Center For Inquiry Relaunches Program to Send Atheist Books to Prisoners

Nearly a decade ago, Reed College student Leslie Zukor began a fascinating project. She knew that most prison libraries were full of religious books, often donated by church groups, and she wanted to offer prisoners an alternative. So she contacted a number of atheist authors, many of whom donated their books to the cause, and began sending boxes of freethought books to prisons across the country:

Leslie Zukor surrounded by donated freethought books

To say the project was a success would be an understatement. For many prisoners used to reading the Bible and books about Jesus because there were just no other options, it was a breath of fresh to get their hands on something like The God Delusion. Ultimately, before the project slowed down due to things like ever-increasing shipping costs, Zukor said she had sent out approximately 1,650 books to a variety of prison-donating organizations across the country.

Today, it thrills me to announce that the Center for Inquiry is resurrecting the program and also coordinating a pen-pal program between inmates and volunteers:

The Freethought Books Project, an initiative to provide prisoners with books on science and secular thought, is being taken on by the Center for Inquiry (CFI), an international secular humanist think tank and advocacy organization.

“These individuals want access to books and ideas based in rationality, science, and skepticism — not religious dogma,” said project coordinator Sarah Kaiser. “By providing books, as well as connections through the pen pal network, we offer prisoners much-needed ties to the outside world and open minds to the wonders of science and critical thinking.”

I asked Leslie Zukor what she thought about the new leadership (and, in a sense, giving up her baby), and she sent along this message:

I’m excited to be able to pass the Freethought Books Project on to the Center For Inquiry. CFI is an intellectual powerhouse and has unparalleled access to the thinkers in the freethought movement. I could not think of a better organization to expose inmates to the power of non-theism, scientific inquiry, and secular values… I’m looking forward to the [project] providing a secular antidote to the faith-based literature that is all too often pushed on prisoners, under the guise of rehabilitation.

If you would like to donate books or money or become a pen-pal to an inmate, you can do so right here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Atheos

    I couldn’t agree more. I work in Canada’s largest Remand Centre and we’re inundated with religion. We have five clergy on staff (all judeo-christian I might add) countless 12 step programs (Anon programs), a “non” denominational chapel, religious volunteers, tracts, a sacred rock, weekly smudges, spiritual advisors and nothing for the secular among staff/inmates.

    • Little_Magpie

      my comment above about it would be nice for them to just have moer of a variety of reading material.. then I thought.. and I always have books I’m done with… I am replying to you specifically because I’m in Toronto … I’m sure it’s not your job, but you are at least working inside the institution…do you know if there is some way I could send some boxes of random books for prisoners? Is that even something that is wanted or needed?
      I mean, I’d either be giving them to Goodwill or taking them to a second-hand shop anyway (not because I need the money, just because it’s one option, the main motivation for me being keeping the clutter at bay), and this is to me at least as virtuous an option as any other charity I could dump them on…

      • skyblue

        I know you asked about sending directly to the prison, but I thought I’d see if you have a prison books program nearby as that could be an option –

        In Toronto your closest program is probably Books to Bars. It looks like their active drop off locations are all in London, so that might not be very convenient for you. They only take soft cover small books (probably due to a restriction by the prisons themselves, they can have some crazy requirements for accepting books), but if you’ve got books that they can use, I’m sure they’d LOVE to have them!

        Prisoners who request books often write and mention how many people read a book once it gets there, a popular book is passed around and read by many people, so I’m sure your books would be much appreciated!

        • Little_Magpie

          thanks for the info, skyblue. I didn’t mean directly to prisons necessarily; just figured that Atheos, working in the system, might know.
          Sadly, no, that’s not convenient especially as I don’t drive… but I will look into it. maybe I can ship a box to them. Suspect the postage would still be cheaper than a bus ticket :)

    • Robster

      “weekly smudges”?

  • Little_Magpie

    It would also be nice if they had more books in general: not related to religion or atheism, but just, whatever. Fiction. Interesting non-fiction.

    • skyblue

      I think this project is just trying to focus on the atheist books, but there are quite a few other groups who send general interest books to prisoners. I helped at one in the past, and it was fascinating! I got to read the request letter sent in by the person, and some of them are quite lengthy and tell you about themselves, and then I got to choose something for them. The best requests are not too specific, not too vague “something about Winston Churchill or Britain during WWII”, “first year college physics textbook”, “any vampire story”, etc.

