Humanist Rights in Federal Prisons One Year after Holden v. Bureau of Prisons

The humanist movement has long fought for the rights and dignity of incarcerated people. But for far too long, humanists in federal prison were not even able to identify as such, meaning that they were denied rights granted to theistic prisoners. That all changed nearly a year ago when the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center successfully settled a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons on behalf of Jason Holden, a humanist inmate in Oregon.

As a result of the lawsuit, federal inmates throughout the country must now be given the option to identify as humanists for assignment purposes, and “humanism” is included in the Manual on Inmate Beliefs and Practices. These changes have a real impact on the lives of humanists who are serving time. They can now observe Darwin Day, they can hold humanist reading groups and study sessions with others who share their convictions, and prison chaplains must include resources for humanist inmates.

Having a community of likeminded individuals can help inmates feel a sense of connection and hope as they serve out their sentences. However, atheists make up just 0.1 percent of federal inmates, a disproportionately low percentage given the number of atheists in the general population. The number of atheists who are humanists is likely even lower, so nontheists in prison may have a more difficult time finding others who share their worldview. Yet theistic groups, such as Wiccans and Hindus, with similarly small prison populations have been given the right to form study groups in federal prisons. Furthermore, prisoners with theistic views can be privileged in prison, and Religion News Service mentions in its report on the American Humanist Association’s lawsuit that prisons are rampant with religious proselytizing. With all the god-talk in prison, humanist inmates can feel particularly isolated because of their nontheistic worldviews. Now, however, humanist federal inmates can meet and discuss their views and ideas. Even in an environment as alienating as prison, they can create a community together.

Their gratitude is evidenced by letters to the American Humanist Association’s legal team, thanking them for their work on behalf of humanists in federal prisons. “My heart and mind are full of joy and appreciation,” reads one letter from a federal inmate after he registered as a humanist and received literature from the American Humanist Association to begin a study group. “I am confident that we are on the right side of history in the making. Again, I thank you for your diligent efforts and for helping us here to be recognized by the religious community as equal.”

Relatives of humanists in federal prison as well as prison chaplains have also reached out to the American Humanist Association and its adjuncts like the Humanist Society and Humanist Press to become informed about the rights of humanists in federal prisons and to receive resources about humanist philosophy. The AHA also recently set a highly discounted price of $2 for either an annual subscription to the Humanist magazine or an AHA membership (which includes the magazine). These gestures may seem small, but they signal an increased awareness of humanism as well as a desire to support humanist inmates. They also demonstrate that humanism is being taken seriously as an alternative to theistic religious views and indicate that the rights of humanist inmates in federal prison will be respected.

Beyond prisoners’ rights, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ recognition of humanism also reinforces Jefferson’s wall dividing church and state. By providing certain rights and privileges to religious inmates but not the humanist inmates, the federal government was favoring theistic religions over humanism, in violation of the Establishment Clause. The American Humanist Association’s victory in Holden v. Bureau of Prisons was certainly a win for prisoners’ rights, but it was also a success for advocates of church/state separation.

However, there is still work to do at the state level to ensure that humanists in prison are not experiencing discrimination, to prevent state governments from unjustly privileging theistic religions, and to advocate for equal treatment for humanist study groups in prisons. Toward this end, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center is currently engaged in a lawsuit against the North Carolina Department of Public Safety prison authorities on behalf of humanist inmate Kwame Teague. In Iowa, Dr. Paul Knupp, a humanist chaplain, is an outside sponsor for the Humanist Community of Iowa State Penitentiary to provide resources to humanist prisoners in Iowa. And the American Humanist Association’s Black Humanist Alliance is partnering with the Lionheart Foundation and Insight Prison Project to provide secular assistance to incarcerated adults.

Even as the humanist movement celebrates its successes, such as its favorable settlement in Holden v. Bureau of Prisons, we must also continue to ensure that humanists in state prisons and in every other government institution are not subjected to discrimination. And, of course, we must continue to fight for civil liberties, especially the freedom of and freedom from religion, for prisoners and for all Americans.