CONNEL, Wash. — On Nov. 4 – 5, 2017, ADF members and prisoners hosted a pan-Pagan Samhain, ritual and mini-conference at Coyote Ridge Correctiosn Center in Connel, Washington. This mixed minimum- and medium-security prison has a capacity to house 2,468 prisoners. About 60 Heathen, Druid, and Wiccan prisoners participated. Each tradition had their ritual, then all three held one joint ritual together. This marked the first time that Heathen, Druid, and Wiccan prisoners held a joint ritual in that prison.
Rev. Kirk Thomas, archdruid emeritus of ADF, has taken the lead in ADF prison work. Thomas and three other ADF members, Jim Harmon, James Fielder, and Rory Bowman, traveled to the prison to participate in the pan-Pagan Samhain.Thomas said that, in the past, each religious group had one day per year for its festival. On that day, that group could bring in outside food and have a feast. Budget cuts linked to the Great Recession ended that practice.
Now, Washington state prison officials force religious groups to share their one-day festival. Heathen, Druids, and Wiccans had to share the holiday, but could not agree on how to do so. Thomas described a resolution through alternation, “One year the Wiccans would get it, the next year the Druids would, and the year after that the Heathens.”
Recently, the Heathens showed signs of changing. They elected a new gothi, or priest. Thomas credited this gothi for this change. He had argued that if the Heathens did not learn to get along with others, they would continue to be in and out of prison.
Thomas said that this new gothi became friends with the head Druid, Thomas Brown. Together they worked with the Wiccans and, along with the ADF members, created the pan-Pagan Samhain.
History of Frog Stone Circle
Brown, a prisoner at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, had become interested in Druidry. About eight years ago, he approached the chaplain and asked to be put in touch with ADF, as he wanted to become a Druid. The chaplain contacted ADF, and Thomas made his first visit to the prison. From that visit, a Druid group at this prison had begun.
Thomas praised the chaplain, saying, “This chaplain totally supports the men as long as he believes they are serious.” Thomas said that with a different chaplain things “could become very difficult.”
While at first only Brown expressed an interest, the first Samhain ritual drew many more. Brown began organizing an informal group, which became ADF’s first prison worship group. In the first year, 2009, ADF and this prison worship group hosted Pagan Prison Fest. Patty Lafayllve, Ashleen O’Gaea, and Ian Corrigan visited the prison. Many other prison chaplains also attended, including the head of Washington’s Department of Corrections.
In November 2017, ADF members and this group hosted its second in-prison conference and ritual, the pan-Pagan Samhain.
This prison”s Druidic worship group used the Druid Animal Oracle for divination. Working with this oracle, they began to use the frog as their spirit animal. According to Thomas, the frog in that oracle represents healing, medicine, and sensitivity. The group has named itself the Frog Stone Circle.
Since founding Frog Stone Circle, Brown has written multiple articles for Oak Leaves, the ADF journal. He has also obtained his associate’s degree while in prison, and achieved the ADF rank of master bard. Thomas credited Brown for the success of Frog Stone Circle.
Prison politics and Pagan prisoners
Thomas perceived all the Pagans of all three Pagan groups at Coyote Creek to be white. He reported that the Druid prisoners have had very good relations with Native Americans. Some of the Native American prisoners had given Thomas some handcrafted bead work.
Thomas acknowledged that a strong strain of white supremacist Odinism exists in all U.S. prisons. He felt optimistic about the new gothi’s emphasis on mutual respect and cooperation.
Differences between ritual in prison and outside of prison
Thomas noted a significant difference in how Frog Stone Circle uses the ADF format. ADF protocol requires certain processes for official ritual. Others are possible, but not required. One such process involves the opening prayers to the “outdwellers.” ADF members think of the outdwellers as outcast gods. In the Roman tradition, they are the gods of chaos. In the Hellenic tradition, they are the titans. In the Irish tradition, they are the Formorians. This invocation involves asking them not to interfere with the ritual.
According to Thomas, the prisoners appear to have developed a different relationship with the outdwellers. Cast out by society, the prisoners appear to have identified somewhat with the these gods. Those cast out by society look to those cast out by the dominant gods.
Thomas said that they have told him about a ritual they do without Thomas; members of the circle make offerings and invoke the outdwellers. Thomas said, ”They appease them, propitiate them, and bring them in.” They have said, “We understand,” from one outcast to another.
He had noted the profound sense of isolation that these prisoners experience. Thomas has heard about that from all three groups: the Heathens, the Druids, and the Wiccans. When ADF members and others come into the prison, it reminds the prisoners that the outside world has not totally forgotten them.
Druids, prison Paganism, and redemption
Redemption and healing forms the core of prison spiritual work; even those imprisoned unjustly need to free themselves from paralyzing self-pity and blinding- age.
ADF teaching emphasizes developing character virtues rather than obeying commandments, Thomas explained. Hospitality forms one of the nine virtues of ADF. Thomas emphasized that the 2017 pan-Pagan Samhain displayed the Pagan virtue of hospitality.
He said, “ADF is a religion of reciprocity. We make offerings to the spirits. In return, we ask for, and, often, receive blessings.” Thomas described this as a relationship. He continued, “The whole point of having hospitality is central to what we do.” Thomas said that at the Samhain ritual, “the three groups got together in hospitality, sharing this big meal.” Both Heathen and ADF teaching emphasize the virtue of hospitality.
Thomas described how the Frog Stone Circle members work with redemption. “We’re always looking inside ourselves. We’re doing these things together.” Thomas said.
“They don’t talk about their crimes, at least not around me, but they do talk about their regrets in their behavior. They talk about what they need to do to change their behavior.“ Thomas said that the prisoners talk about ADFs nine character virtues, and he continued, “They talk about how they can live up to each virtue. “
Thomas said that consequences exist for gross failure to live up to the virtues , which are similar to those found in some Heathen religions. He said, “If people act out and make trouble, they get kicked out of the group. There has been some turnover, but a number of the guys are sticking with it. They are trying really hard to redeem themselves.”
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[Note: The Wild Hunt was unable to contact the new gothi by press time to obtain permission to use his full name online.]