Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison

Book Cover, Down in the Chapel

Joshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapel opens with a scene of surprising calm for a book about maximum-security prisons. Al, a devout if extreme Protestant, and Baraka, a Warith Deen Mohammed Muslim, are debating the knowability of God’s intentions. Al thinks God is totally accessible, while Baraka disagrees. The two lightly bicker back and forth, but their tone is respectful. When asked how they remain so calm, Baraka jokes, “The creator made the world and said, ‘Have at it, fellas.’”

Al and Baraka are inmates at Pennsylvania’s Graterford Penitentiary, where they work together in the prison chapel. They have become not just friendly, but indulgent of one another. While there’s a stereotype of prison as a cutthroat, clannish place, Dubler suggests with his first scene that it can also produce tolerance, and maybe even understanding.

The Princeton-trained researcher focuses his book on one tumultuous week in the life of Graterford’s religious inmates, at a moment when cutbacks and amalgamation have made it harder to accommodate their needs. Dubler argues that the multifaith chapel at Graterford may well be one of the most religiously diverse places in the world, since it hosts 40 services a week from 13 different religious groups.

His study is particularly timely for Canadian readers, given recent debates about the importance of faith-based programming in our own system – last fall, the Correctional Service Department quietly stopped funding part-time chaplains for Canada’s national penitentiaries, which equalled a cut of 49 clerics, including all but a few of the non-Christian chaplains.

Advocates have argued that these cuts have caused more recidivism and violence, since religious programming is often the only rehabilitation training that prisoners receive. Others are more skeptical of religion’s taming effect on hardened inmates. In Dubler’s book, one of the inmates, Brian, is a stand-in for this argument, calling religion a “game” played by his fellow inmates: “Guys do it for the privileges, for the power it gives them in this place … and for protection.”

Readers hoping to find clarity on this debate will have a lot to consider in Chapel. The author spends most of his time dissecting the nightly Bible fellowships and study groups where inmates try to puzzle out the meaning of scripture. The discussions are often raw and searching, far more complicated than the pleasant ribbing that opens the book.

Some of the conversations provide an unusual perspective on well-trod doctrine. Of course it’s interesting to hear a lifer’s take on the Christian notions of sacrifice and surrender, for example, or the Koranic ideas about brotherhood. But most of the discussions are not so revealing. Dubler is an ethnographer by disposition, and doesn’t do enough editing. He includes every telling detail, from chatty, meandering conversations about prison food to complete transcripts of sermons and hymns. The effect can be exhausting, like attending an adult church service for the first time as a 10-year-old, after years of Sunday school.

But among the arbitrary details, Dubler presents a very rich portrait of the challenges and inherent contradictions of being faithful while under confinement. Forgiveness, love and trust are foundational to almost every religion represented at Graterford, but these same traits are huge vulnerabilities in a maximum-security lock-up. When Charles, a younger inmate, confesses to feelings of loss and regret during a Bible study, he’s pilloried for being a “baby of a man.” His stock never fully recovers.

Even Baraka, the happy-go-lucky Warith Deen adherent, reveals a deep cynicism about his fellow inmates when Dubler begins to press him. When asked about tolerance, he admits that he doesn’t really trust Protestant evangelicals like Al, or Salafi Muslims, come to think of it. After Baraka calls out certain religions as “frauds,” Dubler writes that “his face betrays the unpleasantness of being forced to share cramped quarters with what he deems to be idiotic.”

Baraka’s is the wary cynicism that develops after years of negotiating prison politics and tenuous allegiances, of making compromises to live a pious life in a place that’s both terribly repressive and inherently unstable. By the end, Dubler has explored many of the eternal and personal reasons for practising faith – edification, self-knowledge or even just occupation – and concluded that most of the prisoners don’t seem to be faking piety for personal gain. The risks are just too great to take it up insincerely.

Chris Berube is a writer and radio producer. His work has appeared in The Walrus, and The New York Times.

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