Saturday, December 9, 2017

Yes, Virginia, there ARE people who care!

I love the season of Advent! Somehow, this year, the message and the longing seem stronger. At first I blamed, or credited, this feeling on age. But the more I think about it, I’m convinced that it’s the headlines of the day.

Some of the nicest, kindest, most generous people I know are behind bars.

Some of the people whose words and ways I detest the most are not only in the free world, but in high places!

And so the Advent Service by the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys was more refreshing and healing than ever. It was, in part, an escape from the madness of the world. An appreciative audience filled the pews of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven Friday evening.

In that the offering was to be taken for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I was granted the privilege of making a short presentation. I told the story of how HFP helped a prisoner, suffering from sleep apnea, to finally get his CPAP breathing device…something the prison system had denied him for the past three years. It took our team 9 months, but we succeeded! Tony will sleep better, and even behind bars, his Christmas will be merrier.

After hearing my story, and hearing about HFP’s compassion for those behind bars, some people sought me after the service. A few of their comments are the reason for this short piece.

The first man: I’m the owner of a structural steel manufacturing company, and I’m doing my part. I have employed six ex-felons!

The second: I don’t care how serious the crime, we have no right to treat any prisoner in an inhumane manner!

The third: No matter how short the sentence, when the inmate gets out, life is never the same. Until we change our way of treating ex-offenders, every sentence is a life sentence!

These messages were almost as heartening to me as the Advent message! Despite all the negative things going on in our country, some people really are getting it, and are daring to speak up about it. The next step, hopefully: Doing something about it!

I love the season of Advent, and I cling to the prophecy of Isaiah as I long for the second coming of Christ, that he might…open eyes that are blind, free captives from prison and release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.



Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Corrections Officers, It's time to step up to the plate!

Two short stories.

Donald’s wife gives me a call. He’s been in prison 42 years, he’s 76 years of age, and he’s been a model prisoner. A quiet, gentle black man, Donald never got tickets, never challenged authority, and was liked by peers and staff alike. He finally got an opportunity for parole…he was granted a Public Hearing before the Michigan Parole Board. We attended, and spoke up in his support. That was some months ago.

The reason for the call from Donald’s wife: He was granted a parole! Good news! God be praised!

Then came the negative part of the story. Following the Public Hearing the prisoner is housed in a holding area until a van can arrive, pick him up, and take him back to the facility where he resides. While in that holding area, a few nasty Corrections Officers choose to harass him, telling him he’s never going to get out. “You’ll die in here.”

Donald could hardly talk when he related that story to his wife that night…he broke down weeping.

Story Number Two.

Lisa is a 55 year old white woman, living in Michigan’s only prison for women in Ypsilanti. Her words:

My two daughters came to visit this past weekend. The officer threatened one of them, saying that she could not wear altered clothing and told her she had to do a strip search to prove it, and if she was lying she'd never visit again. She took her, along with her 4-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old son into the visitors’ bathroom and made my daughter strip in front of the kids, all of whom were crying.  Then, at the end, when they were leaving, the officer pointed at my younger daughter and her little boy, asking who she was to my older daughter. She responded, "My sister and nephew."  The officer said, " Mmm, she likes her some black men…got her a black baby," about my 5-year-old grandson. My grandchildren never want to come see me again "where the bad people work."

I have to admit, many years ago when I got started in this business, I had a problem with all corrections officers. But, I’ve changed my mind! I have met many fine officers, men and women who do their very best under trying circumstances, who manage to stay kind and fair, and who gain the respect of prisoners and visitors. It’s not an easy job under the best of circumstances.

However, this stuff is unacceptable. We can go on blaming the Warden, the MDOC and all the people at the top, but I’m thinking that it's time to start lower than that. I’m calling on all decent officers, and I’m calling on the Michigan Corrections Organization---the union that represents some 6,500 corrections workers---to take a stand.

The Union’s web site says the organization is “leading a nationwide campaign to raise the professional profile of corrections officers.”

