Robert Miller is part owner of the Enchanted Willow in Topeka, a store that offers Wicca and new age supplies. Miller, who is an elder of Moonshadow Coven, believes he and the coven are victims of religious persecution by the Kansas Department of Corrections, which has banned all mail from him and his Wiccan ministry. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
When Robert Miller’s mail started coming back as censored by prisons across Kansas, he was confused. For 20 years, Miller had been operating a mail-order prison ministry providing letters of support, religious tracts, and sacred objects to inmates not just in Kansas, but in various prisons across the United States. Never once had any of his letters or pamphlets or other material been barred.
But this summer, Miller began receiving notices from the Kansas Department of Corrections that his mail to its facilities was being censored. The first notices didn’t specify a reason for the censorship and Miller was concerned for the emotional and spiritual welfare of the 47 inmates taking his ministry’s correspondence classes in eight facilities across the state. After protesting the censorship, Miller was eventually told he and his ministry were considered a “threat to institutional safety, order or security.”
This is the kind of move by the state that would ordinarily result in much fist-pounding at the Statehouse. A prison ministry being barred? Just imagine the spittle that would fly if the Central Kansas Prison Ministry, which according to its website is dedicated to “bringing the gospel of Christ inside prison walls,” were banned. Those rushing to condemn such a move would be legion.
But the KDOC was crafty in betting there wouldn’t be much of an outcry in banning Miller’s ministry. Because, you see, Miller’s ministry is no mainstream evangelical operation. Miller is a pagan, a follower of Wicca, and his ministry is Moonshadow Coven, a registered Kansas nonprofit.
“It feels like KDOC has declared war on me and on our religious organization,” Miller wrote in a plea for help to Kansas Reflector. “We have been stonewalled and our students have been cut off with no explanation. “We feel religious freedom is meant for all religions (but) apparently this is not the case with KDOC. As a religious advisor, it seems basic constitutional rights are being trampled on.”
A spokesman for the KDOC disputed the claim of religious discrimination.
“The residents of Kansas Correctional Facilities have a Constitutional right to practice the religion of their choice,” Randall Bowman, executive director of public affairs, told me in an email. “The (KDOC) makes every effort to support residents’ rights to practice their religion. The safety and security steps implemented by the KDOC regarding this organization do not infringe upon that right.”
Bowman declined to elaborate.
But Kansans are owed a fuller explanation than the three-sentence boilerplate offered by the KDOC. In an era when too many Kansans draw no distinction between unconventional beliefs and unadulterated evil, it’s necessary for a democracy to protect those voices in danger of being silenced. It’s also important that we don’t revisit the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, when baseless conspiracy theories about child-murdering cults swept the country.
‘We don’t believe in Satan’
Miller wants you to know that Wicca isn’t about worshiping Satan, celebrating evil, or encouraging violence or sexual misbehavior.
“It’s based on the natural world,” he said. “We follow the seasons and we revere God in duality as god and goddess. We don’t believe in Satan at all. We believe that people do occasionally make mistakes and do stupid or bad things. And that’s why we have religion to try and point people in the right direction.”
The people in prison that Miller corresponds with have often done horrible things that have put them there — especially violent crimes like murder and rape. He says he attempts to separate those actions from an individual’s capacity for growth, and he often writes encouraging letters to inmates to let them know somebody cares and that they have a chance to become better people.
He also says some inmates may be more drawn to Wicca than traditional Abrahamic religions because it is more accepting of relationship choices. Instead of lists that condemn certain behaviors, such as same-sex relationships, he said, Wicca urges an acceptance of the self.
“Our one commandment is ‘do what you will,’ which means we can do anything we want,” he said, “as long as it doesn’t harm another person or ourselves or the environment around us.”
Wood runes and an altar cloth
The right of a prisoner to send and receive mail is protected by the First Amendment. But the Supreme Court narrowed that protection in 1987’s Turner v. Safley, a decision that provided prison officials greater latitude in deciding where the line is between institutional safety and an inmate’s constitutional rights.
That latitude included the ability to restrict inmate mail in the interest of security.
