Pagans and (Canadian) Prisons

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The Edmonton Sun reports on the growing population of Pagans in Canadian prisons. Internal estimates show adherence numbers have tripled in the last five years, and those numbers may be “woefully understated” according to Richard James of the Wiccan Church of Canada.

“According to figures obtained by Sun Media under Access to Information, the number of practising Wiccans and Pagans behind bars has tripled in the last five years. In 2002 there were just 25, compared to 77 in 2007, data from the Correctional Service of Canada show … Richard James, the Toronto-based founder and high priest of the Wiccan Church of Canada, has been involved in prison outreach programs and believes the official count is “woefully understated.” More and more inmates are turning to Wicca because they’ve been let down by other faiths, he said.”

Unlike the prisons of their American neighbors, which are rife with “endemic discrimination” against religious minorities, the Canadian prison system seems quite accommodating.

“According to an internal CSC manual on religious practices, inmate witches are required [I think they mean “allowed”] to have an altar with candles and incense for worship. They should also be permitted a wooden wand, robe, tarot cards, figurines, oils and natural objects such as shells, feathers, stones and crystals, the manual reads … Rick Burk, CSC’s associate to the director general of chaplaincy, restorative justice and victims‚ services, said inmates have a Charter right to practise their faith. In turn, institutions work to foster understanding and tolerance for all faiths inside the wire. ‘There are cultural and spiritual differences in all kinds of traditions and we are constantly engaged in dialogue about respect and diversity and managing the community within a context of diversity,’ he said. ‘Whether there is the word ‘witch’ involved or not, we try to manage diversity.'”

Perhaps the open dialog-focused Canadian model would be preferred to the currently repressive American model where constant litigation for rights is a normal occurrence?

Speaking of American prisons and constant litigation, an interesting prisoner rights case was recently decided. In a ruling by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Koger v. Bryan, it was found that prisons can’t demand proof of requirement, or verification from clergy, regarding a reasonable religious request.

“…the court held that a former prisoner’s claim based on the denial of his request for a vegetarian diet substantially burdened the prisoner’s religious exercise. In particular the court found inappropriate the prison’s requirement that the religious practice be required by the inmate’s religion and that this be verified by a member of the clergy.”

This is one more legal step towards true religious self-determination for prisoners. A development that may make some people very uncomfortable, but one that will ultimately benefit modern Pagans and other religious minorities serving jail time. To make this case even more relevant, the former prisoner, Gregory Koger, is an adherent of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. A fact that has sparked snarky comments from the law-blogs and one of the presiding judges.

“Clearly, without RLUIPA, this case would have been dead in the water when it was filed because declining Koger’s request for a nonmeat diet would not have violated the United States Constitution … A waste of time? Some may disagree, but I lean towards saying ‘yes.'”

Of course that “waste of time” has helped create a precedent that favors personal gnosis and followers of non-hierarchal faiths. A lawsuit that may not have happened if prisons in America worked more towards dialog and granting reasonable risk-free requests instead of dragging its heels in court every time a non-Christian wants something outside the norm.