Culture and Community: The Complexity of Pagans in Prison

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San Quentin Prison yard

San Quentin Prison yard [Photo Credit: Zboralski / via Wickimedia]

I recently had the opportunity with my graduate program to go into the bowels of San Quentin State Correctional Facility in San Rafael, California. San Quentin is one of the most famous state penitentiaries in California, and the only facility that enacts capital punishment in the state. There are approximately 4,000 inmates currently in San Quentin, the range of crimes span from drug possession to murder.

Crime and prisons go hand in hand. The population of prisoners in any institution is made up of a myriad of races, ages, and religions, thereby needing a host of services to address the many needs of different populations of people. Pagans can find themselves in the criminal system like any other religious practitioners. Spirituality does not make a person immune to the laws of the land.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “About 6,937,600 offenders were under the supervision of adult correctional systems at year end 2012.” This number does not include those who are under parole or probation supervision. While it is not easy to determine the number of incarcerated Pagans from these statistics, there are some resources stating that Pagans within the prison population continue to show growth.

In a Wild Hunt piece from 2012, Jason Pitzl-Waters references the results of the 50 State Chaplain survey done by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. In the article, he talks about “what the new Pew Forum survey tells us about Pagan religions in U.S. prisons.

First, we find out that around 1.7% of the national prison population are adherents to a Pagan or earth-based/nature religion. If you extrapolate that to the currently incarcerated population of the United States (around 2.3 – 2.4 million people) it means there’s close to 40 thousand incarcerated Pagans (Native American spirituality averages around 2.7%, or over 62 thousand incarcerated adherents). In addition, 34-% of prison chaplains say that their Pagan populations are growing, with another 49% saying the population has remained stable. Only 8% of chaplains noted a decline in Pagan inmates.

The reality is that these numbers show a significant need for continued prison ministry, something that Pagan chaplains have continued to do as a part of their service to the community. Yet there is a significant lack of understanding about the needs of prisoners in general, and Pagan prisoners more specifically. It is very common for general society to lock the realities of prison life out of the mind of the average person. Yet the reality of the prison industrial complex should be a concern to everyone, not just Pagan chaplains.

In exploring the needs of Pagan prisoners and religious services within State and Federal facilities, there are many things to consider. The racial disparities, systemic inequities, structural challenges and overall demands of prison take a toll on individuals emotionally and spiritually. Going into the various levels of the prison facility that the average person cannot see gave me a perspective for the toll that spiritual life could take on the psyche, as well as the spiritual impact that it could have.

handcuffsIf equality in access to alternative spiritual guidance is important for the well-being of all prisoners, it also lends a question of how challenging it is to get Pagan clergy to assist with a myriad of clergy needs, not just the standard Wiccan-like framework of practice with which many Pagan clergy come into service. Are prisoners able to get clergy support when they practice African Traditional Religions or even paths like Hellenic practices? Do we have the capacity as a Pagan community to provide clergy support that encompasses some of the cultural differences within our community?

In exploring this topic, I put a call out to Pagans who do clergy work and asked a couple of questions on this topic:

Are the needs for Pagan clergy services increasing within the prison population and do you find that we have adequate-enough services to address those needs?

Yes, more pagans are being incarcerated, and others at converting while in prison. As the former Correspondence Officer for COG, about 90% of all snail mail was from inmates, asking for support in writing, in person or even just somebody willing to talk to their chaplain and tell them their religion is real. We have a real need to find volunteers to answer letter, be pen pals or provide guidance and teaching, and people who can go inside and help facilitate services. Of all the people who have helped volunteer with me over the years there is only one still doing it. me. People need to be consistent. – Lisa “Ariadne” Morgenstern, HPS, and founder Dragon’s Weyr Circle

I have seen the need for Pagan religious services continually increase over the past six years. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does not employ chaplains qualified to meet these needs or provide these services, and therefore depends upon community volunteers, who lack the necessary resources to provide adequate assistance without financial support or employment from the institutions. – Joseph Merlin Nichter, Minority Faith Chaplain

