Modern religious freedom and the hardships of Pagans and wiccans in the Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections
Carter, Harold Sanford, III
Modern religious freedom and the hardships of Pagans and wiccans in the Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections
Harold Sanford Carter III
I have been a practitioner of Wicca since 2001. I am a public figure in the pagan community and a widely known musician of pagan song. Still, I am human and suffer from alcoholism and instead of seeking out treatment I ended up serving many years behind bars.
Most men who serve time grab ahold of their faith tightly. I hold my faith sacred and as a rock to stand. It gives me strength. It connects me with the creator and disciplines me. My faith assures me that addiction is baneful and destructive. I am a prisoner who walks in recovery. My recovery is as real to me as my faith. I have not relapsed since the night of my arrest.
Without the vices of addiction, I turned entirely to Wicca. Early in my sentence at Huntingdon SCI, I asked the Department of Corrections if pagans and wiccans could have study groups at my institution. The Department told me I needed an outside faith-based representative and that my request was denied. Finding clergy for my faith is very hard. My faith is not monotheistic. I cannot just write to a church. My faith does not have churches. It has covens and many covens do not advertise. In addition, it is not the Pagan/Wiccan way to preach the Wiccan message.
What is particularly upsetting is that other faiths in the institution I am in have study groups and they do not have outside faith representatives. This included the
Buddhists, an Islamic group, and at the time the Native Americans. Their services are inmate run and held. I questioned the Department of Corrections about this only to be told these groups were grandfathered in. In other words, at some part when they started they had outside clergy and their outside clergy had since left. I have no way of course to confirm or deny this. Still, I feel that the Department of Corrections should treat my religion the same way they treat other faiths. I wrote a grievance about this and took it all the way to my last available appeal. The grievance and the request to have Pagan/Wiccan study groups was denied.
According to law, I have a right to the primary sacred text of my faith. Books on Pagan/Wicca are scarce at my prison at SCI Huntingdon. The sacred texts of my faith also do not have the same undertones as monotheistic faiths. We do not have an authoritative book to adhere. The truth is we have many to draw from. Because I have practiced my faith for so long, I requested that the Department of Corrections provide me with some of the more utilized publications. Sadly, the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania simply will not provide them. I felt this was unfair so I filed some grievances about it. I have since exhausted all of these grievances. While I was filing these grievances, the chaplain at SCI Huntingdon prison made promises that he would order books and even have a study group of sorts. The books never came and the groups never happen. I have been told that I can look at Pagan/Wicca books in the institutional library. This would be great if these books existed. The computer database says there are a few new age titles but all of these books have stolen. Even if these books were available, they would not be adequate and certainly not close to a primary sacred text of Pagan/Wicca. These stolen missing books do not have the religious rites or practices of Pagan/Wicca within their pages. Pagan/Wicca related books are highly sought and stolen from the inmate population.
There is no protection for Pagan/Wicca books at SCI Huntingdon. Other faiths have the luxury of locked cabinets to hold their books. For the past two years, I have donated a handful of Pagan/Wiccan books to the religious department. I have even had an outside Pagan/Wiccan supporter donate a book. There was a time when the chaplain promised a study group for us, and the books were needed. These books were locked in the chaplain's office. Somehow, inmates in the prison yard were selling some of the titles I donated. Because of this, the chaplain gave all the books I donated to an inmate who is listed as Pagan/Wicca. The book sent to the prison for the purpose of the study group is in my possession. The prison gave it to me after I withdraw a grievance about the prison not letting me have access to a religious book in a level five housing unit.
The Pagan/Wiccan inmates at SCI Huntingdon have tried to build a Pagan/Wiccan library. SCI Huntingdon SCI continues to dismantle anything Pagan/Wicca. We are promised study groups and they do not happen.
In addition, last winter I asked the institutional library if they would buy books for practitioners of Pagan/Wicca. This was at the recommendation of the Bureau of Treatment Services her in Pennsylvania. The prison told me they would order some in spring or in the fall. I am in the midst of winter with no books. Grievance after grievance, but to no avail.
Protest to the king while living in his castle.
Parity is due!
Enough is enough!
Other faiths have access to books of their religion. If I needed the prayer to my deity called, "The Charge of the Goddess" I would not be able to find it here. The question is do Pagan/Wiccans have the right to have access to the primary attitudes of their religion. For prisoners at SCI Huntingdon the answer is no, they do not.
A different issue that continually disappoints me frequently is the few items that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections offer Pagan/Wiccan practitioners in the Religious article catalog. Currently, a white altar cloth, a pendant, a feather and a deck of tarot cards is the only religious items available that Pagan/Wiccan inmates can have. Even more oppressive is the fact that communal approved items do not have a list of items allowed at all because the prison does not allow study groups or group worship. At the end of the day the Pennsylvania has failed to accommodate my religion that of a Pagan/Wiccan.
