The Promise and Perils of Heathen Prison Ministry: An Interview with Gythia Jane Ruck

The Promise and Perils of Heathen Prison Ministry: An Interview with Gythia Jane Ruck October 14, 2010

I have been involved with prison ministry for several years now. For many years prior to that, I’d resisted doing this type of work. It was the hard work and shining example of Heathen gythia (priest) Jane Ruck that inspired me and eventually encouraged me to move past my initial resistance. Jane’s work on behalf of incarcerated Heathens has been ground breaking and in light of the current battle between Patrick McCollum and the CA prison system, I sought Jane out and asked her a few questions about her own experiences in working with prison authorities.

Since I live in NY and Jane on the West Coast, the following interview was conducted via email on October 12, 2010 with gythia Jane Ruck.

Galina: Tell me a little bit about your background. (I know that many Heathens will be familiar with your work, but that may not be the case for other readers here).

Jane: I have a BA in History and have been a practicing Asatruar for over 15 yrs.  I have been a Gythja for over 10 yrs.  I came to Heathenry by, what I assume, is the usual route.  I became disillusioned with the Christian religion by the age of 15, but did not have any specific religion I otherwise followed. Through research, which is my forte, I found the Wiccan beliefs as laid out in books, Remember this was the 60’s and there was no info about Asatru that I had access to.  The Earth centered beliefs called to me and I sort of became a closet Wiccan for my teenage years.  Until we moved to FL in the 80’s I had no contact with others who followed an earth based path.  The internet brought me into contact with local followers and I started “circling” with them.  Although Wicca didn’t fulfill all my inner needs it was better than nothing.  At one of the gatherings I met an Asatruar and his wife.  Until that point, I didn’t even know about Asatru.  I did some research and found that it fit the best with the way I perceived deity and Thor called to me too.  We moved to OR and my husband and I started going to blots with a kindred in WA state.  The gothi (priest), who I later found to be rather dishonorable, bailed on the kindred and left us with no guidance.  My husband, a friend, and myself, who were the ones from down this way in OR decided to start our own kindred.  I was the only one with spare time so they elected that I should study to become a gythja.  I contacted AFA first, then the Troth and started the Troth clergy course. Our kindred grew as people contacted me regarding Asatru and the rest is history!

Galina: What caused you to initially become involved in prison ministry?

Jane: The ministry, NWAM (Northern Way Asatru Ministry), originally started out as a response to a story I read in the newspaper.  A local family had lost everything in a fire and the local churches had given them assistance.   I thought , what would happen if it were a Heathen/Pagan family.  It would be demeaning to have to go to a Christian church for help.  I figured there was a niche to fill, so I created a place where Heathens/Pagans could turn to for help.  We acquired household items, non-perishable foods etc and stored them for future need.  Then, a chaplain from CCCF, the women’s facility in Wilsonville contacted me.  Seems an inmate had requested Asatru clergy.  Her name was Victoria and I went up there to visit her.  She told me there were other ladies in the unit who were interested in Asatru and could I come up there and do a religious service for them.  Interest grew and more ladies showed up, they wanted to start their own kindred and wanted to know if I would be willing to be their gythja .  A volunteer is needed for any group at a facility to hold study groups or religious services.   I went through the DOC volunteer process and became an official volunteer.  Up to then ORDOC looked at Asatru as racist.  It took 2 yrs of hard work to convince them otherwise. By that time I had been requested to go to 2 other facilities.  Then requests came in from other chaplains on the other side of the state.  Eventually, my assistant and I did our “Great Asatru Roadtrip” visiting 6 facilities in 3 days, doing classes and blots (the most basic Heathen ritual).  DOC paid for our accommodations and reimbursed me for gasoline.  I kept in contact with the chaplains I met and became a source for information and assistance.

Galina: What was the most difficult aspect of that work? What was your greatest challenge?

Jane: The most difficult aspect was changing attitudes about Asatru.  Through open communication with STG (Specific Threat Group) officers and chaplains I finally got them to realize our beliefs weren’t racist.  I convinced them that the individuals, who were racist, weren’t really Asatru, as they weren’t practicing what our religion teaches.  I believe I used the example, “the KKK uses crosses in their racist belief and declares that they are Christian.  Should we assume that, due to this all people who use crosses and say they are Christian are racists?  That is an unfair assumption.  Ibid with those who purport to be Asatru, they use our symbols but are not really Asatru, as they do not live by the 9 virtues nor follow our path correctly. ”

Galina: What was the most rewarding?

