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Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison
Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison
Joshua Dubler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
400 pp., $30.00

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Sarah Ruden


Slacker Ethnography

A curious account of prison religion.

While I lived in post-apartheid South Africa and was stringing for an investigative magazine based there, I rather hopelessly interviewed the head of a large worship and visitation organization serving prisons around Cape Town.

Years before, this woman had spent three days in jail in tandem with her husband, though she was never charged or even formally suspected in a robbery he had committed.

Her main concern at the time, she told me, hadn't been the injustice done to her or the possibility of getting her husband off (he was eventually convicted and served several years), but the lack of religious wellsprings for those confined. As soon as she got out, she began arranging a broad network of ministry—which couldn't have been an easy job for a working-class "Cape Coloured" (mixed-race) woman. She had the forthright but—in South Africa's political environment—rather wacky goal of moral reform for social reintegration. No matter how depraved or dangerous, prisoners would get out, and quite early compared to those in the U.S. If they were to be creatures of the Lord and no longer of the gangs, she deemed, they particularly needed preparation for jobs that could anchor them.

This last must have seemed to those around her the looniest fantasy of all, as unemployment for the "previously disadvantaged" who have never been in trouble is—pick a number above the government's fudged statistics, but it's certainly more than 30 percent. But at the time I interviewed my informant and accompanied her to a couple of prison services, she reported herself prayerfully satisfied with progress. With volunteers' help, her converts found remunerative things to do on release and stayed out of trouble; or at least the men did. "When you tell them what to do, they do it," she said, "but the women … " She rolled her eyes.

I could see what she meant about the men, at any rate, when I met one of her protégés, a reformed manslaughterer who had endured a prison ...

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