Thursday, August 28, 2014

One person CAN make a difference!

It wasn’t that Ms. S wanted to get even. She just wanted to be able to sleep at night.

Ms. S had a prison job as a volunteer. She was assigned to be an observer in a unit where mentally ill prisoners are housed. Some may be suicidal, and the state wants to catch the problem before it worsens. The Michigan Department of Corrections says that this program has been quite successful.

But in the case of Ms. S, she claims that she witnessed atrocities that should not have happened. A woman of faith, she takes her Christianity seriously and felt that she could no longer remain silent when mentally ill prisoners were being abused. Besides that, those visions of evil-doing kept her awake at night.

And so she spoke out, not only in the prison system, but to sources outside the prison. Retaliation was predictable and swift. She lost her coveted job as a volunteer. Her communications were monitored. Prison life became difficult. But Ms. S was not to be deterred.

She had witnessed shameful treatment of two mentally ill inmates, and daily she fed her information to outside contacts. One woman was actually hogtied, and left that way “until she could learn to behave.” Another was denied a sip of water until she was so dehydrated she could no longer drink. The second victim was given drugs to sedate her, but even after she was unconscious a nurse continued the injections. Eventually the inmate was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Life support has now been removed, and word is that she will not survive.

Ms. S not only detailed these atrocities in daily dispatches, but persuaded other volunteers to sign on. We have in our possession clumsy affidavits on bits and pieces of paper signed by additional courageous volunteers who dared to stand up and be counted.

For weeks nothing happened, as the HFP office continued to stir the pot behind the scenes. But then came some movement. The ACLU, with co-signers from the U of M Law School, sent a scathing 5-page letter to the director of the MDOC as well as the prison warden demanding changes and requesting an immediate meeting. Ammunition for this letter was provided by HFP. In addition, our office filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding these alleged 8th Amendment violations: cruel and unusual punishment. This week, according to inside sources, the DOJ was to make an appearance at the prison in Ypsilanti. As a third step, HFP consulted with legal counsel in hopes of initiating legal action on behalf of a victim's family.

If the state will not listen to the voices of the little people, perhaps it will take note of the collective voices of the DOJ, the ACLU and the U of M. Perhaps the threat of legal action will get some attention.

There will be changes in the way mentally ill women are treated in prison. You can bet on it.

We can all learn an important lesson from this. Silence is not an option when we witness wrong-doing. One person can make a difference.

Perhaps, in between psych-therapy sessions, our whistle blower, Ms. S, would have time to take a bow.

She deserves it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Was Jesus joking?

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

It was an informal setting, and I was doing my usual grumbling about the way man treats man. Matt and I never cease to be amazed at the way human beings treat fellow human beings while they are in prison. I was complaining about prisoners preying on elderly sex offenders. Unscrupulous guards looking the other way when alleged violent criminals get brutally beaten by fellow inmates. The callous decisions by the state to punish some inmates by sending them to far-away facilities in the U.P., making it prohibitive for family and friends to visit.

And that’s when my friend said, “Really? Even when you know the person is guilty of an evil, horrific crime? I can see it for those who have been wrongly convicted, for those who have received an unfair and lengthy sentence. But do you really feel that way for the ‘worst of the worst?’”

Yes, I do, for two reasons: one non-religious, and one religious. Number one, the constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment. In other words, incarceration is the punishment for the alleged crime. We may not add to that. And number two, Jesus insists that the way we treat our prisoners is the way we treat him. Take a look at the top of this article, where we quote his words in Matthew 25. I don’t see any way around it, do you?

And yet, my friend and many other Christian people just can’t get their minds around this subject.

The same holds true for criminal defense. I know that some Christian people say to defense attorneys who represent persons who have committed heinous crimes, “I don’t know how you sleep at night!” When the real statement should be: “If we didn’t guarantee constitutional rights to every person charged with a crime, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

This is not some radical position of liberal, bleeding hearts. It comes straight from holy scripture. The Bible just doesn’t give us any “wiggle room:” Remember those in prison as if you were together with them…

There but for the grace of God…

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What will YOU do about it?

Michigan State Representative Joe Haveman, Republican from Holland, was addressing 75 people keenly interested in sentencing and Parole Board reform. The Michigan primary election had been held earlier the same week.

