Let’s Talk About Incarcerated Heathens

The general population does not have a very high opinion of people who are, or have been, in prison. I remember being as young as 12 and hearing rumors about plastic surgery, niche therapy and otherwise non-essential care being provided to people on death row. These were all told with the heavy implication that these people are worthless and have it “too good.”

The reality is very different. There’s hoops to jump through just to get a tooth pulled, no matter what your conviction was about.

This perception doesn’t improve once people are released. Employers often refuse to hire convicted felons, but having a steady job is a requirement of parole in most areas. Being in prison leaves large gaps in your life that are, at best, awkward to explain. There is a huge social stigma attached to it, which creates a serious barrier to resuming a normal life. Incarceration often traumatizes people, creating yet another barrier to reintegrating with society because trauma is a profoundly alienating and lonely experience. It’s really not surprising in these circumstances that over half of all people released from prison eventually go back, often for a parole violation. Personality and habit alone do not explain this.

The prison system theoretically isn’t supposed to make people magically disappear. But a lot of people behave as if they assume or wish this were the case.

One would hope, as members of a religious minority that is often either invisible or stigmatized, we’d be a little more charitable to people paddling up the same creek in a different boat. This is not often the case. Obsessive Tru Warrior types are all too glad to slap these people with the label of níðing, proclaim them oath-breakers and discard them as dishonorable.

I hate this approach.

The vast majority of people sent to prison are eventually released. Approximately 90% of all people currently in prison in the US will eventually leave it. That means that many Heathens in prison right now, statistically speaking, will eventually be back in our communities. We can choose to make that our problem, or make it an opportunity. Either way, it is of our concern.

There is also a strong tendency among the prison population to become religious. It is vital for people in prison to have some kind of support structure, and anyone involved in Heathenry (on the inside or outside) can attest that the gods and a good community do wonders for our well-being. Remember how I said over half of all people released from prison eventually go back? The rate of recidivism is lower for inmates who receive competent religious or spiritual care. Religious organizations have an incredibly important role in the reintegration process, and society directly benefits from ensuring that incarcerated Heathens have these needs met.

This is true of all faiths, but Heathens in particular are under-served.

There’s a few complications with resolving this, as with anything. A declaration of faith often dictates your social circle in prison, and there’s a definite correlation between white supremacy and putting some form of Heathenry on your paperwork as a result. This is made worse by the fact that various racist organizations both in and outside of prison feed off of this. And then the DOC shuts down Heathen volunteer programs out of (unfortunately, justified) concerns for gang activity.

For sincere Heathens who aren’t seeking community for a social life or an ego trip, but out of devotion for the gods, this sucks. Prison is not a pleasant place to be. It’s not meant to be, but these Heathens are denied a very necessary service that would drastically improve their experience and behavior on the inside, and their chances upon release.

Because, yes, on top of reducing recidivism rates, competent spiritual care reduces the number of infractions while in prison.

Universalist/Inclusive Heathens have an important job to do when it comes to reducing the amount of racism in our religion. Tactics may differ, but they all require work. Prison ministry is a valuable opportunity to redirect people in a bad situation to a healing and progressive framework. Even if we can’t make people stop being racist, supporting inclusive Heathen prison ministry at least means we have a better chance of preventing further indoctrination from Heathen organizations with a malicious, racist agenda.

Robert L. Schreiwer tackles this in the In-Reach Charter (all emphasis mine):

*Whether inmates have access to positive Heathen influences is part of a larger issue that has an impact on the whole of the Heathen community.* In many cases, the perception of Heathenry is defined by radical racist elements from the prison population.

The administrators are not blindly or randomly inventing their perceptions; the perceptions have formed from the presence of race-based books, tattoos, and gang behaviors that have been found among the Heathen prison population. A radicalization based on race and/or ethnicity is taking place in some facilities. When these radical racists are released into the general population, the history of their experience and influence will become an even bigger problem for us than it is now. Thus, *prison outreach efforts are a frithful move to protect the folk from this destructive radicalization.* This program meets a need that supersedes the unpaid debt of individual prisoners.

Programs like In-Reach have stepped up to the plate, now armed with this knowledge, and with the goal of ensuring that incarcerated Heathens have competent spiritual advisors. Appalachian Pagan Ministry is doing the same.

This is a big part of why pursuing ordination is one of my major life goals. This kind of work is immensely important.

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