ADF study. Thomas solicits donations of ADF’s required reading, but sometimes donations fail to match the needs of prisoners. Some prisoners then use their meager resources to buy these books. Kindle and PDF versions cost less, but prisoners are denied to access the internet. Thomas said, “It’s expensive to be a prisoner.”
Prison libraries could supply these books. Thomas reported that Christian fundamentalists have destroyed Pagan books in one prison library. In that prison, Pagans have had to store their books in a locker. Thomas said the guard has to unlock the locker when the Pagans meet. In that prison, the Druids have one locker, the Asatru another, and Wiccans another.
Thomas helps lead rituals for the major Pagan holidays. The Wild Hunt has previously reported on one such Samhain ritual. He also trains prisoners in mysticism and trance work. He said, “You can’t deal with a god, if all you are doing is [making] offerings to them and not getting anything in return.” Thomas described rituals without trance work as religion without spirituality.
The biggest problem for Pagan prisoners may occur after their release. While prisons have a highly structured and authoritarian framework, life on the outside is much less structured. Many prisoners go from prison to a halfway house as part of their reentry. Halfway houses provide a certain structure but with certain freedoms. Thomas reported that Christian groups run most halfway houses.
Thomas is concerned that Pagan prisoners may lack a way to continue their spiritual practice on the outside. The low numbers of Pagan prisoners may make Pagan halfway houses unfeasible. It’s a problem the former archdruid wrestles with, but as yet no clear solution has arisen.
There is a need through ADF for volunteers to respond to the letters that prisoners send to the organization’s headquarters. In these letters, prisoners ask for resources as well as information about Paganism. Volunteers are required to use the ADF address rather than their own personal one. Those interested should send an inquiry via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prison ministry is a calling for many Pagans, and ADF is joining the likes of Covenant of the Goddess, Circle Sanctuary and others individual clergy in the efforts to spiritually assist men and women within the system. The work doesn’t stop after incarceration is over, and the debate on how to assist former prisoners once out, as Thomas suggested, is ongoing.