Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison

Listen to Book Discussion:


Joshua Dubler discusses his recent book "Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison" that takes place about 35 miles outside of Philadelphia at Graterford Prison.  The book explores seven days in the religious life of the prison, focusing on the history of Islam, and the internal social structures that once unified prisoners that have since decayed.  The book talk held at the Big Idea Bookstore in Pittsburgh, touches on historical trends that got us to this moment of mass incarceration and the absurd necessity to struggle for prison abolition.

Quotes from the book and talk:

Graterford I would say is the cultural flagship of the system. It's a prison where people are serving really long amounts of time.  Of the 3500 - 4000 men who live at Graterford, maybe a quarter are serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Prior to the 1990s there was a robust commutation system, which went away in the 90s.  What I want to read to you will in part describe that transition. It was a transition locally that mapped onto law and administration shifts nation wide.

There are 15 men who work in the chapel as janitors and clerks, and with the exception of one of these people, they are all serving the sentence of life without parole.  So those are the central characters of the book.

Within this monument to American unfreedom, you actually find this earnest commitment to the protection of peoples first amendment right to free religious exercise.

The spirit of the prison is not what you would be led to believe by television.  The spirit of the prison is more like the DMV.  Where everyone is lax and in various ways trying to do as little as they can. But there are all these rules on the books. And what that means in practice is, the rules aren't enforced, and everyone is in violation of the rules at all times.  At any point, if the administration wants to crack down, they are in their right to do so.  Or if I'm a prisoner and you're a prisoner, and you have something I want, I can drop a slip on you that you have too many books in your cell and you can be punished for that too.

Back then the administration's reliance on prisoner leadership for the maintenance of social order was undisguised.  But a decade into the crack epidemic, violent crime was up, conservative social theorists warned of a new generation of super predators and even democratic politicians couldn't be tough enough on crime.  Corrections was the new master category and control it's lynch pin. In institutions across the country, prisoner movements were restricted and surveillance heightened. Educational and psychological resources were gutted.  The nominal purpose of prisons ceased to be about rehabilitating prisoners.  Prisons were now for punishment.

In '60, when King would talk about law, he would talk about law as standing in some kind of tension with justice.  And justice was this horizon that he thought that, as a kind of liberal protestant, he wanted us to bring the law in line with justice. Justice being something that belongs to god and it's perfect.  By 1964, Goldwater loses, but first articulates what's going to be the standard doctrine of the conservative movement controlling the rest of the 20th century.  Justice has fallen out.  And what law becomes about is essentially one follows the law. Ones obligation is to follow the law. And following the law means obeying the law and the law is about protecting essentially property rights and what contemporary property rights are. This framework of thinking about law in that way as opposed to law in relationship to higher justice (which I think is a religious construct) works well for evangelicals for whom justice will arrive at the end of time, and secularists who are uncomfortable with those kind of abstractions.  Some of the work I think that we might have in front of us if we are going to organize around this stuff is to develop a language that posits a horizon of justice beyond that law.

I felt as though it had to be in the present tense, because I believe that on some level the present is all there is.  And it had to be in the present tense because the present is the tense when the status quo is perpetually reproduced. And I want to hail the reader into recognizing his or her position in that present where which we receive a lot of things that seem to be fixed but that we can trouble and change.

HRC FedUp! Delivers Petitions to Drop Case against SCI Dallas Prisoners

On December 2nd, members of HRC FedUp! traveled to the Luzerne County Courthouse to deliver 250 petition signatures to District Attorney Salavantis asking her to drop riot charges against 5 PA prisoners colloquially named the Dallas 5.  FedUp! members held signs and handed out flyers for a few hours and then delivered petitions to the DA's secretary.  Members were asked to move from the steps and told by court security that there were rules governing picketing during trials.  The trial for the Dallas 5 is set to begin next Monday.  

This week, Shandre Delaney is interviewed on the Legacy of a Nation radio show about the case.
Listen Here!

The District Attorney would not meet with us.