I can’t speak for all prisons, just the system in which I work (Washington State). The state requires inmate religious groups to have an outside volunteer present for all meetings. This means that if a group of Druids or Wiccans or Asatru don’t have a Sponsor, then they may not meet unless the Chaplain can rustle up someone (which is very problematic). Without volunteers there can be no group worship. This alone is a major cause for the increase of clergy services in our prisons here. Also, the attitude of the prison chaplain is crucial. I’m quite lucky in that my chaplain at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, WA truly takes his responsibilities seriously, and tries very hard to make sure that everyone, including our Pagan inmates, gets an equal shake. I’m sure that this is not the case in all prisons. It can be difficult for folks in a prison to be ‘out’ as a Pagan, just as it is for so many people in the outside world. A supportive chaplain is a gods-send. – Rev. Kirk Thomas, ADF Archdruid

I believe that there is an increasing need for services to support Pagan inmates in California. Many Chaplains from the five faiths are doing their best to build relationships with Pagan clergy but many California prisons are located in extremely rural areas without vibrant Pagan (and other minority faith traditions) communities.

It’s an interesting question of how we are defining Paganism as we explore these questions. Are Native American Traditions Pagan? Many First Nations people would argue both sides of this question. Native religion is considered one of the five faiths in California and this is because of years of organizing and activism of AIM, Native Leaders, and First Nations people on the inside. If we as a religious community are going to push to change the five faiths law, we must not do so in isolation or opposition of First Nations leaders and Native Chaplains.  – Claire Bohman MDiv, Reclaiming Priestess and Interfaith Minister

What kind of complications does it pose for prisoners to balance the expectations of prison life and Pagan spirituality?

Inmates frequently are met with intolerant Correctional officers who will not respect an altar set up in a cell. Items are destroyed, thrown away, confiscated, and never returned. Many inmates cannot practice with tarot for example  or runes because officials do not understand the importance of these tools to a pagan or heathen, or Druid. Watch Lockup Raw on MSNBC if you want to learn what prisoners learn. They aren’t really rehabilitating but learning to live in a system that does not prepare them for the outside, but rather forces them into gang situations.  – Lisa “Ariadne” Morgenstern, HPS, and founder Dragon’s Weyr Circle

This perpetuates a variety of conflicts, perhaps the most difficult one is an internal conflict within the inmates.

While the majority or mainstream religions enjoy all the amenities and full benefits of their faith, such as access to reading materials, and a paid chaplains to facilitate their needs; Pagan inmates have very few opportunities to celebrate and practice their spirituality which is detrimental to their personal spiritual growth and therefore, their rehabilitation. – Joseph Merlin Nichter, Minority Faith Chaplain

Outside of the question of the availability of group worship and practice, there is the issue of solitary worship in each individual cell. Most Pagans need some religious tools of various kinds, and it can be quite difficult to get permission for these. Compromises have to be made. In ADF Druidry, we use some form of the three hallows (Well, Fire, and Tree) to indicate the Cosmos, and usually this means a cup of water, a candle, and some form of stick or tree representation for the Axis Mundi. A lighted candle is out of the question. So either a once-lit but now unlit candle may be used, or even a picture of one. Even when these compromises have been made and agreed with the chaplain, rogue Officers may confiscate these items on occasion (for whatever reason) and sometimes they just disappear. Perseverance is the virtue required here. – Rev. Kirk Thomas, ADF Archdruid

At this point it seems like much of the pagan programming in prisons is Odinism (often white supremacist–my skin crawls calling this Paganism) and Wicca. I have seen less programming for Pagans of color who practice Ifa, Santeria, etc. Sometimes elements of Espiritualismo is integrated into Catholicism. – Claire Bohman MDiv, Reclaiming Priestess and Interfaith Minister

Do prisoners have equal access to religious support as Pagans, compared to other faiths?

