Pagans in Prison – Editorial

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We have had an explosion of incarceration in the United States in the last 30 years.  Minority races, the poor, and least educated continue to be way over represented as inmates statistically. Addiction, and our society’s inability to cope with the plague it represents, contributes to arrests and recidivism, and drug offenses fuel incarceration rates. Young males dominate the populations of our prisons, while female rates explode proportionately but in smaller overall numbers. One in 28 US kids has a parent in prison, and that tells much of the story of where the males are that might be a role model.

The religious civil rights of Pagans, or any inmate, are now well established in law. Whether the implementation of that law takes place seems to depend on individual states, institutions, and the staff and chaplains who work within them. Officials and inmates can work together to find reasonable accommodation to individual spiritual practice, and equity of accommodation among the many spiritual paths in prison, or we can all bear the cost of resolving these issues through the courts.

Inmates pay for their crimes through the loss of their freedom. To expect them to lose the rights our Constitution considers basic human rights is more for our satisfaction and as ‘punishment’ for those who may have caused us pain or harm.

As a society, and as a community of Pagans, we need to address these issues. If overcrowded inmate populations explode, we will see the results in our cities. As funding for our prisons is challenged, religious civil rights will certainly suffer over security issues. When the ‘least’ of us is suppressed in our religious rights, those of us in minority faiths may also be next to have those rights challenged in other areas of society. Some rate the maturity and compassion of a society based on their incarceration rates, and if that is the case, the USA as the leader, is compared to some of the most repressive countries in the world. The short-sighted policies that cut education, training, counseling and yes, spiritual practice in prison, will have the same effect on inmates that it does within our society, more incarceration. How much disregard can we have for the humanity that may remain in those incarcerated, and expect any shred of personal transformation upon release?

As Pagans, we consistently reject convicted persons within our groups. Pagan groups are ethically condemned for inclusion of convicted persons, accidental or with their with full knowledge. Certainly caution is warranted with anyone these days,  Pagans can attract people of questionable ethics of all types. Inmates are attracted to Pagan paths, in part, because of its personal relevance, but also the karmic justice that explains their incarceration. What isn’t explained to them is our community repulsion to offering them a chance.  Former Pagan prisoners are here, among us now, participating in public events, and private study and practice. When our pride in ‘inclusiveness’ extends to accepting, with full knowledge, the past of those who have been incarcerated and allowing the belief that any of us can change, we will really have matured past those faiths we criticize.

Like experiencing home foreclosure, we all are really a drink, a lapse of judgment, or the act of a companion with poor choices away from incarceration ourselves in this society. Paganistan is an aging population,  filled with collectors of  ‘third degrees’ , who most often committed to some kind of service with their title.  Is a few overworked religious volunteers in prisons the best we can muster? Offering at least provisional support to  reformed inmates who sincerely walk spiritual paths does not seem to taint other religions.  Are we Pagans so fragile, and sensitive to our ‘reputation’ that we as a community will not reach out to a whole generation of eager students?  Maybe when we look at Pagan community it is time to look beyond what it can offer us, and look to what we can contribute through it to a broader community, including Pagan inmates in prison, and those now released.

Religious volunteers to work within prisons are urgently needed. Without fail those I interviewed said they had never felt threatened at any time. They describe the experience as one of the must rewarding of their lives, and they share with the most appreciative, eager audience they have known. They confided they learned at least as much as they offered, and met some of the most gifted ritualists they had ever encountered. These volunteer clergy each offered to mentor any who would test the experience, and become a volunteer. There are rules, and some training required, but it is minimal. Personal correspondence is another alternative, but it lacks the reality of directly working with others and coming to know another. The anonymous nature of correspondence is actually more of a safety concern.  A PO box return address is a must, and letters can easily give an inmate the idea that you will be there, offering some ‘real’ support when they are released. Donations of books and supplies are useful, but newer and advanced subject titles, and those spanning beyond Wicca are in the highest demand. Letters of support to public officials., when inmate civil rights violations are confirmed, helps them do the right thing under political, religious, and financial pressure to suppress them.

All the religious volunteers interviewed thanked me profusely for taking an interest enough to write about Pagan inmates.  I was embarrassed because this dedicated service  goes on largely unnoticed, unappreciated, nor thanked, for doing great and critically important work in all our names as Pagans.

For information about volunteering, supplies donations, or correspondence involving Pagan inmates, you can contact PNC-Minnesota, or talk to the chaplain at the institution nearest you… there really can not be too many volunteers. We will put you in contact with resources and volunteers to get you started.

*Update: Patrick McCollum contributed a guest post to the Wild Hunt blog on April 28th.  He talks about a new Supreme Court  (SCOTUS) ruling which significantly effects inmate civil rights lawsuits!

Online Prison Ministry Resources:

Thoughts on doing Prison ministry

On corresponding with Prisoners

General Resources and information

To contact Wade and volunteer in Wisconsin Prisons

Nationwide prison ministry links

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