Following Up With The Christo-Pagans, Buddhist-Wiccans, and Catholic-Protestants

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The News Tribune checks back in with McNeil Island Prison after a court decision in January gave prisoners the right to claim adherence to multiple faiths.

“Inmates across the state won the right to declare multiple faiths after an inmate who was both an American Indian practitioner and a Seventh-day Adventist sued, arguing that the Department of Corrections was illegally restrictive. The rule change prompted Tom Suss, McNeil’s longtime chaplain, to resign. Suss, a Catholic priest in addition to a state employee, said his job would have forced him to go against his beliefs in working with inmates he thought were espousing contradictory combinations – such as being Catholic and pagan simultaneously.”

I covered the histrionics of former chaplain Tom Suss, who heavily implied that the new policy would endanger the sanctity of his faith, and leave chaplains open to spiteful litigation if they didn’t compromise their beliefs (rhetoric reached a point where special legislation was drafted to “protect” clergy from having to minister to multiple-faith adherents). The reality, several months on, seems to be that prisoners are using the freedom of multiple adherence to more fully practice their preferred faith or reflect the religious reality of their lives before incarceration.

Interview with Mark Misiak, Buddhist/Wiccan

“They say, ‘You never did it out on the streets, so why do it in here?’” said [Arlen] Lopez, who is scheduled to be released in 2012. “Out on the street, I went to Catholic services and I (also) went to Christian services with my cousin.”

While some have raised alarms that prisoners will “game the system” by claiming multiple faiths, prisoners see the situation as a solution to longstanding problems with the way issues of adherence and religious observances were handled.

“Inmate Maceo “Mace” Wiles, 31, said some people will always try to game any system. “Look at the welfare program,” he said. “It’s the same situation. You have some people that are needy of it and some people that are greedy.” But that shouldn’t diminish the possible good than can come from religious exploration, said Wiles, who is scheduled to be released in 2014. “I grew up on the East Side of Tacoma involved with gangs and went to more funerals than graduations. So if somebody is even alive to … find a cause for their living and their life and the breath that they have, that’s a good thing.” Wiles said he selected both Catholic and Protestant because prison policy would not allow him to simply declare as a nondenominational Christian.”

So nearly a year into this new policy, anarchy hasn’t broken out, prisoners aren’t living like kings off their newfound ability to purchase rosaries and scented oils, Catholic priests haven’t been forced to give Pagans the Eucharist, and the 40 or so inmates claiming multiple faiths seem more content. It looks like acknowledging the very human tendency towards syncretism and adaptation might just work out after all.