Sunday, August 28, 2016

The worst of the worst? I don't think so!

Former Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections Dan Heyns once referred to the people housed in our state prison system as “the worst of the worst!”  I chided him on that, and he later recanted, in a private email to me. 

I wish Dan Heyns had been with me Saturday.  A group of guys in the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, all part of a positive and exciting project called Chance for Life, were concluding a month-long emphasis on peace.  And we’re not just talking world peace here.  The focus of their Peace Initiative got right down to personal peace, peace between each other, and peace between inmates and staff.

It was a day of guest speeches and special recognition.  I was honored to deliver the keynote speech.  But that’s not the reason for my desire to have Heyns there.  Before my speech, as the program got underway, one of the presiding inmates read this statement about respecting diversity:  The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect.  It means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences.  These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social-economic status, age, physical ability, religious and political beliefs, or other ideologies. 

Then, as I sat there waiting to be introduced, more than 150 men representing many of these differences recited a peace pledge.  Each man had been carrying this little card all month.  As they recited the words they inserted their own name.  They promised to seek peace in their own lives, to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner, to respect the opinions of all others, to actively work at ending violence. 

The worst of the worst?  I don’t think so.

My thoughts couldn’t leave that pledge during the long drive home.  I was the high and mighty speaker, focusing on the St. Francis Peace Prayer, but could I have signed that pledge?

I could just hear myself:

I can live by that pledge---

Except when I discuss politics---then it’s my way or the highway when it comes to topics like presidential candidates, immigration, and guns;

Except when I talk about church---then it’s my way or the highway when it comes to topics like gay marriage or style of music;

Except when I’m driving, as I stomp on the accelerator refusing to let some nut job cut in front of me.

Do you see what I’m getting at, here?  Politics at the highest level has never been so stinky. Road rage is at an all-time high.  We use documents like the U.S. Constitution and the Holy Bible to justify intolerance.  Bullying, at lowest grade levels, is a problem in our schools.  I think we can learn from the 150 guys I met with Saturday.

Those guys get it, and they not only get it, they’re determined to keep this Peace Initiative going beyond the month of August.  They’re committed to ending violence, respecting diversity and celebrating human development.

Said the Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans:  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 

I’m thinking that some people behind bars, incorrectly labeled the “worst of the worse,” have a pretty good head start over many of us on the outside when it comes to efforts toward peace.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Michelle didn't deserve this!

I’m going to share a sad story with you today.  It comes from my friend Linda, who is a prisoner here in the State of Michigan.  Normally, before we publish stories like this, we tweak them, brush them up, rearrange them, to make them look and sound nice.  Not so this time.  I’m going to let the narrative take its erratic path so that you can actually hear the sobbing hiccups, feel the dampness of the tears.

Linda tells the story of a fellow prisoner named Michelle, who is no longer with us.

I have been in this unit since April 11. Michelle went to diabetic lines every morning and evening. I never knew Michelle as a healthy woman. For these few months, every time a health care professional walked through the waiting room, Michelle asked, “please help me, when am I going to be seen, I hurt so much.” I worked in the medical profession for several years, and in that time I have never seen edema as bad as hers. Her legs were not only swollen, but as her leg rested against the side of her wheelchair on the way to diabetic lines, the compressed, indentation remained through her entire wait. She had bed sores on her body that she could not reach and needed another inmate’s assistance to apply ointment to them. But what the tragedy of this is, she was yelled at by officers, ignored by nurses and doctors and called a faker. One particular officer, on more than one occasion, yelled at her, yelled loud enough to be heard 5 rooms away through closed doors, that she was faking and could not use the wheelchair in the unit. "Get out of that chair, you’re faking and going to really need it if you don't get up and start walking!" Michelle pleaded, “I can’t, I hurt, you don’t understand how bad I hurt.” One day she fell in the bathroom, nurses came in to the unit and the unit officer told them she didn't need a gurney, that she was only faking it.

This week Michelle died.  Do you know why Michelle died?  Her cancer of the stomach returned, aggressively, and took her without any time left to treat or even give her the humanity of care and kindness that she deserved. She was ridiculed and left to suffer and ignored until the new PC came into the unit and sent her to the infirmary. She finally got sent to the hospital, but it was too late. She had no time left.

