A bold and provocative interpretation of one of the most religiously vibrant places in America―a state penitentiary
Baraka, Al, Teddy, and Sayyid―four black men from South Philadelphia, two Christian and two Muslim―are serving life sentences at Pennsylvania's maximum-security Graterford Prison. All of them work in Graterford's chapel, a place that is at once a sanctuary for religious contemplation and an arena for disputing the workings of God and man. Day in, day out, everything is, in its twisted way, rather ordinary. And then one of them disappears.
Down in the Chapel tells the story of one week at Graterford Prison. We learn how the men at Graterford pass their time, care for themselves, and commune with their makers. We observe a variety of Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and others, at prayer and in study and song. And we listen in as an interloping scholar of religion tries to make sense of it all.
When prisoners turn to God, they are often scorned as con artists who fake their piety, or pitied as wretches who cling to faith because faith is all they have left. Joshua Dubler goes beyond these stereotypes to show the religious life of a prison in all its complexity. One part prison procedural, one part philosophical investigation, Down in the Chapel explores the many uses prisoners make of their religions and weighs the circumstances that make these uses possible. Gritty and visceral, meditative and searching, it is an essential study of American religion in the age of mass incarceration.
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Joshua Dubler is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and the coauthor of Bang! Thud: World Spirit from a Texas School Book Depository. He has also taught at Haverford College, Columbia University, and Villanova University's program at Graterford Prison.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Graterford Prison is in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, thirty snaking miles northwest of Philadelphia’s city line. The prison sits on a bucolic plateau of 1,700 acres that rises above the Perkiomen Creek. Fallow farmland runs uphill away from the creek, where, seasonally, deer and Canada geese lounge unmolested. At the top of the rise beside a small reservoir is the OSU, the Outside Service Unit, which houses the “grays,” who are misconduct free and creeping up on their minimums. Past the parking lots is the prison itself, sixty-two acres enclosed behind a thirty-foot-high nine-sided wall. Atop the wall, armed sentries man turrets from which, on a sunny afternoon, they can watch the grays play handball against the outside of the wall. Past the creek and across the valley, one sees the billowing silos of the Limerick nuclear power plant. To the south, the big-box stores inch closer by the year, but even from atop the wall, there is, I imagine, little evidence of that.
Though barely, it is still country here. On a summer evening, at leaving time, when the baseball game waiting for me in the car will be in the fourth or fifth and the cobalt heavens bleed to orange over the valley, this place is not unbeautiful. But in winter, when the wind pushes up from the valley, driving rain and snow sideways into the worn concrete of the wall’s outer shell, the prison feels suddenly like a refuge and the world outside apathetic and grim, a place for coyotes and bears, but not remotely suited for men.
* * *
Declared “state of the art” when it opened in 1931, Graterford is by now a relic of an era gone by: clunky, decrepit, and unconducive to orderliness.1 Five two-tiered cellblocks, each of which houses 500 men, feed into a central corridor that runs from the front gate to the heart of the prison.2 To the right, past the hospital and the “new side” dorms, come the shop floors, the auditorium, the school wing, and the field house. At the corridor’s terminus lies the chapel.
With its fluorescent light, yellow brick walls, crushed stone floor, and acrid odor, the main corridor could well be the hallway of my high school were it not pushing a quarter of a mile long—a span broken by locked gates manned by uniformed guards with whom I exchange good-mornings as I pass. Past the security bubble at the second gate, I step to the right to avoid a correctional officer leading a train of fifty orange-clad “jumpsuits,” the system’s new processees.
“I’ve got two words for you: job security,” the CO says to the gatekeeper.
“ Chugga-chugga chugga-chugga,” chants the CO at the caboose.
The COs couldn’t care less if I heard them, and I don’t flatter myself by pretending otherwise. Absent the slate-colored band on the ID clipped to my lapel, there’s no telling me from any of the jail’s other civilian-clothed employees, whether administrator, counselor, support staff, or vendor. Nor am I on edge. Come and go a few times and Graterford is not a hard place to feel invisible. Presuming, that is, that you’re not a woman.
With movements already over, the odd burgundy-clad prisoner scurries this way or that, a bit late to work, to the hospital, to counseling, to someplace else. “Browns” is what, for the earthy color of their uniforms, these general-population prisoners are called. At the entrance to A Block, I bump into Omar, who flashes me a gummy smile. He’s been thinking about me, he says. When I ask him why, he says he’ll come down and let me know just as soon as he gets himself some teeth.
Between B and C, I come upon Mamduh, another chapel worker, with his young companion, Nasir, at his hip. Quiet, if not soft-spoken, Mamduh, who is from North Philadelphia, has sharp eyes and a scraggly beard that covers most of his pockmarked face, and he looks older than the 1961 birth date claimed by the ID he once showed me to prove it. During the Tuesday-afternoon and Wednesday-night activity blocks, when the Muslims are slotted for the annex, Mamduh instructs a small group of men in Arabic language and grammar.
