Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prisonby Joshua Dubler
A bold and provocative interpretation of one of the most religiously vibrant places in America—a state penitentiary
Baraka, Al, Teddy, and Sayyid—four black men from South Philadelphia, two Christian and two Muslim—are serving life at Pennsylvania’s maximum-security Graterford Prison. All of them work in Graterford’s chapel/b>
A bold and provocative interpretation of one of the most religiously vibrant places in America—a state penitentiary
Baraka, Al, Teddy, and Sayyid—four black men from South Philadelphia, two Christian and two Muslim—are serving life 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 works of God and man. Day in, day out, everything is, in its twisted way, rather ordinary. And then one of them disappears.
Down in the Chapel tells the story of one week at Graterford Prison. We learn 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 study and song. And we listen in as an interloping scholar of religion tries to make sense of it all.
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. Joshua Dubler goes beyond these stereotypes to show the religious life of a prison in all its complexity. 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. Gritty and visceral, meditative and searching, it is an essential study of American religion in the age of mass incarceration.
“Nothing short of amazing.” The Wall Street Journal
“Powerful and often surprising.” The Christian Science Monitor
“A fascinating look inside an American prison.” The Daily Beast
“This book is a masterful and magisterial probing into our new Jim Crow, told with subtle intelligence and genuine compassion. I salute Brother Joshua Dubler!” Cornel West
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Read an Excerpt
Graterford Prison is in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, thirty snaking miles northwest of Philadelphia’s city line. The prison sits on a bucolic plateau of 1,700 acres that rises above the Perkiomen Creek. Fallow farmland runs uphill away from the creek, where, seasonally, deer and Canada geese lounge unmolested. At the top of the rise beside a small reservoir is the OSU, the Outside Service Unit, which houses the “grays,” who are misconduct free and creeping up on their minimums. Past the parking lots is the prison itself, sixty-two acres enclosed behind a thirty-foot-high nine-sided wall. Atop the wall, armed sentries man turrets from which, on a sunny afternoon, they can watch the grays play handball against the outside of the wall. Past the creek and across the valley, one sees the billowing silos of the Limerick nuclear power plant. To the south, the big-box stores inch closer by the year, but even from atop the wall, there is, I imagine, little evidence of that.
Though barely, it is still country here. On a summer evening, at leaving time, when the baseball game waiting for me in the car will be in the fourth or fifth and the cobalt heavens bleed to orange over the valley, this place is not unbeautiful. But in winter, when the wind pushes up from the valley, driving rain and snow sideways into the worn concrete of the wall’s outer shell, the prison feels suddenly like a refuge and the world outside apathetic and grim, a place for coyotes and bears, but not remotely suited for men.
* * *
Declared “state of the art” when it opened in 1931, Graterford is by now a relic of an era gone by: clunky, decrepit, and unconducive to orderliness.1 Five two-tiered cellblocks, each of which houses 500 men, feed into a central corridor that runs from the front gate to the heart of the prison.2 To the right, past the hospital and the “new side” dorms, come the shop floors, the auditorium, the school wing, and the field house. At the corridor’s terminus lies the chapel.
With its fluorescent light, yellow brick walls, crushed stone floor, and acrid odor, the main corridor could well be the hallway of my high school were it not pushing a quarter of a mile long—a span broken by locked gates manned by uniformed guards with whom I exchange good-mornings as I pass. Past the security bubble at the second gate, I step to the right to avoid a correctional officer leading a train of fifty orange-clad “jumpsuits,” the system’s new processees.
“I’ve got two words for you: job security,” the CO says to the gatekeeper.
“Chugga-chugga chugga-chugga,” chants the CO at the caboose.
The COs couldn’t care less if I heard them, and I don’t flatter myself by pretending otherwise. Absent the slate-colored band on the ID clipped to my lapel, there’s no telling me from any of the jail’s other civilian-clothed employees, whether administrator, counselor, support staff, or vendor. Nor am I on edge. Come and go a few times and Graterford is not a hard place to feel invisible. Presuming, that is, that you’re not a woman.
With movements already over, the odd burgundy-clad prisoner scurries this way or that, a bit late to work, to the hospital, to counseling, to someplace else. “Browns” is what, for the earthy color of their uniforms, these general-population prisoners are called. At the entrance to A Block, I bump into Omar, who flashes me a gummy smile. He’s been thinking about me, he says. When I ask him why, he says he’ll come down and let me know just as soon as he gets himself some teeth.
Between B and C, I come upon Mamduh, another chapel worker, with his young companion, Nasir, at his hip. Quiet, if not soft-spoken, Mamduh, who is from North Philadelphia, has sharp eyes and a scraggly beard that covers most of his pockmarked face, and he looks older than the 1961 birth date claimed by the ID he once showed me to prove it. During the Tuesday-afternoon and Wednesday-night activity blocks, when the Muslims are slotted for the annex, Mamduh instructs a small group of men in Arabic language and grammar.
Mamduh encourages me to come to his Ethics of War class, to take place at 1:30 in the school. The class is an offering of Villanova’s Associate’s Degree Program, which the nearby Catholic university has run for over a generation. Many of the chapel workers and regulars are also college students in the Villanova Program, an overlap that contributes to the commonly shared perception of this cadre as being among the most serious men in the jail.
I won’t make it to the school, I tell Mamduh, but I’ll be sure to catch him later on. As Mamduh recedes, I notice him limping and wonder if something happened over the weekend or whether this isn’t simply the way he walks, one more thing that in my overfamiliarity I’ve come to overlook.
The side yard between C and D blocks is empty at this early hour, as is the chain-link enclosure beyond E Block, where the “blues” have their yard.
The chapel door is unlocked.
* * *
Watkins, an African-American correctional officer from nearby Phoenixville, is perched at his desk, his elbows splayed and his arched hands clasped. A navy-blue PA DOC baseball cap is perched high on his forehead, its bent brim low. Weekends were good, we establish. Without apparent agenda, Watkins asks me if I’ve been to church as of late.
“Sure,” I say, pointing downward. “Here. Almost every day.”
“What about on the outside?” he asks. “Synagogue or anything?”
I signal the negative. And though I’ve been a thrice-a-year Jew for a decade, I add, apologetically, “These things go in cycles.”
Watkins empathizes. “It has to be that way,” he says.
While Watkins has long since stopped taking too much notice of my comings and goings, I warn him that he’s likely to see a fair amount of me in the weeks ahead. For an intended chapter recounting a week in the life of the chapel, I explain that I’m going to be here all day, every day this week, instead of the three to four partial days that is my normal pattern. Watkins nods his head, squints his eyes, and asks—or suggests—in a hushed voice, if, when I’m done, I’m going to “break him off a piece.” I don’t understand.
He looks me in the eye and clarifies: “What’s my cut for the movie going to be?”
While no small number of prisoners have me pegged in some way or another as a mark, most commonly one heaven-sent by a meddling deity as part of His plan to secure their freedom, it has been the chapel’s correctional officers who have been most overt in their plays for financial remuneration for their participation in my research. Watkins’s predecessor tried to solicit my bid for his notebooks documenting twenty years of salacious goings-on in the jail, but Watkins has hitched his cart to my project’s movie-rights star.
I play along. “Fifty-fifty,” I promise him in deadpan. “Just you and me.” Apparently finding the terms favorable, Watkins purses his lips and nods.
In the opposite corner of the vestibule, the maroon-clad Jack has a bottle of Windex in his right hand, a wad of paper towel in his left, and is scrubbing the small, square window in the door to the Catholic suite. Jack, who in the past has stated his preference that the role of Jack be played by George Clooney (though Watkins, with a colder eye, suggests Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander to be a better match), is a short, bald, bulbous-headed Irish-American in his late forties. Jack works as a chapel janitor and helps out Father Gorski in the Catholic office. As has Mamduh, Jack has been scrupulous in bringing to my attention people and things to which he thinks I should attend, once going so far as to attempt to schedule a rendezvous with an Aryan Nation guy he knows from the block. As he assured me, while the two of them get along fine, they are in no way aligned. “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any master race that would have me for a member,” Jack explained. Proposing that I blow him instead, the Nazi declined.
Jack looks at me with puzzlement. “There are no services on Mondays,” he says. Translation: What the hell are you doing here?
“So what goes on on Mondays?” I ask.
