They say you can’t find atheists in foxholes. You find even fewer in jail. A soldier can try to leave the battlefield; inmates have no such option. It’s a cliché and hardly admirable, but jail often cultivates “belief” in a power greater than one’s own.
Avoiding prayers to Jesus and other expressions of piety on the prison bus to Niantic, Connecticut, one snowy Friday night in December 2007 seemed nearly impossible. I was riding with twenty other women, whose heads all seemed bowed in prayer. They had traveled this way before and had the routine down pat. But it was my first trip, and my eyes and thoughts were focused elsewhere. I had just been convicted of identity theft and illegal use of a credit card, and was being shipped to York Correctional Institution. So I was searching for whatever reasonable options were left to me to get out of this mess.
God is not supposed to be the last resort, I reasoned. You shouldn’t summon his power only after you’ve landed in prison. I had never been a friend to God, and it’s wrong to treat him like a waiter, hovering there until you need your glass refilled. So praying for deliverance on the way to jail would have made me feel inauthentic; I would have been a user, not a believer.
Later I discovered a small cadre of devout inmates at York C. I. But for the most part, the place was crawling with phony Holy Rollers who would shout, “God is good!” or “Trust and believe!” and then strike out at other inmates or...