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.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Same old, same old

This was an amazing weekend exactly 10 years ago. Maurice Carter was free, after serving 29 years for a crime he did not commit. It was a time of celebration and elation!

Today, one decade later, Matt and I sit in the office that fulfills the Carter dream. And as we sit here, I'm wondering just how much progress has been made in the way Michigan handles prisoners.

Maurice was granted a compassionate release...he was not exonerated. He was in the final stages of Hepatitis C, and he desperately needed a liver transplant. He had been diagnosed with Hep-C 8 years earlier, but the state just didn't bother to share that information with him. Things haven't changed much.

It took the Governor one full year to grant the release, even though Maurice was dying and could not survive without a transplant. Things haven't changed much.

Before even granting the public hearing, the chairman of the Parole Board at that time offered Maurice an immediate release if he would simply confess to the crime for which he had been charged. Things haven't changed much.

In the public hearing, an assistant from the Michigan Attorney General's office strongly and loudly protested Maurice Carter's release. To that sadly misguided individual, Maurice was still a serious threat to society. Things haven't changed much.

This marked the first time in his 29 years that Maurice even managed to get in front of the Parole Board. Even though he had been eligible for parole for a long time, every time his name came up for a PB review the board simply sent a form letter expressing “no interest.” Things haven't changed much.

We keep hearing demands about prison reform in Michigan, and God knows we need it. But we hear very few demands for change with the Michigan Parole Board. This little group of 10 people has an incredible grip over thousands and thousands of lives, and thousands and thousands of tax dollars. Every time the board rejects parole for one eligible lifer, for example, that inmate must remain behind bars for another 5 years, and the cost to the state is almost a quarter of a million dollars!

We keep people in prison longer than any other state, ladies and gentlemen, and it's costing us a fortune! It's time to take a close, hard look at the Michigan Parole Board.

It's time to demand change and improvement!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A parolable lifer walks free

I had a special moment at midnight last night, and that doesn't happen often in this business.

We received word from one of our contacts behind bars: Our friend John, a parolable lifer, walked free yesterday! I took a moment to thank God before I crawled into bed.

John is the first to admit that he and his friends committed a horrible crime back in the 70s, while high on drugs. There was no excuse for it, and the parolable life sentence was justified.

John was 15 at that time. He's going on 55 right now, having spent the majority of his life in prison.

I'm so pleased to report that he didn't continue on an evil path during his incarceration. He was determined to improve himself, and to do things for others. His prison record reflects all of his accomplishments, as well as his personal improvement. Even with all of that, it was a long and difficult road to freedom. Many still believe he should remain in prison. In fact, when a newspaper published a story indicating that he might be paroled, there were bitter and vindictive comments cowardly penned by anonymous readers. 50 pages of them! It's amazing how we pray for and expect forgiveness for our past transgressions, but we're not ready to offer any forgiveness to others.

The good news is that one parolable lifer walked free this week. Based on statistics, the chances of him re-offending are almost nil. I know the man, and I know he won't.

The bad news is that many more men and women in this aging group of inmates are not being released. The Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending estimates that if just half of the eligible prisoners eligible for parole were released, the state would save $17-million.

I once spotted a little poster in the office of a person who worked with mentally challenged children. Scrawled on a cheap piece of paper with crayon were the words: GOD DON'T MAKE NO JUNK.

I thought of that, and believed it, when I heard that John was finally going to enter the free world...a healed and restored human being. But I almost questioned it when I read 50 pages of terrible comments about his pending release. Still, based on what I believe, even those people will experience God's forgiveness. That's just the way his amazing grace works.

Back to Michigan's shameful record with lifers: It's time for change and reform in our state's parole process. We keep people in prison longer than any other state.

It's negatively affecting lives. It's costing us dollars.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The HFP roller coaster rides again

Here's the roller coaster that Matt and I rode on, in the very front seat, today in the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

UP
Thank you for your help. You are a great example of helping others. I pray that I only honor that by helping others, too!

DOWN
I still have not been in to see the Dr. since the colonoscopy and the pain in my side while subsided somewhat is not gone and flares its ugly head on occasion. No help with the under-active thyroid either. The last couple of days have been bad but today so far is better thank you Jesus!

UP
The Warden's Forum approved the donation for $1000.00 to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. It was approved by the Warden and everyone. The funds have been approved and will be deducted first before any funds are spent in the next budget to cover all approved budget requests and approvals for the year.

DOWN
On Monday they came and told Ms. R. her mom was here for a visit, did she want to go see her. Of course she got very excited and said yes. About an hour later they came back and told her that her mom just called but said she was not going to come see her. She cried and cried and cried. It was so sad. Not sure why they play these games with a mentally ill inmate.

UP
FINALLY! I arrived at a different facility yesterday. Terrible bus ride but anything was worth getting out of hell. It's pole barns, 7 men to a cube. But, I know quite a few guys here and I think this place is laid back. No gang activity or stealing, mostly old guys like me.

