In the next few years many Pagan groups and communities will be confronting how we receive released and reformed prisoners. How Pagans answer this question will in part define who we are, an important question.
At Paganicon this year, Morninghawk Apollo is offering a workshop/discussion on the topic. He describes it as: “Many new members coming to the Pagan community are former prison inmates who became Pagans while locked up. At many institutions, either Wicca or Asatru is the largest religious group, not counting solitary practitioners. The vast majority of these inmates will be released at the end of their sentences and wish to join the Pagan community. Statistically, if your group hasn’t been approached by an ex-con yet, it will be. Have you considered your response? What reception should we give these Pagans when they are released? Bring your thoughts, fears, and ideas for a lively discussion of this important topic. “
Morninghawk has been offering prison ministry with his wife since 2004. He took a three-year break in the middle, and is back serving two Moose Lake, MN facilities. The Minnesota State Correctional Facility (MCF Moose Lake) is a regular prison and has inmates, called “offenders,” who wear uniform clothing. The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is a post-sentence medical treatment facility that houses inmates, called “clients,” who wear whatever they want within reason. Many inmates convicted of certain sexual offenses are civilly committed by the court to the MSOP program after completing their MCF prison sentence. Both are secure facilities, and look like prisons when you drive up.
I talked to Morninghawk about his work:
What are the facilities you minister to?
Morninghawk: At the MCF is a level three medium security facility, meaning many have served their “hard time” at a facility like Stillwater or Oak Park Heights. They are generally on their way to release in the next five years. At MSOP, there is no defined release time. If they graduate from this program, they are transferred to the MSOP program in St.Peter, MN. If they graduate from that program they may be released to society from there. In the seventeen years the program has been running, only one client has been released from St. Peter, just this past year. Both facilities are all men.
How many people do you work with?
At the MCF facility we only work within a spiritual group setting. There are many solitaries, and not all attend the group meetings. Generally 15-20 offenders meet each week. At the MSOP there are 35-40 clients who meet.
What do you try to do?
Our goal is to help them find and grow into their chosen path. At some point they will be released, and we help them to understand what the Pagan community and Pagan groups are like. We also train them to be their own leaders, so they may be able to start their own group upon release.
Are they serious students?
Some of them are very serious, some are more casual. It is just like on the outside, some attend every meeting, teaching, and ritual, and become the core of the group. Others just attend occasionally. We attend every other time they meet. They do a lot of their own programming, and get practice at leading and creating their own rituals. Same with teaching, they may study out of books and then share it with the group. We contribute when we attend, and it becomes a collaborative process.
What do prisoners imagine they will do with their beliefs when released?
We do a lot of education around that. They believe there are lots of groups to get involved with, and like with the Christian church, they are easy to find and they will be welcomed with open arms. If you have been in the system for twenty years, you have lost all touch with the outside world. We teach that there aren’t that many groups, and so we teach them to be prepared to start their own group. They do ask, “Will I be accepted?”. We just say we don’t know, because we believe most groups haven’t confronted the possibility yet. This workshop is aimed to open that door, to get people thinking about it. By prison estimates, at least 5-10% of the population is classed as Wicca and Asatru (which are the state classifications for many Pagan paths). They are two of the largest groups that prisoners self identify with.
Do past offenders want acceptance by the Pagan community?
Most want it, and many expect it, but most consider that they may not be accepted. Many ask the question, “What can I do so I will be accepted?”. I am not advocating that every group be accepting to Ex-cons. I just ask them to think about the question in advance, and have the discussion, because at some point, they will be confronted with it. When someone approaches you and says, “I have done time at Stillwater, is it all right if I attend?”, you should have an answer to give, whether it is yes, or no.
What do you advise them about reaching out to the Pagan community?
I can’t tell them what to say, but I always tell them to be honest about their past. They may be able to hide it, but at some point it will come up. Better to be up front and honest from the start. I also tell them to speak up about what they have experienced and how they have improved themselves and reformed during their time in prison. We as ministers can’t have any contact with offenders for a year by state law after they are released.
Can they be an asset to a Pagan group?
Absolutely, many of them are very dedicated students and practitioners. They have been practicing and studying for many years. Yes, they did something to get in prison, but for many they were a different person then. One offender was in a gang fight at age 18, and killed another gang member. He has been in prison for twenty years, and he is a definitely a different person now. You can’t assume that everyone is a different person after the prison experience, but many are. Many inmates are incarcerated for drug related offenses, or a stupid mistake as a youth, or a crime of passion. They fully understand why they ended up in prison, and will not be that person ever again.
What do you want to say to Pagans confronting this issue of acceptance?
Pagans should consider what they will do when anyone approaches them. Whether an ex-con or not, look at who are they as an individual person, separate from their time in prison. As much as experience affects us, any of us are more than our past. One mistake made many years ago shouldn’t mark a person for life, as long as a person is willing to grow from their experiences. I believe that the Gods and Goddesses are more forgiving than that.
Check the Paganicon schedule in mid February to find when this discussion is scheduled.