Sunday, January 15, 2017

I, too, have a dream!

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the concept of restorative justice will take hold in every community, that offenders will be concerned about victims of crime, that victims will learn more about reasons for crime, and that supporting the rights of victims will not be mutually exclusive of ensuring humane treatment for prisoners.

I have a dream that one day the legal defense of indigent prisoners will not go to the lowest bidder, but will be sought out by the best legal minds so that every arrested person may get constitutionally guaranteed excellent representation in the courtroom.

I have a dream that one day the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” will become a reality instead of a meaningless cliché, that investigating officers will avoid the curse of “tunnel vision” and seek all facts before making arrests, and that states’ attorneys will pursue conviction of proven criminals but also admit mistakes and wrongdoing and release those persons where accusations are unfounded.  I look forward to that day when arrests are equally made with no regard to race, religion and gender.

I have a dream that a better system of choosing prosecutors can be established, in which prosecutors do not campaign for re-election on a platform of conviction totals, but instead seek public support based on their pursuit of justice.  I look forward to that day when prosecutorial misconduct will not only be readily exposed, but pursued and punished with an equal vigor.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that those robed justices on the bench may not only find fairness and equality in sentencing from county to county, state to state, but that their fine legal minds can creatively develop alternatives to incarceration, especially in cases of non-violent crimes…alternatives that not only benefit the public and reduce the costs of prison systems, but also seek to positively impact lives of the accused.  May that day come when rehabilitation supersedes retribution.  

I have a dream that parole boards will no longer insist that prisoners show remorse before giving them consideration, but recognize that the system has its flaws, that there really are people behind bars who have been wrongly convicted, and that it is criminal to insist that these people lie in order to achieve freedom.

I have a dream that prison wardens and prison staff members will no longer become jaded by those who commit heinous crimes, but instead will recognize that all men and women have been created in the image of God.  Even though many prisoners seem rebellious, insensitive and uncaring, I have a dream that leaders of prison systems will make efforts to give their occupants more education, more vocational training, more counseling, adequate medical care, and that prison staffers will receive improved professional training to better care for the large population of mentally challenged inmates.

My dream goes beyond those behind bars, those who put them there, and those who keep them there.

I have a dream that one day the general public will not only hear but accept our message that all prisoners, regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of the nature of the crime, deserve humane treatment.

That will be the day when HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is no longer an agency with services limited to the State of Michigan, but has active chapters in every state!

That will be the day when we no longer have to worry about how to pay the electric bill, but will have dollars to improve and expand our essential ministry.

And that will be the day when we’ll have hundreds of volunteers gladly holding open doors for re-entering citizens as they exclaim, “Free at last…free at last.  Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”

On January 15, a tribute to three African American giants

On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, I pray tribute to three African Americans who made a profound and lasting impact on my life.

The first was Sister Mattie Davis, a wisp of a little black lady who was Business Manager for a black gospel singing group based in Muskegon known as the Heavenly Echoes. The year was 1954.  I was a young man 17 years of age when I landed my first job in radio broadcasting, and part of my assignment was to sign on the radio station WMUS at 8:15 AM on Sundays.  Each Sunday the Heavenly Echoes provided a live broadcast, and the host and announcer was Mattie Davis.  This white, Christian Reformed boy was amazed at the difference in prayers.  At my home, in my school and in my church, our prayers included lofty phrases of “thees” and “thous” in words of praise and supplication.  In the Heavenly Echoes broadcast, Sister Mattie Davis remembered to include those first responders and people on the street protecting our safety, as she prayed for “policemens” and “firemens!”

The second was the Rev. Cy Young, a black itinerant preacher with a background in professional black entertainment.  Cy had the unusual gift of recitation, and had memorized all of the major Martin Luther King speeches.  A towering black man with a striking slash of white in his otherwise black head of hair, had a booming voice to match, and his version of “I Have a Dream” brought tears to my eyes every time I heard it.  We worked together for years until he was hit and killed by a car.  His dream was to form chapters of a MARTIN LUTHER KING ASSOCIATION in every community to promote racial harmony.  “Douglas,” he would say, “When I meet Jesus and he asks me how many white people I know, I don’t want to get there empty-handed!”

The third was Maurice Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, who found himself serving a life sentence in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit.  I spent the next 9 years fighting for his freedom, after we met in 1995.  He was finally released in the summer of 2004, not because he was exonerated, but because he was dying.  He lived for three months following his release, with experiences that he and I and my family treasured.

I’m convinced that it was by divine intervention that these three relatively unknown African Americans not only touched my life, but prepared the way for a vibrant and effective ministry today known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS!

As we prepare for MLK Day, may my dear friends Mattie, Cy and Maurice RIP!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

We don't talk about failure: Not good for business!

