Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hey, St. Dismas, we won't forget again!

It was a day I pledged to remember and observe.  And it quietly came and went without a peep, not only from me, but from those in other denominations who place a much higher emphasis on saints than the conservative Dutch.

I’m talking about the Feast of St. Dismas Day.  Sometimes observed in the Roman Catholic tradition on March 25.

And just who is St. Dismas, you ask.  After all, March is known as the month when we focus on St. Patrick.

Well, Dismas is the name that was given to the penitent thief hanging on a cross next to Jesus at the time of the crucifixion.  Of the gospel story tellers, only Dr. Luke relates this part of the story:
“Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us."
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen, I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise."

I wasn’t even aware that anyone had given him a name until last year, when I heard a powerful message by dynamic preacher Jim Liske, former CEO of Prison Fellowship.  And it was that message that prompted me to make a note in my calendar that, regardless of what anyone else does on March 25, I intended to observe the day.  And from now on, I’ll still do that.  Here’s why.

Well, before explaining my reason, it’s probably wise that I point out, once again, that I am not a theologian.  Back in the 50s, God knew what he was doing when he pulled me from Calvin College’s pre-seminary program, and nudged me into radio broadcasting.

But here’s the deal.  This is where Jesus put his talk into action.  He talked about prisoners in Matthew 25.  But he actually put his words into deeds on the day of his crucifixion when he showed us how to demonstrate kindness and compassion to a hardened criminal.

I won’t belabor the point, but this tells me that those who claim to follow Jesus should do more than look at our HFP team and say, “Good for you.  We need guys like you!”  I think it would be much more like the Master to say, to all of us in prison ministry, “What can we do?  How can we help?”

Nuff said.

Thanks to St. Dismas for the reminder.  Thanks to Jesus for his amazing grace,

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Not much peace around these days, but I saw some in prison!

Many, many years ago, when our kids were little, the piano tuner was in our house struggling to get our little baby grand up to pitch.  I say struggle, because Marcia had her hands full.  The kids were chasing, then fighting, and then one started crying.  It was Christmas time.  The tuner muttered, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”

I’m remembering that incident late on a Saturday night.  I’ve just returned from the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, one of several state prisons located in Jackson.  Former board chairman Dan Rooks and I were there as featured speakers today, guests of their Chance for Life Chapter

To set the stage for my comments, I perhaps should make brief reference to this week’s happenings.

On the International level, another terrorist attack…Isis taking credit.

On the national level, a stunning defeat in Washington that left not only Republicans fighting Democrats, but Republicans fighting with each other.

On the state level, many constituents this week had been fighting with their congressmen.

On the local level, residents are fighting mad over how to handle the over-population of deer in our city.

In church circles, I’m aware of people so angry about the style of music in their worship that they’re thinking of making a switch.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss personal issues, but I’m aware that some of our friends are in the midst of personal battles.

Not much peace.  At any level.

In the midst of that, I drive to Jackson on a cloudy, rainy, cold day.  And here’s what I find: 200 men---different races, different backgrounds, different faiths---gathered in an assembly, hoping to launch a 6-month peace initiative! 

Last summer I was privileged to the deliver the keynote address at this same prison, when a group of men pledged to harness what they called the Divine Force of Peace for one month.  The results in the prison were amazing.  And so this time, the Chance for Life Chapter decided to go for a six-month stretch.  Six months, for men serving time in prison, to restrain from fighting, bullying, arguing and causing problems…six months to see the other guy’s point of view, stressing forgiveness, kindness and compassion. 

Before I was introduced, one of the leaders---explaining this dream, this goal---stated that as of today, more than 600 men have already signed the pledge!  600 men who are convinced that if peace starts with them, there’s no telling where it will spread.

Think we could learn from them?

I do.  I did.

I may not even need a sermon tomorrow.  Their testimony was a divine message, and I thank God for their initiative and their courage.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I'm writing again...but I'm not happy!

The climate in this country is noxious!  It’s doing nobody any good, I swear.

People look at our blog site…no new entries.  Honestly, I don’t even feel like writing!  My job, and the job of this fine group of people working with me, is to care for people…and it keeps feeling like nobody cares for people anywhere anymore!  When it happens on the national level, I get the sinking feeling that maybe nobody cares down here, either.

Annie’s still in a wheelchair in the women’s prison, and still missing lunches because she can get no one to push the chair for her, and the staff members insist that she must find her own pusher.

Danny is innocent, and a former Parole Board member not only knows it but has information that could help Danny obtain freedom.  But he won’t respond.

David has sleep apnea, and he needs a C-Pap.  He had one before he came to prison three years ago, but a prison doctor said his problem wasn’t all that serious and they made him send the equipment home.  He’s waking up gasping, our doctors say the situation is life-threatening, but nobody’s doing anything!

Sara came to prison two years ago with a temporary upper plate…it wasn’t meant to last and finally broke.  Now she can hardly eat.  The prison dentist says she must wait two years for a replacement.

