Monday, December 15, 2014

There's more than one way to touch a life

I refuse to call this a defense of HFP philosophy.  I prefer to call it an explanation.

When telling of our work to church groups, I always explain that we do not teach Bible lessons in prison…other groups are already doing that.  We do not openly try to convert inmates to Christianity.  Other prison missionaries make that their goal.  Our efforts are Christian in nature, because we believe we are showing compassion to inmates in the name of Jesus, but in a very practical way.  I usually quote St. Francis of Assisi:  Preach the gospel every day.  Use words if necessary.

I go way back to the days when we started this organization in 2001.  The name of our agency was still INNOCENT at that time.  I had been asked by the Wisconsin Innocence Project to assist in helping a guy who was wrongly convicted.  During my two days in Madison, I didn’t help free the man from prison.  But I learned that he was completely estranged from his offspring due to his outrageous behavior in an earlier life.  The man was a Christian now, repentant for what he had done, and in prison for something he didn’t do.  To my huge satisfaction, I was able to convince his son to reluctantly re-establish a relationship with his dad.  He did, and his sibs followed.  Mr. V died a while back, surrounding by a loving family.  In my mind, that accomplishment was as huge as freeing him from prison!

Since then we have made similar strides with other prisoners. 

I’m especially mindful of Mac, who had lived a terrible life and in doing so had alienated his parents and his sister to the point that his family wouldn’t even let him get to know or visit his only child.  He was alone in the world and in poor health when he decided that Christianity was his only route to peace. 

Thanks to HFP and a lot of divine intervention, we were able to put relationships back together at least to a point where there were visits, people became civil with each other, and he was able to see his daughter before he died.  We also took steps to improve his poor medical care behind bars, and to stop abusive treatment by prison staff.  He died in peace.

We tried, to a lesser degree, to do some serious last-minute damage control in the case of Rocky before he died.

I continue to beat this tired old drum, because I know that many Christian prison ministries are doing very well financially, but ours continues to struggle, and I feel that it’s because many believers think that Bible study and overt evangelism is more important than our “action with compassion.”

I was reminded of all this today, when I saw that a Michigan prisoner who has personally watched us in action gets it, even if some of our friends may not.  I received this kind message from Eddie this morning:

I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for the many selfless and compassionate acts that you have rendered to so many of us who are incarcerated. In the name of Jesus I pray that the Good Lord will bless you and yours in the year to come, and that He will bestow a special blessing on you this Christmas Season. May the memory of Rocky and Mac, both whom the Lord saved for Himself in their last days, be a witness to the great things that God has done through your willingness to be His humble and obedient servant. God Bless you!

No argument with St. Francis!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Human Rights Day: Phhtttt!

Isn’t it ironic that today, December 10, is Human Rights Day?

Human Rights Day is a global observance, not a national holiday, and nothing that will give kids a day off, close banks or stop your daily mail.  It was developed by the UN way back in the 1940s, following the Second World War. 

Its observance is marred today.

ON THE NATIONAL LEVEL, The United States has been disgraced by newly released reports showing that our country used torture on detainees who, it was believed, may have been involved with or had contact with those who brought about the 9/11 attack in New York.  It’s a shameful day in U.S. history.

But torture isn’t limited to just the national and international arenas.

ON THE STATE LEVEL, our office is dealing with a first-hand report from inside the women’s prison located in Ypsilanti regarding a mentally ill inmate:  The last 18 months she has been locked in an Observation Cell without showering, reading material, or any form of human contact, for mail is not allowed.  Now she is locked in a room without a mattress, for they say she tore off a string.  The food the mentally ill are served is a joke:  peanut butter/jelly sandwiches, cookies, sliced bananas, graham crackers, for EVERY MEAL for a year!  That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

And just this week we received a report

ON THE LOCAL LEVEL:    Three local police officers show up at a downstate woman's home in the evening while her children were there. They tell her she's under arrest because she has not gotten her blinker repaired in the time frame her fix-it ticket specified. (She gets paid every two weeks and was waiting for a paycheck.) The amount needed was $285. Her parents wired the money via Western Union and it arrived at 9:30 p.m. She was not released until 1:30 a.m.

The mother tells me she called the police department to make sure her daughter was there and a male officer said, "Oh, the fat lady?" The mother told the officer her daughter was diabetic and had a heart condition and asked if her daughter had her meds with her. They said not. The mother said, "You can't do that to her." The officer said, "We can do anything we want."

