I was wrong.
ADF has a prison ministry and I really believed that there wasn’t much value in investing time and effort in providing services to people behind bars. They didn’t really attend services, although they held their own. They really didn’t do some of the work like the training programs, although some had. They really didn’t contribute much, although some had contributed to causes during crises. They were barely seen, yet they were those liminal beings that one could see out of the corner of one’s eye, every now and then.
I had occasion to review several prisoners’ materials and I was struck by how well done it was. I had to send items back, via the postal service, and it was slow and it worked. Once a few of these prisoners wrote to me and I to them, I thought “Hmmm…they aren’t that much different than regular folks”. But they were prisoners.
Our Arch Druid, Kirk Thomas, has been working with a prison group in Washington State called the Frog Stone Circle Prison Worship Group. He visits with them for High Days and has been their mentor and spiritual advisor, for lack of better terms. He has always spoken highly of the men there and I figured that this was a special project much like we all have special projects.
ADF has a program called the Traveling Clergy Program and it is used to send ADF Priests to Groves, Protogroves, Worship Groups, and even solitaries upon request. Several months ago, one of the prisoners wrote and asked if I would consider visiting. I mulled over the thought: while I was critical of our outreach work in prisons, I had actually never been inside a prison before. Having nothing to fear and really having no frame of reference, I said “Yes”.
Fast forward until this month, and I was standing in security at the airport last Friday night, flying out to the prison to visit with the prisoners at an all-day prison get-together the next day. I wondered to myself what I was getting myself into.
I was met at the airport by Kirk and one other ADF Priest, Rev. Missy Burchfield, and we were resolved to be at the prison at 7:30 the next morning. By the Gods, this was real. We arrived at the prison, emptied our valuables into a locker, and went through a metal scanner and all of our items were searched. We were advised beforehand what we could take in and what had to stay behind. We could wear only certain colours, bring in only certain items, and we were told to be mindful of our environment. We were given badges and the journey inwards began.
Crossing from one set of doors to another, I was struck by the barbed wire and rolls and rolls of concertina wire at fence tops. Doors were metal, strong, and they did “clang” behind us as we went through. One more door, and I was all the way in.
I wasn’t really prepared for the almost lunar landscape that greeted me: few if any plants; architecture that was almost Soviet (I described it as neo-Chernobyl); and no one about other than a prisoner with a dog, and a number of security personal scattered from place to place. It was a very sterile environment, to say the least. This prison was a combination medium security/ minimum security prison.
We went to the building where we were to meet with the men and there was a guard who waited with us. Looking around, there was a prisoner’s bathroom with no door and a large glass window. Privacy was a rare commodity in this place.
The men, all nine of them, along with a media/camera man, filed into the room. I didn’t know what to expect, but each man was wearing grey pants, a t-shirt, and a name badge. I looked at each of the men and they looked just like: men.
As they filed in, they shook my hand and introduced themselves and the first part of the day was introductions and brief conversations. The first workshop was mine, a combination of hospitality as the greatest virtue and a look a purification of the waters, both odd topics for a group of people in a situation of limited or strained hospitality and not much leeway for purification.
As I spoke, I looked around at each of the men. I was amazed at the level of ease and comfort between them and the discipline that they exhibited. I figured that discipline was a dish that was served often here. What I came to understand was that it was a dish they prepared themselves. This group of men worked together like a fine, oiled machine, each in seeming lockstep with the other. These men, these members of my group, were well-acquainted and well disciplined. I was slowly beginning to be impressed. I saw some of the art that these men had created, using the limited items that were available and I was amazed, truly. I saw beautiful artwork that was done with bedsheets, delicate flower creations made from Jolly Rancher candies, and devotional items which were so finely crafted. All these things, dedicated to Kindred, made by men of talent and made with the simplest of materials.
After my workshop, we went outside for our ritual workings. We were to stay outside for several hours (almost three) and I was impressed with the ritual area that the prison had set aside for the men. There were four areas: one for Native American practice, one for Wiccans, one for the Asatru, and one for the Druids.
