Thursday, June 23, 2016

Don't throw away the key!

Paul’s offense wasn’t one of those vicious, brutal crimes that we read about on the front page.  No.  Instead, it was the kind of crime that disgusts us, the kind that we detest to the nth degree.  We want these kind of people put away.

I’m reminded of that today, because Paul called our office from his new home in Grand Rapids.  He is enjoying transitional housing, provided by a fine ministry that works hard to keep prisoners from re-offending.  He simply wanted us to know that he’s doing great, and that, at the age of 41, he’s intent on making a new life for himself.

I’m not about to use his real name, or describe his crime, because I suspect you’d get disgusted all over again and ask why he’s on the outside.

Actually, those are the thoughts we struggled with at first.  But Paul’s letters to HFP seemed genuine.  From what we could tell, he had a real conversion experience while in prison.  I know, I know.  The Parole Board hears this all the time.  “I’ve met the Lord, and now I’m not the same person I was when I entered prison.” 

Even if Paul’s letters were accurate, because of the nature of the crime and because of the psychological issues that led him into this kind of activity, he would have a long, uphill struggle.  Still, we believed him, and we stuck with him.

When it came time for his appearance before the Parole Board, he had no friends or family willing to be at his side, so Matt Tjapkes was his representative.  We were surprised to learn later that parole had been granted.

The State of Michigan wasn’t about to just let this man out on the street.  He was first paroled to, what the state calls, a community corrections center.  This type of program provided not just housing, but also much more structure than just regular probation.  Unlike many other prisoners whom we have helped, Paul stayed in touch with us.  Periodically I would receive a letter from the center.  No complaints about the strictly-enforced structure…only positive statements.  He was there for a year, before he was allowed to get his own lodging through a ministry in Grand Rapids.  That’s where the call came from this morning.  Still positive.  Still upbeat.

Kind of reminds us of another Paul.

This guy was persecuting Christians, and not just pestering them.  He was seeing to it that they were placed in jail or even put to death.  That is, until a most remarkable conversion experience, as reported in the book of Acts.  Christians weren’t quickly ready to accept the new convert.  Even Jesus’ disciples were skeptical.  The rest is history.  Just check your Bible to see how many of the New Testament books were written by this reformed criminal.

I’m not saying today’s modern-day Paul, our friend, is going to set the world on fire.  I’m reporting to you that he’s taking one day at a time, and doing a great job. 

Let’s not be quick to say, “Throw away the key!”

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The system ain't working the way it's supposed to!

I was in prison twice this week.  The two visits proved to me, once again, just how difficult the system makes it for someone to walk out of there.  My first visit was to participate in a Public Hearing, conducted by the Michigan Parole Board, to determine whether an inmate should be granted a parole.  The second visit was a strategy session to make some legal plans.’

The cases are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Case number one involves an indigent, Hispanic prisoner guilty of his crime.  Case number two involves a middle-class white man who is completely innocent. 

I was the only person to testify in the Public Hearing for Mr. A.  After being in prison for nearly 39 years, friends and family are gone.  His wife and mother died years ago.  I’ve participated in enough Public Hearings to know that this was going to be an uphill effort.  I felt that I should be there for him.

Here’s the thing I don’t understand.  The Parole Board members, but more specifically the Assistant Attorney General, spent one hour and 45 minutes trying to get this man to clearly and succinctly state why, at the young age of 18 and completely drunk, his hormones raged out of control and he committed a heinous crime.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t find the right words to please them.  And then, after battering him for nearly two hours, they spent less than five minutes to cover the fact this uneducated young Latino made it his business not only to get his GED but also to go on and take college courses.  He enrolled in all necessary programs, and his prison record is really quite good for 39 years behind bars.  In other words, the prison system’s goals seemed to have worked with Mr. A.  But I can feel it in my bones.  They’re not going to let this poor dude out for a second chance.  40 years isn’t enough!  Someday he'll learn his lesson.

Now let’s move on to case number two.  Mr. B’s attorney screwed up in the trial.  He didn’t sufficiently challenge the junk science used by the Prosecutor to obtain a conviction.  As a result, all appeals have been exhausted, and after 15 years this innocent man remains behind bars.  I was part of a team of four, including two businessmen and a retired judge, trying to figure out how we can help this well-educated, well-spoken white man get back into society where he belongs.  The frustrating thing is, it’s just not easy.  Never mind that the man had no priors, never mind that two polygraph tests couldn’t trip him up, never mind that shady junk science was used to put this man behind bars.  The truth be damned.  Nothing has worked so far!