DOWN
They took Ms. M off all machines, she is a vegetable as a result of the mistreatment here. I guess MDOC is discharging her now. Her family still goes to see her in the hospital.

UP
I am truly honored that you have picked my story, because as you can see. I have been trapped in the belly of the beast without any help. I thought that I would never get the chance to tell my story. I really appreciate the help - God knows I do!!

DOWN
A prisoner said when she opened her door to her cell there was a huge POP! Then her TV went out and the sprinkler system went off. This facility has too many people using this old electricity in these units. We are overloading what we have. I see this as a huge problem in the future especially when they are saying they might make the TV room in the west side units 16 man cells. There isn't enough electricity to run an iron, TV, dvd, and two microwaves let alone for prisoners using curling irons, hair dryers, and all the other electrical things we use everyday. Something has to be done before many prisoners get hurt.

You couldn't write a script like this!

Pray for prisoners.

Pray for the work of HFP.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Michigan's forgotten prisoners

The Lord himself...will never leave you or forsake you...do not be discouraged.

I'm sure that these words from Moses to Joshua, as quoted in Deuteronomy 31, have been a comfort to millions of people over the years.

They came to my mind over the weekend as HFP deals with a little-known problem in the Michigan prison system: the plight of prisoners with long, indeterminate sentences.

The situation is this: Some insensitive judges, perhaps hoping to make a statement, handed down sentences far worse than life in prison. Here are two examples. My friend Troy Chapman, instead of receiving a parolable life sentence, was given 60 to 90 years. Another prisoner whom I don't know, but whose situation was revealed in an AP story this weekend, is Leon Echols. His sentence was 75 to 150 years!

And here's the problem. Thanks to an opinion by the Michigan Attorney General in 1986, these guys are not eligible for parole until they serve their minimum. This means that Chapman, who is 50 and who has already served 29 years; and Echols, who is 43 and has served nearly 25 years, will both be in their 80s by the time they get to meet with the Parole Board. Lifers, on the other hand, after serving x number of years in prison, get a crack at the Parole Board every 5 years.

Both of these inmates have tried unsuccessfully to get their sentences commuted by the Governor, which he certainly could do. But why should he? A commutation would do little to reduce Michigan's shamefully high prison population, and on the other hand it definitely could damage his political reputation. Being tough on crime pleases voters.

We don't know how many of these prisoners with long, indeterminate sentences are buried and forgotten in Michigan prisons, but you can be sure that Troy and Leon aren't the only two!

Perhaps AP Writer Ed White's story, published in various Michigan newspapers this weekend, is a start. But we mustn't stop there. Corrective legislation is needed. HFP is going to do its part. You can do yours, as well. Simply passing this piece along to someone of influence might make a difference.

We know the Lord won't leave these guys or forsake them.

Will we?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Not ashamed. Not in the least!

I am not ashamed of the gospel...Romans 1:16.

I was reminded of those powerful words from the Apostle Paul, who made such a bold statement after an earlier life of persecuting Christians, following a recent meeting with the founder of a generous philanthropic foundation. Our board chairman Dan Rooks, my son Matt and I were being interviewed because we were hoping to obtain a small grant for HFP operating funds.

The man was so kind and so understanding. We're not certain whether we'll receive a grant, but we know for sure that the man caught the flavor of our operation. And that, in itself, was impressive to all of us. Because often it seems we are on the defensive.

For some reason, even though Jesus insisted that we give special attention to prisoners, many people cannot understand the work of HFP, and find it difficult to support. We may get a dismissive statement: “We need people like you.” We don't get dollars very easily.

But we are not ashamed of the daily work of HFP. To the contrary, we're very proud of it!

The compassion of this agency can be shown in small, and what same may think, insignificant ways. Just recently

-We helped a prisoner locate his estranged step-father, so he could patch things up before the elderly man died.
-We helped an inmate find a private investigator to dig up some critical evidence in his wrongful conviction case.
-We agreed to help an inmate deserving of parole, who has been ignored by the Parole Board far too long.
-We agreed to write a letter of support to the Governor for a lifer who deserves release.
-We promised to try to get some treatment for a prisoner experiencing serious health problems and apparently is not getting proper treatment.
-We communicated a message to the pastor of a family whose adopted son recently committed suicide behind bars, after guards laughingly told him to go ahead and do so.
-We filed a complaint with the Department of Justice regarding cruel punishment of a mentally challenged woman in prison.
-We found the phone number of an inmate's mother.
-We agreed to help a prisoner in preparing his commutation application form.

Yes, these may seem trivial and insignificant. Just ask prisoners how they feel. Notes of thanks and gratitude arrive here daily.

I started out with St. Paul's statement about not being ashamed of the gospel.

Is this activity by HFP the gospel?

It certainly is in our mind! We believe that we're demonstrating the gospel of Jesus Christ in a most meaningful way...the method of St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel every day. Use words if necessary.