Supporters Petition DA Salavantis to Drop the Case

For Immediate Release 

Contact:  Shandre Delaney
Phone: (412) 403-6101

Family Members Petition DA to Drop Case Against Prisoners

Luzerne County, PA - December 2, 2013- Family members and supporters of PA state prisoners accused of riot at SCI Dallas in 2010 are calling on the District Attorney of Luzerne County to drop the case, before the trial set to begin on December 9th. They will deliver petitions to DA Salavantis and convene at the Luzerne County Courthouse today at noon.

In April of 2010, six prisoners who were incarcerated at SCI Dallas covered their cell windows with towels and barricaded their cell doors leading to cell extractions by prison guards. The prisoners were removed from their cells, pepper sprayed and tased by correctional officers, strip searched, and moved to different cells. The prisoners filed grievances against the prison on conditions of confinement and food deprivation leading up to the events and wrote to outside human rights agencies. The Department of Corrections filed riot charges against the prisoners in July of 2010.

Since 2010, one prisoner has been released from prison and plead out of this case, and another, Duane Peters, has been removed from the case and will be tried separately. Court watcher, Debby Rabold, attended a preliminary hearing for 5 of the prisoners on September 19th in Judge Lisa Gelb's court, and found that one of the prisoners had not been arraigned yet and one had not been transported to the hearing. 

"If the District Attorney had any factual evidence against the inmates with which to proceed, the case would have been adjudicated long ago. Lacking evidence, the case has been continued month after month for over three years -- all at the expense of tax dollars which could have, and should have been, spent more wisely," Rabold said.

"After watching the 35 minute cell extraction video of Carrington Keys, it becomes clear that the conditions of confinement are inhumane," says Amanda Johnson of the Human Rights Coalition FedUp! "The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that solitary confinement for over 15 days could be defined as torture. No one should have to live or work under these principles and procedures. "

Prisoners who are housed in the Restricted Housing Unit within the PA Department of Corrections are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day with little recreation or social stimulation. Prisoners can be held in the Restricted Housing Unit for years for disciplinary or administrative reasons. The Disability Rights Network filed a lawsuit against the PA Department of Corrections last March on behalf of prisoners with serious mental illness being held in solitary confinement and not receiving treatment. The U.S. Department of Justice expanded their investigation from two to all PA prisons this past year.

Direct Aid for Karimah and Kids

Karimah's electric and gas have been shut off for lack of funds and she cannot get emergency heating assistance until the first week of November. Karimah zawjatul Khalid Muhammad supports her husband Sergio, who is in prison, and cares for three special needs kids.  They are members of the Human Rights Coalition.  You can read some of Sergio's writing here  We are raising money to help Karimah and her three kids get their utilities back on, which is $583 dollars.

You can send a check donation directly to the energy company at:

For Delon Lewis Account # 59404-15015
P.O. Box 37629
Philadelphia, PA 19101

You can use the paypal button to donate:

For other donations, or if you have alternate housing in Philadelphia to offer contact

Prison Abolition Discussion Night

The Human Rights Coalition FedUp! hosted a prison abolition discussion night the first Wednesday of the month to talk about the history, context, and intersectionalities of working for prison abolition.

"Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another."

This month we read a chapter from the book The Slave Ship A Human History by Marcus Rediker.  The chapter was chapter 10, "The Long Voyage of the Slave Ship Brooks."  It focuses on the role of imagery and working class, sailor narratives in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.  A poster depicting horrific conditions of enslaved people was displayed before British Parliament and spread throughout newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Much like prisons today, slave ships were advertised by merchants and profiteers as safe, hygienic, and technologically forward enterprises.  Under similar guises, local architecture firm, Astorino, has been spotlighted by Decarcerate PA Pittsburgh for their work in expanding maximum security housing and solitary confinement cells across state prisons. (See criminal justice portfolio and language) The idea that prisons can be made better and safer and that reform movements are enough, and that figuring out ways to make prisons more cost and energy efficient is challenged by the work of prison abolitionists.

poster by Andalusia Knoll 2004

Here is a preview of the chapter contents, within the questions we used to have a conversation:

1. "Every man condemns the trade, but it requires the exhibition of particular instances of the enormity, to induce those to be active in the matter"
The image of the slave ship Brooks is a visual tool used to show horrible conditions and move people to respond. What images have moved you in this way? What images have worked for the prison abolitionist movement? Feel free to bring images you have seen to share. What images can we use and how?