In California there are just the five faiths represented by paid Chaplains that are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Christian/Protestant, and A Native American Spiritual Leader. Nature based services are under a chaplain of one of those five faiths. And they are not always inclined to be helpful or supporting of faiths other than their own. Pagans in CA state prisons are reliant on volunteers. At the facility where I volunteer there are pagan services on four out of five yards. One yard has Druid, Wiccan and Asatru, another Asatru, Wicca  and Kemetic, and two other yards that have Wicca. Groups. It works out to about 9 group services a week. I am an unpaid volunteer that simply cannot cover all these services. It means they don’t see me very often. I cannot be there when a family member passes and they need to be notified, or to counsel with them I don’t have regular office hours where someone could meet with me to talk. If there is an inmate who is on lockdown I cannot counsel them at their cell because as a volunteer I’m not permitted to go to their cell doors in the building. If they were in a fight and are in the SHU (solitary) I also cannot meet with them about their issues. It is heartbreaking. – Lisa “Ariadne Morgenstern, HPS, and founder Dragon’s Weyr Circle

No, the State of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation only employs chaplains for five major faiths. Not having a state religious representative for Pagan faiths restricts access to all the amenities, benefits and support afforded to mainstream religions. – Joseph Merlin Nichter, Minority Faith Chaplain

Again, this depends on the chaplain of the prison. I believe that in Washington State most of our chaplains want to do the right thing, and be supportive. But hidden biases can cause problems. If the chaplain is welcoming of the prisoners and their beliefs, then more of them will come forward. But if they feel that they will be ignored or not supported they may just as well stay in their cells. My chaplain is wonderful, and fully supports anyone in their faith if he believes that they are serious about what they are doing. Having said that, I have seen some bias towards the Abrahamic groups, probably due to their much larger numbers. Also, the Abrahamic religions have strict requirements for weekly (at least) rituals and meetings, and since Pagans are not peoples of any ‘book’ we have more difficulty proving the need for ritual times and meetings outside of the 8 High Days or, perhaps, the monthly Druid Moon. We as volunteers must remember that the government agencies that run our prisons are literal at best. If we don’t claim something as required for our faiths, then we very well may not get it. – Rev. Kirk Thomas, ADF Archdruid


[Photo Credit: Andrew Bardwell/via Wikimedia]

The ongoing discussion surrounding Pagans who are incarcerated and the community’s role in this supportive obligation is one that has gone on for some time. Inadequate clergy services can be just as harmful as not having any at all, and yet the community appears to be limited in resources to address this need. Prisoners are potentially vulnerable to misinformation at a time when they may looking for some way to connect to meaning inside of the prison walls, and without ways to access community, additional resources or even verify information they are being told. The lack of specific requirements of training to make someone qualified to do prison ministerial duties can cause problems for the inmates and for the community at large. Furthermore not everyone has ability or skill to navigate the political and potentially manipulative dynamic of working with the behaviors of prisoners.

This is one of the most delicate,and yet important,roles we have to consider as practitioners of the craft: How do we address our incarcerated community members?

What I experienced of the prison atmosphere when I toured San Quentin is something I have yet to put into words. The looming tone of death in the air was tangible. The dehumanization of the inmates by default of being caged in horrifically-small cells, and the tightrope of pending violence in the environment are all emotionally, psychologically, and energetically taxing to one’s spirit.  Whether or not access to spiritual guidance and worship supports the rehabilitation of the prisoner or provides some peace of mind, the right to this religious support is one of great importance. I imagine that there is a great need for spiritual nourishment when you are caged like an animal and separated from your humanity.

Within the Pagan community at large, we have not seen prisoner support at the top of our service list, and many organizations appear to shy away from being a resource for those who are incarcerated. While there are some incredible individuals that give their personal time and resources to provide support to those who are behind the walls of a county, state or federal facility, we fall short in the area of larger community focus and organizational support. In my personal opinion, this is a social justice issue within the Pagan community that does not often get the attention that it needs.

If resources to clergy, mentors, materials, books, and some sense of Pagan community is not accessible to the average Pagan-practicing inmate, then we must ask ourselves if our sense of community is only viable on one side of the fence. Where are the boundaries of service, and who is worthy of receiving that? Do we practice a form of social Darwinism within our community framework, or do we need more resources ourselves to make this a priority?

The expanding umbrella of the Pagan community is still adjusting to encompass the many needs that spiritual communities contain and, as a younger community, we often find ourselves challenged in meeting a variety of needs within the complexity of society. Yet I wonder if our overall behavior towards criminality and societal concerns about the ethics of those who are incarcerated, influence the Pagan community’s ability to resolve this cognitive dissonance by disengaging with the needs of prisoners as an entire group on the macro level.