“A lot of this,” he says, holding up his Windex. Jack edges over to tell me about a book he read over the weekend—a biography of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization.3 I ask Jack whose book it is. It’s his, he explains, but the guys in the Catholic community will all pass it around. They do the same with the National Review, he adds leadingly, digging at our political differences. Affecting a mock conspiratorial air, Jack looks behind each shoulder before saying that he could slip the book to me, just as sometime back he’d lent me a right-wing radio talk-show host’s political-conversion memoir. Affecting the same air, I ask him to please do just that.4
Jack can be alternately magnanimous or dyspeptic. He often seems hungry for exchange, but he tends to lead with a jagged edge. His rage is channeled primarily through the culture war in whose stark light I’m an America-hating, Israel-betraying, homosexual-agenda-pushing cancer on our great nation. When politics fails, Jack falls back on sports, where my New York allegiances align me, again, with the forces of evil. Jack likes to bait, and more often than not I’m happy to be baited. Together we walk from the vestibule into the chapel. He offers me some coffee, which I decline, saying that I need to be mindful because I haven’t been sleeping.
“Liberal guilt!” Jack diagnoses, and walks away. The truth is that I’m jet-lagged from a trip overseas, but this I do not advertise.
Jack returns with a peace offering: “I don’t know if this will help you, but you know how they say how there’re no atheists in the foxhole? Well, when I was arrested, the first person I asked to talk to was a priest.” After a slight hesitation, Jack says it’s on his mind since he only recently learned of the priest’s passing.
Following mass on Saturday night, Jack further informs me, they convened the first installment of the monthly Spanish-language Bible study. I’m pleased to hear it, I tell Jack, because I know Father Gorski has been trying to get something like that off the ground. Jack underscores the alienation the Spanish-speaking Catholics feel at the English-language mass.
“So you’re losing them all to the Evangelicals?” I ask, presuming that developments at Graterford accord with wider cultural trends.5
Jack grimaces playfully.
There has been a lightness to Jack of late. I know he’s recently doubled his dose of Prozac, which has drawn some color back into his cheeks. Meanwhile, he’s also been edging toward coming out of the closet as a Christian Scientist. He has been confessing his divided allegiance to me since I first arrived at the prison, but has yet to tell his father or sister. And though it’s been years since official policy restricted a prisoner to the religious services of the group with which he is administratively identified, and while to my knowledge no one is forcing him to choose, Jack is conflicted. From the time he first picked it up eighteen months earlier, he has found in Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health a powerful witness that fills him with hope and makes him feel like he’s finally getting some things under control. But as much as he enjoys his Sunday studies and the visits of his spiritual advisor, Jack—a perennial altar boy—worries that he is neglecting the Virgin Mary and therefore dishonoring the memory of his mother. So he gives equal time to his Catholic observances, especially to counting the rosary, when Jack likes to focus on Mary’s assumption to heaven and the grace of a happy death.
Religious boundary crossing of Jack’s sort is, in the chapel, hardly unusual, but it is generally cast as a passing phase. Sure, one is free to sample and search, but ultimately, as Jack would be the first to tell you, a man must choose. And so, in pursuit of coherence as much as grace, Jack experiences his balancing act as a stopgap, a hedging of bets before he takes his money off the table and settles back into his life as a Catholic or lets it ride on the healing Jesus he’s come to know through the Church of Christ, Scientist.6
* * *
Baraka jerks his head over his right shoulder, fixes on my eyes, registers surprise, and saunters into the chapel with his hand outstretched. “So,” he asks with a cock of his head and an interrogative flick of his wrist, “what’s going on?”
Save for a narrow ridge of goatee, Baraka is clean-shaven, and his tiger-print glasses frame his almond eyes. Often, as today, his browns are almost pink, an ancient vintage prized for its softer fabric, and by now worn almost to parchment. Baraka is the Imam’s clerk and my most crucial interlocutor. (For different reasons, he and I both are made uneasy by the classical anthropological term informant.)7 In practice, he might well be my dissertation advisor. Most crucially, Baraka is the person I commonly consult to make sense of what is real and what is not in this strange place. It is a need that Baraka alternately satisfies and thwarts. With his conviction that “things are far more simple than they appear,” Baraka sells me on the importance of reading surfaces. This clarifying interpretive principle, however, is wholly at odds with a second position Baraka advocates with equal insistence: that “everything one sees in here is real” (and therefore dicey), the feints and dodges no less so than the brutally honest confessions.
To his question of “So what’s going on?” I answer that I have insomnia. With sarcasm, he asks if I’m anxious. Confronted with the same formula last week, I’d misguidedly confessed to being preoccupied with concerns over where my paycheck was to come from come July, in particular whether I’m going to get the job at the nearby college for which I’ve been shortlisted. Baraka greeted my disclosure of academic job-market anxiety with equal measures of incredulity and intolerance, berating me for being “like a cork in the ocean.”
Like many of the chapel regulars, Baraka preaches the virtues of self-mastery. “If you don’t have mastery over yourself, then you’re just reacting,” he has said. The consequences of which, in a place like Graterford, are dire, since “just reacting will get you killed.” For Baraka, controlling the body begins with the regulation of one’s thoughts. He has little patience for those who fixate on what they’ve done, what they’ve lost, or where they might be headed when they die. Get stuck in one of those traps, he’s said, “and I’m useless to myself and to anyone else.”8
This is the week, I tell Baraka, and reconfirm that he remains willing to be my supplementary eyes and ears. Baraka nods and asks me what I’m hoping to “catch as I slide down the slope.” I don’t understand what he means.
He rephrases his question: “What are you hoping to get out of it?” I shrug my shoulders and bite my lip, and Baraka nods once more.
The experiment is hardly an arbitrary one. It was geared to get at the chapel’s stunning range of religious practices, a variety—to echo the immortal William James—for which a seven-day span of time is an apt showcase. On any given week, the chapel plays host to thirteen recognized religious groups whose members convene more than forty weekly assemblies, including worship services, textual studies, devotional groups, and musical rehearsals, activities that draw between a quarter and a third of the prison’s residents. In addition to the predominant Muslims and Protestants, Catholics and Jews share time and space here, as do Episcopalians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents to the black nationalist religions such as the Nation of Islam, Muhammad’s Temple, and the Moorish Science Temple, and practitioners of Native American spirituality. In short, in the fecund coexistence of its many ways of religious life, Graterford’s chapel is, among other things, a wonder of American religious pluralism, or (as I hyperbolically italicized it in a preliminary report to my Princeton advisors): arguably the most religiously eclectic sliver of real estate in the history of the world.9
In response, one advisor suggested for a possible opening chapter a narrative retelling of one week’s time in the chapel.10 It struck me as an excellent idea. Hoping for a “normal” week, for months I waited. November and December passed, and with them the heightened intensities of Sunni Ramadan, the Nation of Islam’s Ramadan, and the sentimental morass of the Christmas season. Returning last week after two away, I found the iron to be sufficiently cool.
I ask Baraka about his back, which I know has been bothering him of late, but he brushes off my inquiry. He’s been working on his case, he says, and mentions a federal decision handed down on Friday that might have a favorable bearing. “You mean Collins?” I ask. Baraka is impressed. I explain that I’d heard Brian talking about it on Saturday. Brian, the Rabbi’s clerk, is the chapel’s top legal mind.
Baraka unfurls a printout of the case and begins to leaf through it, absentmindedly conceding as he does that actually it’s Brian’s and that he has to give it back to him in a minute, which is fine because Brian is fussy and it’s easier to cater to his fussiness now than to have to hurt him later on when fuss comes to shove. Intuiting that the copy in Baraka’s hands is the only one around, I say that I understand how quickly the introduction of an object of desire can lead to bloodshed. Bar looks up, flares his nostrils, scowls, and promises that he won’t hurt Brian, though of course he could. This is all shtick, I have every reason to suspect. For a few minutes we sit in silence, he reading, me writing. In the rear corners of the chapel, fans whir. The lights are on, casting the wan glow of fluorescent light in a cavernous space on an overcast day.
Depending on where one is standing in the jail, “the chapel” can refer either to the entire chapel complex or, more specifically, to its centerpiece, the airy ecumenical sanctuary where Baraka and I are currently sitting. From pacing it out, I would guess it to be 110 feet long and 70 feet wide, a space filled with twenty-two rows of weathered wooden pews, conventionally cut with aisles down the center and at the margins. The brick walls are regularly broken by wooden panels, which run floor to ceiling and encase a terraced array of Plexiglas boxes colored in pastels of pink, lavender, and lemon. Roughly thirty-five feet up, a lowered ceiling implies a function as much acoustic as aesthetic. In the front, an unassuming dais, carpeted in speckled red and black, rises two shallow steps from the chapel’s salt-and-pepper floor. Centered at the front of the dais, a raised square is flanked with a haphazard array of chairs, amplifiers, and potted plants. In the wood veneer cradling the altar from behind, a knowing eye can detect how a rotary stage used to accommodate a week’s succession of sacraments—although, for security reasons, it’s been a decade since it last turned.
