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Out of the Prison House

THE message on the machine the other day was from a journalism student writing about how prisons are covered by ``mainstream media.''

It was a useful subject to consider: Coverage of prison issues illustrates how news organizations tend to be captive of events when they would do better over the long haul to consider and educate the readers about root causes - to report on the larger issue of overcrowding rather than the immediate issue of, say, a prison riot.

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Prisoners tend not to be much of a constituency, for news organizations any more than for politicians: Out of sight is out of mind.

But over the years, this newspaper has provided strong and consistent coverage of prisons: riots, to be sure, but also prison reform, prison privatization, the special problems of women in prison. Monitor reporting helped reverse a miscarriage of justice in Canada not long ago, freeing a man wrongly convicted of murder. One of our Pulitzer Prizes was for a series called ``Crisis in the Courts,'' and there have been numerous other awards for Monitor legal and courts-related coverage. As noted elsewhere in this issue, Erwin Canham, longtime Monitor editor, was once asked for by inmates to mediate a prison dispute.

And we are surprisingly well read in prisons: Wardens don't mind if their charges have Monitor subscriptions, and we are often to be found in prison libraries, too.

This commitment to those behind bars has Biblical roots. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the charge ``to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.'' This is the passage that Luke's Gospel reports Jesus reading aloud in the synagogue in Nazareth, ``where he had been brought up.'' And in Matthew's Gospel, visiting those in prison is one of the good deeds Jesus recommends to his followers: ``Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.''

Visiting those in prison, figuratively and literally, and ultimately helping bring them out of the prison house, is part of the mission of Mary Baker Eddy's newspaper no less than that of her church.

Our prisons coverage is important not only in itself but as an example of how the values of the religion inform the newspaper - without making it any less a ``real'' newspaper. Biblical quotations generally remain within the religious article on the Home Forum page. But a great many of our readers, even those quite consciously ``not religious'' (the majority of our subscribers, so far as we can tell, are not Christian Scientists, by the way), respond positively to the values those quotations articulate.

The Monitor is a bridge between our church and the world. We have a mission to church members, who sometimes need their thought gently directed outward to the larger world, no less than to nonmembers, whom we seek not to proselytize but rather to bless, to encourage, to empower with knowledge.

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To those who don't know us and are baffled by our name, we must often explain that we are not just a church publication. To many who do know us we sometimes have to explain that the name means more than they might imagine.

We look forward to the next 85 years.

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