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.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

10 years later, remembering Maurice

My soul brother Maurice Carter died 10 years ago today.  He had spent nearly half of his life in prison for something he didn’t do.

One of his favorite sayings was that when he got arrested, “The wheels of justice ground to a halt.” 

The injustice of it all wasn’t just the wrongful conviction.  Other ingredients included racism before, during and after the trial; incompetent legal assistance; shoddy police work;  face-saving prosecutors and judges;  inadequate prison medical care…the list goes on and on.

Yet, Maurice Carter made a conscious decision to reach past all of this suffering and indignity, so that he could touch others.  His goal was to help other prisoners upon his release.  Things didn’t go the way he had planned.  He experienced only three months of freedom, and during that time he was in poor health.

Instead, God saw to it that he began touching lives while still behind bars.  No one will ever know how many, but I saw it with my own eyes.  Not just my family, my friends, my church. And not just hundreds, either...I daresay thousands of people, all around the world, impacted by this indigent man from Gary, Indiana.  His kindness and love were contagious. 

Yes, Maurice died ten years ago today.  Yet, his thoughtfulness and compassion continue to touch lives.  Daily.  Through HFP’s action with compassion.  Through the moving drama written by Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne.  Through the book SWEET FREEDOM.

The spirit of Maurice is alive and well.  God is still at work

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Miracle in a dreary prison hospital

A prison hospital would seem like about the last place where one would see a miracle.  But as sure as I’m sitting here typing up this story, I believe a miracle has occurred.

Often we tell these stories to help raise money.  We want our supporters to know that their dollars actually touch lives behind bars, one at a time.  This is NOT a dollar story.  It’s God, pure and simple.  Nothing your dollars did.  Nothing we did.  But it’s important that we share our stories of celebration, also.

I’m getting way ahead of myself.  Let me start at the beginning.

This spring our office began receiving disturbing reports of cruelty, neglect and abuse in a particular unit of the women’s prison in Ypsilanti.  It was the place where they care for the worst of the mentally ill cases.  Some prisoners who were patients in that unit, we were told, were being hog-tied, and were being abused by taser weapons and pepper gas sprayers.

In one particularly upsetting case, a woman with parched tongue was denied a simple drink of water for several days.  Instead, the nurse reportedly kept administering injections of a psych-drug, even after the woman was unconscious.  Finally, Darlene was mercifully rushed to the hospital by ambulance in critical condition and placed on life support.  Rumors among prisoners were rampant, some claiming that she had died.

I personally spoke with a member of the family several weeks ago.  She said that life support equipment had been removed.  The woman appeared to be in a vegetative state…they were just waiting for her to die.

We were enraged.  Our directors were enraged.  Our attorney was enraged.  This could have been prevented!

Our extensive files of torture accounts were shared with legal experts and the US Department of Justice.  Perhaps we lost Darlene, but we weren’t going to lose the fight.

And then, at midnight last night, came this brief email message from one of our whistleblowers behind bars:  Great news for you and everyone who has prayed for Darlene. She woke up!  She is talking and moving around. The person who spoke to me on it said it was a miracle. And it still is. She is awaiting her medical commutation. I guess it still hasn't been signed.  They have her in the infirmary in a big room and are treating her really good. She is alive!  What a beautiful miracle.  Please tell everyone that has prayed for her.

Pastor Nate just reminded me last Sunday about the importance of prayers for healing.  The truth is that I had given up praying for Darlene.  She was a lost cause.  I moved on, praying, instead, for the survivors, and praying that stories like this would never happen again.

I stopped, but God didn’t.