A Maypole in Prison

Patrick McCollum unloading the Maypole

“When Pagans get their rights, everyone gets their rights,” say Patrick McCollum, who for the last fifteen years has volunteered to serve as a Pagan chaplain in the California prisons.  McCollum, a talented jewelry designer and craftsman by nature, has in the last decade spent the bulk of his time—and money—helping prisoners and making interfaith alliances worldwide.

This last weekend was the second time I’ve gone with him to visit women’s prisons in central California.  Valley State Prison for Women and Central California Women’s Facility are across the street from one another out in the fields near Chowchilla.  Bland, concrete structures, they look a lot like my junior high school had its chain link fences been topped with razor wire and surveyed by guard towers.

Being in prison is like being in a hellish version of junior high school—where your every movement is monitored and controlled, subject to the prison version of a hall pass, called ‘duckets’—a word which I find extremely irritating for some reason, maybe because I suspect it’s really supposed to be ‘dockets’?  I don’t know—of all the humiliations and assaults of prison it’s probably the least significant, but still it bugs me.

Although I’ve been arrested and jailed numerous times for political actions, I’ve never served time in prison.  “Short time is hard time,” one of the lifer women told me.  When you’re in for life, or for a long time, as many of these women are, something happens to you.  Your ties to the outside world fade, and the prison becomes your world.  You let go of the hopes and dreams you once had, and find new, smaller things to hope for within the narrow world to which you are confined.

All the more reason why these celebrations and moments of spiritual commitment take on a greater importance, here, than they do for us outside.  When we have infinite opportunities to revel in flowers or dance on the grass or connect with those who share our spirituality, we get blasé.  “Maybe I’ll go to the ritual—maybe I’ll stay home and watch kitty videos on YouTube.”

In prison, if you’re Pagan, you might get a chance to connect once or twice a year.  If you are Christian, of course, there are weekly services, Bible study groups, special programs, Christian Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—but if you’re Pagan, your religious rights to meet, to study, to learn about your tradition, to celebrate your holidays and practice your tradition are not generally respected.  Patrick and others have fought major battles to gain the limited access we have, and although he is recognized as a chaplain by the State of California, he still has trouble bringing in ritual supplies, books, or volunteers.

I went with Patrick and Johanna and Tiki from the Pagan Alliance.  http://thepaganalliance.org/.  To get down to Chowchilla by 9 am, we need to leave the Bay Area by 6 am, which means waking up at something like 4:30 am, which is something I try never to do.  I don’t take 6 am planes or go power jogging before dawn, and I’m not one of those writers who like to work in the wee hours of the morning.  Back in the ‘80s, when we were doing some of those political actions mentioned above, we’d wake up at 4 am to get into place to blockade early workers at nuclear plants.  Since then, I’ve grown to favor actions that start at noon.  But waking up that early is inextricably linked, in my mind, with going to jail, still, so it seems appropriate.

At VSPW, they have ‘lost’ our paperwork, which Patrick has dutifully submitted and had approved.  They’ve also moved us out of the gym and field so they can set up for a Christian group’s dedication of a new, interfaith outdoor chapel which is still days away.  However, the warden showed up and intervened, not only putting us back in the gym but actually helping to carry in the Maypole!  (Which Patrick has constructed from plastic pipes, so it’s light.)  However, while 160 women have asked to come to the ceremony, only about forty actually have gotten their duckets and been allowed to come.  There are a surprising number of Pagans in prison—Patrick estimates something like 20,000 in the U.S.  Most of them become Pagan while they’re incarcerated.  While the numbers of Christians are higher, the Pagans have some of the highest numbers of active, participating members of any religious group—and are among the least served, with no paid chaplains and endless barriers for volunteers.

For me, it’s especially heartbreaking to see so many women locked up for life, or for very long sentences.  Many, many of them were arrested as teenagers and tried as adults when they were sixteen or seventeen years old—a practice which is, in my mind, itself criminal and unjust.  Teenagers are not adults and do not yet have adult understanding—not just of their actions and consequences but also of what their rights are, how the legal system works and how to negotiate it.  The most common reasons they’re there are drugs, getting caught up in their boyfriends’ drug deals and attacking or killing a pimp or a rapist.  They end up with heavy sentences, sometimes, out of loyalty—they won’t rat out the boyfriend while the men have less compunction about throwing the women under the bus.  In prison, boyfriends and husbands generally stop visiting after around six months.  Women connected to male prisoners visit them for years.

