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Praying by the Rules

It has been my experience that the biggest obstacle facing Pagans in the correctional environment is two fold, ignorance and apathy. Generally speaking correctional staff does not know much at all about minority faiths, and more often than naught, what they know is based on stereotypes, movies and many, many years of bad press. The apathy also has its own two fold, inmates are convicted felons, so one would say the deck is already stacked against them enough, but to be a one of those Pagans too? Too often that only serves to further broaden the gap of indifference.

There is no lime light to be found on a prison yard. Prison ministry is a unique calling in itself, but Pagan prison ministry is another thing all together. We most often lack resources, support and most of all funding, i.e., gas money. Over the years I have had many people express an interest in prison chaplaincy, enough to necessitate the development of our own orientation packet. That orientation begins with a single yet profoundly significant question:


“Why do you want to be a volunteer (Pagan) prison chaplain?”


Why would you want to drive for several hours, at your own expense, out to the middle of nowhere, to endure all the hassles and difficulties of going through security protocols and miles of red tape? Why would you work so hard, what would you have to gain, to get though all of that, only to be left alone in a room full of convicted felons? This is an important question they must ask themselves, because everyone else will ask too. The Prison administration, the custody staff, even the inmates will be suspicious. Even more so of us Pagans than those of other faiths because our theology is such that it does not require that we prosthelytize, recruit or “save” anyone.


In a stark contrast to the majority religions, our faiths promote individualized spiritual development, and that precept alone sets us apart from the constraints of standardization. But it also makes our ministry much more challenging. It signifies a difference between chaplaincy and priest or priestesshood. Chaplaincy isn’t so much about your religious beliefs and practices, as it is about theirs. To adequately facilitate religious accommodations we must comprehend and contextualize their needs and articulately facilitate those needs on behalf of the institution.


Providing services directly to the inmates is only a small part of the whole. We must know the laws, regulations, policies and a procedure of institutions as well as the institution does. We must know and exceed the standards by which we will be judged. We must set high standard of professionalism in which we appear, behave and perform if we expect to be taken seriously. In order to breach the obstacles of religious pluralism we must pray by the rules.

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Joseph Merlin Nichter holds a Master’s Degree in Human Services Counseling, specializing in Crisis Response and Trauma; a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, specializing in Military Resilience; and an Associate’s Degree in Religion. He is a state licensed Residential Care Administrator, and is a certified Law Enforcement Chaplain. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain; Joseph provided religious services and facilitated religious accommodations for a diverse population of faith practitioners, on behalf of the California Department of Corrections, and has also served as an Alternative Religions Program Instructor for the California Department of Mental Health. Joseph has authored two books and a number of articles, published both online and in periodicals such as Modern Witch Magazine, Living Stones Magazine, and Witches & Pagans Magazine.


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