Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Matthew 25

HFP President Doug Tjapkes made a prison visit yesterday.  That was not uncommon, but what was uncommon was the reason for the visit.  The Warden of the prison felt that this elderly individual, now in bad health and who had already served 46 years, deserved to be released.  She asked if HFP would help. 

Herb is 74, died three times while in prison due to a heart attack but was successfully revived, and then survived heart surgery.  5 bypasses later, he’s ready to step out and help others.

In his 46 years behind bars he has received only 5 tickets, none for violence…none in the past 25 years.

In his 46 years he obtained a high school diploma, a liberal arts communicate college certificate, a tool and die worker certificate, and a para-legal degree.  He’s now a library clerk, and loves his work.

A heavy-duty alcoholic, he never touched a drop in the past 46 years (and alcohol is available behind bars!).

He was granted a parole in 1982 by a unanimous Parole Board vote, but the decision was vetoed by a judge unfamiliar with the case who just wanted to be tough on crime.

Since that the, the Parole Board has simply shown “no interest” in his release.

Some reflections by Doug on the prison visit:

I wish you could have been there today.

I wish you could have seen the expression on his face when guards opened the prison gates, and I was allowed to meet with him in a private room.

I wish you could felt the incredible sense of gratitude when he learned that his warden asked me to just do what I could.

I wish you could have heard the agony in his voice as he tried to remember what happened 46 years ago during an alcoholic black-out.

I wish you could have seen the tears roll down his face as he insisted that, at the age of 74, he still had a debt that must be paid to the Lord who not only bailed him out, but also straightened him out. He intends to devote his remaining years to help inmates and former prisoners.

I wish you could have seen the expression of wonder and thanksgiving when I told him that ours is a ministry of compassion and caring…he would not be forgotten.  We couldn’t guarantee success, but we would definitely help.

I wish you could have sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit as I fumbled through a closing prayer that I felt was imperative to the entire experience.

Your partnership with HFP can bring about change. By clicking on our donation button, you can help in the fight to bring about long overdue sentencing reform and badly needed Parole Board reform.  Your dollars will keep us right there on the front line with continued expressions of compassion to the “least of these.”

HFP needs your support.  Today. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

on feelings of remorse

Originally posted on January 7, 2012

A friend of HFP sent in a copy of an editorial that I had written three years ago. It deserves a reprint.

"We hear this all the time!" Assistant Michigan Attorney General Thomas Kulick, with a smirk on his face, in the spotlight at a public hearing this week. "Prisoners are always trying to convince us that they are feeling remorse."

Kulick was responding to the whispered words of a dying inmate, cringing in a wheelchair before him, seeking permission to spend his final days outside of prison . The inmate merely had stated that he was sorry about his earlier life, and he wished he could do it all over again.

Do you know why you hear those words all the time, Mr. Kulick? It's because the Parole Board from your own state makes that demand!

I speak from experience. If prisoners, especially those accused of a sex offense, ever hope to get a parole, they must confess to the crime, and they must show remorse. This comes from the mouths of Parole Board members.

And so, Mr. Kulick, you should be able to predict the results, but I'll explain them anyway.

1. People, falsely accused, sometimes violate all the principles they have been taught, and tell lies to the Parole Board, just because they cannot stand the prison environment anymore and will do anything to get out.

2. Meanwhile, the "con artists" in prison, persons who should not be out on the street, know how to work the system. They weep, they grovel, they say all the words the Parole Board members want to hear. They know what they must do to catch a parole.

3. Yet many people with integrity refuse to compromise. I can still hear the words of the late Maurice Carter, weeks before he died, sitting on a hospital gurney after he was told by former Parole Board Chair John Rubitschun that he could walk free right then if he would merely confess to the crime. He stared at Mr. Rubitschun through his ill-fitting prison-issue glasses, with all the dignity he could muster: I will never admit to a crime that I did not commit! He was in prison 29 years.

So do you see how the system works in reverse, Mr. Kulick?