* * *
Teddy seems perturbed. Upon seeing me through the propped-open chapel doors, he performs pained convulsions on my behalf. Standing hands on hips, Teddy lays into me: How can I come in here and not stop by the office to say hello? He means, when exactly was I planning on stopping in to let them know I was here? He means, Sheez! He turns and walks away. Because Teddy, when he’s feeling all right, is a cutup, I can’t tell if his protestations of neglect are playacting or expressive of something closer to the bone. Jump-started in whichever case, I follow Teddy into what the Protestant and Muslim chapel workers know simply as “the office.”
Excepting the aged, the infirm, and the mental-health cases housed on the new side, most of Graterford’s browns work some sort of job, labor for which they are compensated at between nineteen and forty-two cents an hour. At twenty-five to thirty hours a week, that adds up to between $30 and $60 per month, with most of the chapel workers earning at the upper end of this spectrum. Guys with jobs on one of the Correctional Industries factory floors, where at Graterford they manufacture shirts, pants, boots, and underwear for distribution throughout the DOC system, are eligible for production-based bonuses that can boost their salaries to over $130 a month. The chapel workers make less than half that, but theirs are coveted positions, offering the opportunity of relatively easy labor in an environment commonly regarded as the most humane in the jail. Whereas other browns may come down to the chapel only for formal activities or when summoned by a chaplain’s slip, the chapel workers are allowed in the chapel whenever it’s open, and, once there, they are afforded the time and space to pursue their intellectual and spiritual interests. Consequently, the chapel workers tend to be religiously active long-term prisoners, men known and respected by the chaplains who have actively petitioned for their posts. Of the current roster of fifteen clerks and janitors, all but one is serving life, presumably for homicide.11 As for religious affiliation, Reverend Baumgartner does his best to maintain something approaching denominational parity. As of now, there are six Muslims, four Protestants, a pair of Catholics, a pair of Jews, and one atheist.
While the chapel’s workers were initially reserved, within a couple of months of my arrival discussions with Baraka and Al were taking up pages in my field notes. They seemingly warmed to me as one would to a quirky new colleague in an otherwise tedious job, and by now, if I judge it correctly, my presence has for them simply become part of the way things are. As for me, in spite of the radical differences of setting and circumstance that make my encounters here so compelling, by now the office’s daily rhythms of integrated work and play don’t feel any more unfamiliar than does killing time with my own coterie back in my office at Princeton.
* * *
Kazi and Sayyid have books open on their desks. Kazi is reading a textbook about race and the criminal justice system. Sayyid, translating a text from the Arabic, is thumbing through a dog-eared English-Arabic dictionary.
At a classificatory distance, Sayyid and Kazi could be interchangeable. Both are black South Philadelphians pushing forty. Both are chapel janitors, Villanova students, and practicing Muslims—specifically, of the legalistic variant of Islam known as Salafism, which is popular at Graterford. Like Mamduh, Sayyid and Kazi signal this allegiance by means of three prominent physical markers: their beards (Sayyid’s is full, if somewhat wispy, while Kazi sports a thick gray goatee); the white cloth kufis that they wear low on their foreheads; and their pant legs, which are hemmed high at the top of the ankle in an Arabian fashion.
Size alone—Sayyid stands a stocky six feet and Kazi is half a foot shorter—could make them a comedy duo, which, in a way, they are. Sayyid is rambunctious and capable of voluminous badgering, often directed at Kazi. By contrast, Kazi is unwaveringly placid, contributing, no doubt, to his reputation for being perhaps a little too well adapted to the prison environment. In office dynamics, Sayyid and Kazi can often be counted on for a laugh, with Sayyid playing the provocateur and Kazi roped as the straight man. For weeks prior to the present one, for example, a clipped National Geographic photo had been taped onto the locker in the office that houses the cleaning supplies. The photo depicted an Australian mole rat—labeled as such—its sole bottom fang bared belligerently upward. In a dialogue balloon someone had penciled: “My name is Big Kaz … and I aint going to the hole no more.” The cartoon commemorated two things, both at Kaz’s expense: first, the uncanny similarity in appearance between Kazi and the Australian rodent; and second, Kaz’s recent return to work following thirty days in the RHU, the Restricted Housing Unit, after getting jumped in his cell. In such incidents, the administration does not distinguish between aggressor and victim, relegating both parties to disciplinary custody and its twenty-three-hours-a-day lockdown; but because Kazi was reportedly not the one at fault, Reverend Baumgartner has allowed him to keep his job. As far as the rat prank was concerned, while opportunity, motive, and craft all pointed in Sayyid’s direction, Sayyid bullishly withstood the off-and-on attempts to secure his confession, chuckling now and again at the aptness of the caricature but never wavering in his declarations of innocence.
Al lumbers through the door and plants himself in his chair. Pushing 300 pounds, Al has the mien of a bulldog, and a drawl that attests to childhood summers with his grandma in Georgia. Al handles the chapel’s AV requirements and fronts a gospel group. Still capable of searing intensity in spite of his years, Al is the sort of person whose presence changes a room. The office is never more fun than when Al is playful, just as it is never as tense as when Al is brooding. As if trapped in Al’s orbit, a bunch of secondary characters follow him in. Each is bearded, the majority in the same calculatedly unkempt fashion favored by Mamduh and Sayyid. Issuing Assalamu alaikums to the men in the room, a couple grab chairs as the others disappear into the Imam’s office.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” Vic says, picking up our argument from last week about language and the nature of reality, “I just don’t think we’re living in a dream.”
Vic is a heavy, balding Caucasian from central Pennsylvania. He is in only his second week as a chapel janitor, having taken the spot vacated by Hamed, who, it is said, for the cash and for the change of scenery, opted to trade up to an underwear plant job. An unusual hire, and one that I suspect Reverend Baumgartner made with my benefit somehow in mind, Vic is an iconoclast, an intellectual, and a self-identified “heathen,” which is to say an atheist—the first I’ve come across at Graterford.
Vic and I share a great deal of common ground philosophically, but we’ve quickly whittled our way down to the irreconcilable cores of our respective positions. In Vic’s view, my insistence that language shapes what we collectively take to be “the world” makes me a reality-denying idealist. By contrast, Vic affirms the existence absolutely of an objective reality.12 While this reality, according to Vic, tends to escape our perception, Vic speaks of “moments of transparency” when one may peer through “the matrix” (as, after the movies, he dubs what generally passes as reality) and into “the real.”13
“So what?” Vic asks me rhetorically, and not for the first time. “The microscopic world of germs didn’t exist before the advent of the microscope?”
Toeing the pragmatist philosophical line common to the Princeton Religion Department, I maintain my skepticism about making any definitive judgments, necessarily in language, about a realm putatively prior to language. Better to think of truth as itself a property of language, I argue now to Vic, than to continually be disappointed by language’s inability to go beyond language. Vic, meanwhile, sticks by his insistence that the partiality of our own positioning as observers has zero bearing on whether or not the microscopic world existed objectively before the microscope. We go back and forth. Eventually, cornered into what feels to me like a petulant postmodernism, and concerned that I’m missing some better, more revealing conversation taking place elsewhere in the room, I go ad hominem and call Vic a mystic.14 As a direct response, or to capture my wandering eye, Vic brings up religion.
From my point of view, religion is a property of modern discourse, a concept with a particular history that has been used to delineate and make sense of a certain sphere of human activity. While we need be self-conscious in how we apply it, religion is a conceptual tool and, as such, is ours to use as we see fit.15 Vic’s position is both more critical and less critical than that. Passing a tin of dip between his hands, Vic proceeds to distinguish between two kinds of religion. Religion in the first sense is “the matrix,” or rather, a significant part thereof. Purely a social construction, this religion is a “control edifice” used by the powerful to manipulate the weak. In this regard, religion is much like psychology. As he said last week, “Both are mechanisms of social control, but while in psychology the mechanism is explicit, in religion it’s obscured.” As far as religion in this former sense is concerned, it’s imperative that we “kill off the illusion.” There is, however, a second sense of religion, Vic says now, one that stands in stark opposition to this first kind of religion.
“And what would you call that?” I ask.
* * *
Jefferson, the embattled leader of Graterford’s small community of Moorish Scientists, arrives, a white slip in hand, which he extends to Al. Al glances up, glances down, pauses, glances down, then up again before informing Jefferson that he can go in and see Reverend Baumgartner, whose door is open. Irritation past, Al returns to what he was doing: poring over his prisoner-accounts statement from the past month. Does he ever break even? I ask him. He looks at me like he’s never heard a dumber question. He puts it this way: “It’s hard to break even on $57.45 a month.”
