How Jackson Correctional Institution formed a Humanist Chapter The Humanist

“It’s like trying to herd cats.” This is the analogy that inevitably comes up when someone endeavors to form a community of freethinkers. I had never considered the scenario in the “free world” as many of my associates, friends, and colleagues seemed to share similar sets of ideals, morals, and values. Whether we recognize it for what it is or not, our underlying human nature tends toward this sort of tribalism.

When I began what has become the Jackson Correctional Institution Humanist Group, the “herding cats” analogy rang loud and clear in my mind. It’s often difficult to determine an individual’s beliefs or values even in the most relaxed and supportive environments. This difficulty is exasperated by being in a highly regimented, heavily segregated, and extremely bigoted institutional environment. Add to it that all of this attempted community-building was to be funneled through a prison chaplain’s office, one with a firmly entrenched belief of what it meant for someone to consider themselves a secular humanist, and you’ve got yourself a seemingly monumental task to take on.

Fortunately, a few years ago the Department of Corrections (DOC) in Wisconsin was instructed by its highest court to include agnostics, atheists, and humanists as officially recognized “religious” factions. This came after a series of civil lawsuits predicated upon the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). However, just because the high court had spoken, and the DOC had assigned new categories for secularists, it didn’t mean that fair and equal treatment would come easily. To begin with, I had to discover what resources were available to me within the institutions. Invariably that answer was none.

At the first institution I was housed in, I wrote a kite (i.e., an intra-institution message) to the chaplain requesting access to any atheist or humanist materials the institution had available. The response I received was pretty insulting. A selection of three books were sent: two were very clearly Christian literature and the third was a bizarre amalgam of psychic hokum and Christian propaganda. I sent the books back. To be clear, I later learned those kites are responded to by inmates working in the chapel. This was another inmate’s not-so-veiled attempt at proselytizing.

My next step was to seek guidance on how I could obtain secularist literature from an outside source (e.g., Amazon, Barnes & Noble). Due to the “Entry and Classification” label of that first institution, however, I was informed that such property orders were disallowed. Interestingly enough, an exception to this rule was made for personal Bibles or Korans. When I attempted to gain procedural information on how I could procure personal copies of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great I was told I must wait until I was at my next institution. Were my “religious” materials somehow less important or meaningful simply for its content? How was I to argue for my “dogma” or “doctrine” when it is decidedly not either of those things by definition?

This series of communications led to an unanticipated meeting with that institution’s chaplain. The chaplain was primarily concerned with two things: 1) That I was trying to lay the groundwork for a lawsuit against the DOC and 2) That my eternal soul needed some serious saving. Within moments of arriving at the chaplain’s office, I was informed that the institution did not have any literature that catered to the secular crowd. Well, unless you count the highly damaged copy of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as relevant to secularism. I do not.

The chaplain took it upon himself to begin espousing his own personal religious views since he was a devout Pentecostal preacher. As a lifelong atheist, I’m quite used to the sporadic attempts by religiously motivated folks trying to convert or “save” me from my sinister faith in reason. I take it in stride, staying cordial, and tend to do a fair amount of smiling and nodding. This meeting, which the chaplain intended to be fifteen minutes or less, ended up lasting two full hours, and was brought to a close with the chaplain’s observation that, “You’re not like the other atheists I’ve met.” Needless to say, I never did get my “religious texts” issue resolved, and I remained sans Dawkins/Hitchens until arrival at my next institution.

Upon arriving at Jackson Correctional Institution (JCI), I was met with more of the same rigamarole and brush-off tactics. By this time, I had managed to get my hands on a rather outdated list of potential organization contacts. I approached the chaplain requesting assistance in either procuring atheist or humanist study materials, or the arrangement of an atheist/humanist study group. The chaplain, while smiling, was clearly discomfited by my request. I then requested that he at least take my existing list of contacts and update their mailing addresses for me. He agreed to do so, but when it had not been done after two follow-up visits (over three weeks) I retrieved it and searched elsewhere for a sympathetic ear.

A few weeks after my unsuccessful approach with the chaplain, the institution’s librarian, a fellow humanist, was kind enough to update my list. Now armed with fresh addresses for American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, The Brights, and others, I began an intensive letter writing campaign. Over the ensuing months I received exactly zero direct responses. I did, however, get book donations to the chapel library directly from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). If any readers happen to be from either organization, thank you! While this did much to satisfy my thirst for study materials for a time, it did little to quench the deeper parch…my thirst for community.

Eventually, through the amazing assistance of Sue at, I was guided to the American Humanist Association (AHA). After describing some of the ongoing struggles within the institutions to Emily, the AHA staffer who has been my liaison in the Humanism For All initiative, she was able to arrange a small donation of a few DVDs and some additional books for our potential study group in the making. Now that we had the media to facilitate the group, we just needed the group. This is where I began to worry about how successful I would be at finding and herding cats.

As it turned out, if you put out a saucer of milk the cats will find their way. At first all we had was word of mouth. Whereas all of the religious groups and gatherings (including one called “Bible Baseball”) were being given institution-wide announcements and flyers, the humanist group received no such advertisement for months. I had to argue my way up through bureaucratic chains of command to get a simple flyer that stated “What is humanism? Sundays 6:30pm.” These early meetings consisted of four to five of us crammed into a small office to watch the Reason Rally 2012 DVD one hour at a time. We drank in every moment of it each week, thrilled to have a community to turn to.

The first time we met, a chaperone officer in the adjoining office threw a noticeable fit, called in a cover officer, and loudly insisted that he refused to listen to “that evil atheist crap.” Since then, we’ve found a couple of officers who will sometimes sit in for our media and discussions.

After our group hit six or seven regular attendees, we were given a larger chapel space to gather in. This also took some arguing up the chain to attain, but by then I was well-versed in climbing the proverbial ladder. Upon receiving our more spacious meeting space we were directed that we were forbidden from discussing anything, that we may only watch our media and leave. This mandate took another couple of months to have overruled and we were able to attain the same rights to openly discuss and explore our beliefs with one another in group just like every other religious group was allowed to do.

The JCI Humanist Group is now an official chapter of the AHA. Each week we gather to discuss our philosophies, our experiences, and our feelings on how we can contribute to the communities both inside and outside of these walls. We all come from very different backgrounds, regions, and cultures, but we’ve found our communal bonds in our shared values. We help one another redirect misguided energies into more healthy and productive outlets by viewing them through the lens of the Ten Commitments. Through these meetings we remind ourselves that we are human, that we have values, and that we are not alone. Now, when I look back at this journey, I’ve come to realize I don’t really agree with the “herding cats” analogy. I never needed to poke, prod, harass, or invoke some magical thinking to get these disparate cats to come together. All I needed was that little saucer of milk; just a little drink for those of us who wished to imbibe something grounded in reality.

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Forming an AHA chapter with no support – and occasional outright hostility – from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
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