Sunday, July 24, 2016

July 24: A very special day!

July 24 is a red-letter day!  For two reasons.  First, it’s our youngest son Matthew’s birthday.  And second, it’s the day that Maurice Henry Carter walked out of prison into the free world, after spending 29 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.  I was at his side when he walked out of the Duane L. Waters Prison Hospital on this date in 2004.

Matt would agree that his birthday in 2004 was special, because as a young reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune, he was assigned to cover Maurice Carter’s release.  His story was on the front page of the newspaper.  His picture of Maurice holding his freedom papers high above his head graces the cover of my book SWEET FREEDOM.

Neither Maurice, nor Matt, nor I could have predicted our future involvement with prisoners.  My 9-year battle to free Maurice led to the formation of what we now know as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  Maurice kept insisting that there was a critical need for an organization like ours, while I quietly dealt with a personal desire to get back into radio broadcasting---my first career and my first love.  Matt made a few career changes, while he quietly dealt with his desire to do radio sports broadcasting.  He had no intention of getting into the prison business.  Today, with a generous amount of divine intervention, I serve as President of HFP while radio is nothing more than a fond memory.  And Matt is now Executive Director of HFP, and he enjoys an avocation of high school and college sports broadcasting.

Over the past 15 years, our goal and our mission have been fine-tuned, and the number of professional volunteers who assist us in an advisory capacity now totals over 50!  Unlike other advocacy agencies who spend some time helping individual prisoners, HFP devotes all of its time and energy assisting Michigan inmates who are struggling with a variety of in-prison problems, issues and needs.  Our case file is in the hundreds, and for more than two years running we have added the name of one new prisoner per day to the list of people whom we are serving.

Continuity is our goal now, and to help with that our aggressive Board of Directors has retained a fine consultant who specializes not only in assisting 501c3 agencies, but who has a personal history of working with prisoners.  After a thorough evaluation of our work, he boldly stated, No one is doing what you are doing; no one wants to do what you are doing; no one dares to do what you are doing!

High praise, indeed, but something we have realized for a long time. 

May God bless our plans for growth, expansion and continuity!

May we look forward to that day when chapters of HFP can be established in many other states!

But most important, may we never lose sight of the fact that our primary goal is to get down into the trenches, roll up our sleeves, and help prisoners with kindness and compassion, one at a time, in the name of Jesus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On anger and injustice

Many years ago I spoke at a prayer breakfast.  I had recently assumed the prestigious position of President and General Manager of Radio Station WGHN in Grand Haven, and I was still in my 20s.  I knew a lot in those days.  The topic of my remarks was “Righteous Indignation,” and I pointed out that even Jesus got angry with the money changers in the temple…that, if for the right reasons, it was OK to get angry.

Well, there are some things that still make me angry, but I must admit that 50 years later, my thoughts have tempered on the subject of anger.  I’m hearing and reading about anger higher than any levels that I can remember.  The newspapers, the TV, social media, are all bursting with vitriolic comments.

I’ve found three quotes that I appreciate:  one from a famous philosopher, one from the brother of Jesus, and one from a theologian.  Here goes:

On anger:

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”
― Aristotle

On human response to anger:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. ---James 1:19-20

Yes, as I work with prisoners around the clock, 7 days a week, I’ll admit I get angry.

I get angry at Prosecutors who deliberately avoid facts leading to wrongful convictions.

I get angry at the judicial system in my country, the “Home of the brave, and land of the free,” where we shamefully claim the highest rate of incarceration in the world, where we refuse to ban the death penalty, and where we continue to sentence people to life without parole.

I get angry when we refuse to properly compensate the wrongly convicted

I get angry when Parole Boards refuse to release prisoners who deserve to be free.

I get angry at all kinds of mistreatment of prisoners, both by fellow inmates and by some staff members.

I get angry, all right…and the list of things that make me angry seems to grow every day.

I mentioned at the beginning of this rant that I wanted to pass along three quotes.  I’ll conclude with the third one: good advice for all of us, especially me.  This comes from an article written by Jonathan Merritt, senior columnist for Religion News Service and the author of "Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars."

Leaders will debate what should be done in the face of an epidemic of violence, but something must be done. A life of faith is a life of prayer and action, but never one without the other. Action without prayer is merely activism, and prayer without action is useless piety.

Let’s take time to pray.  And act!

Friday, July 8, 2016

No getting around it: It's racism

Many of us are in a state of denial these days, as we read and hear about white police officers shooting young black men.  We don’t like the word racism, we don’t like to talk about it, and we especially don’t like to admit that it still exists…even in our own hearts. 

One would think that, in my first career as a broadcast journalist, I might have seen a lot of and know a lot about racism.  But that wasn’t the case.  The bulk of my local news coverage occurred in the Grand Rapids, Holland and Grand Haven markets.  In those days we could count the number of black families in Holland or Grand Haven on one hand.

No, my first real dealings with racism occurred when I tried to free a black man who had been wrongly convicted.  He was charged by a white prosecutor, was found guilty by an all-white jury, and sentenced to life in prison by a white judge.  He had been accused of shooting and injuring a white cop, and somebody of color had to pay.

While leading the fight to free Maurice Carter, I had occasion to work with black members of the cloth.  These preachers in Benton Harbor would tell horror stories about being stopped by the police for a faulty taillight, and having to get out of the car, put their hands on the roof of the vehicle, and be publicly frisked.  Even when out fishing in their nice boat, the water cops would stop them to check out everything.  If black people had an expensive boat, something must be fishy…no pun intended.

