Privileges ease spell in prison for pagans

London, UK - A record number of lifers, foreigners, Muslims and pagans are in jails in England and Wales, according to figures published yesterday.

The report portrays an overcrowded prison system whose population resembles the United Nations, with representatives of faiths including Ethiopian Orthodox, Rastafarianism and the Nation of Islam.

English and Welsh prisons hold inmates from 174 of the 192 officially recognised states in the world and members of 47 religions. The number of pagans has almost tripled in six years, to reach a peak of 366 last year.

Paganism was recognised by the Prison Service as a religion more than eight years ago, with official instructions issued to governors and staff on its beliefs and how it is practised.

Inmates practising paganism are allowed among their possessions a hoodless robe, a flexible twig for a wand, incense and a piece of jewellery. Pagans are also allowed to have “rune stones (wood, stone or clay tablets with the symbols of the ancient Norse-German alphabet) and a bag or box to carry them”. The Prison Service has made clear that the hoodless robe can be used only during private worship in an inmate’s cell or when a number of pagans in one prison gather for worship.

Pagan prisoners are also allowed to have tarot cards but staff say they cannot be used to tell the fortunes of other inmates. Guidance issued to prison staff said: “Some pagans use tarot cards for meditation and guidance. This may be allowed under the supervision of the pagan chaplain. If a prisoner requests to be allowed to retain a part or full pack, this may be allowed, but only following a local risk assessment to determine whether there is any reason to preclude cards. The cards are for personal use only and may be withdrawn if used inappropriately.”

Skyclad, or naked worship, is not allowed under Prison Service rules. Inmates are allowed to select two dates from a list of festivals when they are excused from work. They include Samhain, as Hallowe’en is know in paganism, the vernal equinox and the midsummer solstice. The guidance to governors also says that pagans can use wine in their worship, but “individual consumption will be one sip only”.

Yet while paganism is recognised as a religion by the prison service, Rastafarianism, which has 340 members in English and Welsh jails, and the Nation of Islam, with six members, are not. Anglicans remain the largest denomination, with 23,000 inmates, followed by 14,000 Roman Catholics. However, 26,000 inmates said that they had no religion.

The number of Muslim inmates in jails more than doubled in ten years to reach a record 9,795 last year. A main reason for the surge is the growth of the Asian community, which has a younger population compared with other ethnic groups. More than 4,000 are Asian, or Asian British, and 3,500 are black, or black British.

Yesterday’s report showed that the prisons hold foreign nationals from Kazakhstan to Kiribati and from Tonga to Turkmenistan. The total number of foreigners in jails rose by 4 per cent to 11,500 — one in seven of the prison population.

Jamaicans are the largest group, with 1,176, followed by 1,002 Nigerians, 657 from the Irish Republic, 494 from Vietnam, 454 from China and 450 from Poland. The high number of foreigners reflects in part the enormous difficulty that the Government is having in deporting them.

The total prison population is 83,865 — up more than 4 per cent on last year. More than 11,000 are serving life and indeterminate sentences, including a record 4,581 murderers given the mandatory life sentence.

For the love of Mithras

— Paganism covers a group of contemporary religions, which include Wiccans, Druids, Shamans and Sacred Ecologists, and is based on a reverence for nature

— Pagans believe in the organic vitality and spirituality of the natural world

— The Pagan Federation of Great Britain defines paganism as a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.

— It estimates that the number of Pagans in Britain is between 50,000 and 200,000, according to figures released in 2002

— As well as nature and natural deities, adherents can be involved in worshipping a panoply of ancient deities, including Isis or Osiris, and the cults of Odin and Mithras