Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yes, Tammy, he cares...and so do we!

Not much more could have gone wrong in Tammy’s life.

She came into the Michigan prison system with a fistful of charges four years ago, and did well until a few months ago when she claims she was set up on a misconduct charge of smuggling.  But until the state could conduct a hearing on her non guilty plea, she was placed in segregation…or as the prisoners call it, in the hole.

And while there, last month, things went south.

Her mother was brutally murdered in her Detroit home on January 6th…it was all over the TV news on the 7th.

Tammy’s sister Judith, who is on her visitor list and who serves as her emergency contact, immediately called the prison to relay the bad news.  That was on the 7th.  But the system resisted.  Who knows, could be a fake call.  Her sister tried again every day until January 13th.  Finally, one week after the slaying, Judith was advised to fax proof of their mother’s death to the Warden’s office.  The following Tuesday, January 17th, Tammy was officially notified of her mother’s passing and was allowed to make a phone call.

But, this was 11 days later.  And while there are no TV sets in the hole, Tammy’s friends had television sets, and that’s how she got the news.

She was so distraught that she was placed on suicide precaution.  Then, of course, she missed the memorial service.  A therapist gave her a book on how to deal with grief, suggesting that she create a scrap book and develop a strong support system among her friends.  None of which could really work very well since she was locked up in isolation.

But that’s not the whole story.

In addition to these problems, Tammy hasn’t been able to have visits since last August when somehow, the state claimed, there was a “system error.”  Between August of 2016 and January 31st of this year, her family continued to call about the visitation problem, and continued to receive the same answer:  The matter “had been forwarded to the Warden’s office.”

A friend suggested that she write to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  “It is my hope,” she said, “that someone will reach out to me concerning these issues.”

We promptly responded, and within 24 hours we received the reassuring words from the Warden’s office:  “Issue resolved. It appears that her list was deactivated in error.  I have reactivated her list so the family may now visit.”

I love the words of this old gospel song:

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth or song,
  As the burdens press,
  And the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?

O yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
  When the days are weary,
  The long night dreary,
  I know my Savior cares.

Yes, Tammy, Jesus cares.

So does HFP.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seems cruel and unusual to me!

As I review complaints about medical care, or lack thereof, in the Michigan prison system, I contend that the state is violating the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Let me explain.

Mr. A is a new prisoner.  He suffers from cerebral palsy.  He reports to HFP, “I need to get back on my prescribed medication ASAP.”  The prison system simply explains:  “You were not approved for this medication by the regional medical director in Lansing.  Will forward your request.”  He asks:  “So I’m wondering what I shall do in the meantime.  I’ve been waiting since I arrived on December 27!”  He's in pain.

Mr. B is a chemist, biologist and geologist who, while working as a civilian contractor, was accidentally exposed to nerve agents.  As a result, he has severe COPD.  Prior to his arrest, he was told by doctors to sleep in a chair to reduce lung problems.  At most prison units he was allowed to do this…until February 5, when without warning the prison refused to allow him to sleep in a chair, and officials refuse to discuss it.  Rumor is that this is retaliation because of some grievances he filed.

Mr. C had surgery that was apparently successful, but since then the scrotum swelled to 12 inches around.  As it turns out, this probably was normal, and the swelling will go down, according to our experts, but there was no one there to explain this to him and avoid this unnecessary angst.

Mr. D has Irritable Bowel Syndrome with diarrhea…he’s getting no help from the prison health people nor his family.  He’s going to the bathroom 12-20 times a day, and still goes in his pants and in his bed.  His roommate complains, and he hates living this way.

The lawyers who specialize in this kind of thing won’t touch cases like these…at least not until grievances are filed, and not without lots of printed documents and substantial proof that the neglect and abuse is willful.

The 8th Amendment says that cruel and unusual punishments may not be inflicted. The amendment is meant to safeguard Americans against excessive punishments.  In other words, for Messrs. A, B, C and D, the incarceration is their punishment.  Inadequate medical care may not be dumped on them as additional punishment.

