Friday, September 23, 2016

Sometimes I cry

Country gospel artist Jason Crabb sings a song that I like…I believe it was written by his dad:

I look the part
Blend in with the rest of the church crowd
I know the routine
I could list all the Bible studies in town

Watch Christian TV
I know all the preachers, their cliches
I've been born again
And without a doubt I know I'm saved

But sometimes I hurt and sometimes I cry…

I was thinking of that song today, after I chatted with a pleasant woman who right now is making a one-hour drive to see her father in prison.  I hope it goes all right, because her father is dying.  At the top of his list of medical problems is Stage 4 cancer.  He’s heavily medicated, but things aren’t going well.  She has no complaints about his medical care.  A prison nurse has been most helpful.  A prison social worker has been more than kind.  But, her dad’s in prison, he’s only slightly beyond middle-age, and he’s dying. 

This comes on the heels of another situation that I have mentioned in an earlier blog, where a woman was working hard to get her mother out of prison for specialized healthcare in her final days on earth.

I don’t mean to minimize all of the other issues that come across our desk.  Each problem is terribly important to that particular prisoner.  We recognize that, and we give each situation our best shot.  But, having a parent in prison is terribly unpleasant; having a parent who is dying in prison is just plain painful.  And not only for family members.

We seldom shed real tears any more, or we’d be weeping all the time.

But I can assure you that we do not get calloused to the misery and grief that has become a part of our life and our work.

And deep down, inside…

Sometimes we cry.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

On showing love for animals. Prisoners, too!

Our youngest son, his wife, and their three beautiful children lost a family member this weekend:  their dog Zoe.  Matt put a beautiful tribute to Zoe on Facebook today, and as I read the obit I did a lot of reflecting.

You see, Zoe was a rescue dog.  Matt and Melissa drove nearly 400 miles one way to rescue Zoe from a shelter shortly before she was due to be put down.  They’ve had 9 wonderful years together.

Over on the other side of town, our youngest daughter Sue and her family are enjoying the company of another mutt named Grady.  He was rescued after being found wandering on a busy Muskegon street hungry and flea-infested.  Old, maybe a little blind and certainly a little deaf, somebody probably just didn’t want him anymore.  Sue and Jon, Brenden and Zachary did.

What I’m hoping is that this is trickle-down.  I’m hoping that all four of our kids learned about rescue when Marcia and I (and the kids, too, for that matter) took in Maurice Carter as a member of our family.  It was a rescue.  Maurice was a prisoner, he was of another race, he had very little family of his own, his support team was about down to zero.  Made no difference.  He was not only a child of God, he was a dear man.  A beautiful person.  We loved him like family, just like Matt’s family loved Zoe, and like Sue’s family loves Grady.

St. Francis of Assisi said this:  If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.  Obviously, he meant that this goes both ways---it’s a two-way street.

If people can learn to treat animals with kindness by watching us do the same with humans, the reverse must also be true.  It’s time that we learn from examples set by Matt and by Sue that there  are thousands of humans that need to be rescued, as well.  Their names can roll off our tongues, as Matt and I work with them individually 7 days a week, in the HFP office.

There’s a prisoner struggling with transgender issues being claimed by no one.  A crippled lady cannot get someone to even push her wheelchair to get chow in the women’s prison.  An 81 year old man is in danger of losing his leg because gangrene wasn’t controlled with a toe injury three years ago, and no one seems to care.  Will someone dare to step up and help these people?  Love them?  Rescue them?

I think it’s beautiful that we rescue animals, take them in, give them love and affection, food and shelter.

But let’s not forget humans.

Especially prisoners.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

TRYING to help those who don't know where to turn

Vision Statement:  Humanity for Prisoners seeks to provide personalized, problem-solving services for inmates who don’t know where to turn.

To some, that might seem rather trite and meaningless.  What?  Prisoners not getting along with a room-mate?  Prisoners not getting enough exercise time?  Prisoners complaining about a broken micro-wave oven? A sore finger? A toothache?  Etc, etc.

