The Story of Humanists Behind Bars

As I sit in the new prison’s waiting room, I wonder whether my belt will set off the metal detector again. At the old Iowa State Penitentiary, I figured out how to escape the dreaded buzzer with shoes that did not have a metal strip in them and a belt that usually cleared too. But now at the new Iowa State Penitentiary, my belt usually set off the buzzer, requiring me to remove it. After I replaced it, I earned a full frisk and pat-down with the hand-held metal detector. As I thought about this entrance protocol, I mentally reviewed my work with humanists behind bars over the past three plus years.

In 2013 Lyle Simpson, former president of the American Humanist Association, received a letter from Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP). The letter was from an offender (the current designation for incarcerated individuals at ISP). He had read Simpson’s book, Why Was I Born? He inquired whether a humanist group could be started in ISP. Simpson took me out to breakfast and asked if I would start the ISP chapter. He had an invitation ready from another offender for what’s called the diversity group there, which I accepted as well I drove the three hours to ISP and gave a speech titled “What is Humanism?” The speech was well received and I fielded a number of questions. Afterward, I met with a handful of offenders who were already members of the AHA. I also met with the associate warden, who directed treatment programs. We all agreed that I would come back and hold an initial humanist meeting.

We met and began a series study on Simpson’s book. Lyle Simpson donated a copy for all thirty offenders (the maximum number of offenders permitted to gather together in one place) and paid for their individual AHA memberships. We discussed formal recognition from the AHA and the prison. We submitted the required documents and we were approved as the Humanist Community of Iowa State Penitentiary. We asked Rachael Berman, grassroots coordinator of the AHA chapters and affiliates, for guidance on whether we were a religious or a self-help group. She asked that we be considered an educational self-help group. We adopted that classification for our group and began to complete our prison bylaws. After a number of rewrites to meet prison regulations, we submitted our document. We waited and were told things would be finalized after the move to the new prison. After months and months of this administrative limbo, we were approved and granted official status.

We boasted thirty members, with fifteen on a waiting list. We elected officers. Sadly, the original offender who asked for assistance was not elected president, andhe left the group hurt and disappointed. Happily, we elected officers who took their responsibilities very seriously and did a tremendous job representing humanism. We continue to meet monthly and even donated money to the local public library.

One of the officers in the humanist group was transferred to Fort Dodge Correctional Facility (FDCF)., and once there, he wasted no time in starting a new humanist chapter.  He initially asked me and Lyle Simpson for help, but when we were slow in responding, the offender forged ahead and met the AHA and prison requirements. The Humanists of FDCF was born. About this time, after three years of working by myself, AHA Celebrant Tom Harvey joined me in working with humanists in prison. He went through mandatory orientation at 8:00am on a weekday, necessitating his stay in Ft. Madison the night before. Tom and I attend the FDCF Humanist meeting once a month, though we show up on different days. Together we attend about half their meetings, where we lead discussions with the group members. Last month we discussed,“A Humanist Thanksgiving.” Next month we will discuss “Why Jesus Was Not Born on Christmas.”

As I am about to go through the metal detector, I think about the words of one of our ISP humanists, Travis Wolfkill, incarcerated for life as a teenager:


Dear Someone


Dear Someone,

I am a prisoner

But humanism has inspired me

I wrote in my diary

That while I will never be Ivy league

My DNA enables me

To change my criminal pedigree


Dear Someone,

My cage is draconian

But the fire inside me

Won’t stay ignorant

It builds slowly

Fed with the sciences

As censors try and silence the id

I’m from the school of Prometheus


Yours Truly,

A humanist


My belt does set off the buzzer, so here we go again. I am frisked with no problem, translucent stamp on hand. I am ready to go in and greet some of the finest men I have ever met.

Photo of Dr. Knupp with a humanist group in prison.

Photo of Dr. Knupp with a humanist group in prison. Photo from Dr. Knupp.


A humanist group in prison.

A humanist group in prison. Photo from Dr. Knupp.