Wednesday, August 26, 2015

You can bet on it: We'll be there!

Supporters of HFP have every reason to join with the followers of Jesus who, in Matthew 25, said, “’When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

I bring up the issue because for one of the few times in history, we made budget this month thanks to the kindness and generosity of people who believe in what we do.

I want to assure them, and assure you—

We’ll be there for the woman whose colostomy bag must be replaced, but who has been told she may have new supplies on September 6.

We’ll be there for he mother who has been denied access to her son, and hasn’t spoken to him in over a year.

We’ll be there for the guy whose wheelchair broke and the prison wouldn’t give him a replacement.

We’ll be there for the blind woman who is taunted by guards singing “Three Blind Mice.”

We’ll be there for the woman dying of cancer, who simply wants to spend her final hours surrounded by loved ones.

We’ll be there for the lifer who will not be granted surgery until it becomes an “emergency.”

We’ll be there for the visually impaired who loves to read and simply wants a pair of reading glasses.

We’ll be there for the mentally ill woman who was hog-tied because she disobeyed orders that she didn’t even understand.

We’ll be there for the inmate with learning disabilities who signed a confession that meant nothing to him, because he could not read or write.

We’ll be there for the inmate who needs help filling out his commutation form because his spelling is so bad.

We’ll be there for the hearing impaired who wants a hearing aid just so she can hear the instructions from her officers.

We’ll be there for the old gent roughed up by the Parole Board for not remembering the details of his crime, simply because it occurred during an alcohol blackout.

The friends and parents and spouses and loved ones and yes, the inmates, can keep on adding to this list.  It could go on and on.  Because, thanks to your generosity, we’ll be there!

The reply of the King:  I will tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How the Parole Board could make a major turn

I’m upset with the Parole Board all over again.

I was at the side of another prisoner whose turn it was to appear before a member of the Michigan Parole Board to make a convincing case for parole.  The man is in his 70s, in terrible health, and has served 47 years for a horrendous crime.  An alcoholic prior to his arrest, the man hasn’t touched a drop while in prison, even though homemade hooch is readily available in all of our facilities.  Instead, he remained sober and decided to re-manufacture his life.  He went to school, got his GED, then got a college degree, then received training for employment skills, then became a paralegal.  With that certification, he began helping indigent inmates who could not afford attorneys.  He became a man of faith and decided to follow Jesus.  I found out about his plight from the prison warden, who asked if I might be able to help him find freedom in his waning years.  He died once in prison but they revived him.  He’s had 5 heart bypasses.  He’s in bad shape, and he may not be around for long.

I know the Parole Board member felt she was doing her job, because she spent far more than the regularly allotted time for her interview with Mr. H…but she was brutal, demanding that he recall every detail of the crime nearly 50 years ago.  And the problem is, it was committed during an alcohol blackout.  When he learned the actual details of the crime after sobering up, he was aghast and didn’t even seek a trial.  He read the gruesome information, pleaded guilty and agreed to pay the piper.  He went to prison for life.  He could have lied and told the PB questioner exactly what happened…but instead, he chose to tell the truth.  He told her all that he could remember, and then had to stop.  She refused to accept this.

I tell all of this to lay out my plan for what could be an excellent Parole Board project.

After a prescribed time in prison, inmates get to see the Parole Board once every 2 years.  For lifers, it’s once every 5 years.  They look forward to this 20-minute interview because it’s their one hope for freedom.  If they can convince the PB member that they’re ready for release, they might get a Public Hearing, and then they might catch a parole. 

The problem is, most inmates are not prepared.  They don’t know what the PB member will ask them, and many are caught off guard by some of the questions and often by the attitude of the questioner.  To help offset this, two fine advocacy agencies have published a booklet that will help prisoners prepare for the event.  We distribute many of these booklets, and we offer it on-line for families of prisoners.  In addition, the Michigan chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers), sometimes sends two of its seasoned personnel right into the prisons to do workshops on Parole Board preparation.

But here’s my idea…one that has already been rejected by Parole Board Chairman Michael Eagen.

