Saturday, June 24, 2017

God loves them all?

75 years ago, when I was a tiny tot in Sunday School, we sang this little song:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.

Then, when we grew up, we sang the adult version in our worship services:

In Christ there is no East or West,
No North or South;
Only one great love
Inside and out.

Those old songs are in my mind today, as the HFP team does its best to help those behind bars who struggle because of race, color, belief, nature of their crime, sexual orientation, gender issues. 

-An inmate tries to find some Wiccan connections on the outside.
-A young man writes: “my family are extremely religious and have always hated me for being gay."
-An African American claims discrimination is rampant, but cannot get a rights group to even respond to his complaints.
-An admitted sex offender prays for healing and a second chance.
-An Asian prisoner battles a serious illness alone because of a language barrier.
-A prisoner struggling with transgender issues faces unimaginable problems.
-Two Muslim women endure shameful treatment during Ramadan.

We’re not able to speak on behalf of other agencies and other ministries…I can only speak on our behalf.  We’re here for them all: red, yellow, black and white; Asian or American; gay or transgender; Wiccan or Muslim and yes, even the sex offender.  And while doing so, I can honestly admit how much we continue to learn by doing this.  AND, we continue to discover beautiful similarities among people whose differences seemed so dramatic and unsettling! 

May God give us open minds, so that we can keep our doors open.

As I understand it, God loves them all.

We’re trying to reflect that.







Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Who has sinned, this prisoner or his parents?

So what’s the big deal?  Another prisoner died.  He was only a sex offender.

And that, boys and girls, IS the big deal!

In my previous blog, I pointed my finger at the State of Michigan.  And rightly so.  After all, Mr. M. went to a prison doctor in 2012 complaining about coughing up blood.  The doctor asked him if he was anxious, and he replied in the affirmative, as would just about anyone coughing up blood.  So, he sent the inmate to a psychologist.  Three years later, after numerous requests, Mr. M. finally was given medical tests, only to learn that he had lung cancer and less than two years to live!

I’m still troubled over his death, and today I’m pointing the finger at you and me.

I hear it time and again:  He got what he had coming to him.  No, he didn’t!  His cancer was not detected, and his cancer worsened, because of poor medical care.  His punishment for the alleged offense (I say alleged because the man claimed innocence) was incarceration.   We may not, nay, we must not add to the punishment by denying appropriate medical care!  The constitution says so.

For those of us following Jesus, the issue is even more condemning.  You’ll hear people of faith say, “the judge didn’t give that man a death sentence, but God saw to it!”  We completely forget that the Master debunked that theory while he was still here on earth, when his disciples saw a blind guy and asked him, “Who sinned?  This man, or his parents?”

The state will only begin to show compassion when you and I, the registered voters of Michigan, start showing compassion.

Maybe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

With some change, a story like this could have a different ending

There’s gotta be a better way!

I say this every time we hear another tragic story.  Well, the stories keep coming, but the better way never seems to arrive.

I’m specifically focusing on sex offenders here, because I feel many aren’t getting fair treatment in Michigan.  And I’m not referring to the sex offender registry, although I have serious issues with that as well.

Let me be clear at the beginning of this little diatribe:  I’m not minimizing sex offenses, and I’m not trying to make sex offenders look good. 

Here’s the story of Mr. M, who got arrested 37 years ago at the age of 21.  He became eligible for parole 20 years later, but the Parole Board never saw fit to release him.  His family claims he was flopped by the board 15 times, despite a prison record that was not bad.

There’s more to the story.

In 2012 he started coughing up blood, and despite his requests for treatment, nothing was considered serious.  It got serious, though, in 2015, because when they got around to testing, they diagnosed lung cancer.  And by then it had spread.  He was told he had 2 years or less to live.

Medical reports were sent to the Parole Board several times.  He met with a member of the Parole Board as recently as January of this year, and, as usual, much of the time was spent in discussion about the alleged crimes.  It must be stressed here once again that, regardless of whether the prisoner admits to the crimes (and Mr. M. consistently claimed his innocence!), the Parole Board wants to see remorse.  Even if you didn’t do it!  That session didn’t end well, and in January of this year, with less than a year to live, he was given an 18-month continuance!  What?  Did the PB really believe this dying man was a threat to society?

Mr. M. died over the weekend in a Jackson hospital.  He was 58.

Now here’s what I’m getting at when I call for change.

-If Mr. M. had received appropriate healthcare response to coughing up blood in 2012, he might still be alive today.