This ritual area was a circular area, clean and grassy. The was a tree/pole, brought in by Kirk, a fire pit, cast in concrete and decorated with spirals, and a truly beautiful well, made within the prison, decorated as well. Due to the lack of materials with which to do work, when the grass was first planted (by hand) and watered (by a five-gallon bucket and a cup), the grass was kept at a suitable length by cutting it with sharp stones that could be found at hand. I was touched at this devotional approach that once again used what was at hand for the glory of the Gods.
The men gave us all parts and we had a Dedicant Oath performed by one man and another man had a number of parts to do as the newest member. This particular person recited, from memory, or Mission Statement and our Vision Statements. I was impressed. I couldn’t do that. I am not sure that many could. We conducted a beautiful ritual, with offerings galore, under the sun and sky and watchful eye of the guards in the tower. When it came time for me to give the Earth Mother offering, I asked which vessel to use and I was pointed to a bowl with oats and used all of the oats for an offering. As others did the offering, I noticed that people used offerings sparingly, because supply and demand is a much different beast within this enclosure. I was learning: further offerings would be less generous.
I watched a series of men do a ritual that was so very well-practiced and delivered; it could have been done by any of our Groves and Protogroves. I will venture to say that the men did as well or better than some Groves and Protogroves that I have seen. After a long time in the Sun, we took off our robes, and we went back into our building. Missy did a really nice workshop on Bardic offerings and then we had lunch with the men. I was informed that at three o’clock that the men would talk to us, basically about their perception of some of our policy decisions that dealt with prisoners and it occurred to me that perhaps my presence here wasn’t strictly by chance and perhaps it was by some design.
In putting together policy and discussing prisoner relations, I was definitely against the effort, as mentioned earlier, and took a very hardline approach of dealing with prisoners after they get out of prison. My goal, at the time of discussions, was to assure the safety and protection of our members, to which I am dedicated. After spending some time with these men, it occurred to me rather quickly, that these were members too.
When three o’clock came around, the leader of the group stated that they were concerned about what would happen to their spirituality as individuals, when they would leave prison and try to hook up with a local group. They didn’t want to have to find more doors in their way than they were already going to experience. Then it hit me: these weren’t just scattered prisoners from prisons here and there, this was a tight knit group – probably tighter than a lot of groups on the outside – and they were afraid of the cohesiveness of their group here and their own spiritual togetherness once they stepped foot outside. They weren’t just concerned: they were scared.
I asked if I could speak, and this is what I said: “I was wrong.” I told them that I was one of the people who were most against prisoner programs and that I was one of the people who drafted a strict prisoner policy once they came out, because I – and the people who elected me – are concerned about prisoners in our midst. Regardless of how well I was received by these men, I still cannot forget that there are victims somewhere and that they too have things to work through. Yet, I had never taken into account the humanity of the people who were sitting in front of me. Never before had I seen a group of people in less than ideal circumstances rise to the occasion and make a better life for themselves, for their fellow Druids, and for the prison community in general. These men had earned the things that they had brought into being. These men, here, now, and today, exemplified the virtues that we hold dear. These were our members.
I told them that I would carry their message forward. I told them that I would tell others about the good work that they had done as Frog Stone Circle. I told them that I would work with each of them individually as they reentered the outside world to make sure that they have a spiritual place to fit into. That particular promise may not be the easiest to keep, but I will give it my best. The one thing I didn’t tell them is that I would be back again sometime. I was impressed and I would like to visit them in this prison again.
Later that evening, at the end of the night, ADF Master Bard Missy Burchfield played a slow, bluesy rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues”. In some ways, it was a nice way to end our visit. I know our members in Frog Stone Circle all look forward to the time when they can be “farther down the line”. We went our way and they went theirs. They went back to their regimented and structured lives and we were swallowed up by the American night. The next evening, I heard someone else play “Folsom Prison Blues”, and I turned to the person next to me and said “I heard that song played in prison last night.” I did get a strange look.
We left that evening, and I think I left a little bit of myself behind those walls. That which was left behind was best left behind: it wasn’t needed anymore. Perhaps that chrysalis was my real offering to the Earth Mother. That and the words “I was wrong”.
Jean (Drum) Pagano is a Senior Priest and the Vice Arch Druid of Ar nDraoicht Fein, a Druid Fellowship. He fancies himself a Bard and a Journeyman Priest. This is his first blog entry.