The inmates at various Department of Correction Facilities have been tracking this discussion of Pagans in Prison, and are aware of the civil rights issue in Stillwater Prison. Nearly all Pagans in prison find that path in prison. They have no history with a ‘Pagan community’. They have the idea that we as Pagans have a spiritual community like many Christian groups do. Inmates, therefore, tend to have a real idealized vision of our ‘Pagan community’. We are presumed to have facilities, programs, ministers, outreach programs, and the dedication to help our ‘brethren’ in need, and they know they certainly need help. Maybe they suffer from the same attitude we hold, we want a lot from our community and don’t have the time or resources to put a lot into it.
What do you want from the Pagan community as Pagans in Prison?
We want to be able to learn more, and to be able to meet people in a positive fashion. We want to start building some positive relationships now, that will be available to us once we get on the outside. Ninety percent of us are here because of the people we hung around with. When we get out, if we hang with the same people, we will be back in here. We need Pagan people to hang with! We want to have people take the time and effort to share their knowledge with us, and we are also willing to pass what we learn on to others. We need some good examples set for us, of people ( Pagans) who live their lives in a positive way. We really need a 180 Re-entry Program or halfway house of some kind. Other religious groups have some kind of transition program to help inmates who have paid their debts find work and get started on a new path, and we really need that. The existing programs are all Christian based, and we need something that integrates what we have learned in prison as Pagans.
You saw the comments from both Pagans and others about the civil rights issue in Stillwater prison, what did you think?
We were shocked. The idea that Pagan ‘ministers’ would agree to deny us simple tools to do a ritual as unnecessary was disturbing. We thought the Pagan world was more together. We thought the community would support us, that by taking a Pagan path people might allow the possibility that we have changed. We thought Pagans might understand we had made some really big mistakes but we were trying to use our Pagan practice to be different people.
Many long-term Pagan prisoners have done a lot of study. They can tell you about every method of divination, or ritual technique, or the nature of 200 angels of ceremonial magic. They don’t always know all the ‘why’s’ of what they know, and their ‘teachers’ have brought different knowledge and back grounds, so most inmates have had little consistency in finding a path.
Below are comments from inmates. They represent an individual reaction and the frustration of practicing a Pagan path in prison.
I have been a practicing Pagan for the last four years. As someone who not only attends Wiccan meetings but also a bunch of Christian meetings. I have also attended Wiccan meetings in three different facilities. Two of them are medium, and one was maximum security. The biggest problem I see is lack of uniformity of acceptance and a willingness to let Wiccans practice their beliefs. The best facility for Wiccans that I have been at is Lino Lakes. The Chaplain / Religious coordinator there is more accepting, and has created a way for all religious groups to respect each other. At Lino Lakes they have a Council of inmates who attend each service to meet and solve issues they may have. At Lino lakes they also have an interfaith symposium so that people can learn about other religions including Wicca. On October 31st 2010 was the first outdoor ritual for Wiccans at Lino Lakes. The Chaplain was instrumental in getting permission to hold it outdoors at Lino lakes. They are also allowed incense and oils. I was told the reason we couldn’t have oils in our cells is we might pour it on the floor and make the CO’s slip and fall. Here, we don’t have anything like what we had at Lino. It is a lack of uniformity, lack of communication, and lack of acceptance. I do not feel the Wiccan religion is considered acceptable here at Stillwater, whether it is by the chaplain, or by the Correctional Officers. The CO’s say oils can cover the smell of weed or alcohol, so can air fresheners, apple shampoo, and cocoa butter. All of which is available to us. It is just an excuse to not let us have religious stuff. Here the facility could create a council or symposium to help open the eyes and minds to other religions so that people are not rigid in their thinking.
An article was written in the Star Tribune. Today I saw the comments that were written in response to that article and was deeply saddened. The majority of comments seem to agree that if you commit a crime you have no right to practice your religion. This is beyond me. My crime was twenty years ago, and I have been Pagan for the last seven years. Should I have been allowed to not learn of the god and the goddess while here? In the past three years the DOC has started a Christian ‘faith based’ program here, which requires mandatory bible study and you must convert to Christianity. Since then they have begun to strip Wiccans of their rights.
Two years ago we could smudge in the chapel area before our service. This was needed because many people who use the chapel area are filled with anger and rage. This provided us with a peaceful place for us to cast our circle. Does NOT smudging prevent us from casting our circle? No, that was just the first thing taken away. Next we could not light a stick of incense that we use to combine fire and air, and bless our members and circle with. Next we could not have any herbs or teas to practice with. Next, any articles or pictures of Greek, Roman, or Celtic Gods or Goddesses were allowed. Next we could not get advance access to the chapel to set up for our services which delayed them twenty minutes. Then we could not print out any handouts from the chapel copier for our services, no more! The prison administration has decided that if you are not Christian, you should not practice any other faith. Do we NEED what they have taken? No. We are still Pagans without these things. I don’t believe we should stand silent while images of our Gods and Goddesses are stripped from us, or our ability to cast our circle as sacred is slowly taken.
The response from the Wiccan community has stunned me. What is that old Jewish-Nazi story, “When they did this I looked away, and then one day they came for me?”. Should we stand by and allow the burning times to come without objection? If Wiccans in prison don’t have anything to practice their religion, why should we allow anyone in the free world to practice their religion? And excuse me, I believe the God and Goddess want me to not only become a better person and practice the lessons they have taught, but to share them with my brothers.
I believe the worst thing that can happen to us, is to one day stand before the God and the Goddess and to have them ask, “Why our brother is not standing next to us?”, when I could have shared the knowledge that had brought me before them. I know, radical bullshit, subversive thinking. I believe that anything my brother or sister needs to become close to their deity should be possible. That struggle can do nothing but make us stronger in our faith. Apparently there are Wiccans who think there are people who do not deserve the love of the God and Goddess. I will pray for them.
We Pagan inmates do not want any special treatment. We only want the right to practice our religion in a way that strengthens our faith. The things we want back, are the things we had for years before the current administration decided we should all become Christians. We are Wiccans however, and personally, I will fight for my brothers and sisters to practice whatever faith brings them closer to the goddess, including myself.
As a recent convert from Christianity, specifically Catholic, I have found this facility to indeed accommodate Christian more than Pagans. Yes, I do understand that things like incense, oils, and altars are not necessary for my spirituality. It would greatly enhance my spiritual and group experience to have them. Just like asking the Catholics if they would like to hold Mass without the wine and the wafers used in communion. By the way, the Catholics also use incense in their prison Mass.
Note: Inmates do not have access to reporters, and identifying information can be used in retribution for individuals and groups. These inmate comments were faithfully transcribed from their comments. The sense I got from Pagan inmates is they see a clear discrimination against Pagans. For them, they feel this discrimination within their whole prison experience; in treatment, opportunities, privileges, resources, and even in parole hearings. The restriction in their religious tools and allowed process is the manifestation of the dominance, official support, and emphasis on the Christian program emphasized at a few institutions. Those inmates in the Christian program get a clear preference within institutions and different terms of parole.
Editorial based on this series to follow…..