      That particular place did not get many requests for religious books (and when they did, it was usually paganism), but I imagine there are no shortage of places sending Bibles to prisons. The rule was if someone asked for a religious book, you had to send exactly what was asked for, and no “this is close enough”, to avoid offending.

    • Sarah Kaiser

      Sarah here, working with the Freethought Books Project at CFI. We are offering some novels, actually, trying to fit them into the theme of secularism/humanism/atheist/religious criticism/skepticism. We are trying to primarily support prisoners in an underrepresented demographic with a specific previously unmet need, in the spirit with which Leslie started the project. Of course, it’s not the most well-defined genre (freethought literature?), it’s not even really a genre at all. So we’re doing our best to meet individual needs and offer variety while sticking with the original spirit of the endeavor. I would say our focus is still certainly atheism and skepticism, though. (That’s also the goal of the pen pal program — to connect freethinking prisoners with freethinking pen pals.)

      You can see some of the requested/recommended books on the amazon wish list, here, to see some of that variety (also, recommendations for adding to this list are welcome!):

      • Little_Magpie

        Hi Sarah! I hope you don’t misunderstand.. I think what you all are doing is great! Keep it up!…. I hardly want to derail. :) I was just thinking if it were me behind bars, I’d be glad to read the Hitch and Dawkins, but would also want the change of pace of, for instance, sci fi novels….

        • Sarah

          Not at all! That’s why I wanted to let people know we do offer novels as well:) and we appreciate the positive feedback.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Great idea seeing how poorly represented we are in prisons currently.

    • momtarkle

      We need to eat more babies………and get caught.

      • meekinheritance

        LMFAO! That’s so wrong. Keep up the good work!

  • Davy Goossens

    she should also offer some free market books.
    like from austrian economics. mises or rothbard. or even an ayn rand.

    we actually see criminals having the same view of markets as
    socialists: that there should be equilibrium, as opposed to
    entrepreneurship being beneficial.

    • KeithCollyer

      I thought most criminals were ultimate free market capitalists. What’s mine is mine and what’s your is mine also. Or am I thinking about bankers, it’s so hard to tell the difference. I wouldn’t want to pollute anyone with ayn rand

      • Davy Goossens

        man you’re talking so much shit i feel ashamed in your place.
        you should research socialism it doesn’t work.
        bankers can only get away because they work under a government monopoly.
        what capitalism is about is about being responsible.
        you don’t know how markets work. markets are about human actions, about choices, about investments all of which are diminished under socialism.

        i already said criminals have the same view as socialists: striving after equilibrium and disregarding entrepreneurship. if there was a world cup for strawmanning i’d happily nominate you.

        how come all these “atheists” don’t apply reason to economics, instead having blind faith in government?
        don’t the laws of economics apply anymore if we put someone else in charge? it’s an a priori science not an empiric one.
        “market” is not monolith, it’s a pluralist notion.

        • Davy Goossens

          and besides why single out ayn rand? perhaps you should study socialist history a bit more, it’s filled with references to bloody revolutions, whereas all defence of free markets refers to the preference of peaceful trade over violent “overthrow” of whatever “tyranny” only to replace it with another one.
          as i already said, bankers work under a government mandated monopoly and any form of statism not in the least communist manifesto, ascribes to the notion of central banking which means monopolizing it by government. i don’t see how a monopoly becomes suddenly beneficial if it’s done by government.

          • 3lemenope

            You must really hate the United States then, what with the bloody revolution that inaugurated its existence, and the power of monopoly it grants the government over military force, the postal system, establishing and maintaining the integrity of currency, intellectual property, a justice system, to build buildings on publicly owned land (a twofer!) including post offices, arsenals, armories, and dockyards, and to maintain border security. None of the above *need* to be public monopoly goods, and many classical liberal and libertarian theorists have argued for a private substitute for each and every one. So the Founding Fathers were dirty commies, clearly.

          • KeithCollyer

            not feeding troll

        • Randay

          Goosens, you are a joke, “what capitalism is about is about being responsible.” At least since Reagan we know that is a lie. Let’s put all the 2 million top bankers and financiers in prison instead of those there now. There would be more justice.

