Thursday, October 20, 2016

I may not be the best one to talk about anger

Many years ago I spoke at a prayer breakfast.  I had recently assumed the prestigious position of President and General Manager of Radio Station WGHN in Grand Haven, and I was still in my 20s.  I knew a lot in those days.  The topic of my remarks was “Righteous Indignation,” and I pointed out that even Jesus got angry with the money changers in the temple…that, if for the right reasons, it was OK to get angry.

Well, there are some things that still make me angry, but I must admit that many, many years later, my thoughts have tempered on the subject of anger.  I’m hearing and reading about anger at levels higher than I can ever remember in my 80 years on this earth. The newspapers, the TV, social media, are all bursting with vitriolic comments.

Time to take a deep breath.

I’ve found three quotes that I appreciate:  one from a famous philosopher, one from the brother of Jesus, and one from a theologian.  Here goes:

On anger:

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”
― Aristotle

On human response to anger:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. ---James 1:19-20

Yes, as I work with prisoners around the clock, 7 days a week, I’ll admit I get angry.

I get angry at Prosecutors who deliberately avoid, distort or hide facts leading to wrongful convictions.

I get angry at the judicial system in my country, the “Home of the brave, and land of the free,” where we shamefully (or shamelessly!) claim the highest rate of incarceration in the world, where we refuse to ban the death penalty, and where we continue to sentence people to life without parole.

I get angry when we refuse to properly compensate the wrongly convicted.

I get angry when Parole Boards refuse to release prisoners who deserve to be free.

I get angry at all kinds of mistreatment of prisoners, both by fellow inmates and by some staff members.

I get angry, all right…and the list of things that make me angry seems to grow every day.

I mentioned at the beginning of this rant that I wanted to pass along three quotes.  I’ll conclude with the third one: good advice for all of us, especially me.  This comes from an article written by Jonathan Merritt, senior columnist for Religion News Service and the author of "Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars."

Leaders will debate what should be done in the face of an epidemic of violence, but something must be done. A life of faith is a life of prayer and action, but never one without the other. Action without prayer is merely activism, and prayer without action is useless piety.

Let’s take time to pray.  And act!


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Which is it: penny-wise/pound foolish or cruelty and unusual punishment?

So when does being penny-wise but pound-foolish get reduced to something that is considered cruel and unusual?

Let me give you some examples.

Mr. C is a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair.  Because of his situation he must use a catheter to empty his bladder.  The physician on our advisory panel says this must be done at least three times a day, or else the patient will be exposed to significant risk.  Yet, the prisoner claims he is given only 7 catheters per week, allowing him to empty his bladder just once a day, or forcing him to use an unsterile catheter for repeat usage.  Is the little bit of savings really worth the risk?

I’ve told the story of Ms. D before…she’s experiencing some sign of dementia, has numerous health problems, and is forced to use a colostomy bag.  A while back we heard from the prisoner aide who tries to assist her that, on a given day, the patient was not allowed to get a new colostomy bag.  “They told her she should rinse the bags out in toilet water and re-use them.  They told her bags are too expensive, and that she’s only going to get one every three days now.  If it gets full, to empty and rinse in the toilet!”  Wonder if that extra savings for the state will help balance the budget?

And then there’s Mr. S, who struggles with A-Fib, and the prison doctors over a period of time have decided to stop his anti-coagulant meds.  Says the HFP consulting doctor:  “If they have kept him off anti-coagulants against his will, he is at a 10 x increase risk of a stroke and that is malpractice!”  Will money be saved by not giving this guy his meds?

I hasten to stress that, because we cannot get into the prisons, it’s impossible to confirm these stories.  But stop to think about it.  Why in heaven’s name would any of these three people lie about something like this?

So we’re back to my original question.  The state isn’t making any sense here.  It’s like that time when they stopped freely handing out salt and pepper with meals, FOR BUDGET REASONS! 

The people hoping to get prison reform legislation passed in Michigan can give you concrete examples as to how the state can really, truly save money.  But it doesn’t involve a reduction in the distribution of catheters or colostomy bags, or the discontinuance of anti-coagulant medication.  Not salt and pepper, either.

I’ll ask one more question.  We have 42,000 people in our Michigan prison system.  Do you think these are the only three examples of cruel and unusual procedures and policies?

Kudos to those staff members and medical personnel who have a heart and who do their best to take care of inmate needs.

Shame on those who don’t!

And shame on the state for not watching this more closely.  It's what we want, what we pay for, and what we expect.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Wanna know why HIS MEN are called HIS MEN?

It was no surprise when members of HIS MEN sang at the bedside of one of their own yesterday.  It just goes to show how they---humbly, yet proudly---carry the name HIS MEN!

As the founder/director of this fine singing group exactly 44 years ago, I had a vision that we would not be participating in, what I called “the church hit parade,” performing in worship services throughout the area.  We weren’t interested in getting on the charts, making powerful videos, and recording hits for the religious radio stations.  They still aren’t. Our goal, from the very beginning, was simply to reach out.  And so, for the next four decades, their voices would be heard in hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, assisted living centers, rescue missions, county jails, and state and federal prisons. 

