Why Prison Ministry?
Article ID: 11797
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 4,387
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Author: Carol Garr
Posted: August 19th. 2007
Times Viewed: 4,426
Many people have questioned why I spend my time and energy working with prison inmates. After all, they’ve shown that they can’t live by society’s rules. They’ve probably violated the Wiccan Rede of “Harm None“. They might be violent, manipulative, and/or insincere. How can I do Circle in that environment, with people who have done nasty and hurtful things?
Prisons are scary.
Security concerns mean we can’t use the tools we’re accustomed to. Background checks probe into my background, and invade privacy. Cameras and prison staff monitor our rituals. And yet I, and others called to this ministry, choose to enter that environment to teach the ways of the Goddess to those who seek Her.
Inmates are people who have made mistakes or bad choices, and been caught. Their karma has directed that they pay part of their debt by surrendering their freedom for a while, offering them time to evaluate and (hopefully) change their life path. Not all who do bad things are arrested, and some could even be at the next open circle you attend, but prisoners have been called to account for their actions.
Many of their crimes are reprehensible to me. Yes, I work with murderers, rapists, child molesters and other serious offenders. Many are there for drug crimes, or burglary, robbery, or fraud. I don’t ask, partially because I’m not supposed to, and partially because it doesn’t matter in what I do.
What they have done cannot be undone, but most of these inmates will be released some day.
I’d like to help them change their ways before that time.
All of us are children of the Goddess. She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes. As a priestess, I feel called to help Her touch the lives of interested inmates so that they may grow spiritually. Whether in prison for life, or getting out next month, a prisoner’s way of looking at the world can be changed by the Lady.
Accepting Her ways of respect for all life, truly feeling the kinship with other beings, will cause different choices to be made. Many crimes result from displaced anger, and lack of respect for the dignity of others.
Learning ways to own their own behavior and take responsibility for the way they interact with other prisoners, staff, and the outside world will let inmates lead more harmonious lives both inside the prison and after release.
To me, it’s worth some inconvenience to help show them the way.
I approach the tall chain link fence topped by rolls of razor wire. The gate slides open to admit me, and then clangs shut behind.
Another, parallel gate, opens in the identical inner fence, I pass through, and approach a heavy metal door. It buzzes; I pull it open and enter the control area. I pass my ID through a small opening to the control room guard.
Another comes out to check the contents of the clear backpack I carry, filled with allowable ritual tools and paperwork. I walk through the metal detector. When all is cleared another heavy metal door is opened into the “sally port, ”
I enter, it closes, and then another opens to let me exit. I retrieve my ID through the pass-through, and then the guard buzzes open the door to visitation.
Now I wait for the inmates to arrive.
This is the procedure at Manzanita unit of the Tucson complex of the Arizona State Department of Corrections. I’m there to meet with Wiccan and other Pagan inmates to hold a Circle, or to discuss religious topics of interest. This is one of seven meetings I conduct within the prison each month. As inmates may not mix with those from other units, each must be done separately.
Only inmates who request (in writing) to attend are on the turn-out pass, so all have an interest in being there. They can only attend services for the religion they claim to be, to eliminate use of gatherings for non-religious (often illicit) purposes, unless the chaplain makes the occasional exception for a spiritual seeker.
Yes, some probably come to get out of their cell, but since I expect participation those rarely attend more than once or twice. Most of the attendees, here and in other units, are at least trying to learn Pagan ways.
Sometimes we hold a study group, discussing various facets of religious concepts and practice. Other times we have Circles, especially if my visit is close to a Sabbat or Full Moon.
One of the challenges of working within a bureaucracy is that schedules are quite rigid. Though occasional exceptions are possible, the facts are that scheduling for a particular unit on the same day of every month is the only reliable way that works. More often would be allowed, but that’s all the time I can spare from my business.
All my prison work is as a volunteer, true for all Mother Earth Ministries’ clergy. The units I visit in Tucson house men, so I always act as priestess. Inmates are encouraged to take part in the ritual, whether by casting the Circle, doing purifications, calling Quarters and sometimes their patron deities into Circle.
Some groups have members with enough experience to act as priest for the day. Some individuals compose an entire rite, or contribute invocations, quarter calls, meditations, or other portions.
