Felon Friends and Pen Pals: How it all happened
It started with a naive assumption and a good heart. We were in a pagan group together and we wanted to connect with other pagans. So we listed our names and addresses in a directory of pagan groups. This was back in the day before the ubiquity of the internet, so–hooray!– we made connections when letters started arriving.
Here’s the kicker. The letters were from inmates seeking connection with other pagans. I laughingly called my fellow witch and said thank you for the new friends, calling them “felon friends.” The name stuck as we referred to the burgeoning prison correspondence as “the felon friends.” There weren’t many and the few inmates had intriguing stories and seemed very sincere. We sent them our newsletter and wrote personal letters.
About that time, I started offering correspondence courses. As a matter of fact, three of the four books I’ve written and published started out as correspondence courses. You guessed it! A good proportion of the subscribers were incarcerated pagans. As I drifted away from my former group, the felon friends continued to write to both of us, or at least to me. Inmates would pass my name on to others and my correspondence grew. It was very absorbing work and I learned a lot about how to deal with inmates. There are few resources for pagans working with inmates and sometimes the advice came from the inmates themselves. Many of them became very protective of me, giving me advice about how to tell the sincere seekers from the manipulators and the fakes.
Most of the faithful writers were eager for correspondence courses. I did a Tarot course using Learning the Tarot, and I did a “God of the Month,” using my then unpublished book, The Wild God. So one day I realized I needed to ‘get real’ about this ministry and act like it was a ministry. I organized myself and took my in person beginning Wicca class which I call The Initiation of Athena and divided up into chapters, wrote questions, and designed a course ending with a dedication. I figured it would take a year and a day. what I didn’t figure was the different mail restrictions in different prisons and different states. What I didn’t figure is the enormous time it took to review and comment on the questions, to answer letters, keep good records, to make the copies and to get to the post office.
At one point, I formed it as a coven, The Coven of the Barbed Pentacle. We had a newsletter and when someone finished the course, there was a self-dedication ritual and I made up a certificate. The first person to finish was very dedicated and it took almost exactly two years. It was a happy and proud moment for us both.
One of the inmates gave my name to a newsletter that went out to incarcerated pagans across the country. I had 100 people, mostly men, in 21 states. To run a correspondence service of this size took most of the weekend and evenings during the week. It took a good investment of money (for postage and copying) and time. Most inmates are destitute but a few would send money or stamps when they could. One of the newsletter issues was financed 100% by inmate donations. A proud moment.
I would get phone calls and sometimes inmates would pass my name on to their chaplains or others so I would get calls from chaplains asking for advice on how to accomodate those observing pagan and Wiccan religions.
I was a priestess to inmates for more than five years with little help from others (more on that later). It took a lot of time, effort, and expense. It was the focus of my spiritual work, my spiritual practice, and my understanding of service to the gods. It can be and was for me, a burn-out situation. Inmates are demanding, their stories are sad, and sometimes their manipulation is evident but sometimes not. If I skipped a weekend or missed a night of writing letters, I got behind. Their letters reflected anger, disappointment, dismay, and concern.
I was getting burnt out. I was getting further and further behind. In some ways, I set myself up for failure. The process I developed was very individual and based on a personal response so there was no way to make this a ‘factory’ approach. One day a letter from an inmate — for whom I’d gone the extra mile — arrived that was a screaming accusation about how I took his money and gave him nothing in return (I used the money for the newsletter) and that I was another in a long line of betrayers of his trust.
That was the last letter I read from an inmate, with one exception. Months went by, then a year. I don’t throw the letters out. I keep them thinking one day, I will write a letter of apology and maybe refer them elsewhere. I didn’t end my services to them with honor and I still feel remorse and guilt over that.
Meanwhile, I was getting phone calls from the Department of Corrections, asking for information on accomodating pagan inmates observences of their religion. Ocassionally they would want someone to come into the prisons and lead groups. Amazingly, I had been able to find people. It’s a rare and wonderful person who has the right kind of skills to do that. Kudos to all prison chaplains, pagans or otherwise!
As a result of some of my consulting, I was named in a law suit last year; the defendant inmate claiming that I along with the prison chaplain and warden were violating his right to observe his . Luckily for me, the Department of Corrections added me to their consultancy list so I was represented by the state attorney general and didn’t have to retain my own lawyers. I just filed documents, answered questions, reviewed documents. Eventually, the case against me was dropped.
Yesterday, a letter arrived at my work, marked “legal materials.” It was from an inmate demanding I provide an affadavit for his lawsuit against the Department of Corrections. The letter questioned my credentials and abilities. But more upsetting was that this inmate had my work address because the DOC had sent him a copy of the fax cover sheet. My feelings on this are still rather raw. My sense of privacy is violated and my ability to keep this work separate from my work is also destroyed. Luckily, the people who opened the mail and saw the letter are confidential and trustworthy.
And so it will go on. In the next post, I will write some reflections on the process, the call to service, and what I learned from the felon friends.
Best wishes and be good, or at least stay out of jail. It is not a nice place.