Thursday, November 16, 2017

Standing with the powerless and the voiceless: HFP at Public Hearings!

We chose to stand by two guys today. Perhaps some would call them losers. 

Why, you might ask. Why speak up for someone who committed a terrible crime against humanity 30, 40 or 50 years ago? Human life seemed to mean very little to that person back then. Why suggest freedom for that kind of criminal?

I’m referring to Public Hearings, sessions conducted by the Michigan Parole Board to determine if serious offenders should be paroled. I first became aware of the Public Hearing in 2004, when the Board tried to determine whether to release my friend Maurice Carter. Since that time, our office has made it a priority to speak up, when possible, for our friends.

There’s something you gotta know about Public Hearings. They’re not fun.

-The prisoner is nervous and, more often than not, unprepared.
-The Parole Board members are concerned about freeing a dangerous person.
-The Assistant Attorney General, who claims to represent all the people of the State of Michigan, tends to lean all of his support toward victims of the crime, and refuses to recommend parole for anyone who has committed a violent crime. Regardless of any extenuating circumstances.
-Friends and/or family members of the victim(s) sometimes show to support that position.
-Judges and Prosecutors, also, often oppose the release.

Does anyone speak up on behalf of the inmate? Sometimes…perhaps a family member or a friend. Some claim to be too nervous. Some are embarrassed by the nature of the crime. Some have nothing to do with the inmate anymore and stay home. In some cases, no one shows.

Today we spoke up on behalf of two inmates. One guy, 64, has served 40 years. Rehabilitation has worked, and we’re convinced he’s going to make it. The other is 68, has served 33 years, and won’t live much longer. He’s terminally ill, and in our communications with him, he just doesn’t want to die in prison.

Two losers? We didn’t think so. It meant a day away for Matt, while calls and messages stacked up in the office (We’re getting over a hundred a week).

Matt will be the first to tell you: It’s where we belonged.

Perhaps Father Greg Boyle says it best:

We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

Yep, that’s HFP!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Feeding a prisoner for under four bucks a day!

As a teenager in the 1950s, I was a grocery bagger in my father’s supermarket. Of all the people who came for their weekly food supplies, I remember one woman who paid over $20 consistently for her grocery order. She was obviously very poor, but was the parent of a large flock of kids. I would carry her bags to the car, while her husband sat in the vehicle reading the newspaper. Usually 4-5 bags, filled to the brim. Not many people spent that kind of money on groceries.

Today, in 2017, I did the grocery shopping for Marcia and me. I paid $104 and some odd cents! Two octogenarians do not consume a lot of food, and I don’t purchase filet mignon and caviar.

I’m fully aware of the fact that those entities that purchase large amounts of food can save plenty. I did some checking on school meals. The latest statistics I could find showed the average cost of lunch for an elementary school student was $2.34. That’s a deal!

I bring up all of this stuff because my mind is still reeling over a story that Detroit Free Press writer Paul Egan broke recently regarding meals in the Michigan prison system. Once again maggots were found. Besides that, dirt was found in some of the food.

Meals are provided in Michigan prisons by Trinity Services Group, a national agency based in Florida. Rather than use state employees, Michigan chooses to outsource for chow.

I’ll save the comments on maggots and dirt, problems with Trinity employees, and the numerous penalties already paid by that company. I want to focus on cost.

I asked Egan to break down the contract so we could figure out how much money is spent on a meal for a prisoner. His reply: The cost for a single meal is $1.29! In other words, the State of Michigan spends $3.87 per day to feed the nearly 40,000 persons supervised by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Granted, because I know I can’t take the money with me when I leave this earth, I now enjoy the luxury of buying my sandwich ham from the deli instead of in a bargain package. And I now feel that it’s OK to purchase higher priced bread from the bakery, rather than the stuff off the shelf.

But $1.29 per meal? $3.87 per day?

The next time you’re in the store, see what you can buy for under four bucks.

Quoting Mahatma Ghandi: “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

Wonder how Pure Michigan stacks up?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The kind of guys Jesus would hang out with

My friend David once said, in describing prisoners, “I think these are the kind of guys Jesus would hang out with.”

I seldom write blogs when I’ve had a little quaff. Generally, I try to create the blogs in the morning when the mind of this octogenarian seems to be most productive. I admit, I’m mellow this evening. And for good reason.

HFP’s wonderful volunteer Jennifer and I went to the Muskegon Correctional Facility this afternoon, at the request of the prison’s National Lifers Association Chapter, to lead a workshop on how prisoners might fill out application forms for a commutation of sentence.

