I was an atheist prisoner. Fringe religions fought hard for my soul.

One reason a thousand flowers have bloomed is that, in my experience, the evangelism typical of mainstream faiths such as Catholicism and Protestantism has spread to newer players who place a greater value on the souls of convicts. At most, there are 20,000 followers of the pagan religion Asatru, sometimes referred to as Odinism, in the United States, while Catholics number 78.2 million. Hardly any Catholic missionaries came to the 12 facilities where I was housed, but I saw many evangelists from outsider faiths visit. Winning one new convert to a tiny corps is far more significant than winning 10 new converts to a horde.

Judaism and Islam also have their fringes, and I saw the same trend among them. A nontraditional Jewish sect — it argues that the messiah has already come — courted my allegiance in a way the establishment did not. And the Nation of Islam tried harder with my neighbors than regular Sunni Islam. These groups offer personal attention and loyalty (scarce resources in prison) from support networks that clergy of the established religions, especially those employed by the state prison system, cannot provide.

The incarcerated world is one where leaps of faith are taken with ease. The educational level is low (nationwide, 68 percent of state prisoners don’t have a high school diploma) and wishful thinking high. Jailhouse “common knowledge” holds that ghosts are real and the moon landing was not. I knew men who couldn’t identify the actors of World War II but were familiar with the sins of the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission, clans that are alleged to secretly control the world. Convicts who quit school in the fifth grade cited the Merovingian dynasty to demonstrate that Jimmy Hoffa simply had to go. (It’s said he learned that unions are run by Masons and became a liability. He knew too much.) In prison, where hope is limited, people are looking for answers, even wrong ones.