Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Visiting prisoners---some Holy Week thoughts

I was speaking with David Schuringa, President of the fine prison ministry CROSSROAD BIBLE INSTITUTE. We were discussing prison visits. He told about the first time he went behind bars, and he expressed his surprise at the great times he has had since then visiting prisoners. And then he made this statement, one that I keep uppermost in my mind: “I think these are the kind of people that Jesus would like to hang out with.”

Do you ever wonder in whose company you are the happiest?

One of the first answers that comes to mind is the company of believers...church people. But those of us who have labored in church over the years, especially in the music department, know that it's not always pleasant there. Mark Twain once said, with tongue in cheek, “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”

Another answer that might quickly surface is that of family...it's fun to be with family. But that's not always ideal, either. Mark Lowry, musician and comedian with the Bill Gaither team, once chided an audience with the words: “You know that there is someone in your family who's a problem...you'll cry at his funeral, but you don't want him over for Thanksgiving dinner! And if you can't think of anyone, chances are it's you!”

As the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I speak in various circles...church groups as well as civic groups. I enjoy all of it, and so appreciate the opportunity to tell our story. Some of these groups are professional people,in what might be called the top rungs of society.

But as I'm thinking of Jesus in this Holy Week, my mind goes back to my visit last week with a group of 30 beautiful inmates who are members of SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS.

I believe Jesus would like hanging out with these guys.

Jesus said in Matthew 25 that he was in prison, and we visited him. He didn't say that he visited prison...he said he was a prisoner. I interpret that to mean that when we enter the clanging gates behind bars, we are actually seeing the faces of God.

When it comes down to all the groups I meet with, I must confess that prisoners rank at the top. It's a divine experience.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Drama behind bars?

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts...

I've heard those lines by Shakespeare many times, but never like this.

I was sitting in a large circle in the gymnasium of Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, and the actor so powerfully delivering these lines was a convicted criminal. One after another of these thespians stood up and recited their lines flawlessly...obviously the result of hours and hours of memorization.

I was a special guest at SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS, a national program that is the brainchild of our special friend Curt Tofteland.

Why Shakespeare, in this environment? Well, here's how Curt explains it:

"Shakespeare Behind Bars was founded on the beliefs that all human beings are inherently good, and that although convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings, this inherent goodness still lives deep within them and must be called forth.  Participation in the program can effectively change our world for the better by influencing one person at a time, awakening him or her to the power and the passion of the goodness that lives within all of us.

"Shakespeare Behind Bars offers participants the ability to hope and the courage to act despite their fear and the odds against them.  By immersing participants in the nine-month process of producing a Shakespeare play, Shakespeare Behind Bars uses the healing power of the arts, transforming inmate offenders from who they were when they committed their crimes, to who they are in the present moment, to who they wish to become."

But this is only part of the story. SBB in Brooks is producing the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER, to be presented later this year. I actually watched two wonderful inmate/actors portraying Maurice Carter and me! How neat is that? A thrill beyond imagination!

I am indebted to all of these actors, to Curt, and to my special friend James O'Neal for making this happen.

An experience like no other.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A sad, short story...may it make you sick!

I never cease to be amazed as to how human beings treat human beings.

It was a simple telephone call to the HFP office. Could we help a guy just released from the federal prison system? The situation was desperate.

The short answer was no. There are agencies that handle things like this. We don't. HFP works as an advocacy agency for persons IN prison, and only in the state prison system.

But then the lady from this re-entry agency went on to tell her story.

The man was injured while he was in the federal prison system. She informed me in a calm and matter-of-fact manner that the injuries left the man a paraplegic. No surprise. No emotion. Just the facts, ma'am. He entered as a healthy man...he departed as a cripple.

John Doe became eligible for release...and was then released to what was called a half-way house in the Detroit area. He went there because he had no family, no friends, nobody to care for him. A paraplegic. Alone. The kind of person Jesus talked about.

But, things didn't go well at this place. You see, there are rules you must abide by. Rules are important...for prisoners, and for the released. And one of these rules involved cell phones.

The man was simply trying to get some treatment for his health issues, being a paraplegic and all...but he used the cell phone when he wasn't supposed to. Only certain hours for cell phones. Sorry. So he was evicted!

Never mind that he can't get around, that he has no one, that there is no other program to take him in. He's out!

God bless America!

Somebody's gonna be held accountable for this kinda crap someday!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

GM & MDOC---Side-stepping the truth

Question: What do GM and the MDOC have in common?

Answer: When it comes to the truth, both sidestep the issues.

If you've been watching the hearings on television, General Motors is having a difficult time. The company obviously knew about defects that could cause problems, but failed to act in a timely manner. The CEO just kept side-stepping the real issues.

But, the truth wins out. GM failed to make necessary corrections, and lives were lost. No getting around it.

If you were at the HFP forum to discuss hospice care in Michigan prisons Monday evening, you heard heart-breaking stories from wives of two prisoners who died behind bars last year. Representatives of the Michigan Department of Corrections and its health-care provider CORIZON could only side-step the issues.

But the truth won out. The MDOC failed miserably in these two instances. The facts as described by these two women were shameful, and no one could shake their stories.