The trouble with Moonshadow began after Kansas prisons went to a system that prevents inmates (or “residents”) from receiving physical mail at all. Kansas is among at least 14 states that has adopted a policy in which mail is scanned and then digital or printed copies are given to recipients. The only exception to this is “legal mail,” which is from an inmate’s attorney or the courts, and must generally be delivered unread and uncopied. But for all other correspondence — from family members, friends, ministers and strangers — the mail is read and digitized.
Prison officials claim the move is necessary to stem the flow of contraband into prisons via drug-infused paper. After a trial program at Ellsworth Correctional Facility, the state earmarked $1.1 million this year to expand mail scanning system-wide.
Critics, however, say that poorly scanned mail results in unreadable letters and poorly reproduced photographs and artwork. Because the price of postage is relatively cheap, the mail is a way many incarcerated people rely on to communicate with loved ones on the outside.
Miller said he became concerned that some of Moonshadow Coven’s instructional material was being photocopied before being passed along to inmates. Believing this was a violation of copyright, the coven protested to the KDOC. An official responded in a June 15 letter: “We do not believe you have a registered and enforceable copyright.” The best way to honor the coven’s request that photocopying not occur, the official said, was to “discontinue allowing this mail into the facility.”
After this, the notices came that personal letters from Miller and others were being censored. In addition, all merchandise from the shop Miller co-owns, the Enchanted Willow in Topeka, was barred — including items that had already been paid for by inmates.
At the shop, located in a modest building on S.W. Gage Boulevard, Miller showed me a sales receipt for $52.27 for merchandise that had been ordered by a woman at a Kansas prison. The items requested were wood runes and a velvet altar cloth. Miller has been unable to contact the woman to tell her why she hasn’t received the items.
“Some of the material (we sell) may not be appropriate for prison practice,” Miller said. “For example, we have one unit on tools and garb. We talk about some of the tools we use, such as candles and athamé, which is essentially a religious dagger. And we understand that those items are not anything that a prisoner would ever be allowed to have.”
Miller said Wicca is a religion of symbolism.
“So one thing represents another,” he said. “If you aren’t allowed to have something, you don’t really need it. You can use something else. Instead of a dagger, you can use a pencil. It’s only used to direct energy.”
‘Asking the higher power’
While the KDOC is unequivocal in its claim that Moonshadow Coven is not the target of religious discrimination, one Topeka woman is not so sure.
Kathy Slawson is a Christian and a longtime friend of Miller’s who attempted to write inmates on his behalf to provide reassurance they hadn’t been forgotten. Slawson’s correspondence was censored as well, for the same reason — she represented a threat to the institution because of her association with Miller.
“It really is a form of religious persecution,” she said. “There’s nothing else that makes any sense. I mean, he’s very good about following the rules and, and only sending and saying what he’s supposed to. He doesn’t want to be inappropriate. He’s got 70 to 80 people he writes to, and it’s their connection to the outside world.”
Slawson believes the problem is a misunderstanding of Wicca.
“People call Wiccans lovers of Satan, or worshipers,” she said, “so when somebody says something like that in front of me, I have to step in and correct that.” Many people, she said, have the sense that only “their Christianity” is legitimate.
“The people I know who are Wiccan probably are more Christian than a lot of the people I know who claim to be Christians,” she said.
Slawson has known Miller for decades and said there was nothing in his background to cause Kansas prisons to flag him as a threat. She learned about the censorship, she said, when Miller told her about it over one of their weekly breakfasts, and she volunteered to write inmates on his behalf.
Slawson said while she is not a Wiccan, she does understand its power.
“I believe in magic as much as I believe in prayer,” she said. “Because when (Miller) does magic, it’s just like a prayer service, with candles and things. But it’s asking the higher power, the higher beings, to help with the situation.”
If anybody deserves spiritual hope — whether from prayer or wooden runes — it’s the persons incarcerated in our prisons. Not only does the U.S. have the highest prison population rate in the world, each state incarcerates more people per capita than any other democracy, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Kansas had 8,449 individuals in the state’s correction facilities in 2022, according to data from the KDOC.
That’s a lot of people in need of comfort.
“I want to thank you and your coven for reaching out to some of us that are, or were, lost and could not find a positive outlook,” one prisoner wrote Miller, in a letter he shared with me. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for showing a better way to achieve inner peace.”
Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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