McCollum: “Endemic” Religious Discrimination in Prisons

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Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum appeared before the US Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, DC yesterday, to speak at a briefing focused on prisoners’ religious rights. His statement presented a chilling atmosphere of religious discrimination in the State and federal prisons that McCollum described as “endemic”.

Wiccan Chaplain Patrick McCollum

“I’d like to start with a few true examples of discrimination to illustrate the severity of the problem: A Wiccan inmate has cancer and the prison guards refuse to transport him to his chemotherapy treatments unless he removes his religious pentacle medallion which they have objections to. He chooses to forgo his chemotherapy and keep his pentacle. A Wiccan inmate has been trying to go to Wiccan services for months, but the guard at her dorm refuses to give her a pass. The guard says it is for the good of the Wiccan inmate’s soul. Another dying Wiccan writes his volunteer chaplain that he needs to see him before he crosses over. The chaplain makes numerous attempts to reach prison staff to receive the necessary clearances, but no one responds. But worse, prison mailroom staff refuse to forward the chaplain’s mail, so that the inmate knows why his chaplain isn’t coming. Over more than a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to interact nationally with both administrators and inmates on religious accommodation issues. While practices differ from state to state, I found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere.”

McCollum told the commission that the “Dominant Religion Lens Factor”, where every action is judged through the lens of the “normal” Abrahamic faiths, pervades throughout the State and federal prison systems. The only cure for this condition, according to McCollum, is a complete overhaul of the way in which prison chaplains and staff are hired, and the establishment of a independent grievance process which would include experts in non-traditional faiths.

“If we want to achieve religious equality in prisons, then we have to restrict the hiring of administrators, staff, and chaplains into gatekeeper positions for our nations’ correctional religious programs. Only individuals who do not see it as their duty to promote certain religious practices over others should be hired in such positions. This should be a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification. We must also educate those who do act as gatekeepers, about pluralism and the guiding principles of religious accommodation in general, so that all inmates will be permitted a reasonable and equitable opportunity to practice their faiths. And we need to establish a separate grievance process for religious issues, which gives inmates a direct line to action in these areas and protection from retaliation. This new grievance process should include experts in non-traditional faiths, so that the Dominant Religion Lens Process is avoided. And lastly, we also need to get rid of administrators and chaplains who believe that breaking the law by violating inmates’ religious rights is justified by faith.”

Never before has such an unflinching view into the treatment of minority faiths in our prisons been presented to an official US government body. One can only hope that the US Commission on Civil Rights’ report from this briefing is heard by our country’s lawmakers, and results in true reform. This moment in time should be looked back upon as a turning point in the growth and development of modern Paganism. A moment where the casual media stereotypes of modern Paganism were swept away, and in its place a striking moral and religious voice came forward to present the reality of how our incarcerated brothers and sisters are being treated.