The women themselves created our ritual.  They asked me to invoke the Goddess, and I called in the She Who Blesses All Forms of Love.   One reason prisoners embrace Paganism is that we accept people as they are.  We think sexuality is a good thing—including gay sexuality, and we tell people that they are children of the Goddess, who loves them even if they might have messed up badly at some point in life.  Even in prison, you can continue to grow and develop spiritually, to serve the Goddess and to serve the community.  And a number of the women have stepped up to learn how to create and priestess rituals.

We set up the Maypole in the center of the running track.  After some time spent untangling the ribbons, which the wind had whipped into a tangle, we danced.  I had to sit down for a while—between the blazing heat, the early morning, the lunch of Complete Carbohydrates—veggies and dip, French fries, a biscuit and cake—I was having a bad blood-sugar moment.  It was beautiful to watch the dance, however, and see how much the women enjoyed it—the hilarity of moving in and out, under and over, mostly getting it slightly wrong but nonetheless the ribbons weave.  Then it was time to go.

Between the heat and the stress, we were nearly comatose by the time we got to our hotel.  We went out for Mexican food with Sister Mary Ann, who is the Catholic Chaplain at CCWF, where we were going the next day.  Sister Mary Ann is a true Christian—dedicated to the women and the work, selfless, and very supportive of Patrick and all our efforts.  She reminded me of the many wonderful nuns, priests and ministers I’ve met through the years, especially when I was teaching at Matthew Fox’s institute back in the ’80s and ‘90s.  We may hold different beliefs, but we share common values.

But our visit to CCWF did not go well.  Again, they had ‘lost’ our paperwork—this time, five separate copies of our event package which Sister Mary Ann had personally delivered to five separate officials.  The warden was not on site on a Saturday—nor were other personnel who could have okayed the event.  The Watch Commander, who could have authorized it, said “No way.”  We were allowed in as visitors—which meant a much more exhaustive process of listing every single thing we were wearing or carrying.  Tiki’s underwire bra would not go through the metal detector, and she had to go out, change into a bathing suit, and put up with snide comments about her breasts.  But, we got in, though Patrick was quietly fuming while being ever so polite to everyone.

We met in the Chapel, where about twenty of the sixty or so women who had asked to come were assembled.  The group at CCWF had been much, much larger—but the prison had systematically transferred out anyone whom they identified as a Pagan leader, so it’s now slowly recovering.  We weren’t allowed to bring in our Maypole, our flowers or any of the ritual food we’d brought, but we had ourselves.

We set up a simple altar with materials on hand, and I led a grounding and taught some basic energetic exercises.  We talked with the women and had time to do some counseling one on one, while four volunteers went to get our lunch from the food service.

Then suddenly we got word that the Watch Commander had stopped our food volunteers and sent back the carts, while throwing three of them into Administrative Detention—‘the hole’—for doing what they’d been asked to do.  Sister Mary Ann was now in trouble for supporting us, and we needed to go before the rest of the women also got into trouble.  While Christians get rewarded for attending their services, and their faith is a mark in their favor at parole hearings, Pagans run huge risks.  They can get written up, they are often threatened or persecuted, and their faith can be used against them in parole hearings and earn them years more jail time.  Nevertheless, they still come.

So we left, going back out through the succession of control points and sally ports.  At the visitor’s gate, we had to confirm that every single earring and hair ornament we’d brought in was accounted for.  Unfortunately, one of us had lost track of her Chapstick.  That resulted in frantic calls back to the chapel—and Patrick eventually went back in to find it while we waited.  He came back, at last, triumphantly bearing the ‘contraband’, and we got out.  Luckily, one of the chapel clerks had found it—just as the Watch Commander was about to order the guards to put us all into Administrative Detention until they ‘investigated’ the incident.

The world always looks brighter when you get out of jail—even after a short visit.  But any encounter with the system always makes me angry.  I’m angry at the discrimination Pagan prisoners face, and I’m even more angry at the system as a whole, which targets poor people and people of color so disproportionately.  The prison industrial complex has become a profit-making industry, a new form of slavery.  Instead of rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, it creates a permanent underclass.  Draconian sentencing laws, the ‘War on Drugs’ which is really a war on poor people who use drugs, especially people of color, the whole punitive orientation of our society means we in the U.S. imprison more people than any other country in the world.

Fighting for prisoners’ religious rights is just one small way to challenge some of the injustices inherent in the system.   Patrick has been carrying the ball for many years now, and has spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money doing it.  He has important court cases making their way upward through the system.  Check out his website, below, and if you can support him with a small donation, that will be a huge help.

When Pagans get our rights, everyone gets their rights!

Patrick’s website:


Patrick and I taking the Maypole off the truck

Tiki and Johanna from the Pagan Alliance

Listing all our ritual supplies.

