On March 19th, 2013, a man who officials believe to be Evan Ebel went to the home of Tom Clements, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and assassinated him in his doorway. The alleged killer, shot dead during a high-speed chase, was a member of a white supremacist prison gang, and officials are still trying to determine whether this was an ordered “hit” on behalf of a client, or if it stemmed from some personal motivation. The nature of the murder shocked many, and garnered national attention due to a recent rash of law enforcement assassinations. Now, as the Colorado Department of Corrections releases more documents relating to Ebel, we now discover that he considered himself a Heathen, and made a complaint relating to acquiring religious literature.
“New documents released by the Colorado Department of Corrections show the man believed to have killed Colorado Prison Chief Tom Clements practiced a controversial form of religion behind bars. While behind bars before he became a murder suspect, Evan Ebel adopted a religion that is popular among white supremacists. In documents filed with the Department of Corrections he complains about religious literature that was taken from his cell. That literature was related to what’s called Asatru; Ebel called it his official religion.”
“You cannot practice the religion of Asatru and be a hateful, bigoted person. It’s just not part of our value system.”
The only other news outlet that has noticed Ebel’s religion (so far) is The Colorado Independent, which mention it in the context of a number of grievances he had made while incarcerated in solitary confinement.
“The subjects of his grievances included problems sending and receiving mail and DOC’s decision not to let a woman visit him on grounds that her driver’s license wasn’t valid. Ebel complained about what he called inadequate medical treatment for a knee problem, tremors and spasms, intestinal issues, a colostomy bag and a persistent eye infection. He grieved that the prison censored his “Resistance” magazines, a publication popular among white supremacists. And he decried the confiscation of his literature about Asatru, a faith based on Northern European white lineage that Ebel listed as his religion. He complained about the cost of canteen items, and the lack of food products with protein for sale to prisoners. He grieved about his laundry going missing.”
While Ebel was certainly a troubled and violent individual who had earned his time in prison, some are now questioning whether the treatment Ebel was given pushed him over the edge. Unbalanced to a point where he was completely unready for freedom, once given, and filled with a rage he could not control.
“Anderson’s long history of mental illness and the 16 years he has spent in so-called administrative segregation were the subject of a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, which he won in September. Anderson sued the state for depriving him of sunlight, fresh air and mental health treatment, including medications that would help him earn his way out of isolation. The prison’s refusal to provide outdoor exercise to prisoners at the facility amounted to what U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson ruled was cruel and unusual punishment.”
Ebel himself requested help in transitioning to the outside world, requests that were denied on procedural grounds.
“Do you have an obligation to the public to reacclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?”
No doubt some will use the revelations of Ebel’s religion as further proof of a racist and violent ideology, but I see it as a tragic and lost opportunity. What if Ebel had access to regular chaplaincy services from an reputable Asatru organization dedicated to helping him reintegrate? Could the alleged murders he committed, and his own death, have been avoided given proper medical treatment and counseling from leaders in his chosen faith? Perhaps Ebel was too twisted by his gang affiliations, and his own instability, to have been helped, but would it have hurt to allow him supervised religious fellowship? Individuals who loved that same gods, but rejected the violent and racist path he had traveled?
This is not a “bleeding heart” argument, but a pragmatic one. If prison merely makes murders, rapists, and other criminals more hardened, more entwined with criminal organizations, then how can we ever expect to make society better by sending hundreds of thousands of men and women there each year? It is common sense to want prisoners to be rehabilitated, and one method is to allow more robust access to minority religion chaplains. To give them a lifeline that is not tied to gangs or extremist ideology.
According to available data, there could be as many as 40,000 modern Pagans currently incarcerated in the United States and more than a third of prisons say their Pagan populations are growing. Yet the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian, and of that number an impressive 44% are Evangelical Christians. If we are to reach these troubled Pagans and Heathens behind bars we must advocate for better access, equal treatment behind bars, and build better chaplaincy-building infrastructures within our own communities. If we don’t we will simply revisit the accusations that Pagan faiths in prison are tied to extremism, and lurid details to flesh out tabloid reporting, each time a crime is committed by a former inmate.