Pagan inmates in the United Kingdom denied access to incense and candles in cells

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ASHEVILLE, North Carolina – According to a recent article in Scottish The Daily Record & Sunday Mail, inmates in the United Kingdom are upset over a ban on access to candles and incense at one prison.  Pagans are allowed to use other items such as tarot cards and robes. The permitted items are described by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB).

Altar to Hecate – Image credit: Sosanna – WikiCommons


The IMB, which was established by the Prison Act 1952 in the U.K. to ensure that inmates and detainees are properly cared for within Prison and Immigration Centre rules while in custody and detention, released a new report about the growing number of Pagans being held in the facilities it oversees and some of the issues they are encountering.

Within its report for Hull the IMB notes:

Chaplaincy services are available for the main religious groups, although there was no available Buddhist chaplain for most of the reporting period. Adequate provision for prayer, dietary requirements and ritual needs appears to be in place. There have been issues with a growing cohort of Pagans, who have been denied requests for candles and incense burning in their cells, on safety grounds.

The U.K. divides facilities into four categories:

A: high security, and contains those who represent the greatest threat to society,

B: contains those who pose a risk to the public and may not require maximum security, but for whom escape still needs to be made very difficult,

C: contains those who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who are unlikely to try to escape,

D: contains those who can reasonably be trusted in open conditions, and are low risk of escape

Hull is a category B prison, with a capacity to hold up to 1,000 inmates. About 30 of those inmates currently identify as Pagan. Country-wide, estimates of incarcerated Pagans are estimated between 600-1000.



Faith and Pastoral Care for Prisoners Prison Service Instruction (PSI) has an entire section on Paganism that is very thorough in outlining various Pagan faiths and practices, which includes the recommendation of being allowed incense. The guidelines also proscribe allowing incense for inmates who are registered as following these other faiths: Buddhist, Hindu, Orthodox Christian, Sikh, and Chinese religions, such as Taoist.


  • Incense and holder (Fragrances should, where possible, be appropriate to the Season.)
  • A religious piece of jewellery (e.g. pentagram necklace or ring)
  • Book of Shadows
  • Hoodless Robe (only to be used during private or corporate worship)
  • Flexible twig for wand
  • Rune stones (wood, stone, crystal or clay tablets with the symbols of the Norse-German alphabet) and bag or box to carry them
  • Chalice (cup)
  • Crystals (smooth or “tumbled” and no bigger than about 1” diameter)
  • Pagan related resource books (A recommended reading list can be obtained from the Pagan Chaplain or Adviser.)
  • Manuscripts, sacred texts or posters (Pagan Chaplain or Adviser can provide Further information as needed.)
  • Meditation and relaxation music CDs (Pagan Chaplain or Adviser can provide further information as required.)
  • String of worry or meditation beads
  • Pendulum (a symmetrical, weighted object that is hung from a single chain, often a quartz crystal)
  • An altar (ie desk, small table, box or similar) – space and local discretion permitting.
  • Some Pagans use Tarot Cards for meditation and guidance. This may be allowed under the supervision of the Pagan Chaplain. If a prisoner requests to be allowed to retain a part or full pack in possession, this may be allowed, but only following a local Risk Assessment (which must include the Pagan Chaplain) to determine whether there is any reason to preclude cards being kept in possession. The cards are for personal use only and may be withdrawn if used inappropriately (e.g. telling fortunes).

There are many different pagan traditions that are practiced. Before contacting a faith representative of any particular tradition the advice and guidance of the Pagan Faith Adviser should be sought.

The PSI also notes that “individual prison governors have the power to ban incense from individual prisoners if it constitutes a ‘risk to health, safety, security, good order or discipline.'”

However, prison officials must also provide in writing to both the inmate and the prison chaplain, an explanation as to why the inmate has been denied access to the use of incense.

Prison officials assess those who request the use of incense or candles in their cells, and as long as they do not find the inmate’s use of such items to be a “safety risk,” they will approve those items for their use. It is unclear exactly what prison officials consider to constitutes a “safety risk.”

Becauselighters and matches were banned along with smoking products, a prison guard or worker would be responsible for coming to the inmate’s cell to light their incense or candle for them. None of the reports or reporting are clear on exactly why the prison in Hull has banned candles and incense for inmates, or if it is banned for everyone, just a few, or connected specifically to Pagan practitioners.

In contrast, in the U.S., the law on Pagan practices by inmates is somewhat less clear, though the freedom to practice one’s faith is assured under the US Constitution.

Still, there are challenges. Some U.S. Pagan prisoners struggle just to be granted permission to have the personal items of their faith that they deem essential to practice their religion. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections website, the document Practical Guidelines for Administration of Inmate Religious Beliefs and Practices does not list Paganism at all, for example. Heathenry is listed as Odinism/Asatru, and the manual also lists and recognizes Wicca.

A recent court ruling in Michigan by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Detroit last year, denied the appeal of practicing Wiccan, Mario Sentelle Cavin, to communally celebrate esbats in the prison chapel. They recognized his right to celebrate lunar observances in his cell, but no candles or incense would be allowed.