Thomas Thornton

Grant Type

Dissertation Fieldwork Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Johns Hopkins U.

Grant number

Gr. 9493

Approve Date

April 27, 2017

Project Title

Thornton, Thomas Frederick, Johns Hopkins U., Baltimore, MD - To aid research on 'Incarceration, Christianity, Obedience: Ethical Life Inside a Maximum-Security Faith Dorm,' supervised by Dr. Naveeda Khan

Preliminary abstract: My dissertation research will examine how the overlapping doctrines of obedience in Christianity and the US prison shape ethical life for chaplains and inmates inside the faith dorm of Holman Maximum-Security Prison in southern Alabama. Holman is one of the most crowded and violent prisons in the US. It is operated with minimal funds and staff. With two officers and five Mennonite chaplains, the faith dorm has 176 men densely warehoused in non-cellular space. The spiritual underpinning, of the dorm enlists Mennonite Christianity into Holman’s custodial project of preventing insurrection through securitized, aggressive crowd control. Yet, based on pilot research, I suggest that chaplains and inmates alike fashion a flourishing Christian ethical life inside its confines. In a project exploring the relations between ethics and coerced confinement, I will investigate how claims to Christian obedience through pious acts, bodily practices, labor, or passive responses to penal discipline emerge in relation to the prison and the discipleship doctrines of the presiding Mennonite chaplains who have their own ethical investment in the facility. In this depersonalizing, coercive carceral place, how is cultivating a robust or personal Christian ethical life possible for inmates and chaplains? What forms might it take? Through a faith-dorm prison ethnography that overflows its confines spilling out into the local Mennonite community and the Alabama Department of Corrections, my dissertation project addresses current debates in the anthropology of Christianity, prison studies, and ethics to craft insights into how spaces of confinement assemble novel spiritual, institutional, and inter-personal arrangements to engender creative ethical lives.