‘Down in the Chapel’ shows how religion affects the lives of American prisoners

“Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison” by Joshua Dubler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30)

“On one long winter workday in camp, as I was lugging a wheelbarrow together with another man, I asked myself how one might portray the totality of our camp existence. In essence it should suffice to give a thorough description of a single day, providing minute details and focusing on the most ordinary kind of worker; that would reflect the entirety of our experience. It wouldn’t even be necessary to give examples of any particular horrors. It shouldn’t be an extraordinary day at all, but rather a completely unremarkable one, the kind of day that will add up to years.” – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”

With its 30-feet high, nine-sided walls, Graterford Prison, near Philadelphia, encloses 62 acres and houses 3,500 inmates, two-thirds of whom are African-American. Described as “clunky, decrepit, and unconducive to orderliness,” it’s no longer the state-of-the-art penitentiary it was built to be when it opened in 1931.

Into Graterford’s maelstrom of humanity walks Joshua Dubler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, who chronicles what goes on inside the prison’s chapel for one week, 12 hours a day. “Down in the Chapel” offers a comprehensive account of the give and take among five chaplains, 15 prisoners, various volunteers, two prison guards, and hundreds of religious adherents who frequent the chapel. It reveals the dynamics of individual faith, the struggles of interpersonal relationships, the ongoing philosophical and theological debates among contending believers, and the day-to-day banter that marks time in a prison and sustains sanity.

What Dubler discovers is not a prison chapel that transforms inmates into compliant cons or that provides a convenient setting to use religion to beat the system. Rather, “religion at Graterford makes incarcerated men feel free even as it crafts the cosmos in the prison’s regimented image.” And that is its salvation for the mix of prisoners who enter the chapel’s doors.

Dubler, an ethnographer who spent a year in the chapel researching his dissertation that became a book, describes the sociological and historical background of America’s prisons exposing the failures of the system and showing how religion in this particular penitentiary works. “It works to replicate itself inside its residents’ bodies and minds; once there, it helps to pass the time, to give a man tools to survive this boring, scary, and sad place, both in isolation and together with his fellow men.”

Never advocating for a particular religion – he calls himself a secular Jew – Dubler still recognizes the value of religion to structure an inmate’s life, providing each a distinct lodestar for living. Catholics, varieties of Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, followers of Native American spirituality, atheists (yes, some show up for chapel activities) and disciples of various off-shoot religions mirror the religious pluralism of any sizable city in this country.

How these adherents – including Teddy, a Christian, serving life for murder, burglary and arson; and Baraka, a Muslim, convicted of homicide – interact is Dubler’s fly-on-the-wall account. While his reporting is engaging and detailed, lengthy descriptions of each day challenge the reader to stay with him. Yet, his exhaustive reporting rewards those who want an insider’s look, filtered as it may be, at how inmates live, many of whom have little hope of ever leaving prison.

After recounting a week’s worth of events and conversations, Dubler comes up with 10 theses about religious life at Graterford Prison. His conclusions underscore the fact that religious sentiments and attitudes are not so different from what’s found outside prison walls.

“Religion at Graterford Prison exudes the confidence and creativity that has dominated American religion and spirituality for the last 200 years,” he posits as Thesis 1. “As it is said,” quotes Dubler of the disparate believers’ common credo at Graterford: “Because by all rights I should be dead ten times over, I know that God has a special plan for me.” What religious person doesn’t proclaim the latter part of that statement as an article of faith?

But one man’s God-directed plan needn’t negate another’s at Graterford. As Thesis 2 asserts: “In principle, as long as a guy is what chapel regulars call ‘God conscious,’ his beliefs in some other God needn’t be a threat to me.” It’s the corollary to what is practiced by the unincarcerated and that undergirds American religious freedom and its derivative tribalism: “Thou shalt believe. Believe in one thing, whatever that thing may be.” Hasn’t that become bottom-line belief for countless people, whether religious or not?

What is evident over the course of the encounters between chapelgoers and between individual convicts and Dubler is that religion in this prison is more than a spiritual sedative. “Religion at Graterford is decidedly of its time,” he states. “In this era of carceral control, as educational and therapeutic opportunities have withered, increasingly, if a prisoner is looking to work on himself spiritually or intellectually, he will venture down to the chapel to do so.”

And that brings the 82-year-old prison full circle. Dubler notes: “In its perverse and roundabout way, then, religion at Graterford honors the penitentiary’s founding mission, producing men who regard themselves as transformed, and indeed, in a variety of ways, they are.”

Dubler’s account of prison life in a prison chapel is a compelling look at the way religion defines individual inmates while inviting those of us on the other side of those massive walls to ponder how we are serving time, using and abusing religion.

UPDATE: A new $400 million prison to replace Graterford is expected to be completed in 2015. It will house 4,000 inmates.