The Adventures of a Wiccan Prison Chaplain

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Spells for Cells part two

As promised this the second edition of my new series about the more subtle nuances of Pagan Chaplaincy within the field of corrections, "Spells for Cells."

Over at the Wild Hunt today, Jason Pitzl-Waters posted A Quick Note on Avoiding Bottom-Feeding Trolls in Mass Media.  Pause for applause, because as always Jason is spot on in his perspective and approach to an issue. I'm a big fan of Trollspotting, it's required reading in our Coven, and I think it should so be everywhere elsewhere. Just sayin.

Much like one commenter, I'm also "as guilty as the next guy" of feeding the trolls of my past. And I had a very difficult time not dropping a house on Debra. But I commend myself, on my ability not too, and I'll be talking about how I did that below (whoop). But sometimes Trolls can serve a greater good. Like many people, she really pissed me off, which got the blood pumping, carrying fresh oxygen to my cobweb shrouded brain. There was a cough of dust and smoke, and I began firing on all pistons.

And here I am, again, with something to say on the matter.

Although the argument could be made that I may look like or resemble a Troll, the fundamental difference here is context. While my words here are also largely my opinion, they are based on factual knowledge and direct experience. Unlike the aforementioned Troll.

Feel free to call me a Bottom-feeding Troll if you don't like what I have to say, But at least I actually know what I'm talking about, and I'm much, much nicer about it.

Today I'd like to address that little quip at the end the numbers quote from last time:

"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." (emphasis mine)

By my math the number of Wiccans dropped by 415 over a five year period. By far, the majority of Pagans will have no trouble accepting the conspiracy laced theoretical possibility that the CDCR "rolled" the numbers to suit their interests. But let's not take the easy way out and deny ourselves the responsibility of further analysis, and the opportunity to do a little "rolling" of our own.

To paraphrase, the numbers being cited suggest that Wiccans could be "melting" in the California prison community. Please recognize that I am ignoring the poorly executed pun here, and am focusing on her point which seems to be that there are less Wiccans in prison. This does not strike me as a bad thing.

The other day on a Facebook group page, which I like to refer to as a "discussion board forum" because it sounds so much more official; We were talking about this very topic and Wade Long (Full-Contact Philosopher) said:

"Or ... maybe Wiccans are just better at staying out of prison."

And that's an interesting idea, because in my time as a religious volunteer I have had two separate chaplains, at two separate times and two separate locations say the same thing to me. Which was basically "You know I'll give it up to you and your guys Nick. The one thing I can say about your congregation is that all your guys own up to what they did to get here. They take responsibility for their actions and admit they're guilt. All my guys makes accuses for everything"

Both times I was speechless. But not thoughtless. I was speechless because I couldn't say what I was thinking which was: "That's because we don't blame our actions on the devil, and we don't get to ask for forgiveness and wipe the slate clean."

I strongly believe that we need to define and identify ourselves though positive terms like "a life affirming spiritual practice," not through the negative techniques like "We're not devil worshipers!!!" I always challenge myself to find a way to explain and express my religion without mentioning or comparing it to another religion.

But, this is not one of those times hahaha.

I'm totally going there, but not quite yet. First, I'd like to offer an example of a positive application of Wicca within a correctional environment. As a Veritas Wiccan I teach our application of the Athame, which is to cast circle "...to better contain our own energies."

While they cannot have an Athame, they can practice its use. Casting magic circles to keep bad stuff out, but also keep stuff in. We can learn to use the Athame to govern ourselves, to have self-control. I can cast a circle of protection, to keep me from kicking your ass, or dropping a house on you (there it is). *please see the aforementioned whoop.

You may laugh, but it works. It works for me, and it works for them. It keeps us from getting ourselves in trouble. The really cool thing is, that's only one tool. We have a set of thirteen. But that's another post. My point is that Wiccan inmates can actually benefit from their religious beliefs and practices, and actually improve themselves, escape and avoid prison through the practice of Witchcraft.

