Partners for Prisoners
By: Joel Justiss
I have a friend who has been very active in prison ministries for many years. He regularly visits prisons to lead Christian worship services and Bible classes. He spends time talking and praying with prisoners, and on their behalf solicits the prayers of others in his e-mail reports.
I was supportive of my friend’s prison activities until I left religion in 2002. From then on, whenever I received his reports, I wished there was something I could do to encourage prisoners in their efforts to improve their lives without trying to make them religious.
Most of my family and friends are dedicated Christians, so when I left religion, I turned to the Internet to make contact with other freethinkers, and discovered the Brights. I immediately registered as a Bright and began receiving the monthly Brights Bulletin by e-mail.
A couple of years ago, the Bulletin included a request from the Brights’ co-directors for a volunteer to correspond with prisoners on behalf of the Brights. I saw an opportunity to do something I had thought about for years, and offered to help.
Since the Brights is an Internet constituency and the Brights Bulletin is distributed by e-mail, incarcerated people have no way to receive the Bulletin. So what I have done is prepare a monthly printed newletter called “A Little Brightness” that includes most of the Bulletin and adds a couple of articles from blogs or other web sites that I think might be of interest to my readers.
Now, when a prisoner writes to the Brights (usually after encountering the address in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion), Paul Geisert, Associate Director of The Brights’ Network, mails the letter to me. I then write to that prisoner, providing information about the Brights with a copy of my newsletter, and responding to any questions asked.
The other information I always include is an article about the Freethought Books Project, with Leslie Zukor’s address. I encourage the person to write Leslie and ask for books on subjects of interest. I point out that most of my prisoner correspondents have done so and have been very pleased with the books they’ve received.
I currently have 23 subscribers to my newsletter in 13 states. They frequently write me with comments like “I’m so glad I wrote to the Brights,” “I’ve pretty much devoured the books Leslie sent,” or “books are a window in this dark place that let me converse with some of the greatest minds in the world.”
The most striking fact I have learned from my correspondents is that the vast majority of prisoners are (or at least claim to be) very religious. Apparently there are many reasons for this, from seeking relief from feelings of guilt to attempts to obtain favorable treatment from prison staff.
As a result, non-religious prisoners are often more socially isolated and ridiculed than freethinkers who are not incarcerated. I have heard some reports of discrimination and even active persecution by prison staff.
I am pleased to be able to encourage my correspondents by giving them a small window of contact with other folks who share similar beliefs. It is a great pleasure to partner with Leslie Zukor and the Freethought Books Project in supplying these incarcerated individuals with reading materials that help them understand the real world and how they can take a positive approach to living in it.