Pagan Prison ministers debate merits of reintegration

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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Pagan clergy, prison ministers, and members of the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program (MSOP) took part in a panel discussion at a Midwest Pagan conference on Sunday. The panel was created to assist MSOP members in understanding Pagan communities’ concerns and suggestions about reintegrating ex-sex offenders after they have served their prison terms and completed a lengthy rehabilitation process. The discussion also touched on other persons released from incarceration for felony offenses.

Front Row: Kelly Keller-Heikkila, Ian Keller-Heikkila, Rev. Diallo J Mudd, and Don. Back Row: Clio Ajana at Paganicon 2017 [Photo Credit: C. Schulz]

The panel was moderated by Clio Ajana at Paganicon, the yearly Pagan conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prison ministry panelists included Ian Keller-Heikkila, a Pagan prison minister since 2004. His wife Kelly Keller-Heikkila, also a Pagan prison minister. Rev. Diallo J Mudd, representing EOCTO, Don with Mother Earth Ministries and a prison minister in Arizona.

There were two representatives with the MSOP, who requested they not be named or quoted as they had not been given media clearance, who were there in primarily an information gathering function.

The panelists first discussed the need for more Pagan prison ministers as the fastest growing religion in prisons is Paganism. They then outlined why Pagan ministers are needed, in particular, in programs that rehabilitate sex offenders.

“Many rehabilitation programs are faith based and you need to accomplish extra steps to be released,” said Don. He noted the lack of Pagan clergy meant that those offenders who had embraced Paganism weren’t able to complete those steps while Christians had extensive resources.

Those challenges don’t end once ex-inmates of any type leave prison. In most states, ex-felons can’t have any contact with the clergy that ministered to them while in prison. They have to find new clergy and new Pagan groups to join. Yet many Pagan groups shun ex-felons, and that is especially true of ex-sex offenders.

One of the audience members was a former prison inmate. He said that he’d been out of prison for ten years and remembers how badly he needed to find a spiritual home. He said that he was always open and honest about his incarceration and finally found a Michigan- based group that welcomed him.

“For those who have never done a day in your life, when you walk into a Pagan event you are shunned. Most of the time you aren’t given a chance,” he related.

Concerns raised
One audience member pointed out that Pagans often meet in peoples’ homes rather than in public places. Another said some Pagans have already encountered predators and, as a group leader, they want to make sure they won’t be re-victimized.

Ian Keller-Heikkila responded, “When you think of a sex offender re-offending, that is very scary. But it’s more likely someone will re-offend if they have no support. If we don’t help them, who will?”

Don noted there is a less than 5% recidivism rate among Pagans incarcerated in Arizona. National recidivism rates for all federal inmates is at 30.8%.

Other attendees voiced concerns over allowing released sex offenders to take part in clothing optional events or be around children.

Panelists stressed that not all sex offenders are child molesters. They may have committed an offense when they were 12 years old and are now in middle age and haven’t offended since. Or a violent felon may have committed a crime years or decades earlier, but have been through counseling and are a very different person now from who they were when they entered prison.

Yet Don also said Pagan leaders need to practice discernment in whom they allow to join their groups, “Something as ministers we need to do, we need to listen to our gut feelings. We also need to listen to our congregation. We have to be willing to do the hard things and sometimes that means saying ‘No, you can’t join our group.’ ”

[Courtesy H. Emore] Pagan Prayer Service in Charleston 2015

Pagan Prayer Service [Photo Credit: H. Emore]

He also said there are some events that ex-felons, especially ex-sex offenders, shouldn’t be allowed to attend, “If you’ve done the work [during rehabilitation] you won’t put yourself in high risk environments. If you are a high risk sex offender, if you hear of an event that is clothing optional, that is a place that a person who has done the work won’t seek to attend.”

Policy examples
Other attendees seemed more open to the idea of allowing ex-felons in their group. One said that the person needs to notify the leader of their new group and have a frank conversations about the nature of the offense and who they are today as a person. If the leader feels comfortable after that conversation, then they are allowed to join. The initial conversation is kept confidential.

In response to a questions about whether or not Pagan religious leaders are allowed to speak with a released prisoner’s case worker, Rev. Mudd said if the person signs a release form, the case worker can speak with such a leader. He said that this can offer better information toward evaluating whether or not a former prisoner is a good fit for the group.

Kelly Keller-Heikkila is a Pagan religious group leader in addition to her duties as a prison minister. She said her group evaluates every prospective member carefully and doesn’t focus on if they have been previously incarcerated or not. “When a new member wants to join our group we don’t ask if they were in prison, we ask what’s their story.”

She said they see if their story sounds good or if they feel the person is hiding something or if it seems inconsistent with their behavior. They look at the person, not if they have a prison record. “Predators can be men or women and may not have been caught yet.”

Becky Munson, who oversees programming and entertainment for Paganicon, noted Paganicon was one of the first Pagan conferences with an official safety policy. She said Paganicon doesn’t vet attendees, and they do have ex-felons who attend the event.

“Everyone is welcome here as long as they conform to our rules.”

Munson added that they do, however, check the backgrounds of any adult who wishes to present a workshop for children. Ms. Munson said, “You can layer your policy and be mindful of your more vulnerable attendees while still welcoming wider populations.”

Ms. Ajana asked how many attendees’ groups had a written policy on violent offenders and encouraged groups to create one as a best practice.

Resource allocation vs a valuable resource
Panelists and attendees both talked about the challenge of already stretched resources being used for something as time intensive as evaluating and monitoring an ex-felon if allowed into a group. One attendee said if they had to choose between evaluating and working with five non-felons or one felon, they need to use their resources on the people who haven’t been incarcerated for a violent offense.

Rev. Mudd said people have to make the call on whether or not they should deal with the issue at all. However, he said ex-felons can be valuable resources for their community, “We have guys in the prison system who have worked with one God for decades. They have valuable information and experience we need.”

Don agreed. “There’s a Gothi I know who, when he calls Odin, Odin is there!”

The Pagan prison ministers summed up what they hope attendees will take back to their groups. They said most ex-felons want to be open and honest about their background, but our community needs to do our part. “Our community needs to do our own shadow work. We need to stand up and say we will welcome them,” said Ian Keller-Heikkila.