Illustration by Jennifer Kahn

Amanda Knox: How Prisons Use Cult Tactics to Brainwash Inmates Into Religion

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.

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May 22 2017, 12:50pm

Illustration by Jennifer Kahn

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.)

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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.

Katie McKibben. Photo provided by subject.

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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Studies have not found any credible evidence that faith-based programs within and outside of prisons are any more effective at reducing recidivism rates than secular ones. Rather, "administrators view [faith-based rehabilitation] as... an opiate of the population, because it gives [inmates] something to hold onto," Dr. Frank Datilio, of Harvard Medical School, argues. "They're praying instead of watching TV. They're reading the Bible instead of playing cards." It's not so much rehabilitation, he argues, as "going from one dependency to another." According to Datilio, dependency on religion is the alternative to dependency on drugs, alcohol, gang affiliation, and violence, and religion makes it easier for prison authorities to manage inmates.

That was certainly the case in Capanne, the Italian prison where I was locked away between 2007 and 2011 for a crime I didn't commit. There, the only reliable, non-medicinal rehabilitation available to female prisoners was Mass, Bible study, and a weekly social hour with a group of young Franciscan nuns and friars from Assisi. Otherwise, we were simply locked in our cells.

Amanda Knox. Photo provided by author.

During social hour, we read Bible stories like the tale of the prodigal son through art projects, movie viewings, dances, plays, and discussions in which we applied their stories to our own lives. It was mostly fun and games—a friar once played a donkey by getting down on all fours and waggling his knotted cintura bianca (belt) like a tail—but the subtext was clear: Here was a model we could emulate, an ideology we could subscribe to. Here was our path back to good behavior and social acceptance.

If the only person there to talk to is the chaplain, they're going to go to the chaplain.

Today, religious institutions have better access to the US prison population than secular ones. Almost all state and federal prisons provide access to prison chaplains, but the same cannot be said of independent secular counselors and educators. Correctional facilities that provide equal access are likely "few and far between," says Nicholas Little of Center for Inquiry. "It's just the way the system is set up. Prison authorities are well aware that discriminating against a minority faith is unacceptable. They are therefore predisposed to granting access to a whole spectrum of faith-based individuals. But when it comes to humanist, or other secular counselors, it doesn't trigger the 'religious rights' bell that, say, a request for or from a rabbi would."Amanda Knox. Photo provided by author.

And it's easier to be religiously indoctrinated when you're existing in an information vacuum. "People in prison have a lot of time on their hands to contemplate matters, and will often turn to the fundamental questions of life," says Little. "If the only person there to talk to is the chaplain, they're going to go to the chaplain. People who are in solitary confinement, their access to books is restricted, but their access to the Bible is never restricted. What would prison authorities think if you said, 'I don't want the Bible. I want a copy of [seminal atheist text] The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins?'"

Prison staff can also view religious inmates more positively than non-religious inmates, believing that religion helps them acquire positive characteristics like self-discipline and concern for others, according to this 2002 evidence review."In the Pennsylvanian prison systems, inmates are rewarded for being in religious Bible study," says Datilio. "They are housed on different blocks. They get better jobs. They get more food and extra commissary." And prison administrators "make more facilities available for Bible study than for anything else."

Meanwhile, "barriers are put in the way of secular groups outside of prison looking to work with prisoners," adds Little, "or prisoners trying to set up secular groups themselves."Discrimination against secular prisoners is borne as much out of caution as religious bias. Administrators stick by the rules. "They know that they have to allow all prisoners access to a Bible and to the Quran. But they never consider that prisoners who aren't religious may want access to a non-religious book in the same way," says Little. "It's a problem that a Catholic who wants someone to talk to never faces. They always have access to somebody of their faith background. And that's not available to humanist prisoners."


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Without a belief in organized religion, McKibben felt isolated. "Religious inmates had outlets for their grief," she tells me. "I wished for a chaplain-like friend I could speak to, who could understand my sorrow without the attempt at proselytization; a kind humanist who could listen and offer support and advice would have been so helpful to me. The fact that I had no one to confide in while I was there really left me troubled and alone."

Even the most hardened criminals can be vulnerable to religious indoctrination."Prisons, particularly American prisons, are violent and dangerous places," Little tells me. "This creates a perfect opportunity for prisoners to identify with anyone who shows them compassion."

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Don Saulo, Capanne's chaplain, had a warm, sad smile. He visited every cell each morning and greeted every prisoner by name. Each week, we spent a few hours together in his office, singing and playing Beatles songs on his guitar, discussing philosophy, literature, and music, and crying together whenever I felt consumed by despair. In that tiny, insulated world where I was so often suspected and despised, emotionally and intellectually neglected, he was my best friend. And even though his support was always offered through the lens of his religion, he never judged me as less moral for being an atheist. In the end, it was an old nun who told me that I was no better than an animal because I didn't believe in God.

Not all chaplains and volunteers are as scrupulous as Don Saulo. For many, prison is the perfect place to convert future believers. After all, you've got a captive, isolated, and emotionally vulnerable audience. In his evangelist guidebook, Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out, inmate-turned-minister Lennie Spitale writes, "I do not know any more fertile ground for the gospel in all of the United States than our jails and prisons. [Prison] is a razor-wire beehive with humbled souls who know they have done wrong, who are broken and repentant over their condition, and who are now giving you their full attention."

Spitale describes conditions that mirror techniques of cult recruitment: isolation, debilitation, guilt-tripping, and indoctrination. Vulnerable prisoners across the US are being strongly incentivized—if not coerced, as McKibben was—into submitting to religious ideologies against their will. Not as a result of some diabolical plot, but because of unwitting discrimination against secular ideologies and a lack of options. For Little, religion in prison isn't "evil." "But it does mean that it's a situation that needs monitoring," he explains.

Secular prisoners will enjoy the privileges their god-fearing cellmates take for granted only when the justice system recognises that religion doesn't have some special claim to social fitness—and that God isn't the only way to rehabilitation.

McKibben is now sober, and wants people to know that there are other ways to sobriety. "There are other ways to have a good life," she argues, "and it doesn't have to be through a higher power."

Illustration by Jennifer Kahn