I propose that Chairman Eagen and I go into the prison together for a public assembly/workshop on how to prepare for the Parole Board interview.  For the most part, the prisoners trust me.  HFP has a great reputation among the men and women in the Michigan prison system.  They know we’re on their side, and they believe me when I make presentations to inmates.  I have credibility.  I’m convinced that if Mr. Eagen were to go in there with me, the prisoners would listen to him with great respect.  We should make our brief presentations, but for the most part we should let them ask questions.  Our goals:  one, to make certain that inmates know what the Parole Board expects of them;  two, to let the Parole Board know the thoughts and fears and concerns of inmates;  and three, to show Parole Board members that prisoners are real people, not just a number---and to show inmates that Parole Board members are also decent human beings.  This could be a win-win situation!

It would be huge for the prisoners!

It would be huge for the Parole Board!

But it won’t happen.  The reason---the 7 most famous words:  We never did it that way before!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Are they really working for us?

Long waits for Michigan prisoners and their visitors is taking on a new dimension with recent complaints from WHV.  Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility is located in Ypsilanti, and actually consists of two sprawling units.  All female prisoners of the state are housed there, more than 2,000 of them.  Overcrowding is a serious issue, and because of the overcrowding visitation problems are legion.  Here at the HFP office, we’ve been receiving more and more complaints over the past year, from inmates and from visitors. 

It all came to a head a few days ago with this complaint from a prisoner:

“Last Thursday in the visiting room, 2 inmates were refused to use the restroom resulting in them urinating on themselves. There is several hours in between the inmates’ visitors leaving and the inmates being searched before they can return to their housing units. The officers are refusing to let them use the restroom. This is so sad.  Any ideas?"

When we posted that message on our email network and on Facebook, there were more responses, this time from the other side of the aisle---the visitors.

Said one mother: 

We waited 3/12 hours to see our daughter at Huron Valley a few weeks ago. She was called down to the visitors room at that time so she waited there for 3 1/2 hours for us to be processed and be let into the visitors room with her. Then when we left after 2 hours, she continued to wait to be processed to go back to her unit. Some inmates waited hours to be able to return to their unit. Visitors and inmates are supposed to have two bathroom breaks per visit. Another woman visitor waited 4 1/2 hours with a 6 year old. There is nothing for a child to do in the waiting room. At Huron Valley I usually feel like I'm the one being punished. I feel like the criminal.”

The problem can no longer be ignored at WHV.  It’s time for the administration to take action.  Feel free to simply call this blog to the attention of your State Representative and State Senator.  Feel free to forward a copy to the Governor’s office.

Visitation of prisoners is terribly important to the inmate.  Everyone in this business knows it, and can quote authorities on the subject.  Besides that, it’s precious.  Less than 15% of prisoners even receive a visit!  And when they get one, they usually treasure the experience.  For those of us who follow Jesus, there's a deeper dimension as we strive to live up to his words in Matthew 25.  Now it appears the difficult is becoming even more difficult!

Here’s our take on this.  As Michigan citizens and Michigan tax-payers, these people who operate the state prison system and who are employed by the MDOC, actually work for us!  We pay the bills.  And this means that if we are treated like scum, and if our friends and loved ones get messed-up visitation periods, we have a right to complain. 

It’s time that we do it.





Monday, August 3, 2015

HFP's quiet tool

Many years ago, when I was the regular choir director in my church, I selected an anthem that made a powerful impact.  The title was SOMEBODY’S PRAYING ME THROUGH.  Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

Pressing over me like a big blue sky
I know someone has me on their heart tonight
That's why I know it's gonna be alright
'Cause somebody's praying me through.

The song came to mind this morning when I woke up, because my son Matt was already in the city of Adrian, waiting his turn to be at the side of an inmate who was scheduled to meet with a member of the Michigan Parole Board.  We sometimes do this for deserving inmates who may not have a friend or family member as their representative for this rather traumatic confrontation.  Saying a silent prayer for him and the prisoner, I was reminded just how much prayer is a part of our work.  It’s not something we talk about, but it’s there all the time.

