The Adventures of a Wiccan Prison Chaplain

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Including Outmates

Last year at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies I spoke about PTSD, what it was like coming home and what many of us are dealing with. While my dealings with some of experiences in Iraq may be rough and troublesome, the hardest part was coming home and returning to civilian life.

After everything that I had been through, and strangely enough, everything I have become accustom to, I had a much more difficult time integrating back into "normal" life and relating to "normal" people (civilians). I soon discovered that most people had equal difficulty relating to me. There were many awkward silences because they didn't know what or what not say, and neither did I.

It's been nine years since I came home with sand in my boots. I've slowly become more comfertable, I have learned to talk openly and people have learned to talk back. Having experienced it myself, I tend to notice it and I continue to see this type social tension in our community. But this awkward social tension is not limited to our returning warriors, the same type of social anxiety also exists between our communities and the incoming Pagan parolees I like to call "Outmates."

In the last several months I have noticed a significant flare up concerning outmates; inmates who became Pagan in prison, get paroled, and go looking for a spiritual foundation in their local Pagan communities. This is happening more and more, and it will continue to become increasingly common.

It took a while for the growth and popularity of Paganism to seep through the cracks into correctional environment enough to propagate new growth. After a few years of gestation, waves of new Pagan outmates are being paroled and are looking for that Pagan community experience they've been dreaming of all those years inside.

So, how would you feel about a recently released convicted felon attending your open community circles and events?

In the last few months I have received no less than 11 communications requesting assistance and opinion on how to handle "convicts," and I'm hearing things like:

"Don't we; circle, Coven and community leaders have a responsibility to warn our community members as to who has served time?"

While I understand their fears and concerns, to an extent, I do have a few problems with these types of questions. First, I'm concerned with the use of the term "warn" in this context. Mostly because they are asking someone who has served a few months in lockup, me, to justify their desire to spread potent information about other people who have served time.

This is my answer is this; context is the key and the answer to every situation is situational. Let me give a few examples; I actively engage in walk-in, face to face prison ministry, and also run an open to the public Community Covenant. So over the years I have had many inmates I served in prison, get paroled, show up and attend our community rituals.

As a "religious volunteer" for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, we are categorized as an "unpaid employee," and as such we are subject to the same rules and regulations as the paid employees. Therefore familiarity, and over-familiarity applies. This means we can't get too cozy with the inmates, or the outmates. But if you're not a religious volunteer, this does not apply.

So, when a former inmate whom I worked with while in prison, strolls into our community circle, I greet them and discreetly inquire or reconfirm the conditions of their parole (situational context is established here). Contact with outmates IS allowed on the outside and religious events are acceptable circumstances. I do send a "cover-my-butt" email to my supervisor at the prison to let him know and keep a record of that email and that information is kept confidential.

Within the conditions set by the state, I can and do interact with parolees. As far as their status as a "parolee" I consider the issue "casually confidential," meaning it's not considered penitential communication. It's a case by case, need to know basis, depending on the circumstances.

As community leaders it is not our role or responsibility to activate the phone tree emergency response system and alert everyone that there is a parolee in our mists. We must recognize the limits of our responsibility and authority in this area.

Being on parole is not a crime, it's a condition.

Outmates have the right to self-determine, meaning they get to choose if and who they share their status with, based in the conditions of their parole.

How do you find out about the conditions of their parole?

You ask them. The biggest problem in our communities is communication, and we really need to work on developing those skills. And with outmates, as well as veterans, the key is communication.

Talk to them, not about them.

As community leaders, and members, we can potentially make a huge difference in the lives of the recently released. It's no picnic out here, and many outmates desire and require a strong and stable spiritual foundation. That's us.

For those larger community groups and organizations, I would strongly suggest making a simple phone call to your local parole office and speak with a parole officer. They can and will answer your questions and provide assistance. I did, I explained that I was a religious volunteer and that our religious organization was looking for information and materials to assist us in assisting parolees.

The officer was quite happy to take my call, answered all of my questions to my satisfaction and sent me a whole packet of information, including counseling, education, health and welfare support agencies, employment and residential assistance sources and much more.

Not only did I receive valuable information and support from the parole office, the resources they provided my with have enabled me to be a resource to parolees. 

Someone somewhere said "...so you're not pro-life, you're pro-birth..." pointing out that many conservatives venomously oppose terminating any pregnancy, but want to cut health care and benefits, even to infants.

I'd like to point out that we Pagans, who always seems to be up in arms activists when it comes to inmate religious rights, don's seem to as concerned, if at all, about those same inmates after they've been released. In fact most groups fear and avoid them. I'd like to change that. Not everyone is cut out for a prison ministry of presence, but everyone can actively engage in a community ministry of compassion.

Lord & Lady, thank you for traditions of celebration and fellowship.

Blessed Be.

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Joseph Merlin Nichter is an author, blogger, ritualist, Freemason, Wiccan and co-founder of the Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain, Joseph provides Pagan religious services and assists with religious accommodations of minority faiths for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; he has also served the California Department of Mental Health as a religious program instructor. Joseph is the co-founder and current president of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Joseph lives in Central California with his wife and four children, where he continues to actively serve his community.

Comments

  • Candi
    Candi Tuesday, 30 July 2013

    Not everyone is cut out for a prison ministry of presence, but everyone can actively engage in a community ministry of compassion.


    Considering this, here's my question: How should a hitherto 'non-penitentiarily-experienced' group or group leader train themselves in order to become more adept at handling these situations? Are there workshops that you know of for Pagan religious leaders to attend? Perhaps you could give workshops? I ask because I'm in training to become a Priestess, and would appreciate any knowledge of these situations that I can get.

  • Ulf
    Ulf Wednesday, 31 July 2013

    Thanks for writing this. I have been involved in the community for 30+ years. I wanted to add my voice on an aspect of this that people often don't think about, which is that there are many ways to become a convicted felon and MOST of them are not in any way a threat to anyone after the fact. In my case, I caused an injury accident while driving under the influence. This is a felony. I did a couple months in jail. I also stopped drinking, but that's not my point. While I am a 'convicted felon' and always will be, my conviction is not the kind most folks would wish to avoid me for. Given the nature of sentencing variance and the oddity of the plea bargain process, your convicted felon is more likely to have been found guilty of drug charges than violent crimes. Just something to think about.

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