This shoddy medical practice may not meet the criteria for attorneys, but I contend that it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Just sayin’.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

BLACK HISTORY MONTH, more meaningful than ever!

I’m 80.

When I was a child, we didn’t think it was black discrimination.

As a tiny tot, my mom read a book to me about Little Black Sambo.

When kids didn’t know how to make a decision, or how to choose, we said “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, catch a ni**er by his toe!”  Sorry, I just can’t make myself say that word, or even type it.

When we bought a package of mixed nuts to serve our company in the holiday season, the Brazil nuts were called, “ni**er toes.”

My cousins went to Alabama to visit with their aunt and uncle and cousins, and returned to joke about separate drinking fountains down south for whites and blacks.

And things didn’t improve when I grew up.

One of my first bosses, at a Christian radio station that featured predominately religious programming, urged me to persuade an elderly man on the staff to polish my car for me.  He said he could make it shine “like a ni**er’s heel!”

As late as the 1990s, a devout co-worker was referring to African Americans with the derogatory phrase “jungle bunnies.”

As a church organ salesman, trying to persuade the chairman of an ultra conservative church's music committee to drive to a certain neighborhood where he could hear one of our recent installations, he demurred, saying that there were a lot of “coons” in that area.

All of that garbage was quickly erased when my life was changed, in years to follow, in such a profound way by these African Americans who, I swear, walked on holy ground:  gospel singer Alma James Perry; the Rev. Cy Young; Maurice Carter; The Rev. Rodney Gulley; the James Family Singers;  and many, many more.

Black History Month is precious to me.  So are the names of every African American whose life has intersected with mine.  Especially the very long list of my black friends behind bars.

In February, 2017, please join me in this prayer, created by the Diocesan Commission to end racism:

“ One God, in Three Persons, creator of one human species, in many hues: all who pray to you are descendants of Adam and Eve, all members of one race called “human.” Forgive the blindness that causes our eyes to notice and magnify those things we regard as different from ourselves in others. Teach us to see clearly, that we, your children, are far more alike than we are different. Help us to put aside the racial prejudices embedded within us, and to see within every person the Child of God you created, our sister or brother, destined for Glory. In the name of One who died for all persons, of all colors, Jesus Christ.”


Friday, February 3, 2017

Disappointment. A way of life in this business!

Matt had a bad day yesterday.

It’s getting more and more difficult to accept invitations to be a prisoner’s representative at a Parole Board hearing.  With a case file now exceeding 1,000, we can’t be at the side of a every prisoner who asks.  But Rick’s case was exceptional.  He’s facing a serious diagnosis of cancer, and the aggressive treatment that he needs probably won’t come in the prison system.  So Matt, Executive Director of HFP, agreed to be in Jackson yesterday to sit at his side during for the important interview with a member of the Parole Board.

Matt never got in.

He and I have done numerous Parole Board interviews in the past without problems, and without LEIN clearance.  But this time the officer at the desk insisted that, because Matt’s name had not been cleared by the Law Enforcement Information Network, he would not be allowed to participate in the meeting.

Keep in mind that Jackson isn’t next door.  Our office is in Grand Haven, which makes it a two-and-a-half hour drive.   If we had known, even hours ahead of time, we might have been able to work through this problem by making some calls with the department hierarchy.  But the system is large and cumbersome, and it wasn’t going to happen yesterday.

Rejection at the gates of the prison is not an uncommon thing.

I was at a facility once where an old, black preacher came to visit his son.  He was no longer in good health, so someone else drove him on the long trip to prison.  When he got to the desk, he realized that he had left his driver’s license home, so he had no official picture ID.  Never mind that he had all kinds of other identification, and that the officers knew him because he was a regular there.  Rules are rules, and the old man was sent home.

A contentious Corrections Officer may decide that the jeans of a female visitor are too tight, so she may not enter.  Never mind that another girl got in with slacks so tight they looked like they were painted on.  Rules are rules, and she is sent home.

