The Jail Ministry of Magic

Wednesday I had another round of jail ministry. It’s not quite the same as prison ministry. The environment is more restrictive than most prisons, and there’s a lot less to do. The folks in jail aren’t there to stay very long. They’re just there either waiting for trial, or serving short sentences. Here they can stay for sentences up to 3 years, which is actually kind of ridiculous. The maximum used to be one year, I think, which is closer to normal. Because there are some longer sentence times, there are also some intermediate-term facilities that give the inmates more options for how to pass the time than a typical county jail, which has to be a relief.

Because the inmates are all transient, I rarely see the same inmate more than twice – most only once. My job is to find out what they’re really trying to do, and then help the resident chaplain meet their spiritual needs with appropriate literature and resources. I have volunteered for three different facilities in two local counties so far, and I’m theoretically open to serving other counties in the immediate area, although the further I’d have to travel, the less often I can be available, obviously.

Jail chaplain volunteers are rare enough, and Pagans are few enough, that I volunteer not only to serve Heathen inmates, but really any minority religion that the resident chaplain thinks I might be able to help with. Most inmates looking for a Pagan chaplain request a Wiccan chaplain, assuming (usually correctly), that Wicca is more common, and more understood by government agencies. Obviously I’m not Wiccan, but I know a lot more about it than the resident chaplains, who are usually some kind of moderate, open-minded Protestant Christian, and are so far all really wonderful people. If I encounter someone who is actually initiated into a particular tradition, I’m a lot more likely to be able to find somebody from a related line than they are.

Mostly, though, what I get is people who want to study magic. Most of them want to study magic because they feel powerless, and they believe magic is real, but have only a vague idea what it might really be. They tend to believe magic is a single thing with one right way to study it that everyone who already studies it knows. What they think magic looks like depends tremendously on their home culture, and what they’ve been reading. Some of them are looking for hoodoo, some of them are looking for ceremonial magick. All of them are looking for something, anything, to pass the time.

I find myself explaining to people what, in my experience, magic can and can’t do for them. I avoid giving them books on magic that will encourage them to ask for a lot of physical components they can’t have while they’re inside. I try to give them guides for techniques they can practice wherever they are that will help them be more centered and grounded, so that they can really focus on what matters, and use their time of listless isolation as well as possible. I try to redirect them from trying to exercise control they don’t have, and focus on what’s actually under their control.

But I also try to respect their origin culture, and give them resources based on their original request, regardless of my own areas of expertise. If somebody comes in asking me for information on spells and prayers for Santa Muerte, I’m not going to redirect them to Reiki. I don’t care whether they call the spirits they’re interacting with fairies, demons, muertos, ghosts, ancestors, or angels. It’s not that it’s all the same to me, it’s just that most people really don’t make distinctions between a wide variety of spirit types. They tend to put them all into whichever single box makes the most sense to them, which is usually based on their home culture. Ultimately I’m a LOT more interested in knowing what kind of advice they’re getting from the spirits than I am in which kind of spirit is giving the advice. An “angel” or “ancestor” giving bad advice is a problem. A “demon” or “fairy” giving great advice isn’t.

No matter what kind of help I end up giving, a significant portion of my focus is always on the ethics of their situation. I often have to explain that magic is like any other tool: the morality of it depends on its use. There’s no such thing as an Evil Screwdriver or a Good Screwdriver, there’s just screwdrivers. Driving a screw into a piece of wood to help build a house is a good use of a screwdriver. Stabbing a random stranger is a bad use of a screwdriver. The ethics that apply to your bare hands apply to your magic, and you’re responsible for the results of your actions no matter what you intended, or what the actual results turn out to be. That’s not to say you should be ashamed of yourself, or carry a huge burden of blame, per se. Just that you need to pay active attention to the effect you have on the world, and take it into account when you make your decisions. If you cause harm, that’s something you need to address.

By the same token, you’re not a good person or an evil person. At any given time you’re a person doing good things or a person doing bad things, and most often a person doing mixed things with varied results, some of which were unexpected. You can’t make your choices based on what could have been, what should have been. You have to make them based on what’s actually in front of you. You need to make the best possible choice for the situation you’re in. Nobody can make those choices for you. Even choosing to go with someone else’s instructions is a choice you’re making yourself.

Where magic really comes in is twofold: Divination can help you make more informed choices, by showing you aspects of the situationĀ  you haven’t considered, or perspectives that were out of your reach. Developmental magic can help you make choices from a place of centered wisdom instead of confusion or reaction. The spells new seekers tend to focus on aren’t so useful with that. Spells are an action you choose to take, and thus spells come after you’ve already made a choice.


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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4 Responses to The Jail Ministry of Magic

  1. Pingback: When Godphones Ring – Discernment for Pagans | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

    • EmberVoices says:

      This is true, but the “up to three years” bit is for after one is sentenced. Most of the guys I see pre-sentencing are only there for a few months, and are usually talking about a trial that is weeks away at most. That’s why I rarely see the same guy more than once. (I have yet to be called in to see a woman, but it’s the same system, so I see no reason I couldn’t be.)

      I’m not sure, but I think once they’re charged they can be in jail before trial for however long it takes to process everything. Once they’ve been sentenced they move to the state prison system if their sentence is more than 3 years long. If it’s less than 3 years, they serve the time in the county jail system instead.

      Does that make more sense? Or rather, do you understand better what I’m saying, even if the system doesn’t actually make sense?



  2. EmberVoices says:

    I do want to add: It’s not that I believe everyone in jail has poor judgement. Some folks really did land there due to circumstances outside their control. But folks who are already centered and aware aren’t generally the ones grasping at straws asking for a witch to come teach them magic.

    Even if a well-centered Pagan with excellent judgement finds themselves in that situation (which is less likely, given the demographics of Paganism – privilege is one of the things that keeps you out of jail for reasons outside your control, and most Pagans are fairly privileged), if they’re centered and have excellent judgement, they’re more likely to handle the situation they’re in with the resources they already understand, and are thus somewhat unlikely to end up making requests that result in a visit from me.

    Still, it could happen, and I’m open to that. When I encounter requests from folks who actually have an established practice, I do my best to help them pursue their established practice, of course.



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