The prisoners who should remain behind bars find a way to wreak havoc once again in society, while those who maintain their honor are punished by receiving a flop: that is, they are refused parole for another period of time. Sadly, they remain behind bars.
It's no surprise that you hear words of remorse, Mr. Kulick. That's what is expected.

Now it's about time that the citizens of Michigan hear words of remorse from you, your office and the Michigan Parole Board, for missing the whole point!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sometimes they're really NOT sex offenses!

Is our disgust over sex crimes resulting in wrongful convictions? I can’t prove it, but I think so.

Three very good friends of mine were wrongly convicted of sex crimes. In each case, the alleged crimes involved molestation of little girls. In each case, the stories were prompted by adults. In each case, there was another emotion driving the accusations, such as jealousy or vindictiveness. Jealousy over the lifestyle of someone with more wealth, anger as the result of a family fight, or anger over a broken relationship. Accusing a man of molesting a little girl was a way to ease those emotions, perhaps a way to get a financial settlement, perhaps a way to just plain get even.

As a result, these three guys were convicted by juries. Prosecutors are well aware of the fact that average citizens hate the thought of adults molesting kids. They want to put them away.

As a result, these three guys collectively spent decades behind bars. Members of the Michigan Parole Board make no secret of the fact that they dislike sex offenders. They demand that these prisoners show a lot of remorse and regret, and they often decide that the judge’s sentence wasn’t stiff enough. They keep these people in longer than their early release date.

Two of my friends finally got out before serving the maximum sentence by lying. In tears they informed me that they decided to confess to wrongdoing, just so they could get out of prison. They were professional people who couldn’t stand it in there any longer. The third refused to change his story and refused to show remorse for something he didn’t do, so he actually maxed out. They had to let him go because he served every day of his sentence. He’s still a very angry man.

I bring all of this up because the pastor of an area church recently came to me with a fresh case, and it smacks of the same thing. An angry person prompting a trumped-up story by a youngster. And now, another man with no criminal history who has never seen the inside of a prison, destined to spend decades behind bars.

There’s no question that we want stern action taken against those who molest children, and we want those individuals taken out of society and put into cages.

The challenge here is to not play on the emotions of jurors, but to demand thorough investigation that results in solid evidence. Not hearsay and conflicting stories. Let's put the offenders away, but let's be darned sure they're actually offenders.

I’m sad about this new case. I find it very troubling. You’ll be reading and hearing more as the friends and supporters of this obviously innocent man become more vocal in days to come. But the simple conclusion is that another life has been ruined by this hell-bent desire to convict everyone accused of a sex offense, the facts be damned.

Methinks it’s time to get tough on those who fabricate these stories. If the accusations are found to be false, those who started it all should face equally strong charges and equally stiff sentences. And if cops and prosecutors and lawyers are a party to these wrongful convictions, they should not be exempt.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Peace behind bars: an impossible goal?

Can there really be peace behind bars? Probably not, but give Warden Mary Berghuis credit for making huge strides toward that goal.

Ms. Berghuis, whom I describe as a warden with a heart, runs both Brooks and West Shoreline facilities in Muskegon. During my last visit, she handed me a little plastic card with the label: THE POWER OF PEACE PROJECT. I was intrigued, and asked for more information.

Turns out Warden Berghuis, always thinking outside the box for her prisons, met Power of Peace Project founder Kit Cummings at a conference a few years ago. During their conversation, the nationally known motivational speaker offered to go to the Muskegon prisons to introduce his program. And since that time, he has made several return visits.

Cummings’ principles make strong demands of prisoners:

1. I WILL do my very best to live I peace with everyone I meet.
2. I WILL NOT provoke or disrespect anyone.
3. When provoked, I WILL NOT retaliate.
4. When cursed, I WILL NOT curse back.
5. I WILL NOT lie, cheat or steal.
6. When I am wrong, I WILL promptly admit it and quickly make amends.
7. I WILL treat ALL people with the respect with which I wish to be treated.