My experiences this week provide just a little window into a system that badly needs repair and revision.

When all else failed, my friend Maurice Carter, who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, used to say, “We’ll have to leave it in God’s hands.”

And that’s exactly where I am today after these two experiences.

I have no faith that men are going to fix anything.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Innocent and in prison? Yep!

“When someone says he’s innocent, and he keeps on saying it for the whole time that he’s in prison, you’d better listen to him!”

Famed welterweight prize fighter Rubin Hurricane Carter was sitting in the front seat of my car, as we drove from a visit with the late Maurice Carter (no relation).  The Hurricane had come to Benton Harbor twice at my request to assist in raising public awareness about the injustice of the Maurice Carter case.  His words carried weight (no pun intended).  Rubin had been wrongly convicted for a crime he did not commit.  Not once, but twice! 

I’m thinking of that today as Matt and I discuss the assistance we are trying to provide to hundreds of prisoners in the Michigan prison system.  I was reporting to him about a meeting I had with a prominent criminal defense attorney last week.  This high profile lawyer is one of more than 50 professionals who freely and generously give of their time to help us with a multitude of problems and issues.  The lawyer gave me two hours of his valuable time, to discuss the cases of five different prisoners.  Four of the five involve wrongful convictions!  And the terribly frustrating truth of the matter:  I’m just not sure how much, if anything, anyone can and/or will do about it!  See if those comforting thoughts help you get to sleep at night.

I hasten to point out two things.  Number one, that Matt and I are not legal experts, and HFP is not an Innocence Project.  And Number two, contrary what you may think and what many law enforcement people like to joke about, all prisoners do not claim they are innocent!

I know that I hammer away at the subject of wrongful convictions rather frequently, but this stuff bothers me a lot, and it should bother you, too.

I just ran through our case list.  We have about 800 files right now.  I came up with the names of 20 men and women behind bars who, I am convinced, are wrongly convicted!  Just add up the number of years that each has spent in prison…one of them has been in over 40!  Then think of the injustice of it all: years from their lives that cannot be replaced.  Then think about the unnecessary cost of it all:  $35-40,000 per prisoner per year, provided they are in good health.  Then think about the flip-side of this coin:  For every wrongly convicted person behind bars, there’s probably a criminal still out there on the street!

I can hear the hard liners calling me a “do-gooder,” trying to put criminals back on the street.  Just the opposite:  I want the right people in jail, and the wrong people out!

Doesn’t it bother you to know that there are Innocence Projects in almost every state, and because of the heavy caseloads they are years behind?  These aren’t just frivolous claims.  They are legitimate pleas for help that deserve careful scrutiny. What a shameful indictment of our system!  Here in Michigan the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic takes only non-DNA cases, and Western Michigan University’s Cooley Innocence Project takes only DNA cases.  I’ll wager money that if you call their main offices today, each one of them is at least two years behind.

Awareness is only the start.

Then must come action.

God help us!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Gorilla worth more than prisoners?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not an animal hater.  I’m completely in favor of being kind to all creatures, great and small.  The problem I have is with the high international interest in the story about taking the life of a gorilla allegedly to save the life of a child.  And meanwhile, topics of abuse of human beings, many of them behind bars, hardly cause us to raise our eyebrows. 

Where is the hue and cry on behalf of the mentally ill, for example?  We’ve closed many of our mental institutions, and now our prisons are loaded with mentally challenged inmates, who are being cared for by personnel who have had little or no training in this field.  Cruelty and abuse are rampant.

Why do those of us in prisoner advocacy have such a difficult time focusing any attention on the terminally ill?  For decades people have been dying in our prisons alone, without the benefit of bedside visits by family members, and without any type of hospice care.  Many of these men and women should have been granted compassionate releases, enabling them to spend final days and hours surrounding by loved ones.

When will start focusing more attention on battered women, many of them behind bars for killing a spouse or boyfriend before he killed or maimed them?  National statistics show that women who kill men receive significantly higher sentences than men who kill women.  They also show that 90% of women who kill men are victims of abuse. 

