Study and inclusion
At the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, an inmate-led organization pushes education and personal responsibility for those of all faiths — and no faith
At the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, an unusual group is catering to the spiritual needs of those who have no religion at all.
Ben O’Donnell, an inmate, grew up in the church, if not necessarily believing in God.
“I grew up in a very, very religious family,” he said. “We’re Irish to the hilt, and Irish people are Catholic one way or another even, if they’re not Catholic. So I was, strict Wednesday services, Saturday, Sunday. Reading the Bible. Had nuns that pinched me back here (on the neck). Those pinches, they’ll send a lightning bolt through you.
“As well as, I had a very extreme family. Bikers, wiseguys, all that stuff. I grew up wanting to be a criminal. That’s all I wanted to be, one way or another. And I succeeded.”
O’Donnell added: “If you would have met me 16 years ago, I can honestly say I was a monster. I was an extremely bad person.”
It’s been many years since O’Donnell was sent to prison.
It will be many more years before he gets out.
But in the meantime, he’s come to see life in a new way.
Ben O’Donnell is not only the founder of the FDCF humanists group, he also has the distinction of being the first prisoner to become a celebrant — a position similar to a minister — with the secular American Humanist Association.
Numerous church groups volunteer time to bring their own brand of hope to those behind bars at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. On a recent Tuesday night, as a priest and Catholic volunteers were arriving to say a Mass, O’Donnell’s group was meeting to speak about philosophy, science and personal responsibility with or without religion.
Some members of the FDCF humanists group are atheist — including O’Donnell. Sometimes they talk about religion. But it’s a self help group, not a religious one, O’Donnell said.
At its core are two values: education and personal responsibility.
“I melted down humanism further and further until I just had two things that this group supports,” O’Donnell said.
“When I talk about personal responsibility, I don’t know how many times I’ve said — it’s not about saying, ‘Oh, I did that, my bad.’ It’s about not doing it again.”
What is humanism?
It is a philosophy with multiple definitions.
O’Donnell wrote his own mission statement when he started the group.
“It is a lifestyle in which you take sole responsibility for yourself and your own deeds, good or bad,” he wrote. “You strive to understand ‘WHY’ in all things. And if you choose to have faith, you understand that religion is not the same as that faith.”
The first Iowa prison humanist group was started by an inmate at the Iowa State Penitentary in Fort Madison with the help of Paul Knupp, then-president of the Humanist Society of Iowa, and Lyle Simpson, former president of the American Humanist Association.
O’Donnell was an inmate there and became a board member of that group. He brought the idea with him to Fort Dodge.
The FDCF humanists meet Sundays and Tuesdays. Sunday meetings typically are educational; three professors from Des Moines Area Community College teach the inmates.
They give their time teaching sociology, writing and history, according to O’Donnell. The class started with Aristotle and brought inmates through the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.
Once they finish western history, they’ll start on eastern.
Tom Harvey, a humanist celebrant from Des Moines, volunteered his time to help the group get started. He’s been commuting to the occasional meeting for about three years.
“Often I go, and because I am one of the few volunteers that does not preach at them, they ask me questions that have come up either from information they have seen in the news or about events going on in Iowa,” Harvey said.
“I just assumed honesty would be the best policy when dealing with these people, so I started talking to them. I told them some of the things I had done in my past that were not quite above board and how, except for time and circumstances, I was lucky I was not in there with them,” he said.
“And that the lessons I had learned since then had made it improbable that I would ever go back to doing that type of thing, and that I therefore was in a unique position of understanding why they were there and yet be able to offer a perspective on what they could do to avoid coming back.”
Harvey sees changes in people. For instance, some inmates like to buck the system, but those who are tired of living like that find they can benefit from getting along with society, he said.
“You can also turn the tables and say, hey, I want to do some good for somebody. I’m going to learn how to feel good about myself and feel good about the things that I do,” he said. “And once I have learned how to do these things, I will not only be a benefit to fellow inmates, I’ll feel good about myself and I will be able to accept more responsibility when I get out.”
Members of O’Donnell’s group came for the education, many said.
But more than that, being in the group is pushing them to take more responsibility.
“That’s one of the reasons I started going to college. I’m part of the welding program here,” said Mitchell Jordan. “This way I can better myself, and hopefully stay out.”
“I’ve known him since he was a very young kid,” O’Donnell said. “He basically had his entire education at Anamosa. For him to, now, 16 years later, come to me and say I’m looking at getting into college classes? … Nothing but props for that guy.”
Charles Nicholes joined to get out of his comfort zone, and to have more chances to better himself.
“Because, as of this point, on paper I am a total and utter failure,” Nicholes said. “That’s why I joined the humanists group. That’s why I joined Toastmasters. That’s one thing I’ve got to give this institution; it gives inmates a lot to do. All they have to do is take the initiative.
