How many atheists are in the U.S. federal prison system?
Is the percentage of atheists in prison more or less than what we’d find in the general population?
And are any of those numbers actually meaningful?
Two years ago, I set out to explore those questions. I found that self-described atheists made up an astonishingly-low 0.07% of the prison population, far less than anyone expected. (Though that percentage came with several caveats.)
I wanted to know if those numbers had changed at all since 2013, so earlier this summer, I filed another FOIA request with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This time, I didn’t just ask for the religious demographics of all prisoners; I also requested a state-by-state breakdown. The information arrived earlier this week (broken down by individual prisons instead of states). You can see the raw data here along with a spreadsheet I created.
Here’s what I can tell you:
- Using their self-reported data, there are currently 197 atheists in federal prison out of 191,322 total prisoners. If you do the math, that’s 0.10%. Still ridiculously low.
- Texas is home to the most atheist prisoners, with 25 overall, followed by California (23) and Illinois (20). None of that is altogether surprising, though, since Texas and California are also the states with the most federal prisons.
- Of the 135 prisons in the system, 55 have no atheist prisoners at all.
- According to the Pew Research Center, atheists now make up 3.1% of the country. So our presence in prison is significantly lower than what you’d find in the general population.
- The Federal Bureau of Prisons will soon include “Humanism” as an option for prisoners. It’ll be interesting to see how the data shift in the future because of that.
Before you use any of this information to make a broader point, I would add a few important warnings:
- It would be foolish to use this information to suggest atheists are more moral than religious groups. We don’t know why all of these people ended up in prison, and the reasons are often much more complicated than we imagine. When you consider high poverty rates and low education levels, and how religion correlates with both, it makes little sense to argue that atheists are better people because of these numbers.
- Remember that these religious affiliations are all self-reported. We don’t know how many atheists prisoners fall into the categories of “No Preference,” “Other,” or “Unknown.” Hell, for all we know, some of them may have said they were “Catholic” because that’s the faith in which they were raised. Some theists ashamed to be in prison may have also said they were “Atheists,” as if that explains their crimes. So we’re taking this information at face value.
- The data only take into account the demographics in the federal prison system. There are many more prisons out there at the state level. We don’t have that information just yet.
- It’s unclear when this information was acquired. Was it when the prisoners were first admitted into prison? What if they changed their minds while in prison? How accurate is it? We don’t know.
With all that, why bother releasing the information at all?
Because it counters the assumption that (immoral, evil) atheists would be found at higher rates in prison than in the population.
Because I’ve never seen it laid out like this.
Because readers may be able to find things I didn’t catch.
Because if we’re going to cite prison statistics at all, we might as well get actual information.
So there you go. Do with it what you will.
(Thanks to Tracey Moody for the fantastic graphic)