And men like Al are the relatively privileged ones. Most of the chapel workers get visits and some receive financial support. Al, Baraka, and Teddy even have wives (women that they committed to well after being sentenced to life in prison). Nevertheless, between commissary fare purchased to offset the high-starch, high-fat diet and the telephone monopoly under which a fifteen-minute call to Philly sets a guy back five dollars, even a shop-job paycheck is quickly gone, especially for those who, like Al, try to talk to their wives on a daily basis.
A couple of guys are talking hip-hop too new for me to know about. I’ve yet to hear anyone mention football—what Reverend Baumgartner has called “the real religion around here”—which surprises me, given that yesterday, after a year when the Eagles fell from title contention to mediocrity, the Steelers had the audacity to make it to the Super Bowl.
* * *
Omar arrives, his teeth now in place, and together we adjourn to the privacy of Chaplain Keita’s office. As is common of the aging Sunni Muslims who came up in the Nation of Islam, Omar is socially conscious and engaged. Omar’s energies for individual and group uplift are channeled primarily through PAR, People Against Recidivism—a nonsectarian organization Omar and others launched some twenty years ago to try to lengthen the now even odds that men released from Graterford will return to prison within three years.16 PAR’s primary tactic is its “Day One Parole Preparation Course,” a sixteen-week program that seeks to inculcate the attitudes and skills necessary for one to successfully transition from the acute regimentation of prison life to the free-form day-to-day of what men here call “the street.” Especially in a place where so many outsource their agency to God, PAR facilitators emphasize the need for solid practical plans. Where are you going to live? How are you going to afford to pay your rent? What else will you be able to afford on that budget? As the facilitators say: “Dreams bring us back.”
Omar almost got his shot once, coming, in 1994, within a single vote of a clemency recommendation. The Philadelphia Daily News forecast a likely reversal in two years’ time, when Omar was next eligible. With the election of Republican Tom Ridge as governor a week later, however, two years would suddenly be far too soon. Ridge revamped the clemency procedure to require that those on death row or serving life receive a unanimous, rather than a simple majority, recommendation from the Pardons Board, and mandated the inclusion of a victims’ rights advocate. While under the Democratic Casey administration, which governed between 1987 and 1994, twenty-seven Pennsylvania lifers had their sentences commuted, in the decade-plus since, clemency has been granted only once.17
“Things are happening,” Omar exuberantly declares. He is fresh off a couple of promising meetings with representatives of the Pennsylvania Prison Society that make a possible partnership seem imminent. In Omar’s vision, with the Prison Society as its public face, PAR might be able to tap into the spout of federal funding earmarked by President Bush for prisoner reentry, in which case his program might become a model for programs across the country.18
Of late, Omar has been selling me, Father Gorski, and, it seems, anyone else who will listen on PAR’s need for a piece of property to serve as its headquarters on the street and as transitional housing for newly released PAR participants. This is again his emphasis today. I engage, first eagerly, then dutifully, and then agitatedly. While I’m sympathetic to Omar’s cause, I’m sometimes exhausted by the single-mindedness of his messaging. Making me additionally antsy is that I believe I’ve heard my name repeatedly invoked in the office. Managing to free myself, I reenter the room, and, exhibiting an overeagerness violating every unwritten rule of prudence, tact, and cool, inquire as to whether there isn’t something I should know about.
Baraka looks up only long enough to assure me that if something was to go down, I would certainly be the last to know. I chuckle, thinking as I do on those rare moments when I am reminded where I am: Note to self: room full of convicted murderers. Should probably be mindful.
* * *
I make my rounds. The chapel is empty; the classrooms’ windows offer back only my reflection, and the Catholic suite appears similarly vacant. Poised to move on, I catch the faint tinny sound of an old radio. It’s playing something instrumental, countryish and peppered with fiddle. As my eyes take to the gloom, I’m startled to discover Papa sitting silently in his customary chair, his jowled cheeks drooped floorward.
While none of the chapel workers is youthful, the gray-stubbled Papa is the only one who presents as an old man. Taking Papa to be asleep, and not wanting to disturb the evocative tableau of a geriatric inmate slipping slowly into darkness, I begin to back out. Only as I reach the door do I notice that Papa’s left foot is tapping to the music. The song ends, a station jingle is chimed, and a pop tune comes on—dispelling with its profanity the whisper of the holy conjured in my fantasy.19
* * *
Baraka trades whispers with a succession of young men who pass by, disappearing periodically with a partner into the vestibule. Returning to the office from one of these conferences, Baraka snuggles Al from behind his desk chair, encircling the larger man with two outstretched arms. His eyes are squeezed shut in what looks a whole lot like glee. Al feigns boredom.
Though not uncommon any day of the week, this horseplay makes additional sense on Monday. While men like Baraka and Vic praise the weekend as a time to catch up on projects and correspondence, others speak of the challenges. On weekends, much of the jail remains dark, and the rest is turned over to the correctional officers. For men accustomed to the weekday routine, the enforced Sabbath reportedly brings anxiety and loneliness. By today, those who don’t live on the same block, or play on the same football team, or see each other at Saturday’s Catholic mass or Sunday’s Protestant service, will likely not have seen each other since Friday. For Al and Baraka—chapel coworkers and intimates for more than thirty years—two days of enforced separation is a long time. In short, it seems to me, as I watch Baraka touch his old friend, that Baraka missed him. Neither are the chaplains immune to this dynamic. As Reverend Baumgartner will tell me at lunch, Mondays are infused with a general air of neediness in which a class of men familiar with sudden catastrophic change seek assurance that everything remains just as it was. Al rises from his chair, picks Baraka up in a bear hug, and swings him around.
Things quiet down. Water is boiled in the electric kettle, a tower of Styrofoam cups is pulled from a desk drawer, and coffee and tea are brewed. I’m offered one or the other, and decline. Teddy and Al take umbrage. I plead my case, arguing that I just drank tea on Friday. That was Friday, Teddy points out.
Both sides know the rules of this game. After six months of polite refusal, I finally broke down and drank chapel coffee, first with the Jews upstairs and shortly thereafter in the office. At that time, Teddy wanted to know if the chaplains had warned me not to. I explained that while I had been explicitly instructed at orientation not to accept gifts of any kind, my reluctance to accept coffee was less about conforming to the rules of the DOC and more an adherence to the doctrine of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who canonically posited the gift as a seizure of power by the giver over the recipient.20 To receive a gift is to be placed in a state of indebtedness, a disadvantage to be rectified only through charitable retaliation. While many of my theories draw blank stares here, this one made perfect sense. And since then, Teddy’s generosity has only become more dogged.
Vic is drinking tea. Since he is new to the office, and white to boot, I caution him that he best use his tea bag more than once. When I first accepted tea from Teddy, shortly after I drank his coffee, I made the mistake of throwing a tea bag out after only one soaking. Teddy decreed that he was “confiscating my ghetto pass,” a punitive measure—to censure me for some faux pas or other—he takes on almost a weekly basis. Teddy likes to play me both ways. On the one hand, he jumps at the opportunity to call me out for my social missteps. On the other, he often commends me for my social deftness, telling me how he tells guys on the block about “this crazy white boy” in the chapel. Normally, Teddy tells me, it takes people a while to adapt to a new environment, but I just eased into it, which is doubly remarkable given my background. Teddy’s assessment is likely too flattering by half, but he would be the one to know. Unlike Al and Baraka, who remained incognito for some time, Teddy was there from the start. Back then, Teddy frequently reminds me, he’d “throw some crazy black stuff” at me and was shocked when I took it in stride.
At present I’ve apparently failed to be quite so shrewd. Acerbically, Teddy schools me in the distinction I missed: as long as it’s his own tea bag, Vic can do what he wants; but if he ever uses anyone else’s, he’d best use it eight times.
“Until there’s no tint left,” Sayyid adds, laughing.
Sayyid’s criminal justice textbook sits open on his desk, and he and Vic are talking shop. Vic likens the prison to the plantation of the antebellum South and to the Indian reservations of today. Sayyid concurs. I begin reporting the “job security” crack that I heard on the way in this morning. Before I can finish, though, Vic interrupts me with the prescribed rejoinder: “But job security at minimum wage!” The gag has special significance these days, since the COs, who have been working without a formal contract since July, are nervously awaiting the arbitration ruling that will set their base pay and overtime.21
Prompted by the criminal justice textbook, I idly ask the two men if the oft-quoted statistic of one out of three black men in the United States between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five being under the care of the criminal justice system isn’t somehow cooked. No, they agree. If anything, that statistic understates the reality.22
* * *
Teddy is at the word processor, his sculpted hair and square plastic frames poking above the shoulder-high wooden bureau that houses the machine under lock and key. Having sensed a raw nerve and wanting to check in, I peer over the top. Without looking up, Teddy shakes his head. Lying atop the ancient machine is a letter, which I move to read without any protest on his part. Since the signature at the end of the brief two-paragraph draft belongs to Teddy’s wife, Lily, it’s unclear whether it is she or he that is its author. Perusing the draft, I discover what’s eating at Teddy. Addressed to a Philly law firm, the letter expresses dismay that although the author has dutifully paid $2,200 with the understanding that the firm was to take on Teddy’s case, to date all that he has received is a small booklet consisting of only the court filings arranged in chronological order. Surely, the letter plaintively insists, this cannot be the sum total of the firm’s efforts on her husband’s behalf.
