Finding God Behind Bars: A Look at Religion in American Prisons

What’s the state of religion behind bars? A Princeton-educated scholar studies the diverse ways that prisoners find and keep faith today. Joshua Dubois on what we can learn from them.

08.25.13 8:45 AM ET

That Joshua Dubler made it out alive is perhaps the most telling thing about his book. Down in the Chapel is a fascinating look inside an American prison—a fact alone that's dangerous enough. But Dubler is a Princeton-educated religion scholar, and his focus of study is the prison chapel of Graterford Maximum Security Prison outside of Philadelphia. He surrounds himself with murderers, and then proceeds to poke and prod them on the topics of politics and religion. It's hard to think of a more combustible arrangement.

But Dubler survives—and there's a reason why. The men he profiles in Down in the Chapel have, in many cases, been convicted of grievous wrongs—men like Baraka, Sayyid, Teddy and Al, four prisoners from South Philly around whom the book is primarily based, two Muslims and two Christians respectively, all locked up for life. But between the Catholic office and the chapel, the Imam's office and the annex, we learn that these guys are not simply forgettable convicts, easily warehoused away and forgotten. Instead they are men, real men, with philosophies, dreams, humor, and deep sadness. By the end of the book, we wonder less why they spared this agitating author—of course they would—than whether we should have done a better job at sparing a few of them.

Dubler journals seven days inside the chapel, including its bible studies and baptism classes, Muslim Jum’ah and Jewish Sabbath. But the book goes beyond mere voyeurism. As if feeling pinned in by prisons walls himself, Dubler frequently uses his command of language to reach outside of them. Down in the Chapel is variously a primer on what is wrong with the criminal justice system (endemic poverty and broken families are among the culprits Dubler points to), a guidebook on religions (including a fascinating history of Islam, and the Nation of Islam, in America), and something like a history of the world. You can feel Dubler's philosophical training as he uses Foucault to link the founding of the American republic to the character of modern correctional facilities, in one elegant, unsettling stream. These contextual flourishes make the book seem at times more like a sermon than an ethnography—which also makes for a more interesting read. 

In one passage, we join Dubler and a Native American prisoner named Claw in a traditional smudging ritual, complete with an eagle wing, turtle shell, and sage and sweetgrass to smoke. In the corner of the prison yard next to the E Block section, the author stands next to Claw, Bobby Hawk, Lucas Sparrowhawk, and a few others as they pray for their families, the weather, and their friend Chipmunk, who’s in the hole. The scene, like much of the book, borders on surreal, like you’re inhaling some of their smoke secondhand. You wonder what to make of it, if you should make anything at all.

Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison By Joshua Dubler 400 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.

And in fact, readers should be careful before drawing broad lessons about American religion from Down in the Chapel. Dubler explains that most of the men in Graterford Prison are convicted murders, and they aren't going anywhere anytime soon. We’re left with a suspicion that at least some of the religiosity—the reading of holy books, the commitment to their coreligionists, the "mastering of self"—is a function of the fact that these guys are in a place where most decisions are made for them, so faith is one decision they can make, and manipulate, for themselves. With all of the religious exceptions and latitude afforded to the faithful, there’s a faint air of deceit that wafts through the book.  The religious life at Graterford exists within an iron-domed bubble, and its lessons on ecumenism must be taken with a grain of salt.

But we should still pay attention to these lessons, and this book, if only because there are windows here that we will get nowhere else. Most of us will never see a retired rabbi give his views on religious diversity and then take a stroll down to counsel prisoners on death row. Most of us will never know a frightening 300-pound mass of a man like Al, whose pulsing rage is quieted only by the Jesus in his soul. Most of us will never set foot in a chapel that's used for worship services during the day, and then littered with condoms at night. In Down in the Chapel, these stark revelations creep up on you like a mugger in the dark, between the prisoners' faith-talk and author's ruminations. It's like taking communion before watching The Wire; it is philosophy, with a side of violence.