“We are called Satanists by other inmates. And we not only have to fight the inmates, we have to fight the administration. We are not anti-Christian. They are anti-pagan.”
— Dave Chamberlain, New Hampshire inmate and leader of Pagan inmates group
“Almost immediately, I found myself under attack for being Wiccan. The police are more than happy to provide you with a Christian Bible and chaplain. The jail has numerous opportunities to get out of your cell, provided you want to hear Christian messages. Other than that, you stew. The guards will send the other inmates that go to church your way. They are usually not pleasant to talk to. Most are recently converted and feel a personal mission to bring you to their God.”
— Cyrus Hensley, Missouri inmate
Pagans in Prison
Our Brothers (and Sisters) Behind Bars
by Kenaz Filan
Today many inmates are finding spiritual solace through Wicca and Neopaganism. Some were Witches before their incarceration: others come to the Craft during their time behind bars. Whatever combination of misbehavior and misfortune led to their imprisonment, these Pagan prisoners serve the Goddess and follow their faith despite frequent hostility of their fellow convicts and prison administrators.
Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), prisons must consider inmates’ religious requests on an individual basis. They can deny those requests only if they can prove a compelling reason to do so. RLUIPA suits have been used to force prisons to provide Jewish prisoners with a kosher diet and to allow Moslem prisoners to meet for communal worship on Friday afternoons. In Cutter v. Wilkinson, the Supreme Court also found that this protection applied to a Wiccan prisoner incarcerated in Ohio.
However, U.S. courts grant prison officials a good deal of discretion, particularly when they can show that their policies are necessary to further a legitimate safety concern. They can restrict or deny access to items which could be used as weapons — daggers and large crystals, for example. They also have wide latitude to ban material which, in their opinion, could be used to promote racism, hatred, or gang violence. (Material related to Norse religious practices often falls afoul of this very magazine — especially if including articles on runes or Norse paganism — being regularly refused by authorities at correctional institutions).
“[Pagan volunteer Jeanette Cooper] drove 332 miles one way, to [Odom Correctional in Jackson, NC]; when she was late arriving she was refused entry and the food which we had cooked for two days spoiled on the return trip… Chaplain Pittard is the most difficult of all the chaplains to work with and this is not the first time he has refused to allow a volunteer entry into his facility for being late, even though each and every time the volunteer has been late it has been traffic conditions, which are out of their control.”
— Darla Kaye Wynne, Pagan volunteer minister, head of WARD’s Pagan Prison Ministry program.1
Should prisoners run into difficulties in practicing their religion, their options are limited. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, a prisoner can bring a lawsuit only if s/he can demonstrate proof of physical injury in claims for mistreatment. As a result, some courts have refused to hear claims of violations of free speech or religious rights. Even in jurisdictions which will entertain claims of religious rights violations, the PLRA requires that prisoners exhaust all available grievance procedures within the correctional system before filing a lawsuit, thus leaving prison administrators free to drag their feet for years
If you are a solitary Witch in prison, there is no guarantee that you will be able to receive Pagan literature. Most prisons require that books to inmates be sent directly from the publisher or from a distributor like amazon.com. If you don’t have friends on the outside willing to order for you, you may find it difficult or impossible to receive books. To prevent the formation of prison gangs, many prisons have a rule requiring that spiritual groups be sponsored or led by a non-inmate. Volunteer Pagan chaplains are in very short supply: as a result, many prison Pagan groups are presided over by Christian chaplains or prohibited altogether.
“His tarot cards, oils, pentagrams and books all have spells in them. He was trying to cast spells with his pentagrams, and he even made his own magic wand.”
— Sheriff Gordon Diehl, Bedford County, Pennsylvania, explaining why he forbade Wiccan prisoner Charles Risenberg to practice his faith.2
Almost every aspect of a prisoner’s daily existence is under the watchful eye and control of the warden and correctional officers. It is difficult for us on the outside to understand just how little control inmates have over their lives. When they awaken, when they sleep, when they shower, what they eat — all these things are determined by an administration whose attitudes range between indifferent and hostile. In 2005, prisoners at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center were informed that they could no longer hold ritual fires or sweat lodge ceremonies after prison authorities decided they had “stolen” these traditions from Native Americans. Hence, the Pagan prisoner’s experience will depend largely on their feelings about Wicca and their interpretation of prison rules — interpretations which can change on a whim.
“We won law suits and got land (inside all the Nevada prisons) to practice on. The land comes with our building stone circles with lawns and fire pits, a kitchen area for cooking outdoor meals, a sweat lodge and areas to plant herbs and veggies. We have an open variety of traditions: Welsh, eclectic, Odinist and Dyaddic. Dyaddic means “Male Witch of balance and duality, representing communication and harmony with family and Nature, Shamanic Style. We are in perfect balance with our Magick and worship of Goddess and God. Our circles are spiritual. We drawn down the Moon Goddess every month. She blesses us with great gifts and shares wondrous knowledge.”
