Archives For Pew Forum: Religion in Prisons

[You can read part one of this entry, here.]

 05. Ginger Strivelli, School Bibles, and Buncombe County Schools: The story began at the end of 2011 when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. Strivelli, along with local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard, and a growing coalition of local residents, made clear that the board needed to remain neutral on matters regarding religion. So began a year of contentious school board meetings, death threats, and mainstream media coverage.

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

For awhile there seemed to be a balance of people who supported and opposed the policy. But then some preachers got up and made direct personal attacks to Ginger. They claimed she was the only one with a problem with the bible distribution. Little do they understand how many pagans in the county that fear coming out and speaking up. And after that meeting, I completely understand!  Then it got even worse when a preacher spoke up that only bibles should be allowed in schools. And that is when the preaching began. People after people felt the need to quote scripture. One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture. – Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog.

Eventually Buncombe County Schools passed a new religion policy that stressed neutrality, and will allow distribution of religious materials, but only once a year, along with non-religious community groups, and after regular school hours. All of these changes came about because one Pagan mom decided to speak up, and her bravery inspired a community to hold true to the secular and pluralistic principles our country was founded on.

04. Pew Forum’s Landmark Prison Religion Survey (and How That Affects Pagans): In March of this year the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the findings of a 50-state survey of prison chaplains.  The survey, which was endorsed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association, interviewed 730 prison chaplains, and has a lot of interesting things to say about religion in the American prison system. At first glance, there are no major bombshell revelations to drive the news cycle, leading to initial headlines like “a lot of religion goes on behind bars.” However, if you start digging into the data, especially the section on what chaplains think about the inmate’s religious lives‘, there’s a lot there that should be of concern to modern Pagans, particularly Pagans engaged in prison outreach and chaplaincy work.

Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum, who testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights in 2008, was deeply involved in this survey and helped shape some of the survey’s questions, and helped shift “the perspective of the main researcher’s goals in ways that I feel benefited our community and minority faiths in general.”

 

chaplains chp4 5

“The inclusion of Pagan & Earth Based religions as a category in the survey carries several huge benefits for us as a community. First, for many years, correctional systems, courts, and other governmental agencies have been able to deny us our rights, by simply making the argument that we either don’t really exist, or that if we do, we are so insignificant in numbers that there is no need to legislate or accommodate in our favor. Now with the survey, that argument is irrefutably null and void.”Patrick McCollum

The data given to us here by the Pew Forum is a boon. Even taking into account the Christian lens through which most of this data was obtained and filtered through, it gives us needed information is discussing and addressing the needs of Pagan prisoners. It underscores the challenges, and affirms what many already suspected: that the Pagan population in prison is growing, that the institutional chaplaincy is disproportionately Christian and conservative in makeup, that extremism (whatever its true extent) is an ongoing concern, and that we simply don’t have the volunteers or institutional muscle in place to properly address prisoner’s needs. Just as it is on the “outside” our growth continually outstrips the pace in which we can train clergy or build institutions and services. In short, we have a lot of work to do.

03. Chaplaincy for Pagans in Canadian Prisons: The controversial move this Fall by Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to retract a paid position for a Wiccan prison chaplain was merely a harbinger of much bigger things. In October the CBC reported that Toews, who oversees Canada’s penitentiaries, eliminated all paid part-time chaplain services, effectively making government prison chaplaincy a Christian-only affair.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

“Inmates of other faiths, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance, according to the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada’s penitentiaries. [...] Toews’ office says that as a result of the review, the part-time non-Christian chaplains will be let go and the remaining full-time chaplains in prisons will now provide interfaith services and counselling to all inmates.”

Toews’ office said in a statement to the CBC that “[Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.” This lead one Sikh chaplain to ask the obvious question: “How can a Christian chaplain provide spirituality to the Sikh faith, because they don’t have that expertise.”

So from this point forth, all non-Christian chaplaincy services to federal prisons must either be provided by volunteers, or the prisoners: Wiccan prisoners, Pagan prisoners, Buddhist prisoners, First Nations prisoners, must all turn to the full-time (Christian) chaplains for spiritual guidance and resources. I wasn’t overly surprised when Toews decided to engage in a little discriminatory Witch-kicking, our community has weathered those slings and arrows for years, but this is something far more audacious. Toews and his office are essentially doubling down, saying that a full-time Christian chaplaincy is enough to handle all faiths, no matter what their history or relationship with Christianity might be. It’s stunning. Whether he’ll be allowed to get away with it is, I suppose, up to the Harper administration and Canadian voters.

