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Philly Inmates Speak Out About Religious Life in “Down in the Chapel"

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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.

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“Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison” (FSG; $14.99-$30) tells the story of one week at Graterford Prison. Joshua Dubler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, shares 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 in one of the most religiously vibrant places in America: a state penitentiary.

“It is very much about the everyday,” Dubler said. “In fact, of the two men at Graterford who read my manuscript repeatedly, they might have been a little frustrated at times that it wasn’t more explicitly policy oriented. I do think there are some policy conclusions that the book makes irresistible and I would hope that readers come to that on their own.”

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. Dubler goes beyond these stereotypes to show the religious life of a prison in all its complexity. Dubler, who has taught at Haverford College, Columbia University and Villanova’s University’s program at Graterford Prison, has been intrigued with the American prison system since childhood.

“I tend to think that people are largely a victim of their circumstances, because I myself am so acutely a product of my circumstances,” Dubler said. “Those two nodes — incarceration on the one hand and a child growing up in New York in the 1980s and ’90s at a time when the American prison population is exploding 600-700 percent — my mother, among her many hats, worked at Rikers Island, so I was aware from a young age of the phenomenon of mass incarceration, and I was always drawn and horrified by it like one is drawn to something like a vocation.”

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.

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