Humanism in United States Federal Prisons


As of 2016, there are 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States. There are approximately 329 million people in the United States, total. About 0.7% of the United States’ population is held in state or federal prison, or a local jail, which means that close to 1% of Americans are incarcerated. With so many Americans suffering in the carceral system, it is imperative that the utmost support is provided. How does someone’s faith and worldview influence the distribution of that support in prison? 

Religion in Prison

There are many religious supports in place for people who are incarcerated, like worship services and faith-based study groups. Prison Fellowship Ministries goes beyond Christian worship and study by providing counseling and job training, as well. Some states offer credits for reduced sentences if inmates attend certain religious programs. Consider Alcoholics Anonymous, which requires a spiritual connection and submission to God. This program, resource for addiction, and sentence reduction is not inclusive of all inmates. 

In 2012, a Pew Research Center study revealed that state prison chaplains observe inmates’ efforts to proselytize or convert other inmates to be very common (31%) or somewhat common (43%). Community is an integral part of maintaining humanity behind bars. Without religion, prison, an already isolating place, can feel even more divisive. Unity provides not just connection, but a sense of hope. If faith is the driving factor behind whether or not a person who is incarcerated can get proper support, humanists have long been ignored. 

Benefits of Recognizing Humanism Behind Prison Walls

Until recently, humanists had trouble finding the same rehabilitative resources and benefits as those who are faith-based. In 2015, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center settled a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons on behalf of Jason Holden, an incarcerated humanist. This verdict allowed federal inmates the choice of identifying as humanists. Humanism is also included in the “Manual on Inmate Beliefs and Practices.” 

Now, depending on the facility, humanists can have group discussion, celebrate holidays, and invite guests for special events. The American Humanist Association (AHA) works with humanists in prison to coordinate study groups and individual study of humanism, and offers discounted AHA memberships. The AHA can offer legal support as able. 

The addition of humanism as a recognized worldview changes humanists’ experience in prison for the better. Prison is an inherently isolating and destructive institution. Any way that people who are incarcerated can find community and support is necessary to their survival, and reintegration into society. 

One of humanism’s guiding principles is the separation of church and state. When prisons provides resources to faith-based groups that do not reach all people who are incarcerated, it reinforces the idea that religion carries privilege and that non-practicing individuals are not deserving of the same support as practicing, faith-based individuals. 

While recognizing humanists as a group with rights to gather, celebrate, and allocate resources is to the benefit of incarcerated humanists, it would be even more in line with humanist thinking to extend similar benefits to all those who are incarcerated. 

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