Witch Trials: There Is Nothing Magical About Being a Pagan in Prison
From his cell, William Rouser waged a decades-long legal battle with the California Correction System for Wiccan rights, incense, and candles. He's one of many in the fight to get prisons to recognize and accommodate the religion.
Illustration by Shawna X
Strangely, there is no accessible information regarding the crime for which William Rouser was imprisoned. Not even his public defender, James M. Burnham, who fought the last leg of Rouser's decades-long battle to practice Wicca while incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections (CDC), knows. But while how he landed behind bars remains somewhat of a mystery, his time there has been intensely catalogued through court documents, statements, court opinions, and trial footage—all in service of his right to worship the old Gods, properly, with incense, candles, and magical amulets.
It started in 1992. Rouser petitioned the California State Prison at Sacramento, on behalf of himself and 30 other inmates, that Wicca be held in the same regard as more traditional religions that the prison acknowledged. In most prisons across the US, inmates have access to priests and group religious services and are allowed to possess religious items, like rosaries. Rouser merely asked for the same. Except instead of the Bible, he needed access to A Witches Bible Compleat, tarot cards, use of the prison chapel for Wiccan ceremonies, and a Wiccan chaplain.
Read more: The Trials of Being a Witch Today
When the prison denied his request, he filed a civil rights complaint, and in 1997 that ended in a legal pact between Rouser and the CDC: Prisons and their staff needed to accommodate his religious needs. But the agreement was quickly violated; Rouser said that Wiccan services were suspended for no reason, while other religious services were allowed to continue, and that he was denied access to religious items like herbs and oils. According to court documents, his complaints were ignored by staff.
In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Politics in the U.S., chapter author and volume editor, Barbara A. McGraw, describes the injustices Rouser faced in more upsetting terms: "Officials destroyed an altar that Rouser had made out of a soap box in an effort to practice his religion in some way in his cell." Rouser had also, they write, "ordered items for his religious practice that were analogous to those permitted to inmates in 'recognized religions.' Yet the [CDC] employees responsible for retrieving them from the mailroom and delivering them to Rouser refused to do so."
After numerous complaints filed over several years were ignored, Rouser ended up in court again in 2010, after he was transferred to a facility with virtually no infrastructure for practicing Wiccans. While one of his complaints was in process, he filed a motion to supplement it with a retaliation claim. He was successful, and a year later he managed to wrangle a judicial consent decree that restated the terms of the pact. It also added that Rouser was allowed to have religious items in his cell, permitted to observe pagan holidays like Yule and the summer solstice, and instructed to take any further violations straight to the warden.
But the abuses continued, the most egregious of which was that "the prison started to retaliate against Mr. Rouser by putting him in solitary confinement," Burnham told me over the phone.
And unfortunately, this story does not really end with a crescendo of justice for Rouser. It ends, in an appeal on June 17, 2016, with something more like acknowledgment—though Rouser does get a judge very angry on his behalf.
The prison started to retaliate against Mr. Rouser by putting him in solitary confinement.
"What's unusual about this case is that Mr. Rouser had achieved a fairly impressive string of victories in the district court that lead to the prison entering this voluntary settlement in the form of this consent decree," Burnham said, fondly impressed with his client. Indeed, Rouser did it all without being able to appear in any of his hearings. He fought his case pro se, handwriting all of his statements—and even gathering witness testimony—from jail. "It is unusual, to say the least, for a prisoner litigating pro se to have great success, particularly success of the scale of what Mr. Rouser achieved."
But, of course, it wasn't easy.
Part of the reason is that Wicca is not an officially recognized religion in California. "It's been a struggle for decades," a Wiccan prison advocate, Starhawk, told me. Starhawk has a kind voice over the phone and has volunteered at two women's facilities, the Valley State Prison and the California Institution for Women, in the Golden State, leading rituals and other services for inmates. Whenever she's visited prisons, she totes cauldrons and large maypoles so that pagan inmates can celebrate Midsummer. She became involved with volunteering at the behest of Patrick McCollum, a Wiccan chaplain who sued the CDC in 2006 for discrimination for excluding the religion from its paid-chaplaincy program.
If it is unduly hard for pagan inmates like Rouser to access worship materials of their own accord, it is also not easy for outsiders to bring them into facilities. "There's a whole process you have to go through," Starhawk explained. "Patrick had to submit my name and get it approved by the prison board, and he has to make a list of everything that he's bringing for each ritual." That list is often long—Wiccans use many objects to worship.