The interesting thing is that top officials would have you believe that these were the exceptions. Yes, perhaps some mistakes were made, but that's not really the norm.

You'll have to go a long way to convince us. Until someone can prove otherwise, we say it's the tip of the iceberg.

And that's why we'll keep clamoring for an improvement in care for dying Michigan inmates.

No more side-stepping.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The persistent prisoner's wife---and this is no parable

I liken Shirley Lawrence to the persistent widow in Jesus' parable, as told in Luke 18.

The widow kept coming to a judge with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”

As Jesus tells it, “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming.'”

That's exactly what Shirley did to Dan Heyns, Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, and more specifically Tom Combs, Chairman of the Michigan Parole Board.

Shirley's husband Jim was dying of cancer, and to hear Shirley tell it, he wasn't getting proper care. An effort was made to get a compassionate release based on the seriousness of his condition, but last year the Parole Board gave Jim a flop...told him they would see him again in 2 years.

I thought I was being pushy when I sent an email to Combs saying, “Seriously, this man is given less than a year to live, and you inform him that his name will come up again in 2 years?”

But that was mild.

Shirley bombarded both of these men, but especially Combs, with email messages and telephone calls. Jim would call her with his latest condition and latest report of treatment or lack thereof...and she would be off and running again. And it didn't let up.

Finally, early this year, Combs conceded that perhaps Jim's situation should be re-examined.

Jim was granted a compassionate release in February, 2014. And even then, she constantly pressured him to make the release happen, and happen now!

Jim died today.

“Thank God he was home with you,” I said, upon hearing the news and extending my sympathy. And she agreed, but adds: “They killed my husband.”

She's going to court.

Some judge has no idea what's coming to him! Just ask Tom Combs.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A sliver of light in our office!

A nice young lady was interviewing me by telephone. She's majoring in criminal justice at Wayne State University and wanted some information about the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS for paper that she is writing.

Then came this question...one that we hear from time to time: “With all the negative stuff that you are dealing with, are there also positive things?”

Yes there are, and the gifts may not sound big or exciting, but they're huge.

Here's a good example...good news that we just received today.

Last November I testified at the Parole Board public hearing for an African American woman who has spent more than half of her life in prison. She was abused as a child, got into all kinds of trouble growing up, and was hanging around with the wrong crowd...a crowd that wound up killing someone. She didn't commit the murder...didn't even know it happened...but she got arrested with the rest of them. She was 20 years old at the time. She's 46 now.

The public hearing, in my estimation, was a disaster. The Assistant Attorney General who did most of the questioning couldn't stop hammering on the more than 60 misconduct tickets she had received as an angry young inmate during her early years in prison.

No mention of the dramatic change in her life when she accepted Christ, went to church, went back to school, helped her fellow inmates as a hair-dresser, provided all kinds of legal assistance to prisoners as a para-legal, and received only 2 misconduct tickets since 2008...both of them questionable.

We testified on her behalf, as did the representative of another faith-based 501c3 agency. Many family members and friends were there, not only praising her new lifestyle, but promising to help her and be at her side when she is released.

The Assistant AG reported that the Wayne County Prosecutor's office opposed her release (as if someone there even remembers her or the case), and he opposed it, too.

But the letters and the testimony from us and many others must have made an impact, because against strong odds, Alfreda Drake has just been granted parole. There's no question that there was some strong divine intervention.

And that is typical of the rewards we receive.

Beautiful gifts that encourage us to keep on.

In the name of Jesus.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Parole Board flops cost money...and it's yours and mine

My son Matt and I were chatting with a prison doctor the other day about the shameful way that the Michigan Parole Board is flopping prisoners. A “flop” means that freedom was denied and the length of imprisonment was extended. Usually the flop is for two years, but for lifers the inmate's name comes up once every five years. And the Parole Board has the authority to tell a lifer that it has no interest when his or her name comes up, which means that there will not even be an interview. Any hope for freedom is suddenly 5 years away. But the doctor made a good point that the Parole Board seems to be ignoring, and that the legislators certainly haven't seemed to grasp: The flops cost money!

One would think that Michigan legislators would get on their “high horse” about some of these Parole Board issues involving lifers---relying on just file information, rather than a personal interview before giving a five-year flop; throwing out the words “no interest” in a form letter with no explanation...and none required; the lack of a right of the prisoner to appeal parole denials; and the resulting phenomenon of a large pool of parolable lifers that just keeps getting larger. These are people who are eligible for release.

Getting back to the doctor's point.

It costs the state roughly $35,000 a year to care for a prisoner. So extending that prisoner's stay for another two years means a $70,000 decision. Multiply it out for a lifer, and suddenly that's up to $175,000! And this is one person.

Now factor in the fact that many of these inmates are older, and require medical care. The cost per inmate doubles. So it's a $70,000 a year decision.

Now figure the cost of housing our geriatric category prisoners, who require constant care and medical attention, and the cost is estimated at $100,000 per year! The Parole Board can glibly state “no interest” but that simple 5-year flop may be costing you and me a half-million dollars.

Do you get the point, budget-minded State Legislator?

Decisions or lack of decisions by this Parole Board are throwing the corrections budget out of whack, and it doesn't have to be that way. What are you going to do about it?