New State Prison Chaplain is the Rev. Witch, a Wiccan

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Wed Jan 16 03:53:44 2000

A follower of Wicca, the nature-based beliefs that some call witchcraft, has been hired as a full-time chaplain at one of Wisconsin's maximum-security prisons.

The Rev. Jamyi Witch has voluntarily ministered to Wisconsin inmates for about two years, and she began her new full-time position this week at the Waupun Correctional Institution. She is believed to be the first Wiccan chaplain in Wisconsin.

Although a legislator questioned whether her hiring was appropriate, officials with the state Department of Corrections said Wednesday that Witch met the requirements and that it would be unfair and illegal to bar her from serving because of her faith.

They noted that the prison has another chaplain, a Protestant, and prisoners have access to other volunteer ministers.

Witch's selection was based on interviews, references and her background including extensive knowledge of alternative religions, having previously made presentations on the topic to corrections officials.

"Basically, a lot of it has to do with the duties and character of the individual, and Jamyi is an outstandingly approachable person somebody that I wouldn't mind approaching on spiritual matters myself," Warden Gary McCaughtry said. "If biases are present, it's a matter for us to work through those biases."

He said there are some limits on faiths of those who serve as prison chaplains and volunteer ministers, which would rule out Satanists or members of some violent cults, especially those associated with hate groups.

Wiccans, in general, celebrate nature and the Earth. Followers are sometimes referred to as witches, though many prefer the term Wiccan.

Out of 1,200 inmates at Waupun, 30 are Wiccan, 400 are Christian, and the rest are either nonreligious or practice other religions, including those in the Islamic and American Indian traditions, McCaughtry said.

He said about 10 people were interviewed for the civil service position, which does not require ordination or a theological degree.

Wiccans have been ministering to inmates voluntarily for many years, said Tizzy Hyatt, development director for the Reformed Congregation of the Goddess in Dane County.

Wicca is "a very fast-growing religion, and also there's so many misconceptions about it," Hyatt said. "We're just like any other ordained folks. We have ordained priests and priestesses. Most Wiccans in general do not proselytize. We don't ever try to convert anyone."

Selena Fox, a senior minister with Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan congregation in Mount Horeb, said she has ministered in prisons as far back as 1980 and serves as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice on religious accommodation for followers of other nature religions.

Fox estimated there are more than 5,000 followers in Wisconsin.

A state lawmaker said it did not make sense to have a chaplain who practices a religion with relatively few followers in the prison.

Rep. Scott Walker, R-Wauwatosa, said his Assembly Corrections and Courts Committee may look into Witch's hiring.

"I can't imagine that most of the inmates would feel particularly comfortable going to that individual," Walker said. "I would think, in some ways from a religious standpoint, it might actually put inmates in a position that talking to (a Wiccan) is contrary to what some of their own religious beliefs might be."

Witch did not immediately return a telephone message left at her Mount Horeb home by The Associated Press Wednesday night.


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