"How many people here voted on Tuesday?" Among the 75, a paltry few hands went up.

"Before you voted, how many of you met with the candidates to find out their views on prison issues?" One hand went up.

And there, boys and girls, is the problem.

75 people, all in the same room, demanding reform, and nobody doing anything about it.

There are a few very simple facts that you can discuss with your state legislators.

-One of every five dollars in our state general fund budget goes to corrections: more than any other state!

-Michigan keeps people in prison longer than any other state!

-Michigan's Parole Board in many cases has taken over the role of judge, and is greatly responsible for our prison over-population!

The big question isn't what HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is going to do about it. Or CITIZENS ALLIANCE ON PRISONS & PUBLIC SPENDING. Or CITIZENS FOR PRISON REFORM. Or MICHIGAN COUNCIL ON CRIME AND DELINQUENCY.

The question is what YOU will do about it!

Our only hope for reform is by responsible legislation. Legislators as well as the Governor are elected to office. They listen to voters, but only if voters speak up. If you do not go to the polls, and you do not speak to your elected officials, you're simply going to have to remain silent. You're not cooperating. You're not helping. You're part of the problem.

Let's made a decision today to make a difference. List the three points mentioned above in your missive to elected officials, demand an opinion, request action, and express outrage.

Prisoner advocacy agencies in this state are working hard. Now it's your turn.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Still learning from Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams saddens me, in many ways. I’ll miss his incredible talent, his delicious humor. But the thing that saddens me the most is that his life didn’t have to end this way.

I hesitated before writing this entry, because it’s very personal and it really doesn’t have a lot to do with my work with prisoners. Except that I’m still here doing it at age 77, and still loving life to the fullest.

My simple message: depression is curable. And, pious and simplistic bits of advice are not the answer.

During my two-year bout with depression in the mid-90s, well-meaning people had quick advice, like, “Just trust in the Lord.” Well, I had never stopped trusting in the Lord, but I was afflicted with a disease. In one of the Homecoming videos, Gloria Gaither encourages those with depression to sing a song about Jesus. I’ll grant you that music was incredibly soothing to me during this difficult time. But it wasn’t the cure.

I find this quite amazing: We quickly run to the doctor when we experience serious physical problems. We won’t even put up with a prolonged bellyache. There’s gotta be a cure. But when we have a mental problem, there’s a stigma attached. We’re reluctant to admit that our mind is ill and that we need a doctor. Instead, we think we’ll tough it out. What a serious mistake.

Just like with physical problems, it may take a while to find the right professional to get to the root of the problem. A well-meaning minister sent me to a Christian counselor. Our chemistry didn’t blend at all, and my condition worsened. I went to another, and he made me angry. No healing there. But finally, thanks to some divine intervention, I connected with the right therapist. I called Marcia on my cell phone after the first visit, with a simple message: “I’m going to get better!”

It’s no shame to experience depression, any more than it’s a shame to have a headache. Stories do not have to have a tragic ending like that of Robin Williams.

The psalmist says: “…weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

May we learn from today’s sad news report. There are qualified professionals to help us deal with depression. But they can’t help us if we don’t seek it.

Depression is curable. I’m a living example.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world...

I woke up this morning thinking about little children. As a father and grandfather, I suppose this isn’t surprising. But my thoughts this morning were not of the pleasant variety.

Perhaps it’s because of the troubling clips I saw on television recently when adults were screaming shameful words at frightened immigrant children who had nothing to do with their present circumstances.

Perhaps it’s because of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s hard-ass attitude toward juvenile lifers. From his point of view, kids who committed vicious crimes very early in their lives should never get a second chance.

Perhaps it’s because the Kent County Prosecutor has decided to charge a 12-year-old as an adult in a tragic homicide which claimed the life of a 9-year-old.

Perhaps it’s because of a news report that court officials had to appoint a guardian for a 16-year-old gang member, who faces a charge of murdering another teenager, because no parent or guardian bothered to show up for his court appearance.

As a follower of Jesus, I can’t believe the world is supposed to be this way.

Here in the HFP office, we have seen what happens when little kids get thrown into the adult prison system. It’s not pretty, and the results aren’t good. And it’s simply not fair to make statements to the effect that if the kids hadn’t gotten into trouble they wouldn’t be in jail…or that we must consider the victims, because they never got a second chance.

