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.”

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Wrongful Conviction Day, 2000 innocent people sit behind bars in Michigan! Do you care?

The second of October marks the fourth observance of International Wrongful Conviction Day. I contend that it should be declared a holiday in this country. Not a fun holiday like Christmas, New Year’s Day, Fourth of July or Thanksgiving Day. No, this would be a sad observance, like Memorial Day. Yes, there should be a nationwide effort calling attention to this dreadful infection in the body of what we call the judicial system.

Wrongful Conviction Day was organized to raise awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction and to recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional costs of wrongful conviction for innocent people and their families.

I'd like to call your attention to the Innocence Network, an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing free legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted, working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions, and supporting the exonerated after they are freed.  

As you probably know, it was a wrongful conviction that got me into this business many years ago. As a result, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has always kept a strong focus on the topic. And for good reason.

4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent: 1 in 25, according to the Washington Post.

Time Magazine reports that, for the third year in a row the number of exonerations in the United States has hit a record high. A total of 166 wrongly convicted people whose convictions date as far back as 1964 were declared innocent in 2016. On average, there are now over three exonerations per week—more than double the rate in 2011!

There are no hard data re the number of wrongly convicted prisoners in our system, but estimates range between 5% and 15%. Here in Michigan, that means there are probably 2,000 innocent people in our state prison system, and possibly as many as 6,000

Leading causes, as listed by the experts:

  • Eyewitness Misidentification.
  • Junk Science.
  • False Confessions / Admissions.
  • Prosecutorial Misconduct.
  • Informants or Snitches.
  • Bad Lawyering. 
So take a moment today, not only to say a prayer for the victims of wrongful conviction and those working on their behalf, but also to support all efforts to reduce this problem.

After all, there’s no guarantee that the next victim won’t be you!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

HFP, with a more-than-casual focus on innocent people behind bars

I cannot imagine anything more terrible, more heart-wrenching, more devastating, than sitting behind bars for something you didn’t do! Matt and I got talking about the topic today, because International Wrongful Conviction Day arrives next week.

I’ll be posting a blog with some outrageous facts and figures on Monday, but I just want to talk it through a little bit today.

Those who know me realize that my personal efforts on behalf of a wrongly convicted Michigan prisoner, the late Maurice Carter, led to a new career for me and the formation of this organization. And, Matt got an early taste of it as well, not only because, as a member of my family, he was a personal friend of Maurice. As a young reporter, Matt had an opportunity to cover some major portions of the Carter story, including a personal interview with Rubin Hurricane Carter.

I guess that’s why HFP never lets the focus on wrongful convictions wander too far, even though we’re not lawyers, and even thought HFP is not an Innocence Project.

Our first board of directors contained the names of Keith Findley, co-founder and co-director of the University of Wisconsin Innocence Project; and, Rob Warden, former Executive Director of NWU Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Later, Ken Wyniemko---the second person in Michigan history to be exonerated by DNA testing---served a brief stint on our board.

The Maurice Carter story developed into a book, and then a stage play.

Meanwhile, HFP has collaborated with various lawyers specializing in wrongful conviction cases and continues to support the on-going efforts to free some Michigan prisoners whom we feel are innocent.

In addition, hoping to keep the topic in front of the public, HFP was pleased to bring authors of a best seller, PICKING COTTON, to our community for a public appearance. People are still talking about the powerful message delivered by wrongly convicted inmate Ronald Cotton, and the person who wrongly identified him, Jennifer Thompson.

Our message has been, and continues to be, that it doesn’t just happen to others, it doesn’t just happen to poor people or minorities…it can happen to you! I can give examples of people in business, professional people like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and yes, even cops, who went to prison, and some who even died in prison.

It’s a real problem. A serious problem. And it deserves your attention.

Watch for my blog next Monday.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

It's time to listen!

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
― Bernard M. Baruch

I wish our President could grasp this common-sense approach.

In another of his infamous adlibs, while speaking in a political campaign rally in Alabama yesterday, he asked the audience if they’d “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired?’”

We all know what he’s talking about. It all began when a well-known player took a knee during the national anthem before games last year to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

I’m not going to get in the middle of the argument about the national anthem…I’m getting on the case of people who refuse to listen.

We struggle with this every day. A Michigan prison warden was so upset that I brought in the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate multiple claims of abuse of mentally deranged prisoners that he chose to ban me from giving a speech at his facility. Sorry, but the man didn’t get the point. By calling in the DOJ I wasn’t questioning his personal integrity…I was begging for change in the shameful way we treat our mentally ill inmates. He wasn’t listening.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has chosen to punish all kinds of guys who have been involved in demonstrations. These inmates weren’t trying to get deeper into trouble…they’ve got enough already. They were trying to point out serious problems like bad food. They didn’t get the changes they sought. Instead, they got transfers, tickets, changes in housing levels…retaliation was strong and prompt. The department wasn’t listening.

People are protesting national issues more than ever before, especially issues involving health care. Yet, our leaders continue to propose plans that have the endorsement of NO major medical organization in the nation. They aren’t listening.

It’s time to be quiet. Time to take a deep breath. Time to smell flowers. Time to meditate. Time to pray. Time, especially, to consider the needs and problems of others.

All noise is waste.  So cultivate quietness in your speech, in your thoughts, in your emotions. Speak habitually low.  Wait for attention and then your low words will be charged with dynamite.  ~Elbert Hubbard

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On dominoes, ripples and divine intervention

Go ahead, be clinical about it and call it the domino effect or the ripple effect. Or, be a skeptic and deny that there’s any supernatural influence. I’m here in the middle of it, day after day---have been for the past 16 years---and I know darn well what it is. It’s divine intervention. Pure and simple.

Case in point.

In a telephone conversation with Joyce Davis last May, I discover that this African American mother, battling cancer and living on fixed income in the City of Detroit, is banned from visiting two of her sons serving time in state prisons because of old unpaid traffic tickets.

HFP’s job is first to verify that information. Yep, Lansing says, once a bench warrant is issued for the arrest of someone with unpaid traffic fines, that person may no longer visit persons in the state prison system…not until those fines are paid.

How to help this woman. HFP reaches out to Equal Justice Under Law, fine civil rights organization based in Washington DC that loves to attack states where poor people are punished because they can’t post bond or pay fines. When EJUC gets no response from a prison warden, after explaining that this visitation ban is actually not even in compliance with prison policy, let alone the U.S. constitution, these crack lawyers decide to go to the media.

Enter the Marshall Project--- excellent non-profit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system---where a kind writer not only takes the ball and runs with it…he helps Mrs. Davis to write her own story, in the first person. Immediate response from readers, who ask how they can help!

EJUL quickly sets up a GoFundMe account. In five hours, kind and generous people around the country---many of them doing so anonymously---pony up the $1,500 needed to pay off the fines. For the first time in three years, Mrs. Davis will be able to visit her sons again!

Doug Tjapkes working miracles?

HFP experience and expertise?

Domino effect?

Ripple effect?

Nah, Divine Intervention, without question. It’s a God thing.

We see it daily.