(Article from Dorset Humanists January 2013 Bulletin)
At Dorset Humanists December 2012 meeting in Bournemouth, Probation Officer Amy Walden gave us a unique insight into the needs of non-religious prisoners and how these are being met by a pilot project offering Humanist support.
The proportion of non-religious prisoners, 31%, is in line with society in general yet there is an assumption that their emotional and psychological needs can be Christian chaplains. For example, when a prisoners family member is seriously ill or has died, it is always a chaplain who delivers the news. Not all prisoners are allowed to attend the funeral; they are offered time to sit in the chapel instead, and for prayers to be said and the chaplain is there to provide emotional support.
But not all non-religious people feel comfortable talking to a religious person for advice. There is a void in this area and no guidance given, as if atheism is a taboo and not important. Some questions and needs of non-religious people require a non-religious person to deal with them - for example bereavement and making sense of the world.
Amy explained that a non-religious chaplain or Humanist adviser can give non-religious prisoners a voice and redress the imbalance of provision for religious and non-religious prisoners. Non-religious prisoners find it helpful to be able to talk to a Humanist adviser who can provide guidance, help and support through difficult times, particularly bereavement. They also find it helpful to attend atheist meetings to discuss their views, beliefs and opinions with like-minded people, and to support each other.
A Humanist adviser can facilitate acknowledgement and acceptance that non-religious beliefs are also a 'norm' and give advice on how to deal with situations appropriately when a religious person challenges atheist views.
Despite fierce opposition from the prison chaplain, trained Humanist advisors now have a regular presence at Winchester prison and they have been able to provide emotional support through difficult times, philosophical discussion, advice on dealing with bereavement and an alternative to visiting the chapel at the time of a funeral. Special occasions have included Darwin Day when prisoners learnt about Darwin's life and his theory of evolution, and International Day Against Homophobia with speakers from Hampshire County Council's support group for gay, lesbian and transgender employees.
What prisoners are saying about the Humanist support at Winchester prison:
"The Humanist discussion group has given me a better understanding of other cultures and religions. It is nice to be able to have a proper conversation with someone. It is also helping me with confidence, talking to people about subjects I would not normally discuss. I think it's a really good idea as you can really open up and be yourself without being judged by others on your opinions."
"This is better than AA!" (Alcoholics Anonymous)
"It's invigorating to have the opportunity for stimulating conversation with other like-minded people that doesn't revolve around criminality and sentencing."
"I didn't know we came from fish!" (after Darwin Day)
"The chocolate cake has been the highlight of my sentence!" (also after Darwin Day).
Dorset Humanists raised £100 for this project which is sponsored by the British Humanist Association
Welcome to Dorset Humanists
Dorset Humanists is a welcoming group for humanists, atheists and agnostics who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. We meet in Bournemouth for informative and enjoyable presentations, debates and discussions on a wide range of subjects including ethics, science, religion, philosophy, politics, our environment and much more. We also organise regular social events.