What we’re forgetting in this entire discussion, as usual, is the prisoner.  We’re complaining about all the visitation problems, but we’re ignoring the heartbreak of the inmate.  Rick was planning to have Matt at his side, and for all he knew, Matt either forgot or just decided that Rick’s case wasn’t important enough to merit the mileage and time spent.  The African American inmate undoubtedly wondered why his elderly father didn’t pay him his regular visit, and worried about his health and welfare.  One of the bright spots for a young prisoner was his visit by a girlfriend.  She didn’t show up.

Personal contact means a lot!  Based on both statistic and anecdotal evidence, visitation can be the difference between continuing a cycle of re-offending or finding hope to start a new life, according to experts and research. 

Yes, studies have shown that prison visits are important.

Story after story about disastrous visits show that the prisoner is not.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The good and the bad: You gotta love 'em all!

Dan Rooks and I had such a neat experience yesterday!

Dan is a clinical psychologist and former chairman of our Board of Directors.  He and I do a “dog and pony” show in Michigan prisons from time to time.  I speak first, telling about the history of HFP and the services that we offer.  He then follows with a serious chat about non-violent communication…an important topic for all of us, but especially for prisoners.  Yesterday we presented our program at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility, one of three state prisons in the city of Ionia.

On the way in

As we walked through the yard on our way to the prison auditorium, the Activities Director pointed out the unique facilities on this campus, including one special unit for physically handicapped and one special unit for mentally challenged inmates.  He explained that this particular facility offers more programs than any other single prison in the state, including college courses and even vocational training.

Once inside

As men filtered into the auditorium it felt like “old home week.”  I met a couple of inmates whom I have known for nearly 20 years.  There were many friends that we recognized, and many other names that we recognized from our correspondence.  It was an amazing experience.  Nearly 100 guys there, all copiously taking notes as I explained what we can do and how we can help.  One could hear a pin drop when Dan talked to seasoned prisoners on how to respond to insults and threats in a non-violent manner.  This delicious experience lasted for nearly two hours, with a lot of Q and A and open discussion.

On the way back

A different Corrections Officer led us back to the main building.  This time, as we walked through the yard, he pointed at a different unit, mentioning “the cream of the crop.”  Then he apologized, saying he was just joking.  That was the building where the toughest and most problematic young prisoners are housed.  “I confiscate drugs and weapons in that unit every day,” he explained.  My question:  “How does that stuff get in there?”  And he couldn’t give a good answer, because they keep coming up with new and innovative methods to sneak the stuff in, including both “visitors and dirty staff.”  “It’s like trying to plug too many holes with just ten fingers.”  He concluded by flatly stating, “I’ve given up any thoughts about rehabilitation for that bunch.  If one of the guys says ‘I’m really trying,” I just say, Yeah, whatever.’”

Richard A. Handlon CF:  A study in contrasts!

Sobering conclusions

The whole experience gave me at least two very important reminders.

Number one, it’s imperative that we pray not only for the good prisoners who have chosen a new and better way of life, but also for the tough and mean guys who think they know of a better way.  And on the other side of the coin, it’s important that we also pray for prison staff, as well as prison administration.  This business of incarceration and rehabilitation is complex and complicated.

And Number two, ALL of these men have been created in the image of God, and just because some are more challenging, it is the duty and the responsibility of HFP to be kind to them all, and respond to every request for assistance.  With divine intervention for sure, we’ve been known to touch some of those lives, as well.

God loves them all!  So must we.

Monday, January 23, 2017

No one is marching for prisoners. Yet.

Millions of women give me hope today!

I have been in such a funk, worrying about my country.  For those who do not know me, my roots are in journalism, my first career in this lengthy term on earth.  I think that, by their very nature, reporters are a cynical bunch, but the developments in recent months have pushed me beyond cynicism. 