One more quick musical story before I develop this theme.  I’m also a church organist.  When our custom made organ was installed, I noticed that there was one blank stop on the instrument.  Based on an idea I had read in a novel, I asked the manufacturer to put a face on that draw knob.  It would say:  DIV INT, for Divine Intervention.  It’s the only church organ like it in the country!  I’ve been playing the instrument for 20 years now, and if you check my organ registrations, you’ll see that I use the stop regularly.  It makes no sound, of course…it’s a blank.  But it’s a simple reminder for me that I need divine intervention when I’m playing.  And it works!

That’s the organ stop we pull here at the HFP office.  Regularly.

Parents of inmates call with heart-breaking stories.  Can we help?  Sometimes, perhaps…but we can always pray.  The same with the multitude and variety of problems that prisoners call to our attention 7 days a week.  The same with Parole Board interviews.  The same with Public Hearings.  The same with HFP presentations behind bars.  The same with HFP struggles with JPay.  And the prayers are not just by Matt and me, although heaven receives many.  Years ago we established a beautiful relationship with a person we have never met, in Washington State.  She is not able to provide financial support, so she became a prayer partner.  With or without our specific requests, Laura is faithfully praying for HFP.  And she is not alone.  Many of our supporters do the same.  The members of our Board of Directors are praying people, and our work and our issues are regularly on their prayer lists.  We do not begin a board meeting without invoking God’s blessing.

HFP is honored to be an instrument that touches the lives of hundreds of Michigan prisoners.  But we don’t take the credit.  We know who does the touching.  We talk to him regularly.

Friday, July 24, 2015

July 24: A very special day!

The note in my pocket calendar on this date consists simply of two names---Matt and Maurice.  Both family members.

Matt is our youngest son, sometimes referred to as a tag-along because he came along so much later that his three older siblings.  He was born in 1978 when his parents already had passed the age of 40.  Today is his birthday.

Maurice’s full name was Maurice Henry Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, who also became family to us.  He was a wrongly convicted Michigan prisoner whom I met back in the 1990s.  Today is the day he walked out of prison, in the year 2004, after serving 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

As Maurice’s closest friend, I was there to walk out that prison door in Jackson with him.  As a cub reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune, Matthew was there in Jackson to cover the story.  In fact, it is his photograph that appears on the cover of my book which tells the Tjapkes/Carter story, SWEET FREEDOM.  Maurice is clasping his freedom papers in his upraised hands.

It’s fitting that Matt and I take a moment to reflect on this day, not just because we celebrate his birthday and the three months of freedom that Maurice enjoyed before we lost him, but also to marvel how God took the life of that dear man to shape the future for father and son.

It’s easy for me to see, in retrospect, that my careers as a radio broadcaster/journalist and then as a church organ salesman, were merely preparation for my final and most important occupation as an advocate for prisoners.  And it’s fascinating to see how, thanks to Maurice Carter, Matt’s career path made some zigs and some zags and he landed right here in the same business:  helping prisoners!

Together Matt and I handle communications with and requests from prisoners on a daily basis, 7 days a week, in addition to raising funds to support our meager budget, maintaining daily entries on social media, writing and publishing a monthly newsletter, coordinating efforts of some 50 professional people who serve us regularly in an advisory panel, and just plain working hard at touching the lives of Michigan prisoners one at a time in the name of Jesus.

On July 24, 2015, I am so thankful

-that Matthew became a member of our family
-that Maurice entered the lives of our entire family
-that the legacy of Maurice Henry Carter lives on through the vibrant ministry of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, with father and son at the helm!

Some son, that Matthew!

Some guy, that Maurice!

Some God, that master planner!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

That can't happen to me!

A person who has the means chose not to support our work this week.  That’s not so unusual…after all, our work really isn’t very popular.  But his reason sticks in my craw, and deserves a response.  Here’s what he told a member of our board:  I can write a book on the issues I have with prisons, legal system, overcrowding and any other issue someone in jail has BUT the biggest is just don't go to jail.

Here’s the problem I have with that.  The guy is really saying, “That couldn’t happen to me.  If people just lived the way I live, they wouldn’t wind up behind bars.”  And that is so sadly untrue.

