Penn Penitentiary, Where Converts Dwell Among Convicts

[14 August 2014]

By John L. Murphy

Above: Criminal in handcuffs image from Shutterstock.com.


While academic articles have scrutinized the range of religious observance behind bars, and while popular culture capitalizing on this milieu treats these activities with passing or prurient interest, few in-depth treatments aimed at a wider audience have appeared. Adapting his Princeton dissertation, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester, Joshua Dubler, guides readers through a prison week in early 2006.

He uses a week’s chronology to intersperse summaries from ethnography and sociology on prison religion, mingling these with a year of sacred and profane discussions among those who gravitate towards one prison chapel, which can be a bleak or comforting “cellular edifice”. Combining scholarly distance with first-hand reports as a participant-observer, he introduces us to 15 chapel workers chosen from a general population of 3,500, their five chaplains, and a pair of officers enlisted to keep order in this quiet corner of Pennsylvania’s Graterford State Correctional Institution.

The inmates reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of this prison, 30-odd miles northwest of Philadelphia. About a quarter of those locked up there identify as Muslim, often drawn from the same South Philly neighborhoods which claim the allegiance of inmates at Graterford, about two-thirds of whom are African-American. Trusting those who they knew outside before they all wound up on the inside, many stick together to attend a particular service among the Islamic options. Three include Warith Deen as the successor to the disbanded Nation of Islam, the Nation of Islam itself as revived under Louis Farrakhan, or an enduring manifestation of earlier Islam in black America, the Moorish Science Temple.

Dubler explores this trio; he elaborates how tensions in this prison had once worsened between factions of black Muslim observance. These sparked resentment among staff and politicians who suppressed what they perceived as subversion in a more permissive atmosphere. In a 1995 crackdown on drugs and smuggling, tough-on-crime authorities gained control over Graterford.

Dubler “as a Jew and a pluralist” sides with these expressions of black identity. As a counter to the “expansionist universalism” of Sunni Muslims, fervent Catholics, or fundamentalist Protestants, he admits his soft spot for a “living genealogy of black religion”. This heritage, however, seems increasingly an urban African-American legacy within a globalizing community, open to religious competition. Reverend Keita is a Bible-based Protestant from Sierra Leone; the prison imam is from Nigeria. This pair ministering to Philly-loyal inmates stands out, as immigrants into black America.

Today, many African-American Muslims opt for an increasingly appealing take on fundamentalism, imported from the Salafi sect in Saudi Arabia. The selection of that imam from Africa may reflect a wish among supervisors to inculcate a more traditional, less politically charged style of supervision through conducting services and monitoring inmate activity.

Whatever the denomination, Dubler reveals the tensions chaplains share. They are soon “burned” by the appeals and scams of inmates conniving to use their phones or computers (rare instances of such devices accessible at Graterford, at least legally), so chaplains can “burn out”, caught between the strategies of staff who use chaplains for surveillance and the scams of inmates who seek to manipulate those assigned to care for them.

Nevertheless, a “palliative” quality of religion, in one common explanation for its ubiquity (which Dubler diminishes as he does any neat formula to shrink down human experience to theory), sedates. At least according to the conventional wisdom, which justifies a widespread practice of prisoner faith. As the liberal Lutheran, Reverend Baumgartner avers (some names are changed in this narrative), the jaded staff regards chaplains as “as affable opiate peddlers”, in Dubler’s memorable phrase.

This book peppers such phrases into its style. Prisoner Teddy and Officer Watkins debate the truth of the Bible, as Dubler judges them “nothing if not readers of outrageous confidence.” He then segues into a rundown of the Second Great Awakening nearly 200 years ago. As a Muslim, Sayyid may deny evolution and assert God’s control, but “his claims to lockjaw epistemological modesty are belied by his exuberance.” A Jewish inmate, the rabbi’s clerk, enters: “Fastidious in his appearance, with pressed browns, sculpted hair, shadowless cheeks, and, in summer, the uniformly bronze hue of an intentional tan, Brian carries himself with the harried air of a corporate professional.”

Neshawn rises during a Nation of Islam gathering to talk about an incident “on the block”; his “appetite for unpolished provocation” and hints to Dubler of “a mind run amok.” Such vivid details humanize those Dubler introduces, and they enliven the gist of a book which can wander off into professorial prose.

This tone, drifting between character studies and theoretical rumination (nearly 30 pages of dense footnotes attest to the origins of this project), creates frequent shifts. Dubler as an Ivy League-trained professor incorporates ten theses, in self-aware, suggestive language, which highlight his attempts at applying theory to the situations he studies. This can be disconcerting, for the range of this study is vast and despite lots of documentation, he can assume his reader knows certain allusions or scholars.

However, he alters this density by varying narrative voices to highlight his own predicament, listening to those on the inside, but always knowing he possesses the freedom denied his informants and confidants. He stays cautious of the staff and cameras watching his moves.

