Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Poor medical care demands our attention. Now!

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” – Mark Twain.

I use those quotes to begin this blog, because it’s past time that we do something about poor medical care in Michigan prisons.

I’ll be releasing statistics this week showing that HFP has responded to more than 3,000 prisoner contacts already this year, a new record! And of those contacts, approximately 20% discuss claims of poor medical care.

Just in the past few days:

-Prisoner 1: I had a hip replacement, but my leg still hurts to the point I’m in tears. My hip still hurts, but healthcare has told me I don’t need therapy, and I walk with a limp because one leg is longer. Hurts so bad I can’t eat or sleep.

Prisoner 2:  I had a stroke and was given physical therapy. Then I was transferred, and since I’ve been here I’ve been denied meds and physical therapy. (His enclosed accommodations order also demanded a walker, which he didn’t get!).

Prisoner 3 Complained of problems year and a half ago, was recently sent to a hospital ER, and the diagnosis: colon cancer. Said our consulting oncologist: This kills me. If she would have had proper access early-on, this could have been found sooner.

This stuff crosses our desk on a daily basis. We are blessed to have a medical consultant on our HFP team, and we use him almost every day of the week. He finally concluded last week: “I think the only thing worse in MDOC than medical is food service.” (That’s really bad!)

Health care in Michigan prisons is provided by Corizon, the nation's largest for-profit provider of correctional health services. It’s a company with a checkered history, and has been known to have contract battles in numerous other states, usually over quality-of-care concerns.

If the Michigan Department of Corrections refuses to do anything about this, if the state legislature is only concerned about the bottom line, if prisoner advocacy agencies want to just talk about the issue, maybe it’s time for David to meet Goliath.

HFP is the little guy in town, and our mode of operation fits into the guidelines offered by a Bible verse: …remember those in prison as if you were together with them.

Whether or not you agree with the Bible, the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees medical care for prisoners.  Yet, says the National Journal of Health Care:  Many inmates with a serious chronic physical illness fail to receive care while incarcerated. 

Today, it feels to me like the ball’s in our court. Perhaps it’s time to listen to Dr. King!

Monday, August 14, 2017

RADICAL PROPOSAL #1: Listen to prisoners!

I’ve taken some time before responding to the new prisoner mail regulations. It’s easy to throw darts at the Michigan Department of Corrections. It’s far more complicated (but certainly more productive) to offer positive ideas.

I’m going to do a series of blogs under the theme RADICAL PROPOSAL, and I’m going to do my best to avoid argumentative rhetoric. I believe we have the credentials to speak out. Our Michigan case load had exceeded 1,000 by the first of this year. HFP has worked with well over 600 inmates in 2017 alone! To quote a popular TV commercial: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

The first in this series is about the new prison mail policy.

The nation-wide opioid crisis crosses all levels of society, and the prison systems are no exception. Well aware of the drug problem in Michigan prisons, the Department of Corrections has taken radical steps to change the way mail is coming into each facility. The Department recently handed out the list of things that people may no longer do, much like the Ten Commandments…no explanations or reasons given. Understandably, prisoners were blind-sided.

Within minutes everyone began speaking out: prisoners, families, friends, advocates, and the media.

Our RADICAL PROPOSAL #1: Listen to prisoners!  Not only now, but especially when making these decisions.

Wise wardens in the state, for example, pay close attention to what is discussed in the Warden’s Forums, which are made up of prisoners and staff alike. They listen, because they know it’s a way to keep a thumb on the pulse of what’s going on.

A small panel of consulting inmates, black and white, men and women, old and young, could have been helpful in hashing out new mailing regulations. If there is a good explanation as to why only two colors of ink can be used any more, why Valentines may not be sent in red envelopes any more, or why children cannot send crayon drawings any more---the advisory panel would have placed their stamp on the final decision. That, along with a properly formulated explanation, would have done wonders to avoid the tsunami the MDOC is now facing.

