The Adventures of a Wiccan Prison Chaplain

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Spells for Cells part one

Back in July 2012 I wrote a piece announcing the establishment of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Since then the association has accrued a decent number of members. Considering how few Pagan Chaplains there are, we're looking pretty good. A little over a week ago we held our first annual forum at PantheaCon  and again I was pleasantly surprised by the turn out. Among those in attendance were Patrick McCollum, Selena Fox, Macha Nightmare and Glenn Turner. I personally felt honored by their presence.

Our presentation consisted of a brief introduction to the association; its mission, vision, membership, structure and development plans. I gave a short instructional vignette on essential texts related to chaplaincy within the field of corrections. This transitioned into an open discussion forum which covered a wide range of topics. Both Patrick and Selena shared valuable experience and insight on the past, present and future of Pagan Chaplaincy. The highlight of the evening for me personally was Patrick's heartfelt expression of support for the success of the association. And in the interest of full disclosure, I got a little misty eyed.

By the time we got back home and began unpacking the news that California may have to hire a Wiccan Chaplain was already well on its way to going viral. And given my obvious investment in the subject matter everyone I know began forwarding links to news feed via Facebook, instant messages and email. My computer lit up like a Samhain altar.

And much like the recent Fox news fopaux by reporters Tucker Carlson and Terry Bruce, this recent overturn of events isn't suffering from a shortage of attention. While the majority of news coverage has been repetitious rehashes of the same information, it hasn't really been all that negative. But then late last night I came across this gem of wisdom, experience and insight. As I said, it was late. I was in bed, nice and warm and cozy. So I decided to sleep on it and frame a response today.


This is my response.

First, I'm going to do my best to ignore the lame insulting buns and simply address the three actual issues I think are important here. But to adequately do so will require more than a single post, so I'm going to break my response up into small palatable pieces which will be tagged "Spells for Cells."

I'd like to start with my standard disclaimer; I fully realize and accept that I don't represent or speak on behalf of all of Pagandom, nor do I speak for all of Wiccanism (sic). So to be Crystal Blanton Clear, whenever I, in the past, present or future make an assertion about "Wicca," rest assured I am referring to "my tradition" of Wicca, of which I am authorized to speak about. Also, I am going to use terms like congregation and religious service en lue of coven, circle or ritual. Please bear with me; I'm not trying to diminish the mystique of the Craft. But in order to successfully accomplish my mission it has been necessary to utilize a mundane vocabulary, which has proven to be a very effective strategy. 

With that out of the way, here is part one on my response.

The nature of the law suit is fairly simple and straight forward. The state of California only has positions available for and only hires chaplains for five faiths; Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Native American. So Wiccans along with virtually everyone else are being discriminated against. More on that in a future post.


This five faiths status quo violates the 1st Amendment separation of church and state. In the past the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has defended this status quo by asserting that they utilize neutral criteria in determining which faiths they employ chaplains for. That neutral criterion is the need. The needs are based on numbers. These are the numbers which are circulating right now:

"A 2007 corrections survey found 183 Wiccan inmates - compared with 42,666 Protestant, 28,884 Muslim, 23,160 Catholic, 8.296 Native American and 2,678 Jewish inmates. Those big five religions for which the department hires paid, full-time chaplains. A survey five years earlier found 598 Wiccans, which suggests witchcraft could be melting in the Californian prison community."

This line of thinking is understandably, a reasonable defense to the status quo, and therefore it makes the topic of "numbers" an important element of this issue. The problem here is that most of the people critically involved in this issue do not know there are several different kinds of numbers. Let's look at the different ways the CDCR may have arrived at those numbers.

Central File? Much like the military, corrections has a reception station where you are processed in, your information is collected, forms and documents are consolidated into a central or C-file.

Are they gleaning through old C - Files for numbers to support the current status quo?

This is a critical question because in my five years of experience, most, if not all of Wiccan inmates became Wiccan in prison. Which would render those numbers moot.

Show of Hands? Are they simply asking groups or crowds of inmates to raise their hands? This is an important question because much like being a sex offender, being Wiccan in the wrong environment may be hazardous to your health. Prison is not exactly the most accepting and nurturing atmosphere when it comes to embracing diversity, especially new religious movements. So once again those numbers may not be very accurate.

Sign-in Logs? This is an important question because there is a critical difference between how many Raise-Their-Hand-Christians there are, and how many of them actually sign in the log book and are attending religious services. The other inherent discrepancy with sign-in logs is that Wiccans aren't actually getting services, so there are no logs. And if there are they reflect very low numbers, because there are very few services, many of which are not properly documented (more on that later). The lesson here is that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

I first started going to prisons with Patrick in 2007, when it was reported that there were only 183 Wiccans in the entire California prison system, which consists of 33 prisons. In July of 2008 I began my own prison ministry. I started with a hand full of inmates on a single yard, at one prison. That prison is divided into six separate and segregated facilities. By November of that same year my congregation had overgrown sixty inmates on that same single yard and I was receiving requests from other facilities in that prison and from other prisons. At one time I was providing religious services for over 125 inmates, at a single prison. Based on this direct experience I have a difficult time accepting the Wiccan numbers which are being offered as evidence of absence. 

However in all fairness, it may be entirely true!

One of the most difficult things about keeping track of the numbers, as I attempted to do, is the perpetual state of flux in which those numbers exist. The numbers are always changing. New inmates are always coming in, old ones going out. Either through transfer or parole, or perhaps changing religious denominations.  Whatever the causation, the effect is a perpetually unstable number.

But wait!!!... if the numbers are temporary and unstable, should they be used as a neutral criteria to determine permanent and stable positions of employment?

That my friends is a very, very good question.

Thank you Lord and Lady for all the fun with numbers, 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.

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