Nonbelievers behind Bars: Does the US Prison System Privilege Religious Inmates?

When religious individuals accuse atheists of having no morals, one fact atheists frequently cite is the miniscule percentage of atheists in US prisons. However, getting accurate, reliable data on the religious identities of US federal prisoners is often difficult because the Federal Bureau of Prisons does not release that information unless someone requests it through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A few weeks ago, the editor of the Friendly Atheist blog, Hemant Mehta, did just that, and he published the data he received.

Unsurprisingly, at 0.10 percent, atheism still represents a tiny percentage of the religious identities of inmates in federal prison, though that number has risen slightly since 2013, when atheists made up 0.07 percent of the federal prison population. One might speculate that this increase is related to the increase in the percentage of the US population in general that identifies as atheist. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, the percentage of people in the United States who identify as atheists has jumped from 1.6 percent in 2012 to 3.1 percent in 2014. However, Mehta points out that the percentage of atheists in prison is significantly lower than the percentage of atheists in the general population.

Though atheists are clearly a minority in the US federal prison system, they still deserve the same rights and privileges given to nonreligious prisoners. Humanists have long been advocates for humane treatment of all prisoners in order to preserve their basic dignity and human rights, regardless of their crimes, and this compassion should certainly extend to atheist prisoners. Unfortunately, just as religion—evangelical Christianity in particular—is often privileged in US society, religious inmates are often given special treatment behind bars as well.

The number of individuals who lack a belief in a higher power may be greater than the data suggests, since the numbers depend on individuals’ self-identification, and there are myriad reasons why an inmate may not want to identify as an atheist. An article by sociology professor Harry R. Dammer at the University of Scranton details the perceptions of religiosity by both correctional officers and inmates and suggests that both prison staff and the prisoners themselves perceive religious inmates more positively, which often leads to preferential treatment. Proselytizing programs such as Prison Fellowship (founded by Chuck Colson, a member of the Nixon administration involved in the Watergate scandal) incentivize prisoners with educational and re-entry programs that they claim will reduce recidivism, despite evidenced failure to actually assist former inmates in staying out of prison. Still, these can be powerfully motivating factors for inmates to identify with a particular faith tradition while serving time.

The failure of the US federal prison system to permit inmates to identify as humanists and organize study groups and meetings is also evidence of the marginalization faced by nontheists behind bars. Fortunately, thanks to the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the Bureau of Prisons will now grant prisoners these rights, and seeing the data on how many prisoners identify as humanists and atheists in the future will be interesting, as inmates who formerly identified as atheists may now choose to identify as humanists.

Atheists and humanists may be minorities in prisons, but they still deserve the same treatment as theistic inmates. Of course, humanists’ first priority should be to strengthen the education system and other programs that can prevent individuals from ending up in prison in the first place while opposing the War on Drugs and other initiatives that severely punish nonviolent offenders. But once individuals have entered the prison system, they still deserve rights and dignity. For this reason, humanists should be vigilant that all prisoners, including atheists and humanists, are treated fairly and equally.

  • Craig P

    One reason I’ve heard given for why there are so few non-believers in US prisons is that the church-based programs (Bible studies & worship services) conducted in them are so successful. Is there any data on this?

    • David Conquistador Taylor

      Is trading one addiction for another really indicative of “success”?

      • Anon

        Well said, David.

  • Rob Britt

    I think that becoming active in bible study groups and going to church are considered to be positive signs of re-integrating with society and viewed as such in parole hearings. So, yeah, once again atheists don’t march to that drummer’s beat. I would also guess that the rising number of atheists (although still a minute percentage) is that it is becoming more acceptable to be an atheist, rather than an actual increase. Self identification… Ten years ago I would always say agnostic, it’s much more acceptable in mixed company. Now I say atheist without hesitation.

    As a side note, my brother volunteers as a 12 step councilor in the county prison and participating definitely helps with parole hearings. Of course that’s the only addiction program available and it is religious in nature.

  • jay roberts

    I worked in a Federal Prison for 3 years, 1) All inmates in the Prison
    where I worked at were treated the same, regardless of religious
    beliefs or non belief, they were all afforded the same treatment in respect to there
    beliefs, the American Indian population there had a sweat lodge and one
    inmate was allowed to keep sweet grass for there rituals. There was even
    a satanist who was allowed to keep black candles and satanic symbols in
    his cell, we the officers did not look or treat him different from the
    other inmates. 2) Where exactly did you get your data at? What type of
    special treatment are you referring to? In paragraph 3 you state “religious
    inmates are often given special treatment behind bars as well”; there
    was also a small atheist population who was treated the same as all the
    rest of the population. Having worked there you get to know these guys, there belies and hope’s and habits, everything about them, and we treated them all the same

    Because this is a Federal run institution, as you state, FBP (The Federal Bureau of Prison’s) it can not discriminate based on religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs, that would open the federal government up to a lawsuit. 3) Before you write a article you should know and check what is factual, Again your article points to Federal Prison’s and not State Prison’s, a state prison may be run different. 4) As far allowing an inmate to identify with any particular group, just because he, (this was an all male prison) does not fill out some meaningless questionnaire doesn’t mean
    that the person does not personally identify himself with a group does
    it? 5) You also go on to say that the FBP does not
    allow for study group’s, again you are incorrect, as long as formed
    group of 3 or more is within the confines of the rules and standards in
    regards to safety and security of the prison then it would be allowed,
    again if any group was discriminated against this would open the prison
    and federal government up to a lawsuit,

    This was what i witnessed where i worked at, FBP, Bastrop, Texas, which falls under the Department of Justice, headquartered in Washington D.C. Where exactly did you get your data? Why do you not have any information from an inmate who was or still is in fact incarcerated at a Federal prison? I find it odd that for someone to write an article does not have one, just one quote or something from a former or current inmate! What exactly did you base your information on? Maybe you should contact the DOJ and ask for some policy’s that you seem to think you know, its all part of the Freedom of Information Act. Any government run institution is very forward thinking, very politically correct and such things that you describe in your article are simply not true.

  • Trillian Dent

    “The number of individuals who lack a belief in a higher power” I dislike phrasing like this. I don’t “lack” a belief, I am FREE from delusion.


    This argument is very easily debunked. I can’t believe how many people fall for the trick. It’s based on an equivocation fallacy, where the definition of a word is changed to make the argument sound better.

    The statistics study the “religious affiliation” of prisoners. But if “atheism is not a religion,” as atheists are so fond of claiming, then it should count the people who don’t have a religion.

    People who don’t follow any religion make up about 25% of prisoners. They’re probably the single most overrepresented group of prisoners.

    But the liberal propagandists call them something like “no preference” and hide them in the small print underneath all the “religious affiliations,” hoping no one will notice.

    • hannjenn

      People who don’t follow any religion includes lots of self-professed Christians. In addition to being vague as to what you mean by “don’t follow any religion,” you also forgot to provide the source for your 25% statistic, by which you seem to imply 25% of prisoners are avowed atheists. I Googled your statement and found nothing remotely supporting it, and in fact found an article showing that based upon 2013 frequency of religious affiliation data provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, .07% of federal prisoners are atheists. As for whether atheism is a religion, per Merriam-Webster: Religion- the belief in a god or in a group of gods; an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods. Merriam-Webster: Atheism – a disbelief in the existence of deity; the doctrine that there is no deity. Therefore, atheism is not a religion.