The Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) does not allow Pagan worship. Criteria in the ADC Religious Services Policy & Procedure Manual favor religions based in the belief in a single deity.
In practice, these criteria privilege Abrahamic religions which worship a Hebrew God. Pre-pandemic, Catholic worshippers were allowed to meet once per week, and Christian and Muslim worshippers were allowed to meet several times per week.
The chapel they meet in is decorated with Christian crosses, and all of the chaplains are Christian. The only literature distributed in prison is Christian, and every unit has a program called Principles and Applications for Life, (PAL), a Bible-based curriculum which requires that participants go to church.
I don’t have a problem with Abrahamic religions or the Hebrew God, but I’m Pagan.
Let me explain. I’m an Eclectic Pagan, and I practice Wicca, Shamanism, Qabala, Hinduism and Alchemy. My religion is nature-based, and my patron deities include Gaia and the Green Man, though I follow others as well.
Before I started my journey, I was brought up Southern Baptist. At 15, I was introduced to Wicca, and the more I learned, the more Wicca just made sense. I’ve evolved since then, as have my beliefs.
But ADC policies keep myself and other Pagans from practicing our beliefs. In order to meet for group worship, we must find a free world volunteer to come in and conduct the rituals, but ADC only pays someone to conduct Christian services.
I’m forbidden to keep items needed to conduct rituals, such as seashells, salt, feathers or small pebbles. Pagans also can’t keep their own tarot cards or runestones. Arkansas rules state that if we have them, they must be kept by the chaplain when not being used.
We are being stonewalled from our worship. It feels as if we are only given access to the Hebrew God in hopes of converting us. These ADC policies remind me of how the United States tried to forcefully convert Native Americans to Christianity in the 1800s.
The ADC Religious Services’ mission statement claims its goal is to “provide spiritual and moral guidance to every incarcerated person who desires assistance” on their spiritual path, yet I’m not allowed religious accommodations.
ADC has taken me off my spiritual path and blocked me from getting back. Pagan religions are not welcome in prison. But why?
I have the potential to brighten all the lives around me, yet ADC wants to keep me in this box. Stars only last for so long before they burn out and go dark. How long will I continue to burn without the right to practice my religion? Will I still be able to brighten the lives around me? Or will they make sure I’ve gone dark before they open the box?
Wicca speaks to me. I feel that it is my path. I’ll shine as long as I can and brighten the lives of all that I can.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.