They huddle over candles made from butter or baby oil and wicks made of matches. They put up fliers advertising their religious meetings, but the fliers are ripped down.
They’re pagans, witches and Wiccans, and they want someplace to worship. They’re also behind bars.
“We don’t want anything more than anyone else has,” said Randy Koivu, 47. “We want at least as much.”
Koivu sat with 15 other male inmates in folding chairs around a long table in a sterile, white room used for study and worship by religious groups in the Airway Heights Corrections Center.
The inmates talked about Wicca with a witch volunteer from outside the prison. The recent Saturday meeting was the first for those interested in Wicca, a pagan religion embracing many practices, including witchcraft, shamanism and divination.
Wicca, a religion of the indigenous people of Northern Europe, predates Christianity. Most Wiccans subscribe to a female goddess and a male god, although some only believe in a goddess. There’s no Satan in Wicca.
Practitioners worship nature and subscribe to the Wiccan Rede - any action that harms another will come back, threefold.
Under a federal law adopted two years ago, prisons must provide the opportunity for all recognized religions to worship.
Since 1986, the Washington Department of Corrections has recognized Wicca in its handbook of religious beliefs and practices, which includes 23 religions.
Yet inmates with Wiccan leanings in the Airway Heights prison say they are having a tough time starting a study group, finding a place to worship and getting books to read.
They claim that their pamphlets are ripped up, that the six books recently bought for them are never around, that the prison chaplains aren’t listening to them.
“I’ve been denied to be able to practice my religion, from the time I got here until now,” inmate Donald Ross said at the meeting.
Ross, 34, came to Airway Heights last December from the Twin Rivers Corrections Center in Monroe. He was convicted of rape of a child.
On a witch hunt
The inmates waited for months to meet. They want their own area outside to worship and to perform rituals, like the Native Americans have with their sweat lodge.
The prison says it’s doing what it can to respond to religious requests with limited resources.
Chaplain David Bon went on a witch hunt more than 1-1/2 years ago in behalf of the Wiccans in prison. He finally found Abigayle Murray, a Spokane resident who volunteered to work with the group.
Murray, 48, a practicing witch for about 10 years, just finished writing a dictionary of religious and mystical terms and practices.
Before Wicca, Murray was a Christian, an esoteric Christian, a mystic, an occultist, a ceremonial magician, a Buddhist, a Hindu and a New Ager. Her bookshelves hit the ceiling. They’re filled with texts on the religions of the world and philosophy.
“I want these people to know they have a teacher,” Murray said.
She will meet with the inmates at least once a month. The inmates will meet by themselves every Saturday. It’s not a coven. It’s a teaching group for solitary witches, who then can learn on their own.
A decade ago, it was nearly impossible to get tarot cards into a prison, let alone a witch.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed almost two years ago, changed that. The government now has to demonstrate “compelling state interest” in limiting the free exercise of religion.
“It’s so new, we don’t know exactly how to comply with it,” said Rich Hewson, spokesman for Airway Heights facility. “We’re in a mixed bag right now, and Chaplain Bon has to deal with that. He’s got his work cut out for him.”
Although Wicca has been recognized since 1986, the Washington Department of Corrections’ policy adopted last year reflects the federal law and requires the prison to try to treat all religions equally.
“It’s not my job to judge a religion,” said Robert Lynn, religious program manager for the Department of Corrections. “It’s my job to see that an inmate has an opportunity to religious freedom. We are way ahead in the country, as far as what we allow and how we handle our program.”
The federal law may have inspired Wiccans, who often practice alone, to form a study group, Bon said. “They see the benefit of group practice,” he said. “It’s an evolution of sorts.”
‘They’re less of a problem’
Most religions in Airway Heights have study groups and group services, except for Christian Scientists and the lone Hebrew Israelite. Volunteers are needed to sponsor the study groups.
“There’s been an attempt to accommodate need,” Bon said. “The hardest ones to get sponsors for are Muslims, Native Americans and Wicca.”
There’s an important reason for religion in prison, advocates say. Inmates who belong to a religious group and actively worship return to prison less often than other inmates, according to studies by Lynn, the Prison Fellowship Ministries and others.
“If you can change a person’s outlook, get them into a better environment, they become a much better inmate in prison,” Lynn said. “They’re less of a problem.”
Until last month, Bon was the only chaplain serving about 950 Airway Heights inmates in both the minimum-security camp and medium-security prison. A second chaplain just started.
A difficult task
They try to answer religious requests all over the map. They work with the kitchen to try to meet dietary requests, for followers of religions requiring no pork or no meat. They try to recruit volunteers for study groups and observe holidays.
It’s a difficult task. Few inmates are happy. The Native Americans waited more than a year to get a sweat lodge.
“Let me tell you, I practice equal opportunity,” Bon said. “They all struggle with me.”
Eventually, the Wiccan group probably will get a special area outside to worship, he said.
Inmates Koivu and Robert Savage came to Airway Heights in June from the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, where they say they were able to use oils, burn incense and worship more freely. They’re two of the leaders for the Wicca study group.
“We set history down there in Walla Walla,” said Koivu, who was convicted of child molestation. “The doors are now shut against us that we spent a lot of time opening there.”
Savage, 47, looks like a younger, skinnier Santa Claus with his long hair and full goatee. He is doing time for rape and kidnapping.
Savage spent two years in Vietnam. He said he’s always been on a religious search, although he grew up in Catholic schools. After the military service, he said, he joined the Church of Satan, left even more confused, returned to Christianity, married a Native American, attended powwows, dabbled in shamanism and herbalism.
Then he joined Wicca.
Not all the inmates interested in Wicca are practitioners. Their faith range includes disheartened Christians, former Baptists and an atheist. Some are experimenting with Wicca, while others have been practicing for years.
“I’m currently Christian,” said Chris Kristad, a clean-cut blond. “I came to see what this is about.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PRISON FAITHS There’s a cornucopia of religions in the Airway Heights Corrections Center, which holds about 750 inmates in the medium-security area and 200 in the minimum-security camp. As of last count, the prison holds 239 Protestants, 167 Roman Catholics, 55 adherents of Native American religions and 42 Muslims. There are 28 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 24 Seventh-Day Adventists and 21 Wiccans. Twenty inmates are involved in the Salvation Army - a Protestant denomination that combines religion and social work - 15 are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 11 practice eastern religions such as Buddhism, five are Jewish and four are Christian Scientists. One man is a Hebrew Israelite.
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