"We try to bring in the tools of magic," she said. "Things like wands, stones, crystals, pentacles, cups, bells, tarot cards, books, and all the things that are hard for inmates to get." But some traditional magical tools count as contraband. Ceremonial knives, for example, are out of the question. Even when the items are innocuous, the prison guards get suspicious.
You can do everything right...and they can still decide that they're not going to let you in.
"We did a Beltane—a May Day—ritual [with the inmates], and Patrick submitted everything beforehand," she told me. "He alerted the staff that we were bringing in a maypole and all the other things beforehand to celebrate the holiday. But when we got there, they didn't want to let the maypole in."
The warden eventually let them in with the maypole, but Starhawk says the entire process is frustratingly arbitrary. The traditional chaplains that the CDC employs can also pose a problem; she says they often have discretion over religious activity in the facility, and can do things like limit access to the prison chapel. "You can do everything right, fill out all the paperwork, and they can still decide that they're not going to let you in. They don't really have to give a reason," she said
She added, "Getting the information and getting the resources is a big challenge, but I think the biggest challenge is that there are often repercussions for inmates who practice Wicca."
Rouser is witness to this. After a district court in eastern California issued the 2011 decree stating he could practice Wicca, for Rouser, life as an incarcerated pagan was still fraught. In 2012, his grievances were back in court, this time in the Central District, as he had been transferred to a prison there.
When he went to the court with allegations of prison staff violating his right to religious items—breaking, stealing, and not replacing them—as well as continuing to wrongfully cancel services and putting him in solitary confinement without access to his Wiccan bible, the court largely ruled in favor of the prison. They cited that Rouser, who is incarcerated, did not bring forth enough evidence, even though he had provided a sworn declaration and another inmate's statement given under penalty of perjury. They granted Rouser some of his claims—yes, the guards broke your necklace, and that was wrong—but did not offer Rouser any practical relief; the judge didn't even order the prison to replace broken items. In the following year, the CDC moved to have Rouser's consent decree terminated, citing that they had fulfilled it and it was no longer necessary. The district court granted it.
According to Burnham, Rouser did not even receive word that the court had ruled against him.
"The clerk's office was sending the court's order to a lawyer who had not represented Rouser in over a decade, who had withdrawn from the case, and if you Googled him, you would see that he's actually deceased. [The documents] are all being returned to sender and nobody does anything," Burnham explained. "It was absurd. Everybody knows where he is. He's in prison! It's not like he's hard to find."
When Rouser finally did learn of the decision, he appealed, and won. The judge thoroughly shamed the CDC in his opinion, reinstated the 2011 decree, and sent the case back to the district court to make a ruling consistent with his ruling. If the meager privilege of being able to continue to hold the prison system accountable for infringing on prisoner's rights is a victory, then this is one.
But it is still unclear what concrete relief Rouser will receive, or if this will actually allow him to practice Wicca, fully and in accordance with his rights, in prison. According to Burnham, the prison still has time to ask the court to rehear the case as well as the option to ask the Supreme Court to take it on, though he is confident that neither of these scenarios is likely.
As Starhawk tells it, when prisoners are allowed to practice their magic, commune with the Goddess, and have something as simple as a tarot deck, it can be life-changing, or at least make being in prison tolerable. "It's very stressful being locked up and not having access to nature," she said. "Inmates that I've talked to really appreciate Wicca's nature connection and being able to speak from the heart about what's going on with them."
According to Starhawk, the Wiccan population in prison is surprisingly large. "It's not that Wiccans get arrested a lot so much as people become Wiccan in prison," she said. "I think that's because [Wicca] is very warm and accepting. Instead of saying that people are sinners and they must repent, Wicca is about the Goddess, who is the great mother and who loves all her children, even if they have made terrible mistakes. I think that's a really important message for women in prison, and for men."
Beyond spiritual food for thought, Starhawk said that when she visited for rituals she would also bring actual food. "The food in prisons is unbelievably bad. I've been there on occasions when they're serving a 'special meal'—it's like if you imagine the worst school cafeteria food you've ever had, and then make it ten times worse," she said. "One of the issues with for-profit prisons is that they make more money by spending less on food. So we bring in cold cuts, cheeses, and fruit, which is a big treat for the inmates because they don't get a lot of fresh fruit."
Though magic itself might be more nourishing. Starhawk remembered one visit when she brought a cauldron to a women's correctional facility in the exercise yard off the dining hall. "People could put in things they wanted to release and speak about stuff that was personal to them," she told me. "That was really nice, to hear what people had to say. We couldn't set in on fire and burn it, but we covered it with water to release it. One woman talked about how she was feeling all this grief and sadness for the mistakes she made in her life, and for the victim that she had hurt. She wanted to release some of that and call forth the strength that she needed to set her life on another path."