It’s time to deal with your own...time to intensify that campaign! Stories like this don’t smell very good.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

HFP: Not down for the 10 count!

HFP is still here, but not for lack of trying by the forces of evil.

Founded in 2001 under the name INNOCENT and based on the dream of Maurice Carter, our organization not only quickly proved its worth, but gained in popularity among prisoners. So, the first attempts to quash our efforts were rather mild.

Maurice died in 2004. His dream lived on.

Free office space ended in 2009 when our building was sold. We moved from Muskegon to Grand Haven, found a low-rent room, and continued.

Then came the major artillery.

I was attacked by a brutal staph infection in 2010. My kids flew home, I lost 65 pounds, was on a feeding tube for 6 months, but survived! And HFP’s work continued unhindered, thanks to my wife, my son and a dynamite intern!

All prisoner emails were shut down in 2015. HFP had been unknowingly violating two MDOC policies. Productive discussions in Lansing; apologies, compromise, and email service was restored.

Black Friday gained new meaning in 2017! There appeared to be a total black-out of all JPay email service between prisoners and HFP the day after Thanksgiving. This massive attack involved up to 1,500 prisoners!  FYI, our team regularly sends 300-500 email messages to inmates per month.

I want to assure all Michigan inmates, their families and loved ones, that this will not stop us. Christians define the evil one as Satan, Muslims as Shayton, and atheists and agnostics generally agree that a “force of evil” definitely exists. In our case, evil will not win!

I keep thinking of the Apostle Paul, who earlier in his life persecuted the Christian community and the Christian church. Through a miraculous conversion, he became a mighty force for Christianity. Opposition, problems and attacks were vicious:

I have…been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

Yet he persevered, stating flatly: If God is for us, who can be against us?

That’s where we are.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Doing little things for little people is big!

I don’t wish for hurricanes, earthquakes, or any kind of natural disaster. But there are days when I wish we had some kind of a spectacular accomplishment that might help major donors and wealthy foundations to recognize our value in our unique role.

No, we haven’t been sending material goods, food or dollars to stricken victims around the world. Instead, we’ve been

Trying to get a rescue inhaler to a prisoner who’s struggling with asthma attacks

Putting the finishing touches on a 9-month project where we got traffic fines paid for an indigent mother in Detroit, thus enabling her to resume visits with her two sons in prison…visits that got banned 3 years ago by unpaid traffic tickets

Doing our best to get a new typewriter ribbon for a wrongly-convicted inmate in the U.P. who needs his typewriter to prepare his own legal documents

Rushing to get clothing and shoes for an indigent ex-offender who found, upon his release, that the half-way house to which he had been assigned offered no provisions

Hoping to persuade a national agency to help us get appropriate prison care and treatment for a guy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, now in solitary confinement because he doesn’t follow orders

Exploring how best to show love and compassion to a transgender inmate who has been rejected by his family, mocked by peers and abused by officers

Pressuring the Department to give back a CPAP to a prisoner with sleep apnea. He was using the apparatus before he was incarcerated. The Michigan prison doctor told him he didn’t need it, and refused to allow him to keep it.

Spectacular? Hard hitting? Headline-attracting? Intriguing to major donors? Nope, but it’s what we do, responding to over a hundred calls a week.

We opt to stay working with the marginalized, one at a time, using Fr. Greg Boyle’s philosophy“If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.” 

Because, as he states: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be some lives out there that matter less than other lives.” 




Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What's in the brown paper bag?

On this Thanksgiving Day, 2017, I’d like to share a beautiful story...a story not written by me. I feel certain that Luis Ramirez would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him. He's dead.

This message came to me from Death Row in Texas a few years after our organization was formed. We hear a lot of stories about prisoners. As President of HFP, though, I think it's important for all of us to be reminded that prisoners are people, they have feelings and emotions, and as I understand it, all are created in the image of God.