He reports in long conversations the tensions of the body and the spirit, the restless minds and the stifled desires. These he dramatizes, from inmates, chaplains, and guards. (I wondered how often he took notes, took liberties with dialogue, and/or if he transcribed tapes but I cannot ascertain, except for one mention of him transcribing a brief sermon, the precise methods by which he recalls so much, given this hefty expansion of his dissertation.) He blends academic discussions with hip-hop lyrics, trash talk, debates, and his hyper-aware sensibility. After all, he does not fit into this regimentation.

Raised well-off in Manhattan, Dubler reveals how he descends from “agnostic observant Jews” who don’t believe in God anymore, but who take comfort in belonging to a set of values, a community, and a family. This key insight emerges late on, for it’s not until Friday of the dramatized week when we hear it, by way of Dubler at Shabbat service. He then opens up, badgered by Brian, to account for his own Jewish identity, and the merits of his dissertation. How can this one prison stand for millions incarcerated? How can a single study account for unprecedented religious variety among inmates?

Dubler accepts the narrow limits of his project on practical grounds, but he rejects expansion of his observations to create a heady, sweeping statement about religious life in all American prisons. He admits its small scope. He strives to follow academic convention in methodology. Yet, he rejects rigidity as to theory. Earlier, he dismisses both the “bad man” trope where those incarcerated use religion as part of a con and the “poor man” stance where those convicted turn to religion as solace: humbled, beaten down, or too weak to react in other than a pitiful submission to life’s hardships.

Investigating the marked “do-or-die certitude” habitually if not totally asserted by most of the six Muslims, four Protestants, two Catholics, as well as the one atheist who works in the chapel, Dubler notes the necessity for prisoners to adapt such a stubborn line of defense for survival. It’s rare to hear irony when they proclaim their beliefs, for Graterford like any prison is a place “where men tend to bind themselves to the masts of their convictions and tenaciously hold on to those revolutionary moments in time when they first become what they continue to resolutely become.”

This subtle phrasing typifies Dubler’s preference for a flexible expression of religion, rooted in his preference for postmodern lack of resolution and his professed tendency to act out, rather than mull over, ideas. He suspects those locked into a warped, defensive pose, who cannot flex or bend to save themselves.

Among his Jewish fellows, Dubler lets down his academic guard. He has opposed the liberal Protestant position, which courts have adopted. This criterion aligns the sincerity of what is professed “interiorly” with what is indicative of truth through an exterior manifestation. This limits the expression of a sanctioned faith to a denomination demanding a material representation of belief. Dubler resists any judgement which promotes religion by a particular legal or academic label. He responds to Brian’s challenge: “As I see it, rather than in the discreetly mapped forest, it is in the territorial mess of trees and shrubs, undergrowth and earth, where the stuff of religion takes place.”

In such a thicket, he orients himself, given a wavering reaction towards his ancestral Judaism. Rejecting facile scholarly definitions, Dubler affirms that religion is a convivial activity, but it need not be profession of a creed or a ritual enacted as in scripture. It can be what is joyfully, intuitively shared. He equates religion with eating and drinking at a meal “with one’s friends, with one’s people”.

Among others, too, he seeks to understand varieties of religious experience. At a Spanish-language revival service, he wonders if the preacher’s fulminations against “the Jews” are meant symbolically, practically, or personally. He sits gingerly on the frozen ground as part of a Native American circle. He follows Father Gorski to the death row block. He talks with a Catholic inmate applying Franciscan principles of restorative justice to ease relations with the family of his victim.

Dubler attends what he confesses to be a dispiriting Mass on a dreary Saturday night. The surge of emotional relief he feels, he and the priest confide when they leave prison confines for the parking lot, testifies to the pressures built up within the forbidding place they both choose to work at, but from which they both can walk away each night. This freedom divides those who care for these inmates from those inmates. Still, as the book nears its conclusion and the year reaches its end, Dubler lets readers glimpse his growing sadness at departure. He assures those he has spoken to that he will treat them fairly in what he reports to us.

Within Graterford, neither jailhouse terrorists radicalized by Islam nor crazed prophets railing at the their carceral confines materialize. Dubler concedes long-term prisoners learn to endure as ascetics rather than revolutionaries during harsh sentences. “Not system shatterers, today’s religious prisoners are, in their own quiet and righteous way—much like the majority of us—system sustainers.” Demonstrating devotion to a system, even in its “messy and putatively noncoercive assemblage of music, altar patter, and Bible readings”, the “anticlerical, antiliturgical” Protestant Sunday service led by Reverend Baumgartner rouses gratitude at God’s call. Joy sustains its appeal into the rest of the congregants’ week. Certainly, Dubler enjoys it much more than the Catholic Mass the previous night.

This book educates with references to Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach, along with casual nods to The Wire, Dungeons and Dragons, and pro football. Dubler diligently navigates between his privileged status as an academic and his trusted role as an interviewer in an unpredictable environment. He may never shake off his own protective garb, that scholarly, liberal, idealistic mindset which drives him to spend a year at Graterford for his doctoral fieldwork, but he lets down his guard long enough to learn lessons from a formidable cadre of teachers and mentors on the inside.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/184288-down-in-the-chapel-religious-life-in-an-american-prison-by-joshua-du/