For background: No one knows whether Governor Rick Snyder will soften his stance and think about clemency during his last year in office. But there are many prisoners, especially lifers, especially those serving life without parole, who are hoping this might happen. That has led to business propositions from lawyers and agencies who say to vulnerable inmates: Such a deal we have for you!  For $#### we’ll prepare this application for you, because we know legal people in the Governor’s office, or we have special contacts, or we are exceptionally brilliant.

We know this is a crock, because we’ve been told so by top officials in the MDOC. So, to counter that, we’re offering to help inmates file these applications at no charge.  Hence, today’s seminar.

I don’t want to discuss who knows what about commutations, except to say that if someone claims to have an inside corner he or she is full of it. No one knows.

And that’s the kind of straight talk that I shared with 25 guys at MCF today. What a beautiful experience! We shared thoughts. We shared ideas. We asked questions. We tried to answer questions. Do we know it all, like the experts claim? NO. But here’s what many experts don’t have: a genuine bond between inmates and advisers. It was that kinship that we felt today.

I’m not exactly sure how much the guys got out of our workshop this afternoon. But I can tell you this: Jen and I were blessed beyond measure!

In my humble opinion, David was right.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

This October, 13 years after he died, Maurice would be pleased! He'd be proud!

Hey, Big Bro, someday I can just see us sitting around a table, reviewing cases of prisoners, and deciding which ones we want to help.

The words of the late Maurice Carter---my friend and my soul brother for nearly 10 years---words that led to the formation of what is now HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

I was a leader of the charge to free this dear, wrongly convicted human being, who spent 29 years behind bars for a crime he knew nothing about. Maurice Henry Carter died exactly 13 years ago, exactly three months after he was freed.

We never did get an exoneration. He died from Hepatitis C complications, a disease he caught while in prison. The diagnosis had actually been made 8 years earlier, but he was never informed, probably because then the state would have had to treat him.

Today, on the anniversary of his death, Maurice would be proud.

No, we really don’t have time to sit around and discuss cases. Our office gets about 400 emails, phone calls or letters from prisoners or their representatives every month. This October, the month when we remember his passing, is particularly significant. For the first time in our 16-year history, the number of contacts per year has exceeded 4,000! For the first time in our history, the number of lives touched in one year by HFP has topped 800!

He wouldn’t be surprised by our up-hill fight to get adequate funding. During his entire period of incarceration, he struggled with public indifference and lack of concern. It was up-hill every step of the way.

He would be surprised by our progress. With two full-time and one part-time staff members, four regular volunteers, a medical consultant, and a battery of doctors and lawyers who make up our advisory panel, we’re growing like gang-busters! Our fine Board of Directors must concern itself with critical matters like office space, staff needs and succession planning. HFP has never been on such a roll, sometimes responding to 30-40 contacts a day, seven days a week!

I am credited with founding this organization, but I’m the first to admit that this absolutely would not have happened had it not been for the dream of Maurice Carter. He had the vision. God opened the doors. Our team now marches to the drumbeat of Jesus, offering Action with Compassion to every inmate in the Michigan prison system who has a problem and doesn’t know where to turn.

RIP, Maurice! We’ll carry on.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Does it have to be this way?

I’m always pleased to read about positive advances in the Michigan prison system. I see that Director Heidi Washington is providing leadership into exciting expansions of education opportunities, as well as vocational training. And news that the recidivism rate is going down and the population is being reduced is welcome, indeed.

I’m concerned, however, about some other issues…perhaps considered, at the top, to be smaller items or less important.

It’s on my mind this week, because, right now

-We’re scrambling to get an appointment for a prisoner with a corneal transplant, because it appears his body may be rejecting the new piece in his eye! The U of M physicians who performed the operation gave strict instructions, but they apparently were not followed appropriately. Our medical consultant and the eye doc that provides his invaluable insight to HFP are incensed. Does it have to be this way?

-We’re doing our best to persuade a warden and his health-care staff to get immediate treatment for a prisoner with an aggressive skin cancer. The medics have just been dragging their feet. The oncologist working with HFP insists that he needs treatment right now! Does it have to be this way?

-We have a law firm and a medical team trying to get medical records so that a woman with colon cancer gets appropriate surgery and treatment. Yet the delays continue. Does it have to be this way?

-A prisoner who has been diagnosed with colitis is living with it, even though he must use the bathroom 8-15 times a day. But the toilet tissue is rationed. He’s in a new facility, with a new doctor, and they’re not about to renew his request for extra toilet paper! Does it have to be this way?

-The daughter of a terminally ill inmate who is dying contacted our office: “ The thing that causes us the most pain is that we won't be with him when he passes.  It will be a stranger and not a loved one.  Isn't there anyway that they can contact the family when they know that he is hours away and allow them (or even just his wife) to be at his bedside at the time of death?” Does it have to be this way?

