Kirby Sokolow

PhD Candidate


Cohen 233

Kirby Sokolow is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies religion and politics in the United States. She holds a BA in Religion from Wesleyan University and an MA in Religious Studies from NYU.

Kirby’s doctoral dissertation explores Buddhism in American prisons and the dynamic relationships between dominant notions of religion, race, criminality, and American belonging since the late 19th century. She approaches prison Buddhism as an ongoing project of religion-making among prison chaplains, leaders of prison meditation programs, public figures, news outlets, and incarcerated people, all of whom have different aims, backgrounds, and biases. Drawing on archival research and media analysis, the dissertation considers the ways discourses that celebrate the “transformative” potential of Buddhism-informed prison programming in the U.S. participate in the disciplining, subject-making, and racializing work of state. How does rhetoric that Buddhism can change so-called angry prisoners into compassionate human beings set up a dichotomy between the “criminal” and the “Buddhist” and gain popularity through racializing assumptions attached to each category? The project also incorporates close readings of memoirs, letters, and essays by imprisoned people, exploring the unexpected ways embodied practices like meditation rewire circuits of feeling in prisons and produce new subjectivities and communities.

During the 2023-2024 academic year, Kirby is serving as a Wolf Humanities Center Doctoral Fellow. Outside of Penn, she volunteers for the health justice organization and newsletter Prison Health News.



MA (incidental), Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania

MA (terminal), Religious Studies, New York University

BA, Religion, Wesleyan University


Research Interests

Institutions, race, and power in the US

Affect, emotion, and embodiment

Health, illness, and disability

Gender & sexuality

Religion and media

Research Areas
American Religions
Politics and Publics
Modernity, Science, and Secularism
Material and Visual Culture

Courses Taught

Teaching Assistant

Fall 2023 (current position): Teaching Assistant, Introduction to Buddhism

Spring 2023: Teaching Assistant, “Religion from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter”

Spring 2021: Teaching Assistant, “Jews, Race, and Religion”

Fall 2020: Teaching Assistant, “The Religion of Anime”


Selected Publications

Book Reviews

McDaniel, Justin and Sokolow, Kirby. “KARMA AND PUNISHMENT: Prison Chaplaincy in Japan by Adam J. Lyons.” Pacific Affairs 95, no. 4 (December 2022): 855–857. 



American Academy of Religion


CV (file)