The group is larger now (we started with just 13 men).  There’s a different director now (I stepped down after serving the first 21 years).  And there are only three charter members still in the chorus.  One of the three is seriously ill.

Fred Groen’s heart problems required serious surgery…a procedure that took 12 hours.  Now, more than 30 days later, his wife Bev and his family, are still anxiously waiting for him to regain consciousness.  So yesterday, just as Fred had done with HIS MEN so many times in the group’s past, the ensemble paid a visit to the hospital.  This time for his benefit.

No one could be certain that Fred heard those beautiful melodies and reassuring words, but personally I don’t think there’s even any doubt.

The music led the staff to request that the men sing in another hospital room.

Then the family member of another patient asked that they sing in still another room.  That’s just the way things have gone in the past 44 years.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, it was no surprise when HIS MEN went to the hospital yesterday.  Just as it was no surprise when they sang a whole program to a single ailing missionary on the Haitian island of La Gonave.  Just as it was no surprise when, after a stubborn VA Hospital refused to publicize our program, the men sang a whole concert for 5 men sitting in the back of that giant auditorium.  Just as it was no surprise when they sang at the funeral of Rev. Ron Smeenge, a man who had orchestrated two overseas tours for the group.  Just as it was no surprise when they sang at the wedding of their beloved accompanist, Sherry Veenema Merz.

Today I pay tribute to HIS MEN, their exceptional director John Mattson, and their talented accompanist Sherry Merz.  And today Marcia and I join all of the bands of people who are now praying for recovery and healing for Fred, as well as patience and comfort for Bev and the family.

HIS MEN has a rich history, and the tradition of caring and compassion shows no sign of waning.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

When prisoners wish time stood still

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,… The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.  Joshua 10:13.

I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where we wished time would simply stand still.

I clearly remember a time in my life when my world was crashing all around me, and I was about to lose my business…a business I loved.  Marcia and I had taken a short getaway in Florida before everything came to an end.  On our last day there, as I stood alone on the end of a dock, I wished time would stand still.  I didn’t want to face the music.

Let me explain the reason for this blog…it all stems from a recent prison visit.

I was part of a group of three who went to prison not only to discuss business, but to just share love and concern with a prisoner who has been wrongly convicted.  Having spent more than 15 years behind bars for something he didn’t do, Mr. D treasures visits like these.

And while there, observant reporter that I am, I watched some other scenes.

I saw a daddy in prison blues playing with his little son, not much more than 2 years old.  It was a tender scene.  The little boy was good.  His mother was patient and kind.  But his dad couldn’t get enough of the toddler.  Playing with him.  Carrying him.  Walking, hand-in-hand, around the room.

I saw a young couple obviously in love.  Somehow, I don’t think they were married.  The young man didn’t look like a criminal.  And his girl-friend wasn’t the kind of floozy that you might think would be frequenting prisons…she was classy, attractive, and well-dressed.  They were starry-eyed.  There were enraptured gazes and bubbling conversations.

Somehow, I think Mr. D wanted this time with his friends to stand still.  I honestly believe that the young father wanted time with his little boy to stand still.  I’m convinced the young man whose lover came to cheer him up never wanted to stop looking into her eyes. 

But that’s not the way it is in prison.  Friends, family and loved are forced to leave.  Prisoners who experience the joy of visits are harshly ushered back into reality by undergoing the humiliating mandatory strip search before returning to their rooms.  And, unlike in Joshua’s time, the day comes to an end.

Prisoners aren’t statistics, they aren’t an inmate number.  They are real people with real faces and real names.  Their feelings and emotions are no different than yours and mine.

Just one short experience in the visiting room and your life will never be the same.

I started with a verse from the Bible, and I’ll end with another.  Thankfully, all prisoners, and all of their loved ones, can look forward to this day:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.  Revelation 21:4

Monday, October 3, 2016

WC Day is past, but many wrongly convicted remain behind bars

Consider this scenario.

It’s the end of the week on a beautiful autumn day.  As you look out your office window over the city skyline, you reflect on the good things.  You didn’t always have an office in this nice building.  Your income wasn’t always this good.  It took time and elbow grease.  You didn’t arrive here by accident, but it feels pretty darn good.  Even though your marriage had not been the best, and your wife died in a tragic accident, you’re a survivor.  Your two kids love you, and your future looks rosy.

That is, until four men in suits walk in.  A rather strange sight late on a Friday afternoon, when business usually winds down.  Your secretary is asked to step out of the room for a moment, as you wonder what the heck is going on.  From that moment on, your life was never the same.  Your rights were read to you by one of the stern individuals, your shaking hands were placed in handcuffs, and you were led off to jail, faced with a charge of killing your spouse.

That was 15 years ago.  You’re still behind bars.  You’re still protesting your innocence.

I’m very familiar with this story, because Donald is a dear friend.  He shared the details of his arrest with me just a few days ago as we sat in a prison visiting room. 

I’m writing this blog to belatedly observe International Wrongful Convictions Day. 

Those of you who know me will remember that I got into this business trying to help a wrongly convicted African American, an indigent prisoner who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

But Donald is white, upper-middle class, and had money for what he thought was a good attorney.