My immediate response:  I should call a doctor.  (I did.)  I should call a lawyer. (I did.)  I should tip off the media. (I did.)  But there’s only so much that Matt and I can do.  We continue to hear stories about mistreatment of women by the State of Michigan, and yet nothing seems to get done.

So here’s my suggestion this time:  Share the story.  Share it with any Michigan taxpayer you know.  Share it with your State Senator and your State Representative.  Complain loudly.  Make your voice heard. 

I have no idea as to the nature of Michelle’s crime, if there really was one.  I have no idea whether she was a problem patient.  I do know this:  She was someone’s daughter; she was created in the image of God; and, she did nothing to deserve this kind of treatment.

The good news is that Michelle is in a better place now, where there’s no pain, and no more tears are being shed.

The bad news is that we’re still weeping here.

Friday, August 12, 2016

This time it's HFP that has needs!

Buoyed by the success of the PICKING COTTON community book read a year ago, the HFP Development Committee decided on two important fund-raising events for 2016.  With plans to bring a Broadway-style production to our community, DRIVING MISS DAISY was scheduled for the spring of 2016.  And, hoping to establish the tradition of a community book reading event in the autumn, nationally known activist Sister Helen Prejean, author of DEAD MAN WALKING, was booked for next month.

Sadly, the dread disease of cancer has resulted in cancelations of both.

Shortly before the play was due to be produced in Grand Haven, a member of the small cast was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  And just weeks before our fall fund-raiser, Sister Prejean was forced to cancel due to the terminal illness of her sister.  In both situations, this was not just a schedule conflict that could be quickly modified and remedied.  Neither program could be rescheduled in the foreseeable future.

This amounted to a major disappointment at three levels:  for the many people who anticipated attending these delightful programs, for the committee members who felt they had hit two home-runs in one ball game, and for the HFP Board of Directors.  Based on the successful bookings by the committee, the Board had confidently adopted a budget that even allowed for a slight surplus in 2016.  But it was more than a disappointment;  the results were far-reaching.

I know of no way to sugar-coat this.  These two events were projected to bring in $40-50,000, which HFP needs to meet budget.  With a few wonderful exceptions, HFP is much like the Bernie Sanders campaign.  Most of our donors give smaller amounts, and while they are completely faithful, their gifts cannot match our expenses.  A number of the donors are family members of inmates.  Some, themselves, are prisoners.  Their gifts are precious to us, but they’re not sufficient.

While I paint a gloomy picture, I must stress that all of us cling to the fact that, over the past 15 years of our growth and expansion, God has always been faithful!  I’m reminded of the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness.

I tell this story because we have many, many friends and supporters, and I feel that this brief but very real and very immediate financial crisis must be shared. We cannot let discouragement reign. We’re all in this together, and our work is just too important to be disrupted.  So we need you!

Your ideas would be most welcome.

Your prayers are coveted.

Friday, August 5, 2016

We're here for you!

My wife pokes fun of me as we’re watching the ball game on TV.  One announcer’s sing-song voice just hits me wrong every time, as she croons at the end of a commercial:  “We’re here for you.”

I’m thinking of those very words at the end of a busy week here in the HFP office.

Family members contacted us on a number of very serious issues, and when that happens Matt and I pounce on them, because---as in one case---it could even be a matter of life and death.

There was a call from a worried sister, out-of-state, who feels so helpless when operating by remote control.  Her brother, whose behavior and moods are seriously affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, had been under the wing of a caring corrections officer.  But then the inmate was transferred.  Now he’s alone and scared.  He thinks one of the COs has it in for him, and he doesn’t dare leave his cell for supper.  He’s afraid his possessions will get stolen from his room. 

The father of a newly adopted daughter is concerned about her well-being.  She had back surgery just before she was sentenced, and to no one’s surprise, her after-surgery care has been negligible while in prison.  Besides that, she’s allergic to wool and breaks out in hives when in contact with her bed clothes.

