I’ve been a Minister in Training with Circle Sanctuary for over a year now, and I’ve received my Practicum assignment! I am so excited to once again be going behind the wire to work as a volunteer chaplain in a prison. This is the work that really catches my soul on fire, knowing I can make a difference to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have anyone caring about them or their spirituality – damn that’s powerful stuff! Being able to facilitate that space for them, in a space that wouldn’t otherwise have it. Just wow.
This will be a different experience than my time volunteering at the brig on MCAS Miramar. For starters, it’s a civilian institution. The standards of behavior and code of conduct are wildly different when you compare military to civilian, and I’m certain that will be seen even more acutely in a prison environment. I think what most people don’t realize, though, is that there are so many protections in place for volunteers and staff in an institutional setting. Cameras, sally-port style doors, guards/escorts, and generally speaking only those on ‘good behavior’ receive the privilege of attending religious services.
I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’re concerned about my success in this ministry, because I’m not old and I’m female and I’m reasonably good looking. Some of them say it from a place of concern for me, while others are much more judgmental. While a valid thought, and one that bears consideration, it is certainly not insurmountable. Here are some ways I intend to address this:
First and foremost, how I present myself will determine how I am treated. Clothing choice is important. Business casual is a must, and I prefer slacks & flats over dresses/skirts & heels in that situation. Some of that is safety for me, and some of that is the perception of me inside the prison. If I treat this as a job, rather than a fun little lark, and I approach it in a business-like manner rather than a flirty, fun, floofy-skirted pagan – well, then I’ll mostly be treated as a serious volunteer and less objectified as “silly woman”.
Second, setting expectations for the group. I set clear expectations of behavior and interactions early in any situation, but it’s especially important here. As I did at Miramar, I will set a no-tolerance policy for racism or bigotry. There isn’t much I can do to enforce that when I’m not there, of course, but modeling that behavior even in the microcosm can help to change wider attitudes. I’ll ensure we’re all on the same page as to how I expect interactions in group will go – respect, etc. I will tell them why I’m there and what I hope they get out of my presence, and make it clear that nothing else is an option.
Third, managing my own expectations. I am realistic. There will be men who come to the service simply to get out of the humdrum of their daily lives. There will be men who come to ogle the new female volunteer. There will be men who come to learn. There will be men who attend out of sheer curiosity. There will be men who come to have their own private service while I hold space. There will be men who come for community. There will be men who come due to power plays within groups. There will be men who come to intimidate or keep tabs on other inmates. Eventually, when they don’t get what they want, many of the more negative reasons for attending will weed themselves out. They’ll move on to something else. And, perhaps, just maybe, their reasons for attending will transform and they’ll find something beautiful or useful or meaningful out of the experience. Or not. All of that must be OK, and I have to be able to allow that process to happen. As I said, not insurmountable. Awareness is key, and you can mitigate for anything provided you do a full assessment beforehand.
There is another consideration, as well. I hold power in this space – and must exercise that with caution. If I feel unsafe at any time, I can request a guard in the room with me, if the prison doesn’t already require that. I can request specific inmates who are being deliberately intimidating be denied service. Having to exercise that power does not engender trust, so discretion must be used. There is a lot of posturing that isn’t dangerous, for example. And working to gain their trust as a chaplain and minister is important. They have to know that their experiences and words will be held confidential, outside of mandatory reporting situations. They have to know that I am not holding judgement, that there is no guilt here, and that I’m here to hold space for and facilitate their connection to Source/Spirit/Community. If I give them advice, or suggestions, or tools for after release, they won’t listen if I haven’t proven myself to be ‘on their side’.
Services look so different in a prison with all the rules and regulations around safety and power. Fire is limited and sometimes not allowed. Oftentimes there is no touching allowed. For obvious reasons athames or other blades are disallowed. Nothing that can be ingested. No controlled substances. Anything that isn’t on the ‘approved’ list is considered contraband. If I want to provide a hand-out, it must be approved by their Chaplain ahead of time and stamped/printed – this is assuming they’re allowed to keep them which may not be the case. Many times the services are a group working, and in an effort to allow anyone who is pagan to experience meaning, it has to be general enough to not exclude anyone. That’s a deft touch, to ensure that the generality also doesn’t water it down to meaningless in and of itself.
Lots of considerations, just from the ritual and teaching aspects! This type of work definitely takes empathy, and I’ve been told that it’s a special type of compartmentalization that not everyone has to do it without judgement or even curiosity of their offenses. At the end of the day, though, they’re still human and deserve that empathy and deserve to prove who they are as a person to me without my opinion anchored in what may be a completely different iteration of their personality and life.