Statistics show that there are far fewer atheist in prison than theist, True, but totally wrong!

 In all fairness as atheist we really do like to rely on the facts. We go where the evidence leads us. I have seen many atheist of much esteem quote statistics that "prove" that there are far more theist in prison than atheist as compared to commonly outside prison.  In the interest of being factually correct as a community it's time to set the record straight. I was a correctional officer for 15 years in the state of Colorado ending in 2014. I took a particular interest in the subject of religion in prison and have considered myself a student of this specific subject for almost 20 years.  Let's take a look at why these statistics are being misinterpreted.

  Religious affiliation statistically is not generated in the same manner in prison as on the outside. Normally outside of prison religious affiliation is self-reported. In prison these numbers are simply reported according to what religious affiliation offenders officially claim(this does not necessarily reflect their religious beliefs). These numbers are then reported annually by the given institutions. In Colorado offenders may officially change their religious affiliation annually, the importance of this is forthcoming.  In no way do these numbers actually reflect offenders actual religious beliefs. Lets take a look at a few reasons why.

  1) Special Privileges 

   There are certain privileges allowed according to religious affiliation. For example tobacco is not allowed on  Colorado department of corrections property, however Native Americans are allowed under supervision to consume tobacco in sweat lodge where those services are available.

  Property is very closely inventoried. Offenders are only allowed property appropriate to their given claimed religion. Often this property is used as gang identification in prison. For example Protestant  offenders might wear a cross necklace with a knot tied in the necklace in a certain way to show they are in a particular gang.

   Some religions such as Islam and Judaism are allowed special food. Kosher meals are prepared outside of prison and not by offenders in the prison kitchen. Sometimes offenders do urinate etc. In the food while it's being prepared. This is a great reason to want food prepared outside the prison. Kosher meals cost about ten times more than food prepared in prison this is also a reason some offenders like to have kosher meals. It is believed by some that by further burdening the taxpayers that they are taking a stand against the system.

  One time when I worked administrative segregation I gave a known white supremacists his first Jewish kosher meal(after he had changed his affiliation. In this level of security since they are locked down 23 hours a day. They often change religious affiliation simply to have differnt food choice to mix things up). As a joke I said "I didn't know you were Jewish?" He responded, "You know I ain't no fucking Jew!" 

   2) gatherings 

   In medium security and minimum security settings offenders are still very restricted in what areas they are allowed to go to. They must stay in their own cell block. The only real exception to this where they might have a chance to interact with offenders from other cell blocks is certain work or educational programs, again this is very restricted. The best way to have access to other prisoners throughout the prison is through religious programs.   Religious services are accessible to all offenders throughout the prison. This is the one chance they have to interact and "do business". In prison religious affiliation has everything to do with gang affiliation and almost nothing to do with the offenders actual religious beliefs. 

Gangs associate according to religion and change their religion according to gang affiliation. White supremacists prefer Protestant or preferably Asatru, African American gang like to identify with Islam, Hispanic gangs are always Catholic.  When offenders go to "church" it allows gang leaders to give "marching orders" to the entire prison. Corrections officials are completely aware of this and are mandated to "respect"  offenders beliefs.

3) identity 

  As I mentioned before offenders are allowed to change official religious affiliation annually. The annual reports show a small percentage of atheist. This is mostly due to the newly incarcerated who have not yet gotten a " prison identity". They often honestly claim their actual beliefs when first processed into the system and change it as soon as they can(at their first year).

Atheist are the most hated religious group outside of prison and it is intensified in prison. Social groups are very important for protection inside prison. If one is not in a gang and thus religious group they will be victimized by everyone. It is in the offenders best interest for the sake of survival to affiliate with a gang and to choose that gangs religion as soon as possible.


  So there you have it there are almost no atheist in prison "officially". That being said from my personal experience with knowing many thousands of offenders personally I believe there may be far more actual atheist in prison than outside per capata.  I can only recall about six offenders that were known to be actually religious. I never heard one religious conversation in 15 years. This may be due to the fact that the offenders only chose their religion according to gang affiliation and thus were not comfortable speaking of their actual religious beliefs.

Statistics may be "fact" but as I have demonstrated statistics may not always lead us to the truth. Atheist who quote prison religious statistics are good intentioned and using correct statical information, but one must understand the dynamics of the prison culture in order to understand how to interpret them. Prison gang specialist actually use religious affiliation as a tool to determine gang affiliation. 