We’ve been impressed with changes under the new MDOC Director. The Heidi Washington regime has proved---to the chagrin of “tough on crime” legislators and “hardline” MDOC staffers---that it is concerned about recidivism rates and it is interested in preparing prisoners for re-entry.  We’ve seen a marked increase, not only in educational programs, but also in vocational training as well as an expansion of positive program availability.

Our bet is that they would be surprised to learn just how much prisoners know about this drug problem (drugs are coming in on both sides of the fence), and how effective and helpful their suggestions might be.

We speak from experience: These people are savvy. It’s time to listen to them.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Yes, indeed. We do our best to befriend and help the alleged "sex offender."

Once arrested on a sex charge, you can bet that---from that day on---your life will be hell.

The sad thing is, some of the people whom we so broadly label as sex offenders, may not even be sex offenders. It may have been as simple as foolishly urinating in an alley in the middle of the night, or it may have been a wrongful conviction as the result of malicious lies told by an ex-spouse. Makes no difference. From the day of that arrest, life is hell.

The cops treat them differently.

The Prosecutor’s office treats them differently.

The judge treats them differently.

Fellow inmates behind bars treat them differently.

Corrections officers treat them differently.

The Parole Board treats them differently.

The shameful treatment doesn’t end there. When these people get out, the state’s terribly unfair and inadequate sex offender registry brands them with a scarlet letter. Reentry is incredibly difficult. Some agencies don’t want to help them. Some, we are told, don’t even respond. Yes, even some of the so-called “faith-based” organizations. Housing is almost impossible to find. Employment is elusive.

Because of all this, these men and women, locked up as alleged sex offenders, get very paranoid and suspect that none of us will help.

For example, our office received a request from a convicted sex offender anticipating release in the near future, for financial assistance. He’s broke, and has been abandoned by friends and family alike. He’s going to be freed with only the clothes he’s wearing. No clothes. No belongings of any sort. No money. No job. No place to live. And now he’s annoyed with us. “Your literature says that you help prisoners with special needs,” he complains.

For those who know HFP, you know that our focus is strictly in assisting prisoners with personal, in-house issues, such as health care. There are other agencies who work in the field of re-entry. We collaborate with them, but we don’t try to duplicate their efforts.

Yet, because we didn’t immediately respond with all of these special re-entry requests, including money, the inmate grumbles that “you don’t want to help me because I’m a ‘sex offender.’”

I completely understand why he feels that way, but our position is clear: We’re here to help every prisoner. We don’t look at the charges or the alleged crimes. We try not to show favoritism. We promptly respond to every request for help. No one will ever claim that we fail to answer because we don’t like them. Our message to the guy complaining today, and to other sex offenders, as well as to our supporters, is based on the story of a genuine sex offender in the Bible. A bunch of pompous asses caught a woman in the act and brought her to the Master, suggesting that she should be stoned.

They quietly left shortly thereafter, though. Jesus replied that the one free of any guilt should toss the first rock.

Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
 “No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I…”

Neither do we.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Why this wrongful conviction story is so important to all of us

God spoke to me last night. Actually, I didn’t realize it until this morning.

I was watching Nightly News with Lester Holt, and saw the beautiful feature about a wrongly convicted inmate who was later exonerated, then became an attorney for an Innocence Project, and then was able to free another wrongly convicted prisoner. Tears welled up in my eyes. The hero of the story was Keith Findley, co-founder and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

That immediately sent my mind back to the 1990s when Professor Keith Findley and his fledgling Innocence Project took on, as one of their very early cases, the wrongful conviction of Maurice Carter, right here in Michigan.

That courageous decision by Keith and his co-founder and co-director John Pray, brought about a dramatic change in my life. From that day forward I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Keith to put together a “Carter Dream Team” to aid him and his students, including

-Rubin Hurricane Carter, from the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted in Toronto;

-Professor David Protess, of the Medill Innocence Project in Chicago;

-Rob Warden, Executive Director of NWU Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions;

-Gary Giguere, Kalamazoo attorney now a circuit court judge;

-Alex Kotlowitz, renowned author of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER;

-Steve Mills and Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune;

-And Pat Shellenbarger, Ed Golder and Charley Honey of the Grand Rapids Press.