28 comments to A Maypole in Prison

  • Juliana_ILacqua@yahoo.com

    I’m so glad this ministry is up n running although, I am not pagan I have very dear friends who are ( Johanna white) 😉 but as someone who has been incarcerated inside those walls anything from the outside especially spiritual is so appreciated its a whole new mindframe n way of living. Hats off to the author of the article you have it down pact! I loved ur article as a former inmate n someone still fighting I appreciate you raising awarnes on the injustices that daily occur people don’t wanna face the facts but its the truth! Keep the ministry alive you guys rock! U are touching lives

  • As a long-time pagan priest involved in Pagan prison ministry, I have written hundreds of pagans in prisons across the States. While some states are much more supportive than others, there is a definite prejudice against pagans of all traditions in our prison system. I hear the same stories over and over again. While it is no easy thing to be a Christian, Jewish or Muslim in prison, it is doubly difficult if you are Pagan. There is an ongoing struggle for Paganism to find legitimacy in this country, especially within the prison system.

    What is needed to bring equality is for the greater Pagan community to get involved. It is vital. Without the outside Pagan community stepping up and helping their fellow Pagans in prison, Pagans will continue to have their constitutional rights trampled upon within the prison system.

    I work on behalf of the Druid Network. I have been reaching out to other Druid organizations asking for help with prisoner requests for training material and mentoring in Druidry. After years of asking, I only have three other people willing to help. We need more pagan priests to step up and get involved. As I said, it is vital the outside community come together, not only to address the kind of injustices mentioned in this article, but to do the ongoing work of helping our pagan brothers and sisters who are incarcerated. Most of them will get out of prison some day and a vibrant spiritual life will help them find the strength to leave prison behind and build a decent life for themselves. We need to help them do so as the system is failing miserably.

    What continually affects the few, eventually affects the many. I still see people in this country hiding their pagan beliefs out of fear. I hope that as a community, we can evolve past this. There is strength in numbers and now is the time for Pagans of all traditions to come together as a whole and help assure our religious freedoms are being respected. While I may have a completely different theological view of paganism than the author, I am pleased to see an article that helps to expose the truth about what Pagans face in prison. As part of the Maine Pagan Clergy Association, I know from experience that getting people from our many traditions to agree on a definition of “paganism” is a real challenge. I think though, we can all agree on the following:

    1. All of Nature is sacred
    2. We seek direct relationship and communion with the gods
    3. Self-responsibility and living with honor is at the core of our pagan values

    It is my opinion these common threads can bind us together as a community. We most certainly shouldn’t let our differences divide us. My personal view is, one of the core strengths of paganism is it celebration of diversity. Hopefully we can all embrace the label of “Pagan”. It will help. Each tradition struggling individually isn’t working. I have encountered many prisons where Wiccans can have a group but Druids can’t. Druid groups can gather but witches can’t. These labels divide us. And division isn’t helpful. If we all claim the label of Pagan first and then state our tradition, we can make huge progress in this country.

    So please, if you are willing, no matter what your tradition is, find a way to help out with the vital work of supporting Pagan prisoners. If we can make progress here, its reverberations will hum with power and beauty throughout many aspects of our lives as Pagans here in the States.

    Peace, beauty and inspiration,
    Snowhawke /|

    • Thanks for your eloquent comments–just want to say yes, yes! I like your 3 principles very much, and I so agree that we need community support and unity in order to secure our rights–for prisoners, and for all of us.

      • Paula Johnson


        I am Patrick’s McCollums Communications Director. Patrick called me from the airport on the way to Nepal and told me about your experience. He didn’t have your contact information on him but if you would please contact me I want to connect you with an AP journalist and get this story some national/international press.

        Many Blessings,

  • It was a very rewarding experience. I look forward to doing it again. I appreciated the illumination.

  • I’m surprised that you were able to write this, Star, without negative repercussions. I say that because whenever I have gone into California prisons with Patrick to serve Pagan inmates, I have had to sign a paper saying that I would not write anything about it. So I haven’t. If the rules have changed, there’s plenty I could say. ::wry grin::

    • No, we didn’t have to sign anything like that. Whether or not there will be negative repercussions–for me or more likely, for the women inside, remains to be seen. love Starhawk

    • Macha, now there are some lawsuits about the treatment of Pagan prisoners.

      Starhawk, I have some women interested in writing to the women we met, can I touch bases with you as you have the list from CCWP.