Mamduh encourages me to come to his Ethics of War class, to take place at 1:30 in the school. The class is an offering of Villanova’s Associate’s Degree Program, which the nearby Catholic university has run for over a generation. Many of the chapel workers and regulars are also college students in the Villanova Program, an overlap that contributes to the commonly shared perception of this cadre as being among the most serious men in the jail.
I won’t make it to the school, I tell Mamduh, but I’ll be sure to catch him later on. As Mamduh recedes, I notice him limping and wonder if something happened over the weekend or whether this isn’t simply the way he walks, one more thing that in my overfamiliarity I’ve come to overlook.
The side yard between C and D blocks is empty at this early hour, as is the chain-link enclosure beyond E Block, where the “blues” have their yard.
The chapel door is unlocked.
* * *
Watkins, an African-American correctional officer from nearby Phoenixville, is perched at his desk, his elbows splayed and his arched hands clasped. A navy-blue PA DOC baseball cap is perched high on his forehead, its bent brim low. Weekends were good, we establish. Without apparent agenda, Watkins asks me if I’ve been to church as of late.
“Sure,” I say, pointing downward. “Here. Almost every day.”
“What about on the outside?” he asks. “Synagogue or anything?”
I signal the negative. And though I’ve been a thrice-a-year Jew for a decade, I add, apologetically, “These things go in cycles.”
Watkins empathizes. “It has to be that way,” he says.
While Watkins has long since stopped taking too much notice of my comings and goings, I warn him that he’s likely to see a fair amount of me in the weeks ahead. For an intended chapter recounting a week in the life of the chapel, I explain that I’m going to be here all day, every day this week, instead of the three to four partial days that is my normal pattern. Watkins nods his head, squints his eyes, and asks—or suggests—in a hushed voice, if, when I’m done, I’m going to “break him off a piece.” I don’t understand.
He looks me in the eye and clarifies: “What’s my cut for the movie going to be?”
While no small number of prisoners have me pegged in some way or another as a mark, most commonly one heaven-sent by a meddling deity as part of His plan to secure their freedom, it has been the chapel’s correctional officers who have been most overt in their plays for financial remuneration for their participation in my research. Watkins’s predecessor tried to solicit my bid for his notebooks documenting twenty years of salacious goings-on in the jail, but Watkins has hitched his cart to my project’s movie-rights star.
I play along. “Fifty-fifty,” I promise him in deadpan. “Just you and me.” Apparently finding the terms favorable, Watkins purses his lips and nods.
In the opposite corner of the vestibule, the maroon-clad Jack has a bottle of Windex in his right hand, a wad of paper towel in his left, and is scrubbing the small, square window in the door to the Catholic suite. Jack, who in the past has stated his preference that the role of Jack be played by George Clooney (though Watkins, with a colder eye, suggests Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander to be a better match), is a short, bald, bulbous-headed Irish-American in his late forties. Jack works as a chapel janitor and helps out Father Gorski in the Catholic office. As has Mamduh, Jack has been scrupulous in bringing to my attention people and things to which he thinks I should attend, once going so far as to attempt to schedule a rendezvous with an Aryan Nation guy he knows from the block. As he assured me, while the two of them get along fine, they are in no way aligned. “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any master race that would have me for a member,” Jack explained. Proposing that I blow him instead, the Nazi declined.
Jack looks at me with puzzlement. “There are no services on Mondays,” he says. Translation: What the hell are you doing here?
“So what goes on on Mondays?” I ask.
“A lot of this,” he says, holding up his Windex. Jack edges over to tell me about a book he read over the weekend—a biography of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization.3 I ask Jack whose book it is. It’s his, he explains, but the guys in the Catholic community will all pass it around. They do the same with the National Review, he adds leadingly, digging at our political differences. Affecting a mock conspiratorial air, Jack looks behind each shoulder before saying that he could slip the book to me, just as sometime back he’d lent me a right-wing radio talk-show host’s political-conversion memoir. Affecting the same air, I ask him to please do just that.4
Jack can be alternately magnanimous or dyspeptic. He often seems hungry for exchange, but he tends to lead with a jagged edge. His rage is channeled primarily through the culture war in whose stark light I’m an America-hating, Israel-betraying, homosexual-agenda-pushing cancer on our great nation. When politics fails, Jack falls back on sports, where my New York allegiances align me, again, with the forces of evil. Jack likes to bait, and more often than not I’m happy to be baited. Together we walk from the vestibule into the chapel. He offers me some coffee, which I decline, saying that I need to be mindful because I haven’t been sleeping.
“Liberal guilt!” Jack diagnoses, and walks away. The truth is that I’m jet-lagged from a trip overseas, but this I do not advertise.