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Well, I guess that sets us straight on the facts. While I do believe that prison has fewer atheists than believers, it's also very logical to assume that people inside a prison do what they have to in order to be protected. A person alone without group affiliation would actually be ignorant to refuse it openly. Everyone would want to be protected.

Back to another statement that believers use often we find that "there are no atheists in foxholes." Apparently in times of war we are to believe the person inside a foxhole is praying to a god of some sort in hopes they will not be killed. My take on that one is that a person inside a foxhole has no time to pray to anything. It's the last thing they would be doing.

People also claim you would be praying if your airplane went down. I say there is no time for that. I might be saying "Oh, god" or "Oh, Jesus" at certain times but it does not mean I am crying out to these beings. Often these words are in the same category as swear words and we simply learn them that way in life. If I cannot teach someone anything I might use the words. It would not mean I am wanting a god to teach them.

Anyway, good post.

Michael, I'm with you on that "foxhole" theory. I was in a serous car wreck several years ago. When the car flipped over the second time I thought " I'm going to die". That was all. No cries to an imaginary friend or anything else.

Also, if it did flip twice and you thought or cried out "oh, Jesus" it doesn't mean that you are crying out to a god for help. It's in the same category as a swear word.

John, that's true. Often Jesus 'fucking' Christ was implied

There are NSFW illustrations of that; just sayin'...

I still say "god damn it" once in a while, even though I don't for one instant believe in a god.  I like what (I think Loren Miller) said.  Something like, "When I say "Oh god", I'm not referring to any actual God, much like when I say "Holy Shit", I'm not referring to any actual piece of shit."

Yes, but holy shit might have a crown on it. If it did I hope it's not like that cracker. Let's hope the religious don't take it seriously.

Kathy, many years ago, I had major problems SCUBA diving in the ocean and was sure I was going to die. I was a god believer at the time, but I didn't pray, call out god's name, and didn't even think about him.  I just concentrated on getting back to shore.

Good call Spud. You managed to save yourself in spite of god trying to drown you :)

Compelledunbeliever: "I believe there may be far more actual atheist in prison than outside per capata"; (sic).

And that is just another statistic, one based on personal experience, and anecdotal form yourself. So the major lesson I gather from this is: 'Don't rely too heavily on official statistics, nor on statistics in an anecdote, to get a true picture'.

One of the statistics is however accurate, taken in a survey, so long as we recognise that it is based on yet more personal declarations, (of inmates). The statistic on religious affiliation is an actual count, but of professed affiliations, not necessarily of true and heartfelt affiliations.

On the other hand, I have heard of inmates "getting religion:", when in prison. I offer no statistical figure on that, except to say that it is >0.

Yes, inmates get religion in prison because there are some very clever inmates, chaplains, and missionaries who know how to manipulate people who feel lonely, helpless, and hopeless. Let me assure you there was every denomination represented intending to save lost souls. There were countless numbers of inmates who exploited the do-gooders.

 Offenders do sometimes "find God" in prison. Often inmates reevaluate their lives and consider what actions and lifestyle choices got them in prison. Religion is proffered as a way to change one's life.  The problem here is that when offenders are released they are sent back home to the social and cultural environment that landed them in prison. They almost always jump right back into their former social settings be it family and/or friends and simply continue their former lifestyle and completely forget about the "great moral lessons" of religion.

  I had a very close friend who worked for 20 years in a prison ministry. He told me in all that time he had only one person who really changed his life. When my friend passed away I meet this individual at our friends funeral. This guy was indeed the real deal and had indeed used religion as a crutch to change his life. This is the only instance where I have ever seen religion positively make a good change in some one's life. To be honest occasionally religion can be a positive thing. This being said, there's nothing to say it could not have been done without religion. Interestingly he did in fact leave his previous social environment when he got out of prison.  I am very happy this fellow was able to use religion as a crutch to change his life. I loved and admired my friend greatly. He actually thought that 20 years of commitment was worth it to help that one fellow.  Before he passed he did sadly confess that one guy was piss poor results for an entire prison ministry with many people involved to only help one guy that he knew of in two decades.

  Some offenders "find religion" in prison because it seems like a " good idea". When going up for parole if one has "found religion" it looks good to a parole board. It is fairly rare that offenders use this tactic because members of parole boards know that the effectiveness of religion in one's life is nominal at best. Some offenders will try this tactic anyway because they are desperate to get out of prison. I don't blame them and would do anything no matter how small that may help me to get out of prison sooner.


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