When the prison denied his request, he filed a civil rights complaint, and in 1997 that ended in a legal pact between Rouser and the CDC: Prisons and their staff needed to accommodate his religious needs. But the agreement was quickly violated; Rouser said that Wiccan services were suspended for no reason, while other religious services were allowed to continue, and that he was denied access to religious items like herbs and oils. According to court documents, his complaints were ignored by staff.In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Politics in the U.S., chapter author and volume editor, Barbara A. McGraw, describes the injustices Rouser faced in more upsetting terms: "Officials destroyed an altar that Rouser had made out of a soap box in an effort to practice his religion in some way in his cell." Rouser had also, they write, "ordered items for his religious practice that were analogous to those permitted to inmates in 'recognized religions.' Yet the [CDC] employees responsible for retrieving them from the mailroom and delivering them to Rouser refused to do so."
Read more: The Trials of Being a Witch Today
"What's unusual about this case is that Mr. Rouser had achieved a fairly impressive string of victories in the district court that lead to the prison entering this voluntary settlement in the form of this consent decree," Burnham said, fondly impressed with his client. Indeed, Rouser did it all without being able to appear in any of his hearings. He fought his case pro se, handwriting all of his statements—and even gathering witness testimony—from jail. "It is unusual, to say the least, for a prisoner litigating pro se to have great success, particularly success of the scale of what Mr. Rouser achieved."
The prison started to retaliate against Mr. Rouser by putting him in solitary confinement.
"We did a Beltane—a May Day—ritual [with the inmates], and Patrick submitted everything beforehand," she told me. "He alerted the staff that we were bringing in a maypole and all the other things beforehand to celebrate the holiday. But when we got there, they didn't want to let the maypole in."The warden eventually let them in with the maypole, but Starhawk says the entire process is frustratingly arbitrary. The traditional chaplains that the CDC employs can also pose a problem; she says they often have discretion over religious activity in the facility, and can do things like limit access to the prison chapel. "You can do everything right, fill out all the paperwork, and they can still decide that they're not going to let you in. They don't really have to give a reason," she saidShe added, "Getting the information and getting the resources is a big challenge, but I think the biggest challenge is that there are often repercussions for inmates who practice Wicca."Rouser is witness to this. After a district court in eastern California issued the 2011 decree stating he could practice Wicca, for Rouser, life as an incarcerated pagan was still fraught. In 2012, his grievances were back in court, this time in the Central District, as he had been transferred to a prison there.When he went to the court with allegations of prison staff violating his right to religious items—breaking, stealing, and not replacing them—as well as continuing to wrongfully cancel services and putting him in solitary confinement without access to his Wiccan bible, the court largely ruled in favor of the prison. They cited that Rouser, who is incarcerated, did not bring forth enough evidence, even though he had provided a sworn declaration and another inmate's statement given under penalty of perjury. They granted Rouser some of his claims—yes, the guards broke your necklace, and that was wrong—but did not offer Rouser any practical relief; the judge didn't even order the prison to replace broken items. In the following year, the CDC moved to have Rouser's consent decree terminated, citing that they had fulfilled it and it was no longer necessary. The district court granted it.
You can do everything right…and they can still decide that they're not going to let you in.
As Starhawk tells it, when prisoners are allowed to practice their magic, commune with the Goddess, and have something as simple as a tarot deck, it can be life-changing, or at least make being in prison tolerable. "It's very stressful being locked up and not having access to nature," she said. "Inmates that I've talked to really appreciate Wicca's nature connection and being able to speak from the heart about what's going on with them."According to Starhawk, the Wiccan population in prison is surprisingly large. "It's not that Wiccans get arrested a lot so much as people become Wiccan in prison," she said. "I think that's because [Wicca] is very warm and accepting. Instead of saying that people are sinners and they must repent, Wicca is about the Goddess, who is the great mother and who loves all her children, even if they have made terrible mistakes. I think that's a really important message for women in prison, and for men."