In jail the woman was put in a holding cell with other men and women, some bloodied from domestic and other violence. She asked for something to eat. The officer told her, "You look like you should lose some weight." She never received anything to eat -- or meds

It’s past time to sit in our easy chairs and cluck our teeth over alleged human rights violations. It’s past time to say things like that only happen in other places.  On Human Rights Day, 2014, let’s get off our duffs and say, “No more!”  Support your favorite organization that deals with these issues, and express your immediate displeasure with any and all of your elected public officials who don’t represent what you feel and believe.  Your dollars and your voices count!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Not your traditional graduation ceremony

I thought back to last spring.

I was watching happy and excited crowds in New York City, on hand for a traditional Christmas season ceremony.  But I was reflecting on an experience of a few hours earlier, one that reminded me of happy and exciting times for many of our friends last spring.

As warm weather arrived, there were outdoor receptions for high school graduates, many people posted many pictures of graduates on Facebook, newspaper stories paid tribute to valedictorians and salutatorians, display ads recognized the accomplishments of high school grads from various local institutions.  It was an exciting time, and proud parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters attended ceremonies marking this milestone in the lives of local teenagers.  That isn’t the way it was yesterday at Brooks Correctional Facility, one of three state prisons located in Muskegon.

Nearly 50 students, ranging in age from the late teens to the late 60s, had been patiently tutored by fellow inmates and were finally going to receive their General Educational Development diplomas.  The GED graduates quietly took their seats in the prison gymnasium.  The Deputy Warden and the school principal praised their achievements.  The President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS encouraged them to keep on learning, and to make a difference.  But there was no audience.

Sons and daughters, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, weren’t there to witness the occasion.

After diplomas were received and the class was introduced, some of the students followed tradition and tossed their caps into the air.  Many didn’t.

There were no big receptions, no parties, no all-nighters to follow the ceremony.

The big treat was home-made cookies, prepared by the prison food tech class.  That was it.

Prison and school officials, Matt and I were then permitted to leave.  The graduates had no choice.  They returned to their cells.

I watched excited crowds at Rockefeller Center in New York last night, on hand to witness the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  Millions of colored lights came on, and the crowd cheered.  It was the place to be.

For me, the meaningful ceremony yesterday took place under a basketball hoop in a prison gym.  We were proud to be there!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why pay money just to get mad?

I know, just watching TV news or reading the newspaper is enough to make you angry.  You don’t need anything else to fuel the fire.  Or do you?

I’m suggesting that you take a bold step next weekend, and spend ten dollars on a ticket for a program that’ll not only make you mad, but also change the way you think.  I’ll bet on it.

JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER is a great stage play.  It’s going to be presented in the sanctuary of FERRYSBURG COMMUNITY CHURCH next Friday evening, December 5, at 7:30 PM.  And if you can’t get there then, there’ll be two repeat performances on Saturday the 6th at 2 PM and 7:30 PM.

On the surface, it might appear that playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne have simply used drama to paint a delightful love story about Maurice Carter and me.  If that’s all you get out of this, I’ll be terribly disappointed.

The playwrights, instead, have masterfully used music and the spoken word to convey a serious message of injustice.  It’s a story that has no beautiful ending.  And the overriding problem that is the theme of the play is just as real today as it was when I innocently jumped into the middle of this fray in the mid 1900s.

If you leave angry, if you leave frustrated, if you leave with a clearer picture as to the deeper causes of riots over injustice, if you leave with a better understanding of the strong role a defense attorney must play, if you leave thinking that perhaps the cops and the prosecutors aren’t always right, if you decide that perhaps our daily news reports are not always telling the whole story…then it will have been worth it all!

I hope to meet you at the church.  Order your tickets now.

Then, when the dust settles, let’s talk again.

Monday, November 24, 2014

On taking a life, and saving a life

Something beautiful happened in Muskegon.

A candle-light vigil was held on the campus of Muskegon High School over the weekend to discuss the way their friend Jessica Lynn Brewster has impacted their lives.  In case you haven’t read or heard, Jessica is the 17 year old girl now being held on an open murder charge, after the body of her newborn baby was found buried nearby.

Muskegon senior Elizabeth Kurdziel, who organized the event, was quoted as saying, “We’re here in remembrance of Jessica’s baby and to support her.”  And the phrase that was being used time and again, one which began on Facebook, was: We are Jessica.

This may not seem like a relevant topic for the guys who run HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  To the contrary, it’s one that Matt and I have been talking about, and one that deserves a lot of discussion.

Another life is at stake here.  If the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office goes ahead with a charge of first degree murder, and gets a conviction, this little girl will receive a life sentence without parole.  We often hear the argument, “The little baby didn’t get a second chance...why should the mother?”

Gregory T. Roberts, a Muskegon volleyball coach, is also a pastor, and he offered a prayer at the vigil.  The Muskegon Chronicle quoted him as saying, “You never know what a person is going through.  If maybe we had been a little more compassionate and understanding, this might have been avoided.”

