That Joshua Dubler made it out alive is perhaps the most telling thing about his book. Down in the Chapel is a fascinating look inside an American prison””a fact alone that’s dangerous enough. But Dubler is a Princeton-educated religion scholar, and his focus of study is the prison chapel of Graterford Maximum Security Prison outside of Philadelphia. He surrounds himself with murderers, and then proceeds to poke and prod them on the topics of politics and religion. It’s hard to think of a more combustible arrangement.
But Dubler survives””and there’s a reason why. The men he profiles in Down in the Chapel have, in many cases, been convicted of grievous wrongs””men like Baraka, Sayyid, Teddy and Al, four prisoners from South Philly around whom the book is primarily based, two Muslims and two Christians respectively, all locked up for life. But between the Catholic office and the chapel, the Imam’s office and the annex, we learn that these guys are not simply forgettable convicts, easily warehoused away and forgotten. Instead they are men, real men, with philosophies, dreams, humor, and deep sadness. By the end of the book, we wonder less why they spared this agitating author””of course they would””than whether we should have done a better job at sparing a few of them.