Jane: The most rewarding part was being able to bring our beliefs to people on the inside who wanted to worship but couldn’t due to having no volunteer.  Since my assistant left, I am the only Asatru volunteer in the entire state of OR, as well as being the only ORDOC registered Asatru clergy.  Changing attitudes within the system, amongst not only inmates, but chaplains and corrections officers made it worth the effort.  The prejudices and misinformation nearly made it impossible in the beginning to get anything done.  Now ORDOC has a different view of our beliefs, and realizes that the racists in their system are really not Asatru, that they are just pretending to be Asatru to further their own agendas.

Galina: There’s been a lot of coverage in the Pagan media this past week about Patrick McCollum’s battle with the CA prison system, what do you think of this case?

Jane: It is sad that the state of CA is so backward that they are allowing prejudice to guide their actions.   A religion like ours that was around before Christianity has to prove itself to be a religion.  History has shown that anything “new” scares the people who want to keep the status quo.  Once, Christians were the minority, our ancestors allowed them to follow their beliefs and have their churches and worship. If they hadn’t, perhaps Christianity would not have done so well.

I’ve always felt that if someone is secure in their beliefs, they would have no problem with allowing others to have their own.   You only feel threatened and cannot discuss anything if you are afraid someone will show you that you are wrong in what you think or believe.  I’ve always felt the Christians must be very afraid that we’ll convince them that what they’ve believed all this time was actually wrong and they wouldn’t be able to feel so secure. I think this is why they are always bad-mouthing anything that is Heathen/Pagan.   Christianity is based on guilt, being afraid of where you are going after death. If they even think someone else could be right, they will be damned and not attain heaven. The only way to avoid the problem is to declare any other belief, that doesn’t have one deity, not real and thus, without rights as a religion.  I actually feel sorry for them, they must be in such a state of fear of us all the time.

I’ve digressed, as far as the McCollum case goes.  My belief is everyone should have an equal status within the system.  Wicca, although I do not personally believe is as ancient as they like to say it is, has been practiced by numerous people for many years now. They are lumping any belief that has multiple deities into their mix of “non-religions”.  That there are not hundreds of thousands of adherents does not diminish the right of those who do follow a religion to practice that religion with equal rights.  That is how Christianity began!  Using the Christian’s logic, when they first started out, it wasn’t a religion because the state didn’t recognize it as such. So they shouldn’t have been able to worship anywhere or have churches.  Again, it goes back to the “fear” thing.  I agree with Rev. McCollum, protecting the rights of Heathens and Pagans to worship as real religions is protecting the rights of every religion including Christianity.  What if a Christian was denied a place to worship, or even the right to worship?  They would be up in arms and declaring that the US was not allowing them their constitutional rights. We would not deny them their right to practice their beliefs, only their fear keeps them from allowing us the same rights.

Galina: Did you find that the prison systems in which you worked were hostile and/or discriminatory toward Heathenry?

Jane: ORDOC has always been very supportive of my work.  Chaplains have contacted me regarding coming to their facilities to do services.   In the beginning, due to misinformation it was difficult.  Once they found out what we really are, the barriers dropped.  MI , OH, and Indiana have all asked for a compendium of group blots I had written so inmates could do blots without an Asatru volunteer present. Unfortunately, often religious freedom must be won by inmates through court battles.  More often than not they have eventually won, but not without a lot of suffering.

The normal excuse of DOC’s nationwide is lack of volunteers. Chaplains nationwide sit in on a regular basis for Christian, Jewish, Native American etc services and study groups but are unwilling to donate any of their time usually to any non-Christian inmates.  There are chaplains who are willing to help but they are not in the majority nationwide.  In OR chaplains have volunteered some of their time to sit in!  so inmates could hold study groups or blots.  Some chaplains are more helpful than others. Generally, it seems the ones at minimum and medium facilities are the most helpful and ones at maximum facilities the least. This partially stems from the fact that at the maximum facilities you have more, fake, Asatruar who are actually racists who are using the Asatru religion as a facade to hide behind.   It seems that CA is one of the worst states.  I believe there is a legal precedent that states if chaplains donate time to one religious group they would have to for all of them.  One state got around that by having the wording that the chaplains could opt out if it were against their religious beliefs.  The problem is chaplains are supposed to be there for any inmate of any religion.  The same applies to the chaplains in the US military.   The states do not abide by the federal government  guidelines and rules and they consistently get away with it .