The caring and loving students were not without their critics.  “People call us names and say we’re stupid for supporting her,” said senior Charity Ellis.  “Who are they to judge her?  Who knows what she is going through?”

Being tough on crime is an understandable position in Muskegon County, where they seem to get more than their share of criminal activity.  But there’s gotta be a better ending to this story than life behind bars for a troubled little girl.

That harsh response to this tragedy would simply make it worse.  A second life would be taken.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Speaking of death, #929754, 1987-2014

Is the headline a bit sarcastic?  Yes.

Word of another prison death came to our office again this week.  I use the inmate's number in our headline, not to offend the family, but instead to point out that prisoners are just a number.  Her name was Sabrie Lorain Alexander, she was a real human being, and in our opinion she didn't have to die.  I'm going to let one of our courageous whistle-blowers tell the story, in her own words.  But first, a quick explanation.  POA is a job for which some inmates are chosen and trained.  It's a successful program where inmate observers watch prisoners who may be contemplating suicide, or who have other issues.  Here's her story:

We had another incident here. We had a young women here in her twenties, black. She was a level II, out date in 2016. She was in the Infirmary on Observation. She had a seizure. The POA TOLD the officer that Alexander was having a seizure. The Officer said 'Oh, she'll be OK.' Well, she wasn't OK. She died. The Coroner was here, the State Police, a fire truck. At first they again tried to tell us that she was alive. BUT I heard straight from staff that she in fact died. She is not alive. They tried to revive her, but they were NOT successful. 

Sad thing is the POA told the officer on shift that she was having a seizure and she did not think she was breathing. Again the officer told her, 'she'll be OK' and did not go in. This is what I have been saying all along. Prisoners are sitting on these women and when we alert the officer that something is wrong they do nothing. This happening shows that the minute DOJ (US DEPT OF JUSTICE) is gone they go right back to how they used to be. There are cameras and mics ALL over the hallway in the infirmary to prove the POA told the officer. Right now they want us to believe that she died because of her seizure. However if the officer would have reacted when she was told what was going on that young women probably would be alive today
They NEED to investigate this Doug. I pray that you can get them to come here and investigate or send word to the papers that have been putting this information out there. Women are DYING and getting poor treatment because the staff REFUSE to do their job. POA's do what they are supposed to do but we cannot make the staff open the doors to help other inmates in their time of need. This POA was forced to watch this young women die. I did not realize that MDOC could implement the death penalty whenever they want. I did not think it was legal in the state of Michigan.  One officer could have made a difference showing one ounce of compassion, just one ounce.

So sad in here today, so so sad.

We need your help again Doug.

The bad news is that the beat goes on.  The good news is that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is not letting up, partnering with the ACLU and the US Department of Justice to improve conditions for women in the Michigan prison system.

But for now, there's an open bed at Women's Huron Valley Facility.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

When death just isn't the same

I sent condolences to two friends this week who lost elderly parents.  Even though we completely understand that our parents are getting old and that we cannot keep them forever, it’s still a loss.  In both of these cases, my friends were near their parent at the time of death, and were able to grieve in the midst of family and loved ones.

I was also reminded this week that experiencing the death of family members is not the same for people behind bars.

One of our board members reported that her friend behind bars had lost a loved one.  Her words:

I got a note from Karen today.  Her brother died.  That is her second loss this year.   She lost another brother earlier this year.  My heart is breaking for her.  And there she sits.  And will sit for probably the rest of her life.  I am so sad for the family that will grieve without her and for her to grieve alone.  She knows Christ.  She trusts in Christ.  She has a relationship with Christ.  But—she is so fragile in her humanness.  Just had to share with you. 

Our friend Joe watched in frustration last week as he sat helplessly in a prison van, while paramedics ministered to his elderly step-father who suffered a medical emergency right there in the prison parking lot.  He had driven to Ionia from Detroit just to be at his step-son’s Public Hearing.  Sadly, he not only missed the hearing, he died the next day.  Joe wasn’t able to hold him in his arms during his dying moments.  He wasn’t able to say good-bye.  He’s not able to grieve with family members.  But then, he’s just a prisoner.  He committed a terrible crime 38 years ago…must never forget that.

Kenny Wyniemko, whose rape conviction was overturned by DNA testing after he served 8 years behind bars, weeps every time he tells the story about his father’s death.  It happened while he was in prison for something he didn’t do, and the result was that he could not attend the funeral service.  He was forced to mourn alone.  Behind bars.

We may have found one answer to the question, “Oh death, where is your sting?”

I write this not to bring about some dramatic change in criminal justice, but simply to point out that prisoners are people, not statistics.  Their need for love is no different than yours or mine.

Remember them in your charitable giving, and in your prayers.