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Fast Start: Wisdom gained in a prison's chapel

Rochester Business Journal
October 11, 2013

Behind the walls of a prison, everyday life goes on.
Society views prison as a tantalizingly scary place, says Joshua Dubler, a University of Rochester assistant professor of religion. TV shows like "Orange Is the New Black" paint incarceration with a sexy glow. Behind the fence, though, "there's a lot of nothing that happens there," Dubler says. "It's 25 to life, eight hours at a time."
It is in this setting that Dubler's new book takes place. "Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison" tells the story about one week in the chapel of Graterford Prison, a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. For a year and a half, Dubler was an interloper, spending his days gathering research for his Ph.D. dissertation and taking part in daily interactions with Baraka, Al, Teddy, Sayyid and other workers in the chapel.
What Dubler learned-and what he conveys in his book-is that society's assumptions about the religious leanings of prisoners are incomplete stereotypes: Inmates are either con artists who fake their piety to gain privileges or pitied individuals who cling to faith because it is all they have. Dubler says these are two sides of the same coin-contempt.
"I want the reader to confront assumptions we have about what religion is and assumptions about what prisoners are. And hopefully the book can help enrich the conversation we have about both of those things, with the latter being the more critical," he says.
Through his field work in Graterford ("full of joy and surprises," he says) and later while teaching in a prison B.A. program through Villanova University, Dubler came to know the men well. He and the men who worked in the chapel-Muslim, Christian, Jewish and atheist, young and old-had lively, thoughtful discussions about God and life. He listened in as they prayed, sang and studied. Always in the background was the rhythm of prison life; the book doesn't shy away from exposing the terrifying aspects of incarceration.
Dubler says prison work offered "a certain kind of intense engagement that can be really rewarding. The teaching experience in prison has been the best teaching of my life."
In the chapel, a familial bond developed. Dubler, who was 30 at the time and is now 39, is still in touch with the small group at the center of the story.
"They've watched me grow up. ... I think they're proud of me," he says, a fact he calls both "sweet" and "weird." They encouraged him to teach in the Villanova program and reviewed drafts of his book manuscript.
Dubler had his own set of assumptions when he first set foot in Graterford. As an outsider, he expected an air of suspicion to greet him but instead found people eager to escape unending boredom, who had thoughts to express.
Since the 1970s, the rate of incarceration in the United States has risen 600 percent, far outpacing the rate of other nations. One in every 15 African-American men is imprisoned. The U.S. war on drugs and a disparity of enforcement, Dubler says, have set up a situation that he likens to the history of slavery and civil rights. It is a reality to which most Americans have become inured, he argues.
"The criminal justice system is in practice heavily biased against the poor, young and black," Dubler says. "I don't pity these men. I'm angry at what we are collectively doing. I see it as my task that we stop doing things this way. Prison is full of people who've been discarded.
"This is to me a great moral catastrophe of our age," he says.
Dubler grew up in a comfortable Manhattan home, the son of a "social justice leftie" lawyer who worked for a time at Rikers Island and an English professor father. His parents were agnostics and raised their son as an Orthodox Jew. Dubler earned a B.A. in religion and college of letters from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He spent a year in Cairo reading Russian novels and studying Arabic, laid roof tiles in Minnesota and worked briefly for a Southern organization that helped death row inmates, then enrolled in Prince-ton University for a doctorate in religion.
"Going to grad school (in my family) is something like going into the family business," he says, laughing.
Dubler worked on the book during a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University. He joined the UR faculty in 2011 and started teaching in the religion and classics department in August 2012. Through UR, Dubler would like to help launch a prison education program.
Dubler's wife, Lisa Cerami, teaches German language and literature at Nazareth College. They have two small children and live in the Park Avenue neighborhood. While working on "Down in the Chapel," Dubler rose at 3 or 4 a.m. to take advantage of the quiet hours.
His next book is a look at mass incarceration, a collaboration with Syracuse University religion professor Vincent Lloyd and Cornell University anthropologist Christopher Garces. Dubler also is gathering material to write a book on guilt.
And he was one of the organizers of a September conference that looked at how reformers can use the tools of the abolition movement to change the way society views the role of prisons.
"People need to get organized about the issues that call them," he says.

10/11/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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