Project Puts Freethought Behind Bars: Bill Dunn

Religious groups have long preyed on “captive audiences” with a lot of time on their hands, but a college freethinker is doing her best to counteract that.

According to a 2009 Pew Center study, the U.S. has 2.3 million adults in jail or prison. That number doesn’t include juveniles in the correctional system. And while the poet may pontificate that “Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage,” freethought is an especially hard row to hoe in prison.

“The promotion of religion in prisons leaves secular and freethinking prisoners in the dark, with no support and nowhere to turn,” said Foundation member Leslie Zukor, 24, a senior anthropology major at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Her essay received an Honorable Mention award in the Foundation’s 2009 college essay scholarship competition.

She is founder and president of the Reed Secular Alliance and has spearheaded the Freethought Books Project since 2005 out of what she calls necessity. “During the Bush administration, faith-based prisoner outreach organizations received federal grants. At that same time, using religion as an aid to recovery skyrocketed, as both private and publicly funded groups pushed their version of religion on inmates,” Zukor said.

As a way for atheist, agnostic and freethinking inmates “to connect to the wider world,” the project solicits and donates nontheist, secular humanist materials and those that support state-church separation to inmates across the U.S., about 2,300 books so far. There’s also a secular “Pen Pal” program, no pun intended.

“One of the toughest things is dealing with the various prison regulations.  Each facility has its own restrictions on what can be donated,” Zukor said. There are rules about hardcovers or paperbacks, from whom they can be accepted and how many can be accepted.

“Many institutions restrict those donating to individual publishers, with an exception being made for religious organizations. Even though we provide a substitute for religious services, it remains to be interpreted whether we will be given equal access to these facilities,” she said. “Some institutions make it so difficult to receive books.”

She learned of one prisoner who had his freethought books taken away because he “snapped back” at a librarian who told him he should trust in Jesus, knowing full well he was an atheist.

The books spark discussions among prisoners about topics like the existence of god, the nature of morality, political philosophy and capital punishment, Zukor said. Ben from North Carolina wrote: “Last year, you were kind enough to provide me with some marvelous reading material, which I still treasure and regularly share with others, many of whom are now ex-religionists.”

A Wisconsin prisoner named Brian wrote that his facility had no secular books dealing with atheism but had “plenty of religious texts and books like The Purpose Driven Life. So the books sent are greatly appreciated by me and the small group of critical atheists that I know.”

Some freethinkers of note have personally contributed dozens of their own books, including Paul Kurtz, Michael Shermer, Stephen Uhl, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker.

Zukor said the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been an instrumental contributor. “I don’t exaggerate when I say that the FFRF has donated hundreds upon hundreds of copies of various works that they publish.”

Prometheus Books, the American Humanist Association and the Center For Inquiry have also contributed. Particularly touching are the individuals, Zukor said, like a woman named Suzanne, who wrote, “I’m sending my beloved books for the prisoners. I can’t hoard them on my bookshelf anymore, since I saw your [Internet] thread about the book drive. May they open a few minds.”

There are always needs, Zukor said. “People don’t realize how much of a struggle it is to afford shipping and handling charges to get books into the various prisons, to pay for boxes to send the literature in and to cover fulfilling inmates’ particular book requests.

“We also need Pen Pals. Atheist inmates are often ostracized for their beliefs, and they need connections to the wider world. Our current Pen Pals lead busy lives, and we need more people to offer secular and freethinking support to those behind bars.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation