Sunday, April 24, 2016

It wasn't a worship service, but God was present!

Somehow it felt like worship.  There was no sermon.  There were no prayers.  Religion wasn’t the topic for the day.  Perhaps it’s just that God was there.

Former HFP Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I were in prison yesterday.  We made the long drive to Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, at the request of the local chapter of the National Lifers of America.  We’ve done this presentation quite often now, and each time it’s a pleasurable experience.

I talk about HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, what we try to do for prisoners and also what we absolutely cannot do. 

Dan, a clinical psychologist, takes the podium for the second half of our dog and pony show with an actual heavy-duty lecture on anger management.

Now one would suspect that putting together nearly 100 prisoners on a Saturday afternoon, sitting on hard bleachers in a noisy gymnasium, there might be a problem keeping the attention and the interest of the audience.  Some guys might be falling asleep.  Others might be poking each other and giggling.  Au contraire!

There’s a sea of faces out there, most of them black, many of them taking notes.  I’m well aware that only 12% of these people ever get a visit.  I’m well aware that, after 10 years or so, family and friends seem to drift away and prisoners have little outside support.  So I do my best to cover subjects that are of interest to them as one of their friends.  I try to explain how and where we can help.  But most of all I try to convey the message that, even though we cannot solve every problem, we care.  We do this because we care.  And I go beyond that, by challenging them.  I tell that that HFP bets on the fact that, if we’re kind to them, they’ll be kind to another prisoner. They’ll be kind to staff members.  And when they get out, they’ll be a kinder citizen.

Then Dan takes the same ball and runs with it, insisting that kindness feeds on itself.  One can hear a pin drop.  Prisoners are feverishly taking notes, as he gives them step-by-step suggestions on why angry outbursts occur and how to avoid them.

We get standing ovations.

The Lifers Chapter 1008 presents us with Humanitarian Awards for our “thoughtfulness,” and for “the uplifting of humanity!”

It wasn’t yet Sunday.  It wasn’t a worship service.  But somehow Dan and I felt a divine presence.  No awards were necessary.  We were doing what we love.  And God was there!

Friday, April 22, 2016

From rags to riches---HFP at work!

Some people think that all we do at HFP is put out fires.  Honestly, we do that quite a bit.  But something happened this week that proves that we are also proactive.  More than 1,000 pounds of yarn were delivered to prisons.  And that wasn’t the first time.  We’ve been doing it for years.

Here’s the story.  A member of the HFP Board of Directors, Judy VanderArk, has friends who know people who operate a carpet manufacturing company.  These names may not be revealed.

Anyway, this carpet company is willing to give away the unused spools of yarn that go into the creation of beautiful carpeting.  Needless to say, this is expensive, high quality yarn.  Judy has been on our Board for a long time, and she knows that several of the prisons in Michigan have hobby-craft programs that involve knitting and crocheting.  So she made work of asking these prison program coordinators if they would like free yarn.  The response was positive, and so was her reaction. 

With husband Pete, Judy has organized efforts of a group of volunteers to procure yarn from the company, and it’s no easy task!  Some of the unused spools are even in dumpsters already.  Our volunteers must find the spools, count them, weigh them and bag them.  It’s hard work and it’s time-consuming.  But rewarding!  This week’s venture resulted in the pick-up of approximately 1,150 pounds of yarn.  Retail value?  Certainly thousands of dollars!

That’s not the end of the project for Judy and Pete.  He heads north with one of their vehicles, dropping off bags and bags of yarn at Pugsley Correctional Facility in northern lower Michigan, and Brooks CF in Muskegon.  Meanwhile, Judy heads south, delivering a major load to Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson.  Hundreds of miles of driving!

What happens with this yarn?  Well, prisoners put it to good use with their knitting needles and crochet hooks.  Their finished products go to various facilities, including a homeless veterans’ facility, a womens' shelter, a cancer clinic, and elementary schools in low-income areas. 

It’s a winning situation in so many ways!
          The company is pleased---unused yarn is put to good use!
          HFP is pleased---we’re able to do something tangible for inmates!
          The MDOC is pleased---they don’t have to spend money on yarn!
          Program coordinators are pleased---they have beautiful materials!
          Inmates are happy---they can make a major contribution to society!
          Recipients are excited---their gifts come from people behind bars who care!

We’ve been doing this exciting work for many years, sometimes involving several more of our Board Members and volunteers. No fanfare. No major announcements.

A tip of the HFP hat to ALL who make this possible!

It’s just one more way that we touch lives…one at a time.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Some thoughts on our personal GPS

My daily calendar of funny sayings joked the other day about a bridge engineer who, on the stand in a court room, was unable to subtract two simple numbers because he didn’t have his calculator with him.

I think about my father’s neighborhood grocery store back in the 1940s.  There was no electricity to the checkout counter, because it wasn’t needed.  We used a hand-operated adding machine to tally up the prices.  And then when the customer paid, we had a hand-crank cash register.  It was up to the cashier to figure out how much change to return to the customer.

The next time you make a purchase in any kind of a store I’m sure you’ll notice that the cashier cannot figure out how much money to give back until he/she looks at the machine.  If the total isn’t there electronically, the cashier is stumped.

Marcia and I just returned from a trip to Alabama.  We didn’t need a road map, like in the olden days.  My little I-Phone gave us instructions all the way there.  A couple times I didn’t pay attention, but the kind lady in the telephone gently got me back on track.

Whether making change or driving on the highway, modern-day technology can give you all the answers.  Not much need to think or calculate any more.

I was thinking about that in the shower the other morning (that’s when I do the most serious thinking!), and concluded that we all have a divine GPS system.  The father/son team heading up the HFP operation is an excellent example of how it works. 

It took more than 60 years before I ended up in this full-time prison work.  A lot of twists and turns, curves and hills along the way.  I formed what is now known as HFP in 2001.

For Matt, it took about half that long, but the route was equally as circuitous.  Matt came aboard in 2013.

Had you asked either of us earlier in life, this goal was nowhere on the horizon. 

But the message from our divine GPS, when we finally got here, was equally as satisfying:  You have reached your destination!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Yes, indeed...EVERYBODY counts!

Best-selling novelist Michael Connolly is putting one of my favorite detectives on TV:  Harry Bosch.  I don’t agree with Harry when it comes to the death penalty, and I find his attitude toward criminal defense attorneys distasteful, but I love his dogged determination to solve cases!  I especially like his feelings re the murders of people who don’t rank very high socially.  His slogan:  Everybody counts or nobody counts!

That slogan came to mind this week, as I was working on some copy for a book I’m trying to write.  In a chapter dealing with the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, this very subject came up.

I cited two cases where, by all outward appearances, HFP failed.  Two prisoners who we worked so hard to help reach freedom dropped the ball after they got out.  One was immediately recaptured by the addiction demons that got him in trouble in the first place.  He died in a drunken stupor, frozen to death in the middle of a field one cold November day.  The second case was worse yet.  The former prisoner, claiming all along that he had been wrongly convicted, appeared to be a poster boy for HFP upon his release.  I brought him with me to public speaking engagements, got him started in business, found friends to surround him in church…while the whole time he was scamming us.  He was stealing stuff under our noses, committing burglaries by the dozens, and finally---after authorities caught up with him once again---took his own life while sitting in a county jail.  Both of these young men died at the age of 44.

Board members asked me if situations like these dimmed my vision, and my prompt and firm response was NO!

For those rare cases where we tried to do what was right, only to learn that evil triumphed once again, there are dozens and dozens of wonderful experiences.  When I held the door open for Gail when she walked out of prison, she said it made her feel like the “most important person in the world.”  When I welcomed Joe with open arms after serving 39 years behind bars, he said---with tears streaming down his face---HFP was like the Red Cross for us in there.  You were there for us when there was no one else!”

I have spoken to Grand Haven High School seniors in a class called PAY IT FORWARD on two different occasions.  In the first session, a student asked me if we would help anyone, regardless of creed or color, regardless of the seriousness of the crime.  Of course we will, and we do.  And in the second session, the teacher asked me just how we determine whether a prisoner is leveling with us.  I had to point out that sometimes we can’t.  That still doesn’t mean that the prisoner does not deserve humane treatment.  We must constantly remind our supporters that incarceration is the punishment.  Even the person guilty of the most heinous crime, even the most brilliant of con artists behind bars, still deserve proper medical care, edible food, and protection against cruelty and exploitation.

Harry Bosch refuses to admit that he’s a spiritual person.

Yet, his slogan is very Christian in nature.  Matt and I certainly buy into it, and try to practice it every day!

Everybody counts or nobody counts!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Maurice Carter's birthday has anything changed?

Maurice Carter would be 72 years of age today.  Thanks to the State of Michigan, his life was cut short.  We lost him in the autumn of 2004, after only 3 months of freedom.  Maurice had served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, almost one half of his entire life here on earth.

Yesterday, one day before Maurice’s birthday, I spoke to a group of high school seniors in Grand Haven.  As we neared the end of the hour, one beautiful young woman who was completely getting the picture asked me, “After 15 years of working with the system, do you see any improvement?”  The question caught me a bit off guard.  That’s not one that I’m used to hearing.  And my answer reflected that…I stumbled and bumbled.  As I recall, I think that I answered that I haven’t seen much improvement, but that I was cautiously optimistic.

I’m wondering what change Maurice would see if he were sitting beside me this morning.

I don’t think the number of wrongful convictions has changed.  It’s still happening.  What has changed is our awareness of them, and our concentration on reversing them.  But, having said that, here are the things that unfairly put Maurice away and unfairly kept him behind bars.

Tunnel vision.  Once police decided that Maurice Carter was the perpetrator of a crime in Benton Harbor during the Christmas season of 1973, they didn’t look any further.  It took two years to make the arrest, but that, in their mind, closed the case.  Never mind the facts. Police and prosecutors are still afflicted with this disease today. 

Jailhouse snitch.  An actual acquaintance of Maurice was the person who brought about the arrest.  Wilbur Gillespie, in jail and facing serious drug charges, was promised a deal if he fabricated a story and signed a statement implicating his buddy Maurice.  Even though he recanted later, the damage was done.  Prosecutors seem to be more careful in the use of jailhouse snitches now, but it’s still happening.

Faulty eyewitness identification.  Testimony by eyewitnesses at one time was seen as the most effective way to convict a defendant.  Finally, that is changing, thanks to the efforts of some nationally-known experts on the subject, and public programs by people like our dear friends Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, authors of the book PICKING COTTON.

Ineffective counsel.  The court-appointed attorney for Maurice had a terrible reputation.  The court was well aware of that when James Jesse was appointed to represent this indigent black man from Gary, Indiana.  Who cared?  I was told last week that this is changing.  A member of the Governor’s Commission on Indigent Defense tells me that new recommendations for improvement are imminent.  Thank God!

Parole Board power.  Michigan’s Parole Board effectively kept Maurice in prison far beyond the number of years he should have served on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder.  At that time, the Chairman of the Board was a former sheriff of Berrien County.  And, the victim of the crime for which Maurice had been charged, had become the chief investigator for the Berrien County Prosecutor.  The Prosecutor’s Office can and did strongly protest any possible parole.  Michigan’s current 10-member board still has far too much power, and controls the destiny of far too many prisoners.  The system is crying for Parole Board reform.

Inadequate prison health care.  Maurice had contracted Hepatitis C while not taking sanitary precautions as he worked with ailing geriatric patients in prison.  He was diagnosed with Hep C back in 1995, but nobody bothered to tell him…presumably because then they’d had to treat him.  He didn’t learn that he had the disease until he collapsed in his cell in 2003.  By then, it his Hepatitis C/end stage, and only a liver transplant could save his life.  Our office continues to hear prison healthcare horror stories.

To answer the student’s question, I think change is coming.  It’s going to happen very slowly, because we’re dealing with a huge system.  But thanks, in part, to this organization---formed and based on the dream of Maurice Carter---there is increased public awareness, and the more people know, the more we can expect eventual change.

On that bright note, I wish you Happy Birthday, my brother Maurice!


We’ll meet again.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter---a special day for prisoners!

Criminals and criminal activity make us angry!

Even those of us with strong views against capital punishment entertain second thoughts on the subject when we hear or read of heinous crimes.  Just when you think you’ve heard it all, mankind seems to devise new and more dreadful ways to torture, maim and kill fellow human beings.  Some days revenge sounds pretty good to us, even those of us who claim to follow the risen Christ.

Sometime that anger even rears its ugly head against those of us who work with criminals…again, even among those of the Christian faith.  It is not uncommon for us to hear that prisoners do not deserve humane treatment.  Those opinions will be expressed with the question, “How humanely did the criminal treat his/her victims?”  The rationale seems to be that the person who commits an inhumane crime deserves inhumane treatment while incarcerated.