Let me tell you about some more people who were surprised to wind up in prison.

Fred, accused of fondling a couple little girls in his home during his daughter’s sleepover;
Dr. David, accused of molesting one of his patients;
Matthew, accused of trying to kill a girl-friend;
Andy, accused of molesting his nephew;
Melinda, accused of taking the life of her little boy;
Phillip, accused of raping a female acquaintance.

After working in this business for the past 25 years, I can give you many more names.  But I cite these, because these individuals were all white, they all had proper legal defense, they all went to church on Sunday, they all were highly respected by family and friends, none had criminal histories, and none actually committed the crime!

International Wrongly Conviction Day quietly came and went on Sunday, October 2.  But I invite you to simply ponder these reasons for the day:

Wrongful Conviction Day is designated as an International Day to recognize the tremendous personal, social and legal costs associated with Wrongful Criminal Convictions.

Wrongful Conviction Day is designed as an International Day to recognize those persons who have been forced to endure the tremendous personal and social consequences brought by a Wrongful Criminal Conviction.

Wrongful Conviction Day is devoted as an International Day to inform and educate the broader international community on the causes, consequences and complications associated with Wrongful Criminal Convictions.

We must never, again, smugly insist that it cannot happen to us.  And let us continue to pray for those to whom it did happen.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Reading anything about former prisoners doing good? Me neither.

Marcia and I were watching the news, as a reporter explained that the man who committed this particular crime had recently been released from prison.  That’s the kind of stuff that makes the news, and that’s the kind of stuff that sets back possibilities of parole for many others.  We have no hard data to support this, but all of us involved in this kind of work are convinced that this negative publicity just stiffens the position of the Michigan Parole Board.  It gets tougher for worthy inmates to catch a parole.

I’ll be the first to admit that, even in our small organization we’ve been stung.  People who we thought were good immediately resumed doing bad things the moment they got out.  But the story that seems to get missed by the media (and I tread lightly here, because I was a part of the media for nearly 30 years and I felt that my reporting was very balanced) is the wonderful story of second-chance successes by ex-offenders.

This whole topic is fresh in my mind because this week Matt and I had a very productive luncheon meeting with a couple leaders of 70 X 7 LIFE RECOVERY OF MUSKEGON.  We were talking about the reluctance of Christians in general and some churches in particular to accept ex-offenders, let alone welcome them.  “When that happens,” said Executive Director Joe Whalen, “we just turn Nate on them!”

Nate Johnson is now the Mentoring Director for this fine agency, explaining the importance of second chances to parolees.  And when he speaks to a church group, people listen.  You see, as a teenager, he was among the most ‘successful’ crack cocaine dealers in Muskegon. He was arrested at 19, received a lengthy prison term. The big story here is that he made life-altering good choices while serving that sentence. He has successfully re-entered the Muskegon community and now helps to touch lives of those who traveled down similar roads.

I don’t remember reading any headlines about Nate’s amazing story.

And there are so many others; so many with whom we’ve worked who are now productive citizens, not only grateful for their freedom, but anxious to convert that earlier negative into a future positive!  We have a file full of beautiful stories of men and women who screwed up, but made a conscious decision to change.  Today they are more than paying their debts to society.  I’m not reading or hearing much about it in the media.

All of us can tell stories about second chances.  My name is at the top of list.  A second chance with endangered health; a second chance after a lot of mess-ups (for which, thank God, I did not get arrested!).

Yours and mine may not be newsworthy.  But, the comeback tales of many Michigan prisoners are exceptional and worthy of media attention.

These "second-chance" people are worthy of a welcome in your neighborhood, too.  

And your church.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sometimes I cry

Country gospel artist Jason Crabb sings a song that I like…I believe it was written by his dad:

I look the part
Blend in with the rest of the church crowd
I know the routine
I could list all the Bible studies in town

Watch Christian TV
I know all the preachers, their cliches
I've been born again
And without a doubt I know I'm saved

But sometimes I hurt and sometimes I cry…

I was thinking of that song today, after I chatted with a pleasant woman who right now is making a one-hour drive to see her father in prison.  I hope it goes all right, because her father is dying.  At the top of his list of medical problems is Stage 4 cancer.  He’s heavily medicated, but things aren’t going well.  She has no complaints about his medical care.  A prison nurse has been most helpful.  A prison social worker has been more than kind.  But, her dad’s in prison, he’s only slightly beyond middle-age, and he’s dying. 

This comes on the heels of another situation that I have mentioned in an earlier blog, where a woman was working hard to get her mother out of prison for specialized healthcare in her final days on earth.

I don’t mean to minimize all of the other issues that come across our desk.  Each problem is terribly important to that particular prisoner.  We recognize that, and we give each situation our best shot.  But, having a parent in prison is terribly unpleasant; having a parent who is dying in prison is just plain painful.  And not only for family members.

We seldom shed real tears any more, or we’d be weeping all the time.

But I can assure you that we do not get calloused to the misery and grief that has become a part of our life and our work.

And deep down, inside…

Sometimes we cry.