Pagan Chaplain Patrick McCollum on the Pew Forum Religion in Prisons Survey

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[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.