          Are you so stupid that you think choices are not made under socialism? Aren’t imprisoned “criminals” simply entrepreneurs who got caught, contrary to bankers? Criminals have exactly the same values as capitalists, especially hating blind faith in government.

          ” it’s an a priori science not an empiric[sic] one.”market” is not monolith, it’s a pluralist[sic] notion.” That makes no sense at all. You don’t even know what “a priori” or “empirical” mean. You don’t even know simple English.

          • Linda Lee

            A priori works, but if you prefer, social sciences like economics (I was an Econ major.) are soft science vs. hard science, though there is much controversy about those terms.

            Anyone with economics study or common sense knows certain things have a very good basis in reasoning and evidence. In the two main branches in a typical college program, I think microeconomics is more valid than macroeconomics.

            The beauty of Austrian economics is that it adheres to human motivation and psychology. We really haven’t changed much over centuries. Any study of comparative economics shows that free enterprise is generally better for individual and collective prosperity and even human rights.

            Criminality or government-caused artificialities like monopolies are not capitalism. Many call this crony capitalism, something far from true capitalism. The US has drifted far from a true free enterprise system, regardless of whether you think that good or bad.

            Only strong governments have the power to do things like constantly wage war, imprison people wholesale (Heard about the failed War on Drugs?), and take people’s property. If you do not pay taxes voluntarily, is that not theft? A true free enterprise system reduces government power and hence government abuses.

            • Randay

              It goes further back than that. First, what is property? Land, one’s stuff, stocks and bonds? None of those would exist if there wasn’t some force, call it government if you like, to decide what belongs to whom. There are constant wars between war lords who take imprison and kill people and take their property. Hobbes proposed the solution of the Leviathan and it’s hard to see an alternative.

              As free enterprise is not in the U.S. Constitution, it is hard to say if the U.S. has drifted away from it. With the Supreme Court in the 19th century deciding that corporations are legal and even persons–with limited responsibility at that, all which makes no sense–the country lurched towards crony capitalism.

              Then, what is theft? In principle the government provides certain services such as fire departments, streets and roads, even police which are considered to be essential for the common good and even free enterprise, and so requires the population to pay their cost.

              To return to the beginning, Jean-Pierre Proudhon described it in his essay “What is Property?”. His answer, which I think is accurate, is “property is theft”.

            • Feminerd

              Austrian economics is predicated on humans as being a very specific kind of rational. We aren’t actually like that at all.

              And thus, Austrian economics has utterly failed us in this most recent economic crisis. Behavioral Keynesianism, on the other hand, has performed pretty damned well. Circumscribed or regulated free enterprise works really well; unfettered markets are a nightmare and a horror of epic proportions.

    • Finn Nicolas

      Yeah, giving people in prison “The Virtue of Selfishness” will be work out great.

  • Paul (not the apostle)

    This is a great program. The prisons are full of preachers and bibles. Also remember that donations to your local library is very important. In my first stages of inquiry this is where I found much of my information. Many seekers will use the library when they may not be able to spend the money to buy the books. In some situations being able to access the book at the library can provide cover for the seeker, as in “I just picked this up to see how atheists think”. How do I know all of this? I have been there, and thank reason and kindness that someone supplied the books to support my quest. Supplying these books is a great investment.

  • WingedOne

    Funny how the Christians were some of the only folks donating books….

    • Ella Warnock

      Funny how you never see Joe Klein donating books to prisons.

    • Matt Davis

      And I’m sure they were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, right? Not to win converts? No, of course they had no hidden agenda. The Good Christians™ never do!

  • Mario Strada

    I hope that CFI is also instructing possible pen pals on how to have the proper boundaries set when they communicate with prisoners.
    I have heard many horror stories of prisoners harassing former pen pals once they get out of prison. While I think that it would be a minority doing this, prisons are full of con men that wouldn’t bat an eye in taking advantage of someone that sincerely wanted to help them.

    Basically, the best thing to do is to get a PO box, so your address is not on the envelope. Also never disclose phone and address. Do not agree to in person meetings once they get out, at least until they have proven to be out of the criminal life.
    The instinct would be, even for me, to help them as soon as they get out with food and lodging, but the possible danger to the pen pal and his/her family is too great to do that initially.

    It makes me sad to post this in an otherwise very uplifting post, I wish it was not the case.

  • Mike Van Roy

    If there is one thing we need more of, it is atheists in prison.