Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This Grim Stead – a Festival in Prison.

This past weekend L and I flew out to eastern Washington to participate in what may well be a unique event in modern Pagan history. Archdruid Rev Kirk Thomas arranged a mini-festival for the Pagan inmates of the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, a 2000-inmate joint on the edge of the desert. The event was a full day of workshops, rituals and music, that included Pagan inmates from Asatru, Wiccan and Druidic traditions. L and I travelled from Northeastern Ohio to represent ADF, Patty Lafayllve from Connecticut represented the Troth (she’s the former Steerswoman and author of their Lore program) and Ashleen O’Gaea, from Tucson, AZ, represented the Wiccan path. Of course Kirk was there, along with the Wiccan priestess who has been a long-time volunteer for the prison. Also present were the de facto director of religious program for the state Dept. of Corrections (de facto because titles and responsibilities seem to be influx…), the chaplain for Coyote Ridge, and some four Christian other chaplains from the Washington DOC.

This was a one day event, so that meant lightning travel. We left Cleveland on Friday morning, took three flights to get to Pasco, Washington, and then left Washington again on Sunday AM for a full day of travel back to Ohio. Not even enough time to adapt to the western time-zone. Along with a day of program that lasted from 8am until 9 pm, the event left me as work-out as many longer fests.

We arrived Friday night for a dinner and drinks with several of the chaplains and the other teachers. Patti is the author of “Freya, Lady, Vanadis”. I’ve met Patti before, I think, at Starwood and other fests, but this was the first time we have had a real chance to chat. I know Troth folks pretty well, so we had some common ground. This was my first chance to meet Ashleen, author of “The Family Wicca Book” and, more recently, “Enchantment Encumbered” a book based on the prison ministry that she has been involved in for some years. Of the four teachers at the event, only Ashleen had previous experience with prisoners, though only as a correspondent. She, like the rest of the traveling guests, had never been ‘inside’.

Going inside was fairly scary to me, from a distance. Like many alternative-culture Americans, I have no great faith in or affection for the criminal justice system and its institutions. My exchanges with Chaplain Erik Askren of Coyote Ridge by emails, and Kirks’ hardy support of him convinced me that we had a friend in the system, and that was a plus. Meeting some of the other chaplains and their approximate manager the night before had also put me at ease. If I’m skeptical of some elements of the system, I’m also confident that in the USA an alternate religion wouldn’t be hassled too hard, once we had gotten as far as the day of an event.
In fact the existence of the event is, itself, evidence of the strong commitment to religious plurality and equality built into the system from the constitution on down. The existence of an actual population of Pagan prisoners mandates that those prisoners be served. When Kirk’s energetic organizing produced a chance for an event like this, and the local chaplain was on board, it happened. I was also clued in that the existence of a new manager at the top of the state chaplaincy had also been invaluable. So while I hope that this event can help to spur further organized outreach to the incarcerated, I do think that access and conditions are likely to vary widely from state to state. For this event we had the right confluence to allow it to happen.

The prison itself is huge, new and clean as a whistle. Five large buildings sit on 86 acres. It was high-desert cool in the morning, and the sun glinted brightly on the concertina wire and clean new 15-foot fences. The grounds were covered in wide fresh concrete walkways with yards of gravel between them – nothing to mow or clip in sight. Kirk was out guide through the first ‘rooms’ of fencing. He’s been coming to Coyote Ridge every six weeks for High Days for the last couple of years, and knows the way. The officer at the front desk knew him as well, and the process of checking a few personal items, examining my guitar and bag of ritual wear, etc was painless. We were met by another of the chaplains, who helped us through the next series of security rooms to the building where the events would take place.

The classes, group sessions and concert were held in an educational wing of the building, which looked pretty much like any community college corridor, stripped of the usual flyers and cultural clutter. We convened at 8am for a plenary session with all the guests and the men from the Druid, Asatru and Wiccan contingents. The men gathered looked, I must say, rather like guys you might see at a Pagan fest, though perhaps with more shaved heads than usual among the long hair, beards and braids. After taking a few questions through the chaplain we adjourned to the first rounds of sessions.

The day was split between workshops and rituals. Each of the traditions had its own chance for ritual in the outdoor worship space provided by the prison. Our Druidic session began with L and me presenting her Indo-European Goddesses workshop and slide show, which was well-received. We then headed for the outdoor Nemeton for ritual.

