Help Bring Freethought to Prisoners

The United States of America is the prison capital of the world, incarcerating far more people than any other nation (including China, which has over four times our population and is a repressive dictatorship). And most atheists already know that Christian proselytizing is rampant in prisons, with programs that both skirt the Constitution and blatantly trespass on it.

Given these facts, it makes sense for the atheist movement to care about what happens behind prison walls. Although atheists are known to be underrepresented in prison relative to our share of the general population, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t prisoners who are desperately seeking an alternative to omnipresent, coercive religious evangelism. Any real education we can offer them, as opposed to indoctrination with fundamentalist superstition and dogma, would be an extremely welcome breath of fresh air.

That’s why, on suggestion from a reader (thanks, Jerry!), I want to recommend the Freethought Books Project, an effort to get atheist and freethought books to inmates and others in need. Donations of both money and books are welcomed. There are also prisoners who’d like to correspond with freethinkers on the outside, so if you’d prefer, you can volunteer to be a pen pal as well. If you have the time and the interest, please consider it!

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Abeille

    Will you be volunteering as a pen pal?

  • Rollingforest

    If there are two ideologies that benefit from prisons, it’s neo-nazi gangs and Christianity. Being locked in a cage for years can make you go insane.

    In other news (sorry. Didn’t know where else to post this) Britain proves once againt that just because your country is losing religion does not mean it is necessarily becoming more logical in other matters:

    “Headless ghost forces theme park to move ride”

    This will solve all of our imminent domain problems! If you don’t want the government building a road across your land, just say there’s a ghost on it. Ghosts and developers are natural born enemies so the developers won’t come anywhere near your land.

  • Paul Crowley

    Rollingforest: it’s much simpler than that. This story got Thorpe Park’s soon-to-open new ride in the news.

  • Joel Justiss

    I publish a monthly newsletter for prisoners on behalf of the Brights. At some time over the last 3 years, most of my 30+ subscribers have requested and received books from the Freethought Books Project. They consistently express great gratitude for this source of “light in a dark place.”

  • Jerryd

    I’m Jerry and want to thank Adam for this posting. And I briefly want to explain what the pen pal experience has meant to me.

    Frankly I’m sure I had the same reservations that anyone else would have when I was asked to write: the scum-bag prisoners deserve what they get, the hell with them–show them no mercy. Pretty much the same feelings that religious people have about atheists, never realizing they are talking to them daily, finding them moral and upstanding, just not knowing the facts about their friends’ religious beliefs while falsely thinking all atheists are evil incarnate. But thankfully I got beyond that common prison thinking and sent off a letter. My life hasn’t been the same since.

    I am writing to an incredibly intelligent, freethinking individual who had no father and who would have been better off without his mother. He got no guidance as a child, and still managed to get by pretty well. Eventually ending up in jail for the crime of falling in love with an underage woman with I.D. showing she was 21, and who was willing and consensual in all their dealings, and, in fact, started the relationship. That’s a crime in our society, and if you use telephones or internet to communicate, it’s a mandatory 10-year sentence. If you kill your children because you prayed their pneumonia would go away, that gets you probation. If you start a war that kills thousands of people, costs the government an expected three trillion dollars, one based totally on wrong information, you get book deals, a lifetime pension, TV time, etc., and you don’t even have to say you’re sorry, much less go to jail. That’s our criminal “injustice” system.

    I have hope that my pen pal will become a highly productive member of society because of our correspondence and my ability to help him get an education. He will reach goals he had almost quit thinking were possible. Easy to do when you are locked up for ten years, caged together with the good and the bad, never knowing if just smiling at or saying hello to some bad-ass dude will be taken wrong and cost you your health or life. And never getting education or training that would equip you to function on the outside. We expect prisoners to live in a war-zone environment, almost certain to give them PTSD, and certainly no skills to cope in the real world, and then wonder why recidivism rates are so high. If just one prisoner gets the skills because of a pen pal relationship, it is worth it to me. If more do, that’s even better. And it’s worth it if a lonely freethinker living in a sea of religious madness gets to stimulate his brain in conversation with a fellow freethinker on the outside. That’s what I really hope will occur from some of these pen pal relationships.

    I certainly can’t guarantee you’ll hook up with as interesting and talented a prisoner as I did, but you might. You won’t know unless you try. If you don’t, just stop the communication, you are in control.

    If I can answer any questions, please ask. And thanks again Adam and those who becomes a pen pal.

  • Peter N

    Thanks for posting this, Ebon — this looks like a great project. I wrote to them straight away, offering to become a pen pal to a prisoner, and I’ll come back here and let everyone know how it goes.

    What I wrote in my message to Freethought Books…

    My career is in recording classical music. A couple of years ago I started working with a professor at the local university music school, who established a choir inside a nearby prison as part of a restorative justice project. I was simply hired to record their concerts, just like all the other local concerts I record (except for some rather extreme security procedures!), but I have gotten to know some of the prisoners, and their stories, through this project. Although these men don’t seem to have much in common with me in terms of interests and life story, I have found it easy to converse with them, particularly because they seem not to have many opportunities to satisfy the curiosity that we all share about the world. I was able to donate some DVDs about history and science topics to the prison library, and I would like to do more to help them feel a positive connection to “outside” society.

    I have also become aware of how deeply they value interest from outside people. Part of the prison choir project is to encourage the men to write poems, essays, and songs, and to perform them for each other, their families, and a small outside audience. I have heard in their own voices how lonely and isolated they feel. They are locked away — some of them for life! — out of sight, out of mind, even to those who live a few hundred yards outside the prison wall. They deeply appreciate any caring interest from outside people, and I see how vulnerable they are to persuasion by religious proselytizers who visit them, lead prayer groups, and donate materials to the sparse prison library. I would like to help to balance that influence with positive interactions with outside people with secular and openly atheist values.

  • Leslie

    Thanks to those of you who have agreed to be Pen Pals. We could always use more help on that front, and we appreciate your efforts to spread reason and secular compassion behind prison walls.

    Please note that you will be hearing back from us this weekend with the name of your Pen Pal. Thanks for your patience as I match you up with someone.

  • Broggly

    And he would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those meddling kids!