I was invited to discuss my book SWEET FREEDOM with members of a Christian book club that included some distinguished members, including a seminary professor.  For those who are unfamiliar with my story, I joined hands with a wrongly convicted prisoner in a 9-year battle for his freedom.  Even though the system wouldn’t budge, we knew---and we even proved---that Maurice Carter was innocent.  He served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, and was never exonerated.  He was granted a compassionate release due to a terminal illness.  He enjoyed only three months of freedom.  The book tells our story.

I felt like I was in enemy territory among this group of fellow believers, who challenged our belief in his innocence at every turn.  One woman was so angry about the book or me or the story that she refused to speak, and stared straight ahead through the entire session!  Crime, even when it’s wrongly perceived, can make us very angry.

When HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS lost its office space in downtown Muskegon many years ago, my immediate thought was to try to persuade one of the major downtown churches to give us a small room.  We didn’t need much space, and we considered our work to be a ministry.  The work of the church and our work with prisoners seemed like a good fit to me, as I made my presentation to the church’s Board of Trustees.  But that wasn’t the feeling of one board member, who viewed our entire philosophy as being soft on crime and supportive of people who were behind bars for a reason and who deserved every bit of punishment they were getting.  Our work, as he perceived it, made him angry.  I left with my tail between my legs.

Contrast these thoughts of some of Jesus’ followers with his final words and deeds on the cross.

It boggles the mind to think that this young man, in the throes of pain and anguish that we cannot begin to imagine, took a moment to be kind to a thug… and not a wrongly convicted criminal like our Lord.  This guy admitted to his crime, and admitted that he deserved crucifixion.  Dr. Luke tells us that the man, one of two criminals flanking our savior on crosses, turned to Jesus and in his final moments quietly asked him to remember him when he came into his kingdom.  And I can only imagine that Jesus was grimacing in the physical pain of this most cruel type of execution, the emotional pain of abandonment by family, friends and religious leaders, and that his voice was weak from exhaustion.  Yet, he managed to issue these words of kindness, gentleness and compassion:  I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

What a message to the people with whom I work and chat on a daily basis…people who one corrections official referred to as “the worst of the worst.” 

I like the words to the old Gaither hymn, “The cross made the difference for me.”

It made the difference for weeping and hurting parents and grandparents and spouses and children and siblings of prisoners.  It made the difference to those who are angry, wounded, lonely and abandoned, yea, to ALL people behind bars.  It made the difference to the mentally ill who landed in cells instead of proper institutions of care.  It made the difference for those like Maurice who became terminally ill in prison, including many who never got out.

The author of Revelation promises that, because of today, God will wipe away every tear.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Score one for religious freedom!

It happens so often.  A problem is perceived, and as a result, a new rule is created.  We have a feeling that’s what happened in Michigan’s prison for women, located in Ypsilanti.

According to our sources in the Michigan Department of Corrections, the prison warden wanted to make sure that the dayrooms, where prisoners gather during down times, weren’t used for religious services which, under a specific corrections policy, are to be held in specific areas in the prison.  And so a rule was created, and this is the exact wording:

6.  All religious studies must be done in your cell or at specified times in programs.

Armed with that new rule, Corrections Officers began immediate enforcement.  One of our friends immediately contacted the HFP office:  “We can no longer do Bible studies outside our cell.  We cannot bring our Bibles into the dayroom and read them, discussing with our fellow believers.  We can only wait for church services once a week, or read them in our rooms.  For example, if I do not understand something while reading the Bible and I want to talk to my friend about it, it is against the rules, and I will get a ticket if I do so.”

We have learned to check out reports like this. We don’t want to respond to the prisoner’s complaint until we know it is valid, and we don’t want to spread unfounded rumors.  Sometimes prisoners are mistaken, or Corrections Officers exaggerate.  Not so this time.

HFP went right to the top, checking in with one of our excellent and reasonable contacts in the front office of the MDOC in Lansing.  An administrative aide confirmed the new rule, but added, “…the intent was never to prevent prisoners from carrying their Bible to the dayroom or discussing religious matters with a fellow prisoner.”  Then came the important final words:  “To avoid confusion, the rule will be rescinded.”

Score one for religious freedom!  This affects not only Christians, but adherents of all faiths---Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Native Americans.  And if this policy is firm in Lansing, it means that similar rules will not crop up in other Michigan prisons.

HFP---just doing its job!