The recent approval by The Troth's High Rede of the In-Reach Heathen Prison Services has generated some controversy about the need and/or propriety of Heathens conducting interaction with current inmates.
To the credit of the Heathen community, the discussion has been frithful. Although I support (obviously) a positive Heathen presence working in prison settings, I also firmly believe that the opponents to prison services are objecting out of a sincere desire to keep stability and honor central to Heathenry.
This is not a minor detail. This is a large subject with many potential ramifications on the entire Heathen community. I anticipate that the opponents will also recognize that those of us who are engaged in the prison services are doing so out of a desire to help keep stability and a positive reputation for Heathenry as well.
I would like to address a few of the opponents' main points, all of which I fully understand and took into consideration during the construction of Distelfink's initial In-Reach program.
I will be up-front here; three years ago, I never would have seen myself being involved in such an effort. I received a letter from an inmate, who stated that he had wanted to write to me for almost a year but was too embarrassed by his actions to initiate contact. He stated that he felt he had to achieve something before he could contact the outside Heathen community.
What he had achieved was successfully petitioning the prison administrators for the right to wear Thor's Hammers.
The story of this particular inmate includes many details in his effort to serve as a positive representative for Heathenry among the inmate population, but the major point of this anecdote is that he acknowledged his crime his responsibility to make amends to his community and to his family. While this is indeed an anecdote, it also represents a response to one point that I have seen opponents make: "Many prisoners blame everyone else for being in prison and don't own up to what they did."
That being said, I have come across inmates who do not take responsibility for their own choices and actions. There are some about whom I have concerns, particularly those who initially showed up already identifying as Heathen (most frequently as Odinist but also sometimes as Asatru) and bearing racist tattoos or making racist statements. In some cases, these inmates are the source of some of the materials that present a hateful and twisted version of Heathenry.
This is where the crux of the work comes. In the absence of our voice, these are the prisoners whom other Heathens, particularly those new to the faith, hear and see as authorities on the faith. The Heathen community in the prison system then projects that racism-tinged form of the faith outward to the staff and the administrators, who, in turn, label all of Heathenry as a racist or white supremacist religion.
It is this label that In-Reach and other Heathen prison service efforts is trying hardest to combat.
Other common objections to Heathen prison services run along the lines of, "We are not Christians, so we do not save souls," and, "Inmates have a debt to society. Until they repay it, we owe them nothing."
I can sympathize with both of these sentiments, particularly if I were to look at the purpose of Heathen prison services as being all about saving the inmates.
Speaking for myself, improving the inmates is an ancillary goal of such efforts; the primary purpose is the protection of the Heathen community, as reflected in In-Reach's Position statement:
Although there is some debate as to whether frith allows for inmates to be attended to until their debt to society is repaid, there are other angles to consider that are equally relevant under frith. Whether inmates have access to positive Heathen influences is part of a larger issue that has an impact on the whole of the Heathen community. In many cases, the perception of Heathenry is defined by radical racist elements from the prison population.
The administrators are not blindly or randomly inventing their perceptions; the perceptions have formed from the presence of race-based books, tattoos, and gang behaviors that have been found among the Heathen prison population. A radicalization based on race and/or ethnicity is taking place in some facilities. When these radical racists are released into the general population, the history of their experience and influence will become an even bigger problem for us than it is now. Thus, prison outreach efforts are a frithful move to protect the folk from this destructive radicalization. This program meets a need that supersedes the unpaid debt of individual prisoners.
This is, perhaps, the most important differentiation between the Christian concept of saving souls and the Heathen effort to protect our community from problems that will arise when racially radicalized inmates get out of prison and interact with our communities or make news through their actions. One example of this kind of catastrophe is the murder of Colorado Department of Corrections chief, Tom Clements, at the hands of an individual who self-identified as Asatru.
I am sure that our prison services efforts will not be able to stop all unstable people who identify as Heathen from commit heinous acts and making the news. However, our efforts can show that their crimes do not reflect the wider Heathen community's values.
Additionally, there is at least one incident that has happened involving and inmate who undertook efforts to protect the faith's reputation by condemning the propagation of hate-based literature in one of the prisons. This inmate was almost physically assaulted by another inmate. Fortunately, other inmates came to his aid. While others' viewpoint may disagree, I view this as an effort to repay his debt to the Heathen community at his own physical peril. He could just as easily have stayed quiet. Again, this is anecdotal, but it is important for the community to know that some inmates are working actively to thwart the racist agenda in the prisons.
One last aspect that I'd like others to consider is the equal treatment of Heathenry. Our work in the first prison led to the establishment of a trust between the prison administrators and the area Heathen community. However, at least one inmate who went to a transition house and then a halfway house experienced flat-out discrimination based on his religion.
Despite providing materials to the transition house showing ample proof of a history of working against racism, he was told by the transition house administrators that they did not care what the documentation said, his religion is white supremacist and he is a racist. He is not allowed to receive any Heathen religious visitation. Department of Corrections rules understandably bar me from being able to write letters to any inmate if I am visiting any facility in person. Thus, the transition house's ban on Heathen volunteer visitation effectively slams shut this inmates' connection to the wider community based on the administrators' religious bigotry.
Meanwhile, representatives from other religious groups regularly visit inmates at that site. The inmate's response to these accusations is on hold until he completes his sentence because the transition house holds all of the power.
I do not know whether presenting these viewpoints and anecdotes will change anyone's opinion about Heathen prison services. However, I do hope that this article will help the opponents' of such services as least to understand that the root desire of this work is the protection of the Heathen community and of the community's reputation.
I hope those with concerns about the prison services will wish us well. If the services fail, then not much would be different than had we not tried at all. However, if the provided services are successful, we may have fewer troubles and perils in our community when inmates are released.
This is a complicated issue with many aspects and viewpoints that must be considered. I again thank the opponents of the prison services for taking the time to read some of the arguments for such work and also for their respectful engagement with me. It is this ability to disagree while upholding frith and retaining respect that makes the Heathen community stronger.
May all of our efforts bring bright fame to the Gods and Goddesses!
Robert L. Schreiwer
Heathens Against Hate