We have also seen evidence that old ways can be abandoned, and God can renew and restore: A newspaper story this week told of a former gang member and ex-convict who is now devoting his life to help teenagers from falling into a similar life of crime. And, a good friend who committed a terrible crime as a teenager was recently given a second chance, and is now a productive member of a free society. Proof that it can happen.

I have no quick answers to these troubling situations, but the harsh statements against kids in trouble remind me of the harsh positions against prisoners that we face daily.

Yet Jesus reminds us that how we treat prisoners is how we treat him.

And regarding kids, he had this to say: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Will the state improve its care of mentally ill prisoners?

There’s a problem at Michigan’s prison for women. Now the big question is: What is doing to be done about it?

This week, thanks to courageous reports from whistle-blowers at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a five-page letter to the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Warden of WHV. The letter outlined the problems involving care of mentally ill women behind bars, demanded improvement and finally offered to help.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has been begging for this attention for months. In June, we devoted the entire front page of our monthly newsletter to the topic, with actual quotes from our contacts among the inmates. Finally, we have some momentum. The letter from the ACLU to Director Dan Heyns and Warden Millicent Warren was signed not only by attorneys from the Detroit office, but also by two attorneys from the University of Michigan Law School, the director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, and the President of Citizens for Prison Reform!

Based on documents and authenticated statements from HFP sources, the letter expressed outrage over the way mentally ill women are being treated by prisoner staffers. The letter cited cases of water deprivation, food deprivation, unsanitary conditions, neglect, use of excessive force, and use of solitary confinement. We know for a fact that, in two specific cases, a prisoner was hog-tied as punishment and another was seriously dehydrated and still denied a drink of water. For the record, there was also strong evidence that guards also used taser weapons and pepper gas to control these mentally challenged women. Shameful.

As a single agency we were not able to attract much attention, let alone prod the state into action. Let’s pray that with this added impetus we’ll get results. Mentally ill women behind bars and their families deserve humane treatment, the same kind of treatment one would expect in any care facility.

And if there is no suitable response to this scathing letter, we urge the ACLU to consider the next step: legal action. Sometimes it seems that is the only language the state understands.

May God bless the efforts of this team of organizations to help the “least of these,” sisters of Jesus.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do sex offenders deserve help?

Matt and I had an interesting discussion with a young attorney recently. He was struggling with himself over the issue of whether to represent a man who is in prison. It wasn’t that the man didn’t deserve legal assistance. He had been brutally beaten by four inmates, and somehow the guards who were supposed to be present in order to prevent things like this from happening, were conveniently absent at the moment. The beating went on for 10 minutes! He’s been in the hospital since April.

No, that was not the issue. The issue was the man’s alleged offense that put him behind bars. He had been convicted of a sex offense involving a minor child. After reading documents on the case and from the trial, the attorney wasn’t able to determine whether the inmate was actually guilty. And, like most of us, he found the alleged offense distasteful. He just wasn’t certain he wanted to help this inmate.

We learned, during the discussion, that the man had been accused by a jilted lover. That should have been the first red flag. In our office we have seen dozens of cases like this, and when there’s an accusation placed by an ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, we think there’s room for serious doubt. We know of numerous wrongful convictions as the result of this scenario.

So based on that, we felt the prisoner deserved the benefit of the doubt.

But I’ll take it one step further. If the guy is guilty as sin, he still deserves to be represented by this attorney, and I hope that the more experience he gains over the years, he sees this position more clearly. For no matter what the guy did that landed him in prison, he didn’t deserve to be brutally beaten by his peers. Incarceration was his penalty, and the punishment stops there.

Our office has heard numerous reports of sex offenders being attacked by fellow inmates in Michigan prisoners…especially those who are elderly, vulnerable, and unable to protect themselves. There are reports not only of serious assaults, but also of extortion, theft and harassment. The sex offenders appear to be unpopular, not only with other prisoners, but also with Corrections Officers.

So we hope this young attorney and all other legal professionals will rally to the aid of unfairly treated prisoners, regardless of their alleged crime.

It’s not only the fair and moral high road…it’s what our constitution guarantees.