DOWN IN THE CHAPEL: Religious Life in an American Prison. By Joshua Dubler. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2013.
THE PUNISHMENT IMPERATIVE: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America, by Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost. New York: New York University Press. 2014.
Two recent books agree that American prisons lost much of the patina of penitence, corrections, and rehabilitation from earlier eras. Joshua Dubler, a religious studies scholar, describes punitive-centered contemporary prisons as machines with no such “ghosts” to animate their cellblocks in his layered ethnography of one week in the chapel at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford, the state’s largest maximum-security penitentiary. If prisons are no longer driven by earlier goals of reform, what justifies their regimes today? Criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost posit that they are physical manifestations of the “punishment imperative,” a pattern of legislation and practices that includes long sentences for non-violent offenses as part of the war on drugs, determinate sentences as part of the response to the victim’s rights movement, and community monitoring that carries high risk of incarceration.
Clear and Frost ignore the first 150 years of US prison history when incarceration was comparatively rare. Instead, they peg the punishment imperative to a Nixon administration responding to the civil rights movement. They characterize the punishment imperative as a law and order social experiment with antecedents in the New Deal and Great Society rather than the earlier history of incarceration. The legislative onslaught between 1970 and 2000 included long sentences for non-violent violations of drug laws, enhanced sentences for repeat offenders, and surveillance-based community supervision with high risks of incarceration for even minor violations. Whether by design or default, prosecutorial practices and sentencing guidelines ensured that African Americans bore the brunt of this punishment imperative. This pattern predictably ran up the US prison population. Not content with locking people up, state and federal legislatures dealt a coup-de-grace during the Clinton era when formerly incarcerated people and their families faced restricted access to education, housing, social services, and employment. Drawing on Clear’s earlier research, the authors demonstrate that the current consequence is a criminal justice system that erodes public safety by preventing the public sector from lawfully supporting the growing number of formerly incarcerated people. Incarceration and the overall punitive approach, Clear demonstrates, tend to increase crime.
If neither reform nor punishment worked, what work do prisons accomplish? Clear and Frost point to what they call latent functions, noting Jonathan Simon’s insights on the political expedience of fears of crime for campaigning politicians. In addition, they highlight the analysis of Loic Wacquant, who situates mass incarceration within the historical and economic contexts of postindustrial job loss and the ways that prisons control young men of color. But most importantly, what makes punishment an imperative is the way that its steady march drowned out critics and possible alternatives. One consequence of the social experiment is that at the same time that the prison population increased, policymakers defunded a broad spectrum of non-punitive programs. According to the law and order logic of the punishment imperative, if prison-based therapeutic, educational, and vocational efforts failed to encourage people to stop breaking laws, then a punitive approach would. Policymakers doubled down even as evidence mounted that the new approach offered no benefits—and many consequences.
But if prisons are now solipsistic machines that produce only more prisons and misery, how then might people live meaningful lives behind bars? Incarcerated people spend their time with one another in the dormitories, cellblocks, yards, and pods with few prison-sanctioned social or cultural resources. Religious observance withstood the punishment imperative as a result of legislation and litigation, providing one crucial exception to an otherwise dull repetition. Although Dubler does not take the totality of mass incarceration as his subject and specifically resists broad generalizations based on his observations, his study of the banality of Graterford in the age of punishment provides ample material for speculation. Dubler takes readers to Bible study, Jewish study, Muslim study, Spanish band, and gospel choir. With equal parts ecumenical relativism and secular skepticism, Dubler breaks down the sectarian and political differences within the large Muslim population at Graterford while giving ample insight into the smaller groups of men attending events catering to evangelical Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Native Americans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and others. He also engages and interrogates the chaplains, correctional officers, chapel workers, volunteers, and himself.
Dubler argues that Graterford’s thriving religious life is an extension of religion on the street, with the chapel serving as a microcosm of the rich religious diversity of its largely African American and Latino populations. But if religion is not specific to prison, it is also true that prison leaves an indelible stamp on its religious practices. For some, the chapel reanimates the old ghost of spiritual transformation set down by late–eighteenth century Philadelphia Quakers. Especially for those serving long sentences, prison operates as a catalyst for existential self-examination. Dubler finds that incarcerated people emphasize elements of religious observance and doctrine particular to their circumstances, including teachings on human origins, individual fallibility, and limited control over one’s future. What’s more, religious education provides insight into histories of slavery and cultural genocide, especially for members of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple.
In other ways, the chapel is less about spiritual transformation and more about creating and maintaining a web of social relations. Inmates rely on religious affiliations to make meaningful communities under trying circumstances. Dubler notes, for example, that study groups and Muslim sects often correlate with friendship networks originating in Philadelphia neighborhoods. Connection to a devotional community serves other immediate needs. Confinement in prison tends to erode individual power, create a climate of deprivation, and leave people vulnerable. If Graterford’s chapel reinforces these forms of punishment, it also serves as a location for people to access power, privilege, and protection. For example, Dubler hints that the chapel provides a way for some people to smuggle in contraband. Others have opportunities not available outside the chapel, including playing in bands, singing in choirs, and participating in special mealtime rituals.
Dubler is careful to situate religion in contemporary prisons within the recent history of mass incarceration, although it might be tempting to see religion as an atavism from the earliest days of American prisons especially given Graterford’s proximity to Philadelphia. The ghosts of Walnut Street Jail and Eastern State Penitentiary may have moved the thirty miles to Graterford. More likely, a new ghost took up occupancy during our age of mass incarceration. Perhaps prison religion is not what it appears. After all, the prison chapel is one of the few non-punitive state-sanctioned and supported resources. The chaplains work for the same Pennsylvania Department of Corrections as the correctional officers. Dubler observes some younger incarcerated people in Graterford ridiculing the religious devotion of long-term prisoners, seeing the older men as in possession of an institutionalized mindset that accommodates the criminal justice system. Conversely, other skeptics see religious rituals as a confidence game that untrustworthy “convicts” will cast off once it no longer serves their interests. There is no simple way to determine whether the chapel serves as a ruse for the state or prisoners. Dubler works around the issue by noting that the contradictory and sometimes self-interested practice of religion in Graterford mirrors congregations on the outside.
The exponential growth in prison populations over the last four decades leaves at least as much to faith. Because there is no evidence to support arguments that incarceration reduces crime—and some evidence that it creates less safe communities—Clear and Frost point instead to the war on drugs as the driver of the punishment imperative. They insist that mass incarceration will ebb once it no longer serves the social, political, and economic interests of state and federal governments. They go so far as to offer what they admit is an optimistic and premature hypothesis that the punishment imperative is nearing its end. They cite the pattern of prison closures over the last several years, the rollback of sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and the decriminalization of marijuana in several states as evidence that the end is near. They note that these incremental strategies will not end over-incarceration. The only way to reduce the prison population is to unwind the laundry list of laws and sentencing guidelines that drive mass incarceration. But like a doomsday evangelist pushing the date back after a missed rapture, evidence of the failure of punitive policies has not yet resulted in their abandonment.
State University of New York at New Paltz