While it is true that many of the inmates with whom we work are poor and didn’t have the means to hire good legal counsel, the wealthy are not exempt.  It may be true that it’s difficult for a rich man to get into heaven, based on Jesus’ words, but it’s certainly not hard for him to get into jail!

Let me just cite a few examples of people who, I am sure, probably thought the same thing:  That can’t happen to me.

I know of not one, but two TEACHERS, both exemplary Christian men, who were brought down by naughty little girls who concocted stories that juries believed.

I know of two BUSINESSMEN, both followers of the gospel, who were brought down by little girls and their scheming mothers.

I know of a PHYSICIAN who was physically unable to commit the crime for which he was charged brought down by a malicious patient and an equally malicious prosecutor.

I know of a BANKER whose wife was killed when she fell down the basement stairs, but who wound up behind bars because some cop was convinced that the man gave her a shove.

I know of an ATTORNEY who specialized in dealing with exotic coins who was falsely accused in a criminal scheme and spent much of her life behind bars.

All of these people didn’t have a worry financially.  All were able to hire good lawyers.  But police officers with tunnel-vision and voter-seeking prosecutors in an imperfect system put these innocent people in prison.

Here’s the thing.  You don’t have to support HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS if you don’t like what we do, or if you don’t believe that prisoners deserve to be treated like humans.  That’s between you, your conscience and your God.

But you hadn’t better say, “It can’t happen to me.”

The better choice might be, “There but for the grace of God…”     

Monday, July 13, 2015

An empty chair at the memorial service

Michelle’s teen-aged son will be buried today.  The boy’s father and grandparents will be there.  His mother will be absent.

I cannot begin to describe my emotions:  heartbreak, anger, disgust.  And I don’t even know Michelle! 

Here’s the story in a nutshell.

Our office received a message last week from the mother of a prisoner at the Women’s Huron Valley facility in Ypsilanti.  Her friend Michelle, age 44, learned that her 18-year-old son Josh had died unexpectedly at home due to an asthma attack.  A death in the family is a serious problem for prisoners…something, we believe, that must be improved in the future.

We followed the situation day by day, here’s the way it developed.

On the 7th, the day after the young man died, she was informed that she could be transported to the funeral home in the thumb area, accompanied by two officers, but she and her family would have to pay the tab:  $1,000 each way. 

On the 10th, we received a message that Michelle had found two off-duty officers willing to make the trip with her.

Then, later that same day, came this message:  The officers who were going to help Michelle have been mandated by the prison to work their regular shifts at the prison on Monday.  She wo't be able to go.  Her friends in the prison are showering her with love and sympathy.

I have difficulty accepting defeat, so I got up early this morning, summarized all of these messages, and fired off an email to one of our friends in the front office of the MDOC to ask if there was any way this grieving mother could still say farewell to her son at the 3 PM memorial service today.  And here is the response, verbatim:

I worked on this case most of Friday and unfortunately, we won’t be able to transport her today.  These funeral visits are based on the approval of the warden (which was received) and the availability of two trained staff members on voluntary overtime.  While one volunteer was located, the other volunteers could not be cleared for this assignment because they are on mandated overtime at the facility today.  As I’m sure you’ve heard, the facility is utilizing a significant amount of overtime right now because of our ongoing CO vacancies and as a result, it is difficult to find staff that are both eligible and willing to take voluntary overtime. While we ultimately had 3 staff people volunteer for the assignment, 2 could not be assigned because they were called in for mandated overtime today.  We simply don’t have the staff available to complete the funeral visit today, despite the best efforts of the family and the facility.

The name of our organization is HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  Giving our agency the name is one thing, but actually achieving humanity for prisoners is still another.  It’s easy to issue statements and cite policy.  It’s still another to hold the hand of a grieving mom.

I’m frustrated.  I'm angry.  I’m a parent and a grandparent. I’m hurting for Michelle.  I don’t know the answers, but I’m ashamed that my state couldn’t do better than this.  I find this completely unacceptable.

Thank God for the dear friends of Michelle behind bars who remain at her side.  May our Heavenly Father grant her peace in this difficult time, and enfold her in his everlasting arms.