A lot people go online to find things to hate, so I thought this title might grab some Wiccans’ attention for the wrong reason, and invite them to help us solve this problem. (I don’t mean that Wiccans in particular go online to hate; it’s just a reason many people do. I think they are called trolls and keyboard warriors who don’t improve anything but just want to fight pointlessly. But some can be honestly kind, thoughtful people who want to make sure that their religion is being portrayed accurately, and maybe this title brought some of those secure, mature Wiccans here. “Whatever gets to the table,” as my Mom says about activism. Once you are at the table, you are knowingly part of the situation.)
The main complaint incarcerated Wiccans write to me about is that they HAVE to have tools, HAVE to have candles, according to the books on Wicca. A lot of books ditched half of the original tools, like the scourge, like they dropped the Wiccan Rede aside from the first line, but still, there’s a lot of “must haves” in Wicca. How many and how elaborate depends on the book and most incarcerated Wiccans only have a couple books.
When polytheists write me, no matter what the culture, I can write that making offerings of water and the arts while praising the deities and ancestors is a great start. List 5 things you are grateful for. Then talk, probably silently, about your life, your questions, your problems, your desires, including to know Them better. Practice mindful meditation (several Buddhist and Hindu places send free guides) to learn more about how your brain operates, so you will have better “signal clarity” about what could be from the deities and what’s from your own mind. Build a relationship. Follow the main two virtues found in all tribal cultures: truth and hospitality in ways that are safe in prison, which usually means with the deities and ancestors.
(Being even a bit generous makes you look soft, a sucker who will be on the end of theft, beatings and even rape. And truth is another dangerous thing in prison – I’ve had pen pals write that it’s only in writing me that they be honest about themselves and understand what their crime(s) were really about and seek ways to deal with those issues.)
Wiccans, so obsessed with the tools, but not seeming to understand that the tools are also symbols of deeper energies, I’m not sure how to help. When I was trained as a teenager I made all my own tools because that was the rule then (and there was a lot of blood from my first time using a sawzall with no instruction!) But I also had to know how to cast a circle and lead a basic rite workout the aid of any tools beyond my body. Once I had to do it wordlessly!
I can explain that necessity is the mother of invention. “Use the thick paper of a book cover to make a blade shape and if possible wrap it with aluminum foil or the shiny insides of chip bags. Carve designs in a Styrofoam cup and pencil them into darker areas. Make “flame” with red, orange and good candy wrappers and Doritos bags crumpled up and fit into a paper cup “candle holder”. Take apart a toilet paper tube and twist it into a wand, held in place by wrapping a shoelace around it. Use any bowl for the cauldron. Trace a circle on paper and put 5 dots on its edge where you estimate the pentacle points should be. Use a flat surface like a book edge to draw the straight lines that connect the dots. Use color pencils to make it green (or whatever color you are supposed to have in your chosen tradition.) The Commissary bandana is an altar cloth. Have someone draw the Lady and the Lord or use images from magazines. You have a Wiccan altar.”
But it doesn’t help with all the Ceremonial Magick reasons behind the tools or respectfully feeling the Elementals. Any connection between nature-religion and environmentalism escapes them. The Crowley meaning of Will is unknown, so they do whatever they want. Somehow they also skipped all the studies in concentration, visualization, energy work.
Wiccans in prison really need a pen pal for the Circle. Someone who can supply the missing information, give “homework”, and explain the theology. If you have Starhawk’s the Spiral Dance for homework and group exercises, Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon for explaining the religion’s development, and Internet access for finding good answers, you’re far more ahead of the average Wiccan in prison. Plus I imagine that you have been practicing as a solitary Wiccan for a few years and attended several public rituals and/or workshops. You are basically the authority on Wicca people need.
Gullveig Press wrote a Guide to Writing Pagan Prisoners! And we have some names of Wiccans who are trying to be actively involved in the prison Pagan group, but need mentors! Storm is one.