As prison rules prohibit placing an inmate in a supervisory position over another, we have to be careful to share participation. We also have to alter ritual behavior to follow Dept of Corrections guidelines: no hugging, kissing, holding hands, or other touching. I am allowed to shake hands with a prisoner upon greeting or departing, or touch their forehead with anointing oil, but even that is discouraged.
At Manzanita we are lucky; with visitation available we can work outside. This is not the case everywhere, and no burning or smudging can be done indoors. Using a picnic table for the altar, surrounded by fences and razor wire and under the scrutiny of security cameras, we get ready for ritual.
We use the inmates’ tools, or the ones I bring, as they prefer. Often they have some items, which are supplemented by mine. Many of these guys work for less than fifty cents an hour, so without financial support from family on the street their resources are extremely limited. Even with money, they have to go through a process to identify what they want, find a recognized vendor, and order the tool with the approval of the chaplain.
Then they wait, sometimes for months, until the order arrives.
Usually I bring with me an altar cloth, a pentacle, an oil or electric candle (no wax allowed), incense and holder (or fresh rosemary for indoor Circles), lighter, anointing oil, a salt packet (so security KNOWS what it is), a seashell for water, a chalice and box of fruit juice, plate and crackers, a bell, a wand (no athame allowed!), a feather, a quartz crystal and an obsidian. Sometimes I add other items for particular workings. All these are teaching tools, so may be handled by the participants.
We set up the altar, and then begin.
It’s interesting purifying the Circle in the prison. I always have them cast first, as the challenge of cleansing a large area of all those negative vibes is overwhelming. At least in the enclosed ritual space we can psychically scrub it out. What a difference it makes! We do a grounding meditation, and begin.
Why do I take so much time out of a busy life, and forfeit business hours that could be lucrative? Why jump through these hoops, go to uncomfortable places, and spend time with felons?
These men (and women, at a different facility) are children of Goddess and God, just as I am. They’ve made mistakes, some of them have done horrific things, but somewhere within them is the spark of deity we all share.
I do the Goddess’ work, reaching out to them, fanning that spark into a flame of healing and growth. I help them look at the world in a different way, to accept the responsibility for what they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused their victims.
I remind them that nothing can change what has happened, but that they can change what they do from this moment on. They can make amends where possible, and start to do positive things that will begin to balance their karmic ledger. They can begin to honor all life as sacred, including their own, as is the Wiccan way.
Many of these inmates will be released sooner or later. They may move in next door to your daughter, or my mother, or work in the office next to you. If, before they get out, they change the way they look at the world, they’ll likely not re-offend.
If they learn to see the sacred in all things, they’ll be better equipped to deal with everyday life on the outside with honor and respect. Yet they, as all of us, need moral support from our community both while incarcerated and afterwards. Think of all the blessings the gods have given to you.
How can YOU share?
There’s another aspect of our ministry that is important as well. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the right of all citizens to worship (or not) as they choose. The Dept. of Corrections must allow inmates that right. However, they know little about “minority” religions like Wicca, and need resources for accurate information.
Mother Earth Ministries, which I founded with the help of other committed Pagan clergy, has become that source. Through us, DOC officials, staff, and chaplains are learning the truth about our path. Together we are finding a way to integrate practice of our religion with the security-conscious environment of the state prisons.
This protects the rights of Wiccan inmates in the system, while educating all involved about our practices.
Our information flyers and pamphlets are being spread throughout the Dept. of Corrections. The booklet Wicca Behind Bars, co-authored by Ashleen O’Gaea and myself, is provided to the chaplain’s libraries, insuring that at least some correct information about Wicca is available to all seekers.
This is truly a calling, and a way to change lives. As a priestess, the Goddess has pointed me in this new direction to help blaze a new trail. If this strikes a chord in any of you, and you’d like to help, please contact Mother Earth Ministries at P.O. Box 35906, Tucson, AZ 85740-5906, or visit our web site at www.motherearthministries.org .
Mother Earth Ministries
Portions of this article were printed in 2004 in Tucson Area Wiccan/Pagan Network's newsletter, TAPESTRY. It is used in Mother Earth Ministry's outreach work.
Copyright: rights retained by Mother Earth Ministries, with open permission to re-print this article in its entirity
Location: Tucson, Arizona
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