  • Jeff Kincaid


    Was reading thru and just wanted to let you know that the word ducket is not a mangling of docket. Duckets were a type of money in pre_world War I Europe. I have heard of this term being used in this manner before. Shakespeare also used it as do some of the West Cost rappers. Don’t know it that make you feel better about the term but I thought I would share. 🙂

    Peace and Light

  • Thank you for an excellent post sure makes one think!
    Love Leanne

  • […] and obstacles placed in the way of those who would serve Pagans in the California prisons.  (See my account of a visit) Patrick McCollum has been tirelessly fighting for their rights for many years now, and I know […]

  • Guys: why don’t you do what Americans are known worldwide for always doing: SUE, SUE, SUE! On behalf of yourselves and the Pagan community! Paganism isn’t illegal (or semi-legal in restricted circumstances) like drugs are, or homosexuality once was, so you should have a good case for reform of the system by legal means. I think you need to find some pagan-friendly lawyers, not just volunteers. Think how everybody (official) runs when they see the Scientologists coming. They’ve got lawyers. It’s as simple as that.

    (& even they’re not all bad; I’ve read reviews of Jon Ronson’s book where they help get a guy who was wrongly diagnosed a psychopath out of decades-long indefinite detention in Broadmoor. Can any pagan, or heathen (like me) make such a boast?)

    I just wonder sometimes if we pagans are pussies. Bunnies, or whatever. I came to this article via link-hopping several links, originally starting at a UK Daily Mail article, an old one which was all about this guy being given probation/a curfew for carrying

    • In fact, Patrick has two lawsuits going at the moment, and others in the works. But contrary to what the news media and the movies would have you believe, legal means are neither quick nor sure. They take years–decades–to wind through the courts. We’ve just had a bad setback in one case where the 9th Circuit Cpourt just ruled that Patrick did not have ‘standing’ to bring the case. The lawsuits are enormously time-consuming and unbelievably expensive, even with some lawyers volunteering their time. So–if you feel as strongly as your post suggests, why don’t you go to Patrick’s website, http://www.patrickmccollum.org, and kick in some bucks to help him out with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s spent of his own savings to bring these cases forward.

    • Yes, the authoritities are careful not to violate the rights of Scientologists because Scientologists have lawyers. Do you know what else the Scientologists have? MONEY, because participation requires some kind of donation.

      I’m not proposing that Pagans need or want the centralization or culture the Scientologists have. HOWEVER, communities get what they are willing to pay for. Manifesting our values in the material world (creating institutions) takes labor AND money. And if you don’t support your own, if you want outsiders to provide what you need, you’ll live with institutions that are the materialization of other people’s values.

      Until our community respects the fact that having our own institutions — like legal defense programs — cost money, and until they’re willing to make a little sacrifice, what we can have as a community will be limited.

      Your priorities show what your REAL religion is. For high priorities, we “sacrifice,” but actually are making a very good bargain.

      Rev. Christa Landon, D.Min
      CUUPS Prison Ministry

  • […] live, was her opportunity to participate in our rituals in prison. On my last trip to the prison, accompanied by Starhawk and several others, we were denied the ability to provide an already pre-approved Beltane celebration by prison […]

  • […] generations of institutional ignorance and prejudices regarding our faiths. I think this effort, and recent efforts by other high-profile Pagan leaders like Starhawk, working in conjunction with our often unsung volunteer chaplains, can start to turn things around. […]

  • Lydia Rosell

    My experience with the NYS DOC has been that the staff of the prisons systems have a vested interest, job security, in perpetuating the image of all inmates as “animals and monsters.
    Wiccan/Pagan programs endeavor to heal inmates and restore them to a modicum of humanity. This threatens to erode the power of the system to warehouse, punish and exploit the inmate population.
    Some other representatives of religions adversarial to Wiccan/Pagans, are instrumental in contribution of obstacles to Wiccan/Pagan programs.
    Even sympathetic allies find it difficult to address issues emerging from the ignorance of out philosophies, motivations and rituals.
    Guards and others are empowered to resist and obstruct any activity they perceive as a challenge to the status quo.
    As a general rule, correctional facilities are exempt from the scrutiny of the public; the system is cloaked in secrecy in the name of “security.”
    Courting public fear, politicians perpetuate this dynamic with the comforting rhetoric of being “tough on crime.” Scrutiny of the mechanics behind the scenes, is discouraged.
    Prisons are industrial complexes. Beneficiaries of those complexes are resistant to interference.
    Constitutional recognition and protection of our religion is but one of a multitude of facets reflecting the challenges we face in prison ministry.

  • In Indiana I have a small (fledgling group) called IPPM (Indianapolis Pagan Prison Ministry) and we do Pagan services at 4 local area state prisons (Women’s and Men’s).