Final copy for the February HFP newsletter just went to the printer.  This will be a “happy” edition, in contrast to some where we tell stories of sad prisoner plights.  But I can tell you this:  We made no mention of our failures.  That kind of news certainly would not please those who support us with their dollars.  Instead, we tuck them away, quoting the old cliché:  Grin and bear it!

We made no mention of the fact that women in one prison unit at Huron Valley have been without heat for 6 weeks now, temps haven’t gotten above 55 degrees, many are getting sick, there are no extra blankets or clothes.  So far, nothing we’ve tried is working.

We didn’t talk about old man John.  Prisoners say, “…they took his wheelchair, cane, C-Pap machine and a number of other health care items, all out of retaliation.  He does have a walker right now but still they torture him.”   So far, we’ve been ineffective.

We didn’t run any story about the court’s mistakes in Joe’s case, even though the publicity might get him a new trial.  That’s because we’re not attorneys, we’re not an Innocence Project, and we don’t take on legal cases.  But it feels like we’re saying, “Sorry, not interested.”

Many prisoners are asking us to help them prepare applications for a commutation of their sentence…something we offer at no charge.  We don’t tell about the guy who didn’t hear about us until too late, and spent $9,500 of his poor mother’s money on a “professional” who put together a slick document.  It was rejected.  His hope for freedom is gone, and so is his money.

We were asked by an inmate to help Bill, a senior citizen diagnosed with cancer.  We tried to reach out by email in a timely manner, but we were told, “He was so happy to hear from you, but then he had a terrible stomach ache and they rushed him to the hospital.”  For all we know, we were too late.

These stories don’t make good copy, and they don’t raise money.  But they reflect a very real part of what goes on in this office.  And the emotions that accompany failure.

Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as saying:  "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

Mebbe so, but I like this quote better, the one that our friend Bob Bulten puts in his emails…a statement by Bob Pierce.

"May my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God"

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The necessary ingredient in helping prisoners: YOU!

President Obama was giving his farewell speech.  He urged those who love this country to do more than just sit around and discuss our problems.  “We must all accept the responsibilities of citizenship,” he contended.  Right on!

That brought to mind a discussion I had had earlier in the day, as I shared a cup of coffee with Joe Whalen, Executive Director of 70X7 MUSKEGON, certainly one of the finest re-entry programs available for Michigan prisoners.  Joe and I have a lot in common.  HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does its best to help prisoners while they’re still behind bars.  His organization does its best to help them when they get out.
Joe said that he explains his work to a businessman, explaining all the complexities in helping prepare a former prisoner on how to be a productive member of society (a prisoner created in the image of God!). The company finally agrees to make a donation to get the job done. 

I have a similar situation when I explain, to church groups, how important it is to help an inmate who was convicted of a violent crime, but who is now dying behind bars, cannot get appropriate medical care, and may be denied hospice care (a prisoner created in the image of God!).  The religious group finally agrees to pray for our work. 

It isn’t that 70X7 Muskegon and HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS don’t need the money, or don’t need the prayers.  God knows we need both!  But we need more, and it goes back to what the President said.

Item---the USA has a huge problem:  mass incarceration.

Item---treatment of people behind bars, and reentry programs for those planning to leave, are woefully inadequate, in all of our states.

Take a moment to Google the prison system in Norway, where the recidivism rate is almost non-existent, where they don’t have such a thing as life sentences without parole, and where they believe that the person who committed the most vile and despicable crime is still salvageable.  There would be no need for Joe’s agency, or ours, in Norway!

Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky said this:  “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.”

Yes, 70X7 Muskegon and HFP covet your prayers, and your dollars.  Our work is more than important…it is necessary.  It is vital.

But 42,000 people behind bars in Michigan need more than that.  Concern and compassion must come from more than a few struggling agencies.  “We must all accept the responsibilities of citizenship!”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sure there are lows. But the highs win!

The questions invariably come after we tell of an unpleasant experience:  Don’t you get discouraged; why keep on trying to help prisoners?

Let me ask you something.

If you’re a parent, you don’t stop loving or stop helping when your kid messes up, do you?

If you’re a teacher, you don’t stop loving your work because of a disruptive student or contrary parents, do you?

If you’re a doctor, you don’t stop doing your best, even though some patients refuse your treatment, think you’re a quack, and make unwise decisions, do you?

Do you see my point?

Sure, I stood in the window of an execution chamber and watched in horror as the State of Texas put my friend to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

I took a call in the middle of the night.  A parolee for whom I had held the prison door as he stepped into freedom, had ignored my pleas to avoid substance abuse.  He went on a drunken spree, and was found frozen to death in the middle of a field.

Turns out a guy I believed in and was trying to help, continued his life of crime upon his release, behind my back, and finally took his own life when police closed in on him.