Teddy, as I know from a request for legal assistance he showed me back in November, is serving life on a conviction of murder, burglary, and arson. Titled “The Nightmare of an Innocent Man,” the request detailed how after the failure of his first marriage, and after losing his job, Teddy fell into drug addiction. While he was no stranger to the police during those years, he had no history of violence. On the night when the victim was beaten, robbed, and died of smoke inhalation, Teddy was doing drugs with a woman elsewhere in West Philly. Neither the Philly PD nor Teddy’s court-appointed attorney made any attempt to contact the woman, and eventually Teddy lost contact with her. Through God’s grace, however, the request concluded, Teddy has found the woman, who has cleaned up her life and has provided Teddy with an affidavit establishing his alibi.
I sit down with Teddy and help him line-edit the complaint, which is riddled with errors. After a few minutes, grammar and syntax have ceased to be a distraction, but the only thing clarified, it seems to me, is the hopelessness of the plea. By the time we finish, everyone else is gone.
* * *
Baumgartner beckons me down into the chair opposite his desk. Baumgartner is Graterford’s head chaplain, or, in DOC parlance, its FCPD—its Facilities Chaplaincy Program Director—a job he’s held for more than a decade. A theological liberal, Baumgartner was ordained as a Lutheran minister and has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from a Jewish seminary. In his other spiritual pursuits, Baumgartner is an avid cyclist and an accomplished jazz trumpeter. Because Baumgartner was out last week, I haven’t seen him since Christmas. With baggy eyes to match his saggy chin, Baumgartner seems fatigued in a postvacation way, and for the first time he speaks to me of the prospect of retirement.
Baumgartner’s office walls are decorated with prisoner artwork. Two paintings depict figures I take to be Jesus. In one, He is white and bearded, while in the other, superimposed before a blue sky, He is clean-shaven and black.23 A third painting, which bears Teddy’s signature, depicts in one-point perspective a paved street claustrophobically lined with South Philly–style row houses, giving way at the vanishing point to a setting sun.
Officer Watkins pops his head in to report that the chapel is secured, and Baumgartner waves him on to lunch. I remind Baumgartner of what I’m up to this week. He tells me that I should check with him daily and that he’ll let me know if something is going on—that is, he adds with a chuckle, if he hears about it. But by now, he says, I’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see.
* * *
After lunch, I successfully deflect another play by Watkins for the movie rights to my book, which he’s counting on to pay down his mortgage. To counter, Watkins asks me again if I’ve read the Book of Jasher. “Jasher” is a book alluded to in Joshua and Second Samuel, a purported version of which Watkins found on the Internet. I confess that while a Bible scholar friend debunked whatever it was Watkins read as in all certainty a pseudepigraph of far more recent authorship, I have not, as yet, checked it out myself. Watkins is unimpressed. He chastises me: “Every man has the right to go to the source and to see for himself what to believe—not just to believe what he’s supposed to believe. Why not see for yourself in your inner self?” I have no adequate response.24
The guys begin to filter in. When Teddy shows, Watkins catches his eye and runs his hands gloatingly along the armrests of his reclining desk chair. Watkins informs Teddy that he was fine with the inferior chair he’d found beneath his ass sometime midmorning, but that he’d decided to trade back. Teddy bursts into laughter and takes a seat, as Watkins, remembering his point, continues on about the Book of Jasher, about how it gets into all sorts of stuff the Bible is silent about, like how Jesus spent his missing years.
“We just don’t know anything about that if we stick only to what we’ve been given,” Watkins argues. Did I know, for example, that according to Jasher, Moses went to Africa for ten years?
“Was it even called Africa then?” Teddy wants to know.
“That’s not the point,” Watkins says. “The point is that we are under this system called ‘canonized,’ and we’ve got to be suspicious of the ones doing the choosing.”
I urge Watkins on.
“For example,” he continues, “suppose there was a hostage situation down here and when it was over, they came down and took Teddy out in cuffs, and then they would take you, me, Baumgartner, and the Imam somewhere to debrief us. And we would all sit there in that room and tell different stories because we would have different perspectives on what went down.” Moreover, not merely do the four Gospels reflect a multiplicity of perspectives, they reflect as well a variety of interests, not all of them necessarily on the up-and-up. For, as Watkins argues, the process by which the canonizers boiled down these different perspectives to the definitive accounts we have today was by no means innocent. “Things were taken out of the Gospels to make people do different things,” Watkins explains.
Teddy is prepared. “True,” he counters, “but if you have the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t matter. Because the Holy Spirit will do what?” He pauses for emphasis. “The Holy Spirit will always lead you to what God said even if man tried to do what?” Another pause. “Switch it to fit his lifestyle.”
Whether critically or apologetically, Teddy and Watkins are nothing if not readers of outrageous confidence; and, still relatively fresh off my qualifying exams, I cannot but hear in their approaches to the Bible the echoes of the early-nineteenth-century religious upsurge that American religionists have long known as the Second Great Awakening. For if every man believes he has the right to read Scripture himself and forge his own judgments, neither by God nor nature is he so authorized. That authorization comes to him, rather, via the curious confluence of religious enthusiasm and democratic dispensation that in the days of the new republic was already emblematic of the emergent American character.25 At revivals and camp meetings, men and women generated radical new denominational routes and devotional methods through which, as much via the medium as via the message, many came to feel empowered (and therefore obligated!) to read the Bible for themselves and form their own judgments. As the story is told, the gates that Luther and Calvin had cracked ajar were, amid the exploding market revolution, swung wide open. Henceforth, just as no one needed a priest for salvation, neither did one need a minister to facilitate understanding. For those with faith, the thinking went (and goes), the process is overwhelmingly visceral. Scripture isn’t hard, it’s easy! Simply open your heart to the Word and let the Truth flood in!26
But in Watkins’s present account, the radically accessible nature of God’s truth is only part of the story. Rather, God’s bountiful generosity with the Truth (and, by extension, with salvation) is a damn good thing, Watkins would say, since Jesus’ message, as it’s come down to us, is not, in all likelihood, Jesus’ message as it was delivered. In so saying, Watkins betrays a secondary attitude toward Scripture, one less theological than sociological, and (the raging Dan Brown phenomenon notwithstanding) arguably indigenous less to America at large than to black America specifically.27 Some would call it paranoia. Watkins would call it common sense. That is, if history teaches anything, it’s that those with power will do whatever they can to promote and preserve their self-interest. If sin and pride will lead man away from the Truth here and now, why should we assume that the canonizers were somehow exempt?
Teddy isn’t buying it.
Watkins presses him: But won’t the Holy Spirit guide us the same way when we’re reading the texts that were left out?
“Look,” Teddy reiterates. “If you don’t have God, you only have what?” Beat. “Man’s words. And man is fallible.”
“Hey, Watkins! You’re not proselytizing again, are you?” This comes from Brian, the Rabbi’s clerk, who is standing at the stairwell door. Fastidious in his appearance, with pressed browns, sculpted hair, shadowless cheeks, and, in summer, the uniformly bronze hue of an intentional tan, Brian carries himself with the harried air of a corporate professional.
Watkins shakes his head.
“You know, of course,” Brian says to me with a smirk, “that Watkins is a well-known proselytizer, don’t you?”
“I knew that,” I play along, “but I didn’t know it was an open secret.”
“Well, it is now,” Brian says.
Scowling, Watkins tells the story. It was during Friday’s Jum’ah prayer a couple weeks back, and this one Muslim just kept coming and going and coming and going. Growing aggravated at the guy’s blatant disregard for the rules, Watkins told him to cut it out. The Muslim got up in Watkins’s face, and told him that he’d best stop discriminating against Muslims. Watkins threatened to write him up and the Muslim calmed down, but only so as to later file a grievance with the superintendent’s office detailing Watkins’s systematic pattern of discrimination against prisoners of a Muslim persuasion. The first Watkins hears about it is when he’s called in by the day captain, admonished, and told not to proselytize anymore.
