Secular Programming Supports America’s Inmates

According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2018 report, the US criminal justice system holds nearly 2.3 million people (of the nation’s total 329 million total people) in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and eighty Indian Country jails along with military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the US territories. Indeed, it’s a widely known fact that the United States incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country.

Worship services and faith-based study groups have long been a large part of the US prison experience. Groups like Prison Fellowship Ministries, with 46,000 volunteers worldwide, provide counseling, job training, and Bible studies in prisons. These groups inherently exclude nontheists in failing to offer ready alternatives for comprehensive rehabilitative benefits.

Christian ministries aren’t the only threat to secularists in prisons. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, close to three-quarters of state prison chaplains say that efforts by inmates to proselytize or convert other inmates are either very common (31 percent) or somewhat common (43 percent). Only 42 percent of chaplains say they administer educational or other secular rehabilitation services as part of their job. About 66 percent say that a lot or some religious switching occurs among inmates in the prisons where they work. Chaplains reported growth from religious switching in the numbers of Muslims and Protestant Christians.

In some cases, the state offers reduced sentence credit for inmates attending faith-based programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, which is troubling given that such programs aren’t inclusive of all inmates. The 12 Steps of AA famously focus on spiritual submission to God as a means to transform one’s life and directly mention a higher power or God in seven of the twelve steps. The final step requires adherents to have “had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps,” “to carry this message to alcoholics,” and to “practice these principles in all [their] affairs.”

As Meghan Hamilton put it in a article published last fall (“Religion Is Not America’s Drug Problem”), “religious belief tends to become, well… a replacement addiction. Addicts are simply asked to surrender to a higher power and remain abstinent from substances.”

When a state conditions benefits to inmates upon participation in any kind of religious programming without offering secular alternatives, it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Over the years, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center has successfully intervened in several such instances.

In its letters, the AHA reminds government bodies and agencies that there are secular alternatives to AA and to Narcotics Anonymous. Nationally, LifeRing Secular Recovery, which offers online meetings in addition to the traditional face-to-face meetings, and SMART Recovery, which offers science-based mutual help groups, serve as secular options for people looking for assistance while battling addiction. But in order to comply with the First Amendment, the burden is on the prison to make these secular recovery options known and available to inmates.

Even when secular alternatives to substance abuse programs are provided, humanist inmates continue to face an uphill battle in obtaining access to humanist and atheist study groups. The AHA has carried the day in lawsuits challenging discriminatory treatment against humanists in the prison setting. Its first prisoner case, filed against the United States Bureau of Prisons in 2014, resulted in the federal government recognizing “Secular Humanism” as a faith group and allowing humanist meetings in federal facilities across the nation through a settlement that directly followed the court’s ruling in the AHA’s favor. In March we won a lawsuit against the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, with the court ruling that the state violated the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses by refusing to recognize humanism and allow weekly humanist meetings. Likewise, the AHA has a pending appeal case brought on behalf of Nevada state prisoner Benjamin Espinosa to defend the inmate’s right to seek the recognition of humanism at state prisons there.

The AHA works with inmates nationwide to help facilitate humanist study groups and individual exploration of humanism. Our legal center staff works to defend the rights of inmates to access the same privileges and resources as their Christian counterparts. Our Center for Education offers educational course materials to inmates, and our social justice coordinator works with inmates to facilitate pen pal correspondence.

Learn more about our Humanism for All Prisoners Project and how you can help here!