In 1979, Paul Haigh ruthlessly murdered six people in a paranoid frenzy. The rampage began when Haigh bungled a couple of armed robberies, shooting dead a lottery shop owner a pizza chef. In the following months, Haigh began killing anyone who knew about the crimes, which included his associate, his associate's girlfriend, and then their son who witnessed the event.
Haigh recounted the murder of the boy in his memoir, The House of the Blue Light. "I shot the mother first," he wrote. "Then, while consoling the boy, I shot him with the second gun when his back was turned to me."
Not long after, in the same year, he allowed another man to rape his 19-year-old girlfriend, so that the man’s DNA would be connected to his crimes, before stabbing the woman to death, 157 times. While Haigh was confessing to detectives, he said: “I intended to do 20 but I lost count…It’s the only one I’ve ever had a nightmare about.”
Today, Haigh is locked away in Barwon Prison for life. And has just won the legal right to use tarot cards as a part of his spiritual exploration of Paganism.
For me, this story began with a phone call with my mate in Barwon prison. “The governor has banned Paul from giving tarot readings because some of the women on the cards are half-naked," he explained. "Paul is taking them to court over it.”
I've spent the past few years reporting on prisons, so the idea that inmates would want to practice tarot for sexual gratification is laughable at best. But just as I was losing interest, my mate let slip that “the bloke is Victoria’s worst serial killer.”
In 1979, Haigh was jailed for six life sentences without the possibility of parole for the brutal murders that the prosecution described as "pre-meditated, cold-blooded, and vile." Then in 1991, while incarcerated, Haigh struck again when he lynched a sex offender in Pentridge Prison. It was years later that he found his spiritual awakening in the form of Paganism.
Contemporary Paganism is a collage of beliefs drawn from a variety of indigenous religions from around the world. Paganism exhibits a reverence for nature, and the idea that inmates would turn to a religion that is rooted in the natural world, especially in a concrete environment as contrived as prison, is pretty transcendental.
Pagans also revere the natural environment, so the idea that inmates might turn to a religion that's rooted in the natural world—especially when they're in a concrete environment as contrived as prison—is poetic. Christians often persecuted Pagans, equating their beliefs with a sense of hedonism, while portraying believes as overly sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent and unconcerned with the future, a sentiment that resonates with inmates.
Over a series of phone calls, I asked prisoners who were receiving tarot readings from serial killer Paul Haigh what they'd learned about Paganism. Robbie, who is serving four years for assault told me that it'd opened his eyes to self-reliance. “From my conversations with these guys, it’s about the nature of things and looking to what is available to our senses, instead of relying on some higher being,” he said.
Derrick, who is serving two years for burglaries told me it's all a crock of shit. "These guys are just bored and it makes them feel important when they get in the heads of other prisoners, trying to spook them out.”
Finally, Aaron, who is serving six years for violent offences said, “It gets them by, it’s their way of dealing with their issues. It gives them an alternative way of dealing with shit. Sometimes psychs and screws don’t have the answer. Sometimes you need to go find it or it finds you. My christian faith found me in prison. And their beliefs found them.”
The drama for Haigh started in late 2016, when the 60-year-old inmate applied to Barwon Prison for three decks of tarot cards which, he argued, were necessary for him to practice Paganism.
The initial dispute was sparked over four cards from his Deviant Moon tarot deck, that according to Justice Ginnane featured “abstract, mystical illustration of other-worldly female characters displaying breasts,” which the prison labeled “pornographic.” The four cards in question could not be removed because when a card is removed from the deck, a reading cannot be performed. Haigh argued that the removal of the cards was "an unlawful limitation on his right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief".
According to Pagans Path, tarot cards are referred to as messengers of the divine, the window to Universal Law and the sacred symbols of the higher consciousness. Pagans use the tarot for a process called Divination, where the cards serve as a visual connector from your conscious mind to knowledge you already have in your higher spiritual essence or soul mind.
Sources from Barwon Prison told VICE: “The first time I got a reading, I was shown the Wheel of Fortune. It’s about the ups and downs in life. The circle of life. But I thought about the routine of prison. And endurance. I was told a big change was coming. The way tarot is done in here is more on intuition than textbook readings. Our intuitions are in overdrive in prison so the readings are more traditional in a way. Whether it’s real or bullshit, I don’t know. But it gave me the inspiration I needed to keep fighting for my appeal. With a little bit of hope.”
The governor of Barwon Prison, Brett Ryan, refused the request on the grounds that the tarot readings might also undermine the prison’s security, potentially cause unrest or be used as a tool to manipulate vulnerable prisoners. Haigh then took the fight to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
During court proceedings Brett Ryan, suggested that Haigh use a different deck, but Justice Ginnane warned, "courts and administrators should be extremely wary about determining what is required for a person to practise their religious beliefs."
Last month, in the Supreme Court, Paul Haigh was granted the permission to use his tarot deck inside the maximum security Barwon Prison, because it’s within Haigh’s religious rights as a prisoner to practice Paganism. While incarcerated, Haigh said he used the tarot readings “as a contemplative doorway” and a “spiritual tool.”
And on the journey toward Pagan enlightenment, he’s not alone. Last year Craig Minogue, the infamous Russell street bomber who was awarded a PhD in ethics while incarcerated, was denied two decks of tarot cards that had been sent to him by a friend. Although, he was allowed to keep two books related to paganism; Pagan Ways Tarot and A Visual Key to Symbols and Their Meaning, Marngoneet Correctional Centre bizarrely confiscated his tarot cards but allowed him purchase the decks as part of his prison commissary.
Minogue wrote in an affidavit, reported by The Herald Sun, “People who support me outside the prison were outraged that my [package] had been censored by the stopping of the tarot cards…but then the prison allowed me to purchase the cards; this action was seen as administrative bastardry and abuse of power.”
Daniel was recently released from Barwon prison after serving eight years for drug offences, he said, “When you’re in prison, you look for meaning where you can’t find it. Everyone wants to have an edge over the other inmates. Mainstream religion is more for coming to terms with your crimes and your sins. But Paganism is more about looking into yourself, and using signs to give you perspective. That’s what tarot does man, it takes you somewhere else, outside of jail and introduces you to like a stranger but it’s yourself.”