Billy was scheduled to get a compassionate release from the Parole Board because he has terminal cancer, but now a prison medical person with questionable credentials said this is a lie, so the Parole Board refused his release.

Linda is a diabetic whose blood sugar levels are so out of balance it’s life threatening…but no one is listening.

I just want you to know that, regardless of what is happening on the national level---and I know that it’s all terribly important to all of us---crap is still happening on the local level, too!  And one agency that I know of is handling a record number of more than 300 calls a month to try to respond!

We’re blessed to have a battery of volunteers and professionals willing to step up to the plate, and we’re doing our best to not only deal with issues, but let prisoners know that someone cares. Even if we can't solve every problem, kindness and compassion work wonders.  

It’s our role:  seeking to model Jesus, touching lives.

We need you, too.  Prayers.  Money.  Even just attaboys!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Exorbitant fees for commutation assistance: Criminal!

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

For many Michigan inmates, the magic word that offers hope these days is commutation!

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder can’t run for re-election, and that gives Michigan prisoners hope.  They’re hoping that, because he doesn’t have to worry about public opinion, perhaps he’ll grant some commutations.  The Governor can use his executive clemency powers to reduce a criminal sentence.  That means, for example, that even a man or woman in for life can still harbor the hope of seeing freedom someday.

The process is relatively simple.  An application form is readily available.  The prisoner must explain the details of the crime which brought about the conviction, must explain why he or she feels a release from prison is deserved, and is required to provide information regarding housing and employment after release.  That completed form goes to the Michigan Parole Board for initial screening, and then is forwarded to the Governor.

But there’s a huge problem here.

Many inmates, without proper guidance and assistance, are hurting themselves by not properly filling out the forms.  Instead of showing remorse, for example, they’ll angrily blame the cops, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury or maybe even their upbringing.  Now maybe all of these factors are legitimate, but that’s not what the Parole Board is looking for.  Some forms are filled out in longhand, because typing equipment is not available.  Spelling and grammatical errors shouldn’t play a part in this, but you and I both know there is something to be said about that first impression.

As a result, charlatans have appeared on the scene.  Some attorneys are falsely informing inmates that the Parole Board has designated them to help inmates in filling out the form.  For a fee, of course.  Other private offices are helping prisoners with their applications, but again, for a hefty fee.  We recently were informed by a prisoner that his lawyer was only going to charge him $2,500 to do the job for him.  We have heard from several prisoners who paid an agency $4-5,000 to get the job done.  And in one case, an inmate told us his mother spent $9,500 with a private organization to prepare his application.  While we don’t know the whole story, on the surface this seems criminal to us.  One prisoner told us last week that he’s making 72 cents a day in his job.  Do you see what I mean?  The Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections told me, in a personal conversation, that prisoners should not be paying for commutation assistance.

The thing is:  So far, it’s all a risk.  The only commutations the Governor has granted to date are to inmates with serious health issues.  We have no idea whether he’ll have a change of heart before he leaves office.

I’m pleased to report that HFP is willing to help prisoners in filling out these forms, and of course our services are free.  And more good news is coming!  We’ll soon announce a major expansion of this service.  I’m excited about this for two reasons.  First and foremost, it may give prisoners a brighter ray of hope.  The second reason: Perhaps it will steal business from the money grabbers.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.
Demond Tutu

Monday, February 27, 2017

Hoping to keep kids from going to prison!

So here’s the thing.

I can be pretty quick to criticize wardens and prison staffers here in Michigan when I think that what they’re doing is wrong.


Then I darn well better be up front with praise when I think something is good.  And that’s where I am today.

Several Michigan prisons have undertaken a project called the Juvenile Deterrent Program.  It’s a mentoring program, designed to keep troubled teens from winding up in the state prison system.

Among those prisons embarking on this project is the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility, right next door in Muskegon. 

Here’s how it works.  Prisoners are used to mentor juvenile delinquents who are on probation in that hope that they will deter and dissuade them from continuing in this negative behavior pattern.  They’re quick to point out to these kids that if they stay on that path, it leads to a room behind bars.

And to her credit, prisoners are telling us that Warden Shirlee Harry has announced that she will now include or permit single mothers who are having difficulty with their teenage sons to be eligible for this program. 

The first batch of kids came in this month…they were from Muskegon’s alternative high school. And, if the report to us from a prisoner is any indication, it was a huge success…on both sides of the fence!

Quoting this inmate:  “There were 9 teenagers who came up today, ranging in age from 16-18.  To me they just seemed so young, small and fragile.  It gave me another vantage point of how I must have appeared when I came to prison at the age of 17, only 5’6” and weighing only 135 pounds.  This event provided me insight from a different perspective.  Mentoring to these wayward youths today was truly a blessing and an honor!  It gave me a direct sense of purpose, impact and import.  I noticed that as I was striving to help these kids discover their value and self-worth, that my own sense of value was being reinforced.  We were able to reach most of them, according to their own accounts.”

