Wiccan Rev. Witch raises some brows at Wisconsin prison

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MILWAUKEE — The new chaplain at Wisconsin's maximum-security prison is a Wiccan.

And a Witch.

The Rev. Jamyi Witch, who has voluntarily ministered to Wisconsin inmates for at least two years, began her new full-time position at Waupun Correctional Institution last week. She is believed to be the first Wiccan chaplain in the state and one of a handful nationwide.

Department of Corrections officials Wednesday defended the hire, saying Witch met the position's requirements and that it would be unfair and illegal to bar her from serving because of her faith. They also said that because the prison has another chaplain, and because inmates will have access to numerous volunteer ministers, no one would feel uncomfortable with their choice.

However, a state lawmaker questioned the hire, saying it made little sense to have a chaplain who practices a religion with few followers.

Rep. Scott Walker, a Republican, said the committee he leads, the Assembly Corrections and Courts Committee, is considering an investigation 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 could not be reached for comment.

While Wicca is associated with paganism, many followers refer to it as a religion. The traditions of Wiccans, in general, celebrate nature and Earth.

Followers sometimes are referred to as witches, though many dislike that term, calling themselves goddess women or Wiccans.

Of 1,200 inmates at the institution, 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, said Gary McCaughtry, the institution's warden.

McCaughtry said about 10 people were interviewed for the civil-service position, which does not require ordination or a theological degree. Witch's interviews, references and background propelled her into the top slot. One selling point was that Witch has extensive knowledge of alternative religions, having previously made presentations 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," McCaughtry said. "If biases are present, it's a matter for us to work through those biases."

There are some limits on the faiths of chaplains and volunteer ministers, he said. Satanists or members of some violent cults, especially those associated with hate groups, wouldn't be allowed.