This isn’t a foreign concept to most people, but I’m really good at being influenced into these great ideas that I rarely go through with but allow to lead to something else. My latest and greatest happened yesterday when I was binge watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. It’s a sweet show, albeit slightly depressing sometimes. I highly recommend allowing yourself to be transported to a women’s federal prison for a Saturday of secret indulgence.
Watching the show got me thinking about the inmates who are lonely and whose families have abandoned them. I went online and googled “prison pen-pal”. The websites I came across look generally unkempt and the more I searched, the more I felt like a girl trying to hook up with a soon-to-be-released drug dealer. It’s a lot of personals ads basically. I completely get it because establishing a relationship is a hurdle for someone who’s been locked up for any period of time but I just wanted to make a friend and I feel like my letter would be disappointing to whoever was waiting for one. That being said, I found a girl who is incarcerated in Edmonton, my city, who seems to just want someone to write to. Maybe I’ll send a letter to her.
I have prison experience. I’ve personally never broken the law because frankly I’m too lazy to bother but my brother has been in and out of the system for several years now. I’m not here to capitalize on his struggles so I’m not going to dive into his story. But he is someone who has been to the very bottom and is slowly swimming to the surface, sometimes laterally, sometimes up. I love my brother, and it’s the way I reacted to his struggles that in the past pushed me into complete isolation. I turned away from my friends, my extended family and my job. My then-boyfriend, now husband was even sent out of the country to his homeland by his parents due to the circumstances of my family as a result of my brother’s crimes. When I look back and really think about how I feel, except for sadness for the people whose lives were truly affected, to me, it’s just something that is. The only way my relationship with him has been affected is by the geographical distance that his crimes have placed in between us. Meaning I don’t get to see him that often. Acceptance, folks. It happened to me when I chose not to think about it. And in all seriousness, my dearly departed dog Buddy was my friend when I was in need. I miss him.
So a lot of what caused this dark path my family traveled down is addiction. It’s a disease that runs fairly rampant in my family and although I don’t have it, my brother does. Reading the profiles on the pen-pal sites, it looked like it was a pretty big cause of incarceration for others too. But we know that. Addiction is a dark mistress that has a lot of power and ultimate control. It’s a medical disease with a spiritual cure, so they say. My brother was never baptized as a baby (I was: roman catholic here) and decided to become baptized as a Lutheran in his adulthood. One site I visited had 880 pages of inmates looking for pen-pals, with 10 inmates a page. The search section gave me an option to search inmates by religion, and so I chose atheist, naturally. I came up with thirty four results. It seems like religion has taken in all of those with struggles. I know that, because my brother is one of those people. The problem is, what if you can’t fully embrace jesus to guide you down the right path? I know my brother is also one of those people. When he meets his sponsor at Tim Hortons, it’s all god, all the time. THAT, to most is the only thing that will save your life. So if you’re like me, who completely rejects spirituality, what do you do? Doing a google search of “secular aa”, I found some stuff. There are programs for addicts to help them through their addiction from an evidence-based point of view. I’ve been to AA meetings with my family members who suffer from addiction and being someone who has had addiction become fused to my life, I’ve never heard of secular programs except through my own research. My brother is out, lives in a halfway house and is trying really hard to get his life on track. He’s mostly consumed with making a lot of money and his recovery. I wish I was the one to have influence over him, but I’m not. The money thing bugs me, and the person his pastor, sponsor and church programs made him is someone I’m learning to accept. He spent 7 years being indoctrinated and is struggling to conform to those changes imposed upon him, so me swooping in to redirect him at this point will only make things harder. We talk about it- I believe in being candid. But this is one of those cases where trying to convince someone does become “shrill”, and I become someone who is trying to indoctrinate rather than help.
There is an enormous spiritual presence in prison, and in recovery. Where are we? A 0.04% atheist presence in an inmate pen-pal organization tells me that only one belief system has paved a path to redemption. I have an overly understanding acceptance for people who’ve committed crimes for obvious reasons, and I’ve made zero impact on those people’s lives. As humanists, we look towards ethics, progression, science, intellect and truth and while we’re doing that we are allowing the damned to actually believe that they are the damned. Do we do this because we think we’re taking away their hope? Are we scared to tell them that their actions of the past, present and future happen as the result of their own decisions? There are millions of inmates who will be released, like my brother, who were indoctrinated to believe that they were not responsible for what they did. Although blame comes to mind, there are ways to communicate the idea of self-responsibility tactfully. Not to talk to people who’ve made terrible mistakes with a wagging finger, but to tell it like it is. And give them hope in the future. We’re biological beings who are constantly bombarded with choices and it’s only fair to allow people to exercise their right to make a positive impact after they’ve made negative ones.
It’s a complicated concept that I’ll admit is over my head. There are intricacies that escape my ramblings and if I was a completely politically correct person, I could try to pick those apart. Religion feeds on the abandoned, the sick, the poor and on those who have wronged. The word “help” has been so bastardized that I don’t want to use it, but we can start somewhere. Welcome to the depressing side of atheism. We’ve neglected the darker side and it’s time to spruce it up and hold out our hands to the skeptics out there and talk to them like what they are: human beings who we stand on equal ground with. The lost aren’t food to us like they are to the religious. They’re people who need to know that they aren’t alone. The cool thing about humanism is that it can show the lost that a real person cares. They can see us, hug us and we’ll hug them back. They don’t need to fall to their knees and beg, and they know a person is listening. I don’t think that’s depressing at all and a real circumstance is really the only solution to a real problem.