Since I joined this site, several people have requested information about litigation I have been involved in regarding Atheism. Here's the short version.


I was a prison inmate in Wisconsin, and was tired of all the special privileges that were routinely granted to Christians, Muslims, the whole theistic crew. I decided that Atheists should have rights and privileges equal to all of those people who believe in that white-bearded old man in the sky. So, using the prison system's rules, I requested an Atheist study group, and an Atheist emblem. Prison officials denied both requests, on the basis that they did not recognize atheism. I filed in the federal courts, and the case was dismissed. I then filed an appeal, and in 2005 federal court of appeals overturned the dismissal, on the basis that the prison officials and lower court erred in not recognizing Atheism. So, that was a technical "win." However, on remand, the lower court again dismissed the case, on the basis that mine was the first case of its kind in my area (federal 7th Circuit), and therefore the prison officials had what is called "qualified immunity," meaning they had not been put on notice prior to denying my requests that their actions would be illegal.

Fast forward to 2009. I was in a different prison, and refiled my requests for a group and an emblem. Again, my requests were denied, on the basis that Atheism was not recognized. I filed again, with the same court. The attorney for the prison argued that there were not enough Atheists in the prison to justify forming the group. I presented evidence that when prison officials received a request from an Atheist to be designated as such, they were lumping all Atheists under the "no preference" category, and evidence that between 7-14% of the prison population was likely to be non-theistic. The attorney also argued that my chosen emblem, a silver circle with the word "knowledge" engraved on it, was somehow "gang related" and therefore a security risk. I presented evidence to show that the prison routinely allowed inmates to possess and wear crosses, crucifixes, Thor's Hammers, the Jewish Star of David, and multiple other symbols, all of which are gang related (by their own admission!), including a silver circle for Muslims also containing engraved words.

Once again, the lower court dismissed my case, completely ignoring ALL of this evidence that refuted the prison's arguments. So, I went back to the Court of Appeals. I just heard back, where they once again remanded the action back to the lower court, but ONLY on a single ground: that the prison wasn't accurately counting the number of atheists in the system. The Court completely ignored the issue that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and pagans were all allowed to possess "gang symbols," but Atheists are not. And the court ruled that it does NOT violate the rights of Atheists to refuse an emblem or a study group, because according to the court such denials do not interfere with or inhibit the practice of Atheism. (Try doing that to a Christian or a Muslim and see how fast the Court would rule exactly the opposite. Once again, these religious idiots are getting special rights and privileges that Atheists are being denied.)

So, we're back in the lower court again. I'm still going to try to get the Court of Appeals to reopen the other issues, because they are obviously in error, but that's an uphill battle. I'm doing this all on my own. No lawyers were willing to take either of these cases, probably afraid to touch the issue, and I've had to spend several thousand dollars out-of-pocket on this. Still, it's worth it to be able to stand up and tell the almighty State of Wisconsin, "Screw you and your religious bigotry."

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Comment by Luara on August 26, 2013 at 3:49pm

and certainly there's a need for an atheist group in prison, witness this site and the religious conditioning that people shake off in conversation with other nonbelievers. 

Comment by Luara on August 26, 2013 at 3:42pm

most college classes have been eliminated because there's no student aid funding for prisoners, even though studies and statistics show that education for prisoners is one of the BEST ways to prevent reoffending

That's too bad. There are a lot of online open courses now so it seems like the prison could provide education for almost nothing just by giving people internet access in a supervised or limited way. 

Many people in prison have been hugely victimized in their lives, it's a terrible thing to not try to change things for them.  The state has them right there, in a regulated environment, and not using that opportunity to help seems unconscionable. 

One of my brothers was in jail for a week maybe.  He said he was hit by a guard and there was some kind of disagreement over a cigarette butt.  It sounded like a very rough place.  Perhaps jails are a less controlled environment than prisons. 

Comment by James J. Kaufman on August 26, 2013 at 1:47pm

I'm not sure about prisons in other states, but I've heard the horror stories (granted, most are probably exaggerated by what people see on television dramas).  As far as my own experience, the Wisconsin prison system is pretty much a daycare center with fences around the buildings.  It's a fairly "safe" system, very few assaults or fights.

That being said, it is NOT designed to change prisoners, or to rehabilitate them.  For the most part, prisons are warehouses, somewhere to keep you out of sight for whatever term is imposed.  Some prisons do try to encourage positive behaviors, and offer some limited educational classes (though most college classes have been eliminated because there's no student aid funding for prisoners, even though studies and statistics show that education for prisoners is one of the BEST ways to prevent reoffending), and maybe a bit of superficial treatment programs.