I hate that kind of stuff.  And yes, it is discouraging.

But I gotta tell you something:  These are the exceptions.  We receive thanks from prisoners and their families, kind words of gratitude, 7 days a week!  And sometimes we don’t feel all that worthy, because we really didn’t help that much.  But that made little difference, because, you see…it was the fact that somebody cared.  These people deal with sadness, loneliness and rejection daily, around the clock, all year long.  

Just as with the parent, the teacher, the doctor that I mentioned above, this is a calling.  We not only love the work.  I can say without any reservation that we love the people with whom we are working!  And we care.  We're going to keep on keepin' on!

2017 is going to be a remarkable year!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Will you join us for the ride?

My Bible reading took on an interesting assignment at year’s end.  In the final days of 2016, I was assigned to read from Proverbs 13, where I was advised to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.  That very admonition is framed and on the wall in our office.

As I reflected on the year 2016, I couldn’t help but take pride in the growth of HFP, the increased number of prisoners we served, our improved financial position, and all of the internal progress we made, the exciting success stories, and our enhanced reputation in advocacy circles.  But the thing that makes us so humbly proud is that we touched lives!

When Maurice Carter and I put together this little outfit in 2001, we envisioned helping a few prisoners with pressing problems.  By the end of 2016, it was no longer a little outfit.  We had responded to a record number of more than 2,700 contacts by prisoners, their families or their friends!  We continued to add one new prisoner a day to the list of people we serve, 7 days a week!  For the first time in history, our case file---names of actual prisoners in our email JPay account---totaled more than 1,000!  Here’s what we treasure:  Not a day goes by that we don’t receive personal thanks from someone we have helped.

We started out with a budget only covering immediate costs for things like postage and office supplies.  Our Board of Directors has just adopted a budget for the new year topping $200,000.00!

As I sat thinking about the New Year, it was apparent to me that, in order to do what we must do in Michigan, we’ve got to think bigger:  more volunteers, bigger and better methods of communication, more and better literature to explain our work, a longer list of volunteers, expanded facilities, larger staff, more speaking engagements, more church support…the list goes on and on.  Too many needs.  Too many problems. Not enough resources.

No question about it, our Board of Directors and our staff must keep these goals in mind in 2017. 

But first and foremost, we must do nothing at the expense of our vision statement, and the book of Proverbs. To think big, we must think small.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS seeks to provide personalized, problem-solving services for inmates who don’t know where to turn.

We will only be successful if we continue to respond as the writer of Proverbs advises:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
   Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice.

Will you join us?  We can’t do it alone.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Someone behind bars is laughing at us!

I hate to tell you this, but it’s true.  Prisoners are laughing at us!

I’ll tell you why.

Many of us are in a panic these days.  We’re afraid of what might happen to our country when the new president takes over.  After all, issues like a nuclear arms race, foreign relations, gun control, immigration, and global warming---just to name a few---aren’t insignificant.  We may have had similar concerns in the past, but we always trusted in experienced leaders and the checks and balance system to help our nation wade through these matters.  But suddenly there’s a new uncertainty in the air, as someone of questionable experience and integrity takes the helm.  Yes indeed, lots of people feel like they’ve completely lost control.

And that makes prisoners chuckle, because they’ve felt that way for years, but nobody paid any attention to their plight.  Now the shoe is on the other foot.

Some inmates lost control the minute their situation fell into the hands of a flawed judicial system.  A couple of examples.

A low-paid and uncaring court-appointed lawyer persuaded his client to plead guilty to a lesser charge to avoid a long sentence, when the guy didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.  He had no prior criminal history!

A comfortable and happy grand-dad thought life was pretty good until his estranged daughter-in-law decided to get even with the family, and claimed that grandpa was messing with her little girls.  He’s been in prison ever since then!

And once in prison, there is no such thing as personal control.

You’re told when to eat, exercise, pee, work, sleep.  Your life, your daily activity, almost everything is in the hands of others. 

Some inmates will tell you that the system would even like to control your thoughts and emotions, and that’s when one has to be strong.

Do you get my point?

The things that you and I take for granted on a daily basis have been deleted from the lives of people caught in the judicial system and spending time behind bars.  Prisoners will tell you that it’s like living the life of a zombie. 

I go back to a sermon my friend Nate preached early on in the election campaign.  He assured us that no matter who won the election, no matter what kind of people take office, no matter what you fear they might do, NOTHING will interfere with or interrupt God’s plan!

I need to hear that now, more than ever.  And in my relationship with inmates, it’s imperative that I communicate that message to them as well.

Quoting from one of my favorite Psalms:  You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding."

May quiet assurance replace laughter. 

On both sides of the bars.