You don’t have to discuss your personal life. Like anyone writing a prisoner, you must set specific boundaries of what you won’t tolerate (racism, requests for money, any sexual/ romantic overtures, etc). Make clear what you are offering. “I can write once a month in response to a list of 5 questions from the Circle about the religion of Wicca. I may copy useful information from the Internet, books and my own Book of Shadows to send you. My background is Alexandrian, which I will explain later in this letter, but I have incorporated things from other traditions. I don’t speak for all Wiccans. I won’t call the Chaplain for you. In 8 months my schedule is expected to become much more full and I probably cannot write after then. But I know that you don’t have any volunteers to help you learn and books are too expensive for most prisoners and you’re very limited in what titles you can buy, and I would like to help. Now I’ll tell you about my background in Wicca and some general information about the religion. If you are interested in my help, write back with 5 questions and tell me about your background with Wicca and what group you may have joined was doing….”
You can use j.mail so they don’t know your address. If you will be sending a dozen pages of your writing and online info, it may be cheaper to just get a P.O.Box for the year. There’s a big rule “Don’t fuck with someone volunteering,” and it seems to apply to helpful pen pals, but you never know. You can choose someone who has 15+ more years in prison and is in far away state. The biggest problem is when someone writes and doesn’t set really clear boundaries and doesn’t follow through on the consequences if the boundaries are blatantly crossed. Most people are pretty desperate for a Pagan guide or any outside world interaction and don’t want to jeopardise their connection on the outside.
You could be communicating online with convicted felons right now on Facebook and never know.
The most important thing so far on our list is “set boundaries, state your expectations of yourself and them, and don’t get sucked into justifying either.” Women are usually groomed to please others, so this is a great opportunity to just say “No” to a request and not elaborate. (Men do it all the time.) If someone seems to think you’re playing and don’t really mean what you said you wouldn’t tolerate, give them one polite opportunity to explain their offensive behavior and tell them why it is offensive or crossed your boundary. Prison communication, especially between different genders, is really different because it’s a totally different culture. Of course, this “let’s clarify” discussion is for anything that could be a misunderstanding just because writing can be awkward across cultural lines. If they obviously ignored your boundary and was flat out offensive, say so in a brief “Don’t contact me again” reply. Stamps and paper are expensive for prisoners and won’t normally be wasted on someone who doesn’t write back. Find someone else to write instead of getting a bad opinion of all incarcerated Pagans. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who want to hear from you.
How do you find them? I’m a fan of the LGBTQ prisoner ally organization Black&Pink for pen pals. Not all prisons allow their free newsletter because after being “Born Again” as a Christian, former ’90s President Bush banned homosexuality, masturbation and Dungeons and Dragons in prison. If someone in prison places a pen pal request on Black&Pink’s website, they’re probably not a racist, homophobic creep. “Bisexual men” are often bisexual in prison but heteroromantic. There’s a drop down menu where you can choose things like gender and religion. If you feel more comfortable writing a woman or someone transgender, click the box, and then “Wiccan” or “Pagan” to see who is seeking a pen pal.
Usually, several will state that they run the prison’s Pagan group. But even someone just looking for a non-sexual pen pal that felt that stating their religion was important will probably respond well to an offer for a mentor. It probably will seem like 20 birthday presents – a real, live Wiccan! Again, stamps and paper are expensive, so prisoners don’t waste them to write “Fuck you, you arrogant bitch” or whatever you might worry about. I mean, maybe one would but it is more likely that they will use their best handwriting and awkwardly, formally write you back with a lot of gratitude.
It is easy to miss the theology of Wicca when someone is freaked out that they don’t have the tools, the candles, the incense, the herbs and stones, the bathtub, the robes, etc found in most Wiccan books. Or if the book says it has to be boy-girl-boy-girl polarity in the coven. Or the altar is a naked woman. Or you need a 2nd degree Priestess to initiate you just to have a Sabbat. There’s a lot more rules and regulations in Wiccan books, many of them contradictory. Your help with navigating Wicca and prison’s limitations will probably make it possible for them to pursue their path much more confidently. I’ve prison emailed with a Wiccan woman and could sense her “A-ha!” moments. She quickly became more creative and comfortable in leading the Wiccan group. It was a really cool experience!