Why has it taken so long for us to show any concern for pregnant women behind bars?  Shameful shackling of women giving birth is still prevalent.  Provisions for these women to see and care for their babies are often lacking.  Compassionate sentences that enable new moms to do their parenting at home are few and far between.

Juveniles behind bars are finally getting some attention, after years of horrible treatment such as solitary confinement, life sentences without parole, and incarceration in adult facilities. 

This is just a sampling of in-prison irregularities and mistreatment that should shock and concern all of us.

It’s true:  I’m in the business of showing kindness and compassion to prisoners, so these issues are in my face every day.  What will it take to draw the kind of concern that people are showing when the life of a gorilla is taken?  Just as an aside, you can be sure that such attention does wonders for the coffers of animal rights organizations.  Meanwhile, those wonderful agencies doing their best to show kindness to people behind bars consistently face financial struggles.

St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying:  If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men.


Monday, May 23, 2016

A tribute to three caring Corrections Officers

I was speaking to a group of senior citizens on a college campus, and I was not very complimentary in my comments about some corrections officers.  I was telling stories about some officers employed by the Michigan Department of Corrections who seem to feel that their position entitles them to be rude and demeaning to inmates…sometimes even cruel and abusive.

I told of an officer who knew one of the old guys had a huge, terribly sensitive bulge below his belly because of a hernia.  As he passed the old boy in chow line he stopped, and asked him if it was true that he had a hernia.  Mac agreed that it was, indeed, the truth.  “I don’t believe it,” the guard responded.  “Drop your pants and show me.”  The prisoner had no choice than to be humiliated in front of all the guys in line.  The officer allowed that he certainly did have a hernia, then gave the tender bulge a jab with his finger, and walked away laughing. 

I shared a few other similar horror stories.

At the conclusion of my presentation, I left time for comments. A very polite, well-dressed, well-spoken woman in the audience raised her hand.  In the kindest of words this matronly spokesperson cautioned me about painting with a broad brush when describing corrections officers.  “My son is a CO in the Michigan prison system,” she explained.  “He has a college degree, he has a conscience, and he took on this job as his mission in life.  He's a good officer!”

I’m reminded of that experience that occurred a year go right now, as I’m opening an email message from a prisoner, a friend of ours, who is experiencing serious physical problems that I shall not describe in this column…they are far too complicated, too personal, too private.  Anyway, here is his message to Matt and me:

First I want to let you know that 3 of the officers here at Parnall Correctional Facility saved my life on 5-15-16 at 2 AM.  I was bleeding really bad and I was semi –unconscious.  An officer did her round and saw the excessive blood on my sheets and contacted the other correctional staff.  I was then sent to the prison ER.  I would like for you to acknowledge them directly so I can present it to them. It was these correctional officers:  CO Mr. Wilt,  CO Mr. Slicker, and the one who found me was  CO Ms. Thouin.  No disrespect, but most officers don’t even care to look to see if we are alive. I’m in a single man room so nobody would have known. PLEASE write me back and acknowledge them (all 3). It means a great deal. 

So we’re doing that right now, publicly, on behalf of our friend Kevin.  And in doing so, we pay tribute to many fine officers in the system who have a conscience, who recognize that inmates are also created in the image of God, and who do their best to treat them in a humane manner. Theirs is not an easy job, and many times not very pleasant, either.

A copy of this blog will not only be sent to Kevin, but also to the Warden at his facility, and to the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

I conclude with this sentence from a historic prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Will Michigan ever treat the poor fairly in court?

I was so na├»ve!  I had been a reporter for nearly 30 years. In that time I covered the police beat, and I covered court activities.  How the poor were being treated never entered my mind.  Then, in 1995 I headed up an effort to help an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana who had been wrongly convicted and was incarcerated in Michigan.  It was an eye-opener!

I was appalled at the lack of legal assistance granted to Maurice Carter.  His court-appointed attorney did nothing to help, failed to properly question the key witness in the case, and had a reputation for falling asleep in the courtroom.  When Maurice attempted to appeal, based on ineffective work by his attorney, the court gave him THE SAME LAWYER to file the appeal!  He filed it late, missing the deadline.  Later, I learned that these conditions were not just evident in Berrien County.