In no simple sense is Watkins a proselytizer. In uniform and out, the jail has no shortage of narrow and dogmatic religious exponents, but Watkins is not one of them. Though he is serious about his faith—a characteristic common to the COs who bid for the chapel post—he is not bullheaded. In fact, in an environment dominated by doctrinal certainties, Watkins is notably elastic. And though he’s not afraid to publicly engage in Christian apologetics, it is always with a willing sparring partner. “Show it to me in your Scripture! Show it to me in your Scripture!” I once saw Watkins passionately beseech a prominent Moorish Scientist. As for Sunni Islam in particular, Watkins has repeatedly declared his solemn admiration for the intensity and humility with which they “worship the Lord.”
And yet, it doesn’t take too great a leap of imagination to see where Watkins’s accuser might have been coming from. You’re a Muslim prisoner in a Christian-majority country, and the man tasked with protecting your First Amendment right to free religious exercise—which is to say, the man who stands between you and the exercise of your constitutional rights—makes little effort to mask his Christian faith. When the gears inevitably get gummed up, it’s easy to suspect that it’s by design.
There is also a more systemic critique to make of the authority wielded by chapel officers. According to this perspective, even if Watkins should successfully hide away all the trappings of his faith, or even if he was swapped out for a sober secularist, his very presence in the chapel bears witness to the potentially self-defeating paradox inherent in attempts at regulating religious liberty. The U.S. Constitution protects the “free exercise” of religion and prohibits the “establishment” of religion. And yet, the protection of free religious exercise—in prison and out—necessarily demands someone in power to establish the rules by which religion is regulated.
I am not without sympathy for this critique. While the rule of law differs in substantial ways from the rule of whim, and while the chapel would be a far worse place were Watkins truly the unhinged zealot his accuser mistook him for, it is equally the case that no formula for protecting the free exercise of religion can avoid playing favorites. Even when the aspiration to religious pluralism is pursued in good faith, as, by and large, I take it here to be, overseeing “A House of Prayer for All Peoples”—as the chapel is designated on the weekly schedule of events that is taped to the vestibule bulletin board—necessarily demands drawing distinctions about what counts as legitimate prayer and what counts as a recognizable faith.28
In the chapel, then, defining religion is no academic matter. And if the sacred language of the Constitution furnishes the inspiration, it does so from a distance. Rather, the rules by which the free exercise of religion finds protection here are shaped up and down a hierarchy of authorities stretching from the Supreme Court to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Religious Accommodation Committee (RAC) up at DOC headquarters in Camp Hill, to Reverend Baumgartner, and, finally, in a packed vestibule on a Friday afternoon, to Officer Watkins. Even when evenly enforced, these rules are never neutral.
As scholars of religion have often observed, the nominally nonsectarian rules by which Americans regulate religion belong to a particular theological tradition: namely, liberal Protestantism.29 What is a theological liberal? Well, if a theological conservative like Watkins or Teddy would maintain that faith in Jesus Christ is the only viable road to salvation, a liberal would be far more accommodating. There are many different religious paths, a liberal might say, of which faith in Christ is only one. And yet, in spite of his or her best efforts at inclusivity, the liberal’s notion of religion often imposes Protestant presumptions that locate the essence of religion not in peoples or public works but in individuals and their private convictions—faith in God paradigmatically, or in a secularized version, the truths at the core of a person’s being that are thought to drive his or her actions.30 As the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich put it, in language that in 1965 the Supreme Court would adopt and which remains today resonant, religion is about your “ultimate concern”—“what you take seriously without reservation.”31 Under this standard, “real” religion is those practices and beliefs truly foundational to an individual’s outlook on life and, consequently, to his or her being in the world. Subordinate preferences would not suffice, and scoundrels need not apply. Other than that, in theory, all creeds were to be equally entitled.
Even were it not outmoded, that ideal is impossible to actualize.32 In practice, some peoples are welcomed to the chapel with open arms, some are tolerated, and others are excluded entirely. If Graterford’s Muslims feel scrutinized, as of now no formal space is provided for fringe religionists like Wiccans, Odinists, Satanists, Yogis, Rastafarians, or even Buddhists, who though licensed to practice their religions alone in their cells are not afforded a public platform in the chapel. Afforded no accommodation at all are the Five Percent Nation of Islam and the black naturalist sect MOVE, which, four years before the police firebombed its West Philly home, killing eleven, was deemed by the Third Circuit to be merely a social philosophy and not a bona fide religion meriting constitutional protection.33
It doesn’t take a cynic to see in the regulation of religion an arbitrary exercise of state power. “Describe, in detail, your religion’s basic tenets or beliefs, which you feel require that you be provided with the requested accommodation,” the DOC’s Inmate Religious Accommodation Request Form instructs.34 But the resulting evaluations of religious authenticity and sincerity take place on scales tipped in favor of those whose practices are already familiar. The strange, the new, and the contentious tend to trigger the system’s security alarm, which, when rung, trumps the petitioners’ First Amendment rights.35
But for the marginalized, both in the chapel and out, even subjection unto exclusion is not necessarily without some ancillary benefit. Via a spiritual jujitsu, the affliction of state oppression can become a marker of defiance before one’s captor, and of righteousness before one’s maker. Consider, for example, Gaston Carlsby.
At Reverend Baumgartner’s urging, Baraka would later spin me the yarn about how when they were on cooking crew together, he discovered Gaston soaking loaves of bread in the industrial vat used to catch the slaughtered cow’s blood—this was back when the farm was in operation and the jail produced all its own meat and milk. Baraka learned that drinking cow’s blood had something to do with Gaston’s religion. Not yet prejudiced by such sensational hearsay, when I sat down with Gaston, I knew only what Mamduh had told me: that he was an interesting guy, a Satanist, and somebody I should speak to for my project’s sake.
When Gaston met me in the library, he turned out to be a 350-pound African-American man with a lazy left eye, a head of unkempt braids, a wry disposition, and a low-key, mildly unnerving intensity. Gaston was not a Satanist at all, I learned, but a Wiccan. He grew up Christian but rejects Christianity for its patriarchal God, its homophobia—“I don’t see why it matters who you sleep with”—and its genocidal attitude toward witches. He said: “If you want to know about a religion, go to their book and see what they say.” He quoted Exodus: “Suffer not a witch to live.”36
Careful not to speak for all Wiccans, Gaston nonetheless asserted the essence of Wicca to be the ethical imperative Harm no one. A decade into his practice, only last fall did Gaston discover that he was truly a Wiccan. That’s when, after being stabbed fourteen times by a couple of guys he worked with in the underwear plant—in part, he figures, because of his religion—he felt not the slightest impulse to kill them.
Gaston wears a silver pentagram around his neck with a red stone inset. It took him two years to get it, having to work his way first through Reverend Baumgartner and then up to the RAC.37 After he managed to finally get one, he said, the DOC made it close to impossible for anyone else. Gaston is dubious about the “silver-tongued” Baumgartner. “As someone whose job it is to be responsible to all religious groups,” Gaston said coldly, “Baumgartner is a very good jazz musician.” With little faith in the agents of the state to assure his First Amendment rights, Gaston marvels at the genius of his fellow pagan prisoners: how they make altars in their cells, candles out of crayons, Thor’s Hammers out of cardboard. Able to turn his cell into a sacred place, Gaston has no interest in practicing his religion in the Christian chapel.38
As he translated it for my benefit, “Praying in the chapel would be like eating kosher in a pork factory.”
* * *
In the otherwise empty chapel, Al, Papa, and a third old head are facing the dais, doing something I can only assume pertains to technical maintenance. Alone in the office, Sayyid sits at his desk, quietly reading and writing. I loiter in the vestibule.
“Do you ever think about why we’re here?” Watkins asks me.
I try, and fail, to gauge where Watkins is coming from.
He looks up at me. “Have you ever felt love?”
“I guess so,” I say.
“Sure,” I say. “From my parents.” This line of inquiry is making me uneasy.
“No,” Watkins says, “that’s not nothing.” His eyes glisten and he holds out his hands, palms up. “Unconditional love,” he says, “is what you feel the first time your newborn child looks at you. It just looks up at you with total love. Like it just thinks that you’re perfect or something.” He stares off in silence. “You have nieces or nephews?” he asks me.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Well, you know how much you love them, right? Well, that’s nothing compared to what you feel for your own kids.”
Unequipped to respond, I try to steer the conversation into less threatening terrain. “But then, someday, they forget,” I say. I’m referring to recent conversations in which Watkins has lamented his teenage daughters’ mounting insolence. But Watkins isn’t thinking about his vexing daughters from his first marriage; his mind is fixed on the sinless baby from his second. So, rather than launching into his stock lamentations about kids’ lack of respect these days, the breakdown of families in this modern era of women’s liberation, and the destruction we reap when we replace God’s law with our own, he continues with his impromptu devotion to the sublime power of an infant’s love.