He explained that, “one kid has already caught a weapons charge for illegal possession.  After the event he thanked us and by his account he was indeed affected by the mentoring he had received and has learned his lesson.”

Word from Brooks is that each month they’ll receive a new batch of kids.  As of now, there are ten inmate-mentors, and four of the ten are “juvenile lifers.”  The program is still in its fledgling state, but already we’re told that it is in the process of expanding and evolving.

So today, a tip of the HFP hat to Warden Shirlee Harry, every member of her staff who is taking part in this project, and to the inmates who are serving as mentors.  And this thanks extends all the way to Lansing, and Director Heidi Washington.

The sooner this exciting program goes to all Michigan prisons, the better!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yes, Tammy, he cares...and so do we!

Not much more could have gone wrong in Tammy’s life.

She came into the Michigan prison system with a fistful of charges four years ago, and did well until a few months ago when she claims she was set up on a misconduct charge of smuggling.  But until the state could conduct a hearing on her non guilty plea, she was placed in segregation…or as the prisoners call it, in the hole.

And while there, last month, things went south.

Her mother was brutally murdered in her Detroit home on January 6th…it was all over the TV news on the 7th.

Tammy’s sister Judith, who is on her visitor list and who serves as her emergency contact, immediately called the prison to relay the bad news.  That was on the 7th.  But the system resisted.  Who knows, could be a fake call.  Her sister tried again every day until January 13th.  Finally, one week after the slaying, Judith was advised to fax proof of their mother’s death to the Warden’s office.  The following Tuesday, January 17th, Tammy was officially notified of her mother’s passing and was allowed to make a phone call.

But, this was 11 days later.  And while there are no TV sets in the hole, Tammy’s friends had television sets, and that’s how she got the news.

She was so distraught that she was placed on suicide precaution.  Then, of course, she missed the memorial service.  A therapist gave her a book on how to deal with grief, suggesting that she create a scrap book and develop a strong support system among her friends.  None of which could really work very well since she was locked up in isolation.

But that’s not the whole story.

In addition to these problems, Tammy hasn’t been able to have visits since last August when somehow, the state claimed, there was a “system error.”  Between August of 2016 and January 31st of this year, her family continued to call about the visitation problem, and continued to receive the same answer:  The matter “had been forwarded to the Warden’s office.”

A friend suggested that she write to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  “It is my hope,” she said, “that someone will reach out to me concerning these issues.”

We promptly responded, and within 24 hours we received the reassuring words from the Warden’s office:  “Issue resolved. It appears that her list was deactivated in error.  I have reactivated her list so the family may now visit.”

I love the words of this old gospel song:

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth or song,
  As the burdens press,
  And the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?

O yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
  When the days are weary,
  The long night dreary,
  I know my Savior cares.

Yes, Tammy, Jesus cares.

So does HFP.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seems cruel and unusual to me!

As I review complaints about medical care, or lack thereof, in the Michigan prison system, I contend that the state is violating the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Let me explain.

Mr. A is a new prisoner.  He suffers from cerebral palsy.  He reports to HFP, “I need to get back on my prescribed medication ASAP.”  The prison system simply explains:  “You were not approved for this medication by the regional medical director in Lansing.  Will forward your request.”  He asks:  “So I’m wondering what I shall do in the meantime.  I’ve been waiting since I arrived on December 27!”  He's in pain.

Mr. B is a chemist, biologist and geologist who, while working as a civilian contractor, was accidentally exposed to nerve agents.  As a result, he has severe COPD.  Prior to his arrest, he was told by doctors to sleep in a chair to reduce lung problems.  At most prison units he was allowed to do this…until February 5, when without warning the prison refused to allow him to sleep in a chair, and officials refuse to discuss it.  Rumor is that this is retaliation because of some grievances he filed.

Mr. C had surgery that was apparently successful, but since then the scrotum swelled to 12 inches around.  As it turns out, this probably was normal, and the swelling will go down, according to our experts, but there was no one there to explain this to him and avoid this unnecessary angst.

Mr. D has Irritable Bowel Syndrome with diarrhea…he’s getting no help from the prison health people nor his family.  He’s going to the bathroom 12-20 times a day, and still goes in his pants and in his bed.  His roommate complains, and he hates living this way.

The lawyers who specialize in this kind of thing won’t touch cases like these…at least not until grievances are filed, and not without lots of printed documents and substantial proof that the neglect and abuse is willful.

The 8th Amendment says that cruel and unusual punishments may not be inflicted. The amendment is meant to safeguard Americans against excessive punishments.  In other words, for Messrs. A, B, C and D, the incarceration is their punishment.  Inadequate medical care may not be dumped on them as additional punishment.

This shoddy medical practice may not meet the criteria for attorneys, but I contend that it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Just sayin’.