02. Census Data From Australia and the UK Show Paganism’s Growth:  In 2011 I reported on efforts in Australia and Britain to encourage more accurate census counts of Pagans by asking respondents to use a uniform Pagan-[tradition/faith] format. This year we got to see the fruits, if any, of these efforts. First, Australia’s numbers came in, with over 32,000 modern Pagans (up from around 29,000 in 2006), then, we got to see the number of England and Wales where over 80,000 individuals identified with some form of modern Paganism (depending on how forgiving you want to be with labels). In addition, the base number of people identifying as “Pagan” shot up to nearly 60,000. This is about double the numbers from the last British census.

sctrfigure1 tcm77 290493

“Compared with the 2001 Census the most significant trends were an increase in the population reporting no religion – from 14.8 per cent  of the population in 2001 to 25.1 per cent  in 2011, a drop in the population reporting to be Christian – from 71.7 per cent  in 2001 to 59.3 per cent  in 2011, and an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent  in 2001 to 4.8 per cent  in 2011.”

These figures point to some success for the Pagan Dash campaign, though they were not the far larger estimates many were hoping for. Still, this shows encouraging growth for modern Paganism, particularly in England and Wales. The growth of Pagan and minority faiths, along with the rapid increase of those who claim no particular religion point toward an imminent re-alignment of the status quo when it comes to matters of faith and belief in the Western world. The new census data will provide a lot of new information for Pagan activists, and for Pagan scholars, and may have repercussions we haven’t anticipated yet.

01. The Rise of Post-Christian Elections in the United States: After the 2012 elections here in the United States I posited that this was a post-Christian election, and that the results could be a glimpse into the future of America’s electorate. Now, as information from the election is further dissected and analyzed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something significant has indeed shifted in the religious outlook of our voting public. The Public Religion Research Institute calls it the “end of a white Christian strategy.”

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

“The foundation of Romney’s base consists primarily of white evangelical Protestants, who constitute 40% of his coalition. Obama’s coalition rests on two very different groups: minority Christians—a group that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race Christians—(31%) and the religiously unaffiliated (25%). [...] Notably, Obama’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of younger voters, while Romney’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of senior voters. For example, 26% of Millennial voters are white Christians, compared to 72% of senior voters.”

The unaffiliated were a big chunk of Obama’s religious support, and a whopping 70% of “nones” and 74% of “others” (which would include us Pagans) voted for the President. For all the analysis focused on race or gender during this election, it’s become clear that it is also disastrous for any candidate to so completely alienate non-Christian voters (it should be noted that Obama also garnered nearly 70% of the Jewish vote as well, despite efforts to undermine that support).  The more pluralistic and religiously diverse American becomes, the harder it will be to ignore non-Christian voices.

Sifting through the results from November can start to see the realignments. Hawaii sends the first Buddhist, Mazie Hirono, to the US Senate, and the first Hindu, Tulsi Gabbard, to the House. Washington state approved gay marriage by referendum, an initiative that I paid particular attention to because it would be decided by the religiously unaffiliated majority there. In that piece from September I said that: “it’s Washington that I’m most interested in because of the trends that point to the “nones” in the Pacific Northwest being more like “us” Pagans in inclination and spiritual orientation. If you want tea leaves to read over what a “Pagan” vote might look like, this might be our chance to witness it in action.” 

I think we’re going to see a lot more elections that look like this one. That doesn’t mean that Democrats automatically win all the time, or that Republicans are always doomed to lose, just that the playing field will never again be like it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The slowly shifting demographics have started to turn a corner, and savvy politicians, no matter what their political orientation, will adapt to these emerging realities. Yes, that means reaching out to racial minorities, and women, and younger voters, but it also means reaching out to the “nones” and the religious “others” instead of banking everything on the evangelical Christian vote (or the Catholic vote for that matter).

Welcome to the beginning of the post-Christian American future.

That wraps up our top ten news stories about or affecting modern Paganism in 2012. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join us for another year of sifting through the news and views of interest to our communities. See you in 2013!

[This is the second post on my trip to the American Academy of Religion's Annual Meeting in Chicago, for yesterday's post, click here.]