— Ricky Waters, inmate and priest of Dyaddic Clan of Nevada Witches
While incarcerated Witches may face numerous obstacles in their spiritual life, this doesn’t stop them from practicing their faith. In 1999, Paul Huban, chaplain at the Idaho Correctional Center, noted that there were thirty Wiccans at that prison, making Wicca the third most popular religion there. He described the Wiccans as “the group that gives me the least amount of grief. They don’t harm anyone.3 In New Hampshire, thirty incarcerated Pagans held a day-long spring celebration which included a broom sweeping of evil spirits, the splashing of purifying saltwater on members, chants and a feast brought in by volunteers. “There are pedophiles, homosexuals, murderers and car thieves in [our group]. And usually everybody gets along very well. They don’t care what their brothers are in here for. People ask me what magic is, and I tell them, ‘That’s magic,’” says Dave Chamberlain, the group’s leader.4
“There are three types of people that come to a prison Pagan group: the seriously interested, people who just want to belong, and those looking for protection. People in the last two categories are easy to recognize: they get into a lot of trouble, both with staff and with other inmates. They have numerous excuses for what they’ve done, and it’s never their fault. They usually don’t last long. Our religion requires personal responsibility for your own actions. They are generally not ready for that.
For those of us who are serious, life is interesting to say the least. We take positions of responsibility in our small community. I’ve taken the role of High priest. In prison, that means an awful lot of paperwork and meetings. It also means dealing with staff more than most of us are comfortable with. If a guard or administrator has a question as to what a Pagan is allowed to have or what is or is not considered sacred, I’m the one they call. If there is going to be a ritual, I write it. Supply orders, education, grief counseling, life counseling, it’s my job. It’s also my honor.”
— Cyrus Hensley
Christian prisoners have the advantage of a well-established spiritual infrastructure on both the outside and the inside. There are numerous Christian organizations which minister to the incarcerated. They have a long history of dealing with prisoners, and a strong network which can provide counsel on the inside and assistance to prisoners upon their return to society. Pagans ministering to prisoners have little chance of matching the economic and volunteer resources of chaplains from the mainstream faiths. Christian prisoners also benefit from Christian theology’s emphasis on “redemption” and “salvation” which provides a framework for dealing with the unique spiritual needs of the incarcerated.
Christians believe that all have sinned, but they also believe that Christ died for their sins. Hence, any who sincerely repent and accept Jesus can be forgiven and live a “new life in Christ,” no matter how vile their prior misdeeds. This worldview is strikingly different from most, if not all, Pagan paths. Paganism does not see humanity as innately evil; this has left us less prone to guilt and self-loathing, perhaps, but it has also left us less prepared to deal with genuinely depraved actions. A Christian murderer can be “washed in the blood of the lamb.” How does a Wiccan like Cyrus Hensley (incarcerated for the murder of his fiancée) or Dave Chamberlain (who has served time for manslaughter) find that same inner peace — and how can the Pagan community reach out to them? Often even other Pagan prisoners are less than forgiving.
“This nithing is not a follower of the Nine Noble Virtues. He is about as Asatru as a Klansman is Christian. If he pretends to follow the Norse/Germanic ways then he is headed for Nifelheim, where Hel punishes the murderers. Nothing he does will lighten his wyrd. He is a nithing criminal and his deeds are a stain on the holy name of Asatru. Let him rot in his cell and die as dishonorably as he has lived.
— “REAL Asatruar” on Darrell Hoadley, Asatru convert incarcerated for a 2000 torture-murder.5
“I personally went into the Indiana State Prison at Greencastle once a month over a period of two years aiding in kindred formation and getting the guys started out on the right foot. It’s frustrating as Hel: of all the folks I worked with there was only one or two who really “got it” and weren’t just looking for an excuse to get out of chores. But one of those men actually turned down a parole offer because he felt he’d not paid enough back to society for his misdeeds. That’s what being a heathen means.”
— Dave Haxton6
“Looking back, I realize that I’ve been violent and I’m talking beyond bad temper. For various reasons I felt it was my Goddess-given right to bop people upside the head: I called myself “Instant Karma.” Without full realization of that [trait] , I would reoffend.