The outdoor ritual spaces for Pagans were a good walk across the barren yard. I was quite pleased at what the men of Frogstone Circle had accomplished. There was a nice lined and edged pit for the Fire, a standing pedestal-basin Well and a post cemented in as the Bile. All quite stark and spare, but as complete and formal as one could hope for in the circumstances. I understand that the gravel yard is due to receive ‘beautification’ in the form of grass in the near future. In any case, the feel of the place was actually pretty juicy, despite the grim setting, and the rite went off well, with a version of the ADF unity rite done by Kirk, L and the leader of Frogstone Circle, Thomas Brown.

I should say a word about Thomas. In many ways that inmate is the reason that this event happened. He began his interest in Druidry with OBOD, and holds their Druid grade, the highest level of their study program. He has completed the ADF Dedicant Path work, and is enrolled in our Initiate Path, doing my Nine Moons work as his practicum at this time. His dedication to the path has helped him gather a circle of other Druid students in Coyote Ridge, and it was his correspondence that got Kirk involved in the first place. Kudos to Thomas for his diligence, courage and wisdom.

We ate lunch with the Druid guys, sharing their pre-packaged pb&j kit and lemonade. Complaints about the food were ubiquitous. We noted that no-one goes either to prison or the UK for the food…

For the afternoon workshop session I taught a meditation class, which went pretty well. Those things are not the most exciting topic, but I could tell that a handful of students ‘got it’, and that’s as good as I expect in any such festival teaching. I had prepped a class on magic as well, but that material got somewhat deferred until later.

Before dinner, we performed a set of music. Good sound system, incidentally. I’ve worked a lot of audiences over the years, and I could tell that some of the guys were prepared to be unimpressed. This one-guitar show just might not be cool enough for them. I’m pleased to say that by a few songs in most of them were bopping along to Pagan hits like “Hoof and Horn”. I consider the concert a real success, and I’m very pleased to have added what must be a serious splash of color to the inmate’s fairly drab sensory existence.

We had dinner with the system chaplains and the other pagan teachers. The local chaplain had arranged a nice spread of fruit, veggies, cheese and meat (and chocolate, for which L was grateful) – as pleasant as could be expected in the circumstances. We’d been warned that some of the chaplains might be less than welcoming, but in the end everyone was polite and pleasant, at least. Kirk donated copies of the ADF Dedicant book to each of them, and Ashleen had copies of her prison-ministry title as well, so they left with at least the opportunity to be much better informed than before. To be fair, several of them attended workshops as well, and they were all at the concert.

After dinner we held a syncretic all-groups ritual. These are always a laugh riot to coordinate, and a hit-or-miss proposition, but we had enough skilled ritualists to pull it off nicely. We did a Wiccan Circle-casting, followed by Opening the Gates, and Kindred offerings in the Druidic fashion, and for the blessing did a simple one-round symbel in Norse style. This was done indoors, and while it wasn’t the very most powerful rite I’ve ever been in, it went just fine.

The final event of the evening was a panel discussion, with the initial topic of the place of magic in Paganism. I started things out using some of my usual definitions and categories notes, and we moved into discussion and then questions from the men. It was a lively and interesting discussion, and the questions led us into some places we hadn’t gone.

In retrospect, my experience with this minimum-to-midlevel security environment wasn’t scary. As always for me, it was a pleasure to meet other pagans, and the fact that they were inmates made only a little difference. It’s customary for chaplains to simply not ask about things like offenses and sentences, so those topics didn’t come up. We talked about their special challenges and needs, and I hope provided some resources (all the guest teachers donated books to the library). The institution was no problem, even the officers (don’t call them the guards…) were generally pleasant, even chatty when I took a minute.

Will I take up prison ministry? I’m pretty busy. I will say that the notion is now in our minds, and that we’re greatly encouraged to consider the possibility. Certainly if the chance arose, it wouldn’t be fear that prevented us.

If I had ever gone to prison I flatter myself to think that I might have spent the one great resource it provides – time – on spiritual matters. I’m certainly willing to help those who are actually doing that, and I’m very pleased to have had the chance.


Polarity Phoenix-mane said...

There are no words of great enough extent that will ever be able to convey how well the two of you (L) inspire my sense of Druid path and spirituality in all you both do and how you touch the lives of those around you.
What you do is not really the amount of impression, but that you teach so well by 'doing', not just saying.

Forever in both your debt for the inspiration and this is one great example!

Be well,
P.S. Kirk continues to inspire us too!

Unknown said...

What is remarkable to me is that I live in the tri-cites, you you came right through here (Pasco, Richland, Kennewick). That's really cool, especially since the only magical groups here are Wiccan. Though it is also really nice to see good pagans getting a chance to have the same kinds of religious privileges as those of more mainstream religions.