Santeria and Palo Mayombe in the US Correctional System

The United Stated Correctional System is blind to the practices and nature of the Santeria and Palo Mayombe religions. There are approximately 5,000 Cubans incarcerated in the United States that practice this Caribbean religion. The purpose of my project is to shed light on how the Unites States Correctional System views this religion and its devotees and ways in which they could learn from theses practices on how to respect the religion within the confines of incarceration.

It is more important now, for American Audiences to engage with Afro-Cuban religious culture, than ever. With former President Obama’s visit to Cuba – with the U.S. potentially opening up and transforming a long petrified relationship with Cuba and its people –  Afro-Cuban religions, sacred aesthetics, and world views have the potential to explode into the American consciousness with even greater force and influence than they have in the past.  Cuba – and particularly the Afro-Cuban experience – will be accessible to American audiences of the 21st century like never before… and vice versa. Because of this, we need to engage with Cuban religious culture and educate ourselves on the cultural implications of interacting with devotees of these religions. We need to understand what the religions are, what the practices involve, and how to compromise with incarcerated individuals in order to provide them access to practice their religion, as protected in the First Amendment in the United States Constitution.

I chose to create a website in order for the information to be accessible for all. It’s the world wide web, therefore it could serve as an educational site for the US and Cuba. Cuba could educate the US and vice versa. This forum could serve as a pragmatic approach to understanding and compromise regarding the practices and culture of these Cuban religions.

The project is particularly suited to the task because the United States Correctional System doesn’t know much about the religions and how to deal with practitioners.

For example, the most common term coined to Santeria and Palo Mayombe in the United Stated Criminal Justice System as a whole is ‘white magic’ or a form of satanism. These terms alone give insight into the view of Santeria and Palo Mayombe through the eyes of the Justice System in the U.S. The fact that these have negative connotations despite what we have learned this semester, that these religions as a whole do not have malicious intentions, yet this is how they are viewed in modern day American prisons. This creates conflicting viewpoints on Santeria and Palo Mayombe in a society that doesn’t know about them other than what the justice system inaccurately portrays them as. This is why it is frowned upon for devotes to practice these religions in prisons. This is why there is a need for the website as an informational tool to be utilized in trainings for Correctional Officers to understand how to interact with the devotees as well as the religions themselves. The online forum would allow the conversation to be had as to what the religions are, what they involve, and what’s to be expected from the devotees while practicing the religions.

The particularities of the website involve a basic intro page with information about the religions. Another page involves what practicing would look like within the confines of incarceration. An additional page would be an open, monitored, discussion portal for the US and Cuba to convene and bounce ideas and knowledge back and forth to improve the current situations involving inmates practicing Santeria or Palo Mayombe. Another page includes former cases and situations that show, “what not to do,” or “how not to handle this.”

One thought on “Santeria and Palo Mayombe in the US Correctional System

  1. Logan Rice

    I’m a strong believer in allowing for the practice of religion, especially in a correction facility. Christianity is almost always accepted within pretty much any building or prison. It is a religion that is widely known and reasonably understood even by those who don’t understand it. No one views Christianity as hostile or mistakes it to be something where people are killed in rituals. This is not the case for Santeria and Palo Mayombe as these regions do in fact have rituals and in some cases have a form of sacrifice. These are religious practices that were brought over to Cuba during the slave trade. I’ve never come across the term white-magic before and would actually like to know more about that as not even google has an answer. I had only found the term black magic and consistently found it tied to Santeria and Palo-Mayombe. I will say that nowhere in the religions did I really find a piece that states they are here to do harm to others which is the common understanding of black magic.

    Fear of the unknown is something that consumes us all and so I have to agree with you in the sense that the corrections facilities should make the point to understand the religion before they come to a conclusion. I think an easy comparison that we can make to the rejection of a religion is how the word is currently reacting to Islam. It is the second largest religion and yet they are widely misunderstood to those outside the religion. Do to both the media’s mass coverage and the government’s turn of attention to Islam as a religion of terrorism there is a great fear from those who don’t understand. We are seeing in Europe, many refugees being beaten because people take them to be terrorists. Islam is a religion of peace, I have gone to a mosque and heard their prayers, there is no harm wished on others.

    In the case of Santeria it is not exactly a hostile religion nor are there any parts where harm is originated. This is not the case however for Palo Mayombe which was created to be a part of Santeria where they were allowed to do harm on those they saw fit. I can’t say it completely unreasonable though as we sit in comfort writing these papers thanks to the brave women and men who have fought, and continue to fight for this land.

    To top it off though, even if these were in fact religions that wished to do harm to others, what does it matter in a US-run Cuba prison. These are not exactly corrections facilities. They are meant to lock these people up and stop them from doing harm. Let’s pretend for a moment that these were people who did do sacrifices. Is that not almost doing a favor to the US government by removing another inmate they we don’t have to look after? Either way, I say let them do as they please as they no longer have a life behind bars.


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