Solidarity Beyond Bars: Pagans in Prison
The United States has 22% of the world’s prisoners but only 4.4% of the world’s population. Solidarity has always been a primary focus of radical and religious groups, but little is spoken of efforts to provide spiritual solidarity for Pagans and Heathens. So, I spoke with Donna Donovan, the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry to find out about her work and how others can help.
RHYD: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Could you tell me about yourself, and the work you do with the Appalachian Prison Ministry?
DONNA DONOVAN: Thank you for having us! My name is Donna Donovan, and I am the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry. We are a pan-Pagan ministry devoted to building an engaged, passionate, and spiritually fulfilled community of people from all backgrounds and faiths. We are devoted to engaging and impacting one another and others, believing it is our responsibility to set an example of service. This is where we come to “walk our talk” and educate by example.
Our main focus is our pan-Pagan prison ministry developed to serve the spiritual needs of our fellow Pagans currently incarcerated. Currently, we are the only Pagan ministry allowed in to West Virginia state prisons, serving monthly on-site at 5 facilities, along with monthly on-site services at 5 facilities in Ohio, including Death Row. We also serve, via correspondence, to several Kindreds and Covens in facilities across the United States.
RHYD: I’d like to ask you about the specific sorts of difficulties and needs of prisoners, but before that, can you talk about the barriers groups hoping to help prisoners face? What is certification like, what sorts of restrictions are you under, and how difficult is it to convince prison officials and state bodies to grant you access?
DONNA DONOVAN: Since the passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, followed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000, inmates around the country of non-Abrahamic paths have been fighting to get their religious rights while incarcerated. The stigmas associated with the various “Pagan” groups in prison are really no different then the outside. Wiccans are considered evil, baby sacrificing, devil worshippers, and those of the Heathen paths are all a bunch of Nazi skinheads. As I tell the inmates I work with, many of these stigmas and attitudes did not just come out of thin air. There is a long history of violence perpetuated by various groups pushing their agendas through while trying to hide behind these religious paths. However, much like the outside, the fear is based on ignorance; a simple lack of understanding.
As with most States, in Ohio and West Virginia, volunteer programs such as ours, our what is considered “inmate driven” not “volunteer driven.” That means we have to be requested by the inmates. We can not solicit to go in. At that point, it is usually the prison Chaplain who contacts us. That’s when our battle begins.
So the first obstacle is approaching the administration and teaching them. Show them that we are not coming in there to start a race war, or to incite violence or anything else other than teaching folks about the faith of their choosing. Plain and simple. Wearing normal street clothes instead of prancing in there in festival garb and 10″ pentacles tends to help, too. [laughs] The point is that administration needs to understand that just because we do not worship the same does not mean we are not like them and everyone else walking.
Once you get past the door, then you have to fill out so much paperwork, you literally think you are buying a home. Background checks need to be done, recommendations sent, and so on. This process tends to take weeks, if not months. When you are finally approved, you then have to go through a volunteer training and orientation. All of this is for each and every facility. A few hours of videos and lectures, some questionnaires, tours, etc.. We then schedule a date to present to the inmates and go on to schedule our monthly meetings from there.
RHYD: Your prison work is in Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the United States. And of course, poverty and incarceration are deeply linked in Capitalist societies: most crimes on the books are ‘property’ and economic crimes. From your vantage point, what are the struggles you see for the prisoners you work with? I’m wondering, also, about the matter of discrimination you encounter against prisoners by the rest of society.
DONNA DONOVAN: You are correct, this is one of the most poverty stricken areas, as well as being one of the hardest hit by the opiate epidemic. Huntington, WV, where APM is based, is the overdose capital per capita in the entire country.
However, mass incarceration is a national problem, not just regional. Our “war on drugs” has obviously failed. The only success has been the profit margins of those in the privatized prisons business. Our nation’s prisons went from being rehabilitative to punitive in the late 80s/early 90s when private companies like CCA took over.
