• Religion in Prisons

    Many atheists seem to use the “more Christians than atheists in prison” meme. I want to explain why I think that is not a good argument. First, I need to say that this is based on personal observations (I spent time as a teacher in both state and federal prisons) and that there is not a lot of hard data on this subject. I also need to add that I’m not a mind reader, we can never truly know what someone else thinks.

    Last year, , sent a Freedom of Information request to the Federal Bureau of Prisons requesting the religious breakdown of Federal prisoners. Less than one tenth of one percent of federal prisoners are atheists. 

    Meanwhile, in the US as of 2014, over 22% of the population is “unaffiliated” with a religion and 3.1% (included in the unaffiliated) say they are atheists.

    Now, that’s interesting.

    In my opinion though, that doesn’t mean what some atheists want to think that it means. They think (hope?) it means that atheists are actually more moral than the religious.

    I definitely don’t think that claim is supportable, when you actually look at prison life a little bit.

    Some people in the US think that prisons are how you see them on TV. Either a gang of prisons actually run the prison or it’s a bunch of buff guys standing around in the yard working out or lying on their bunks. Almost a life of pastoral beauty, similar to cows lounging in green fields, munching grass under a blue sky. It seems peaceful, almost tranquil. Until you realize that those cows will be killed and eaten in time.

    Prisons, from my experience, are much more regimented than even the military (well, perhaps not basic training). The prisoners have very specific times  for everything and their day is highly regimented. From wake-up, personal hygiene, through meals and activities. Free time is rare and precious. Treats are extremely rare and even more precious.

    That’s one place that religion comes in. Because of the way the US works, prisoners are frequently granted additional free time… if it’s to attend church services or Bible studies held in the facility. Prisoners are often granted free time to talk with a member of their faith. For some prisoners, it’s the only non-prisoner, non-guard interactions that they get for years.

    Church groups are often allowed to bring material that would otherwise be contraband to the prisoners. Donuts are a big deal and sometimes, church groups are allowed to bring them to Bible study. Church groups have also been known to provide additional treats to specific prisoners (which can be sold in the prison black market) or materials. When your entire wardrobe is single color jumpers, a pair of knitted socks can become a prized possession.

    Finally, there is another, very important issue for prisoners. Getting out. Either by early release or outside work groups. In the US, religious are often thought to be better people. Therefore a religious prisoner, one with deep and sincere regret who has now found Jesus, will be more likely to get parole, better work groups, and even a higher chance for education opportunities.

    Most of the US holds atheists at a position slightly lower than used car salesmen and politicians. That goes for prisons too. Especially when trying to convince a parole board that you won’t commit crimes anymore, saying “I’m atheist” is likely to have the opposite effect.

    So, while I may be very cynical about this, there are definite advantages to being or claiming religiousness in prisons.

    It’s no wonder that prisoners will make any effort to get a free bonuses and a chance at getting out of prison early. If claiming religion helps with those goals, then why not? I’m not saying that this is true of all prisoners, certainly, in the US the majority of them have some affiliation with a church or religion, even if it’s just being on the rolls or being born to a family that attends. Like I said, I can’t read minds.

    In short, I’m not convinced that the “more Christians in prison” meme is a valid argument. It may be, but that’s not a guarantee. I would prefer to stick with arguments that I know are valid.

    Category: AtheismCultureReligionSkepticism


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • Ann

      I hadn’t considered the other issues, but the halo of worthiness that surrounds those claiming to be religious — for that reason alone I always thought that I would instantly claim to be religious if I were ever in prison.

      I read about a study by a researcher who was bowled over by her findings that there were no fathers in prison — hardly a single prisoner reported that he had children.

      Ahahaha. There are more reasons than one to deny having fathered children.

    • im-skeptical

      To some degree, the same kind of reasoning might apply to the general populace, as well.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        That’s a point. Certainly relating to politicians…