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What Does Religion Look Like in Prison?

Ex-Catholics, atheists, Cherokees, Lakotas, Lutherans, and Wiccans all make an appearance in Joshua Dubler's Down in the Chapel.
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(Photo: Steven Frame/Shuttertsock)

(Photo: Steven Frame/Shuttertsock)

“Sorry if I just stabbed you in the back,” Joshua Dubler writes in the closing paragraph of Down in the Chapel. Hugging one of the prisoners whose religious faith his book chronicles, Dubler forgot to cap his pen.

The apology is a joke, but uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has labored to tell the stories of others, especially a group so disenfranchised as the prisoners at Pennsylvania’s largest maximum security prison. Joshua Dubler was a graduate student at Princeton when he began visiting Graterford, which is just outside of Philadelphia. His research at the prison, sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and conducted over six years, included meticulously observing the life of its chapel for years and repeatedly interviewing some of its 3,500 residents.

It is shocking that a system so pervasive, so prevalent can still be so foreign. Even if you’ve never eaten a Big Mac or set foot in a Walmart, you’ve still seen their commercials or know someone who flipped burgers as a teenager or worked as a greeter in retirement.

Down in the Chapel, published last year, is an adapted version of Dubler’s dissertation, a record of one particular week in the life of the chapel, along with 10 broader theses about religious life at the prison. Dubler’s voice is rarely absent from Down in the Chapel, but it blends with many others: a Catholic convert who has studied Greek and Hebrew for seven years since being sentenced to life for murder; an atheist who works as the chapel janitor and thinks more about the philosophy of religion than most seminarians; Cherokee and Lakota prisoners who come together for smudging ceremonies and prayer circles; the rabbi, imam, Catholic priest, Lutheran pastor, and former guerrilla warrior in Sierra Leone’s civil war turned reverend who serve as chaplains; a lazy-eyed Wiccan who wears a silver pentagram but refuses to practice anywhere but his cell; and the many corrections officers, some callous and some caring, who staff the prison.

He is right to call Graterford’s Chapel “a wonder of American religious pluralism.” In his own words: “the predominant Muslims and Protestants, Catholics and Jews share time and space here, as do Episcopalians, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents to the black nationalist religions such as the Nation of Islam, Muhammad’s Temple, and the Moorish Science Temple, and practitioners of Native American spirituality.”

The prison’s chapel is indeed a testament to the possibilities of pluralism, with so many belief systems meeting and sharing space, but Dubler exaggerates when he claims it is “the most religiously eclectic sliver of real estate in the history of the world.” Even the prisoners themselves complicate this rosy portrait, impugning the sincerity of one another’s beliefs, reminding Dubler that jail-house religion is a real thing, forged in boredom, faked for privileges like phone calls and privacy, performed for the benefit of the parole board.

Jail-house religion is real, but rare, and Dubler is right to take seriously the religious faith of these men. He spends hours talking with them about prayer, theodicy, music, ethics, ecumenism, revelation, and scripture. Take, for example, an exchange between Dubler and Vic, the chapel’s resident atheist. “‘You know,’ Vic says, ‘religion is the perfect example of how twisted we are as a species.’”

Dubler summarizes his own response: “I laugh with the pleasure of unanticipated recognition and deliver a short spiel on the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and his touchstone inversion of the principle that man is made in God’s image.” The “spiel” continues in summary form for our benefit, until Vic interrupts: “No, that part religion gets right. We are a bunch of dirty rotten sinners.”

The two get to talking about Feuerbach and Marx, scapegoats, military intervention, and death. It’s wonderful to imagine thoughtful, curious prisoners like Vic finding a conversation partner in Dubler, even though one wonders why the author quotes prisoners directly but mostly paraphrases his own dialogue—the effect being that the prisoners often seem like rubes or strawmen for his long, revised and refined discourses on religion.

Down in the Chapel is most interesting when it focuses on the thoughts, questions, concerns, and beliefs of the prisoners themselves. These are the voices we long to hear, the perspectives we realize are missing from our own considerations of religion. Eavesdropping on these conversations is the real gift offered by Dubler’s book.

His 10 theses, which he says were “at the behest of my editor,” are somewhat contradictory and perhaps too vague, but Dubler labors with sincerity and urgency to share the story of faith at Graterford with the outside world. He is a better listener than lecturer, and the beauty of the book comes from his observations, not his explanations: when he sits in the pews and classrooms of the chapel complex; when he learns that prisoners make candles from crayons; when he listens to communicants sing hymns before the sacrament; when he observes Talim class or watches men stand, bow, and pray during Jum’ah.

Down in the Chapel takes us where we might otherwise not go: deep inside America’s prison industrial complex, a criminal justice system that costs $212 billion per year, employs 2.4 million people—more than Walmart and McDonald’s combined—and incarcerates one of out every 100 adults in the United States. It is shocking that a system so pervasive, so prevalent can still be so foreign. Even if you’ve never eaten a Big Mac or set foot in a Walmart, you’ve still seen their commercials or know someone who flipped burgers as a teenager or worked as a greeter in retirement.

Prisons remain hidden in plain sight; the prisoners whose lives unfold behind their bars, fences, and walls are largely invisible. We might catch an episode of Orange Is the New Black or watch an old season of Oz, but for many of us prisons are a foreign land that we will never visit and prisoners are a foreign people with whom we will never speak. Joshua Dubler’s book, then, is an important dispatch.