Exploring the Religious Prisoner's Dilemma
Why are prisoners so religious?
In an interview this week on Specific Gravity, Jeff Schechtman and his guest, Joshua Dubler, author of Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, explore the state of religious experience for the incarcerated. They frame the discussion by noting the rather worrying fact that America has around 5% of the world's population, yet 25% of its prisoners.
It is, Schechtman and Dubler agree, a very American story; Americans have historically had "a propensity to punish" and "a propensity to experience god in a very personal way." So their starting off point is this: America is a country with an extremely high regard for religion, which regard is matched only by her enthusiasm for mass incarceration.
What, then, of the intersection between the two things, religion in prison?
Dubler's research, which takes place in one maximum security prison in Philadelphia, reveals several startling and counter-intuitive aspects to this strange variety of religious experience.
Regarding the general perception of religious prisoners, Dubler theorizes a typology of the way that religion in prison is viewed by cynics, which he terms the Bad Man View and the Poor Man View.
The Bad Man View is the dominant one. It holds that religion is about what is in one's heart of hearts, and thinks of prisoners as defined by what they have done. In many of the cases considered in Dubler's book, what they have done is homicide. So, the Bad Man View is suspicious of whether the prisoners can ever really be properly religious people.
The Poor Man View holds that the prisoners are, more than anything else, victims of their circumstances. It thinks that religion is for people who don't have anything else, which lifetime prisoners emphatically do not. On this view, the religious prisoner is an object of pity.
The primary thing that needs to be noted about religon in an American prison is just how much religion there is in an American prison. In the prison that Dubler studies, 12 different formal religious organizations operate, holding a total of 55 services per week. Now, it isn't all that shocking to hear this, given the trope of religious activity in prison movies, books, and shows (consider: Les Mis, The Green Mile, The Longest Yard, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.). But, wouldn't it come as a surprise to a naive observer of our society that the place that it keeps the supposed criminal class of immoralists, amoralists, and undesirables is full of fervent believers in formalized ethical codes.
Dubler offers a number of potential explanations for this phenomenon, each thoughtful and plausible.
One explanation is that, in a certain way, prisoners are just using religion to pass the time with what is available (remember the 55 services per week number from above). Indeed, this cynicism is a pervasive feature of thinking about religious prisoners both in an out of the prison system; Dubler notes that there is a suspicion, both of the prisoners and between them, that others are, in some sense, faking it.
But the more favorable theory, to listeners of the interview and to Dubler, is summed up when he notes that "prison is a place where you really need to know who you are."
In prison, he says, there is only enough room to commit to one particular truth, to be about one thing. In many, many cases, that one thing is a devotion to Jesus Christ, or to the revelations of Islam. It is this singularity of purpose that drives the zeal and breadth with which religion is pursued in American prison.
The effect of this is highlighted in the interview when Schechtman asks Dubler about the difference between religious prisoners across generations. We are told that the older ones have a more singular, more fervent passion for their religions. But, Dubler says, the kind of certitude that the older prisoners are trying to sell to the younger men is seen by those younger men as evidence that the older ones have been, in a way, destroyed by the experience of incarceration.
Against that view, the most religious prisoners claim that, in the most real sense, they are more free than non-prisoners, because they have purpose.
You can listen to the interview below, and decide for yourself which understanding of the experience of religion in American prison seems more likely:
A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- The study sample included 15,000 players.
- The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.
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