These aren’t smaller items in our book, and certainly not to the inmate involved.

Our corrections officials, all the way to the top, need to heed this reminder in the book of Hebrews:  …remember those in prison as if you were together with them. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Matthew 25 refresher course for the Douger

It may not be the blind leading the blind, but at best it’s one crooked stick trying to help a bunch of other crooked sticks.

God uses every prison experience to teach me another lesson.

Even though I refuse to admit it, I suspect that down deep I harbor a certain smugness when I walk through the prison gates. The inmates will welcome me, they’ll applaud when they hear that I’m nearly 81 and still carrying on, and they’ll listen politely as I impart my wisdom and explain the fine work of HFP.

Well, the first parts are true. Last Saturday I received a warm welcome from nearly 200 men at the Thumb Correctional Facility. How nice to renew an old friendship! And I think they were pleased to hear that this old man is still plugging along.

But then my learning began.

I thought I had clearly explained that, even though I am a follower of Jesus, we’ll help any inmate with any problem. I am not a US citizen…I’m from Turkey. All I want is to serve my time in my homeland. But I’m not a Christian. Will you still help?  My heart sinks to think that our message did not get through. Of course we’ll help.

I boasted that, while some agencies procrastinate, delay their responses, or don’t call back at all, HFP treats every request in a prompt manner. My ex-wife contacted you about two months ago, and you informed her that would write me on JPay. I have not yet received an email message from you. Gulp. (He was contacted the next day!)

I’m wrongly convicted but the Innocence Project turned me down. Where do I go now? I have no answer.

If the Parole Board won’t tell you what they expect in commutation applications, how do we know our answers are what they want to hear? I have no answer.

What can you do about unfair sentences in Michigan?  No answer.

I’m starting to feel inadequate. We’re not doing all that much good. We’re not providing all that much assistance. We don’t have the information they want and need.

Yet they stand in line to shake hands and say “thank you.” And a young black Christian, with glowing face, smilingly comments, “I’m a man of God, and I recognize when someone is obeying Scripture and ‘speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.’” (Prov.31:8)

There’s my lesson: a review of Matthew 25. It was the visit that counted. Duh! Any assistance or helpful information imparted was simply a bonus.

Says Father Greg Boyle: There is no 'them' and 'us.' There is only us.

Says Mother Teresa:  We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Are we the criminals for ignoring their gifts?

In my quiet moments this morning, I’m thinking: What are we missing by not tapping the vast resources behind bars?

This thought came to the surface as I glanced through materials about Nelson Mandela, who was South Africa’s first black president. Prior to that he served 27 years in prison!

Here’s my thinking.

The longer I work in this prison business, and the more I associate with and communicate with this vast population behind bars, the more I realize that we’re treating these people like cast-offs, and not taking advantage of their productive minds and abilities. I’m serious about this. My life is immeasurably richer because of my daily association with this mostly ignored segment of society.

There are highly skilled musicians, gifted artists, well-educated scholars and professionals in our prisons. Just because they are on the wrong side of the bars doesn’t mean that their expressions should be suppressed. Just because they erred doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute. And on the flip side, nor does that mean that you and I should be deprived of their offerings.

I’ll stop my ranting and raving a moment to concede that great progress is being made in exhibiting prisoner art, publishing prisoner poetry and literature, and exposing inmates to higher education opportunities.

But we are remiss if we stop there. I’m not sure how to do it, but we’re missing the boat by not using these talents, these minds, these skills, to the fullest extent! And it’s a two-way street. We are blessed by this exposure. The incarcerated, on the other hand, finally get the message that they are not “throwaways,” and their offerings are welcome and appreciated…even necessary!

Just imagine what would happen if these many gifted musicians, artists and educators were invited to give lessons and teach others behind bars.

Just imagine what kind of health, hospice and palliative care we might get if we used the skills of the many incarcerated medics, now wasting their talents and knowledge.

Just imagine what kind of policies governing such things as mail and visitation would be developed if the Department of Corrections held a series of town hall meetings to get the input of our 40,000 state prisoners.

Just imagine what kind of legislation might be introduced if state lawmakers listened to those directly affected by judicial reform instead of lobbyists and corrections personnel.

Here in Pure Michigan, we have 40,000 people in more than 30 state prisons, stretching from Detroit at the southern limit, to Baraga in the U.P. I contend that there’s a gold mine behind those bars.

We’re the criminals if we don’t explore these opportunities!

Quoting Nelson Mendela:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”