Asatru in Prison

Recently the imprisoned Asatru population have been making the news. First from Utah where inmate Phillip Leishman wants access to a set of runes.

“The runes are 24 small pieces of wood carved with ancient mystical symbols. Leishman says he needs them in order to practice his religion — the ancient Celtic order of Asatru with its little-understood pagan rituals. The Department of Corrections, however, subscribes to an even more bizarre belief: that Leishman could use the runes to start a covert network in the maximum-security prison with inmates communicating by using the runic alphabet.”The Salt Lake Tribune

U.S. District Magistrate Sam Alba has recommended that Leishman get a hearing on his argument that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act supports his right to runes. He said that while an Asatru spell might offend another inmate, “an evangelical Christian inmate could just as easily offend others with their prophecies and preaching.”The AP

Phillip Leishman and Michael W. Lenz

The next case is of Michael W. Lenz a “a self-described high priest of a pagan religion” who is to be executed this Thursday in Virginia for fatally stabbing a fellow inmate.

“Lenz argued at his July 2000 trial that he feared Parker and killed him in self-defense. Lenz, then serving a seven-year sentence for a string of burglaries in Prince William County, said he was the high priest of a Nordic cult called Asatru. Parker was trying to bully him out of the cult, Lenz testified. Lenz also said he was “protecting the honor” of Nordic gods by killing Parker.”The AP

Asatru according to Jordsvin (a Heathen involved in prison ministry) “is perhaps the only religion with at least as many adherents behind bars (eleven thousand in North America alone) as in the free world! This sounded really scary to me when I first heard it, but on further reflection I calmed down considerably. For one thing, almost all incarcerated Heathens committed their crimes before discovering Heathenism. I believe that in the long run, one of the criteria that Heathenism in general and Heathenism behind bars in particular will be judged by is how our religion does or does not transform for the better the lives of its practitioners.”

Since most Asatru in prison are converts why Asatru? Margot Adler author of Drawing Down the Moon writes “Since many prisoners feel like outsiders, they are often drawn to alternative forms of spirituality. A 1999 article in the Omaha World Herald lists the religious faiths of Nebraska inmates. Alongside 1,738 Protestants, 757 Catholics, 96 Muslims, and 11 Buddhists, there were many who described themselves as members of earth-based religions, including 85 who practiced Native American spirituality, 47 who practiced Norse paganism (Asatru), 8 who worshiped Maat (an ancient Egyptian goddess), and 2 Wiccans. There are Asatru groups in prisons in Minnesota, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Washington, Colorado, and California. One of the reasons Asatru may be so popular behind bars is that it allows whites, often a minority in prison populations, to have a feeling of identity and community.”

For more on Asatru in prison I found a series of interviews with Heathen inmates, though they are quick to give a waring to the sensitive reader:

“These interviews are uncensored. You may find some comments by these prisoners to be racist and shocking. Deal with it. The HEATHEN WORLD is letting these guys tell their stories however they want. Prison is a violent, fearful place with deeply ingrained divisions, and maybe these interviews will help you imagine being stuck right in the middle of it. The HEATHEN WORLD has a quick question for those advocating tougher prisons: What do you plan to do with a couple million psychotic ex-cons? Things are bad enough as it is.”

UPDATE: Execution of Michael W. Lenz was stayed a few minutes ago in US District Court pending pursuit of a federal habeas appeal. That will take about 12 to 18 months to fully exhaust. Thanks to God and Consequences for the update.

Jason Pitzl-Waters