There was a recent Georgia State University Study done here, which makes for an interesting discussion:

"Through purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance, the hardcore offenders we interviewed are able to exploit the absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine, neutralizing their fear of death to not only allow but encourage offending."

Now I'm not going to name any names or point any fingers here, but I will say that those absolvitory religious doctrines were predominantly monotheisticly-Abrahamic.

But can't Wiccans do that too!?!

Yes, of course they can. No religion is immune to exploitation. Any religion can get twisted. But I have personally never seen or heard of an inmate using Wicca to evade responsibility for their felony conviction. The Goddess doesn't make us do it. In contrast, Wiccan inmates seem to be involved in minor discrepancies which may often be related to their religious practices.

For example, yesterday we went on an "Admin run," and spent the day at a few different prisons attending to strictly administrative issues. At one prison an inmate was involved in an incident where he was smudging himself with incense on the yard.  

The incident involved possession of contraband (which was a source of ignition: something he can start a fire with) and starting a fire and burning something (incense). Which, technically, can be categorized as arson.

The inmate had documented permission to utilize a portion of the yard to perform his Wiccan religious activities. As long as those activities do not violate safety and security protocols. Which technically he did.

The question was asked whether or not he was engaged in a legitimate religious activity, and I was happy to explain that burning incense in this manner or "smudging" was an act of purification, one of the Five Labors of Witchcraft. The first labor, in fact. Because we need to purify before we perform the other labors such as adoration. Much like the way Catholics dip in the holy water before entering into the cathedral, and much more like the way Native Americans "smudge" before entering into the Inipi.

So yes, this was a very legitimate religious activity, but he was still breaking the rules.

But why was he breaking the rules?

Because someone one who works there is getting paid to be there, won't do their job.

I first started volunteering at one particular prison because the Protestant chaplain called me and ask me too. He asked me to because the prison had put him in charge of facilitating religious accommodations for the Wiccans, Druids and Asatru (oh my!). And he could not, in good conscious, perform that task because it violated the doctrines of his faith.

While I agree that it is a perverse conflict of interest to put him to such a task, I would argue stronger that he should resign his position as a "Chaplain" and return to being a "Priest." Because there is a difference.  Being a priest is about being a servant of your religion, being a chaplain is about being a religious servant to others.

On the previously mentioned "Discussion Board Forum" someone made the argument that they don't actually need "Wiccan" chaplains because the existing state employed chaplains can administer religious services to other faiths - "they're trained to do so."

No, they are not.

The State of California does not provide training for its chaplains, not in "chaplaincy."

All the job requirements for the existing five faith positions are denominationally specific. So you have to be all prayed up in your religion. And that's all the training you need to get hired. Outside of the new employee orientation which all cooks, medics, clerical and vocational employees get, chaplains are given six pages, stapled together.

I got a copy, the pages are blue.

They are given no training on the mechanics of chaplaincy, outside of what their religious institutions taught them. Um. That's a problem for me because I have basic and advanced certificates of completion in, and graduated from a law enforcement chaplains academy. I was trained in the "mechanics of chaplaincy," for example, how to perform and how to not perform a death notification. Yeah, we're way beyond the realm of candle colors and directions here and I'll get into that in a near future post. (knock knock).

My point here is, that I bring and burn incense in my services, when I am able to come.

If I don't come and provide these services, they don't get anything at all. Because the five employed faith don't or won't do the job, that they haven't been trained to do.

And inmates get in trouble if they do it for themselves. I'm not trying to justify their violation of protocol, I just wanted to give some context for when and why they sometimes do it.

Tune in next time where I'll attack address "they don't need chaplains, they're their own priest" quip. I promise to make it fun, educational and entertaining. (but there's no refunds).

Thank you Lord and Lady for teaching me the difference between being sensitive and being ticklish, blessed be.

Ps, I relish feedback and love questions.

 

 

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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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