prisoners

No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

Prison is not always a happy place for inmates, and that's probably by design. The goal of prisons, which once were called penitentiaries because the aim was for criminals to become penitent over their crimes, is to induce serious reflection and change in the attitudes of prisoners.

When reporting on conflicts over issues of faith behind bars, it might be well for editors and reports to reflect on the basics of journalism: It's best to report all sides of the story, even if official voices may be reluctant to speak because of pending litigation.

The basics: Shari Webber-Dunn, 46, convicted in 1994 of participating in the killing of her estranged husband, the presence of Christian-themed items at the Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas is too great a burden. The inmate is suing Kansas officials with the aid of the American Humanist Association.

Over at The Washington Post, the resulting coverage presents one side of what must be a two-or-more-sided story:

Church and state are too cozy at the Topeka Correctional Facility, according to a convicted murderer who has spent the past 23 years inside Kansas’s prison system.
Shari Webber-Dunn -- who in 1994 was handed a 40-year-minimum prison sentence for her role in the murder of her estranged husband -- claims in a federal lawsuit filed last week that inmates at Kansas’s only women’s prison are subjected to an endless profusion of Christian imagery and propaganda, from the material posted on bulletin boards to the movies played in the common room.
The net effect, Webber-Dunn claims, adds up to an institutional message “imposing Christian beliefs on inmates” in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues the prison has created a “coercive atmosphere where inmates are pressured to spend their time in a high religious atmosphere and to participate in religious activities and prayers, thus violating the establishment clause.”

The Post report recounts many of the allegations raised in the lawsuit and summarizes a number of charges, including:

The prison also provides “free Christian literature including monthly church newsletters, daily devotional guides, Bible tracts, various magazine, prayer cards, pamphlets” for the inmates. Yet when Webber-Dunn wanted to buy a 3½-inch statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, she had to hire a lawyer to compel the prison to approve the religious purchase.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court to issue a permanent injunction enjoining the state from continuing to allow Christian practices inside the facility.

Apart from the obligatory official side-step -- "Samir Arif, a Department of Corrections spokesman, declined to comment on the suit, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported" -- the Post makes zero effort to help readers understand any other side of the story.

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In Dallas Morning News crime narrative, forgiveness feels more philosophical than theological

In Dallas Morning News crime narrative, forgiveness feels more philosophical than theological

Warning: This is a critique in process. The final verdict remains uncertain.

That's because I'm going to highlight an ongoing Dallas Morning News narrative series that launched Sunday with Part One and continued today with Part Two. The next installment is scheduled for Tuesday. I don't know exactly how many total chapters are planned.

But this much is already clear: There seems to be a strong religion angle to this in-depth project. The story focuses on a father whose teenage daughter and her boyfriend plotted 25 years ago to kill his wife — and did — and tried but failed to take his life.

Already, forgiveness has emerged as a major theme of the father's journey. But that angle remains largely unexplored.

"Betrayal" was the banner headline Sunday as the project opened with this dramatic scene:

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Close shave: Dallas Morning News clips crucial religion content from prison beards story

Close shave: Dallas Morning News clips crucial religion content from prison beards story

With its story this week on beards in Texas prisons, The Dallas Morning News does a nice bit of foreshadowing.

Both the "For God's sake" headline and the "come-to-Jesus" lede provide a strong hint of the level of seriousness with which the Texas newspaper will treat the religion content.

In other words, not seriously at all.

Let's start at the top:

AUSTIN — Last year, Mario Garcia had a come-to-Jesus moment. The 29-year-old father of six, wanted on a domestic violence charge, flipped his truck as he was trying to outrun police. He lost his freedom. Again.
Last week, sitting in a gymnasium at the Travis State Jail, a large silver cross dangling over his white prison uniform, Garcia said he considers his second prison stint a blessing.
“It’s made me slow down and opened my eyes,” he said. “Faith is a major factor in my life right now.”

Perhaps the Morning News intended that "come-to-Jesus" opening to be clever rather than flippant and cliché, but the newspaper never gets around to describing how Garcia came to faith.

Was he a Prodigal Son who returned to the religion of his youth? Or did he find Jesus behind bars? This shallow report seems oblivious to such obvious questions.

The news peg is, of course, tied to that U.S. Supreme Court ruling on prison beards earlier this year:

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For Supreme Court, it's all about that Muslim beard — or was religious liberty case really about Hobby Lobby?

For Supreme Court, it's all about that Muslim beard — or was religious liberty case really about Hobby Lobby?

Did you hear about the U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Muslim inmate's right to grow a beard for religious reasons? 

In case you missed it, justices ruled unanimously Tuesday in inmate Gregory Houston Holt's favor.

From The Washington Post:

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the court, said Arkansas prison officials had violated a federal law passed to protect religious practices from policies set by state and local officials.
Alito said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act does not require a prison to grant religious exemptions simply because a prisoner asks or because other prisons do. But he said Arkansas officials offered no evidence that a short beard presented security risks or could serve as a hiding place for contraband, as the officials once argued.

Most of the media coverage — from CNN, The New York Times and others — seems pretty straightforward.

But give The Associated Press and the Post extra credit for explaining the prisoner's religious reasoning.

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Gosh! Finding meaning in great Russian literature?

I spent most of last week on the other side of the planet (a Media Project-Poynter.org event in Bangkok) or getting to the other side of the planet and an odd little post I had been planning slid down into the tmatt file of guilt.

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