‘Cons’ and Community

One of the most needful panels I had the privilege of attending at Paganicon this year was “Pagan Clergy Addressing How to Welcome Sex-Offenders and Ex-Felons into Our Communities: A Forum”. Incarcerated members of our community is the focus of my ministry, and I’m so glad this subject is being talked about. The Minnesota Sex Offenders Program had 2 members in attendance to discuss their work with rehabilitating and reintegrating pagans who have completed their program, and pagan clergy doing work spanning 4 states were also there to inform the discussion.

In my experience, most ex-felons want to be honest with you up front. They will tell the group, or at least the leader, their background. This earnestness should be taken at face value – they want you to know who they are and what they’re about, because it is important to them to form lasting community. The key to preventing recidivism (committing the same crime again) is creating and maintaining strong community ties. So, when they seek out your group or your public ritual, they’re doing exactly what their counselor/parole officer/other appointed resource encouraged them to do. Pro tip: no one wants to go back to prison if they can help it.

If you are of the opinion that this person already screwed-up and ‘too bad so sad for them’ – why? Everyone makes mistakes. Some of those mistakes weren’t worth jail time, or some of them you just didn’t get caught for. This individual is an EX-felon, meaning former. They are no longer committing this crime, and have, indeed, served their penance for it under the law. In order to keep them from committing those crimes again, ongoing support is vital. “An offender’s peer group is the number one leading factor as to whether or not the individual will re-offend” (Hooley, D. CorrectionsOne. “6 evidence-based practices proven to lower recidivism.” 3/19/2017 – https://www.correctionsone.com/re-entry-and-recidivism/articles/2030030-6-evidence-based-practices-proven-to-lower-recidivism/)

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Communities are reluctant to accept ex-felons into their Circles, some outright denying them if they were incarcerated for any violent offense or if they appear on the sex offender registry. Most people seem to fear repeat violence or sex offense the most – an accountant who went to prison for cheating on taxes isn’t the boogeyman we think of when an ex-felon approaches a group looking for community. It IS important to protect the vulnerable populations, but ex-felons are not the only predators, or even the most numerous predators, out there. They’re just the ones that got caught. The biggest piece of this reluctance, as I see it, is fear propelled by ignorance. So, let’s face some of that fear! In this discussion, I’m going to unpack some of that and offer the opportunity to reframe.

Violent offenders, “Depending on the jurisdiction, … may vary from homicide to harassment” (Wikipedia. Violent crime. 3/19/17 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violent_crime), and harassment has many definitions and examples even within that. An ex-felon with a ‘violent’ record is most likely not the serial killer you imagine them to be, but if you’re worried you should ask! It is not unreasonable to ask, when getting to know this person, and many times, the context of the situation is the key. Did he cat-call the wrong person on the street? Annoying and an affront to feminists everywhere, but not physically dangerous.

Sex offenders were the biggest topic of conversation in the panel at Paganicon, under the fog of several community assumptions. First, and foremost, sex offender DOES NOT equal pedophile. I simply cannot stress this enough. Even if they are a predator, the fact is that most of them don’t prey on children. The list of offenses covered under “sex crimes” is exhaustive, and there are many minor offenses that will make you scratch your head. For example, did you know that sexting is a crime that results in mandatory sex offender registration? Yup. Better tell your lover(s) to tone it back. Public urination may also require registration. Embarrassing? Yes. Violent or even scary? Nope. What about sex on a beach (or any other public place)? So much for the exhibitionists out there!

Second, every state manages their sex offender registry differently. They will classify the crimes differently and report to community differently. The idea of tier 2 out of a 3 tier system seems scary, right? Depends on how your state defines them – some states classify tier 1 and 2 as non-violent, non-minor related offenses. In that case, only a tier 3 offense would be the stuff of your nightmares. Some states treat them all equally, so if you get a post-card that your new neighbor is registered, it would be worth it to take a step back and get to know them before condemning them. Perhaps he just got drunk on St. Paddy’s day one year and got arrested for pissing in an alley!

