Wade Mueller is a religious volunteer for Pagans in seven Wisconsin Correctional Institutions. He is tired, but receives so much from his prison experience, and sees such a need, that he can’t stop if it means letting his people down.
Do you actively advocate for an inmates religious rights or requests?
I have to stay away from that as I have absolutely no power as a volunteer aid, and so am in a very precarious position. I tend to be polite and courteous in order to get entry and or anything at all with the inmates. Once inside I act as a priest, a facilitator, they cannot even get together as a group unless I come in. I tell the guys, “What do you want to do with this time?”. Some really want to do in-depth, hard-core rituals. Then I encourage and help them write their own rituals, and then just watch over and maybe help them. I may facilitate discussion, help with meditation. It is different every time depending on who shows up. There are so many different paths and traditions that show up, and there is often conflict.
The Asatru guys don’t especially like the Wiccans, so there is endless nit-picking and back biting crap that goes on. It is a hard-core juggling act between trying to provide some sort of service for the Pagans that are there. Trying to educate and help them along their path, and doing it in a way that involves any non-Pagans too much. The chaplains and officials have a very basic understanding of what Paganism is, so you can’t try to do some kind of ‘high’ magic or Egyptian intonation cause people will freak out. The chaplains and guards would freak out as it is so far beyond their understanding. Most of the chaplains I work with are really accommodating. I don’t think there is anything that I have asked for that has been denied. Chaplains have very little power in the Department of Corrections, but they are treated with deference and respect. They mainly do paperwork and rarely do spiritual work, just because of how the system is set up. I see a lot of sincere and dedicated chaplains, and for the main they have done right by Pagans. The issues of inmates not getting ritual tools or outdoor space tend to come from the state, from Madison, or security coordinators, not from the chaplains.
How do inmates they get the supplies and tools you use in ritual?
Everything comes through the institution’s Inmate Property Office. This regulates all the religious items inmates may have, and are allowed for group use. That changes pretty constantly. Some institutions provide bread and juice, some offer outdoor space, or wood for a fire. In some places I can bring in a chalice and mead or wine for ceremony, in some a cauldron can be brought and removed. Some institutions have a ritual ‘box’ that has more things than most covens I know of, others have only an altar cloth and a salt dish and that is it. It tends to be at the discretion of the administration of each individual prison. There are state-wide rules, but each is basically run as an individual entity, almost a fiefdom.
Pagans have a hundred different understandings of what it means when you say you are a Wiccan, and so as a chaplain or a state corrections official when they have to answer, ”What do pagans need for their religious practice?”, the honest answer for them is, “I don’t know”. It varies, and it doesn’t make any sense to them. Pagan folk just don’t fit into their experience and understanding. It is such an individual thing, but their needs should really be accommodated unless there is ‘a compelling security risk or interest’ as they tell me, involved. If say the Asatru say they want some kind of hammer to do a ritual, that is just automatically nixed because they are not going to give a hammer or a sword to a bunch of Pagans.
Do you plan religious activities in advance?
We try to plan as far ahead as possible, I usually go in twice a month into these institutions. A month ahead I try to determine who, or what group wants to do the ritual coming up. I’ll take volunteers and assign them to it, We’ll write it up and submit it in advance to the chaplain. I’ll have the ritual, the roles assigned and the tools needed for the ritual laid out. It almost always get approved, mainly because we know what will and won’t get approved, two or four weeks later we do the ritual. In most places we have a ritual box at each institution with the allowed items within it. Like we are allowed a wand (though the size and type varies from place to place), feather, an altar cloth, a chalice, and similar items. If there is something special, I can often bring it in and take it back out afterwards.
Can inmates keep anything in their cells to facilitate their own spiritual practice?