“And when you come home at night,” he says, still transported, “and it looks up at you like that—you just remember what it’s all about.”
* * *
Men waft into the vestibule to watch the red light over the door and wait. When the two o’clock shift-change finishes up, the red light will go off, the suspension of movement will be lifted, and guys should be able to get back to their cells. Watkins watches the bulb, too, knowing that once it goes dark, Officer Bird, his replacement, won’t be too far behind. I glance back and forth between the beacon and the men and consider the monotony of prison time: tedious for these men who live here for decades on end; tedious for Graterford’s employees, who, it is said, are serving “twenty-five to life, eight hours at a time”; tedious for all but the ethnographer, for whom everything is, in its way, a wonder.
Climbing the stair, I take little notice of the vibrant depictions of Muslim holy sites and calligraphic renderings of Qur’anic verses that line the right-hand wall and wrap around the landing heading toward the basement—remnants of an earlier era.
Upstairs, in the Rabbi’s study, Brian and Baraka are poring over the Collins opinion at the lacquered wooden conference table that runs alongside the wall of books. To the left, in the nook next to the small kitchenette, a dozen chairs face an open wooden ark where a Torah is draped under a white-and-blue prayer shawl. With its well-stocked library and wall-to-wall carpeting, the Rabbi’s study is easily the warmest space in the chapel.
Baraka’s knotted brow is buried in the case, and Brian is lecturing. The most serious of Graterford’s Jews about the observance of the biblical commandments, Brian is also a serial litigant. If before God, then, Brian presents himself as law-bound, before the state he evinces no such deference. In addition to his ongoing criminal appeal, Brian has a couple of other cases pending before the federal court, one seeking the full accommodation of his Jewish dietary observance. Brian already pushed for and won the right to a vegetarian diet, but in the current case—Pot Roast v. Pork Chops, as he refers to it jokingly—he’s pressing for kosher meat. Brian knows that with the thousands of Muslims with similar dietary needs poised to follow suit, the DOC is unlikely to budge. As he also knows, from his other lawsuits, he is already on thin ice. If, for example, the administration catches wind of Brian having supplemented his meager allotment of fruit, raw vegetables, crackers, and nuts with unsanctioned cafeteria or commissary fare, he will lose his accommodation once and forever.
When Brian is being argumentative, which is most of the time, he lectures in the formal language of a legal complaint, filling his speech with all sorts of cumbersome locutions along the lines of “as I submit to you,” “I maintain that,” and “my contention is.” After spending the greater part of the day digesting the Collins opinion, this is how Brian is talking at Baraka now. From what I can surmise, the case bears on prisoners seeking relief on the basis of an ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim. The animating disagreement between the two men is Collins’s reach. Baraka wants Collins to say that if your IAC claim was not dismissed expressly on its merits, then Collins authorizes you to get back into court. For Brian the opinion is a much narrower holding.
Making me arbiter, each presents his respective position. Without having read the case (so that, as Watkins or Al might say, my inner self might decide for itself), I rely on experience and instinct, which, based on the authority of its source and the pessimism of its content, point to Brian’s position. Baraka appeals my decision, but I defer to Brian, who is preaching a tough love seemingly befitting the situation. There’s nothing he can do for him, Brian tells Baraka. Baraka must simply go to the law library and do the necessary legwork to see how Collins might or might not apply to his case. Baraka makes a sour expression.
“Can’t you have a shorty do it for you?” I tease Baraka. Meaning, can’t he send some youngster to do it on his behalf? This sets Brian on a riff I’ve never heard before but which, as my joke betrayed, I am less than shocked to hear. Apparently, Brian mirthfully reports, Baraka has no shortage of “support” from within the Muslim community.
“Did you know, for example,” Brian asks me, “that a member of the Muslim community cleans Baraka’s cell? Did you know that when Bar goes for a visit, someone is already there saving a prime seat for him, and should he or the missus find themselves in the mood for a snack of some kind, there is an underling on hand ready to heat it up for them?” Bar cackles, his head disappearing, turtle-like, into his shoulders. In his voice of incredulity, the one Baraka plays an octave higher than his normal speaking voice, he stammers out his defense.
“This is impossible,” he pleads. “How am I going to pull this kind of weight around here when I’m so diminutive?”
“Who do you believe?” Brian asks me, palms upraised. Again I’m to be the judge.
Reassuming his posture of baroque efficiency, Brian says that while he’d like to stay and play all day, he needs to get cracking. Asking us gentlemen to make sure we turn off the lights and close the door when we leave, Brian glibly issues each of us a “Good day, gentlemen,” and takes off.
Seemingly weary of wearing the dunce cap, Baraka quickly makes it my turn for school. Sitting catty-corner at the end of the conference table, he cradles my pad inside the crook of his elbow, grabs my pen, and begins to write something. Upside down, I read:
Religion and Inmates: Reality or Tool?
I ask Baraka what he’s getting at. The distinction he’s trying to draw, he says, “is whether what somebody practices is what they’re really about, or are they merely wearing the requisite clothing demanded by the fashion judges on the parole board.” Go on, I say, despite my misgivings about what I presume is going to be an attack on the religious sincerity of some of his fellow prisoners, specifically, I suspect, the Salafi.
It is not a move that I am predisposed to tolerate. To the degree that I came to this project with any sort of ax to grind, it was against the kneejerk assumption that prisoners’ religion is fundamentally insincere.39 Popular culture is rife with riffs on the manifest fakery that is jailhouse religion, which is thought to fall just shy of “real religion.” Jailhouse religion is, at the benign end, a ruse perpetrated for protection, or for meager material privilege. At its more malignant—as “jailhouse Islam” most commonly—it is a smokescreen for gangsterism or for seditious politics.40
Such a characterization is less wrong than it is wholly inevitable. It is a consequence of what happens when a narrow conceptualization of religion intersects with the reductive way we think about prisoners. For, if in order to be authentic, religion must be measured against the presumed fixed core of a man’s soul, the reviled prisoner finds himself procedurally barred. As a figure, the prisoner is closely akin to the one that for Hegel stood in for the problem with abstraction as such. “This is abstract thinking,” the German philosopher wrote, “to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.”41 And so it is, in our own day and age, for the prisoner. Predominantly, the prisoner is little more than the personification of the crime for which he was convicted. Add religion and the outcome is clear. A prisoner’s performance of piety may be presumed as a given. How else, after all, is a villain to present himself? But performance here is mere performance. Until he overcomes the burden of our doubt, the religious prisoner is to be presumed a wolf in sheep’s vestments. Reduced down to an anthropological fact, the religious prisoner is to be shrewdly regarded as one trying to get by, or trying to get over, and rarely if ever as trying to commune sincerely with his maker—as in suitable conformity, that is, with the theological litmus test he (or she, but mostly he) has been set up to fail. For this essentially “bad man,” dissimulation is thought to be tantamount to vocation, and religious conversion is thought to be just another version of the con.42
Given the attendant material and personal benefits, the sincerity of anyone’s religious practice could be called into question. Would that, as an interpretive device, this “bad man of religion” were so indiscriminately deployed. But church bingo players and synagogue presidents are not its targets. Rather, the bad man of religion is found only—and circularly—among classes of people already deemed suspect. Through the bad-man framing, Omar’s activism is efficiently converted into a low-level power play, and Brian’s litigiousness plainly becomes little more than a gadfly’s gambit. Indeed, for the desirability of their posts alone, all but the most scrupulous and pious chapel workers can be felled by the bad-man presumption. Although in the end, for the presumed exquisiteness of their artifice, they, too, may be laid low.
As should have come as little surprise, the bad man of religion is no stranger to the chapel. Sincerity matters a lot here. Not by the fervor of his prayers, however, is an inmate’s religious sincerity validated. In this fishbowl, rather, the truth of a man’s professed faith is measured by how he conducts himself on the block, in the showers, on the chow line. Does he act with dignity and humanity, or does he lumber naked to the shower, screw other men, and in summer, when it’s precious, hoard more than his share of ice? If in such adverse conditions a man manages to somehow act like a man, then his religion might well be real. But if he doesn’t—and most fail this test—then religiously he is a fraud, and perhaps, considering what else he’s seen doing, he’s a hustler, a huckster, or a gangster too.