My first session on Sunday covered material that I was pretty familiar with, the Pew Forum’s Religion in Prisons survey, a groundbreaking work that gave some key data points concerning minority religions in prison that before we had only speculated on. You can read my initial analysis of that data, here, and Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum’s views on the survey, here. This special topics forum featured two researchers who worked on the Pew survey, and chaplains with direct experience either in prison chaplaincy, or working with minority religions.

Special Topics Forum: Pew Forum's Survey on Religion in Prisons.

Special Topics Forum: Pew Forum’s Survey on Religion in Prisons.

Patrick McCollum’s initial comments seemed to set the tone for much of the panel, and the questions that followed, when he talked about the “dominant religion lens” that Christians view minority religions, particularly in prison. Many working prison chaplains had some very critical things to say about how the data might be skewed by the opinions of a predominantly conservative and Christian chaplaincy body. From what I’ve heard, Pew is very interested in doing a follow-up study on religion in prisons, something I welcome. The role of a Pagan, McCollum, in shaping this discussion shows just how vital we’ve become in this process.

After that forum, I attended the second Contemporary Pagan Studies panel entitled “Sex, Metaphor, and Sacrifice in Contemporary Paganism,” which featured very diverse papers from Jone Salomonsen on the religious writings of Oslo mass-murderer Anders Breivik, which fused Christian and Pagan elements, Jefferson Calico, on how the Heathen mead hall operates as a central metaphor for interaction between the gods and humanity, and most interesting, Jason Winslade’s “When Pan Met Babalon: Challenging Sex Roles at a Thelemic/Pagan Festival.”

Jason Winslade presenting his paper.

Jason Winslade presenting his paper.

“Concentrating on ritual performances around the bonfire at Babalon Rising, a yearly festival in Indiana whose attendees follow a mix of Paganism and Thelema, the teachings of Victorian magician Aleister Crowley, this paper will demonstrate how participants grapple with challenging sexual roles, manifested in their dances and their ritual play as deities from Crowley’s mythos. Chief among these is his version of the Pagan god Pan who, at Babalon Rising, engages with participants, intentionally pushing boundaries, and creating a setting for festival goers to more freely explore these issues. What results is a messy mix of progressive and regressive attitudes towards sexuality as a metaphor and a vehicle for transformation that potentially challenges essentialist notions of gender and sex in contemporary magickal practice.”

Winslade gave an engaging and interesting presentation, and while this panel seemed not a thematically cohesive as advertised, all the subjects covered were certainly important and fascinating.

The final Contemporary Pagan Studies session I attended was on Monday morning, and it was, by far, the most important and exciting of the weekend. Held as a joint session with the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group, “Contested Categories: Indigenous, Pagan, Authentic, and Legitimate” struck right at the heart of the some of the most vital questions modern Pagans face collectively. All the papers presented, from Koenraad Elst’s exploration of The Gathering of Elders in India, to Sabina Magliocco’s (author of “Witching Culture”) examination of authenticity within modern Paganism (read by Chas Clifton since Sabina couldn’t make it) pointed out the very real hurdles we’ll collectively face as we decide how we’ll define ourselves in the years to come. However, my two favorite paper presentations were Mary Hamner’s “Middle-Class Vodou: Spirit Possession and Marginality in the United States,” and Thad Horrell’s “Becoming Indigenous in a Reconstructed Ancestral Tradition.”

Thad Horrell and Mary Hamner at the Pagan Studies and Indigenous Religious Traditions joint session.

Thad Horrell and Mary Hamner at the Pagan Studies and Indigenous Religious Traditions joint session.

“This paper will investigate the contemporary Heathen project to create an indigenous identification accessible to White Americans, asking to what degree this project escapes the critiques leveled against other attempts to develop White indigenous identifications. Being rooted in European indigenousness rather than an appropriated American Indian indigenousness, does Heathenry escape the usual post/anti-colonial critiques commonly leveled at such projects? How are “indigenous Europeans” in the United States different from White “wannabe Indians?” What, if any, commonalities do they share? Are the differences sufficient to overcome the usual criticisms, to produce a more healthy and respectful cognitive relation between White Americans and American Indians? Or, do contemporary Heathen claims of indigenous identity continue to reify White racial conceptions of dominance over the racially-other Indian?”

I felt both of these papers were so compelling that I spoke with Mr. Horrell and Ms. Hamner after the session about presenting their research here at The Wild Hunt. Both seemed open to the idea, and I hope that this will not only expand the coverage of Contemporary Pagan Studies at the AAR Annual Meeting, but introduce productive dialog on issues that have provoked a lot of debate among modern Pagans.  So stay tuned!

