Monday, March 12, 2018

Facts, Experiences, and Insights about Volunteering in Prison

I've been volunteering with the Wiccan circle at San Quentin, at their request, for the past five years.  Their circle had done a spell to get a facilitator from outside, and I volunteered.  I'm not Wiccan, but rather Witchen; however, Wicca is a term that's gaining recognition and credibility in government bureaucracies such as prisons, so I'm happy to go with it.  That said, I tell the inmates I work with that I'm Pagan, as a broader term.  I come from no particular group, just as an individual Witch at Large, although there are some individual members of CoG and a man from the Kemetic Temple of Ra who have provided some financial support for candles, incense, tools, etc.  I'm currently contemplating seeking sponsors to pay the cost of a basic book for each of the men who regularly attend.  We do maintain a small library in their supply locker, separate from the main prison library where the books they seek are stolen or otherwise disappear. This system is more reliable

I have also arranged to have a priest of Hermes, Sam Webster, from the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn to come and teach two three-hour sessions.

What follows are some interesting insights, experiences, and cold hard facts about our circle:


Nearly ever man who regularly attends is PoC.  Not too surprising, though, considering the unfortunate (and inequitable) makeup of inmate population (minorities, addicts, mentally ill, military veterans).  I find this very interesting and I try to create rituals that honor their heritages as well as the Western European where the religion was generated.  It's a challenge.  One man is dedicated to Brigit, another to Cernunnos, and one who also practices Ifá wants Yemaya to be present in our circles.


SQ employs at least five chaplains that I know of: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American.  Volunteers need to be sponsored by one of the official chaplains.  We began with the Jewish chaplain we were assigned; however, the men preferred their circle to be sponsored by the Native American chaplain, reasoning that their worldview and practices aligned more comfortably with ours.  For reasons internal to the DOCR, the NA chaplain disappeared with no one advising me. [???]  So I asked Father George, the RC chaplain.  (BTW, there is a brief interview with him in the SQ episode of W. Kamau Bell's "United Shades of America" on CNN.  It's excellent in providing an overall view of life inside that institution, which, as it happens, is significantly different from the rest of the prisons in the state. (Long story for another time.)  Fr. George is a truly caring man who sees the decency of each inmate. He's easy to work with and accommodating.

One chaplain, the Protestant one, is reported to be openly hostile to our circle, although I have never personally met her.  The men in our circle complain of harassment by rigid, narrow, dogmatic 'born-again' inmates who refuse to accept our religion as valid and instead equate it with sin and devil worship.  It's probably needless to say that prisons provide fertile ground for evangelicals seeking converts to their ways.

Pagan Prison Population

In San Quentin there is an Odinist group there that holds to white superiority, it seems.  There is, I am told, only one Druid inmate who wishes to remain solitary.  In addition, there are two other minority (in terms of population, not value) religions practiced inside: Ifá group and a Hawaiian group.  The Odinists, the Witches, and the Ifá practitioners have been given an outside space to practice, separated from the main prison yard by a cyclone fence and adjacent to the NA space where they have drum circles, grow sacred herbs, and have sweats.  Sweats at SQ were begun by my friend Hector Frank, the NA chaplain, about 30 years ago and are the first in the California system.  Due to the rights NAs have gained in the DOCR, they have always proven themselves to be supportive allies to Pagans seeking religious accommodation.

In the accompanying photograph of the exercise yard, Mt. Tamalpais appears in the distance.  In the left rear there is a short tree.  That tree shades the NA sacred space, and to the left, separated by cyclone fence, is our outdoor space.  We have no tree yet, and it will be an amazing feat when we do manage to convince the bureaucracy to permit it, but we have longer-range plans to get one.  Father George is a strong ally in this pursuit.


We sing sometimes, on rare occasions we dance a spiral, and we do not attempt drawing down at all.  We do guided meditations fairly frequently.  We are restricted in what we can do by the circumstances.  One good thing, though, is that we can burn candles and incense.  They all love incense and like to saturate their hair and clothing with it so they can carry the scent of the circle with them.  Also, I bring little birthday candles for spells because they can be burned down over the course of a circle meeting.

Federal and different state corrections systems have different regulations.  Some cannot have open flame, for instance.

Support and Increased Presence

I'm happy to say that our circle now has another volunteer priestess from CAYA Pagan Congregation.  She has attended with me a couple of times, has applied and taken training to get her 'beige card' which allows her gate clearance for a year to enter the prison without escort, and will probably be alternating with me.  I go in approximately monthly, especially for sabbats.  The circle has assigned meeting times on Saturdays and also another day a week when they use the outdoor space independent of the Odinists and Ifá folks.  They would like us to come every week; however, that's just more Saturday afternoons than I want to sacrifice.  Thus, having another priestess can fill in some of the days when I don't come.

I also maintain a private Pagan Inmate Ministries FB page where volunteers, former inmates, and others in the field share resources and experiences.

For those interested in more of the complexities and challenges I've encountered at SQ, there are some older blog entries here on Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective:
Photo GettyImages, text © Aline O'Brien