Which leads to the answer to your second question. When an inmate undergoes incarceration and spends that time doing absolutely nothing productive, nothing rehabilitative…of course they come out of prison with no skills, no socialization and they end up going right back to the lifestyle that led them there in the first place. 95% of those currently incarcerated WILL BE released. Within 3 years, 60-75% of those will re-offend. But that’s what these private prisons want; they want the recidivism rates to stay high so their profits stay up. Quite sad when you think about that. What people do not think about is where those profits come from. They come from you. They come from me. Your taxes pay so CCAs, CEOs, and managers can live their luxurious lifestyles. You’re also paying for all those families whose loved ones are incarcerated, as the majority end up being single parent households on welfare.
When I asked the inmates what could be done for them to help them before they were released, they overwhelmingly answered “programs that help us adapt into society, education, life skills, the ability to grow in body, mind and spirit.” Therapy through art is one program that has shown success, mentoring programs, and programs such as ours that help them to grow in the faith of their choosing.
What sort of discrimination do I encounter in regards to inmates? “They’re criminals, they’re degenerates, they don’t deserve help.” From the Heathen community I hear a great deal about dishonor. Really? These inmates, male and female alike, know the mistakes they have made in their lives. They are paying for those mistakes. Yet instead of wallowing in self-pity or continuing to blame outside sources for their current situation, they are holding themselves accountable and doing what they can to grow in body, mind and spirit to ensure they do not make those same mistakes again. Truly, how many of us really do that? These folks have made oaths to themselves, to their Gods, and to their ancestors to live honorably. They realize, and freely admit, they did not do so before…which is why they are in prison. How can we not help them be able to do that?
RHYD: It’s difficult to find current statistics on prison population, but the most recent I could find (2013) showed the US has 22% of the world’s inmates despite having only 4.4% of the world’s population. So there’s definitely something going on besides ‘dishonor’ and ‘degeneracy,’ and profit looks like a huge factor.
Moving away from the larger societal issues towards your work with prisoners themselves: what exactly does your work look like? Can you describe your on-site and correspondence work?
DONNA DONOVAN: When we go into a facility for the first time, we hold a general presentation for all inmates of non-Abrahamic paths. Wiccans, Odinists, Druid, eclectic, and even Satanist/Luciferians. Whoever chooses to come. This has been quite historic, actually, as these groups in prison almost never mingle. At least not without violence. We have not had one incident occur. After the general presentation, which is basically an introduction to who we are, what we do, and what we hope to do, followed by a Q&A with the inmates, we then set schedules for the upcoming visits.
From then on when we go in, we normally separate in two groups. I take the Heathens and we basically hold a moot: small Blot, rune drawing and readings, study a lesson, read from the Lore, and discuss the Havamal a few stanzas at a time. The course I am working with them is the Elder Troth Lore Program. Teresa, my on-the-ground volunteer, takes the Wiccans and eclectics and works with them her own sort of Wicca 101 program. In WV, I am also working a program with the Satanists.
Our correspondence courses are handled by several volunteers. The courses we offer, on top of the ones we handle in the prisons (which are also done via correspondence) are Pagan Astrology, Chaos Magick, Developing Divine Relationships (a devotional polytheist course), and Perennial Lessons in Living–a Druidic course by Emma Restall-Orr reinterpreted by me (with her permission) to be a bit more generalized.
At this time there is about 20 Kindreds nationally doing courses with us.
RHYD: With the programs and courses that you present or develop, do you run into many problems with censorship? How helpful or difficult are the relationships with prison chaplains and supervisors?
Honestly I have not. Prior to going into facilities in either state, West Virginia and Ohio, I met with State Prison officials and submitted outlines of the courses we were offering. All were approved. Surprisingly we have had tremendous support from both chaplains and administrative staffing.
When I first formed APM, I sent an email to the Commissioner of the WV Dept of Corrections introducing us and explaining what we wanted to do. I honestly did not expect an answer. I received an email the very next day requesting to meet with us in Charleston. Two months later we were in our first facility.