Once I get home later today I hope to start a longer rumination about the important conversations that happen between the panels and presentations, how the AAR Annual Meeting provides fertile soil for future collaboration and helps sustain Contemporary Pagan Studies. Conferences are often about who you meet, who you connect with, as much as the paper you present. As I said before, Pagan scholars are like a microcosm of the Pagan community as a whole: diverse thoughts, theories, and ideas debating, interacting, and spinning off into new directions. Interactions that could provide a road-map for the larger community to move forward. I feel lucky to have been a small part of these discussions, and to have attended these sessions.

I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the campaign to send me to AAR, including the underwriters who joined us during that time: A Modern DruidAssembly of the Sacred Wheel,Brotherhood of the PhoenixEgregoresIx Chel WellnessMill Creek SeminarySolar Cross Temple,Stone City Pagan SanctuaryTeo BishopThe SummerlandsUrania’s Well, and Wiccanwoman. Thank you. You make this possible.

[Yesterday, I posted some initial analysis and reaction to the new Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's 50-state survey of prison chaplains. Today, I'd like to share with you the thoughts of Patrick McCollum. Patrick has been working as a Pagan chaplain and activist for well over twenty years. He was one of the founding members of the Lady Liberty League, and has been involved in numerous legal struggles involving modern Pagans. In 2008, he testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights, saying he “found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere”and that the problem was “endemic.”]

First, I’d like to start by saying that I am pleased that we are having this discussion about the Pew Survey. I believe that there are many important issues tied up in this topic, and that the more we toss them around, the better our community can address them. I’d like to begin by sharing what I am pleased about, about the survey and a little history of its development. Then later, I’d like to comment on the portions that concern me.

I am in a unique position here, because I had the opportunity as a Pagan Elder, to help shape some of the survey’s questions, and to also help shift the perspective of the main researcher’s goals in ways that I feel benefited our community and minority faiths in general.

Patrick McCollum

Patrick McCollum

As some of you know, I became the first government-recognized Pagan chaplain in the United States, and have been on the front lines for both Pagan rights and Pagan chaplaincy for nearly twenty years in over twenty states. It has been a tough road for sure, but looking back, even with all the road blocks, it has been a successful one. I could see right from the beginning that the accommodation of Pagans in prison and Pagan chaplaincy would become an important part of the fight for religious equality in America, and it has!

As a result, I decided to take the system on, first as a Pagan chaplain, then as a religion advisor for State and Federal correctional systems nationwide, then as the Chaplaincy Liaison for the American Academy of Religion, then as the Director of the National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association, and finally as a member of the Executive Committee for the American Correctional Chaplains Association. It was in these last three capacities, that I had the opportunity to meet multiple times with Dr. Stephanie Boddie, the key researcher for the Pew Prison Chaplaincy Survey.

In the beginning when the survey was first being formulated, the terms “Pagan & Earth Based religions” seemed unlikely to have been included. Instead, as in the past, the survey was leaning toward listing us as “Other,” which has been a common, albeit often unintentional way of negating our presence. By having a Pagan voice in the conversation, and by the Pew Foundation agreeing to create a solid category for us in the survey, we are now undeniably and permanently present in the mainstream religious landscape from this day forward.

The inclusion of Pagan & Earth Based religions as a category in the survey carries several huge benefits for us as a community. First, for many years, correctional systems, courts, and other governmental agencies have been able to deny us our rights, by simply making the argument that we either don’t really exist, or that if we do, we are so insignificant in numbers that there is no need to legislate or accommodate in our favor. Now with the survey, that argument is irrefutably null and void.

Secondly, a point that is clearly identified in the survey for the first time, and one which I think is critical to be brought to light if we want to see the advancement of pluralism both in the prisons and in the mainstream, is that almost all of the chaplains in government institutions are conservative evangelical Christians, but those being served by them are not. And that even those conservative chaplains say that there are way too many Christian volunteers in the system, and almost no volunteers or chaplains of other faiths. At one institution I serve, I am the one Pagan chaplain for 120 Pagan inmates, yet my Christian counterpart at the same institution has 120 full time Christian volunteers to serve his 220 inmates. That institution’s chaplain testified in court that the Pagans in my circle are being served equally to the Christians. It’s not that there aren’t Pagan volunteers available to serve, it’s that the institution goes out of its way to accommodate the Christians, but does everything it can to discourage the Pagans.
What I hope will come of this as scholars parse this data and succeeding surveys are instigated, is that the truth will come to light. And that truth is: That the reasons there are few chaplains and volunteers of minority faiths, is because the system itself is intentionally discriminatory and self-perpetuating.

