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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bonfires Behind Bars: The True Story of My Involvement in Pagan Prison Ministry

What is a Pagan Prison Ministry?

Some people may find it odd that Pagans would have a Prison Ministry Program for several reasons. Such as:
  • Generally speaking, Pagans do not proselytize. 
  • Pagans/Wiccans/Witches are, for the most part solitary
  • Covens are often close knit groups who keep to themselves.
While it is true that Pagans do not generally seek to convert others to their system of belief they do, however, welcome seekers trying to find their way along their own spiritual path. Therefore, the goal of any Pagan Prison Ministry program is not to convert others to Paganism, but rather to minister to those who are seeking an alternative viewpoint when it comes to their spirituality as well as those who already identify as Wiccan, Witch, or Pagan. 
There have always been solitary-witches, just like there are Christians who do not attend church on a regular basis. However, that does not preclude such  individuals from taking an active interest in their community and to volunteer in social programs to help make the world a better place. I, myself, was a solitary-eclectic Wiccan who practiced in secret before I became involved in the Pagan Prison Ministry. 

Yes. There are many covens made up of close-knit individuals who tend to keep to themselves. However, there are also those covens that actively seek to get involved in improving their community with Pagan Food Banks, Homeless Outreach, Veteran's Assistance, and Pagan Prison Ministry Programs. Unfortunately, due to misconceptions about Witches and Witchcraft in our society these programs are typically funded 100% by the volunteers themselves.

Why Do Pagans Need a Prison Ministry?

Within most Departments of Corrections (DOC) there are Chaplains assigned to one or more facilities through the Pastoral Services Branch (or some similar name) who minister to the religious needs of the inmates. In most, if not all, cases these Chaplains are Christian and are not trained in alternative religions such as Wicca, Islam, Buddhism, Native American Shamanism, etc.... In fact, their religion teaches that these other religions are wrong and so they will not assist inmates who are not Christian. Therefore, many facilities rely on volunteers to minister to the needs of inmates who identify as something other than Christian.   In some rare cases you will find Chaplains that will welcome and support you, but in most cases (in my experience)  you find opposition from Chaplains who simply do not want you to be there.

Being a volunteer is a huge responsibility. The state invest time and money in doing your background check, training you, and qualifying you. In many cases, if a volunteer is not present and the Chaplain is either unwilling or unable to stand in for the volunteer then the inmates are not allowed to have their scheduled class or ritual. So it is very important a volunteer has reliable transportation to get to the facilities on a regular basis (which may be several hundred miles away in some cases), and who can take on the expense of paying for their own travel, provide their own training materials, and even meals for Sabbats and Esbats. 

How I Became Involved in a Pagan Prison Ministry 

In the early 2000's, I was still living in my hometown of Great Falls, SC and had been studying and practicing Wicca for approximately eight years. I made no secret about my beliefs or practices and folks found their way to me for tarot readings through word of mouth but, for the most part, my broomstick flew under the radar. The week of Halloween in 2000 or 2001, my local news station did a series of interviews with local figures in some way connected to Halloween and/or the occult and metaphysics. One night they interviewed the Shaman for the Catawba Indian Nation; the next night they did an interview with a self-described witch who, to my surprise, lived in my town. Her name was Darla Kaye Wynne and she had just moved to Great Falls from Alaska. I watched the interview, liked what she had to say, and figured in a small town like mine I'd eventually run into her. Little did I know how soon that would happen.

A couple of weeks later I was cooking in my kitchen when I looked out of my window and saw what I could only describe as an "ugly pigeon" on a tree branch outside my window. The following day I was standing at my mailbox when Darla came walking down the street. It seems that one of her African Greys had flown out of the house and she was trying to find him again. I recalled having seen the "ugly pigeon" the previous day and it turned out that that was her pet African Grey. Darla noticed my pentagram and we began talking about witchcraft. She introduced herself as the Assistant National Director of W.A.R.D (Witches Against Religious Discrimination) and asked me about joining. I gave her permission to camp out in my backyard to look for her bird, which she did eventually find and retrieve.

A few days later, Darla stopped by my house to drop off some informational packets about WARD and mentioned that she couldn't stay because she had to get home and rip up some old sheets she had to make charm-bags for her group.  At the time, I was working in a textile mill and had access to scraps of cloth and, without even thinking, I volunteered to provide her with cloth so she didn't have to rip up her sheets. The following day Darla came to my house to collect the cloth I had secured and we traded tarot readings. She was the first other witch that I had met and I was proud to show off my collection of witchy things including my years long project of compiling the most comprehensive Book of Shadows (BOS) I could fit into one large binder. 

Darla was impressed with my BOS and asked if I would be interested in teaching a class on making your own BOS with her students. I was reluctant but excited about meeting other witches and getting involved in the craft community. And then she explained that her students were inmates participating in WARD's Pagan Prison Ministry Program. I told her I'd have to think about it. Before she left, she asked me to write a paragraph about myself to share with her group so they knew who provided them with the cloth for their charm bags. A week or so later I started getting all these letters from Foothills Correctional in North Carolina. They were all from members of Darla's group thanking me for cloth I had given them. I wrote back to a few of them and after having gotten to know a few who continued to write I decided to go teach a class on the BOS.

Early Challenges: Banned for Teaching Homosexuality?

The day arrived and Darla and I traveled to the Foothills Correctional Facility so that I could meet the students and give my Book of Shadows workshop. Though I was nervous at first, my apprehension went away when I met the group and found them to be very warm and welcoming towards me. In addition to Darla, myself, and the group an assistant Chaplain was in attendance to supervise.  