-If the Parole Board would treat those charged with sex offenses the same as it treats other offenders, he might have died a free man.

It wasn’t fair to Mr. M.

It wasn’t fair to his family.

It wasn’t fair to the taxpayer, in that the State of Michigan was paying up to $100,000 a year to keep this man behind bars, 17 years past his earliest release date.  Our prison budget is too high.  Our prison population is too high.  This is a good example as to why.

May God help all of us in our state to see:  There’s gotta be a better way!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Happy Father's Day?

I’m a dad who, but for the grace of God, could be observing Father’s Day behind bars.  I’ve been talking a lot about the wrongly convicted in recent days, perhaps because there have been a couple of high profile exonerations in the news.  It’s still on my mind. 

As I write this blog on the evening before Father’s Day, I’m sitting in my tiny office in the lower level of our modest condo.  My little buddy hummingbird sips from a feeder that I have positioned outside the glass sliders.  I’m having fun watching a kingfisher diving for fresh fish in the nearby pond out back.  It could be different.  I’ve never been in trouble with the law, but…

My friend Matt is a wrongly convicted businessman.  He had never been in any trouble, either, until a tragic weekend when he got blamed for a crime that never even occurred.  Some innovative police officers and an ambitious prosecutor changed this man’s life forever.  That was nine years ago.  He’ll be observing Father’s Day in prison for four more years.  His grown kids are out of state, so there’ll be no visits this year.

My pal Anton is likely to be in prison for the rest of his life, unless the Innocence Project reviewing his case is able to turn things around.  Anton has some learning disabilities and couldn’t read or write when he was wrongly convicted.  I’m convinced the bullying cops got him to sign a document which he couldn’t read, and which turned out to be a confession. He was a teenager then.  He has a daughter and a grandchild living in the inner city now.  Once again this year, he’ll have no visits on Father’s Day.

For Harold it was a different story, and one that we’ve seen several times, where an aggressive prosecutor turns a tragic accident or a tragic suicide into accusations of a homicide.  A legal team is hoping to undo the damage, but this professional person suddenly found himself surrounded by armed officers, then was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.  That was 17 years ago.  His kids are grown now, but a daughter hasn’t appreciated having an incarcerated dad and won’t speak to him anymore.  It won’t be much of a Father’s Day.

These are three true stories.  With 2.2 million people in jail or prison in the United States, do you think they are isolated examples? 

I pray for a special group of hurting dads this year…dads who are in prison, dads who have family members in prison, and dads who love their kids just as much as you and I do.

May they feel warm and loving hugs of the Heavenly Father. 

There may not be much else.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

Oops, Sorry. Your 17 year imprisonment was a mistake!

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a college education like the folks do in the courthouse, or under the capitol dome.  And here, for the past 8 decades, I believed that those simple lessons taught by my parents and my Sunday School teachers, were true:  What you sow, that shall you reap.  Wrong!

Here’s the reason for my reflections today.

Over the weekend I’m watching the network news, and I see that this black dude is freed after serving 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  But the explanation was a simple one:  the real criminal looked just like him!  Could have been his twin!  So now even the poor guy walking free seems to have a forgiving spirit.  It was an honest mistake.

Wait until he figures out he can’t get those 17 years back.

Wait until he tries to get a job. 

Wait until he looks at his bank balance.

Wait until he wonders how to stop the nightmares that routinely wake him up during the night.

But back to my point.  The educated folks downtown just pat my knee and explain that if I were a bit more savvy, I’d understand.

Do you mean there’s no punishment for the cops who felt they didn’t have to investigate any further, because with their “tunnel vision” they just knew this was the right man?

Do you mean the Prosecutor who just shrugs his shoulders and admits that getting a conviction was his goal, not attaining justice…do you mean this guy is accountable to no one?  He’s the one who made the mistake, but when you have that job and you screw up, there’s no punishment?

Do you mean there’s no hell to pay for the defense attorney who didn’t think he had to work all that hard, because he thought everybody would see this guy was innocent?

And the State of Kansas, which hasn’t yet adopted a compensation bill for the wrongly convicted…do you mean to tell me that they can just open the prison doors, say “Oops, wrong guy,” and not have to pay for their mistake?

I’m sick and tired of it.  But that’s just me:  uneducated small town newsman, village organist, and 80-year-old prisoner advocate. 

