Canada’s federal prisons are becoming bewitched.
According to figures obtained by Sun Media under Access to Information, the number of practising Wiccans and Pagans behind bars has tripled in the last five years. In 2002 there were just 25, compared to 77 in 2007, data from the Correctional Service of Canada show.
Also known as Witchcraft, Earth Religion and The Craft, Wicca falls under the umbrella faith of Paganism and has followers who worship Mother Nature rather than scripture.
According to an internal CSC manual on religious practices, inmate witches are required to have an altar with candles and incense for worship.
They should also be permitted a wooden wand, robe, tarot cards, figurines, oils and natural objects such as shells, feathers, stones and crystals, the manual reads.
Richard James, the Toronto-based founder and high priest of the Wiccan Church of Canada, has been involved in prison outreach programs and believes the official count is “woefully understated.” More and more inmates are turning to Wicca because they’ve been let down by other faiths, he said.
“There are a lot of people in the institutions that the reason they’re there is that the mainstream religions didn’t do a very good job for them,” he said. “Once they’re inside they start to look for an alternative, and increasingly they’re finding Pagan alternatives.”
While negative stereotypes persist of witches worshipping Satan and casting evil spells, Richard insists there is no plan to ditch the label.
For Wiccans, a spell is simply a prayer and a witch is just a worshipper of nature.
“People want to reclaim the word witch as a good, empowering, goddess-affirming word. We don’t want to get rid of that word. We want to make it a word the public will celebrate,” he said.
Rick Burk, CSC’s associate to the director general of chaplaincy, restorative justice and victims’ services, said inmates have a Charter right to practise their faith. In turn, institutions work to foster understanding and tolerance for all faiths inside the wire.
“There are cultural and spiritual differences in all kinds of traditions and we are constantly engaged in dialogue about respect and diversity and managing the community within a context of diversity,” he said.
“Whether there is the word ‘witch’ involved or not, we try to manage diversity.”
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