Remember how I mentioned that no one wants to go back to prison if they can help it? I’m not kidding. If a former inmate is reaching out and trying to make community ties, they’re probably willing to do the Work. They aren’t going to put themselves in a situation where they’ll hurt their own recovery and reintegration. A pedophile who is serious about his/her rehabilitation, will avoid children and schools and family friendly rituals because they WANT to do the right thing – just like a recovering alcoholic will avoid ‘wet’ events to assist their own recovery journey.

Paganism is a small religion and with so many individual groups the populations get smaller & smaller as you drill down. Paganism’s fastest growing segment is converted inmates. Having dedicated themselves to their practice and/or god/dess while behind bars, some with years or decades of dedication, the only thing missing is that which all humans crave – community. Many ex-felons have little choice when searching out spiritual community in a geographical area. In most programs/states they cannot use their chaplains from prison/jail as a resource and ministers are often not allowed to have contact with them for several years post release. This means, they need YOU.


Royalty-free image via Unsplash.com. Attribution to Afonso Coutinho.

The community has the opportunity to accept and welcome them as we would anyone else, and make a huge difference in their life. Perhaps it will be the first time they’ve ever felt accepted, or a sense of family. Keep in mind, if you are in a rural area, your group may be the only one around. They often cannot travel, certainly not out of state right away. Many times it will be the only community standing between them and the black hole of repeat offense. Please realize these people are already struggling against the dominant society when trying to find somewhere to live or get a job – they don’t need to fight against their spiritual community too! Ultimately, if it isn’t right for you and your group then it isn’t and that is your decision to make. What I am urging you to do is buck some of your assumptions, get a little ‘woke’, and suspend your judgement right at first. Get to know them, and then make a final, informed decision.

About the Author

Grace is an avid reader, geek, and gamer living with anxiety and fighting against depression. She volunteers when she can, in as many avenues as possible. Grace loves attending cons and festivals, but also values her time at home with fur-babies and her books. An eclectic pagan since childhood, Grace has studied as a Chakradance facilitator, level 2 Usui Reiki healer, and has been a member of the Sisterhood of Avalon since 2012. She credits Phyllis Curott and Edain McCoy with her introduction to Wicca, and The Chalice & The Blade by Riane Eisler as her introduction to historical concepts of paganism. Other inspirations include The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, The Red Book by Sera Beak, and Avalon Within by Jhenah Telyndru. Her (current) greatest shero and ladycrush is Michelle Obama <3. Facing hard topics dead on is Grace's signature, asking the questions no one wants to hear, and rustling the jimmies to get Change made. It has often said that you never have to wonder what Grace is thinking! She is currently fleshing out several writing projects, and hopes to pitch those soon.

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  1. While I appreciate the message that being an ex-con does not tell a person’s whole life story, I don’t accept the idea that we all have some sort of responsibility to accept these folks into our groups or to give them a strong presumption of acceptance. Those who are called to specifically minister to those in and around the penal system have my utmost respect and admiration. For many of the rest of us though, rehabilitation is not our skill set nor priority in our practice and associations we form to further that practice.

    If you’re going to go down this road in helping convicts, I would urge you to do so with eyes wide open and a degree of skepticism which at least matches your compassion. I would acknowledge that as the largest prison state in human history and one with the worst social justice and human rights record among developed nations, we have a lot of people who get locked up for bullshit reasons. Some are innocent, and many others fall deeply into the criminal justice system for reasons of race and socioeconomic status as much as their deeds.

    It’s also true that some of even the worst offenders can turn their life around and grow into very different people. The problem is that sorting those people out from the incorrigibles is an extraordinarily tricky and often dangerous business. Even the best and most experienced people in the legal and psychology professions get it wrong. If you don’t have any background in prison ministry or some similar source of street smarts, you’re going to be chum in the water when you get involved with felons.

    Let’s start with the idea that religious practice in prison is a marker of virtue and a genuine desire to reform oneself. Sometimes it is. Plenty of other times, it’s a way to polish one’s image for the parole board or to secure additional freedoms or privileges within prison. It’s entirely possible that a released convict may also have similar motivations for wanting to connect with a religious group in the community. Those on electronic monitoring, for example, will frequently look for legitimate activities to secure additional “movements”, which can then be exploited for other reasons.

