Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hurting for the "little guy"

In my years of radio broadcasting, a listener finally wrote a letter to the radio station wondering just who was that “little guy” that I kept fighting for?  I never kept it a secret that, as an editorial writer, I was going to flex my muscles on the airwaves for the “little guy.”

That is still my passion.

On this day before Thanksgiving, I’m sitting here trying to fashion a prayer to be recited by our extended family before dinner tomorrow.  I’m using the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson as a template.

As I try to concentrate, my mind keeps wandering to issues that I find troubling at Thanksgiving time, 2015:  terrorist attacks, nations fighting with nations, shootings by those who are supposed to be protecting us, hateful comments toward people of a religion different than my own.  Sad.

But once again, the problem of the “little guy” takes precedence.

Years ago I took up the cause of a prisoner who was NOT wrongly convicted.  And here’s why.

He had first-hand knowledge of a murder…another prisoner had openly boasted about committing the crime.  This inmate is a Christian, and felt that it was his duty to report this to authorities.  He didn’t ask for anything in return.  He wasn’t trying to get a lesser sentence.  He wasn’t hoping for a transfer to a less secure prison.  He was simply doing what his conscience told him to do.

But the state improved on that.  Thanks to discussions by his attorney and with the Prosecutor of that county, my friend was promised that if he testified in court, and if that testimony was effective, they would do their part to get him re-sentenced.  That would be huge, because it would eventually mean freedom for him. 

And so he testified.  The testimony worked!  The state got a conviction on first degree murder.
What happened to my friend?  Did he get re-sentenced?  Is he a productive citizen in a free society now?  Don’t make me laugh.

He’s still in prison.  The guarantees of anonymity were hollow. He constantly fears for his life, despised by both guards and inmates.  There are rumors of contracts on his life.  Last year someone tried to poison him.

What about the offer by the state?  Well, they’ve re-thunk it.  They got what they wanted, and after all, this guy is just a prisoner, right?

Thanks to HFP, one of the state’s leading criminal defense attorneys has come to this man’s assistance.  We appealed to the Governor for a commutation of sentence based on all this prisoner has done, because he has helped the state numerous times since then.  The Assistant Prosecutor who originally put him away wrote a three-page letter of support! 

Did the Governor listen?  Nope.

Two days before Thanksgiving, 2015, he received a letter of rejection in the mail.

Happy Thanksgiving!

As I’m writing tomorrow’s prayer for my beautiful family, I’m hurting for the “little guy.” 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A broken heart for Thanksgiving

Mr. H just received a rotten Thanksgiving present:  He must spend 5 more years in prison.  He has already served 47 years.

I first met him just a year ago.  His prison warden, who has a heart for the down-trodden, personally asked me if there was some way that HFP could help this man in obtaining a release.

For the sake of background, Mr. H is 74 years of age.  The warden claims that he actually died three different times in her prison, only to be revived again.  He’s had 5-bypass heart surgery.  He has serious leg problems that give him constant pain, and keep him in a wheelchair. His health is a mess.

I wouldn’t dare publish his name because of the severity of the crime.  Those in his community who remember it would say he deserves to remain behind bars, and deserves every bit of the accompanying pain and discomfort that he lives with on a daily basis. 

On the other hand, I listened to the warden, was given a private meeting with him, and on her recommendation decided that we should try to help.  Lifers like Mr. H get to appear before the Parole Board once every 5 years, and his turn came up in August.  His crime was so heinous that all family and friends have long abandoned him, so I offered to be at his side for the interview.  It was a disaster.

Never mind that Mr. H had committed the crime while high on alcohol and drugs and cannot remember what happened.  The Parole Board member insisted that he give her specific details as to what happened in 1968.  As an alcoholic, he had experienced a typical blackout.  He couldn’t give her the information she wanted, and that infuriated this state employee.  He could have lied and made up a story, but he chose to tell the truth, and that wasn’t acceptable. 

Because of that, she paid little attention to the fact that he hasn’t had a misconduct in 25 years, that he went on to get his GED, then a tool and die maker certificate, then a paralegal degree.  It made no difference to her that this alcoholic hasn’t touched a drop during his entire imprisonment, even though homemade booze is always available.  His remorse and regret result in uncontrollable sobbing at times...and it happened again during the interview.  It’s no secret that he changed his life and became a man of sincere faith, believing that because the Lord had saved his life he must do good things in return.  So as a paralegal, he’s helping one prisoner after another with free assistance, and doing it with a glad heart.