Jack returns with a peace offering: “I don’t know if this will help you, but you know how they say how there’re no atheists in the foxhole? Well, when I was arrested, the first person I asked to talk to was a priest.” After a slight hesitation, Jack says it’s on his mind since he only recently learned of the priest’s passing.
Following mass on Saturday night, Jack further informs me, they convened the first installment of the monthly Spanish-language Bible study. I’m pleased to hear it, I tell Jack, because I know Father Gorski has been trying to get something like that off the ground. Jack underscores the alienation the Spanish-speaking Catholics feel at the English-language mass.
“So you’re losing them all to the Evangelicals?” I ask, presuming that developments at Graterford accord with wider cultural trends.5
Jack grimaces playfully.
There has been a lightness to Jack of late. I know he’s recently doubled his dose of Prozac, which has drawn some color back into his cheeks. Meanwhile, he’s also been edging toward coming out of the closet as a Christian Scientist. He has been confessing his divided allegiance to me since I first arrived at the prison, but has yet to tell his father or sister. And though it’s been years since official policy restricted a prisoner to the religious services of the group with which he is administratively identified, and while to my knowledge no one is forcing him to choose, Jack is conflicted. From the time he first picked it up eighteen months earlier, he has found in Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health a powerful witness that fills him with hope and makes him feel like he’s finally getting some things under control. But as much as he enjoys his Sunday studies and the visits of his spiritual advisor, Jack—a perennial altar boy—worries that he is neglecting the Virgin Mary and therefore dishonoring the memory of his mother. So he gives equal time to his Catholic observances, especially to counting the rosary, when Jack likes to focus on Mary’s assumption to heaven and the grace of a happy death.
Religious boundary crossing of Jack’s sort is, in the chapel, hardly unusual, but it is generally cast as a passing phase. Sure, one is free to sample and search, but ultimately, as Jack would be the first to tell you, a man must choose. And so, in pursuit of coherence as much as grace, Jack experiences his balancing act as a stopgap, a hedging of bets before he takes his money off the table and settles back into his life as a Catholic or lets it ride on the healing Jesus he’s come to know through the Church of Christ, Scientist.6
* * *
Baraka jerks his head over his right shoulder, fixes on my eyes, registers surprise, and saunters into the chapel with his hand outstretched. “So,” he asks with a cock of his head and an interrogative flick of his wrist, “what’s going on?”
Save for a narrow ridge of goatee, Baraka is clean-shaven, and his tiger-print glasses frame his almond eyes. Often, as today, his browns are almost pink, an ancient vintage prized for its softer fabric, and by now worn almost to parchment. Baraka is the Imam’s clerk and my most crucial interlocutor. (For different reasons, he and I both are made uneasy by the classical anthropological term informant.)7 In practice, he might well be my dissertation advisor. Most crucially, Baraka is the person I commonly consult to make sense of what is real and what is not in this strange place. It is a need that Baraka alternately satisfies and thwarts. With his conviction that “things are far more simple than they appear,” Baraka sells me on the importance of reading surfaces. This clarifying interpretive principle, however, is wholly at odds with a second position Baraka advocates with equal insistence: that “ everything one sees in here is real” (and therefore dicey), the feints and dodges no less so than the brutally honest confessions.
To his question of “So what’s going on?” I answer that I have insomnia. With sarcasm, he asks if I’m anxious. Confronted with the same formula last week, I’d misguidedly confessed to being preoccupied with concerns over where my paycheck was to come from come July, in particular whether I’m going to get the job at the nearby college for which I’ve been shortlisted. Baraka greeted my disclosure of academic job-market anxiety with equal measures of incredulity and intolerance, berating me for being “like a cork in the ocean.”
Like many of the chapel regulars, Baraka preaches the virtues of self-mastery. “If you don’t have mastery over yourself, then you’re just reacting,” he has said. The consequences of which, in a place like Graterford, are dire, since “just reacting will get you killed.” For Baraka, controlling the body begins with the regulation of one’s thoughts. He has little patience for those who fixate on what they’ve done, what they’ve lost, or where they might be headed when they die. Get stuck in one of those traps, he’s said, “and I’m useless to myself and to anyone else.”8
This is the week, I tell Baraka, and reconfirm that he remains willing to be my supplementary eyes and ears. Baraka nods and asks me what I’m hoping to “catch as I slide down the slope.” I don’t understand what he means.
He rephrases his question: “What are you hoping to get out of it?” I shrug my shoulders and bite my lip, and Baraka nods once more.
The experiment is hardly an arbitrary one. It was geared to get at the chapel’s stunning range of religious practices, a variety—to echo the immortal William James—for which a seven-day span of time is an apt showcase. On any given week, the chapel plays host to thirteen recognized religious groups whose members convene more than forty weekly assemblies, including worship services, textual studies, devotional groups, and musical rehearsals, activities that draw between a quarter and a third of the prison’s residents. In addition to the predominant Muslims and Protestants, Catholics and Jews share time a...
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