The Unique challenges in Pagan prison ministry

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SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA — It has been said that casting a ritual circle describes a sacred place, outside of time and space. Whoever came up with that phrasing likely has never worked within the U.S. correctional system, where space is rigidly controlled by an unyielding culture and where time moves according to the whims of an incredibly complex bureaucracy.

San Quentin Prison yard

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

However, it’s easier to see how time and space can be folded and spindled by looking through the eyes of Aline “Macha” O’Brien, who is now nearing the end of a quest to get a group of Pagan inmates some incense and candles. It is a process that has taken nine long months.

“There’s nothing that’s simple in prison bureaucracies,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It’s very bizarre, quite opaque, and in flux.”

The many regulations exist to keep staff and inmates safe and secure. But in a penitentiary system as large as California’s, and in a prison as old as San Quentin, those who aren’t part of the system would easily be confused by the dizzying number of requirements. In addition, the exact constitutional rights entitled to inmates — and in what form — are also moving targets, as court cases cause wardens to change tactics.

While others choose to fight those legal battles, O’Brien has been focusing on giving one group of Pagan men the opportunity to worship their gods. Many people find religion when they are incarcerated. A recent Chicago Tribune article provides an look at religious belief in prison and how that works from a inmate’s perspective.

Because so many are finding religion, education on the basics of ritual and practice are an implicit as part of O’Brien’s work. That is a challenging enough proposition for professional chaplain working in large churches, where presumably there’s a single set of beliefs and rituals to transmit. But trying to be an expert on all which falls under the Pagan umbrella is near impossible.

The group O’Brien works with identifies as Wicca, while she herself does not. The rituals, as she described them, are what many might think of as having a “generic” structure, including a cast circle, elemental correspondences with directions, and a focus on one or more deities that change from ritual to ritual. She stays with what she knows, which is decades of worshiping as an eclectic nature-based Witch, and has worked to improve the conditions under which these men follow her lead.

O’Brien described the so-called chapel for minority religions as a storeroom where the initial preparations of the space involve moving what’s inside to the edges so they have room to gather in a circle. They lean some of the furniture against the wall to muffle the sounds of the gospel choir practicing next door, which can be distracting. While prisoners are not permitted lighters or matches, the use of incense and candles is okay per the regulations of this particular facility, so securing more of these supplies quickly became a priority.


Aline “Macha” O’Brien

One of the barriers drawn by most correctional facilities is a demarcation between visitors and volunteers. Those who work in the system — the volunteers — are not permitted to have any kind of personal relationship with a prisoner, which includes visiting them during designated times, sending them correspondence, or otherwise engaging outside of the time and place of the volunteer work. Likewise, if one visits a prisoner, one cannot at the same time be cleared as a volunteer.

While it was not difficult to secure someone willing to donate the ritual materials, that donor could not be known to the men in any way. The person who finally agreed to make the donation was Matt Whealton, a member of the San Francisco-based Temple of Ra. “Having had a close family member in the penal system some years ago, I understand how much it can mean for inmates to get some kind of humanizing support from the wider world,” he explained. Given a list of needed supplies, it was Whealton’s job to order them from the approved supplier — in this case, AzureGreen in Massachusetts — and ensure that the necessary paperwork accompanied the order so it wouldn’t be cast into some kind of correctional-facility limbo upon arrival.

As O’Brien explained, getting to that point has been challenging. At first, it wasn’t even clear if the vendor was approved at all, because she couldn’t get the same answer from any two people. With the assistance of Rev. Patrick McCollum, she was able to confirm that piece, and worked up a supply list which, she said, “needed to get about six approval signatures” before they could proceed.

Whealton himself had to confirm in writing his intention to donate the supplies, then the fully-approved form had to be mailed back to him so that he could include it when he mailed payment. If the approval form isn’t in the package upon its arrival at San Quentin, the box won’t be waiting for O’Brien when she goes back to open it up.

The list of supplies is carefully scrutinized to weed out anything deemed contraband. Prisoners are not allowed items which can be used as weapons, such as brass candlesticks or anything made of glass. Nor can they be given images containing any amount of nudity, which rules out quite a bit of sacred imagery. O’ Brien must bring a lighter herself for the candles and incense. While she was able to secure permission to use some glass votive holders, they are locked up securely in the chaplain’s office when not in use.

Even once the supplies arrive, much of the work to provide further religious props come from O’Brien’s home printer, which churns out everything from appropriate deity images to seasonal decorations like eggs and holly.

To this longtime Witch, the constraints of the prison system can be imposing, but the bigger problem is on the horizon. As noted earlier, many inmates find religion in prison. O’Brien said, “When these people are released, they are going to seek out people in their new faith community, and those people won’t know anything of their backgrounds.”

Because of the rules prohibiting personal relationships, she herself knows nothing about the crimes that landed these men behind bars, nor anything about how that experience has shaped them. Because Paganism is not a monolithic body, and does not have much in the way of infrastructure, she fears that the community will be unprepared to work with this new population.

How these people, who have lived in a place where time crawls and space is cramped, will ultimately integrate into a community that seeks the mysteries beyond those limits remains to be seen.