I truly believe the tide is changing. People are starting to see that the status quo is not working, and seeking alternatives. Either that or I am just exceptionally charming, and I doubt that is it.
RHYD: Or perhaps both? [laughs]
I’m also curious about white nationalism within prisons. I wrote to queer prisoners 8 years ago, and started a correspondence with a gay Asatruar. Our conversations about race and Paganism seemed to be going well, but I stopped my correspondence with him after he sent me a shirtless photo of himself in front of a swastika. Basically, I freaked. I’m still uncertain that was the right decision, especially once I realised he had no other non-racist Pagan contacts.
So, I can see how your work is deeply important, especially since so many are quick to abandon Pagan and Heathen prisoners. How much influence have you seen on the Heathens you work with from more organised white nationalist groups?
DONNA DONOVAN: Oh my, that is a loaded question. [laughs.] There is a huge influence. Primarily because, up till now, those were, for the most part, the only folks willing to work with Heathens in prison. Just like the Christians who “find Jesus in jail,” it is no different with Pagans. Many come to their chosen faith after incarceration. And as there is such limited access and information, they learn from those already inside, who learned from those already inside, who learned from those (with agendas) willing to come inside. I’ve seen so-called leaders of Kindreds inside who can’t even name the Nine Worlds.
This is exactly what I say when I meet these inmates: “I personally do not care if you are the biggest racist homophobe walking the planet. Truly I don’t. Those are your personal beliefs; you have a right to them; own that shit. Hate everyone that is not a straight white male…fine by me. But do NOT come to me and say that hammer hanging around your neck is the reason why. Your personal biases have NOTHING to do with the religion you claim to follow, NOTHING to do with the Ancestors. And for the next however many months, I’m going to use your own myths, lores and history to show you that. “
There’s been a few death threats…not from inside the walls.
That’s why you’ve seen me all over Facebook saying, “If you’re so worried about the ‘alt-right’ and all the hate crimes, why don’t you all come out from behind your computers and help me in the trenches where this starts?” Stop talking and start doing.
RHYD: It strikes me that something significant changed in the last few decades around prison work. There was a long radical (anarchist, particularly) tradition of correspondence with inmates, but it has not been as strong as before. I have also seen some work to support queer and trans inmates. But it occurs to me that this is one place Christianity beats out all other religious or social groups: solidarity with prisoners is actually written into the Bible.
That brings me to probably the most important question of all: What is needed? Both for your particular work and the Appalachian Pagan Ministry, and also to build stronger networks of support for Pagan and Heathen prisoners from outside the prisons?
Bodies and money. Blunt enough? [laughs.] Truly, in all honesty, this is growing so fast, is such a need, and I have a hard time saying no. We are in ten facilities in two states, about to add four more facilities. There is only two of us going inside. We have another volunteer who, bless his heart, is our driver. We need people to help.
I understand this isn’t for everyone. I get that. I spent my own time behind those walls, so I know what to expect. But we truly do need folks to step up. This is not a volunteer job to take lightly. You have to be committed and consistent and able to follow through. And thick skinned along with compassionate. You have to leave your judgements at the gate.
Financially we need all the help we can get. This all comes strictly out of our pockets: the car rentals, fuel, printing costs, postage, etc.. It has been asked why I do not push for State funding to help with this ministry. The answer is a simple one: I did not apply for a position with the State. We are there to serve and minister to the inmates, not to receive a paycheck from the administration. We are there out of service, not for a job. I also feel that it would affect the trust between the inmates and our volunteers if they felt we were just another correctional employee.
We also feel the same as it comes to funding from organizations. We feel that the best way to keep from being linked to anyone’s ideologies is to not take funds from them. It is the same reason we do not sell advertising on our website. We serve the inmates we work with, not a state or federal entity, not any one group or organization.
I have a real problem with overextending because I can’t say no. When an inmate looks at me with tears in his eyes, literally sobbing, and thanking us for being there, saying, “We have fought for this for 20 years! Thank you so much for being here…” how can I not do this?
RHYD: How can people volunteer or financially support your work?