Speaking to a captive audience: By Dan Barker

I used to preach in prisons years ago as a Christian minister. This summer, I got to speak for the first time in a prison as an atheist.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover has been dealing with religion in the prison system. An FFRF member who is an inmate in the Jackson Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Black River Falls, Wis., with about 1,000 inmates, had asked Sam to help him get a humanist club started there. Apparently, in order for prisoners to form an association, it has to be run by an outsider. This is to avoid any leadership hierarchy among the inmates.

It’s easy to get a religious group started. All it needs is a local church or religious organization to come into the prison as volunteers. There are many churches in Black River Falls, but there is no local humanist group, so the nonbelievers in the prison were unable to organize. Sam wrote to the prison to ask what might be done to accommodate the needs of all inmates, including nonbelievers. Prison Chaplain Myron Olson told him that if we could find a local person to come in to hold a humanist event, he would be happy to facilitate.

When I heard that, I volunteered to drive up there to meet with the humanist inmates. The very obliging and accommodating Chaplain Olson called me and we set a date for Aug. 25. I had to fill out a number of forms to become a volunteer — they wanted to know if I had been convicted of a crime, if I had a family member in that facility, and so on.

Entering the prison

I drove up to Black River Falls that day and discovered it was almost harder to enter the prison than to leave it! The officers, who were very nice but firm and professional, told me I had to leave my camera, phone, and watch in the car. After checking my keys, wallet and identification in a locker, I removed my shoes and belt to pass through a very sensitive metal detector. It took four attempts. Apparently, the little metal clasp in my pants was enough to set it off. They told me to hold my hand over that area and walk sideways through the detector very slowly, tiny steps at a time. I never felt so happy to finally be inside a prison.

Chaplain Olson is a Christian minister who was born and raised in Black River Falls and has been working in Jackson Correctional for 16 years. He took me through the security gates to the chapel. There were bibles and religious literature everywhere, pictures of Jesus and other religious leaders, and what looked like a rack of religious videos. An old spinet piano was against one wall, and I could picture a church lady playing hymns before the weekly sermon.

The chapel has a library of faith-based resources, including material for inmates of Eastern religions, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Native American, paganism and Protestant backgrounds. It now has books for humanists and atheists. Chaplain Olson took all of the FFRF books I had brought and spread them out on a table in the room. These included Ruth Green’s Born Again Skeptics’ Guide to the Bible, Annie Laurie Gaylor’s books about women and religion, Anne Nicol Gaylor’s Lead Us Not Into Penn Station, Yip Harburg’s Rhymes For The Irreverent, Orvin Larson’s American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll, One Woman’s Fight (the story of the McCollum decision), and my books Losing Faith in Faith and Life Driven Purpose. I told him he could keep what books he thought appropriate, and he kept them all.

An eager audience

At 6:30 p.m. sharp, about 35 or 40 inmates came into the room, all very eager to listen. I had a truly captive audience! However, the FFRF member was not there. Several days earlier, he had been transferred to another facility, which they told me was a low-security prison, one step away from being released. So that is good news. When I asked the crowd if they knew him, many hands went up. Someone said he is a great, intelligent guy. “Well,” I said gravely, “it seems he has gone on to a better place.” They all laughed. “It is a better place,” said Keith, a freethinking friend of his.

I talked for an hour about FFRF, my preacher-to-atheist story, and about humanism and freethought. I congratulated Chaplain Olson for respecting the needs of all inmates. I told the group that he is doing a better job than the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, who has denied me an opportunity to open Congress with a secular invocation. When I pointed out that the House of Representatives should actually be representative, Chaplain Olson nodded his head.

After my talk, we spent another hour taking questions. Nobody wanted to leave. Where were they going to go?

Some of the men asked if we could do this more often, and I suggested that maybe Sam could come next time to talk about religion and government. One guy in the back row said, “Grover?” I was surprised. “Yes,” I said. “Sam Grover, one of FFRF’s attorneys.” So I guess Sam is famous in the prison community!

Freethinkers and skeptics

It seemed that about half the crowd were open freethinkers and skeptics. The others were mildly and politely interested, with honest questions. Some of them were taking careful notes. “You are a breath of fresh air!” one fellow said. They asked about the historicity of Jesus, about the Constitution, the early Christian church, religion in politics, Adam and Eve, inner religious experience, miracles and prophecy. They also grilled me about my reasons for leaving the ministry. It was all very enjoyable.

One man, near the end of questioning, said he was out in the hall for the first part of my talk with another inmate who was looking at the poster for the event. Pointing to my picture, he said, “That is the devil,” and refused to enter the room. “But you don’t look at all like the devil,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. I explained that we nonbelievers don’t believe in God or the devil. They are flip sides of the same counterfeit coin.

After the meeting, many went to browse the FFRF books. It was very satisfying to shake hands with some of the inmates who came up to thank me.

Since my camera was in the car, I could not take any photos. However, Chaplain Olson was a good sport and accompanied me to the parking lot where we took an unprofessional selfie with my iPhone. Walking to the car, the very tolerant minister said, “It can be very difficult to listen to a point of view with which you disagree.” He might have been talking about the inmates, but I think he was talking about himself.

It’s good to see not everyone is imprisoned by their beliefs.

Dan Barker is FFRF co-president.

Freedom From Religion Foundation