— Cyrus Hensley
Those who wish to minister to incarcerated prisoners will quickly learn that many convicts are not “nice” people. Prisoners quickly learn to “play the system” and often manipulate those who wish to help them. For example, in 2004 ten female inmates in Pennsylvania were charged with mail fraud after bilking over three hundred pen pals out of more than $260,000 through personal ads in tabloid magazines and on Web sites. When men responded, the women sent phony photos, claimed they were about to be released from prison and expressed interest in long-term relationships.7 Or consider inmate Jimmy Bizzell who posted a personal which said “I’m genuinely real, spiritually grounded, honest, humble, respectful and fun-loving. I’m looking for that woman I could cherish and spoil with my love.” He neglected to mention that he was in prison for two brutal rapes.8
Because inmates have little or no control over their daily lives, many come to Paganism to learn curses, spells or other means of gaining power. Others will try to set themselves up as magicians to impress or intimidate their fellow prisoners. (In practice, most convicts looking to get advantage from religion will turn to Jesus, since Christianity is far more likely to win favor with guards and parole boards). Wiccan law enforcement professional Kerr Cuhulain regularly receives letters from inmates stating “Since I follow the Wiccan religion, I am entitled to have an Athame. Please write to my warden to tell him that he must allow me to have one.” He writes back saying that Wiccan rituals can be performed without edged weapons and that they may purchase an athame after they have paid their debt to society.9
When corresponding with prisoners, use a post office box as your return address; you should also be cautious about giving out your phone number. You may also want to do some research on your pen pal to determine why s/he is incarcerated. Be careful about what you write, as anything you send to your correspondent can be read by prison administrators, and inmates can lose privileges — including the ability to receive further mail from you — if your letter violates institutional rules.
Prison is a very lonely place. Hence, you may find that your pen pal shows an unnerving interest in your correspondence, or begins to express romantic feelings. Cyrus Hensley recommends that you make your intentions clear from the start: “If you are not interested in romance, don’t talk about it. To flirt with an inmate is cruel.”
Inmate Terry Kumer suggests that within the first or second letter you should set down the boundaries. Some suggested ones: no sexual writing; no phone numbers; no money, photos, or gifts will be given; no romantic relationships are wanted; and any foul language or threats will be grounds to stop writing. With those guidelines in mind, Kumer also points out “Your letters will never mean more to a human being than the ones you write to someone in prison. These are people who are starving for any human contact outside of prison.”10
Some readers may ask “why should we bother?” These people have broken the Rede and the law: they have done horrible things and deserve everything bad that they get. By and large, American society favors punitive over rehabilitative approaches to crimes. This may satisfy our desire for vengeance, but does it make us a safer — or a more moral — society? As our incarceration rates continue to rise and our prison-industrial complex continues to expand, we will find more of our Pagan brothers and sisters in the correctional system. We can write them off as bad apples; offer them assistance in rehabilitation and reintegration into free society. But it will — in fact, it has already become — increasingly difficult to ignore them. After all, when they are released they will become part of the Pagan community as a whole. That’s something for all of us — incarcerated or free — to think carefully about.
- Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709 (2005). WARD Prison Ministry.” http:// w.a.r.d.prisonministry.20m.com/index. html. Accessed January 9, 2009.
- “Wiccan Inmate claims he’s forbidden to practice his religion” at First Amendment Center. http://www. firstamendmentcenter.org/news. aspx?id=12409. Accessed May 14, 2007.
- Margot Adler. “Pagans Behind Bars: Nature religions flourish in an unnatural world.” at Beliefnet. http://www. beliefnet.com/Faiths/Pagan-and-Earth-Based/2001/03/Pagans-Behind-Bars.aspx. Accessed January 9, 2009.
- Carson Walker, “Inmate Sues Over Religious Items” at Bismark Tribune. http://www.bismarcktribune.com/articles/2007/02/19/news/state/129070. txt. Accessed January 9, 2009.
- Jason Pitzl-Waters, “Pagans in Prison: Again.” http://wildhunt.org/ blog/2007/02/asatru-in-prison-again. html. Accessed January 9, 2009.
- Dave Haxton, “More on Pagans in Prison”, July 25, 2006. http://www.haxton.org/weblog/index.html?find=india na+state+prisons&plugin=find&path=. Accessed January 9, 2009.
- “Female inmates charged with defrauding hundreds in pen-pal scam ”Prisoner Personals” http://www. usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-09-17-pen-pal_x.htm. Accessed 1/9/2009.
- Keith Eldrige, ”Prisoner Personals” (February 19, 2006) at KOMO TV. http://www.komotv.com/news/archive/4177701.html. 1/9/2009.
- Kerr Cuhulain, “Be Careful What You Ask For: Part I.” at Dispatches v. 1 no. 4, (Lughnasad/Lammas/Freyfaxi 2006) , http://www.officersofavalon.com/Dispatches/Dispatches%20vol%201%20n o%204_files/page0001.htm. Accessed 1/9/2009.
- Terry Kummer, “What You Need to Know About Writing Inmates” at Pagan Institute Report: Paganism in Prison. http://paganinstitute.org/PIR/ prison.html. Accessed May 15, 2007.
— Kenaz Filan is an initiate of Societe La Belle Venus #2. Her book The Haitian Vodou Handbook was published by Inner Traditions in January, 2007.
» Originally appeared in PanGaia #50
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