So you think you want to start going into prisons? Remember the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and her friends are entering the Wicked Witch’s forest? Remember the sign? And do you recall how they gathered their heart, courage, and smarts and kept going anyway? In the end, they all come out fine as can be, with medals of Honor and with the clarity of one waking from a significant dream. In spite of the warning sign, I encourage anyone with the calling to go into prisons. It has to be a calling, though. If you are going in for anything less, you will be eaten alive. What I’m going to do is try to scare you a little bit and test your resolve. If, after reading this, you still want to stand up and make that choice, I can promise rich rewards, spine-tingling blots, friendships that last for life, a lot of interesting people, and a learning curve that will change you forever. Those will be the medals of Honor. They make the hard part worthwhile.
Let me just dwell on the hard part for a minute, so perhaps you can learn from my mistakes and experience. Nobody sat down with me and told me any of this. Indeed, I learned the hard way. I would like to help out the next line of people willing to do prison outreach by talking very honestly here. You will be lied to, back-stabbed, and you will have games played on you –by prisoners and authorities alike. You will meet people who make your hair stand on end and who you should never in your life trust –prisoners and authorities alike. You will get hit on by sex offenders, and you will be baffled by pathological liars. One week you will go in and everything is just as calm and peaceful, and the next time someone is missing. No one will tell you what is going on. You will hear from the chaplain the guy got his throat cut.
Rival gang members will compete for your attention and for a place of leadership (this will be especially true in state institutions, not so much in federal). You may even be asked to join a gang. I was. You will learn to be quick on your feet, trust your instincts and always maintain your line in the sand.
As soon as you walk in you will be sized up. Within 5 minutes everyone pretty much knows your strengths and weaknesses. It will be uncanny how accurate they are. You must know yourself and be confident in your own skin. You must have nothing to hide, and don’t ever lie to anyone. They will see through it right away. Remember that as a representative of Odinism/Asatru you will be feared and watched. The authorities will not be your friends. You may even encounter another level of intimidation. You may be threatened. You may get set up and find yourself in a legal situation with hard decisions to make. A friend of mine was followed home and shot at by guards who didn’t like what he represented. I was hauled off to a federal grand jury with no knowledge of a crime. Another friend was set up and accused of bringing in contraband. She almost got a case, and lost her job. She was innocent. Odinist/Asatru volunteers will be targets until we see religious parity in this country as it should be. You will be entering a battle zone and don’t forget it. Someone will knock you right off your square and you won’t know what hit you.
At best, you will encounter BS at a level never before imagined. Keep in mind that no one is your friend, and that you are being watched. No matter what anyone tells you, they don’t consider you a team player. You are not part of the in-crowd as far as the establishment is concerned. Be polite, professional, and patient. Explain over and over that you are not a prison gang leader and that you represent a genuine spiritual path. You will sound like a broken record and it won’t be enough. One time a chaplain took me in his office. It was the first time at a unit in Texas, and he decided to scare me for fun. He told me everyone was a sex case. I called his bluff, because I knew that with a group of Odinists that would not be a realistic wager. He got flustered and tried to scare me by telling me everyone was in for aggravated murder. I said, “OK, I can handle that, now can I go set up the room?” You have to make your own judgments about people. Don’t let anyone try to scare you. When you meet someone who makes your hair stand up, be scared.
Understand immediately who the leader is in the group. Maintain a working connection with him. If you have a problem, go to him, not to a CO or the Warden. If you trust the chaplain, you might go to him. I have trusted one or two chaplains in my time. Just be careful how you handle problems. It’s best to try to handle them internally, within your group, with the leader.
The first day you go in, tell your group that gang affiliations are not your business and that you don’t want to know. Tell them the important thing is this: You are there for spiritual reasons, not to front for a gang. This will be more important in state than in federal. Tell them you are counting on them to make sure you are safe when you walk in to the prison. If you are a female amongst a group of men, they will appreciate that trust and rise to the opportunity to protect you. I also tell people not to tell me if something happens. You don’t need to know who beat who, or who in this gang won’t let the other gang member in the group. Not your business. It’s also a good idea to tell people this: “What you say to me will be confidential, but I have to report it if you tell me you want to kill yourself or someone else, or if you tell me about a crime against a child.”
Here are the main Do Nots:
*Do not lie or represent yourself falsely.
*Do not make a promise you can’t keep.
*Do not bring in contraband.
*Do not break confidence.
Here are the main Do’s:
*Present yourself politely and genuinely.
*Present your deep abiding ancestral faith with all you’ve got.
*Pay attention to rules and regulations.
*Always document. Every phone call, every visit, follow up with a letter.Positive reinforcement works well with prison officials. Thank them. The documentation also works well when you run into a problem. Keep all correspondence. When someone tries to BS you, document. Let them know in a polite way you are leaving a paper trail for BS. This could be used in court later.
*Maintain your line in the sand with everyone. In other words, keep good boundaries.
Now I would like to talk frankly about something else. In the orientations you will attend, you will hear all kinds of things you won’t ever need. The feds will drone on about the Stockholm Effect if you get taken hostage. You can sleep through that if you want. It boils down to this: Nobody is going to come in and get you if you are in a hostage situation. So what. It won’t happen, so let’s move on to what kinds of things really do happen.
