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Transgender inmate sues to practice witchcraft at notorious all-male N.C. prison

Inmate Jennifer Jasmaine has sued Lanesboro prison, accusing officials of not allowing her to practice her chosen religion, witchcraft.
Inmate Jennifer Jasmaine has sued Lanesboro prison, accusing officials of not allowing her to practice her chosen religion, witchcraft.

One of North Carolina's most notorious all-male prisons is the focus of a court fight over religious liberty led by a transgender witch.

Jennifer Ann Jasmaine says in her handwritten, federal lawsuit that Lanesboro Correctional Institution is blocking the practice of her spiritual beliefs, which happen to be rooted in witchcraft.

Jasmaine, a former Mecklenburg County Jail inmate, filed her complaint this month. In 2015, as inmate Duane Fox, she sued Maury Correctional Institute in Hookerton on the same grounds.

A spokesman for the state prison system contacted by the Observer declined to comment on the case.

Jasmaine, 40, says the chaplains in charge of religious services at Lanesboro have violated her constitutional rights by restricting when, where and how she can practice Wicca, the modern-day religion based on ancient pagan beliefs. The prison also has refused to provide the foods Wiccans are supposed to eat, her lawsuit says.

Under state policy, individual prisons are required to provide "reasonable religious menu accommodations" to inmates practicing religious dietary laws.

Not happening, says Jasmaine. According to her complaint, she has requested and been denied the strict vegan diet that adheres to her spiritual practice. She says prison officials told her if she wanted vegan meals, she needed to become a Rastafarian or a Buddhist.

"The plaintiff, Ms. Jasmaine, shouldn't have to change her religion to get on the proper diet," she writes in her suit.

Jasmaine says she is entitled to court protection to practice witchcraft, which she says has been "discriminated against and persecuted for hundreds of years without just cause."

She says the prison has further limited her practice by restricting her services to the eight Wicca holy festivals, or "sabbats," held each calendar year.

By contrast, Jasmaine says, Christian inmates at Lanesboro are allowed to worship six times a week, while Native Americans can conduct their rituals three times weekly. The latter also have prison approval to gather outdoors and use fire during their ceremonies, the lawsuit says.

Jasmaine says she wants to hold outdoor services twice a week. She has called on the prison to provide the religious items, clothing and food she needs to properly practice witchcraft, including the go-ahead for her to light candles and a fire. Her lawsuit does not say whether other Lanesboro inmates share her beliefs.

"Ms. Jasmaine's religion is not just her religion. It's her way of life," her lawsuit says. "This is the path in which she has taken."

Up to now, Jasmaine's temporal path has been a bumpy one.

According to prison records, Jasmaine, then Fox, was imprisoned in July 2014 to serve a 16-year sentence for sexual offense second degree.

Public records indicate that Fox was held in the Mecklenburg County Jail for three months in 2015 on a federal probation violation and later sentenced to a year in prison. Fox challenged the punishment in the federal case to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, alleging that the trial judge did not give him a chance to speak at the sentencing hearing

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A correctional officer delivers food to inmates in a medium custody cell block at Lanesboro Correctional Institution. John Simmons/Charlotte Observer

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In its denial, the appeals court noted that the trial judge "was faced with a cantankerous, foul-mouthed defendant, who was threatening his probation officer at the hearing. In the context of this proceeding, we do not find that Fox’s 12-month sentence was plainly unreasonable."

During her four years in the prison system, according to prison records, Jasmaine has been accused of 60 infractions, from lock tampering and disobeying orders to sex acts and threatening staff.

Lanesboro, a 1,800-inmate facility, has been roiled by violence, corruption and savage attacks on prisoners and staff.

According to state policy, North Carolina prisons "shall provide access for approved religious services or practices and pastoral care." Participation is voluntary, and "no inmate shall be subjected to coercion, harassment, or ridicule due to religious affiliation."

Inmates wanting to practice a religion not recognized by the prison system must fill out a religious assistance request form.

In her complaint, Jasmaine says she filed the form this month — to no avail.

Her complaint asks the courts to order prison officials to provide her with a list of religious necessities, including the Wicca holy text known as "The Book of Shadows," a wand, Tarot cards, runes, candles, a bell and a black robe, among many other items.

As for her diet, Jasmaine says each Wicca festival requires a distinct menu. Beltane on April 30, for example, focuses on dairy, the lawsuit says. Jasmaine recommends vanilla ice cream and oatmeal cakes as proper fare.

For the midsummer rites, which fall on the June 21 summer solstice, herbs are dried over a ritual fire, which Wiccans jump over for purification, the lawsuit says. Suggested menu: dried fruits.

Jasmaine has called for a jury trial and $1 in damages from each of the chaplains.

VIDEO: The News & Observer talks with transgender residents of the Triangle area of NC about their experiences and the impact of HB2 on their lives.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS
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