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.

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