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. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

No parole for the thief on the cross

The thief on the cross would never have survived the scrutiny of the Michigan Parole Board and the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  Jesus forgave.  We won’t.

The older I get, and the more I work in this prisoner advocacy business, the more I become convinced that we won’t really see forgiveness in our criminal justice system.  Ever. It ain’t gonna happen.

I testified in another public hearing today, held by the Michigan Parole Board.  I cannot prove this, but I sense that these hearings are grudgingly held in a spirit of skepticism.  In many of the hearings where I have testified, there is a snowball’s chance that the inmate will actually be granted a parole.  We’re a “tough on crime” state, and by God, if someone has committed a heinous crime in Michigan, he or she will pay!

I know that when I make my pitch, I’m perceived as a left-wing “do-gooder,” who wants to free all the prisoners.  I can see that in the eyes of the Parole Board chairman and the Assistant Attorney General.  They extend the courtesy, but I get the feeling that whatever I have to say doesn't really mean anything. 

Joe committed terrible crimes in his early 20s, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  He still wakes up thinking about it.  He cries when he talks about it.  There’s nothing he can do to erase that record.  The only thing he can do is take steps to change his life. And so, while in prison, he became a spiritual being, he completed high school, he completed college, he served as a tutor, he took improvement courses, he enrolled in abuse programs…he learned to behave himself.  In the next 38 years in prison, he brought about change in his life.

In preparation for a possible release if granted parole, he developed a plan including an in-depth relapse prevention outline.  He wasn’t going to take any chances on re-offending.  His simple goal was to get his Master’s Degree, and serve as a substance abuse counselor.  He didn’t want others to follow his early path of destruction.

But it’s not going to happen.  The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office showed up to oppose the parole.  Then the victim of the crime showed up to oppose the parole.  And finally the representative from the Michigan Attorney General’s office made a strong statement of opposition.  The crime was just too atrocious.

No one seemed to care what happened in the next 38 years.  That really wasn’t important.  The focus was on the crime, and this man was going to pay. Retribution is important. Rehabilitation is not.

I personally struggle with this whole “forgiveness” issue in Christianity.  I’m in my senior years, and I still continue to blame myself for terrible lapses in judgment in my earlier years.  I find it difficult to forgive myself.  And I find it hard to believe that I’m forgiven.  Then I fall back on a sermon that I heard from one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Richard Mouw.  He quoted a verse from a beautiful traditional hymn, and said this is what separates Christianity from all other religions:  My sin, Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!

At least Joe has that comfort.

Here in Michigan, it’s a different story.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It's your turn to speak

So here’s the deal.

If you agree that if kids are too young to drink, too young to smoke, too young to drive, they should also be too young to receive life sentences or to serve time with hardened criminals in adult prisons;

If you agree that it’s time for Michigan to release many of its older, medically fragile and incapacitated prisoners;

If you agree that successor judges should not have veto-power over Parole Board decisions;

If you agree that the Michigan Parole Board is taking over the sentencing role of judges in many cases, especially those involving CSC convictions;

If you agree that Michigan sentencing guidelines should be revised to better ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences;

If you agree with national and state research that shows that simply keeping people in prison longer does not keep the public safer;

If you agree that it’s time to change Michigan’s reputation of keeping people behind bars longer than most other states;

If you agree, after reading this list, that sentencing reform and Parole Board reform must happen in the State of Michigan;

Then you gotta go to the polls!  Pure and simple.

Every time I make a presentation I find people in the audience who are vocal about state government and the Michigan Department of Corrections, but then admit that they don’t know the names of their State Representatives and State Senators.  They’ll express themselves with a loud voice in a public meeting, but have never given their opinion to a state legislator.

Your vote can and will make a difference.  Together we can bring about change.  Your chance comes on Tuesday.

If you’re not going to vote, don’t even bother to speak up on all these issues.  Your actions are so loud your words cannot be heard!

Friday, October 31, 2014

What was really on my mind

There is a time for everything…a time to weep and a time to laugh
Ecclesiastes 3

It was a whiskey-tasting class, a fund-raiser for HFP, and people were having fun.  I was asked to say a few words.  I had to put on a smile and talk about the good things. 

I couldn’t really talk about Suzie, wife of a prisoner, who fears for his life.  A guy killed his bunkie in the prison where her husband resides a few nights ago.  The next day three more prisoners were stabbed.  She can’t be there with him, and she worries a lot.

It wouldn’t have been appropriate to tell about a prisoner named Donna, who wrote to say that healthcare workers ignored her pleas for treatment until she collapsed and had to be raced to a hospital by ambulance.  Surgery barely saved her life.  She was in the hospital for 5 weeks.  She will wear an ileostomy bag for the rest of her life.

I’m sure John’s story would have aroused undue skepticism.  This military veteran showed me the documents of admission to a VA hospital, where the intake notes clearly state that he was hearing voices ordering him to kill a man with his own gun in his own home.  Instead, he was discharged, the VA claiming he wasn’t sick enough to remain hospitalized.  He went right out and did just what the voices told him, and now he’s serving life.

And this was certainly not the time to hear Mark’s complaint about prison staff.  He was so pleased to have his mom and dad, plus two of his adult children come from out-of-state to attend his graduation ceremony.  The kids paid $3 each for four very neat photographs of the whole bunch.  But the guards confiscated the pictures as they left the facility, and now the photographs cannot be found.

No, last night wasn’t the time or the place, but those were among yesterday’s stories lingering in my mind.  The fund-raiser was simply a reason to keep this operation going, because there will be more stories today just like those from Susie, Donna, John and Mark.  Possibly worse.  And we must be there, if for no other reason than to hold hands in Christian love.

A time to laugh, and a time to weep.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

We need you!

One by one they gave their names, and then told of a family member now in prison.  One by one they shed tears of pain in making that admission.  One by one they listened to the stories of abuse and neglect behind bars, and nodded their heads in agreement.  They could tell similar stories.

Matt and I were involving in a workshop led by our friend Lois DeMott of Michigan’s Family Participation Program.  Two dozen people were there to get information and to share stories.

And it was at that moment that I realized, once again, why we are in this business.  I was affirmed in what we are doing!  This is exactly where we belong!

Just in recent days

-we extended our hand to two 74-year-old inmates who together have served 90 years behind bars
-we listened to the story of a prisoner who claims to have been sexually compromised by a prison therapist
-we resumed our work with the family of a mentally ill inmate nearly killed by prison abuse
-we continued our preparation to speak up for a deserving prisoner at his Parole Board Public Hearing
-we responded to a request to address graduates of a prison GED program
-we made corrections and additions to an inmate’s application form for commutation
-we took steps to help a seriously ill inmate get some proper medication
-we simply encouraged a confused inmate who suddenly finds himself in an unfriendly and unfamiliar environment after what most certainly was a wrongful conviction.

All of this in response to more than 150 messages to the HFP office from prisoners and/or their families and friends via email, snail mail, telephone and web site.

We do our best to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus, extending love and compassion to Michigan inmates one at a time.  The only thing is---we can’t do it alone.  We need you at our side.  All the way.