Nope, none of that made any difference to this veteran member of the Michigan Parole Board.  She just handed him a flop---prison terminology for a continuation.  He got the word a few days ago.

Not only will he remain in prison for the next five years, the state will wind up paying double or triple the cost for this man’s care, because of his severe health problems.  And it didn’t have to be that way.  Mr. H would have been a productive member of society.

Does anyone wonder why Michigan’s prison population is so high?

Said the former warden, who felt he should have been released:  “This is just awful!” 



Thursday, November 19, 2015

When thanks changed my attitude

I was about to write a “poor me” blog today.  In fact, I had it half finished.  It’s not really my nature to be that negative, but when things start to go south I have to catch myself.

I was finding plenty of justification:

            Money is not coming in
            A recent speech about HFP seemed to fall flat
            A prison warden just censored email messages to two inmates.

HFP survives on contributions and gifts.  When we slip $10,000 behind budget by this time of the month we have some concerns.  Would we have to go back to some pay-less paydays?

I’m used to varied reactions to my speeches about HFP, but I never get used to the fact that some people are just not all this passionate about helping prisoners.  In my mind I quietly wonder how they’d feel if it was their son or daughter, mentally ill, being abused by staff members not properly trained for this kind of care.  I wonder how they’d feel if a handicapped member of their family was getting teased and ignored, rather than receiving compassionate concern and assistance.  While they listened politely, an all-white, middle-income audience recently expressed little response after I was finished.  That always leaves me discouraged.

And we thought we had just about gotten on top of the whole problem of censored email messages.  There was fault on both sides, and after a productive meeting at corrections headquarters we patched it up and agreed to move ahead.  But today, two messages rejected…messages that had been sent weeks ago, never arriving at their destination.  The two messages went to the same facility, where the warden is believed to have an attitude about HFP.  That type of harassment saddens me.  It would be one thing if we were trying to violate rules, or smuggle in contraband, or stir up revolutionary thoughts.  But in this case we were trying to help with arts and crafts, and with a commutation application.  We get censored when we’re trying to do good?   Phttttt!

But then my thought processes were balanced out by two beautiful women.

One was a member of that audience that I just made reference to…I had noticed that she was smiling and nodding.  She rushed up to me at the conclusion of my presentation, and asked:  “May I give you a hug?”  She quickly explained that she had had a brother who served time in a Michigan prison.  “Yours is the work of God,” she exclaimed.

And the second is a new friend from Australia, who recently paid a visit to the states and with whom I recently visited.  She claimed her friend was wrongly convicted, and had nowhere to turn.  I met her over coffee, agreed that it was a compelling case, and put her in touch with the director of an Innocence Project.  That turned out to be a successful meeting, and both this woman and the prisoner now have hope.

Said she, in an email message:  “If only there were more people like this (HFP), who go out of their way to help prisoners in need, give them a voice on the outside when no one else is willing to listen, show them compassion and give them hope.”

I was the one who needed the pickup today, and it came from these two unlikely sources.  I owe them my thanks.

The money is still a concern, but God has never failed yet.  I fall back on the words of this favorite hymn:  …All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

At 79, right where I belong!

Elliot and Douger have something in common.

We’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Elliot Uzelac these days.  He’s the fine American football coach, with a history in the pros and in college football, who at the age of 74 decided to serve as head coach at Benton Harbor High School.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, the high school is located in a community fraught with problems, and all of those problems were reflected in the history of the local high school football team.  Prior to this season, the team had won only 4 games in 8 years! 

Uzelac had a successful and productive career as a football coach.  But he couldn’t resist this challenge.  Within days after assuming his new position, things began to turn around.  And after the last game was played, the team was able to boast about its first winning season in 25 years!  The team even went on to win its first game ever in the playoffs! 

There’s a much bigger story here.  The kids learned a lot more than how to win football games.  They learned that regardless of skin color, there are people who care.  Thanks to the coach and his wife, who took it on herself to see that these hungry players in a low-income community received good meals, self-esteem has risen to the surface for the first time in decades.  And it extends far beyond the team…it radiates all through this battered and abused community.  Hope and pride now fill a huge gap that was prevalent in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Here’s my take on all this.  All his years of coaching at the college and professional level were simply God’s way of preparing him to take on this challenge:  serving the downtrodden.  His last career, the one at age 74, is the one with real meaning.

Said Elliot:  Kids are worth it!

I’m thinking about all of this on the morning of my 79th birthday.

