Here’s a neat story: Ben O’Donnell, an inmate at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility in Iowa, is the first prisoner to become a celebrant via the American Humanist Association. He now leads fellow inmates in weekly meetings where they discuss “philosophy, science and personal responsibility with or without religion.”
Joe Sutter has a fascinating piece in The Messenger about what the group does:
The FDCF humanists meet Sundays and Tuesdays. Sunday meetings typically are educational; three professors from Des Moines Area Community College teach the inmates.
They give their time teaching sociology, writing and history, according to O’Donnell. The class started with Aristotle and brought inmates through the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.
Once they finish western history, they’ll start on eastern.
Sometimes, a Tuesday night meeting will take a more strongly atheist tone. Whenever that happens, O’Donnell sends out a disclaimer so that people know not to come if they will be offended.
For many inmates, the only opportunities they have for group discussions about religion involve promotion of the Bible. If you don’t believe, you’re out of luck. No wonder the inmates who attend these meetings appreciate it. It’s a chance for self-improvement without pretending that they’re ever going to get help from above.
Just look at what one prisoner says:
Charles Nicholes joined to get out of his comfort zone, and to have more chances to better himself.
“Because, as of this point, on paper I am a total and utter failure,” Nicholes said. “That’s why I joined the humanists group. That’s why I joined Toastmasters. That’s one thing I’ve got to give this institution; it gives inmates a lot to do. All they have to do is take the initiative.
“Ben’s there telling me when I mess up. Holding me accountable for my own actions.”
There are also Christian inmates — a father and son — in the group who just like having these discussions. Far from being an anti-religious group, it welcomes open discussion and the chance for reasoned debate.
There’s something inspiring about people who have limited options behind bars using their time to learn more, improve their own critical thinking skills, and challenging each other over one of the most controversial topics in history. There are people outside the prison who volunteer their time and check in to make sure things are going well, but this is a positive community in a place we don’t always expect to see hope and optimism.
By the way, in an essay O’Donnell wrote for The Humanist last year, he also noted all the volunteer work his group did, from packing food for the hungry or raising money for cancer research. That’s not all.
In the coming months we hope to be involved in other charitable events. One will be a peanut butter and candy cane drive, the proceeds of which we’ll be sending to our local food bank for the holiday season. We are also hoping to find a vendor to donate non-spiritual greeting cards so that we can pass them out to the inmate population like the churches do every year in every institution across the country. (Hint, hint, AHA and AHA members!)
Being a humanist and an outspoken atheist in an environment that crams Christianity down your throat is certainly hard, but our humanist group here at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility is busy demonstrating what humanism is all about.
I should note that I don’t intend to minimize what he did to become an inmate. Neither article I cited mentioned those details, perhaps fairly since the stories are about what he’s doing now and not what he’s being punished for, but in case you’re wondering, here’s a story about why he’s in prison. It’s disturbing. Of course, many of the inmates are guilty of awful crimes. The focus in these stories is about what they’re doing to rehabilitate themselves, and they’re showing God isn’t a prerequisite to being a productive member of society.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)