    We have 2 generic ‘groups’ in IN – Wicca and Asatru (Norse). We are trying to file as a 501 but have no funds … we also ask for donations of books and other items on our facebook page … and would appreciate the support.

    We have succeded in setting up libraries in 2 of the 4 prisons … but as you can imagine, the books often get “lost” or confiscated.

    Over the last 2 days we have done 3 Summer Solstice rituals with 3 of the groups … and the healing and learning go deep. One inmate stated that he had never felt so loved and secure as he did when he was in group.

    Lives are being changed … and not just for the inmates.

    Our Asatru group is continually harassed as a “STG” Security Threat Group, and we are warned how dangerous they are. My inward response is that it is dangerous to keep treating individuals as if they were animals … yes they are wounded … but they will only heal through love (and no, I am not the soft, touchy feely type … I have been involved in prison volunteer work since the early 1990’s).

    I post here because I need to figure out how to get support to grow the ministry … financial, legal (so we can file our 501), and volunteer support.

    I live on a fixed income and may have to drop some of my work because I can no longer afford to drive the 100 miles round trip to one of the facilities.

    Any concrete suggestions or ideas would be welcome …. Colleen Kelly … Indianapolis IN

    • Thanks, Colleen, for doing the work! We’re also figuring out how to support Patrick’s work here. One idea that comes to mind is to look into some of the online giving arenas like DonorsChoose–there’s a number of them, and you could find one that was appropriate and then try to do a campaign around it. Another would be to ask the larger Pagan community to pass the hat at rituals, etc.–if that sort of thing happens in Indiana? I spent some formative years in South Bend and MIshawaka, so I have a soft spot for Indiana! love Starhawk

    • aradia

      you didn’t provide information for folks to donate to you. I did a wiccan/pagan newsletter for prisoners, photocopied, with rituals etc, for around $600 a year for some years. Working on an intro to wicca book which I hope to distribute through other pagan prison ministries, so please note my email address and get in touch at the end of the year. good work, keep it up.

  • […] You can read the entire blog on Starhawk’s website. […]

  • […] like Patrick McCollum have shared stories of hostility, threats, and obstruction of their efforts, allegations backed up by prominent Pagan figures like Starhawk.“But our visit to CCWF did not go well.  Again, they had ‘lost’ our paperwork—this […]

  • […] and that the problem was “endemic.” Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from priso…. However, when Pagan clergy are allowed in, and Pagan inmates are given the same consideration as […]

  • Aakifah

    First, I’d like to thank you for writing this blog. I found it very interesting…and sad…to see what you had to face as volunteers going into the prison. I am not a Pagan (I’m actually Muslim), but I feel that any form of discrimination is wrong, and I am sorry to hear that you, and the Pagan inmates, have to contend with this.

    My fiance (also Muslim) is Cali inmate currently incarcerated at a private prison in OK. The Muslim inmates there get treated differently than the other religious groups (one example being that Muslims are only given one halal meal a day, they are forced to have vegetarian meals for the other two; meanwhile the Jewish inmates receive three kosher meals a day…and the facility will not allow the Muslims to eat the kosher meals, even tho it is permissible in Islam). There’s also a lack of Muslim chaplains as well (and actually, one of my future goals is to be a Muslim chaplain at a women’s prison), and we also have to fight to have Imams to be able to come to the prison to lead services. Currently, at my fiance’s facility, they do not have a Muslim Chaplain nor do they have an Imam that comes out. I have said time and time again that we, as an Islamic community need to be more active in reaching out to these inmates…eventually, the majority of them will be released and it is imperative that they have a good support system on the outside that is able to help them as they get on their feet. I suspect the same could be said for the Pagan community.

    Anyways, I don’t have any answers…I just wanted you to know that you’re not alone and that I hope that you’re able to be successful in gaining more acceptance. Discrimination is wrong, regardless of who it is against. *sigh*

    Last thing…to Colleen…I know in Cali prisons especially that Asatru is labeled as a STG, unfortunately, because many of the “practitioners” are white supremacists that have taken the teachings and twisted it around to fit their own sense of superiority based on race. Again, I don’t have any answers on how this issue can be fixed. I wish I did.

    Salaam (peace).

    • Thanks for your post. I know that Muslims are subjected to intense discrimination in general these days, and prison is no exception. We all need to stand together to assure that everyone gets their rights. Unfortunately, prejudice is one thing people can always resort to when they have few other reasons to feel good about themselves–and it’s important to counter it on every level. And, as you say, to provide more support for prisoners who are released, as the state provides virtually none. That’s something I’m hoping the Pagan community can also do better at! Peace and blessings to you–I hope you fulfill your dream of becoming a chaplain!

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