Pretty much no. Most prisons have rules against any altars or shrines, so they are usually forbidden. The few tools they are allowed to have are a feather, with a property slip, and three different oils, and that is about it. You can post a picture, but if you do a ritual in your cell you must take everything down afterward. You cannot have salt for purification or to cast a circle. What inmates can do individually in their cell is extraordinarily limited. In Wisconsin they have the zero emission policy, which means no fire, flame or smoke. In some places we can use incense, a candle, even a fire if there is an outdoor space. In others prisons, it is based on the rules of the individual chapel policy and that varies from nothing burning, to no open flame.
Where do you volunteer?
I work in seven institutions, Stanley, Jackson(near Black River Falls), New Lisbon, Chippewa Valley, Sand Ridge, Columbia, (near Portage), and Red Granite. I put a lot of miles on my car! I am simply a volunteer, I have no ministerial credentials. I got into it eight years ago with Lady Valley , who covered most of those institutions. She had some health concerns, and got into it helping her. I started and really enjoyed it. At that point there was really no requirements for volunteering, and her recommendation was enough. Each institution become the recommendation for the next, and now I am ‘the guy” institutions talk to about Pagan stuff. Each inmate is allowed a Book of Shadows, a three-ring binder. Occasionally in a search they will find things that cause them concern. They will call me in and ask me if this is a legitimate item or actual spiritual stuff. Unfortunately I have to make a judgment call. Sometimes inmates use their Pagan stuff as a cover for gang activity or other stupid purpose. Most of the time it is just things a non Pagan would not recognize as spiritual in nature.
Do you see your role as more a facilitator than as an educator or advocate for inmate religious rights?
I am a facilitator, my position is so tenuous, to even be allowed in at all. I have no power to advocate either way. If chaplains are interested in Pagan religious practice, they can come to me about particular issues, and I can educate them . With the inmates, I am there solely to facilitate their path. I can teach classes or do lessons. Most of the time they are learning on their own or teaching each other, I am just there to help them move in a positive direction. Most prisons have rules that if you come for a ‘pagan’ service, you sign up, attend and are there for the duration. You can’t discriminate within the group, and must accept everyone who shows up. This grinds many inmates the wrong way, but that is really the only way to do it, otherwise it breaks into small clichés and becomes disruptive. The Asatru, northern path type Pagans, would prefer to practice on their own. They represent maybe a quarter to a third of Pagans in most institutions. They have advocated for years to be recognized by the state as separate group. In Wisconsin they only recognize Protestant Christian, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Native Americans, and Pagans as practicing groups. You have to fit into one of those. If you are recognized as separate you get your own special rules. For the Asatru the problem is also, if they were recognized they have no volunteers to facilitate their practice and so would not be able to meet.
Is there a proper place to advocate for prisoner rights?
It is really touchy, within the prisons, so really there needs to be a separation. A person communicating with a prisoner inside can be accused of fostering ‘group resistance’ and can get both themselves and inmates in trouble. The rules are many and really complex, so it is best to just be separate. All I can say to issues that arise is to advise they file a complaint through institution channels. If I even mentioned lawsuits, I could be banned from the institution and the inmate can be placed in segregation for that. From what I know, there are no Pagan organizations that are doing inmate advocacy on a state level. Lady Liberty League does national work. Very few inmates are incarcerated as a Pagan. They mostly come to it once in prison. I believe this is an incredible opportunity for people who have a huge amount of time on their hands to pursue their Pagan path. This kind of ministry to Pagans in prison is incredibly helpful and beneficial to hundred and hundreds of people. Bringing books to prison libraries is also really valuable. When I started many prison libraries had two or three ancient Pagan titles. Some could literally quote the whole book, because that is all they had. The best way to get book in a prison is to have a volunteer bring it or mail them in. I made it my mission to get books in the institutions I serve. For pagans who want to help, find a volunteer in a particular prison to help get them into the library. If you don’t get a chapel receipt, they can really easily just get tossed and never placed in the library. There is a huge need for Asatru and Druidry books. Each donated books gets read dozens and dozens of times.
In the next Pagans in Prison interview, you will hear what it is like for a Minnesota Minister and volunteer.