Prison and Paganism

Prison and Paganism


The author of Paganism on Parole explains how she deepened her faith while incarcerated.

It wasn't my plan to go to prison. Nobody ever plans to go to prison. When I was on the path that ultimately led me there, I felt invincible. Like nothing would ever stop me and no one would ever catch me. But when the cold metal cuffs dug into my wrists and the metal door slammed behind me, I realized that not even I could run forever.

Before my time in prison, I spent two years in a treatment center, where they yelled at me every day and called it “therapeutic.” The day of my intake, the counselor asked what my religion was. When I said pagan, she told me, “No you’re not. That is just something you are interested in.”

For the rest of my stay, I made it a point to never join their optional, but highly encouraged, church outings. Even though it meant I would get to walk outside, smoke, and go to the store—all rare treats—it felt like it would be a betrayal to the goddesses and gods. Mostly it felt like it would be a betrayal to myself. Back then, my idea of spirituality included wearing mostly black and owning large quantities of pentagram jewelry. But it was what I had, and I held onto it with ferocity.

When my sentence was transmuted from the treatment center to prison over a case of a credit card application, I felt despondent. My father had gone to prison when I was 12. Despite my lifelong insistence to never be like him, I now found myself in similar shoes. My 29th birthday was spent waiting for the prison bus to come to take me. When it did, I was so scared, but also relieved by the finality of it. Up until that moment I thought something miraculous would happen that would save me from a stay at the Department of Corrections. I wouldn’t know until many years later that my incarceration would eventually create my inspiration.

My first week in prison was spent in an orange jumpsuit that was at least three sizes too big. Like everyone, I was initially put in ad-seg—the term inside prisons for solitary confinement. There were no windows and the lights never fully went off. It was tough to sleep but reading, sleeping, and staring into oblivion were really the only options. It’s hard to believe that some people spend months or even years of their incarcerated time in ad-seg. It is the most desolate and lonely place I have ever known, and my stay was a mere few days.

I thought something miraculous would happen that would save me from a stay at the Department of Corrections. I wouldn’t know until many years later that my incarceration would eventually create my inspiration.

When I was released into the general population, I found myself surrounded by concrete buildings and unbreakable glass windows. There were patches of grass between the sidewalks, but we weren’t allowed to touch the grass or walk on it. There was little Earth in this dismal place, and we were deprived of connecting to even that small piece of Her. It was hard to find the gods. But they were there, if only in the vast population of rabbits that called that place home.

Even the winds blew ominously … a reminder of those who had died in that facility. There are people in similar prisons all over the country who are haunted by these spirits but unable to talk about it for fear of receiving an unfavorable mental health diagnosis. Some must feel like they are unraveling because no one ever told them about people born with extrasensory gifts.

Not even two weeks after my arrival, I was told to pack up. I was moving to a prison down south, although I didn’t know that until I got there. It’s surprising how two places can be so similar and yet so different. There was grass, real grass, and trees in this new place. More than that, women in their green and gold were sitting in it. Touching it. There were flower beds scattered about and the oft-seen butterfly and bee. This place still had all the rules and regulations of a prison, but whereas my first facility had inklings of death, here there was life.

Everyone in prison has a job. My job was on one of the farm crews. Six days a week we woke up at 5 a.m., rushed to breakfast, and loaded into one of the vans that would take us to a field far outside the walls of the prison. We would spend the rest of the day doing hard manual labor—pulling weeds, gathering grapes, and picking pumpkins and throwing them into a truck. Imagine someone 5’4” throwing a 40-pound pumpkin straight up into the air like she’s setting a volleyball. Someone else catches the pumpkin and boxes it. This was done for 8 to 12 hours a day.

Those fields changed me. Out there I had the sun on my face, dirt under my nails, and the expanse of sky in every direction. I felt connected to the gods and land spirits in a way that was genuine, in a way that I had never felt before. I spent a lot of time thinking about my ancestors, who probably worked fields just like that one. Every day I came back sweaty and exhausted, but I felt spiritually full, renewed by the earth I got to bury my hands in. It was during this time that my understanding of what it meant to be pagan started to change. It became something tangible and undeniable.

[Read: “Repaganizing: Reconnecting With Our Pagan Past.”]

Our library had several books on Wicca, paganism, and magic. I devoted every second of spare time I had to reading these books. The quest for spiritual knowledge had been laid within me like so many seeds and I was eager to nurture them. I hand-copied spells and folklore into the blue books that we could order on commissary. Those books and the tidbits of information that I gleaned from them became more valuable to me than socializing with the other women or going to any of the religious-funded activities where food was an incentive to attend.

The one exception was when the pagan chaplains came. In their class, we got to see videos on the history of places like Greece and Egypt. There was no food, but I always left feeling nourished. Their visits fed me enough to get me through my stay. It saddens me that the number of pagan volunteers going into jails and prisons is not increasing, at least not as it should be. Pagans are among the fastest-growing religious groups in prison, but there is no one to guide them. No one to teach them how to use the one commodity inmates have in spades—time.

There is a term often associated with getting out of prison, the “Bible Mile.” It refers to the fact that people are all too eager to find religion when they’re serving a sentence, but all that gets thrown out the window on their release date. I refused to let that happen to me. When I got out, I actively searched for a teacher until I found one.

In certain pagan traditions, like Wicca, people must study for 366 days, a year and a day, before they can be eligible for initiation. I completed my year-and-a-day requirements in exactly a year and a day. Then I taught the first-degree class while I earned my second-degree initiation. These initiations are credentials that indicate a person’s level of skill and knowledge.

While I earned my third-degree initiation, I started taking a class into the same prison that used to house me. Seeing the look on the faces of these women as their spirits were fed, perhaps for the first time, got me asking how I could reach more incarcerated pagans. This was my inspiration for writing Paganism for Prisoners and Paganism on Parole. They were labors of love created for a population that is often overlooked and forgotten about.

All these years later, I still have those blue commissary books. I keep them on my shelf to serve as a reminder of how far I’ve come and how far I can still go. A decade ago, my life looked so different than it does now. The stigma surrounding felonies can make incarceration feel like an obstacle that can never be overcome. But it can be overcome. I am just one of many who have proven that prison is something we experienced and not something that has to define us.

For more on incarceration and transcendence, discover how a former death row inmate turned to Western mysticism behind bars.

prison and paganism

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