There are some statistics that atheists love to repeat. One of them is this: “About 8-16% of America’s population are atheists, but only 0.21% of the prison population are.”
This page is apparently their source for that. It gives the numbers for prison inmates, and their reported religious groupings, on 5 March 1997. (I wonder why do no atheist ever mention a more recent study? Is this particular 11-year old study the one with results that best match their agenda?)
But wait a minute. These numbers apparently also say that 19,7% of the prisoners population chose not to answer this question, or was perhaps not asked, or perhaps just ticked a box named “other religious view” without naming their view in it. Now, the prisoners that were not asked are probably not much different from anyone else. We do not know how many of those were numbered in the sample.
But the prisoners who chose not to answer? It make perfect sense that an atheist will be less likely to honestly answer that question. (It may indirectly affect his chances for parole, for instance.) And with a tick box for “Catholic” or “Muslim”, but none for atheist, it is likely that some atheists will be among those who just tick “other” without filling in the word atheist.
The people who chose not to answer could, fairly speaking, include anything from absolutely no atheists at all to all atheists, without exception. Atheists could, if these statistics were accurate, anything between 0,21% and 19,95% of the prison population in the USA. Since many (probably the mayority of) people who do not believe in God or the supernatural- fail to identify themselves with the label of “atheist”, you could assume their true number will be higher.(And Catholics, for example, could be anything between 38,16 and 58%. But it is unlikely that someone would hide his religion from prison authorities. I therefore hold that the number of Catholics will be closer to the former.)
Apparently the “atheists are 8-16 % of the US population” do not hold up to scrutiny either. Other studies claim that 98% of Americans believe in God, and that only 4% of them have no religion. (Note: Numbers for “no religion” or even “unbelief in God” do not equate, even closely, to self-claimed atheism. Many non-religious disbelievers in God would not label themselves as atheists. Using- and grossly inflating- the percentage of unbelievers in America for atheists in the general population, while using only self-proclaimed atheists for the prison atheists, is intellectually dishonest.)
Statement 1: The percentage of atheists in America is, at most, only 1/4 to 1/8 as many as the statistic users tell us. (The difference between 8-16% and the 2% who do not claim to believe in God.)
Statement 2: The atheists in prison may be up to 95 times as many as reported. (The difference between 0,21% and [19,7+0,21]%)
Conclusion: It seems very hard to conclude that atheists are under-represented in American prisons. They may, or may not, have failed to mention their atheism to authorities. In other words, the statistics are inconclusive.
PS: It seems people with no religion are 105% overrepresented in British prisons. In other words, unbelievers in Britain seem to be more than twice as likely to be in prison. And while Christians account for 39.1 percent of the English and Welsh prison population, they make up 71.8 percent of the total English and Welsh population. Christians are, therefore, seriously under-represented, and nonbelievers seemingly very over-represented, in prisons in England and Wales. (Inmate Information System. Cencus 2001, Office for National Statistics)