George A Edgar, Wiccan Minister and Pagan Prison Religious Volunteer at three Minnesota Correctional Institutions; Stillwater, Faribault, and Shakopee
The important decisions about what inmates can have or do in their religious practice are made by those that are least qualified and educated to do so. If you are pulled over for speeding it is the police officer who decides if you get a ticket, not a judge, a specialist in the law. If you say, ” I am on my way to minister to inmates”, they might just say, “Have a nice day”, and let you go. That has happened to me! It is the same in the prison system, it is the guards and the chaplains who decide what goes on. When you get to the upper echelon, the Warden or the Department of Corrections, and they get excited, you tend to see draconian measures because they don’t want any headaches. They see things very practically, and the Pagans represent a slippery slope. They had to cave into the Native Americans. They allow outdoor ritual, the sweat lodge, the use of tobacco, now what if the Druids want that too? If you can get three or four guys together and a religious volunteer, you become a legitimate religious group. All of a sudden you may have thirty outdoor rituals a week, with special guards and space requirements. Where is the funding, where are the extra staff? They just don’t want the headache. They want to stop this as best they can.
They had to accommodate the Native Americans because the federal courts got involved. If prison officials can do the minimum in accommodation, and skate by, like a business they are happy with that. They try to stay ‘close’ to the law, but are not that concerned with any ‘extras’. When legislators come to the DOC, who then comes to the individual institutions and says, “Where can we cut funding?” there is pressure. Everyone is monetarily concerned in most facilities and when Pagans say we want more staffing available for more, or outdoor ritual, they throw their hands in the air and think, “Why?”.
What items can an inmate have in their cell?
In Stillwater Prison they can have five religious items. Then they can have more general items,(which can have religious significance). For some reason religious books count as general items. Most Pagan inmates have an altar, which can be set up all the time. They have a few tools on them, but nothing on the walls. Some guards let them stick things up anyway, but it is discretionary at that level. They have books, and often a ‘Book of Shadows’.
The inmates have the locker/box/altar for items used for the group practice. At Stillwater they have statues, salt and water, candles, a wooden wand, and a nice pentacle hand-made in the institution. They have everything for a basic ritual. If they want, they can have many of these items in their cell but it counts against the total items they can have in their cell. It is a personal decision they individually have to make. Many have tarot decks, which count as one personal item. No one in the prison can have any item that needs to be burned in their cell. Most institutions have extremely strict lighter, match, candle policies. At Faribault one of the inmates kept a lighter and they shut the place down until they found it. The Chaplains, I know of, allow open flame in the chapel. Usually the volunteer, with a supplied lighter, can light one candle, and then in some institutions others may be lit from that one.
- Stillwater Prison – photo: NPR
Are books available, are there libraries?
There is a space problem. Inmates in most prisons have access to the outside public library system. Friends can check out books and send them in or the inmates can go through the prison library to get outside library loan books. The group storage locker can also store books, but how those books are used is determined by the local Chaplain. At Faribault they have a locked cabinet, about the size of an upper kitchen cabinet where they can keep the supplies they want. There, prisoners can check them out, or donate books to that store and the inmates themselves police that. In Stillwater, they have an altar, about the size of a kitchen table, with a locked enclosure under it.. They can store books in that, or whatever fits in that. They have more books than they can handle, so they put some out in the prison library general religious section. They may or may not stay in circulation. In Shakopee, they can donate books to the general prison library, and then inmates can check them out. There, they seem to remain for quite a time before they may disappear. Inmates can also ask a friend outside to access the Internet and print something off, and mail it in. If it is not pornographic, it will likely get to the prisoner.
Why is incense an issue?