After the workshop there was a question and answer period and some of the guys asked me about how I reconciled my sexuality with my spirituality specifically in regard to love spells. See, some of these students were Gardenerian and held to the belief that homosexuals could not be a part of the craft. I explained that while I have respect for  Gerald Gardner for his part in making Wicca more prominent and accessible to the general public that he was, however, a product of his generation who incorporated his own personal prejudices into his practices. (See the Ardanes). The group seemed satisfied with my answer and I didn't think anything else about it. 

I applied to become a regular part-time volunteer and while my application was being processed I continued to correspond with several members of the group. One student in particular began asking me very personal questions and I got the sense that he was struggling with his own sexuality. It was almost as if he were offering himself to me in exchange for being my friend and teaching him. I responded to him in a direct manner, mirroring his own language, hoping to boost his confidence saying:

"I think you have a lot going for you. You are smart, intelligent, artistic and handsome. I am not saying this because I want to suck your c*ck, but because I believe in you as a person."

Some would read this and think that that was a strong statement, but when placed into context it takes away from the belief that I was attempting to seduce this person. The facility reads all incoming and outgoing mail to and from inmates and my letter found its way to the Chaplains office. Subsequently my application to become a part-time volunteer was denied on the basis that I was teaching and promoting homosexuality to the inmates. I was put on probation and banned from visiting the facility again for one year. After a lot of thought, I decided not to return. Instead I became the Director of Communication for the Pagan Prison Ministry Program. In that capacity I corresponded with as many as 30 inmates at a time (at my own expense) teaching via snail mail, providing training material, answering questions, and just generally being a friend to a lot of young men who society and their own families had given up on.

The Wiccan Study Handbook 

In early 2002 an incarcerated Wiccan was threatening to sue the State of South Carolina because he was not able to practice his religion. Due to her status as an expert in this area, Darla was contacted to help reach a compromise and prevent a costly trial. It was decided that Darla, myself, and other members of WARD would write an official "Wiccan Study Handbook" which would be used to teach a Wicca 101 course at various facilities within and throughout South Carolina and which would allow those inmates who identified as Wiccan/Witch/Pagan to practice their religion. 

Writing the handbook was a months long process but it was very rewarding as it allowed me to discover myself as a writer. Darla was one of the earliest people to recognize and encourage my talent. After the publication of the handbook, Darla and I began traveling all over South Carolina teaching the course at various facilities. Again, there were challenges in the form of Chaplains who simply did not want us to be there. In on instance while being given a tour of one facility a Chaplain led Darla and myself into what we believed was an empty pod (a unit made up of several cells on three floors where inmates are housed) only to find that it was filled with around 50 inmates (some of who were showering in plain sight). 

In other cases, we met a Chaplain who identified as a Christian Witch who was excited about us being there and even participated in our classes and rituals. There were also a few instances in which Correctional Officers (never call them guards) who identified as Wiccan/Witch/Pagan sat in on our classes or approached us discretely to give us their support or ask to be trained themselves. However, no matter where we went there was one constant. The students were always welcoming and appreciative of our visits. We were not always supervised when we came in to teach. There were occasions when we were locked in a class alone with the inmates. These were often murderers, rapist, and violent criminals---but I always felt completely safe. In one instance when I had traveled to a facility alone to teach a class, a new student attempted to challenge and physically initiate me only to be restrained by the others in the room. 

Parting of the Ways

Darla was a very good friend to me in a lot of ways. She taught me a lot about myself and my craft, she recognized and encouraged my talent for writing and for that I will always be grateful. However, our friendship was not without its problems. She always seemed to be involved in some controversy. She became involved in local politics and began attending town council meetings and I often tagged along even though it was something I was completely uninterested in. Darla eventually went on to sue the Town of Great Falls for praying to Jesus prior to town council meetings. We appeared in interviews together.  I even testified at the trial and she later published my deposition online

There are several accounts in the news archives where Darla's house was vandalized, her home was broken into and animals killed, and her tires were slashed.  Darla was an outsider, but for me it was different. I grew up in Great Falls. I had friends and family who lived there for generations. My involvement with her and the trial caused a strain between me and my family.  My car was vandalized as well. My mother worked the graveyard shift at a gas station just off the highway and I feared for her safety. Darla, the idealist, couldn't understand my concerns. In her mind she was standing up for the little guy and refused to back down. Our friendship became very strained and eventually she and I parted way. With our friendship over, I stopped volunteering with the SCDOC. 

In 2005 I left Great Falls and settled in Oak Harbor WA. It was here that I found my voice and my audience as a writer sharing my thoughts and experiences as Wiccan and later as a Two-Headed Doctor in the Southern Folk Magic Tradtion. In 2006 the Wiccan Study Handbook was revised and all referenced to myself and other members of WARD as co-authors was removed. As far as I know, Darla is still involved in the Pagan Prison Ministry as well as active in local politics.


On the whole, my experiences working in the Pagan Prison Ministry were positive and enriching. I learned a lot about myself, my craft, and got to know many interesting individuals. Such programs are necessary because those Chaplains ministering to Pagan Prisoners are often un-trained in the beliefs and practices of Paganism or unwilling to learn themselves. Many incarcerated Wiccans/Witches/Pagans depend on the kindness of like-minded volunteers to help enable them to learn, practice, and grow in their chosen religion. The person who wished to volunteer in the Pagan Prison Ministry should be prepared to sacrifice a portion of the time, income, and materials to help those who cannot provide for themselves. 



Melissa said...

Fascinating story! I had no idea you'd done that. Do you know if there's a Pagan prison ministry in WA state?

Carolina Dean said...

Yes there is. Rev. Paul Beyerl is active in the Pagan Prison Ministry and has a facebook page where he can be contacted.

You can also follow this link for a listing of volunteers in WA State: