Joshua Dubler talks to MRB’s Joseph Williams

“I am no longer the man I once was”

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Image: Brandon Vick, University of Rochester

[MRB editor Joseph Williams and Joshua Dubler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, talk about Dubler’s new book Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, released today by FSG. Also, see MRB‘s exclusive excerpt from the new book, and the LARB review.]

JW: You indicate that your mother’s experience working at the Rikers Island jail in New York City played an important role in your decision to study religion in the U.S. prison system. But how did you end up choosing Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania as the site of your study?

JD: My project was initially slated to take place at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison. I was doing my graduate work at Princeton, and so New Jersey is where I was. After receiving approval, however — this was in the summer of 2004 — New Jersey subsequently withdrew its support. From what I could tell (though little additional feedback was forthcoming) the New Jersey Department of Corrections didn’t have much in the way of research oversight, and perhaps drawing the same conclusion, the DOC’s Commissioner suspended all research in their institutions.

So I looked to neighboring states. As you might imagine, in today’s culture of control, prison administrators tend to be fairly wary of researchers like me. In part due to a long-standing partnership between the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, however, Pennsylvania’s system is comparatively permeable. As an older institution, and one tied in countless ways to the city of Philadelphia, Graterford has the most stuff going on, much of it sponsored by outside volunteers — far less than there was between the seventies and the nineties, but substantially more than the average American prison. So once the DOC IRB approved my research proposal, Graterford seemed to all parties like the natural fit.

Graterford Prison

JW: One of the first things you tell us is that the authenticity of prisoners who embrace religion is viewed with suspicion. How and why does that happen?

JD: I believe that some of the book’s most substantive contributions emerge in response to this question. My take is that the knee-jerk suspicion that religious prisoners are merely “faking it” is the natural consequence of the ways that we, as a culture, tend to think about religion, and what we, as a culture, tend to think about prisoners.

First: “religion.” As is no secret within the study of religion, the American discourse of religion is essentially a secularized Protestant discourse, which means that we tend to look for religion in presumed fixed states of interiority. Religion, when it is thought of as real, is attached to what one purportedly believes, deeply and immovably. Since minds and psyches are full of secrets, and we must rely on what people say, religion is generally to be found in what a person enduringly professes as good and true, most especially those ideas of the good and the true that are directly attached to some notion of a Supreme Being, divine judgment, eternal life, and so on.

“Prisoners” are easier to characterize. Prisoners we tend to define by virtue of their crimes. And so, when a person we regard as fundamentally rotten — a “murderer” or a “rapist,” say — professes himself to be a faithful follower of the Prince of Peace, Jesus, or a religion of peace, Islam, it is a natural assumption that this person is probably lying.

As bearers of these assumptions, men at Graterford belong to the public at large. With respect to religion, they are generally concerned with faith more than with works, and they place paramount importance on religious sincerity. As men forced to share exceedingly close quarters with 4,000 other men, many of them difficult characters to begin with, they are quick to think the worst of one another. So while men at Graterford don’t generally regard themselves as full of shit, they frequently think that those around them are. And mind you, this is not simply idle resentment. Many have told me the same thing: especially when one is just starting out in prison, this reflex toward suspicion is a necessary adaptation if one is going to survive.

JW: At one point you suggest that dialogue and “mixing it up” came more naturally to you than quietly observing religious life at Graterford. When you began to write, how did you try to balance your authorial voice with that of the individuals you got to know?

JD: The book started essentially as a transcript of the week at hand, based on the fairly compulsive notes I took at the time. As you note, my voice was in there, but I was wary of amplifying it too much above the other voices. My idea back then was that the book would be the literary equivalent of a Dogme ’95 film. The Dogme ’95 filmmakers, if you remember — notably Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg — signed these vows of chastity pursuant to which they swore off unnatural lighting, special effects, non-diegetic music, and other techniques of artifice. That was my vision for this book; for example, whatever theory of religion it used would appear within the narrative frame, within the dialogue. This approach struck me as an interesting and just way to proceed.

Over time, this authorial restraint proved an untenable conceit, because even as I remained in close touch with many of the other people in the book, when it came time to write, there I was, all by myself. Paul Elie, the first editor with whom I worked at FSG, was especially exhortatory that I needed to insert my own insights, which I did. Some of these I sewed into the narrative, while others I quarantined into the “Theses” that precede all the chapters from “Tuesday” forward. (Each chapter is a day of the week.) By keeping the theses discrete, I hoped to own up to my own judgments without sacrificing the polyvocal open-endedness that characterizes the seven days.

JW: You mention your wariness of “overgeneralization” and the temptations associated with writing a prison ethnography. What exactly are the pitfalls, and how did you avoid them?

JD: I was loath to write something that purported to be the definitive book about religion in prison. Given my qualitative methodology (the only sort of methodology I would ever consider using) I thought that a book that claimed to encapsulate “religion in prison” would be a grotesque over-reach — one that would serve to authorize me as a scholar over and against the irreducible diversity of prisoners’ experiences. My reluctance in this respect is by no means prisoner-specific. As a scholar (and here I’m strongly influenced by Nietzsche and Annie Dillard) I take it as my task to honor the world’s complexity and texture. As I say in the book, this commitment is perhaps as theological as I get.

But Michel Foucault’s shadow is also inescapable. For it is in Discipline and Punish that disciplinary knowledge produced about prisoners is made into the quintessential exercise in modern power. It is primarily for this reason that I chose to place myself so prominently within the narrative frame, and why I generally resist (the oddity of the theses aside) extracting my “findings” from the flow of daily life.

But one doesn’t have to read Foucault to intuit that writing about prisoners invites a special set of challenges. For many of my readers, the prisoner is an unseen other, an unseen other about whom they have all sorts of ideas and fantasies. Whether born of contempt or pity, these fantasies belong to the cultural logic under which the men at Graterford have been tossed away. As I said before, the “prisoner” is a pretty rotten type, and the book would be a complete failure if it didn’t somehow try to trouble the reader’s preconceptions about prisoners. It might be somewhat naïve of me but some of the rationale behind the book’s messiness of form is my hope that the sheer crush of diversity will shatter the reader’s stereotypes. You think that all Muslim prisoners are would-be terrorists? Well, let’s hear from representatives from four or five different Muslim groups, and we’ll see how that pans out.

Lastly is the issue of the prison’s salaciousness. People often look to the prison for compellingly ugly stories about criminal mischief and sexual domination. Plainly that sort of stuff happens at Graterford (far less than it used to, most say) but my book makes little effort to uncover such enticing secrets. It is about other things.

JW: You show us the weekly worship schedule at Graterford, and it epitomizes the sheer diversity of religious expressions in the U.S. It’s also clear that religious freedom in an American prison such as Graterford extends only so far. Tell us what you witnessed.

JD: Most definitely, freedom of religion only goes so far. Those are the rules of the game after all, as first laid down in 1878 when the Supreme Court said that Mormons were free to believe whatever they wished, but that such beliefs did not give them the right to marry more than one person.

The religious freedoms accommodated at Graterford are nothing to sneer at. Fifty years ago, a man at Graterford would have been able to practice his religion if he were a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew — that’s it. But during the prisoners’ rights era, which took place at the same time as the ’65 immigrants radically diversified the American religious landscape, the federal courts proved relatively pliable, and eventually, when pushed, prison administrators followed suit. That’s how at Graterford today one finds some twelve different religious denominations meeting on a weekly basis.

But the era of expanding accommodation has long since past. In fact, a bellwether of this shift nationally was a case that came out of Graterford in the early eighties, when the federal court in Philadelphia denied religious accommodation to members of the black naturalist sect MOVE. The courts’ rationale in rejecting MOVE’s petition demonstrates how even at its most expansive, religious freedoms were still dispensed according to a fairly narrow template. The Court ruled that MOVE’s beliefs were sociological, not theological, and as such, MOVE was not a religion but a philosophy. This distinction, which enters the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in 1965’s U.S. v. Seeger, is explicitly drawn from Paul Tillich.

So the religious variety is real, but quite circumscribed.

JW: I wonder what you would say about Graterford’s relationship to the broader society. How does it serve as a microcosm of religious trends at work in the U.S.? And where do these parallels begin to break down?

JD: Corresponding microcosms and macrocosms are most certainly to be found in the eye of the cosmologist. There are universalizable elements to religion at Graterford: it is via religious discourses that men derive their ethics, locate themselves in history, make sense of their suffering, and hone their anger — these among any number of other features we might find outlined in Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Clifford Geertz, and so on.

More narrowly, and to your question, as someone trained in American religious history, I can’t but see these men’s religious dispositions as unmistakably American. These men feel tremendously empowered and obligated to form their own judgments about God, judgments about which they tend to profess overwhelming confidence. They are emotional, more often anti-intellectual than not, and they manage in their convictions to be both absolutists and pluralists at the same time. They are also, the majority of them, African American men, and that carries with it a recognizably unique set of challenges and tools. Here one finds a sense of historical brokenness accompanied by a will to collectivity. African Americans’ perpetual drive to flee Egypt, survive the desert, and make it to the Promised Land: is there a more quintessentially American story than that?

Where parallels break down is with concrete and barbed wire — that is to say, with the irreducible material fact of what it is to be a prisoner. For followers of Christ and of Foucault alike, there is a temptation to exaggerate the commonality between the incarcerated and the nominally free. But at the end of the day, that conflation is violent and vain. Tonight I will kiss my children good night. Men at Graterford will not.