The daughter-in-law of a man serving 10-15 on a plea deal contacts us as a last resort.  The man has an IQ of 62, cannot read or write, and she claims could not possibly have understood the deal when it was explained to him, nor could he have understood what he was signing.  Now that he’s in prison, he cannot read letters that are sent to him, nor can he read email messages that are sent to him.  And, of course, he cannot write his own letters.  He’s not capable.  He doesn’t know how.  And one can only imagine, then, how he’s coping in the cold, impersonal prison setting.

The most serious story came from a mother whose daughter is a diabetic and who suffers seizures.  Her medication is not being properly administered or regulated, according to reports from behind bars.  One of the physicians on our panel of advisers was very alarmed, prompting an urgent note from HFP to the warden’s office and to Lansing.

While all contacts may not have seemed that critical, they were important to the inmate.

The heat is getting to a guy whose tiny fan just can’t keep up, and the guards won’t let him open his food tray slot to allow some ventilation.  They say he must keep it closed so that the air control system can move air properly.  He scoffs, saying his vent is so clogged a piece of Kleenex couldn’t stick to the grates.  He’s roasting.

There was a report that ice machines were being taken away in some units of the women’s prison.  Perfect time of the year for that!

And then one woman from Huron Valley was disgusted that no one would do anything about two holes in the floor of the visiting room, where a multitude of ants could be seen coming and going…this on the same floor where small children of inmates play with their toys.

But the heavy layer of angst was cracked by one telephone call from Mary.  DNA testing had just proved that her son had not committed the crime!  It fingered another inmate!  He was sentenced in 1983.  Praise God!

All part of the HFP roller coaster.

And yes, our word to Michigan prisoners and their loved ones:  We’re here for you!



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Get it in writing!

There’s an interesting story developing in the Muskegon court system these days, but I can tell you now that the defendant is going to come out on the short end of the stick.  It’s really a “he said/she said” situation, but there’s a pattern there that you should be aware of. 

According to the news reports, the attorney for a prisoner says he was promised immunity before he testified.  After he testified, the Prosecutor’s office refused to admit that this was the deal.  Nope.  No deal.  Said defense attorney Naesha Leys, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire 16 years of practicing law.”  If she’s going to keep on practicing law in Muskegon County she’d better get used to it.

You’ve heard me tell the story about Jimmy in this column before.  He was convicted in Muskegon County in the early 80s.  Many years later, while in prison, another prisoner personally admitted involvement in a murder case.  Jimmy was so upset about this that he felt he should tell authorities.  Turns out it was an unsolved murder case on the other side of the state, and the Prosecutor in that county definitely needed his testimony.  He agreed to do it, without being offered any deal, because he has a conscience and he felt it was the right thing to do.

But the state went beyond that, and offered a deal anyway.  The Prosecutor of that county conferred with the Prosecutor of Muskegon County, and they agreed that if Jimmy would testify in this murder case they would go to bat and try to get him re-sentenced.  (He’s currently serving one of those cruel and outrageous sentences:  50-200 years!)

Jimmy testified, and the Prosecutor admits that, thanks to his critical testimony, she obtained a first degree murder conviction.  The state won!  But Jimmy lost!  Nobody will live up to the deal, now.

I find this interesting:  The Assistant Muskegon County Prosecutor who originally obtained Jimmy’s conviction---now retired---is now in his corner, asking the Governor to, if nothing else, commute the sentence!  But the Governor so far has refused.

A former US District Attorney and Prosecutor, now turned criminal defense attorney, has taken up Jimmy’s cause and admits to his frustration with the system.  He’s been lied to and snubbed by these same Muskegon County officials that we’re hearing and reading about. 

Meanwhile Jimmy, who did the right thing for all the right reasons, sits behind bars, now with a “bull’s eye” on his back.  Prisoners and guards know he’s a snitch.  He hasn’t been granted appropriate protection.  Someone tried to poison him.  He’s been stabbed and attacked several times.  He lives in fear.

It’s a simple lesson for all who find themselves in the judicial system, regardless of county.  Prosecutors want to win.  If there’s any deal to be made, get it in writing.

Just ask Jimmy.

Get it in writing!

There’s an interesting story developing in the Muskegon court system these days, but I can tell you now that the defendant is going to come out on the short end of the stick.  It’s really a “he said/she said” situation, but there’s a pattern there that you should be aware of. 

