Pagan prisoners allowed wands, tarot cards and altars – but not nudity

Some pagans use tarot cards for meditation and guidance
Some pagans use tarot cards for meditation and guidance - John Lawrence

New rules to cope with the growing numbers of pagan prison inmates ban nudity but allow 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.

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 paganism provides in the 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.

‘Skyclad (naked) worship not permitted’

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, the guidance notes, but adds: “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.

“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 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.”

Data routinely published by the Ministry of Justice shows how many prisoners follow the major religions, but excludes paganism and Rastafarianism.