JW: At several points you discuss issues surrounding race and ethnicity. You highlight, for example, the mass incarceration of African American men in the U.S., and the ways in which “black religions” seek to address the grave injustices African Americans have suffered throughout American history. Is there a particular conversation that you had, or a particular individual who helps illustrate the complex intersection of race and religion at Graterford?

JD: Rather than a particular individual or conversation, I would point to something much more epochal. In fact, this question gets at the most epic story Down in the Chapel has to tell — and that’s the story of African American Islam at Graterford.

Graterford offers a living, breathing genealogy of African American Islam — from the Moorish Science Temple; to the Nation of Islam; to the one-time members of the Nation of Islam who, upon Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, followed his son Wallace into Sunni Islam; to the descendants of the old guard “Orthodox” Muslims who now generally identify as Salafi. Contrary to what I’d expected going in, the politically and economically minded, social-justice oriented religion characteristic of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam is terribly out of fashion. The clique that came out of the Nation still play black nationalist notes about the need for economic empowerment and group uplift, but the Salafi legalists who now predominate tend to have little patience for that sort of thing. The Salafi rather are about getting the Sunnah right. They’re about doing one’s ablutions and one’s prayers in the precise way that the Prophet and his companions did them, and not according to some later day innovation. From the Salafi perspective, which was no doubt at least partially formed in Oedipal opposition to their predecessors in the Nation of Islam, instrumentalizing religion for political ends is tantamount to shirk, which means the sin of putting something else on par with God, which is to say, blasphemy. If then, as Charles Long once suggested, the defining characteristic of “black religion” is its posture of adamant refusal, the Salafi negate the negation. Salafism is a black religion (and the overwhelming majority of its adherents are, indeed, African Americans) that rejects the tradition of black religion.

What is especially disheartening in thinking about the ascendency of Salafism over the last couple of decades is how in an era in which — as the chair of Graterford’s chapter of the NAACP put it — “if you try to stand together, they treat you with Thorazine,” a version of Islam that is preoccupied with personal piety and that rejects political action seems exceedingly well adapted to the current regime of mass incarceration.

JW: Towards the end of the book you argue that religion at the prison “helps to transform convicts into prisoners.” What do you mean by this?

JD: First, let me provide a bit of context. The language you quote comes from the “Theses” I mentioned earlier.  To give you an idea of what these theses are, think Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” or Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In spirit, that is to say, the theses are something like analytic poems. They are intended to have a similar relationship to “argument,” which, according to Nietzsche, metaphor has to truth. This is not to disavow the theses’ content, only to suggest that I would be disappointed if they were somehow read as “summing up” the rest of the book. In fact, were the seven days to square off against the theses, I would most certainly root for the seven days.

Now, among the perspectives adopted in the theses is the sort of post-Marxist practice theory that came from Pierre Bourdieu and found its way into the study of religion with the late Catherine Bell. I owe a lot to this conversation, but for the purposes of this book (and maybe for those to follow too) I try to keep it at arm’s length. While softer versions exist, at its worst this approach projects a paranoid pessimism in which to be a subject (of modernity, of a religion, or of what have you) is to be the passive object of ideological indoctrination. (This theme gets lengthy critical attention during my conversation with Vic on Saturday afternoon.) But this is more or less the perspective I’m adopting here. From this perspective, the practices come first and the people follow. Read in this way, chapel religions become disciplinary technologies though which men at Graterford are conditioned with the “know-how” to survive prison.

But this judgment is a necessary consequence of that theoretical framework. A very different picture — one that presumes far more personal agency — is offered in the preceding thesis.

JW: Have any of the individuals at Graterford had a chance to read the book yet, and if they have, how have they reacted?

JD: About ten copies are now in the mail, but I’ve yet to receive feedback on the finished product.

Two men with whom I remain close generously read my manuscript not once but twice. They read with the eye of a prison administrator in mind, and counseled me about editorial choices I could make to minimize the possibility of some sort of blowback. Men at Graterford live under perpetual fear of being shipped to another institution, where they would lose their jobs, and access to the activities that make their lives meaningful, and for many Philadelphians, proximity to their families. So they read very carefully for trouble spots.

More substantively, if they shared a grievance, it’s that they would have appreciated a more obvious policy prescription. This is a different sort of book than that, but I’m hopeful that its contents make certain policy-oriented conclusions unavoidable. People make terrible mistakes and destroy lives, but it’s sheer madness to lock a man up for 30, 40 or even 60 years for something that happened when he was sixteen years old.

Toward the end of the writing process, I also had the opportunity to present the “Theses” in the chapel to a group of 60 or 70 men, half of them chapel regulars, and the other half students in Villanova’s B.A. program, in which I’ve taught a number of courses. The feedback was varied, and helpful, and I incorporated it into the manuscript going forward. One common suggestion was that I dial up the role religion pays in effecting personal “transformation.” As many men at Graterford assert, it is via his religion that I am no longer the man I once was.