Then, in the depths of my despair, came the marches by women…not only in western Michigan, not only in our state, not only in major cities, not only in our nation’s capitol, but around the world!  I should know better than to let myself sink into those emotional pits, because in my long lifetime I have clearly seen these two things:  God remains in control, and good people will not be put down.

And that has me thinking this morning.

The threat of losing rights and losing freedoms has people marching in the streets, which is great.

But there’s a huge segment of our society where many of these rights and freedoms have already been taken away.  In fact, the number is over 2-million here in the United States. These are the people locked up in our county jails, state prisons and federal penitentiaries.  Here in Michigan the population of our state prison system alone is over 40,000.  Just ask their family members and their loved ones.  They have not only been placed behind bars for alleged crimes committed…they have been deprived of many of the basic rights and freedoms that we cherish.

Granted, as punishment for what the government says they did, they are restricted from running free in the streets, and going on with their lives in their homes and at their jobs.  But their lives are not their own any more.  They are not only restricted from regular behavior, they are finding serious bans on free speech.  Many claim they are not even allowed to think on their own.  The system will do the thinking for them.  Our system is creating a world of zombies, who, unless there is some strong intervention, will struggle like crazy if and when they are ever released!

No one really seems to notice or to care, unless they have someone actually in prison. 

Nobody is marching for them! 

I pray that someone will.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

I, too, have a dream!

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the concept of restorative justice will take hold in every community, that offenders will be concerned about victims of crime, that victims will learn more about reasons for crime, and that supporting the rights of victims will not be mutually exclusive of ensuring humane treatment for prisoners.

I have a dream that one day the legal defense of indigent prisoners will not go to the lowest bidder, but will be sought out by the best legal minds so that every arrested person may get constitutionally guaranteed excellent representation in the courtroom.

I have a dream that one day the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” will become a reality instead of a meaningless cliché, that investigating officers will avoid the curse of “tunnel vision” and seek all facts before making arrests, and that states’ attorneys will pursue conviction of proven criminals but also admit mistakes and wrongdoing and release those persons where accusations are unfounded.  I look forward to that day when arrests are equally made with no regard to race, religion and gender.

I have a dream that a better system of choosing prosecutors can be established, in which prosecutors do not campaign for re-election on a platform of conviction totals, but instead seek public support based on their pursuit of justice.  I look forward to that day when prosecutorial misconduct will not only be readily exposed, but pursued and punished with an equal vigor.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that those robed justices on the bench may not only find fairness and equality in sentencing from county to county, state to state, but that their fine legal minds can creatively develop alternatives to incarceration, especially in cases of non-violent crimes…alternatives that not only benefit the public and reduce the costs of prison systems, but also seek to positively impact lives of the accused.  May that day come when rehabilitation supersedes retribution.  

I have a dream that parole boards will no longer insist that prisoners show remorse before giving them consideration, but recognize that the system has its flaws, that there really are people behind bars who have been wrongly convicted, and that it is criminal to insist that these people lie in order to achieve freedom.

I have a dream that prison wardens and prison staff members will no longer become jaded by those who commit heinous crimes, but instead will recognize that all men and women have been created in the image of God.  Even though many prisoners seem rebellious, insensitive and uncaring, I have a dream that leaders of prison systems will make efforts to give their occupants more education, more vocational training, more counseling, adequate medical care, and that prison staffers will receive improved professional training to better care for the large population of mentally challenged inmates.

My dream goes beyond those behind bars, those who put them there, and those who keep them there.

I have a dream that one day the general public will not only hear but accept our message that all prisoners, regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of the nature of the crime, deserve humane treatment.

That will be the day when HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is no longer an agency with services limited to the State of Michigan, but has active chapters in every state!

That will be the day when we no longer have to worry about how to pay the electric bill, but will have dollars to improve and expand our essential ministry.

And that will be the day when we’ll have hundreds of volunteers gladly holding open doors for re-entering citizens as they exclaim, “Free at last…free at last.  Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”