When people think of religion in maximum-security prisons, they often imagine one of two things: men who fake their devotion to gain special privileges, or men who become religious because they have nothing else to live for. But the truth is more complex, and much richer, says Joshua Dubler, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and author of the new book, Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).
"I hope that my book contributes to a dawning sense that the way we do criminal justice in the U.S. is somewhat insane and a moral atrocity," says Dubler, whose work is receiving praise from media outlets such as Publisher's Weekly and Christian Science Monitor, and for raising criticisms and inviting discussions about topics like the graying prison population, the role of religion in rehabilitation and imprisonment, the evolution of Islam in prison, and the politics of mass incarceration.
Narrated by Dubler, who spent more than six years working with prisoners in Graterford Maximum Security Prison outside Philadelphia, Down in the Chapel is told primarily through his interactions with a dozen or so lifers—among them Muslims and Christians, Jews, Catholics and even an atheist—the majority of whom work in the chapel as janitors and clerks. Written as what he calls an experiment to dispel stereotypes about religious diversity in prisons, "the book is not conventional scholarship for a reason. I want people to contemplate how they think critically about religion," says Dubler who uses his perspective as a scholar of religion to frame the narrative, which takes place during one week inside Graterford's chapel. But the book also delves into contemporary conversations with the inmates, such as the place of prison in today's society.
"This book is a masterful and magisterial probing into our new Jim Crow, told with subtle intelligence and genuine compassion," says Cornel West, Princeton professor and public intellectual. "I salute Brother Joshua Dubler!"
According to Dubler, "today we incarcerate so many people in such a restrictive way that it's unthinkable to us that there could be another way of doing things. My hope is that this book gives people new reasons to question why that is."
At Rochester, Dubler teaches courses on religion in America and theory of religion. He is the coauthor of Bang! Thud: World Spirit from a Texas School Book Depository (Autraumaton, 2006) and previously taught at Haverford College, Columbia University, and Villanova University's program at Graterford Prison. He currently lives in Rochester with his wife and two children.