What CA is doing is trying to declare anything that is not a one-deity belief system as “not a religion” so they can legally deny inmates the rights they have under federal law.  (See RLUIPA)  Unfortunately, a win for CA would probably have a cascading effect nationwide.  The radical Christian chaplains and authorities would very likely seize on this as a way to stop anyone from the free practice of religion on the inside.  The radicals within the system have, in the past, used their warped views to punish anyone who tried to follow anything other than what they perceive as “real” religions, using solitary confinement, and other punishments to try to stop those they don’t want to practice freely.  That could trickle down to other religions that are currently accepted, if religious rights are denied.  As was stated by Rev. McCollum, this is not just about pagan religious rights but about everyone’s right to practice their beliefs. The courts have upheld religious rights when other areas of the government wouldn’t, hopefully they will uphold those rights  again.

Galina: What steps would you like to see taken to better enable Heathen and Pagan chaplains to reach inmates?

Jane: I would give the Heathen and Pagan chaplains (you realize there are only a very small number of them at this point) access to all the perks and funding that the other chaplains get. I’m sure they are required to by law.  If you mean outside clergy and not prison chaplains , then they should be able to do the same counseling visits, religious service visits, study time visits that other clergy do.  You first have to have them realize you are ordained clergy with certification from an actual organization like the Troth. I really didn’t experience any difficulties with DOC itself.  The higher ups I dealt with were outstanding in their support.  The only difficulties I experienced were with a few individual chaplains who were prejudiced.   One chaplain in particular would neglect to make sure everyone knew what items I was bringing in for a particular blot.  I’d email him 2 wks in advance requesting certain things like cookies, apple juice and matches.  Then I’d also list the items I was bringing in.  Rabbit statue for the altar for Ostara.  I’d get to the check in and they wouldn’t have any record of my request, if it wasn’t on their list you couldn’t bring it in.  Luckily the watch captain knew what items I brought in on a regular basis, plus some of the other items , and would ok it once they called him.  I don’t know how many times we had to corral an officer who smoked to get our candle lit for the fire hallowing or try to get the kitchen to send up anything that looked like a cookie for feast after blot.  Once the same chaplain, when I went on a visit to do sumbel with an inmate on lockdown, walked me across the prison yard and then walked off to talk to someone leaving me standing there with inmates all around me.  I could tell you some other incidents of the same sort.  Then I could also tell you of the chaplain who used his own money to purchase a pork roast so we could have pork for our Yule feast.  It all depends on the person and their personal prejudices.  Having equal support and equal opportunities is the most important, plus getting the authorities to allow things like stone circles for outdoor worship.  The Native Americans have a sweat lodge and fire pit.  Their area is sacred ground and no one else can go on it.  I never was able to come up with the same thing at one facility.  One chaplain at another facility allowed the Wiccans and Asatruar to set up a circle and fire pit and even let them landscape it.  It all comes down to having to work with individual chaplains and if they are open to other faiths or not.

Galina: What caveats would you give someone contemplating entering into prison ministry?

Jane: Pay strict attention to the warnings they give you when you take the volunteer classes about the manipulative ways of inmates and what is ok and what is not to do.  Watch out for the racist inmates and be aware that some of them will try to trick you into believing they are reasonable tolerant people when they aren’t.  Be careful of your words and how they might be interpreted by both inmates and authorities.  Don’t get chummy with any inmates, they are definitely not your friends no matter how friendly they may act.  They will try to manipulate you into helping them achieve their agendas.  This doesn’t refer to all the inmates but to some who are less than truthful about their beliefs and goals.  In class they will warn you about doing favors for anyone — pay strict attention and take the lesson to heart.  It will save you a world of grief later.  Always, be on the up and up with both inmates and authorities. Build trust with each.  Be a person who keeps their word.   That point once defused what could have been a nasty situation.  I had told the inmates that if I ever saw or heard anything that could be construed as STG I would alert the authorities.  An incident happened and I did so, when I went the next time they were all pretty mad at me.  One inmate did point out that I had only done what I had warned them I would do so they had no reason to get really pissed.  The group dropped from 15 to 5 due to this but I’d rather have 5 dedicated people attend than 15 who had their own agendas.

Galina: Thank you, Jane, for a most enlightening interview. It’s clear both from my own experiences, from recent court cases, and from the breadth of your experience which you were kind enough to share here that we still have a long way to go as Heathens and Pagans in gaining complete equality within our prisons. At least, as your interview also showed, there are, at times, glimmers of hope.

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