As far as whether any of that helps the people there, it's pretty much up to the individual as to whether or not to make the change.  If someone is going to reoffend, it will be regardless of what their prison experience was like.  If someone is going to live a crime-free life after prison, again, it's got nothing to do with their prison experience, but more with making that personal decision to not reoffend.

Comment by Luara on August 23, 2013 at 1:50pm

Perhaps legal activity is a way that people try to empower themselves in a place where power has been taken from them. 

one of the biggest obstacles that I faced in my court battles was NOT from prison officials, but from the lack of support from the Atheist community.

Prisoners are terribly out of sight, out of mind.  It's easy to forget, going around in the free world, that there are cages for human beings in out-of-the-way places, where people are put if they violate the rules and sometimes, if they're innocent of violating the rules.  I've heard that prisoners are often treated terribly, including getting raped or assaulted. 

I would seriously dread being in prison or any situation where my life was being run by a bureaucracy.  I have health problems that aren't clearly documented by medical tests, like delayed food allergies which don't show up with standard allergy testing.  Probably a consequence of celiac disease.  It's clear that my allergies are real, but I imagine I might be forced to eat food I'm allergic to, and I would be very sick. 

Did you find prison to be a place that encouraged people to develop, where someone could have a good life?  Did it help some of the people there?  Or was it mostly destructive, run by a stupid, sometimes abusive bureaucracy? 

Comment by James J. Kaufman on August 23, 2013 at 12:42pm

For some, the law library is literally the only way to get some peace and quiet in that environment. For others, learning about the law - and then using that education - is one of the few forms of First amendment rights that prisoners retain. Some use it because they want to lash back at the system that they feel has wronged them (no judgment call from me as to whether those feelings are justified or not.) Others see it as a way of righting the wrongs they see on a daily basis, for vindicating the rights of not only themselves, but also others similarly situated. 

As to receiving books while in prison, each state has its own rules. Most require that publications be new, shipped directly from publisher or retail bookstore. Some allow for both hardcover and paperback, while some allow only paperback. Most have content restrictions, such as no pornography (pictorial nudity), no lessons on how to create weapons, etc. Religious materials, including Atheist materials, are generally approved (with the exception of nudity, such as Pagan nude rituals). Your best option would be to contact the mailroom of the prison and ask if the book you want to send will be allowed.

On a personal note, I will say that one of the biggest obstacles that I faced in my court battles was NOT from prison officials, but from the lack of support from the Atheist community. I sent numerous letters, not asking for money, but simply for information, letters of support, statements from other Atheists as to why and how a group of atheists should be allowed to meet, or to have an emblem, etc. Not surprisingly, I got only 2 or 3 responses from over a hundred letters I mailed out.  That's one area where the Christians have bested the Atheist community. Even the much-publicized Freedom from Religion Foundation, based right here in Wisconsin, with offices only a few miles from the courthouse, refused to respond to my pleas. It really discouraged me at times.

Comment by Luara on August 23, 2013 at 12:11pm

There seems to be a "jailhouse lawyer" phenomenon, where people in prison use their voluminous free time to train themselves as lawyers.  Some of them become very good lawyers.

Do you have a handle on why people in prison would tend to do this?  Most people in the free world don't want anything to do with courts or legal battles. 

There's also a tradition of prison writers - transcending the prison environment rather than trying to change it. 

If someone can pay for it, can a prisoner get any book they want sent to them, or would a prison reader encounter censorship?  Just curious. 

Comment by James J. Kaufman on August 23, 2013 at 11:31am

My stats came from a variety of sources. First, all of the almanacs put non-theists at about 12-14% of the world population. Coincidentally, my prison had about 14% claiming the "no preference" category, whether by choice or by prison chaplain override. Second, a few states do track Atheists specifically, such as Tennessee, which is about 18% Atheist or non-theist. So, no matter which source I used, the numbers were about the same.

Comment by Loren Miller on August 23, 2013 at 11:24am

Wow!  Sisyphus and his rock come to mind as regards what you're tackling here.  Interesting, too, considering that the only stats I've ever heard regarding atheists in prison have us at something less than 0.1% of the incarcerated population.  Sounds as though those stats are either in error or the data-gathering process was flawed.

In any case, best of luck with your continued struggles!



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