Anyway, here’s my Thanksgiving gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez: (In all caps, just the way he sent it)

I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.  I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET.  I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST.

THE FIRST PERSON I MET THERE WAS NAPOLEON BEASLEY.  BACK THEN, DEATH ROW PRISONERS STILL WORKED.  HIS JOB WAS TO CLEAN UP THE WING AND HELP SERVE DURING MEAL TIMES.  HE WAS WALKING AROUND SWEEPING THE POD IN THESE RIDICULOUS-LOOKING RUBBER BOOTS.  HE CAME UP TO THE BARS OF THE CELL AND ASKED ME IF I WAS NEW.  I TOLD HIM THAT I HAD JUST ARRIVED ON D.R.  HE ASKED WHAT MY NAME IS.  I TOLD HIM.  HE HOLLERED AT EVERYONE:  “THERE'S A NEW MAN HERE.  HE JUST DROVE UP.  HIS NAME IS LUIS RAMIREZ.”

I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF IT.  LIKE MOST OF YOU, I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT EVERYONE ON D.R. WAS EVIL.  NOW THEY ALL KNEW MY NAME.  I WAS SURE THEY WOULD SOON BEGIN HARASSING ME.

WELL, THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED.  AFTER SUPPER WAS SERVED, NAPOLEON WAS ONCE AGAIN SWEEPING THE FLOORS.  AS HE PASSED MY CELL HE SWEPT A BROWN PAPER BAG INTO IT.  I ASKED HIM, “WHAT'S THIS?”  HE SAID FOR ME TO LOOK INSIDE, AND CONTINUED ON HIS WAY.

MAN I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT.  I CAREFULLY OPENED THE BAG.  WHAT I FOUND WAS THE LAST THING I EVER EXPECTED TO FIND ON DEATH ROW, AND EVERYTHING I NEEDED.  THE BAG CONTAINED SOME STAMPS, ENVELOPES, NOTE PAD, PEN, SOAP, SHAMPOO, TOOTHPASTE, TOOTH BRUSH, A PASTRY, A SODA, AND A COUPLE OF RAMEN NOODLES.  I REMEMBER ASKING NAPOLEON WHERE THIS CAME FROM.  HE TOLD ME THAT EVERYONE HAD PITCHED IN.  I ASKED HIM TO FIND OUT WHO HAD CONTRIBUTED…I WANTED TO PAY THEM BACK.  HE SAID, “IT'S NOT LIKE THAT.  JUST REMEMBER THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE SOMEONE COMING HERE LIKE YOU, YOU PITCH IN SOMETHING.”

I SAT THERE ON MY BUNK AND THOUGHT OF HOW MANY TIMES I HAD SEEN “GOOD PEOPLE” OF THE WORLD PASS BY SOME MAN, WOMAN OR CHILD HOLDING A SIGN THAT SAID HUNGRY, OR WILL WORK FOR FOOD.  I'M GUILTY OF THE SAME.  I JUST PASSED THEM BY.  YET HERE ON DEATH ROW AMONG THE “WORST OF THE WORST,” I DIDN'T HAVE TO HOLD UP A SIGN.

I NEVER GOT TO TELL NAPOLEON ABOUT MY FEELINGS.  HE WAS EXECUTED.  I COULDN'T FIND HIS FAMILY.

WHAT'S IN THE BROWN PAPER BAG?   I FOUND CARING, KINDNESS, LOVE, HUMANITY AND COMPASSION ON A SCALE THAT I'VE NEVER SEEN THE “GOOD PEOPLE” IN THE FREE WORLD SHOW TOWARDS ONE ANOTHER.

After reading this story, I wanted to send a note of thanks to Luis Ramirez. But I was too late. He was executed by the state of Texas in October, 2005. He was 42. He claimed wrongful conviction until his death.  

“What you do to these men, you do to God"
--Mother Teresa during her visit to San Quentin Prison



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Standing with the powerless and the voiceless: HFP at Public Hearings!