Many years later, it is no surprise for me to learn that Michigan has been ranked as one of the worst states in the U.S. on spending to help defend the poor in court.  That’s why I’m suggesting, today, that you keep an eye on the Michigan Supreme Court, because, this afternoon, the court will hold a public hearing on indigent defense standards. The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission’s first standards for indigent defense delivery systems will be part of the Court’s agenda. 

To help you understand what’s at stake here, I quote here from a March editorial in the Detroit Free Press:

The U.S. Constitution says that all defendants in court are entitled to adequate legal representation.

But in Michigan, that right is routinely violated because many poor defendants can't afford to hire an attorney or get adequate representation, according to a new survey released by a state commission.

The report by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission is the first comprehensive statewide survey on the defense of poor people, said the commission. It found wide variations in how indigent people are represented across the state, with only 6% of district courts requiring an attorney at both the bail hearing and at arraignment. And only 15% have guidelines for continuing legal education standards for attorneys appointed to represent the needy.

The survey also turned up this information:

  •  Courts in Michigan have "loose and varied guidelines" to determine whether a defendant should get appointed counsel.
  •  Defendants denied an attorney have "no resource to further pursue assistance."
  •  There are only six public defender offices in the state.
  •  There is little consistency in the compensation for public defenders, with hourly rates ranging from $33 to more than $100. 
  • There's a conflict of interest in many cases involving appointed counsel, since only about a quarter of the courts have assigned counsel independent of the court.
  • It's often difficult for defendants to meet privately with attorneys because of a lack of assigned meeting space.


I conclude this blog with three quotes.

Said Phil Locke, in The Wrongful Convictions Blog:

How much justice can you afford?” There’s no secret – the more you can pay for an attorney, the more effective your defense will be; and – if you’re actually innocent – the better your chances of a just outcome.

Said Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative:

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” 

Said Dr. H. David Schuringa, Christian Reformed pastor who represents the public on the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, in prepared testimony for the Supreme Court:

Michigan’s current state of affairs in indigent public defense is an affront to any reasonable person’s moral compass.

That’s it.  In plain English.  And it’s gotta change!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

An open letter to Governor Snyder

Dear Governor Snyder:

You probably never gave this a thought, but thousands of prisoners in your state can identify with your predicament.  I’m talking about the Flint water situation.  The reality of the situation is that you cannot undo the past.  As you’ve discovered, it’s where you go from here that counts.  Now it’s up to you to prove to the people of Flint, and to the citizens of Michigan, that you really do care for all of us, rich and poor, black and white.  That will come not from talk, but with action.

It’s the same for many, many of the 43,000 people locked up in your state prisons.  There’s not a thing they can do about the chapter in their life that sent them behind bars.  All they do is pick up the pieces.  Now it’s up to them to prove that they shouldn’t spend the rest of their lives being judged for the worst thing they ever did.  They can’t just talk about it.  It’s up to them to prove it.

Among the things you can do, Mr. Governor, to show that you do have care and compassion in your heart, is to pay some attention to prisoners.  The people in Flint aren’t the only needy ones in your state.  There’s a long list of items that deserve and, yes, demand your attention before you leave office:  sentence reform, indigent defense reform, Parole Board reform, justice for juveniles, compensation for the wrongly convicted.  In addition, there’s a long list of problems within the prisons that deserve your attention:  inadequate medical care, inadequate provisions for the terminally ill, overcrowding, drugs, extortion, gangs, for starters.  Besides that, we would like to see a demonstration of your care and compassion through such things as pardoning some deserving inmates, granting commutations to deserving prisoners who have proven their worth, releasing geriatric inmates to outside institutions, and enlarging your narrow window for compassionate releases of critically ill inmates.

You can’t undo Flint, Mr. Governor, but you can take major steps to improve your legacy.

Prisoners can’t undo the act that got them in trouble, either…but many, many of them are working hard to change not only their reputation but their direction in life.

There are many wonderful advocacy agencies in this state doing their best to help prisoners.  Please show us you care by showing interest in what we do.

If you deserve a second chance, so do they.  Let us help.

I’m praying for you, just as I’m praying for prisoners.  We’ve all fallen short.


Doug Tjapkes, President