According to the news reports, the attorney for a prisoner says he was promised immunity before he testified.  After he testified, the Prosecutor’s office refused to admit that this was the deal.  Nope.  No deal.  Said defense attorney Naesha Leys, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire 16 years of practicing law.”  If she’s going to keep on practicing law in Muskegon County she’d better get used to it.

You’ve heard me tell the story about Jimmy in this column before.  He was convicted in Muskegon County in the early 80s.  Many years later, while in prison, another prisoner personally admitted involvement in a murder case.  Jimmy was so upset about this that he felt he should tell authorities.  Turns out it was an unsolved murder case on the other side of the state, and the Prosecutor in that county definitely needed his testimony.  He agreed to do it, without being offered any deal, because he has a conscience and he felt it was the right thing to do.

But the state went beyond that, and offered a deal anyway.  The Prosecutor of that county conferred with the Prosecutor of Muskegon County, and they agreed that if Jimmy would testify in this murder case they would go to bat and try to get him re-sentenced.  (He’s currently serving one of those cruel and outrageous sentences:  50-200 years!)

Jimmy testified, and the Prosecutor admits that, thanks to his critical testimony, she obtained a first degree murder conviction.  The state won!  But Jimmy lost!  Nobody will live up to the deal, now.

I find this interesting:  The Assistant Muskegon County Prosecutor who originally obtained Jimmy’s conviction---now retired---is now in his corner, asking the Governor to, if nothing else, commute the sentence!  But the Governor so far has refused.

A former US District Attorney and Prosecutor, now turned criminal defense attorney, has taken up Jimmy’s cause and admits to his frustration with the system.  He’s been lied to and snubbed by these same Muskegon County officials that we’re hearing and reading about.  And they’re even members of the same political party!

Meanwhile Jimmy, who did the right thing for all the right reasons, sits behind bars, now with a “bull’s eye” on his back.  Prisoners and guards know he’s a snitch.  He hasn’t been granted appropriate protection.  Someone tried to poison him.  He’s been stabbed and attacked several times.  He lives in fear.

It’s a simple lesson for all who find themselves in the judicial system, regardless of county.  Prosecutors want to win.  If there’s any deal to be made, get it in writing.

Just ask Jimmy.

Friday, July 29, 2016

On air and water needs: pets vs. prisoners

Something strange was happening at the prison.

I was at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia yesterday with attorney John Smietanka, hoping to try to help a poor black man who got seriously crapped on by the judicial system.  Unfortunately, we arrived at the prison just in time for the shift change.  Corrections officers were arriving in droves.  I’m a newsman.  I notice little things.  That’s how I helped to inform my community for many, many years.  I mentioned to attorney Smietanka that the officers must be planning an outdoor exercise on this hot summer day.  Each guard was carrying a jug of water.  In fact, the majority of them were carrying gallon jugs. 

We thought no more of it until we had a break in the middle of our legal conference.  “What’s the story with the water,” I asked the prisoner.  “Every CO is bringing in bottles and jugs of water.”  His face turned angry.  “The water here isn’t drinkable,” he said. “You should see it.  It’s brown when it comes out of the tap, and it stinks!  The officers refuse to drink it.  They bring in their own.  We’re the ones stuck with the bad water.”

During the current heat wave, we’re seeing messages on television and on the internet, warning people to take care of their pets, making sure that they get fresh air and adequate water.  It may surprise you to know that prisoners are also struggling in the heat.  We’re reading of serious heat problems in some other states, where it has become a serious health hazard for inmates.  But it’s no picnic here in Michigan, either.  One inmate contacted me yesterday to complain that the officers wouldn’t let them keep the flap open on their food slot, so that more air could circulate.  Don’t wanna make things too comfortable for those bad guys!  And, for some strange reason, water is also bad in some of our facilities.  It may not be tainted with lead, but you wouldn’t want to drink it!

So, if you get a sec today, while in your air-conditioned study or office, say a prayer for prisoners who are struggling with excessive heat and bad water issues.

But when it comes to your doggie, take action.  He deserves better care.