“At one institution I serve, I am the one Pagan chaplain for 120 Pagan inmates, yet my Christian counterpart at the same institution has 120 full time Christian volunteers to serve his 220 inmates. That institution’s chaplain testified in court that the Pagans in my circle are being served equally to the Christians. It’s not that there aren’t Pagan volunteers available to serve, it’s that the institution goes out of its way to accommodate the Christians, but does everything it can to discourage the Pagans.”

One other positive aspect of the survey, is that while it originally intended to include the predominantly Christian chaplain’s assessments as to both the needs and the numbers of the minority faiths in the prisons as hard data (which is obviously biased), after several conversations with Dr. Boddie, she decided to include multiple disclaimers making it clear that the survey is only an opinion survey of the chaplains, and does not represent fact-based needs and numbers which could later be used to negate the accommodation of minority faiths in court.

As to the portion of the survey which included Pagan & Earth Based religions as being at least in part, extremist, I am obviously dismayed and frustrated. But as Jason so eloquently pointed out, look who’s making that assessment, conservative evangelical Christian ministers. But that was not the only problem with the determination. One of the factors used as a determiner of what should be considered extremist was religious groups that push for equal accommodation, or who ask for religious items or services considered unusual or non-mainstream. Obviously, this is slanted against minorities in general and needs to be addressed in future surveys.

On the other hand, there is some truth to a portion of the extremist profile. Some of the Odinist/Asatru groups in prison are in fact extremists and White Separatists, yet many are not. One of the factors that has contributed to the growth of this scenario, has been the reluctance of many Heathen elders to come into the prisons, because they see inmates as outside of the law and consequently according to some Heathen lore, unable to be served. This leaves these prison kindreds very vulnerable to take overs by other factions. For the most part however, those prison kindreds which are served by outside groups do not have these problems. To be fair, the same chaplains who deemed that some of the Pagan groups were extremists, also held that many fundamentalist Christian groups were also.

I’d like to offer a special thanks to Tom O’Connor who was one of the consultants who spoke at the survey’s press conference. He addressed the extremist portion of the survey by pointing out that in all his years in corrections, he has never seen a Wiccan extremist. He pointed out that Wiccans might be likely to talk to trees or be prone to be against pollution and for animal rights, but extremist … Not!

So, what does this survey say to us as a community? It tells us that Paganism is growing in the prison population, and from my experience and perspective that is a good thing. It is important to note that most Pagans in prison were not Pagan when they were incarcerated, rather the majority of Pagans in prison converted to Paganism while in prison. Inmates participating in Pagan ritual, tend to form supportive communities and focus on exactly the kinds of issues and behavior that society in the greater sense would like to see. What we need now is for Pagans from the outside to go in and serve as role models and mentors for these people. We need qualified volunteers and professional chaplains. And the emphases should be on the words, qualified, and professional!

We now have several Pagan organizations training volunteers and chaplains and we need more. We need to have conversations as a community about what a Pagan chaplain’s role should be. We also need to constantly challenge the system to make it more representative of the pluralistic nature of our country. The survey points out that we are a growing community, with all of the attached social benefits and problems associated with that. Let’s step up to meet the challenge.

And if you are unhappy with some of the results of the survey, don’t just complain, do something about it. Get involved, become educated about how to participate and change the status quo. We as a community are a powerful force; we just need to learn how to exert that force in a positive way to effect change.

The Pew Foundation has taken a first step, and there’s still a long way to go. There are already discussions about further, more detailed, surveys to follow, perhaps with more input and critique from our and other minority faith communities. I congratulate the Pew Foundation for having the courage to break ground in this important area and look forward to better articulated and more detailed research in the future.

Yesterday the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the findings of a 50-state survey of prison chaplains.  The survey, which was endorsed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association, interviewed 730 prison chaplains, and has a lot of interesting things to say about religion in the American prison system. At first glance, there are no major bombshell revelations to drive the news cycle, leading to initial headlines like “a lot of religion goes on behind bars.” However, if you start digging into the data, especially the section on what chaplains think about the inmate’s religious lives‘, there’s a lot there that should be of concern to modern Pagans, particularly Pagans engaged in prison outreach and chaplaincy work.

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% percent 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.