My two earlier careers were not nearly as noteworthy as those of Coach Uzelac.  But I loved both of them.  I began my career in radio as a part-time announcer, disc jockey and newsman, in 1954.  I ended it as a radio station owner in 1983.  Throughout my broadcasting career, I tried to focus on small market excellence, especially in radio journalism, and focused on helping, what I called, “the little guy.”  There were awards.  Local. State. National.  That plus a buck will get you a senior coffee.

After that I served a fine local dealership as a church organ sales representative.  As an active church musician it was an extension of something I love, and I was proud to have been involved in improving and enhancing the music programs and worship services of more than 200 churches over a 21-year period.  At our peak, our little dealership reached national recognition as the dealer of the year.  Worth another senior coffee.

But as I reflect on it, as in Elliot’s case, this was God’s way of preparing me for my third, final, and most important career:  extending a cup of cool water in the name of Jesus to prisoners:  serving the downtrodden.  This is the one with real meaning.

Says Douger:  Prisoners are worth it!

Elliot and Douger.  Right where God put them.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Little things mean a lot!

The year was 1954…one of the most exciting times in my life.  I had my first legitimate radio job:  weekend disc jockey and announcer for WMUS, in Muskegon! 

In those days, a disc jockey was really a disc jockey.  For the most part, I was spinning 78 RPM records on the two turntables.  And one of those records was a new hit by pop singer Kitty Kallen:  LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT.

The job led to a thrilling and rewarding career in radio broadcasting that spanned nearly 30 years.  In 1983, radio was finished, and a new life selling church organs began.  21 years later, this old man began still a third new career:  showing compassion to prisoners.  It’s important to note here that while jobs changed, the lyrics to the old popular song held true, and perhaps have more meaning now than ever before!

The song lyrics popped into my head this morning as I was reflecting on the number of prisoners who are just begging for Matt and me to get to know them.  The underlying message is simply this:  “Once you get to know me, you’ll find I’m OK…you’ll like me!”

Just this week a prisoner who has been leaning hard on me to write a letter of support to the Parole Board took the next step, and urged me to call his family members to confirm that he’s a nice man and deserving of my support. 

Another inmate dropped a note yesterday asking if I had abandoned him.  He said that everyone else had, but he was clinging to our friendship.  Why wasn’t he hearing from me?

Two days ago an old friend, an elderly black man who has been wrongly convicted, called me on the phone to say that it appears that everyone has forgotten him.  He had the strong backing of an international innocence project, when they suddenly dropped his case.  Then a private US innocence project took him on, and now he hears nothing.  We appear to be among the few who actually believe in him.  He’s heart-broken.

Message after message comes to the HFP office, pleading with us to figuratively hold their hands, give them a kind word, show a hint of friendship.  That brings me back to Kitty Kallen’s popular song of 1954:  LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT.Look at these lyrics:

Give me a hand when I've lost the way
Give me your shoulder to cry on
Whether the day is bright or gray
Give me your heart to rely on
Send me the warmth of a secret smile
To show me you haven't forgot
That always and ever, that now and forever
Little things mean a lot.

I don’t think Jesus meant that all of his followers had to drop everything and go into full-time prison ministry, in his message of Matthew 25.  I think his message was:  LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT!

Matt and I must never forget this.

Neither should you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Some days it's not much fun in this office!

We promise to try to help any Michigan prisoner dealing with an in-prison problem.  If we can.  And that’s a big “if.”  Today Matt and I haven’t been much help.

A prisoner tells us by email that a car ran over him before he went to prison.  Says the inmate:  I haven't gotten any therapy or anything, they just gave me a booklet of things I should do. I got a limp, my ankles hurt, and swell up. They won't give me a shoe detail or anything. I've ask them to give me some shoes but they deny me for everything.  We checked with one of our doctors regarding the injury.  Nothing more that can or should be done.  We checked with a former MDOC official regarding the procedure:  Shoes aren’t all that great.  He should carefully read that booklet.

Another inmate tells us about the transfer of prisoners from an Upper Peninsula facility that was recently closed, to a recently re-opened unit just down the street.  There is fiberglass insulation shoved in the ventilation, the toilets are constantly flooding, there aren't any shelves in the lockers, they have household size washer n dryer for 160 people, they are violating fire codes in the chow hall in regards the maximum occupancy, there are carpets in the rooms with no vacuum cleaners, there was a unit that went 3 days without hot water, visiting room only holds 16 people, the vents in the bathroom leak on you when you are using the toilet.  Our best resource is a former MDOC official.  Her response:  “I know when they open a new place there are problems like these.  …The issues you get are the draining ones for everyone…if they care.”