Nothing’s going to change until you get sick of it, too.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The longest prisoner email in history,and how we handled it poorly

I made a mistake.  I brushed off a prisoner who is mentally challenged.  Now I’m struggling with guilt feelings.

It all began when the guy wrote to tell me about a sinister plot…a prison physician had secretly implanted a chip in him, and he was worried.  But his communication with HFP didn’t end there.  A couple days later, he sent the longest email message ever received by this office.  I’m thinking it probably broke every record through JPay, the prison email system.  The letter totaled 8,400 words!  Will said that it took him 9 hours to write that message, supporting his fears!

And that’s precisely the point where our staff must sit back and take a closer look.

Instead, because of record-breaking numbers of messages from prisoners, their families and their loved ones, we simply explained to him that we were not equipped to handle issues like that.  On to the next guy, and problems we can better deal with.  That wasn’t quite fair. 

What we keep forgetting, and what I think the state keeps ignoring, is that we have a critical mental illness problem in our prisons, and these people deserve our attention. The US Department of Justice, for example, says that more than half of all prison inmates have a mental health problem compared with 11 percent of the general population, yet only one in three prison inmates receive any form of mental health treatment.

We’ve discussed this so many times in the past.  Those of you who are older will remember when we started closing down Michigan’s mental institutions and, wonder of wonders, as that population diminished the prison population increased!  Think there’s any connection?

Here are some questions for Michigan officials, which I just lifted from THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PSYCHIATRY AND THE LAW: 

Are our prisons' rehabilitative services set up to provide comprehensive mental health and psychiatric programs to deal with the increasing population with such severe psychopathology and impairment? Shouldn't standards of care of psychiatric disorders be respected in the correctional setting as they are in other community provider settings? Shouldn't inmates have access to the same standard of treatment consistent with the principle of equivalence?

Shouldn't access to specialized diagnostic procedures and assessment protocols, including general and neuropsychological testing, be available and applied to identify neuropsychiatric and behavioral consequences of brain injury and other organic disorders? Are states willing to allocate sufficient budget and manpower resources to meet the needs of mentally ill and substance abusing offenders? Are legislators and administrators willing to take a serious look at the criminal justice process to determine how to refer mentally ill arrestees and offenders to various treatment programs?

I’m not dropping Will’s case.  HFP can and must do better.

So must the State of Michigan!


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Wait 'til it's someone close to you. Then you'll care!

It seemed to have many reasons why we should turn down a plea for help.  A claim of wrongful conviction (all prisoners say they are innocent!); the accused was a gay man (we prefer not to talk about the gay and lesbian community!); and sex between gay men (makes us gag to think about it!).  Yet, Gary’s case was one that our fledgling little organization, then called INNOCENT, gladly took on in 2005.

I’m reminded of it because I received this message a few days ago: I felt the need to inform you - on what would have been Gary’s 55th birthday - that he died due to cancer on May 12. He had been falsely imprisoned since April 2003.  Thank you for your past efforts on his behalf. At least he is free from prison and pain now.

Those were the days when we were still starry eyed and filled with boundless enthusiasm, thinking we could help to reverse wrongful convictions anywhere in the country.  Gary was in California. 

At that time we had a working relationship with a professional polygraph examiner with international credentials and arguably one of the finest in the nation.  He lives and practices in California, and so we arranged a polygraph exam for Gary.  He passed with flying colors!  It made no difference.  He remained behind bars, serving a 50-year sentence on a forcible rape conviction.

Years passed and realism set in.  Our organization became re-badged with the new name HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, our team eventually understood that our work had to be confined to the State of Michigan, and we learned that even those who were in prison for the right reasons deserved humane treatment and care.

We never lost touch with Gary, but we had to explain that there was little more that we could do on his behalf, other than pray.

Facebook notified me this morning that I had written a blog about wrongful convictions on this date last year.  Today I’m back at it.  I continue to return to this subject because it gets so little attention.  Some people in the know believe as many as 4-5,000 innocent people are in prison right here in Michigan!  And as I have pointed out in the past, all are not poor and black (although many are!).  Some are rich and white.  Some are professional people.  Some are the kind of people sitting next to you in church.

God bless those agencies and individuals helping the wrongly convicted.  God bless those agencies and individuals clamoring for judicial reform, protesting prosecutorial misconduct, condemning evidence based on junk science, and opposing the use of jailhouse snitches. 

I’m praying that innocent people behinds bars discover that Jesus cares.  As long as it doesn’t affect us, many of the rest of us aren’t all that concerned.