Prison Fellowship

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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Hey New York Times, think Catholic the next time you write about the 1994 Rwanda genocide

Hey New York Times, think Catholic the next time you write about the 1994 Rwanda genocide

The horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was sadly distant from the Roman Catholic Church's finest hour. As many as a million people were brutally slaughtered in a spectacular outburst of tribal bloodletting. Church officials were not only complicit, but in some cases directly responsible for specific acts of violence.

Last year, Rwanda's Catholic bishops apologized for this on behalf of the local church.

In March, Pope Francis followed suit, apologizing in the name of the global church.

So April 7 was the anniversary of the day in 1994 when the Rwandan genocide began. In Rwanda, it's the start of a three-month period that the government has dedicated to memorializing the dead -- as well as to try and insure that the nation never again experiences a similar depravity.

Naturally, that sparks an annual mini-boom of stories by international media about Rwandan efforts at national reconciliation. The New York Times entry this year was this piece on one such effort run by evangelical Christians.

I'll return to the Times piece below. But first let's take a closer look at current and past Catholic involvement in Rwanda because of the church's great relevancy to the Central African nation, and because it's entirely overlooked in this new Times news feature.

The top of this Catholic News Service (CNS) story on the pope's apology sets the stage nicely. This is long, but important:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Pope Francis asked God's forgiveness for the failures of the Catholic Church during the 1994 Rwanda genocide and for the hatred and violence perpetrated by some priests and religious.

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NYTimes offers tales of two very different Christian colleges

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana, has had a reputation as one of the toughest places for criminals to do time in this country. If you go in, and the crime is serious enough, you’re not likely to come out. For years, decades even, the prison was a hotbed of violence and strife.

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