Hardly.  Here are four staring us in the face right now.

We’ve just appealed to the front office in Lansing to cut through red tape, and help an 81 year old man whose foot injury began with a blister on his big toe in 2013.  Due to what appears to be lack of appropriate care and treatment for the past three years, there have been resulting problems such as gangrene.  And it’s not restricted to the toe any more, or even the foot.  The leg is involved.  One of our consulting physicians labeled it “malpractice,” and said the man is in danger of losing his foot, or possibly even his leg! 

We’ve managed to pair up the mother of an inmate with an attorney, as they discuss possible legal action due to alleged poor treatment of a girl in Huron Valley who struggles with diabetes and seizures.  The claims about medical care, or lack thereof, are outrageous.  The mom has expressed a concern for her daughter’s life!

We’re holding the hand of a daughter whose mother was to have been released from prison last month…a woman who is not in good health.  She didn’t get out, due to some technicalities, and her health has gone south.  The woman is in a hospital, and it doesn’t sound good.  Meanwhile, the daughter still has not been able to gain permission to even visit her mom!

Our medical team has forwarded lab work to some specialists, as we try to help a 53 year old inmate.  Jimmy’s Hepatitis C and related issues have seriously worsened in the past 5 years.  He’s in misery, claims shoddy treatment by healthcare personnel, and says he can’t get the medical care that his body demands.  He’s now asking our doctors how long he has to live!

Trivial matters?  Not by a long shot.  These are life-and-death issues, and they’re not treated lightly by our staff and volunteers.

Only through the cooperation, assistance and support of an amazing Board of Directors, an impressive advisory panel of specialists in many professions, and the love, prayers and dollars of our partners can HFP continue to touch lives.

May God continue to bless our work down in the trenches.  Some days it’s not much fun.

Monday, September 5, 2016

HFP pays tribute to a Warden

Some days it seems that we can be highly critical of certain personnel and certain policies of the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Some days we remove all doubt!  But fair is fair, so when we see or find certain personnel and certain programs worthy of praise, we must not remain silent.

Today, HFP pays tribute to Shawn Brewer, Warden of the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson.  I’m quick to point out that we hardly know the man.  I met him just once, a little over a week ago.  But here’s why we’re giving him special recognition:  Good things are happening at that prison! 

CHANCE FOR LIFE is an exciting program that was founded in 1999.  Quoting CFL’s own statement:  The purpose of the Chance for Life Organization is to enhance the ability of ex-offenders to be successful after leaving prison by providing an integrated program that transforms and educates, while focusing on family reunification and community safety.  CFL has chapters now in 8 different prisons, including Cotton.

In August of this year, CFL enrolled some 250 inmates in a month-long Peace Initiative.  Here’s what these guys pledged:  I,________________ pledge to use my knowledge, influence, skills and abilities to promote PEACEMAKING and PEACEKEEPING throughout this facility as well as within my community. I pledge to not demean anyone with my words or hands. I lastly pledge to resolve all conflicts in a Peaceful Manner to the best of my ability.

It was my honor and privilege to deliver the keynote address for the day-long conference that concluded this project.  As I signed in, Warden Brewer was there to shake my hand.  His Deputy Warden, Douglas Smith, did the same, the likes of which we have not seen since the days of former Warden Mary Berghuis in Muskegon!  I then witnessed more than 150 men who some might describe has hardened criminals, stand up and recite the above pledge for all the world to see and hear! 

The good things don’t stop there.  A new chapter of the NATIONAL LIFERS OF AMERICA has started up at Cotton.  They’ve already been in touch with HFP, hoping to bring our former board chair and this writer to the prison for a special seminar.  I make a presentation on services offered by HFP, especially in helping inmates prepare to meet with the Parole Board and in filing commutation applications.  Dr. Dan Rooks, a clinical psychologist, gives a frank discussion on the topic of anger management.  It’s an exceptionally popular program, and it will be coming to Cotton.