The warden says that Cummings gets leaders (good and bad) to join together to commit to 40 days of peace, believing that once they’ve had peace for that period of time they will not return to violence. She estimates that over 800 Muskegon prisoners have now participated in this project, and feels it has made a huge impact!

And Cummings isn’t letting up. Warden Berghuis says that he is now trying to connect Muskegon area schools, churches AND prisons in an effort to eliminate violence.

Don’t you wish every prison had this program?

Don’t you wish every prison had a leader like Warden Berghuis?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To that person in the back row with pursed lips

Frequently there’s a person who disagrees.

As President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I’m sometimes asked to explain our work to church and civic groups. While I appreciate the support and acceptance of those smiling and nodding individuals sitting in the front, I have more concern for the one or two frowning persons with pursed lips sitting in the rear.

I’m not only concerned, but I’m sad, because I can predict with some accuracy what these people are thinking. It goes something like this:

Why do prisoners deserve any compassion, decent meals, appropriate health care, and letters from caring individuals? If they hadn’t done the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time. This isn’t a country club. They deserve all the rudeness and mistreatment they get.

What about the victims of the crimes these people committed? Why aren’t you supporting them, instead of the criminals? That’s where the care and compassion should be directed.

What about the corrections officers? Why aren’t you raising funds for them, instead of the animals they are asked to guard? It’s a challenging job at the very least.

Before I send a message to that person in the back row, let me state for the record that we are not asking for a country club atmosphere for prisoners…we simply ask that they be provided the humane treatment that our constitution guarantees. There are agencies and organizations already in existence for victims of crimes, and HFP is a strong supporter of the concept of restorative justice. And we know there are fine corrections officers…we deal with them regularly. But there are bad ones, too.

Now to that person in the back row.

You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be the mother of a teenager who has tried to commit suicide in prison, because insensitive personnel have tampered with or discontinued all-important stabilizing medication. All this while rude guards laugh at him.

You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be the wife of an inmate who now suffers debilitating seizures, simply because the staff wouldn’t listen to his pleas to separate him from a mentally challenged bunkie. By the time he was bopped over the head with a lock it was too late. Closed head injuries. Permanent damage.

You obviously couldn’t identify with the mother of a mentally ill girl in prison, who was denied water for so long and overly medicated to the point that she’s now brain dead. Her distraught family can do nothing more than wait for her to die.

I’m sure you’d never believe that a poor black man didn’t actually commit the crime for which he served 29 years behind bars. An all-white jury surely didn’t believe him. They preferred the unsure and inconsistent testimony of shaky eye-witnesses, while the real criminal laughed all the way to the next drinking party.

And so, to that person in the back row, I suggest two prayers.

Number one, a prayer of thanks that you’ve never had to experience any of this, and that you never will have to in the future.

And number two, that God will reveal to you just what Jesus meant when he talked about showing compassion to a prisoner, as he discusses in Matthew 25.

Meanwhile, Matt and I feel secure in the knowledge that we are doing kingdom work, and we’ll keep searching for a few friendly faces in the audience.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Will the real heroes please stand?

A most amazing event took place this week behind bars. A group of inmates who are members of an organization called SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS presented a staged reading of the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. The program was presented in a classroom of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon. There have been previously staged readings of the drama or segments of it around the country, but never behind bars, and never with a cast consisting solely of prisoners.

The play is a compressed, poignant depiction of the unique relationship between an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, and a middle-class Dutch boy from western Michigan, and their 10-year battle to overturn a wrongful conviction.

It’s important however, to identify the real heroes of the two performances this week.

I don’t mean to minimize the divine plan that put me into the life of Maurice Carter, or vice versa. I certainly don’t mean to downplay the fact that Marcia and I, our daughter Sue and our son Matthew, are still basking in the afterglow of this powerful performance. And I pay only the highest tribute to the cast who worked tirelessly for nearly a year to fashion and craft this spell-binding performance.