Even with that all-star line-up, and even with evidence that revealed the name of the real criminal, we were not able to achieve victory against the stubborn and, yes, evil Berrien County machine called the justice system. Those wheels of justice, which Maurice always contended “ground to a halt” when his case came along, remained stalled.

I’ll never forget the look on Keith Findley’s face when Judge John Hammond gave his final answer, in a circuit court setting that the Trib’s Eric Zorn told me was one of the most bizarre he had ever covered.

Now back to my contention, and I really hadn’t meant for this to turn into a sermon.

I have been distraught about all that’s happening in our country, and some days I cringe when I hear and read the news. But we must take heart. Last night’s feature on NBC proved a lot more than just the fact that sometimes the good guys win. It was the message of Easter! Evil has not, will not and cannot win!

I’m feeling better today, convinced that the Judge John Hammonds of the world cannot become victorious, because God has given us the Keith Findleys of the world!

Now back to work. There are more battles to fight.

Monday, July 31, 2017

No callouses on the heart for some prisoners

No matter how long I work in this business, there are some things that I just cannot get used to.

I don’t know what to say to the old-timer who just got flopped by the Michigan Parole Board: The inmate in his or her 70s and 80s who, you can bet on a stack of Bibles, would never commit a crime again and certainly would not be a threat to society, but to whom the Parole Board refuses to grant a second chance. Some of these people are struggling with illness, some have family members who desperately need them back home, and some were even wrongly convicted. Makes no difference.

I don’t know what to say to prisoners with serious ailments who contact us, supported by all the necessary medical documents and records. I don’t know how to respond to these inmates, their families and their loved ones, who ask this simple question: Why can’t they get appropriate care and treatment?

I don’t have the right Bible verse to quote to the wrongly convicted prisoner who has served decades, whose attorneys and legal advisers obviously made some missteps along the way, and who now have exhausted all avenues in the path toward exoneration. They’re innocent. Someone else committed the crime. But they’re behind bars, and they can’t get out.

I don’t know what to suggest to the mother of a mentally ill child who is still in prison, way past her suggested release date. The girl is so mentally ill that she can’t stay out of trouble, so the system refuses to release her. The mother isn’t saying her daughter should not be institutionalized…she’s simply saying that this is the wrong institution.

Please don’t get me wrong. We receive many positive strokes in our business. We hear our share of good stories. A number of our friends are granted paroles. The compliments and kind words that flow into our office bless us beyond measure.

But, I can’t just quote Romans 8:28 and assure these hurting individuals that things are going to be OK if they trust in the Lord. The reality is that, for many of them, things are not OK, and they’re not going to be OK. And I hurt right along with them.

I had a dear friend who rebounded from a serious disaster, reached a peak of happiness in her life, only to have it cruelly destroyed by two deaths…first her spouse, then their only child. I was speechless at the funeral home. The best I could do was hold her hand and weep.

I feel confident quoting this Psalm to the distressed, because I believe it: The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.

Other than that, sometimes it feels like all I can do is hold their hands and weep.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

This was one of the best-known American songs of the Great Depression, written in 1930. It was considered by Republicans to be anti-capitalist propaganda, according to Wikipedia, and attempts were made to ban it from the radio. 

I’m thinking of that song as I open an envelope from a prisoner this week. Henry has been granted a parole, and I figure he’s sending me a short note of elation. Instead, it’s a check to HFP for $15.00! I know this is money he can’t afford to give away, and I know he’s not looking for any favors because he’s about to leave prison. Instead, it’s a vote of confidence, pure and simple. He knows what we did for him. He knows what we’re doing for others.

Last week it was a check for $10.00 from another prisoner. This inmate probably makes between $1 and $3 a day in his job. Just imagine the sacrifice. Talk about a “widow’s mite!”