Which brings us to the most contentious section on the religious lives of inmates, extremism. A sizable minority of chaplains (39%) say that extremism is “very” or “somewhat” common within Pagan religions.

No one is going to deny that some Pagan groups in prison are extremist in nature, but I want to push back a bit and contextualize this finding. First, we need to note that the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian. Of that number, an impressive 44% of prison chaplains are Evangelical Christians. I’m not saying that Evangelical Christians can’t be impartial in making judgments about what is and isn’t extremism in non-Christian religions, but I do think that most of them start out with a severe deficit in practical, unbiased, knowledge of our faiths and traditions. Also, as the Christian Post points out, “extremism” isn’t just about race or intolerance towards other groups, it’s also about “exclusivity” and “unreasonable” requests for accommodation. Both of those factors are highly subjective, and could be skewing the number higher than it may actually be. Still, even without those caveats, it should be noted that most chaplains (61%) don’t think there’s a major Pagan extremism problem.

“I agree that there can be extremism, depending upon your definition. Very, very few offenders were raised Pagan; almost all converted while inside. Now, converts in general are more fervent than cradle raised believers, but there is an extra issue for Pagans; many converted to a Pagan faith because they felt the church of their childhood failed them. This can result in some rigid attitudes. But extremism does not automatically mean a security threat. A hard nosed, rigid member of a pacifist faith is only a threat as a speed bump, for example. Yes, there have been problems in some places, some times- but a lot of that is caused by two factors: first, we ARE talking not only about fallible humans, but fallen ones as well; prisons aren’t the place to go for demonstrations of wise decision making.”Joel Monka, volunteer with Indianapolis Pagan Prison Ministry

For Pagan clergy, volunteers, and organizations trying to provide chaplaincy services to incarcerated Pagans, these statistics simply underscore the many challenges inherent in providing guidance to an often misunderstood religious movement. In 2008, Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights, saying he “found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere” and that the problem was “endemic.” Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. However, when Pagan clergy are allowed in, and Pagan inmates are given the same consideration as other inmates, truly healing moments of fellowship can happen.

“The Pew Center study on the opinions of prison chaplains was a fascinating read. I found it interesting that Earth-based religions were listed by some of them as being extremist. I volunteer with the Druids in a minimum/medium security prison in Washington State, and I can state categorically that none of my men have ever expressed extremist views in my hearing. I can’t speak for the Wiccan or Asatru inmates, but based on discussions with my fellow volunteers from the Paganfest we held in the prison last summer, these other groups in this prison aren’t particularly extremist, either.” – Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF)

Robert Keefer, High Priest of Crossroads Tabernacle Church – ATC, who’s on the Advisory Council for the State of Michigan’s corrections department, noted that relations with the local prison chaplain have been “friendly and helpful,” though he points out that ritual meetings are “limited to the 8 Sabbats currently,” and that expanding that to include Full Moon rituals and educational services have been “slow going.” Aside from bureaucratic hassles, and dealing with hostile or simply misinformed chaplains, the biggest problem we face is finding enough volunteers to deal with the large and growing number of incarcerated Pagans who want or need religious services. Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF), pointed out that “in the prison I volunteer at, if there is no volunteer, the men of that religion are not allowed to meet. This can truly be a hardship.” Thomas says that he “can only pray that our Gods will inspire the hearts of my Pagan brothers and sisters to step up and volunteer to help our incarcerated men and women lead valid and fulfilling spiritual lives.”

The data given to us here by the Pew Forum is a boon. Even taking into account the Christian lens through which most of this data was obtained and filtered through, it gives us needed information is discussing and addressing the needs of Pagan prisoners. It underscores the challenges, and affirms what many already suspected: that the Pagan population in prison is growing, that the institutional chaplaincy is disproportionately Christian and conservative in makeup, that extremism (whatever its true extent) is an ongoing concern, and that we simply don’t have the volunteers or institutional muscle in place to properly address prisoner’s needs. Just as it is on the “outside” our growth continually outstrips the pace in which we can train clergy or build institutions and services. In short, we have a lot of work to do.

This report is a first foray into the many issues and concerns raised by this data, and I’m committed to continuing this conversation for as long as it needs to happen. I’m already in communication with several other voices from within the Pagan community on the issue of prison chaplaincy and the topics raised by this survey, and hope to spotlight them in the coming weeks and months.

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion's Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Three days into the campaign and I'm less than $150 dollars from reaching my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven't pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]