The path of a pagan is versatile. I have often ordered items from the Native American section to add to my practice. On the other hand in my few years as a prisoner in Pennsylvania I have often found myself frustrated because although the Department of Corrections allows pagan/Wiccans to buy an altar cloth. The items that are supposed to be on the alter cloth are not available and are denied within the religious accommodation process. Items needed for a Pagan/Wiccan practice like, rock salt, a chalice, a pentacle disk, incense, candles, oils, crystals, statues, bowls, scourge, bells, wands, herbs, a small besom, runes, and many other items used for a genuine Pagan/Wiccan practice.
Staff members in the Department of Corrections are also very uneducated about Pagan/Wicca. I have petitioned the state of Pennsylvania to educate employees after an episode when the security of SCI Huntingdon confiscated my Book of Shadows. (A book of shadows is a handwritten book of the practice of a Pagan/Wiccan.) Officers told me my book was foreign and that they did not know what it was. The book was returned to me a few weeks later. Still, had officers been educated in the faith of Pagan/Wicca, I would not gone without my prayers and rituals for as long as I did. I feel as though my religious liberty should not be tampered with because the Department of Corrections does not want to educate its staff. My petition for employees to be educated in Pagan/Wiccan was denied. To me, it seems logical the the Department of Corrections would educate its employees on the various faiths that are state recognized. It is preposterous that these state employees are under-trained about the belief systems of their inmates. When staff authorities understand the psychological religious motives of a prisoner, Care, custody, and control could be better achieved.
Another issue I have encountered in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is the communal religious feasts in my faith. Accommodations for Islamic, Jewish, and Native American feasts are present at my prison. I have filed all the paperwork for this accommodation but denied. Last year I filed for a Yule feast requesting Pork, ginger tea, and fresh fruit. The Department of Corrections told me I could request the ginger tea through channels that were spinning. In addition, the Bureau of Treatment Services had the audacity to tell me pork was on the menu in general population for the month of December. I was appalled because at this turn the Department of Corrections was ultimately telling me what day to celebrate a holy day in my faiths tradition. Yule is celebrated on a specific day when the sun enters the astrological sign of Capricorn. I am no lawyer, still, I find it unconstitutional that the Department of Corrections would stipulate when a Pagan/Wiccan holy day feast is observed. In other words, my captors are telling me what day it is time to celebrate a religious holiday with specific foods. The Department of Corrections bends over backwards for the Muslims, the Jews, and the Native Americans. These faith groups can have their feasts in accordance with their faith. I am told what day to feast by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Parity is lacking in many ways.
A more recent attack on the religious freedom of Pagans in the razor wire jungle is towards the Asatru and Odinists. The security at SCI Huntingdon recently shook down a Pagans cell in this tradition only to confiscate a Thors Hammer pendant. Security of SCI Huntingdon claimed that white power groups utilize the symbol. To me, this is very unfair treatment. In every religious tradition exists extremists who pervert holy symbolism. The six point Star of David is a powerful holy symbol. Yet, security threat groups like the Crips and Folk Nation use it in their philosophy. This does not stop the Department of Corrections from allowing Jewish inmates the ability to purchase and possess the six point Star of David. It is readily available from the Department of Corrections religious article catalog. Why then is a Thors Hammer any different? The Jewish religious piece should not be any more special than a Pagan piece. I can find no other explanation other than religious discrimination against Pagans. Men pervert a Jewish symbol and can have it. A Pagan symbol...- outlawed.
This is not parity.
Paganism is a Department of Correction authorized religion in Pennsylvania. Yet the Department of Corrections does not accommodate the faith. Since my incarceration, I have bumped heads on every level fighting for my right to practice my old religion. I have filed many religious accommodations and exhausted many grievances. I have contacted lawyers and provided my paper trails. The biggest hope I see is with the Pennsylvania Institutionalized Law Project.
I am hopeful.
My spirituality is worthy and noble of acceptance. It has changed my life and has been a peaceful discipline while exposed to so much negativity while incarcerated. Parallel with substance abuse treatment it has been my path to conquer my insanity and recidivism. Pagans exist in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and we will not be going anywhere any time soon. So tell me, when will our captors better accommodate us? What makes the faiths of others better than ours? When will parity be achieved? Impartiality is the new norm in American society today. The dungeons of America are stale to the waxing equality of American culture. The prison system of Pennsylvania needs to catch up with other federal and state prisons, and the rest of the country. My faith lacks acceptance and parity for sure.
Pennsylvania needs a reform in the way it accommodates its incarcerated Pagans for sure.
If you want to reach out to me concerning the hardships of Pagans in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, please drop me a line via postal mail at:
Harold Sanford Carter III
PO Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL. 33733
Harold Sanford Carter III
If you are working on an APWA-related project, please let us know how you plan to utilize the Archive. We hope to share information about your work with our readers and, whenever possible, with relevant APWA authors.
APWA is an open access archive. We encourage use of the writings for research, course planning, and projects engaged in examination of the criminal legal system. Reproduction of essays in their entirety infringes on author copyright without their explicit consent from the writers. Please contact us if you plan to reproduce entire essays; we will do our best to put you in contact with the authors for consent, and their compensation for any project that is profit making.