Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Creating Sacred Space with Pagan Prison Inmates - I

Why We Work in a Sacred Circle

Some non-witchen Pagans have criticized Witches and Wiccans who do interfaith work and in other ways represent the Pagan movement and Pagan religions in secular situations for what they consider to be witchen-centrism, for want of a better term.  In the next few blogs I’ll attempt to describe the reality of the situation, and why I, ostensibly serving a Wiccan circle, in reality am about as eclectic as one can be.  First, the setting…

The Facility

I arrive and park, then stash everything except my car keys, my driver’s license, and a tote containing a clear plastic folder of a few papers.  Everything I carry has been pre-approved.  I trek the hill to the East Gate.  There, I present my ID, sign a logbook indicating my name, time in, destination, and authorization.  In my case, this is a DOCR-issued “beige card,” issued after a training, TB test, and clearance.  The guard hands me my beige card and allows me to leave the gate area and proceed to the next gate.


East (Main) Gate

This rather long walk in the sunlight allows me a chance to survey the Bay and the horizon, gulls and clouds, bridge and hills, and the vast prison complex ahead of me.  Since it’s a Saturday, along my way I encounter inmates’ families leaving their Saturday morning visits.   


Walk from East Gate 

The closest building is a strange edifice of quasi-Victorian design, with cartoonish crenelated towers and Gothic-arched windows.  Needless to say, since its opening as a prison in 1852 the facility has undergone numerous expansions and other physical changes.  The architecture is varied and inconsistent.


View from Employees' Parking Lot, Mt. Tamalpais in Background 

Two or three guards staff the next doorway I step through.  There I sign another logbook; this book requires both printed name and signature.  I show my drivers license and beige card to them.  They look in my bag, pass a security wand around me, and allow me to pass through another door.  There I hold up my IDs to the gatekeeper sitting in an elevated, glass-fronted office can see them.  That guard buzzes me into the sally port.  The big iron gate clangs shut behind me before the guard unlocks the next iron gate.  Passing through another chamber, I open a large iron door banded with steel studs that leads to a surprisingly pleasant courtyard.  

Everyone in sight wears either a prison blues or a uniform tricked out with badges, keys, and a half-dozen or more holsters.  Beneath their coats they were bullet-proof vests.

I pass manicured flowerbeds, a dry fountain obviously built at a time when California was more profligate in its water use, a memorial installation, and some tortured-looking topiary.

Religious facilities form two half-sides of the courtyard, where a breezeway joins of the offices of the chaplains and various chapels themselves.  The southwest border houses the Jewish and Muslim meeting spaces, as well as a couple of chaplains’ offices. 

For a time, when the Jewish chaplain supervised our meetings, we Witches shared a concrete-block, linoleum-floored meeting room, halved with a vinyl accordion room divider.  The Jewish and Muslim inmates regularly use this space (not necessarily at the same time), along with Twelve-Step and other similar groups.

The northwest wing of the courtyard houses the other religious facilities.  Although I’ve not been in them, I can see through the doorways that the Catholic and Protestant chapels are large.   They contain religious iconography and objects.  There are several chaplains employed at the prison, each of whom may supervise individual volunteer religious leaders like me.  My supervisor is the Native American chaplain.  Each chaplain has a small office off the breezeway.

To say they’re small is an understatement.  They are converted storerooms in a facility designed for 3,000 inmates and now holding more than 4,200.

The Wiccan circle at San Quentin, called the Temple of One Consciousness (the name given it by the inmates before my arrival), meets in one of these small converted storerooms designated at the Minority Faith Chapel.  We share it with a Hawaiian group and a few other smaller denominations, including Christian.

The inmates have to shove file cabinets, folded dining tables, and stacking chairs into the corner so they take up as little of our meager space as possible.  The Jewish chaplain procured an old, unused locker for the circle.  Until she did, the Wiccan materials remained locked in her small office with too much other stuff.  The previously dented and rusted-in-spots locker got a new coat of black paint to spiff it up.  Someone painted a pentacle on the front with the phrase “Wiccan Circle” in Old English script.  This locker sits in the breezeway for ritual gear and supplies.  The inmates also keep a small Pagan library in the locker, since that seems to be a more reliable repository for their books than the prison library is.

When we first began meeting, the circle had one small 24-inch square white altar cloth, two white pillar candles, a little salt shaker, a wooden bowl, and a few sticks of incense.  That’s it!  I had some work cut out for me to equip this circle with suitable, and ideally beautiful, Witchen accouterments.  The first things I got were an abalone shell, an amethyst crystal, and several feathers (crow, pelican, gull, peacock).  I like an altar to have some natural objects on it.  The shell holds our incense, for now; the amethyst aids in overcoming addiction; and the feathers speak of soaring beyond our current circumstances.

When we moved from the divided meeting rooms to the Minority Faith Chapel, another converted storeroom like the chaplains’ offices, I brought in a purple altar cloth much larger than the 24” white square, and bearing a Celtic design. It covers a standard folding dining table that serves as our altar.

As soon as the Hawaiians have vacated the ‘chapel,’ the Wiccan inmates push folded tables and stacks of chairs up against the file cabinets to open up the space.  Then they sweep the room and bring out our altar items.

This describes the facility as it was when we began regular meetings.  I will say more about the actual physical setup, as well as the things we’ve done to enhance it, in a subsequent post.

Last modified on

Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


Additional information