In the world of most US prisons, Judeo-Christian tradition rules the day. Thou Shalt Nots must be a comfort at times. You have a clear idea of what is sinful and forbidden, and you either sin or you don’t. We as Pagans and Odinists don’t have Thou Shalt Nots. In other words, our morality is not as easily set down in stone. We are individuals who strive for honor, honesty, and other noble virtues. So what happens if you find yourself attracted to someone in your group? The standard Judeo-Christian answer to that is to avoid it and act like it can’t happen. Then you either sin or you don’t. We are more complex and honest than that, and I would like to talk about this for a minute. In an unnatural world of men in cages together, with Christian values at the fore, in a world where you have to watch yourself, draw lines in the sand, and always be prepared for the unexpected…what happens when something as natural as attraction happens?
First of all, you will often be attracted to people, and they to you. If you are half-way good-looking it will be all the more powerful. The first thing to do is acknowledge that this is natural. Then, rather than act on it or get all bent out of shape, direct that energy into the group. Make that underlying sexual tension constructive and part of the gift to the gods. Most men are going to be very polite and will never cross any lines (sex offenders are the exception). Most will go out of their way, in fact, to not show their attraction overtly. The most you will ever get is unobtrusive hints that say in so many unsaid words: “Hey, in case you ever get interested, I can be tamed.” Once in a while you will get a marriage proposal that is sincere, and you would be smart to laugh and be nice and just let it go. They know the answer is no. You can’t blame someone for trying. Usually you won’t have trouble if you just let natural feelings happen, acknowledge them, put them on the shelf, and direct these powerful emotions to the gods and the ancestors. Remember to have a sense of humor.
What happens if none of this works? What if you decide you have fallen in love with someone? What if someone crosses that line just a little and you find yourself responding? Now I will insert another Don’t:
I don’t say that because it’s sinful. Flirting is not even a Thou Shalt Not. We don’t have those kinds of rules in our value system. I say this because flirting is a promise, and don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s not nice to play with people in cages. You are playing with fire. If you feel you are in love, have a conversation with this person. See if you both can put this away while he is inside for the good of the group. If the air gets too thick, and you find yourself going in just to see your man, quit your job and be the man’s girlfriend. We all have to think of the bigger picture. The struggle for freedom, to be Odinists in a world where we are often misunderstood –this takes priority over all else in the prison situation. You are on the front lines in prison. Love is a good thing. It’s neither sinful nor shameful. Love happens, and it’s a beautiful thing when it’s genuine. Just make sure it’s love, and not a fantasy. We are a minority. It’s hard to find good mates who are Odinist. If you are like me, you like tough guys. In prison there are plenty of attractive enticing tough guys who are Odinist. Here I will insert another Do:
*Know yourself and be responsible for your attractions.
Enjoy the company, appreciate the men behind the numbers and uniforms, and have fun. But keep a perspective. They are in cages, and you have more power than you ever had in your life. The entire situation is unnatural. Do not be irresponsible. Be aware of your motivations and make decisions based on common sense, with the big picture in mind, not impulse. Remember you are on the front lines and everyone is watching.
To the men on the inside reading this: I think it’s appropriate for you to also be careful. If our women take time to come in to see you, and stand up to all they have to stand up to, it’s not nice to play games with their hearts. They deserve your protection and brotherly love. If you decide to take feelings to another level, choose wisely, or better yet, wait until you get out, or are about to get out, and begin a real relationship.
Men, if you go into women’s prisons you will encounter the same in reverse. Everything applies.
Women, if you examine yourself closely and find that the only reason you are going in is because tough guys with tattoos float your boat, don’t go in. You will be eaten alive and ultimately defeated. You need a better reason than that.
To close, I will say that if you have a calling to go into prisons, and you have a deep abiding faith and the charisma to share it, you have my blessing. You can meet some very interesting people in prison. You will make friends for life. You will even meet a few chaplains along the way who are genuine human beings, and a few CO’s and Wardens who are fair. You will be touching people’s lives, and they will change yours. Everybody gets to learn a lot.
The prison environment is intense and focused; Blots will often tingle up and down your spine with their power. Free world people can afford to learn some about the brotherhood and perseverance inside; most of the guys you encounter inside will have spent time in the hole and been labeled a Security Threat just for being Odinist. They have fought to be who they are. You may find yourself acting as an emissary between the worlds to bring the community together. As you help people in prisons find their faith and practice their freedom of religion, you will be helping that high school kid who wants to wear his hammer to school. The state won’t have a leg to stand on if they try to suspend him. If prisoners can do it, so can our high school kids.
We need our men and women out of prison and being good friends, lovers, husbands, wives, and parents. The sheer numbers of our people in prison is good enough reason to justify prison outreach. The good news is that in a group of thirty Odinists in prison, there will be at least eight bright lights –the leaders and the genuine Odinists are mostly nice guys with a wild past. They are worth knowing. Believe that. Our folk need the direction and the good company. By all means gather your heart, mind, and courage and disregard the warning sign. Do it for the bright lights in the group. Don’t turn back, and I’ll be here for you if you need me.
This article was inspired by a couple of young single women who want to conduct Odinist services in state prisons. The information here is mostly for their benefit.
Laurel Owen, 2005
*Note: As the reader can see, this was written ten years ago. I spent many years volunteering in state and federal prisons, conducting Odinist and Pagan services. The advice in this article still seems relevant, so I’m publishing it in hopes that it may benefit someone.