“Ben’s there telling me when I mess up. Holding me accountable for my own actions.”
Eric Strenge is a regular attendee, and also is the imam for his FDCF Islamic community.
“I started coming in January, mainly for the educational classes,” Strenge said. “Along the way, I started learning more about humanism, and here I am.”
Islam and humanism work well together, for Strenge.
“We all have a similar reason for being here, similar goals for what we want to get out of our lives,” he said. “There’s ways people can work together. It doesn’t have to be divided based on beliefs.”
Darrel Ross and his son, Jason Cole, are Christians who are part of the group.
Cole said he was nervous about coming there at first, because he thought it would be all atheists with an anti-religious bent.
“They think we’re a group that sits here and does nothing but badmouth God. And that’s not what we are,” Ross said. “Everybody has their own opinion in this group, and we’re allowed to state our opinion.”
“I’m going to be honest, it scared me a little bit,” Cole said. “This guy right here made me go to the Methodist church as a child. I didn’t believe in God for the longest time. Then I had an experience right before I came to jail, and so now I am a believer.
“But I am happy to have found this group, just for the single fact that I would like to learn more about certain religions and maybe have a better perspective.”
Michael Henderson grew up in a strict Catholic home where he didn’t feel safe expressing doubt.
“With my doubting everything that was force-fed to me, and me changing religion, I felt like I had to hide what I believed,” Henderson said.
“I started rebelling, getting in trouble,” he said. “I finally felt like this is where I fit in the most. I’ve actually, like I said, have been trying to listen to what Ben’s telling me — that I’m being stupid at times, that I need to take responsibility and stop acting like a kid.”
O’Donnell began to learn about humanism through the study of philosophers.
At the same time, he became disillusioned by what he called his church’s “drive-through” redemption — something he saw as selling forgiveness.
“If you walk through and put money in (the basket) and say, ‘Lord forgive me,’ that’s all you need,” he said.
It’s not easy being an atheist in the Iowa prison system, O’Donnell said.
The majority of inmates are Christian.
“We have this big window,” Nicholes said. “They knock on the window, make obscene gestures, and when you get out there … It’s, ‘oh you guys are Satan worshippers.'”
O’Donnell said, “To be fair they think the Buddhist group is Satan worshippers too.”
He added, “There was a rabbi at Fort Madison, deeply religious. I respected him greatly. Until the one day he was talking about heaven and hell. … He said if there was no such thing as God or heaven or hell, he would see no reason not to rape, murder, steal or anything because it takes the meaning out of his life.
“I’m like, but there is no heaven or hell or God to me and I still believe the right thing to do is the right thing to do. So does that mean deep down you’re not a good person?”
O’Donnell was inspired by Knupp and Harvey to go beyond believing in humanism to officially become a celebrant.
This gives him the ability to perform certain ceremonies, including funerals.
“We die in here. I’ve seen a lot of friends — me and him both lost a good friend, Chopper,” O’Donnell said. “He was an atheist.”
In a rare move, according to O’Donnell, the chaplain at that particular prison agreed to step back and let the prisoners hold a secular funeral.
“I’ve never lost one in this facility. But behind the walls, whether you want it or not, you get a Christian funeral,” he said.
“As a celebrant, one of the biggest things is I have the ability to say no. And I have the legal backing to back me to say no, we’re going to do this the humanist way. Respect our wishes.”
The American Humanist Association had to create guidelines to allow celebrants who are incarcerated, Harvey said. This includes mandating a sponsor from outside, which is a role filled by Harvey, who reports back to the board every quarter.
O’Donnell’s group sometimes debates with the faith studies group.
Many members are also part of Toastmasters.
Sometimes, a Tuesday night meeting will take a more strongly atheist tone. Whenever that happens, O’Donnell sends out a disclaimer so that people know not to come if they will be offended.
That disclaimer may become permanent — he’s thinking about making Tuesday evenings into an atheist meeting — and leaving the humanist gatherings for Sunday. Now that he’s recognized by the American Humanists Association, the American Atheists are also paying attention, he said.
“I’m writing the very first manual for (the American Humanists Association),” he said. “When you start a group, this is what you need. I sent them all of my lessons, years and years of ideas, what works, what doesn’t. When they have questions, they contact me.”
O’Donnell’s story also may be in a library in Chicago someday, alongside a shelf of humanist resources donated by Simpson, the former president of the American Humanist Association.
“He wants each of us to write an actual life story. … It’s not just about humanism. It’s how a person got from one belief to another belief, got to prison, what they’re doing to better themself, and what they’re going to do when they get out of prison,” O’Donnell said.
“I don’t know how I’m going to have the time.”