We chose to stand by two guys today. Perhaps some would call them losers. 

Why, you might ask. Why speak up for someone who committed a terrible crime against humanity 30, 40 or 50 years ago? Human life seemed to mean very little to that person back then. Why suggest freedom for that kind of criminal?

I’m referring to Public Hearings, sessions conducted by the Michigan Parole Board to determine if serious offenders should be paroled. I first became aware of the Public Hearing in 2004, when the Board tried to determine whether to release my friend Maurice Carter. Since that time, our office has made it a priority to speak up, when possible, for our friends.

There’s something you gotta know about Public Hearings. They’re not fun.

-The prisoner is nervous and, more often than not, unprepared.
-The Parole Board members are concerned about freeing a dangerous person.
-The Assistant Attorney General, who claims to represent all the people of the State of Michigan, tends to lean all of his support toward victims of the crime, and refuses to recommend parole for anyone who has committed a violent crime. Regardless of any extenuating circumstances.
-Friends and/or family members of the victim(s) sometimes show to support that position.
-Judges and Prosecutors, also, often oppose the release.

Does anyone speak up on behalf of the inmate? Sometimes…perhaps a family member or a friend. Some claim to be too nervous. Some are embarrassed by the nature of the crime. Some have nothing to do with the inmate anymore and stay home. In some cases, no one shows.

Today we spoke up on behalf of two inmates. One guy, 64, has served 40 years. Rehabilitation has worked, and we’re convinced he’s going to make it. The other is 68, has served 33 years, and won’t live much longer. He’s terminally ill, and in our communications with him, he just doesn’t want to die in prison.

Two losers? We didn’t think so. It meant a day away for Matt, while calls and messages stacked up in the office (We’re getting over a hundred a week).

Matt will be the first to tell you: It’s where we belonged.

Perhaps Father Greg Boyle says it best:

We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

Yep, that’s HFP!



Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Feeding a prisoner for under four bucks a day!

As a teenager in the 1950s, I was a grocery bagger in my father’s supermarket. Of all the people who came for their weekly food supplies, I remember one woman who paid over $20 consistently for her grocery order. She was obviously very poor, but was the parent of a large flock of kids. I would carry her bags to the car, while her husband sat in the vehicle reading the newspaper. Usually 4-5 bags, filled to the brim. Not many people spent that kind of money on groceries.

Today, in 2017, I did the grocery shopping for Marcia and me. I paid $104 and some odd cents! Two octogenarians do not consume a lot of food, and I don’t purchase filet mignon and caviar.

I’m fully aware of the fact that those entities that purchase large amounts of food can save plenty. I did some checking on school meals. The latest statistics I could find showed the average cost of lunch for an elementary school student was $2.34. That’s a deal!

I bring up all of this stuff because my mind is still reeling over a story that Detroit Free Press writer Paul Egan broke recently regarding meals in the Michigan prison system. Once again maggots were found. Besides that, dirt was found in some of the food.

Meals are provided in Michigan prisons by Trinity Services Group, a national agency based in Florida. Rather than use state employees, Michigan chooses to outsource for chow.

I’ll save the comments on maggots and dirt, problems with Trinity employees, and the numerous penalties already paid by that company. I want to focus on cost.

I asked Egan to break down the contract so we could figure out how much money is spent on a meal for a prisoner. His reply: The cost for a single meal is $1.29! In other words, the State of Michigan spends $3.87 per day to feed the nearly 40,000 persons supervised by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Granted, because I know I can’t take the money with me when I leave this earth, I now enjoy the luxury of buying my sandwich ham from the deli instead of in a bargain package. And I now feel that it’s OK to purchase higher priced bread from the bakery, rather than the stuff off the shelf.

But $1.29 per meal? $3.87 per day?

The next time you’re in the store, see what you can buy for under four bucks.

Quoting Mahatma Ghandi: “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

Wonder how Pure Michigan stacks up?