By: Chalmer Wren
Editor’s Note: Chalmer Wren is the former Vice President and the current Advisor to the Metro State Atheists in Denver, Colorado. He is an eager supporter of the Freethought Books Project, having recruited over 30 members to the cause. We at the Reed Secular Alliance hope that you will enjoy this article about the RSA’s Freethought Books Project.
In 1991, 8,500 volunteers and contractors provided over 191,000 religious service programs in prisons, and an average of 45,000 inmates attended chapel programs each week . Monasteries and convents provided the precursory model for the modern prison, and the historical line between secularism and religion behind bars remains as blurry as it was then . The persistence of religious influences in the penal system is no surprise, as it serves as a powerful management tool. According to Mary Bosworth, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, religion is, among other things, a management tool that prison administrators use to their benefit . Religious services make prison management easier by preoccupying inmates with activities, facilitating a healthier social environment in the form of religious community, and serve as a psychological coping mechanism for the emotional or circumstantial hardships that inmates face .
Although the religious prison programs are intended to be interfaith in nature, these programs have been abused. For example, in December of 2006, in an Iowa lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), it was ruled by a U.S. District Court judge that a prison’s contract with faith-based program known as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) was unconstitutional, in that it amounted to a government establishment of religion. Although state funding for the IFI ceased in June 2007, the program continued to operate without state funding. Moreover, IFI programs continue to operate in 5 other states . Additionally, in March of 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit determined that a program run by the Prison Fellowship Ministries was discriminatory, as it acted under the guise of state law, with the intention of converting inmates .
The predominant religious influence perpetuated in our prisons and the lack of non-religious resources – while useful in controlling inmates – are a disservice to the incarcerated. The Freethought Books Project addresses this issue by providing literature that is not only critical of religion, but that also educates individuals about critical thinking, philosophy, and science. Non-religious points of view can be every bit as fulfilling and motivational as religious attitudes and, as human beings, our inmates deserve the opportunity to explore secular worldviews. Providing just that, the Freethought Books Project seeks to influence the prison population itself, by providing literature on topics not encouraged by prison staff. Since I believe that positive lifestyle changes can occur as a result of atheist and freethinking works, I strongly support this worthwhile secular charity.
While faith may be one means of rehabilitating criminals, it is not the only one, nor is it always successful. The formal fight against religion in our government, such as the aforementioned lawsuit against the IFI program, is a strategy that approaches the problem from the top, by changing policies and management. The Freethought Books Project, however, is an ambitious and important project, which combats the problem of religion informally and from the bottom, by attempting to influence and provide for the prison population itself. Although politics is important, altering the mindset of the prison sub-culture is also a critical step in reinforcing the secular presence in and effectiveness of our prison system.
Religion is a prominent aspect of the prison subculture, both formally and informally. While I do believe that inmates should be allowed their freedom of religion, as well as access to religious services and activities, the institutionalization and application of religion to rehabilitate and control prison populations is a clear violation of the Separation of Church and State. Informally, a lack of access to alternative points of views, peer pressure, and the intention of appeasing their captors, inmates themselves provide little resistance to the strong religious presence.
If I were an atheist prisoner, I would find the majority of rehabilitation programs either hostile or neutral to my point of view. The institutionalization of religion in our prisons, and the lack of resources that are critical of religion, that facilitate critical thinking, or that provide the personal meaning and direction outside of religion, have rendered imprisonment as more than just an incarceration of the body, but also an incarceration of the mind. In the interest of liberating minds, I support the Freethought Books Project’s efforts to give prisoners access to secular materials.
1. Bosworth, Mary. “U.S. federal prison system.” SAGE, 2002. Digital.
2. Sullivan, Winnifred. “Prison Religion.” Princeton University Press, 2009. Digital.