A very nice, well-meaning person said to us a while back: “I appreciate your monthly newsletter, but do you have to keep on begging for money?” The short answer is yes.

Last year HFP responded to an average of 7 contacts a day from prisoners or prison representatives…7 contacts a day, 7 days a week. So far this year, it’s double that number! We need more staff, more space, more volunteers…and that means more dollars.

Here’s what I know…

When two Muslim women behind bars complained about abusive treatment and conditions during Ramadan 2017, involving both staff and fellow-inmates, nobody wanted to touch it. We were there for them.

When two transgender prisoners reached out from two different facilities, begging---at the very least--- for just some understanding and humane treatment, nobody wanted to touch it. We were there for them.

So far this year, more than 70 prisoners hoping to persuade Governor Snyder to commute their sentences, needed help in preparing their application forms. While agencies and attorneys were charging anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 to provide this assistance, we were there for them. AT NO CHARGE!

To date, HFP has worked with more than 600 prisoners this year!

I have no problem with trying to save puppies, kittens, whales, seals and elephants, but I do have a problem with not trying to provide, preserve and protect humanity for prisoners. Back to that title song, Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?, that dime would be worth $14.00 today.

Buddy, can you spare $14.00? Gifts and contributions have dried up in the summer sun, and we really need it!

I thank you.

So does a Michigan prisoner.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Civility? Parole Board. Really!

The Parole Board review has been a touchy subject for me. Michigan prisoners serving life sentences come up for review every 5 years, and for parolable lifers it offers a glimmer of hope. It’s an opportunity to face a member of the Parole Board, one on one. For many inmates it has not been a pleasant experience.

We can tell you about some doozies!

I’ve personally witnessed a Parole Board member first verbally abuse a woman accused of killing her husband, then refuse to hear her side of the story, and finally send her back to prison weeping.

The mother of a convicted sex offer, at her son’s side for his Parole Board review, was horrified when the woman representing the Parole Board---in discussing his alleged crime---bluntly asked the inmate why he didn’t just --- (have sex with) the family dog instead!

Prison staff members specifically asked me to represent a lifer in his 70s whose critical health issues nearly resulted in his death, whose medical costs were skyrocketing, and who had experienced a life-changing conversion near the end of his 40 years behind bars. A stubborn Parole Board member refused to give him the time of day because his crime had occurred during an alcoholic black-out, and he couldn’t give specific details. He readily confessed, he just couldn’t come up with the specifics. She shut him down and flopped him, refusing to consider the rest of the issues. He left in tears.

But today, Michigan Parole Board member Brian Shipman proved something: The lifer review can be effectively conducted with civility! I witnessed it first-hand.

In this session, Mr. Shipman actually put the prisoner, an African American who has served over 40 years behind bars, at ease. “Please interrupt me and correct me if I make a mistake in reviewing your case.” What? “You don’t have to use a lot of words in showing remorse…I can see it with your tears.” What? “I’m not going to get hung up on just one misconduct ticket 5 years ago.” What? “If you are granted a Public Hearing, be sure to keep your cool when being interviewed by the Assistant Attorney General. He always recommends ‘no parole,’ but we grant many of them, anyway!” What? “Our time is limited. Before you leave, I want to make sure I have answered all of your questions.” What?

I was impressed by

            -the lack of demeaning or derogatory comments
            -the presence of actual eye contact
            -the absence of even a hint of hostility        
            -a smile.

My friend James may not get the highly desired Public Hearing…the next step in this process. But he already received a gift from the Michigan Parole Board: civility. This experience proved to me that calm interaction can be effective, arguably more so than the combative manner used by some of the “old schoolers.”

Civility is elusive these days. Way back in Bible times the Apostle Peter encouraged those participating in serious discussions, to “…do this with gentleness and respect.” I’m not always very good at that, but a Parole Board member excelled at it today!

A tip of the HFP hat to the MDOC’s Brian Shipman.