When I was falsely imprisoned for murder, I experienced firsthand how vulnerable prisoners can become religious. And I’m not alone—across the US, prisons use religion to coerce and control their captive populations.
Katie McKibben and the Orange County Superior Court both agree on one thing: In July 2013, 25-year-old McKibben failed to remain sober while on home arrest for her third DUI. She had been struggling with alcoholism throughout her early 20s, couldn’t manage it on her own, and needed help. That’s where their agreement ends.
According to the court, McKibben was ordered to participate in a 90-day inpatient rehabilitation program at a county-contracted women’s facility in Santa Ana called the Villa. There, from August until November, McKibben received the help she needed. At her regular check-ins with the court, McKibben praised the program for its positive influence. The end.
According to McKibben, “that’s false.” At her sentencing, McKibben agreed to in-patient rehabilitation, but she objected to the Villa for two reasons. One, it was at full capacity. Two, the Villa only offered a 12-step faith-based program, and McKibben identified as a secular humanist. She begged the judge for a non-religious option, and was refused. “The judge consulted with my probation officer who said, ‘Nope. She has to go to this program,'” McKibben recalls. “‘This is where we always send people, and that’s how it goes.'” (According to a court summary provided to Broadly, such an exchange between the judge and McKibben did not take place—however, as this was a misdemeanour charge, detailed transcripts were not taken.)
McKibben says she spent 37 days in Orange County jail until a bed at the Villa finally opened up. Being behind bars was a wake-up call. She was locked in her cell for 22 hours a day. “Everyone in there gets the feeling they are supposed to just sit alone in their cells and think about how low they’ve fallen,” she says.
When McKibben was finally transferred to the Villa, she went from feeling immense grief to immense pressure. “At my regular check-ins [with the court], I was expected to be grateful for the rehabilitation program,” she says. “Any apprehension was seen as resistance to recovery, and became a hindrance to moving on to the next phase of the program.”
In those first few weeks, she focused on expressing her relief. “I was starting to feel better,” she says, “I was sober. To be honest, I was just grateful to be out of jail, and maybe that was misconstrued as me being grateful for the program.”
She wasn’t. At the Villa, McKibben alleges she was subjected to incessant proselytizing. “There were multiple prayers every day,” she says, “before and after every meal, before and after every session.” In addition to observing guest speaker panels, where recovered addicts “told their life story about how they were saved and how we needed to be saved as well,” McKibben was sent to “Celebrate Recovery” meetings at an Anaheim evangelical church. Whenever she declared herself a secular humanist in group, the response was frosty. “They didn’t like that,” she remembers. “They let me know that accepting Jesus Christ was the only way.”
And their 12-step model insisted that McKibben entrust herself and her recovery to a higher power. “Your higher power can be a doorknob,” she says, “but you have to have faith in something besides yourself.”
Atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism were not accepted as rehabilitative ideologies by the Villa’s counselors. McKibben says they considered her refusal to acknowledge a higher power as symptomatic of “the alcoholic mind.” As a result, McKibben lived in terror of being sent back to jail. “There was a lot of fear, because if you do one thing wrong, you’re back in jail,” she explained. “If you don’t like the program they send you to, then the other option is jail.”
When I called the Villa for comment, a spokesperson told me that nothing about the rehabilitation program is forced. Addicts “come to the program voluntarily,” she tells me. “Their parents can’t make them. Their probation officers can’t make them. And all we do is try to give them tools to help guide them toward their recovery. If they don’t want it, then they’ll probably continue to drink and use. It’s that simple.”
The crux of the problem is that the only rehabilitative tools the Villa is prepared to offer are the 12-step model and the seminal AA texts The Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The Villa’s program isn’t equipped to support addicts who aren’t prepared to recognize a higher power. “We’re not going to make them comply with what we do here,” the Villa spokesperson explains, but she acknowledged those addicts may wish “to look for another program.”
Only once McKibben graduated from the Villa did she make real progress. “I feel like the healing really began once I got out of the program,” she says, explaining that she discovered a community of sober secular humanists and in-person meetings hosted by the secular nonprofit the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood.
McKibben’s story shows how those with secular beliefs are discriminated against within the criminal justice system—despite the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. In a recent case, the state of Florida denied parole to atheist inmate Barry A. Hazle Jr. because he refused to participate in a faith-based rehabilitation program that required “belief in a higher power.” Instead of being offered a secular option, Hazle was forced to serve out the rest of his sentence in California Rehabilitation Center, a state prison in Norco, California. Hazle sued for deprivation of his First Amendment rights and was eventually won a settlement of nearly $2 million for wrongful imprisonment.
Inmates are not asked to declare their religious affiliation upon entering the system, so it’s hard to know exactly how many secular Americans are currently in the prison system. According to Pew, nearly 23 percent of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” There are approximately 2.3 million people confined in correctional facilities throughout the US, plus an additional 4.5 million currently on parole or probation. If, like in the general population, 23 percent of these inmates and parolees don’t identify as religious, that’s an awful lot of people who may be facing coercion to enrol in faith-based rehabilitation programs that don’t reflect their views.
But are secular prisoners really facing systematic discrimination within the criminal justice system? Or are Katie McKibben and Barry A. Hazle Jr. unfortunate outliers?
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