Wardens of each prison have a lot of say-so when it comes to the PRISONER BENEFIT FUND, which consists of money collected primarily in the vending machines and supply store of each facility.  A Warden’s Forum, consisting of staff members and inmates, meets to discuss disbursement of funds, for the benefit of prisoners, like microwave ovens or exercise equipment.  But, occasionally the inmates express a desire to make donations to a few Michigan charitable organizations that specifically assist them, including ours.  One warden, in particular, refuses to let a dollar go to these agencies…especially ours!  At Cotton, however, the warden obviously gave his blessing, because HFP was one agency to receive a generous gift this month.

Jesus said, in Matthew 7, “By their fruits you will know them.”

We think we know Warden Brewer!  May God keep him on this path of recognizing the worth and potential of prisoner lives, and may he be a shining example to others.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The worst of the worst? I don't think so!

Former Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections Dan Heyns once referred to the people housed in our state prison system as “the worst of the worst!”  I chided him on that, and he later recanted, in a private email to me. 

I wish Dan Heyns had been with me Saturday.  A group of guys in the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, all part of a positive and exciting project called Chance for Life, were concluding a month-long emphasis on peace.  And we’re not just talking world peace here.  The focus of their Peace Initiative got right down to personal peace, peace between each other, and peace between inmates and staff.

It was a day of guest speeches and special recognition.  I was honored to deliver the keynote speech.  But that’s not the reason for my desire to have Heyns there.  Before my speech, as the program got underway, one of the presiding inmates read this statement about respecting diversity:  The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect.  It means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences.  These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social-economic status, age, physical ability, religious and political beliefs, or other ideologies. 

Then, as I sat there waiting to be introduced, more than 150 men representing many of these differences recited a peace pledge.  Each man had been carrying this little card all month.  As they recited the words they inserted their own name.  They promised to seek peace in their own lives, to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner, to respect the opinions of all others, to actively work at ending violence. 

The worst of the worst?  I don’t think so.

My thoughts couldn’t leave that pledge during the long drive home.  I was the high and mighty speaker, focusing on the St. Francis Peace Prayer, but could I have signed that pledge?

I could just hear myself:

I can live by that pledge---

Except when I discuss politics---then it’s my way or the highway when it comes to topics like presidential candidates, immigration, and guns;

Except when I talk about church---then it’s my way or the highway when it comes to topics like gay marriage or style of music;

Except when I’m driving, as I stomp on the accelerator refusing to let some nut job cut in front of me.

Do you see what I’m getting at, here?  Politics at the highest level has never been so stinky. Road rage is at an all-time high.  We use documents like the U.S. Constitution and the Holy Bible to justify intolerance.  Bullying, at lowest grade levels, is a problem in our schools.  I think we can learn from the 150 guys I met with Saturday.

Those guys get it, and they not only get it, they’re determined to keep this Peace Initiative going beyond the month of August.  They’re committed to ending violence, respecting diversity and celebrating human development.

Said the Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans:  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 

I’m thinking that some people behind bars, incorrectly labeled the “worst of the worst,” have a pretty good head start over many of us on the outside when it comes to efforts toward peace.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Michelle didn't deserve this!

I’m going to share a sad story with you today.  It comes from my friend Linda, who is a prisoner here in the State of Michigan.  Normally, before we publish stories like this, we tweak them, brush them up, rearrange them, to make them look and sound nice.  Not so this time.  I’m going to let the narrative take its erratic path so that you can actually hear the sobbing hiccups, feel the dampness of the tears.

Linda tells the story of a fellow prisoner named Michelle, who is no longer with us.