I have a problem with the term “hero.”

Marcia and I will readily accept the fact that we tried to do what was right for this unfairly treated man who eventually became known as my brother. And Don Molnar, who wrote the play with his wife Alicia Payne, deserves all the credit in the world for beautifully condensing the highlights of a ten-year saga into a brilliant, two-hour stage production. But we aren’t the heroes.

Let me clearly and emphatically identify the two giants in the room.

HERO NUMBER ONE: CURT TOFTELAND. Curt is the founder of SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS…an amazing program that is changing the lives of incarcerated individuals all over the country. Without his vision and personal encouragement, no dramatic presentation would have occurred this week Tuesday and Thursday.

HERO NUMBER TWO: MARY BERGHUIS. Mary is the veteran warden of Brooks CF, whom I describe as a rare warden indeed, because she has a heart. It is my contention that no other warden in the State of Michigan would have permitted prisoners in her facility to participate in a drama that
-decries the poor medical care often found in our prison system
-ridicules Michigan Parole Board demands that an inmate must confess to wrong-doing and show remorse before considering parole
-depicts the former chairman of the Parole Board as being cruel and unreasonable
-suggests that the man for whom the prison hospital is named should be ashamed
-makes no secret of the fact that some prison guards are callous and heartless!

Warden Berghuis allowed this drama to be presented in its entirety, without any editing or censorship!

Actor Jamie Studivant, whose arresting performance in the role of Maurice Carter, said it well when he reflected in the talk-back following the play: Maurice Carter is still touching lives.

But Maurice Carter would not have touched the lives of every individual in that room this week, were it not for the incredible vision of heroes Tofteland and Berghuis, who demonstrate by their very actions an absolute belief that prisoners are created in the image of God. Redemption can even occur among those who our director of corrections once labeled “the worst of the worst.”


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A still small voice for prisoners

In his fine sermon series on prayer, Pastor Nate Sunday challenged us to find God in our simple, every day experiences. He used the example from I Kings 19, when God told Elijah that the Lord was about to pass by. There were strong winds, there was an earthquake, and there was fire…but God wasn’t there. After all of these sensational phenomena came a gentle whisper, and God was in that still small voice.

That challenge has prompted me and fellow church members this week to wake up to the fact that we can see God in something as simple as the first sip of a steaming hot cup of coffee in the morning, or a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset, or a favorite piece of music.

But it also prompted me to take this whole thing one step farther. Perhaps if we run across people who have a hard time seeing God anywhere, our challenge should be to help them reach this experience. As I reflected on that while waking up this morning, it dawned on me that this has been a specific goal of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

I’ll use some of our experiences with women in prison as an example.

Is it even possible for women to see God in a prison complex where something as simple as daily survival has turned to hell, because of
-serious overcrowding that results in shamefully limited numbers of toilets and showers
-cruel policies that limit the numbers of toilet paper rolls and sanitary pads
-unspeakable atrocities that are witnessed in the treatment of mentally ill inmates?

The answer is in the still small voice that God provided through a simple little agency like HFP:
-driving all the way to Ypsilanti just to hold the door open for a grateful prisoner stepping into freedom after catching a parole
-shedding tears with a weeping inmate during a brutal Parole Board interview
-providing testimony that prodded a parole board to grant a compassionate release so that a cancer patient could spend her final days at home with family and friends
-persuading a reluctant State of Michigan to take a chance on a woman with a checkered past who proved she is now ready to be a productive citizen
-convincing the US Department of Justice that brutal treatment of mental patients is cruel and unusual punishment
-providing yarn worth thousands and thousands of dollars so that women could find some purpose in life by knitting garments for persons in homeless shelters.

The list goes on and on, and obviously it extends to the men in prison as well. It’s what we do on a daily basis.

May we accept Nate’s challenge and find God in the most interesting places today.

And beyond that, may we help others to see him who never dreamed they could or would.