However horrible incarceration may be, most prisoners--and it's easy to forget that there are two million people in prison in the U.S.--have one thing that most in our society do not: time. Time to reflect on life and begin a spiritual search.
Since many prisoners feel like outsiders, they are often drawn to alternative forms of spirituality. A 1999 article in the Omaha World Herald lists the religious faiths of Nebraska inmates. Alongside 1,738 Protestants, 757 Catholics, 96 Muslims, and 11 Buddhists, there were many who described themselves as members of earth-based religions, including 85 who practiced Native American spirituality, 47 who practiced Norse paganism (Asatru), 8 who worshiped Maat (an ancient Egyptian goddess), and 2 Wiccans.
An Associated Press story several months ago quoted Paul Huban, chaplain at the Idaho Correctional Center, as saying there were 30 Wiccans at that prison--making Wicca the third most popular religion there. He described the Wiccans as "the group that gives me the least amount of grief. They don't harm anyone."
Recently, Craig, a follower of Asatru who is serving time in a federal prison in Minnesota, wrote me a long letter about his beliefs and his Asatru worship group. The Three Pines Kindred, he writes, meets twice a week in a small grove of pines next to the prison's Native American sweat lodge. They open their meetings with invocations to the Norse gods and goddesses, read from the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturlusson, and hold discussions. They have regular ceremonies, "blots" and "sumbels." Craig enclosed a picture of his group's Yule blot. It shows 12 men, one holding a ceremonial staff.
There are Asatru groups in prisons in Minnesota, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Washington, Colorado, and California. One of the reasons Asatru may be so popular behind bars is that it allows whites, often a minority in prison populations, to have a feeling of identity and community.
But, although there is clearly a tension within the movement between racist and non-racist groups, most members of Asatru do not see their religion in racial or political terms. Like others involved in earth-based spirituality, they construe theirs as a beautiful, nature-centered religion.
Describing some of the ceremonies held at the prison, Craig writes: "Our gods and goddesses...are not physical as some would have you believe.... The power of the gods and goddesses is within each of us. We see them as the physical gods, such as Odin, Baldur, and Thor, only because this is the way our ancestors related to them. When you read the Eddas you will see that the gods we know are actually realms of our consciousness." Craig describes participating in rituals that allowed his mind, body, and soul to become one: "Once I realized that this was the heart of everything in life, I ceased to desire physical things like wealth and property. I accepted death easily after that. I seemed to live a fuller, more joyous life." It's a statement that could be uttered by pagans everywhere.
Pagans' right to worship in prisons have not always come easy. Many prisoners filed suit over worship issues under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which required governments to refrain from limiting religious freedom unless they had a compelling societal reason for doing so. Prisons began making accommodations for pagan and other alternative worship, but the Supreme Court overturned the Act in 1997. Today, each state makes its own policy, and federal prisons have their own regulations.
Selena Fox, the priestess of Circle Sanctuary, says she has been working with prison officials and chaplains for many years at both the state and federal level. She believes much progress has been made. Many federal prisons now have a specific place outdoors for worship. Prison chaplains often help prisoners acquire books and liturgical materials. My Asatru friend can get apple juice for his rituals (although not mead). Fox says she once performed a pagan wedding in a prison. Native American prisoners were among the first to press for religious rights, and many prisons in the West now have sweat lodges. Prisons have granted Native Americans' requests to use smoke for purification (smudging) and wear certain forms of jewelry.
Although prison may be the worst place to live in America, it may not be the worst place to pursue an earth-based path. The natural world may be more remote, but therefore be all the more cherished.