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.
Free materials? As in voluntary use? Other groups could provide free materials as well?
The bulletin boards? Only Christian groups are allowed to post or are this forums -- think "equal accress" laws -- open to all?
Movie nights? State officials show Christian movies and that's that? Or are we talking about volunteers showing movies in a space that others can use as well?
So many obvious questions! The case will probably pivot on the meaning of the word "pressured." Who is doing the pressuring and what does that look like?
Meanwhile, there are groups -- Jewish, Muslim and Christian -- involved in prison ministry that could speak to the general subject of bringing messages of faith into prison. These groups employ lawyers to help them follow laws shaping life in taxpayer-funded prisons. One of the most famous of these is Prison Fellowship. an evangelical group founded by a well-known ex-convict, the late Chuck Colson. Headquarters for the group are in Loudon County, Virginia, about an hour or so by car from the Post's offices.
Doubtless, anyone speaking for Prison Fellowship will have a different view on the influence of Christian materials in a prison than Webber-Dunn's perspective. But that's the (journalistic) point: readers are best served when contrasting opinions on a controversial issue are reported. Especially since state officials wouldn't want to go "on the record" because of the litigation, it's vital to get outside voices into the mix.
If a reporter -- or editor -- believes a group such as Prison Fellowship might have an ax to grind (as opposed to activists on the other side of the argument), then surely there's an academic out there somewhere who can comment. As your GetReligionistas have been saying for nearly 14 years, honest, inquisitive journalists and their editors will want to make sure more than one voice is heard in stories of this kind.
Unless, of course, the purpose of the write-up in one of America's most influential dailies, is to merely puff the lawsuit filed by an opponent of Christian ministry in jail. The filing says Webber-Dunn wants to have a court permanently block state permission for "Christian practices" in the jail.
There couldn't possibly be another side to that aspect of things, could there? #Journalism101