Broadly speaking, Paganism encompasses an eclectic mix of nature-based, polytheistic traditions – many of which, adherents believe, are rooted in ancient, pre-Christian practices – that started gaining popularity in the mid-20th century. Unlike mainstream, monotheistic religions, Wicca, Asatru, Druidry, and others often avoid dogma and tend not to have central texts or authorities. Many offer freedom of interpretation and practice. Although exact numbers remain elusive, Harvard’s Pluralism Project suggests that the U.S. Pagan population could be upwards of one million.
That such belief systems would thrive in the highly regulated prison environment may seem counterintuitive, not to mention logistically difficult. And yet, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Forum, more than a third of American prison chaplains reported that Pagan communities were growing in their facilities. In this survey, significantly, Pagan/earth-based religions were given an explicit category of their own instead of being lumped together with other minority religions, as they often are. The prison chaplains surveyed estimated that about 1.7 percent of prisoners adhered to such religions (a percentage that, if extrapolated to the U.S. prison population at the time, would suggest that there were about 40,000 incarcerated people in 2012 with this religious affiliation). Since then, prison officials and clergy have continued to note an uptick.
The reasons for Paganism’s popularity in carceral facilities are many. For some prisoners, Pagan religions offer a valuable source of introspection and unique rehabilitative possibilities; for others, they may provide a means of navigating entrenched racial divisions. The growth of Paganism inside prisons may also mirror its increasing popularity in the broader American religious landscape. Regardless, correctional facilities nationwide now find themselves pressed to understand and accommodate a thriving Pagan demographic within their walls. They rely heavily on volunteer Pagan clergy, and sometimes paid contractors, for assistance in serving these prisoners.
These photographs and an accompanying article were published in The Revealer, a publication of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, in October 2018. View the piece here, and read an interview with prison chaplain Imam Abdul-Wahab Omeira here.