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Prison: Past Tense

To the uninitiated, prison chaplaincy isn't at all what you might expect. Prison life isn't always like MSNBC's Lockup Raw. I'm not challenging the shows authenticity, I've been to some of those places and sat in a room with some of those people. Although the show may paint an accurate portrait, the canvas they frame tends to promote the most extreme circumstances. It is, after all, a television show.

But not every inmate is a violent face-tattooed psychopath. Most are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. They all wear emotional and psychological armor.They have to, prison is not a place to show weakness. But as a prison chaplain, as a priest, you must be soft on the outside and very strong in the middle.

Prisons are filled with human beings; someone's child, sibling or parent. Human beings who have made mistakes that changed the course of their lives and others, forever.  Some of them use the time to improve their circumstances by pursuing education and job training. But others do not. Some regret the mistakes they made, while others just regret getting caught. Some of them are exactly where they belong, while others deserve a second chance. As a prison chaplain you can't make those kinds of judgements. You have to help them all.

That's been one of the most difficult topics of prison chaplaincy, equality. In fact, that's what got me started in the first place. These past six years I've been assisting in religious accommodations for Pagan inmates because if I (we) didn't provide that assistance, Pagan inmates just wouldn't get anything at all. What started out as a once-a-month visit to a single yard, quickly became a weekly visit to one of five prisons and a state hospital. The need is overwhelming. And for these years I've done everything within my power to meet those needs.

As a volunteer I've logged hundreds of hours of driving, training and certifications in order to provide face-to-face service. For those who I could not reach I wrote, published, and sent free books, and as a volunteer everything comes out of pocket.

I've done all these things because I could. I've been blessed with the means and opportunity. My career, lifestyle, and income provided it, and I simply love doing it. I've always had a passion for preaching. But this is where I change lanes, and I begin changing statements to past tense. I had the means and opportunity. My career, lifestyle and income used to provide it. But my life has changed. Changed for the better, but changed none the less.

I took a Masonic oath to render aid and assistance to a brother so far as I could do it without causing injury to myself or my family. I took a very similar oath as a priest, and I take my oaths very, very seriously. However, I am more than just a Mason or priest. I am a husband and a father, and I am first and foremost a family man. Everything I have done in prison ministry has happened only because of the help and support of my beautiful wife and my amazing children.

After all these years my wife is still beautiful, but my children aren't children anymore. My oldest daughter just finished school and is in Sacramento taking her state license exam as I sit here writing this. In a few months I will have the honor and privilege of making tuition payments. Money well spent. And if my calculations are even close to being correct, I should have it paid off just in time for my two sophomores to begin enrolling in college. And I'll be ready, willing, and able to make that happen. But they will probably need to share the truck when they get their drivers licenses.  And I still have one more kid in grade school, but he'll get to keep the truck.

The time has come to be more conservative with my resources. Not just with my money, but more importantly, with my time. Because the time has come for high school football games, drivers training, Letterman jackets (two already) and prom dresses. My family has lovingly supported me and my passions for a very long time now, and I owe them a deeper presence in their lives. The time has come to relieve myself of those burdens which I volunteered to carry for others. Now is the time for me to just enjoy being a husband and a father. I've earned it and my family deserves it.

My motivation for prison chaplaincy has come party from my own experiences of religious discrimination while serving in the military and from wanting to help inmates rehabilitate through spiritual growth. Most inmates incarcerated will be released someday and I felt that I was contributing to the greater good of society by rendering aid.  And I know that to some extent, I have. I keep a box full of letters and post cards in a desk from parolees who continue to update me on how well there doing on the outside and thank me for being there. But now I think the best contribution I can make to this world is through my children.

Perhaps when the nest is empty, my idle hands will return to prison chaplaincy, at least until the grand-kids start rolling in (grin). This will most likely be my last post on the topic of Pagan prison chaplaincy for quite some time. But it won't be my last post, I'm uncertain what I'll talk about next but I'm sure I'll find something. 

Thank you Lord and Lady for Prison: Past Tense.

Blessed Be




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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.


  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter Wednesday, 13 November 2013

    Just a quick update, my daughter passes both the practical and the written exams today. It's official, she's a pro. Proud Daddy Moment.

  • Grace Reinhardt
    Grace Reinhardt Friday, 15 November 2013

    Congrats to your daughter! that's excellent :-)

  • Jamie
    Jamie Sunday, 17 November 2013

    Mr. Nichter,

    Thank you for all the help you've given to our fellow Pagans in prison. May the Goddesses and Gods bless you and yours.

  • Cernowain Greenman
    Cernowain Greenman Tuesday, 19 November 2013

    Joe, thank you for your chaplaincy ministry to Pagans in prison. You have been an inspiration to many. Blessings on you and upon your family who need you.

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