A prisoner has an urgent legal matter and is willing to pay an attorney to help.  He claims that he and his family have spent $350,000 on lawyers and court costs so far, but he’s still behind bars.  He claims that he has one avenue of appeal left.  Turns out he doesn’t.  Says one of the state’s leading legal experts on appeals:  “Mr. Sanders wants a second bite of the 6.500 apple, but he only gets one.  The only exceptions are when ‘a retroactive change in law occurred after the first motion from relief from judgment or a claim of new evidence that was not discovered before the first such motion.’  Michigan Court Rule (MCR) 6.502(G)(2).  He can't meet that hurdle.  He is procedurally out of luck.”

And then the final sour blow of this day.  A distraught mother of a Michigan inmate called in tears.  Her son, who had served 18 years for his crime, was due to be released this morning.  He had served the minimum term of his sentence, he was a model prisoner and was in a Level One facility.  Yesterday he packed up his belongings, and he gave away all his personal hygiene products.  A friend was driving from Battle Creek way up to Marquette to pick him up.  At 5:30 PM yesterday a prison staff member apologized to him, saying he wasn’t going anywhere.  The Parole Board had miscalculated the time he should have served…he would have to stay for another 18 months!  The inmate’s driver was just about to Mackinaw City when she was called by the prison.  In tears, she turned her car around.  The elderly parents, in their 70s and in poor health, are devastated.  And we were unable to do any good.  We didn’t protest the miscalculation so much as the timing.  His mother asked Michigan Parole Board officials if they didn’t know about this before 5:30 yesterday afternoon.  She related this reply:  “They said they didn't, in fact they said they have released people before and went back and picked them up again!  Because they have people looking the records over for them.”  And people wonder why we’re clamoring for Parole Board reform!

On a day like today it feels like all we’re doing is spinning our wheels.  We don’t seem to be helping anyone.  The only answers we’re giving our friends behind bars are in the negative.  I’m sad when we just can’t give more encouragement.

But then there’s a little daylight.

From one inmate:  "I just talked to the counselor…he looked on his computer for me to see if I have a parole. Well, I do! I have a projected out date of December 8th.  Again, Doug, I thank you and Matt very much for all of your help, coming out for the Parole Board hearing, and especially your prayers. You are very much appreciated."

And from a little church in a small Michigan community where Matt and I recently made a presentation came this message today:  “I am connecting you with the Chair of our Church and Society Committee.  Her committee has decided to support Humanity for Prisoners with a donation.” God us good!

Another day in the HFP office. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On MAURICE HENRY CARTER DAY, the key word is “frustration!”

That single word perhaps best summarizes our battle to obtain Maurice’s freedom.

Here are some things that topped our frustration list.

His defense attorney
The prosecutor
The judge
The judicial system in general
The community
The public
The Parole Board
The Governor
The prison staff
Prison medical care, or lack thereof
The slowness of speed for the wheels of justice.  (Quoting Maurice:  When my case came along, the wheels of justice ground to a halt!).

My involvement began after he had already served nearly 20 years.  Convinced that I could make a difference, and in a hurry, I soon learned otherwise.  Here’s just a short list of additional things that frustrated me.

The lack of interest
The lack of support
The generally negative feeling toward prisoners, even, and perhaps especially, among Christians
The reaction of many of my own friends (I wish Doug would quit saying the man is innocent!)
The common perception that all prisoners say they’re not guilty
The common perception that “if they hadn’t done the crime they wouldn’t be doing the time.”

Through all of this, however, we formed the organization now known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, with a full-time staff of two and a list of volunteers in a variety of professions that now numbers 50.  Together Matt and I respond to 150 to 200 contacts a month from Michigan prisoners, hoping to show some concern, some humanity, some compassion, to those behind bars…and averaging one new prisoner a day!

And guest what!  We have exactly the same frustrations!  The list remains unchanged.

Despite all of the frustrations, Maurice Carter remained upbeat, optimistic, and forever kind and forgiving.  He’s our model.  So we continue our work in that same upbeat tempo, forever optimistic, and doing our best to be kind and compassionate to the “least of these” in the name of Jesus.

I love the story of the little girl on the seashore who was tossing stranded starfish back into the water as the tide was going out.  An older man watched for a few minutes, and then said:  “Little girl, don’t you know that this beach goes on for miles?  Millions of starfish are stuck on this sand.  You can’t possibly make a difference.”

The child was silent for a moment.  She walked over to a starfish, tossed it back into the ocean and said quietly, “Made a difference for that one!”

That’s the HFP story.

Touching lives.  One at a time.  Thanks to the vision of Maurice Carter.