They used to have incense available at Stillwater, and some of the other institutions within their Chapels only. They had some “problems” with it, so now they have taken it away, and the inmates are trying to get it back. Inmates have been told it is a fire hazard and a scent cover for smells. The Minnesota Clean Air Act doesn’t seem to be concerned with incense. Inmates are allowed things just as odoriferous, so it comes down to, is it a fire hazard. They do allow one candle in the chapels and that is not determined to be a fire hazard. Inmates can have certain oils in their cell, but only in small quantities and if ordered direct from a supplier like Magus or Azure Green. They limit quantity because it can become a commodity for barter.
Why are there these civil rights law suits?
There are always ongoing suits within the prison system. Months ago the MN State Dept. of Human Rights reviewed inmate complaints and published a finding that determined there was discrimination with Pagan religious requests and treatment. Instead of changing their behavior or admitting wrongdoing the DOC then asked for a review of the finding. The commission finding opens the door for inmate law suits on the issues. This is not ‘class action’, but multiple prisoners filed the same complaints with the commission. Inmates and prison administrators are always ‘jockeying’ for position, and one of the ways prisoners can do this is by filing complaints outside of the prison system. The feeling is that when outside people get involved it puts more pressure on resolving the issue. Sometimes it is done just as a nuisance and to aggravate as well – Tit for Tat so to speak.
As a volunteer, I can’t get directly involved, but I am a resource person for what they request, and I work with them on that. Some inmates are very individualistic, some work as a group. Most genuinely want to improve conditions for all inmates, but others do enjoy filing for nuisance reasons. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands to pursue these issues.
Are you a skeptic about these issues, and prisoners pursuing their civil rights?
Well I don’t see a lot of sincerity outside the prison system, so why should I demand it inside it? I work with whoever attends our group, unless they are clearly there to be disruptive. How we work as a group often depends upon the chaplain in each institution. The warden doesn’t want to deal with religious issues. If things go smoothly, the chaplain has a pretty free hand in how thing are run. The chaplain has the ability to offer a lot of flexibility, but only if they choose to. In the three institutions I work in the chaplain doesn’t get involved in the actual ritual content. If we want to be outside, or bring something special in, we need permission and a justification. Each facility has a sheet of items I specifically can bring in as approved automatically. I can usually bring in a wider variety of things than volunteers for many religious groups. Time allowed in religious activity is dependent upon a volunteer’s availability. In many institutions they are not concerned about time spent in religious work, one on one, or as a group, as long as there is a volunteer (mandatory in high security prisons) present.
Isn’t this really personally rewarding, why is there not more volunteer help?
There is always a shortage of religious volunteers, and with Pagans it is more extreme. Stillwater could use another volunteer, St Peter, Moose Lake, and Sandstone have no volunteers, there are probably five or six openings right now for Pagan religious volunteers. People just don’t want to do it. Read the comments posted to the tribune article, prisoners are murderers first, then Pagans or even human beings. Inmates are people who have done something we don’t approve of, often heinous things. People forget that these people will eventually get out. Some next month, in six months, or longer. How we view/relate to these prisoners will influence how they behave when they get out. If they can stay connected with the spirituality they experience here in prison, everyone agrees they have a much better chance of breaking old patterns and associations.
Is our community inclusive of prisoners who have done their time and been released?
Well first, I would argue we as Pagans don’t really have a community. We have fragments, each with its own rules, standards, and policies. Some don’t desire to welcome anyone, much less released prisoners. If you volunteer within the prison you can’t have contact with a released prisoner or relative. Pagans have no group, program, or dedication to help bring these people into our community. They are on their own. Many come from out state and get released out state. Volunteers can supply references to resource people they know in local communities. Once inmates regain their freedom, often any religious practice slips, but if it is supported it can remain important in their lives. We as Pagans create this illusion we have a community where people are responsible, respectful, and contributing. In reality our ‘greater’ magical community doesn’t demand or expect any of those things. Small groups may have these demands, but they are enforced by small group pressure. Creating a real ‘greater ‘ Pagan community tends to be way down the list for most Pagans. So where can released inmates turn to for support?
In the next Pagans in Prison interview, Emrys Anu, Wiccan Minister, talks about what magical practice is like in the Rush City Institution.