    Vetting these folks is not easy for anyone, let alone amateurs. Career criminals in particular tend to be extremely manipulative and adept con artists. They know how to read people, how to spin a very sympathetic narrative of themselves, how to fake contrition and sincerity and how to tell people exactly what they want to hear. Nobody is more charming when they want to be than a domestic abuser, for example. And we tend to think of pedophiles as the trollish-looking guy hovering in a van by the playground. In reality, most were highly regarded salt-of-the-earth stand up men in their communities.

    They also tend to be very good at lying to themselves. Of course none of them want to go back to prison and in the abstract want to reform, but aren’t willing or ready to do the deep personal work needed to break out of that pattern. Many have deep-seated mental and substance abuse issues which will be well beyond your capabilities and which will torpedo even the most sincere efforts to go straight.

    I’m not discouraging anyone from considering inclusion of ex-convicts, but I would urge them to do so very cautiously. If someone is worth considering, take the time to do some deep research. Talk to them, yes, but also secure releases to talk to their parole officers or others who can speak to their conduct and progress. Dig into past arrest and court records. See what big picture emerges from all of the data points and go from there. Make sure the prospective member understands that trust is incremental and earned. One factor I would consider in admitting ex-cons is how “ex” they in fact are. If someone has been out for years and has a stable record of working and staying out of trouble and sober etc., they’re going to get a whole lot more consideration than some guy who got out last week and just talks a good game. I would also consider carefully how the nature of the offense comports with my own values. The fact that the state treats one offense more seriously than another does not mean I would evaluate it the same way. A guy who did hard time for growing medical marijuana is going to get a whole lot more consideration from me than a guy who “only” habitually exposed himself to adult women.

    How we weigh the risks and benefits is going to vary with the nature of our Pagan groups. For much of my Pagan career, I worked in Wiccan or Wiccan-style covens. It is a very intimate and vulnerable mode of practice. It’s typically done inside someone’s home, may involve skyclad work and always involves a degree of spiritual intimacy which is impossible to even explain to someone who has not experienced it before.

    I’m not doing that with just anyone. I’m at the point where I won’t consider anyone for that sort of group who is not a mature adult who displays a certain amount of self-mastery and stability. When I co-ran such a group, I turned away a lot of people for things far less outwardly serious than criminal convictions. Some were mentally ill, which I have nothing against in and of itself, but they were clearly not getting treatment. Some were guys whose only interest was the prospect of being around unclothed women. Some were just flakes or people who were living in poverty out of lifestyle choices or various kinds of dysfunction. I’m just not dealing with that. I haven’t raised any kids of my own, and while I’m open to that even in my mid-40s, I’m damn sure not going to be raising adults who can’t get their acts together at a minimal level. I’m also not circling with them in private settings. My religion is about creativity. Those who aren’t capable of that work are just a power drain.

    I wouldn’t discount an ex-convict just for the fact of their past, but they’re going to have an uphill climb to convince me to take them on.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts! Groups should absolutely do their due diligence, and anyone who is legit will happily give you information to check their background with parole officers/other resources. One thing I might say, though, is that if they’re simply “polishing” their image for a parole board, then they’ll probably choose Christianity – not paganism. I especially like your insight into the vetting process for an intimate group in general, not just cons. Some open or public or teaching circles don’t do that at all, but some also have requirements in writing and I think it speaks to our personal responsibility as community members and leaders to create these agreements for ourselves and our groups.

  2. Greetings, Grace! Your wise words on a subject so poorly understood in Paganism as a whole are a balm to my heart. What’s your (and your channels) policy on reprints? I’d like to consider publishing your post as a guest editorial in an upcoming issue of Witches&Pagans. Please advise if that’s an option you’d like to pursue.

    1. Hi. I’m Jamie, publisher of Pagan Bloggers. We have a 30 day exclusive on new works and after that the author is welcome to do reprints if they so choose. I’m sure Grace will weigh in soon!

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