Pagan prisoners now allowed wands, tarot cards and altars in cells


New rules, to cope with the growing numbers of pagan inmates, bans nudity but allows wands, tarot cards and altars

There were 79 pagans in prisons in England and Wales at the start of the millennium compared with 1,172 now, making them the fourth most common religion registered by offenders in jails.

It puts them behind Christians (37,601), Muslims (14,991) and Buddhists (1,643), but ahead of Rastfarians (794) and other religious groups, including Hindus, Sikhs and Jews each numbered fewer than 600.

Academics have linked the rise to the sense of belonging and the society that it provides in the harsh environment of a prison. Others have pointed to its association with Right-wing ideology. It mirrors to some extent a rise in pagans in society, from 57,000 in 2011 to 74,000 in 2021, according to the census.

The new prison guidance – covering all religions represented in prisons from Zoroastrianism to Humanism – includes the artefacts that pagan inmates are allowed to have and how they should be handled. Although most wear ordinary clothes for worship, some traditions have special dress, such as a hoodless robe, it notes. But it warns: “In prison, Skyclad (naked) worship is not permitted.”

Some pagans use tarot cards for meditation and guidance which, governors are advised, may be allowed under the supervision of their prison’s pagan chaplain.

Risk assessments

“If a prisoner requests to be allowed to retain a part or full pack in possession, this may be allowed, but only following a local risk assessment, to determine whether there is any reason to preclude cards being kept in possession,” it says.

Altars are allowed – “ie desk, small table, box or similar” – as long as there is space and at local discretion. They are also permitted a “flexible twig for a wand”, rune stones, pendulum, crystals, chalice (cup) and religious jewellery such as pentagram necklace or ring.

However, it warns: “Such jewellery should be risk assessed in the usual way. The wearing of a ring which symbolises the person’s adherence to Paganism or a particular Pagan path is common. The removal of such a ring may cause considerable distress.”

Six pagans at Peterborough women’s prison described the benefits of their faith in a letter to the prisoners’ newspaper, Inside Time.

“Popular belief is that Paganism is a dark religion, however this could not be further from the truth. We believe in kindness towards others, whilst loving and forgiving ourselves first and foremost. It is through strength that our spirituality can prosper and grow,” they said.

The 74,000 Pagans in the UK make up 0.1 per cent of a total population. Compared to the general public, prisoners are 10 times more likely to be pagans. Data routinely published by the Ministry of Justice shows how many prisoners follow the major religions, but excludes paganism and Rastafarianism.



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