Were Brian still here, the case for fraud would be open and shut. As he ceaselessly argues, what I observe in the chapel has nothing to do with real religion. For his fellow prisoners, religion is a game, nothing more. According to Brian, men here are “a bunch of animals,” and “nothing that happens in this trash can matters.” Reverend Keita reads Brian’s categorical rejection of the reality of his world as an attempt to distance himself from the brutalities he’s endured, and that may well be. But in Brian’s opinion, I’m wasting my time studying such nonsense, and nonsense is all I get since everybody is just bullshitting me anyway. The Muslims especially see me as a white boy and a Jew, and I can be sure that anything I say to one will be quickly transmitted to all the others.
Gaston Carlsby was even more concise. “First,” he said, “people will tell you what you want to hear. Second, they will tell you whatever will do them the most good. Third—and this is only if you pay very close attention—you will encounter the core of excrement that is there.”
Baraka is not quite so discouraging. When guys speak with me—he says he assumes—same as when they speak with God, they’re generally speaking the truth at least as far as they know it from their experiences. When it comes to the Salafi, however, Baraka is not always so charitable. While he’s careful not to single out anyone in particular, certainly not Salafi office workers like Sayyid and Kazi, he’s said that many Salafi “wear their religion as a cloak.” I once pressed Baraka on the apparent inconsistency of his two positions, arguing to him that he can’t assert that people mean what they say while excepting those he disagrees with. In his typically frustrating fashion, Baraka curtly countered: “In your world maybe you can’t do that. In my world I can.”
Given this history of exchange, I’m expecting Baraka to detail how his own cohort—the so-called Warith Deen guys—are on the up-and-up and how the Salafi are merely faking it. Surprisingly, however, he takes precisely the opposite tack. For him, Baraka confesses, revelation is something of a far-fetched notion. He roots his skepticism in his years in the Nation of Islam, where, while wholeheartedly embracing the Nation’s ethos of personal discipline, practical politics, and economic uplift, he could never quite get with all the talk about dragons, angels, the mother plane, and the like.43 For Baraka, religious metaphysics remains somewhat beside the point. What is essential in religion is to “have faith in one God and to do unto others” what one would have others do to you. Everything else is up for grabs. For him, he concludes now, Islam is a lifestyle, his adherence largely instrumental. In Islam, Baraka says, espousing the Nation’s self-help ethos, the bottom line is not submission but self-improvement, the highest value being that of education. For the Salafi, by contrast, it’s way more than that.
Primed to defend the Salafi from the charge that they don’t really mean their religion, I suddenly find myself in the funny position of having to defend these sometimes obdurate men from meaning it perhaps a little bit too much. In defense of this suddenly suspect true believer, I ask Baraka to picture a kid who “falls”—as going to prison is called—at twenty, a kid who lived by the code of the streets, and, having just gotten hit with a long prison bid, comes to the realization that the game he’d been playing was way too hard, its stakes too steep. To compound matters, this newly disillusioned young man must process his belated revelation in a lonely and hostile environment. In such an instance, I argue, could Baraka not see the appeal of a time-tested tradition that claims to lay out for you—you, who suddenly and for good reason find your own judgment lacking—a comprehensive rule book for navigating your life choices? On top of which, it is promised to him—he, who may have done something terrible—that should he obey, he will one day receive the ultimate reward. Can’t Baraka see the sincere appeal of that?
Baraka sees the appeal, but he rejects fundamentalism in all of its forms. Fundamentalism, he says, is precisely about perpetuating incarceration indefinitely. Fundamentalism is all about keeping him infantile, dependent, and, as such, in full conformity with the mindless behaviorism promoted by the prison system. As Baraka once caustically wondered aloud about his fellow prisoners: “What would happen if everyone woke up and the building wasn’t there? Would they still stand for count?”
I ask Baraka if what he’s saying applies equally to Christian fundamentalism.
“Christian fundamentalists are bigger frauds,” he says. “At least Salafism is an old thing. Christian fundamentalism is a new thing, an American thing.” His face betrays the unpleasantness of being forced to share cramped quarters with what he deems to be idiotic.
While I don’t interrupt him, I only partially share Baraka’s judgment. As I see it, Salafism is no less modern than Protestant fundamentalism. And, while scholars of religion rightly tend to bristle at the category of “Muslim fundamentalism” and its shoddy transposition of a category belonging to American Protestantism to a very different milieu, the two movements do share more than a passing resemblance.44 Fundamentalism emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as part of what is known as the Third Great Awakening, a religious surge that saw the emergence of a slew of mass movements, ranging from Pentecostalism to the Social Gospel. Taking its name from the twelve-volume set of tracts The Fundamentals, which was published in Los Angeles beginning in 1910, the movement was an effort to get back to the basics of Jesus Christ’s message. If, theologically, fundamentalism’s goal was to recover the lost truths of the past, the spur in its flank was forged in the Industrial Age. In stark contradistinction to fin de siècle liberal Protestants, who embraced Darwinism and biblical criticism and built bridges to other religious denominations, fundamentalists reasserted the absolute centrality of Jesus Christ as plainly recorded in the inerrant Word of God that is the Bible.45
Salafism is similar. While traced back by insiders and critics to the eighteenth-century Arabian legal scholar Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, Salafism only became a mass movement in the twentieth century. Like Protestant fundamentalists, the progenitors of modern Salafism sought to get back to an unadulterated truth—in their case, the practices of the Salaf, the pious predecessors of Islam’s first three generations. Rejecting in principle the authority of the medieval schools of jurisprudence on which Sunni Muslims traditionally rely, Salafi jurists turned directly to the Qur’an and the hadith (the sayings by and about the Prophet) to divine how Muhammad and his companions lived their lives.46
From a secularist perspective, Protestant fundamentalism and Salafism each represent a refusal to adapt to modern life. It is a characterization fundamentalists and Salafists would happily accept, with the proviso that the innovations of modernity mark not the march of progress but a further deviation from God’s Truth. As I see it, both accounts—the traditionalist story and the progressive one—are stories of self-authorization. Whereas the traditionalist draws authority from the purported truths of the past, the progressive draws his from the presumed advances of the present. The identification of fundamentalism and Salafism as somehow premodern buttresses the conceits of progressives and traditionalists alike. As mass movements, however, Salafism and fundamentalism are inescapably modern. In spite of their best intentions, their textual innovations and the neotraditionalist lifestyles they promote belong to the modern worlds in which they have flourished. Analogous to constitutional originalism in the American legal context, fundamentalists and Salafists engineer new and uniquely modern forms of religious practice, driving forward even as they take themselves as mere recoverers of past truths lost.47
For Baraka, fundamentalism’s intellectual shortcomings pale in comparison to its de facto social ends. The system wants to breed fundamentalists, he says, so that guys will bring it back outside to the street. “They’re breeding it in this place, so it’ll grow all over, so that guys will be incarcerated forever, regardless of whether they’re behind bars or not.”
“But not Salafism!” I object. Certainly the system isn’t trying to promote a Middle Eastern form of Islam.
He shakes his head: “The Salafi believe in stasis. They want you to live as if we’re in the seventh century. You find yourself in an impossible position in which you’re defying the rules of your religion every time you pick up an ink pen. But it’s an impossibility,” he says. “You can’t make your arguments from the seventh century, because you’re not there. You make your arguments from what is available now in the twenty-first century.”
I nod. “And the Warith Deen brand of Islam?” I ask of Baraka’s own Muslim subculture, whose members identify with and look for guidance to Warith Deen Muhammad, the son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. “What about you all?”
“We believe in progress,” he says. “That what happened back then happened, but that we’re here now.”
Trying to close the remaining philosophical distance between the two of us, I ask, “Would you call yourselves pragmatists?”
Baraka signs on to that description but then reconsiders. Most of the Warith Deen guys aren’t like him either. By and large, they’re literalists too. In his views about religion, he concedes, he doesn’t have too much company.
As we tidy up, I idly inquire whether Baraka ever talks to Al about stuff like this.
“No, no, no, no,” he cautions, “that wouldn’t be such a good idea.”
On the stair, I ask Baraka about this morning’s whisperings. Baraka explains that as a resident of A Block, he likes to check in on Mondays with guys from the other blocks to make sure that everything is cool. Plus, he uses the opportunity “to teach them about the history of our community,” he says, referring, I can only presume, to the Warith Deen community.
“And about honor?” I ask, alluding to Baraka’s cardinal virtue.
“Yes,” he says, “that lesson cannot be taught enough. It’s so alien to guys in here that you can’t just do whatever you want whenever you want it.”
Back on a summer afternoon, Baraka offered the following criteria for honorable action.
Copyright © 2013 by Joshua Dubler
Meet the Author
Joshua Dubler is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and the coauthor of Bang! Thud: World Spirit from a Texas School Book Depository. He has spent more than six years working with prisoners at the Graterford Prison.
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