I have been in this unit since April 11. Michelle went to diabetic lines every morning and evening. I never knew Michelle as a healthy woman. For these few months, every time a health care professional walked through the waiting room, Michelle asked, “please help me, when am I going to be seen, I hurt so much.” I worked in the medical profession for several years, and in that time I have never seen edema as bad as hers. Her legs were not only swollen, but as her leg rested against the side of her wheelchair on the way to diabetic lines, the compressed, indentation remained through her entire wait. She had bed sores on her body that she could not reach and needed another inmate’s assistance to apply ointment to them. But what the tragedy of this is, she was yelled at by officers, ignored by nurses and doctors and called a faker. One particular officer, on more than one occasion, yelled at her, yelled loud enough to be heard 5 rooms away through closed doors, that she was faking and could not use the wheelchair in the unit. "Get out of that chair, you’re faking and going to really need it if you don't get up and start walking!" Michelle pleaded, “I can’t, I hurt, you don’t understand how bad I hurt.” One day she fell in the bathroom, nurses came in to the unit and the unit officer told them she didn't need a gurney, that she was only faking it.

This week Michelle died.  Do you know why Michelle died?  Her cancer of the stomach returned, aggressively, and took her without any time left to treat or even give her the humanity of care and kindness that she deserved. She was ridiculed and left to suffer and ignored until the new PC came into the unit and sent her to the infirmary. She finally got sent to the hospital, but it was too late. She had no time left.

My immediate response:  I should call a doctor.  (I did.)  I should call a lawyer. (I did.)  I should tip off the media. (I did.)  But there’s only so much that Matt and I can do.  We continue to hear stories about mistreatment of women by the State of Michigan, and yet nothing seems to get done.

So here’s my suggestion this time:  Share the story.  Share it with any Michigan taxpayer you know.  Share it with your State Senator and your State Representative.  Complain loudly.  Make your voice heard. 

I have no idea as to the nature of Michelle’s crime, if there really was one.  I have no idea whether she was a problem patient.  I do know this:  She was someone’s daughter; she was created in the image of God; and, she did nothing to deserve this kind of treatment.

The good news is that Michelle is in a better place now, where there’s no pain, and no more tears are being shed.

The bad news is that we’re still weeping here.

Friday, August 12, 2016

This time it's HFP that has needs!

Buoyed by the success of the PICKING COTTON community book read a year ago, the HFP Development Committee decided on two important fund-raising events for 2016.  With plans to bring a Broadway-style production to our community, DRIVING MISS DAISY was scheduled for the spring of 2016.  And, hoping to establish the tradition of a community book reading event in the autumn, nationally known activist Sister Helen Prejean, author of DEAD MAN WALKING, was booked for next month.

Sadly, the dread disease of cancer has resulted in cancelations of both.

Shortly before the play was due to be produced in Grand Haven, a member of the small cast was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  And just weeks before our fall fund-raiser, Sister Prejean was forced to cancel due to the terminal illness of her sister.  In both situations, this was not just a schedule conflict that could be quickly modified and remedied.  Neither program could be rescheduled in the foreseeable future.

This amounted to a major disappointment at three levels:  for the many people who anticipated attending these delightful programs, for the committee members who felt they had hit two home-runs in one ball game, and for the HFP Board of Directors.  Based on the successful bookings by the committee, the Board had confidently adopted a budget that even allowed for a slight surplus in 2016.  But it was more than a disappointment;  the results were far-reaching.

I know of no way to sugar-coat this.  These two events were projected to bring in $40-50,000, which HFP needs to meet budget.  With a few wonderful exceptions, HFP is much like the Bernie Sanders campaign.  Most of our donors give smaller amounts, and while they are completely faithful, their gifts cannot match our expenses.  A number of the donors are family members of inmates.  Some, themselves, are prisoners.  Their gifts are precious to us, but they’re not sufficient.

While I paint a gloomy picture, I must stress that all of us cling to the fact that, over the past 15 years of our growth and expansion, God has always been faithful!  I’m reminded of the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness.

I tell this story because we have many, many friends and supporters, and I feel that this brief but very real and very immediate financial crisis must be shared. We cannot let discouragement reign. We’re all in this together, and our work is just too important to be disrupted.  So we need you!

Your ideas would be most welcome.

Your prayers are coveted.