2. "Knowledge must be concrete, material and human. Not an exaggeration, but a narration of miseries which cannot be exaggerated which extends to millions."
Do you think working for prison abolition is the telling of a narration of miseries? What sources do you tune into to find out about or spread this narration of miseries? If our group is participating in the creation of the narration of miseries, how are we doing it and is there room to change or improve?

3. Clarkson emphasized sailors' experience (as members of preferred white race and preferred european nationality) to appeal to British government and public to look at slavery. He wasn't looking at the conditions of the enslaved people, but the conditions of the sailors charged with keeping them enslaved. The sailors were organized by a merchant class.
How does this translate to the Prison industrial complex? How do corrections officers fit into the struggle for prison abolition? How has our group related to the correctional officer class in the past and how should we moving forward?

4. Compare and contrast: Similarities and differences from the strategies of abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the abolition of the U.S. prison industrial complex.
e.g. Both abolitionists highlighted individual and collective acts of rebellion by slaves against conditions
e.g. like prisons, slaveships were presented to government officials as safe, modern, hygenic advances in science and technology

5. Reformers: The book indicates that one way that Britain came to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade was by reforming regulations for how many enslaved people could be housed on one boat, making it unprofitable for merchant class to continue human business when regulations were high. How has/ will reform efforts help work towards prison abolition?

Oral Arguments Challenging Resentencing in Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

On Tuesday, June 25 at 1:15PM, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, 530 Walnut Street (17th Floor) will hear oral arguments on an appeal filed by Abu-Jamal challenging his resentencing from death to life in prison without parole. Mumia Abu-Jamal’s supporters will gather at the courthouse at 11:30AM and wear red in support of the imprisoned journalist and the broader issues his case represents.

At issue is a motion filed by the President of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Judge Pamela Dembe, that failed to notify the defendant or his attorneys of his resentencing. In so doing, Judge Dembe violated Abu-Jamal’s rights to notice of sentencing, to be present and make a statement, and to be apprised of his right to appeal the sentence. These rights are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and by the laws of the state of Pennsylvania. Had Abu-Jamal not discovered and filed a timely appeal to Judge Dembe’s motion, his right to file future appeals would have been irreparably compromised. 

“The unconstitutionality of Judge Dembe’s undisclosed filing echoes the history of due process violations in the Abu-Jamal case, which spans more than three decades. In the original trial the judge, prosecutor, and police conspired to suppress evidence of innocence and to obtain a conviction,” said Professor Johanna Fernandez of Baruch College. Dr. Suzanne Ross explains that “the prosecution's case was built on the specious premise that only three people were present at the time of the shooting, but a fourth person – the probable perpetrator – was seen fleeing the scene after Officer Daniel Faulkner was fatally shot, a fact that the presiding Judge, Albert Sabo, helped suppress.”

Judicial bias and contempt for the defendant also figure prominently in this history. As former Under Sheriff of Philadelphia County, Judge Sabo, could not objectively preside over a case involving the killing of a police officer. Yet he refused to recuse himself when his impartiality was questioned. In 1995, during Mumia’s Post Conviction Relief Act Hearing, Judge Sabo should not have heard and reviewed arguments against the judicial and prosecutorial violations of the very case over which he presided 15 years earlier. Again he refused to recuse himself. Years later, a court stenographer, Terry Maurer Carter, testified under oath that she heard judge Sabo, say to another judge, "I'm going to help them fry the nigger," referring to how he was going to instruct the jury. 

In 2011, Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was confirmed unconstitutional when a Supreme Court motion allowed to stand the past rulings of four federal judges who had as early as 2001 set aside the death penalty in this case. In late 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for Abu-Jamal’s immediate release stating, "Now that it is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row in the first place, justice will not be served by relegating him to prison for the rest of his life….Based on even a minimal following of international human rights standards, Mumia must now be released…”