Image by Harold Carter

This is an edited excerpt from the writer’s booklet, “The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ inability to accommodate the Pagan and Wiccan faith” (July 2020)

COVID-19 has affected the religious practices of inmates of many diverse faiths in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Still, oppressed faiths like Paganism feel the wrath of COVID-19 not from the virus but from the lack of solace. Prior to COVID-19, the department did not accommodate Pagan/Wiccan inmates. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made it much worse.

  • During the pandemic men perished from COVID-19 at my prison at State Correctional Institution Huntingdon. The announcement of this unsettling news would come from the deputy superintendent while in the presence of monotheistic clergy. These announcements would be followed by monotheistic prayers. The deputy superintendent asked for prayers if you were religious. While this was occurring, I felt like a second-class citizen. Who would comfort me in prayer? Do the Pagan/Wiccan inmates not deserve solace during a worldwide pandemic?

  • My captors put out a memo/notice about how religious programming would be handled during COVID-19. This plan of action mentioned various faiths in the institution. It did not mention Pagan accommodations at all. This action by my jailers made me feel like my faith was not good enough, that the ones they talk about are better. 

  • Prior to COVID-19, l challenged the department in its inability to provide the primary sacred text for Pagan/Wicca. l have had little success. I am told by my captors to buy my own materials. To me this felt wrong, but I nevertheless ordered holy books in my faith’s tradition, and the books were rejected by the security-processing center in the department. I cannot begin to explain how frustrating this is. In addition, the security-processing center in the department did not offer a rejection receipt. l was told by my Pagan/Wiccan church that the books were prohibited. Of course, I filed a grievance on this. I am still in litigation. So far, the department justifies the rejection by saying the books did not come from an original source. The Pagan/Wiccan church in question is a legal church regulated by the IRS and has its own publishing house. Psychologically, this rejection of holy books hurts my heart. It is unfair and unjust. 

  • When this COVID-19 pandemic started, the Secretary of Corrections in the department told the State Correctional institutions that if faith groups do not have a faith group leader that the institution will broadcast instructional videos on the prison’s TV channel. SCI Huntingdon refused to comply with this order. I am, of course, in the midst of filing a grievance about this.

These are just some of the issues I have been experiencing as a Pagan/Wiccan prisoner. Prior to COVID-19, oppression for the Pagan faith in the department ran wild. Because of the pandemic, it became harder for people to hear my bellows. Now that things are beginning to wane, I hope someone will hear the Pagan/Wiccan oppression taking place here.

Three hundred and thirty years ago if you practiced anything Pagan, you would find yourself in deep peril. Our country at that time would crush, drown or burn you to death for the charge of witchcraft. Religious freedom is much better in recent times for people of polytheistic faiths. Unfortunately, liberty has not followed men and women into the American prison system. American reformatory is the last frontier of what us Pagans and witches call the burning times. 

I am a prisoner at SCI Huntingdon prison in Pennsylvania and the bigotry must stop. Religious study time is ignored, Communal worship is denied. The primary texts of our traditions are not available. We are told when to eat hallowed foods on our holy days. When we seek sage and cedar, we must abide by chaplains of other faiths and are subject to their customs. Our allowable religious items are few while other faiths have pages to choose. 

The chaplains that represent us are monotheistic. They are against everything we believe in, yet they govern and represent our very faith to our captors. Monotheistic faiths feast on their holy days with food of their liking. Pagans are not authorized feasts. Other faiths study and pray in the chapel area without outside clergy. We must have outside clergy – despite grievances. The way our captors utilize the least restrictive means test vindictive and often downright cruel. I was denied half-inch quartz crystals from outside vendors and told to search for pebbles in the prison yard. 

In addition, religious accommodations are lengthy. They take four months. The grievance procedure challenging the accommodation denial takes an additional three months. This turns into seven months. Our captors backdate papers. This is entirely too long to have to wait for denied religious accommodations. 

My advice: band together spiritually. Many Pagans together are omnipotent and resilient. Asatru and Wiccan, Druid and Wotanist, shaman and witch, and Thelema and Hoodoo advocacy groups entertain issues with several inmates involved. Still, be sure to contact them separately. 

File religious accommodations. Remember, do your research. When religious accommodations do not work, file grievances until they become exhausted. After all else fails, sue. Contact the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. Remember that whatever other faith groups get you can have too by the laws of parity, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the 14th Amendment.

If you are a free world person and want to help incarcerated pagans, give them legal advice if you are comfortable doing so. Provide them with spiritual advice, sponsorship, study materials and referrals. A Pagan convict typically requests relief from persecution, reading materials and remote teaching.

Pagan oppression is still burning. This is the last frontier.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Harold Sandford Carter III

Harold Sanford Carter III is writer incarcerated in Florida. He is a pagan musician and activist. His poetry has been published in the Journal of Progressive Health and Human Services as well as the American Prison Writing Archive.