A young man known as “Bear” who had served in the U.S. military, took me around Benton Harbor.  As I drove, he pointed out shabby buildings where the little black kids went to school, compared to the nice schools across the river where the white boys and girls attended class.  He showed me the fancy, private baseball diamond where employees of Whirlpool got to play ball, and the dirty sand lot where the black kids competed.  He showed me the run down park on Lake Michigan where the blacks had picnics, as compared to the fancy white beaches in St. Joe.

Matt and I see and hear about and feel racism every day, in the year 2016, as we work with prisoners.  The American Friends Service Committee did a study showing how a disproportionate number of Michigan prisoners are black, as compared to crimes actually committed.  A report by the Center for American Progress notes that it is women — disproportionately women of color — who are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. African American women make up almost one-third of the female prison population and are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women.

It’s not just happening on the streets in Louisiana or Minnesota, either.  It’s happening way up at the highest levels in our country.  No president has ever experienced the obstructionism, scorn and derision as our nation’s first black commander in chief.  No one who is so openly bigoted has ever risen to the top of one of our major political parties.  Yet we blindly call it business as usual.

It’s here, boys and girls…not only on the local level, but right on up to the national level.  And all levels in between.  And it’s racism, pure and simple.

Rev. Al Sharpton is probably correct in saying things aren’t going to improve in the police shooting incidents until some white cops go to jail, instead of having all charges dropped.  But I think it must start with you and me. 

It’s gotta start with how we talk around the dinner table, and the things we chat about in our favorite neighborhood bar.  We must stand, and if necessary, join with our black brothers and sisters in protest.  Our church groups must make this a matter of discussion and prayer.  Our lily white church services must not just simply sing gleeful songs of praise (the cops aren’t shooting our kids!), but must also include songs of lament and prayers of confession. 

Today let’s take this stand with Dr. Martin Luther King:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Thursday, June 30, 2016

We must get off our butts! Now!

Things were getting under my skin this week.  It all came to a head as I watched a TV report on progress, or lack thereof, in the Flint dirty water case last night.  That was it.  “It’s time to throw out the Governor,” I thought.

Then I listened further.  Not only is the Governor and his administration taking their sweet time, but also the state legislature and the U.S. Congress are shirking their duties.

Let’s move on.  Here’s the background for my eruption today.

Earlier this week I joined hands with a small group of professional people to try to help a prisoner who is innocent of the crime for which he had been sentenced to life behind bars.  These people wanting to help aren’t just average citizens---two businessmen, a retired judge, and two of the finest criminal defense attorneys in their market.  This innocent man was put in prison 15 years ago by a County Prosecutor who used junk science not once, but twice, to get a conviction!  It is my belief that the Prosecutor knew this when he did it.  And if he didn’t, he should have!

Later in the week I received word that a prisoner who is a good friend, who has served 40 years for a crime he did commit, but who has turned his life around and is eligible for parole was denied that opportunity.  The Parole Board was willing, but a judge in the court where he had been originally been sentenced vetoed the idea, and that decision is binding.  The original judge is no longer in office, so this was a successor judge who prides herself on being tough on crime.  The prisoner is not only a model prisoner, but he has been working with us over the years to help other inmates in dealing with Parole Board issues.  He’s not only deserving of a parole, but he’s exactly the kind of productive person that would make an excellent citizen in the free world.  Until we can get that rule changed, successor judges hold lives in their hands.

Now here’s the kicker.

The unfeeling judge, the devious prosecutor, the state legislators, the people in congress, as well as the man who serves as our Governor…they’re all elected!  They’ve all been chosen by the people, and they can all be replaced.  They can also be influenced by voters.

The people in my business complain regularly about the need for sentencing reform, the need for Parole Board reform, the need for compensation for those who have been wrongly convicted.  All of these things are in the hands of people we have elected.

We may not just sit here and complain.  It’s time that we get off our collective and complacent asses and do something!  Say something!  Vote!  Or if necessary, register to vote.

And don’t give me this business of not liking anyone who is running, so you’re going to sit this one out.  That just makes you part of the problem!

Martin Luther King said:  "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." 

Right on, Brother!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Take time to smell the bacon!

We take so much for granted.

People who are visually impaired admit they never appreciated the beauty around them until they lost their eyesight, and couldn’t see it any more.  It’s the same with all the senses…it’s the same with all that we enjoy.

I’m thinking of this because a former prisoner explained to me some of the things she enjoyed the most upon her release.  She was able to eat with a real spoon, knife and fork again, instead of the plastic “spork” used in the prison system.  She was so grateful to be able to hold a baby, to pet a dog, and to grab a piece of fresh fruit whenever she felt the urge.

I stood with a newly released prisoner in his first living quarters, a small apartment in a nice neighborhood.  He turned off all the lights, and savored the darkness and the silence.  For years he had not been in the dark, nor had he been in a place free of noise.

None of us can really identify with the feelings of prisoners, but I can come close on one topic:  tasting, eating and swallowing food.  In the year 2010 I was attacked by a brutal staph infection that eventually resulted in the loss of my ability to swallow.  I remember lying in a hospital bed and fantasizing about chug-a-lugging a glass of ice water.  For six months I was kept alive by nourishment that was fed into my body, liquid style, through a feeding tube.  I was most grateful for life, but how I missed tasting food and drink!

We have a lot of complaints and gripes, but I’m here to make the case that most of us have a lot to be thankful for, regardless of our current circumstances.  You’ll especially think this is true after visiting kids in the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, old folks in a nursing home, patients in a cancer clinic, old-timers in a VA facility, and yes---residents of our county jails, and our state and federal prisons.

Today, take the time not only to smell the roses, but to smell and chew the bacon!

Then take the time to pray---for those who don’t have all the things we take for granted; and to give thanks for the simple blessings we enjoy each day.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Don't throw away the key!

Paul’s offense wasn’t one of those vicious, brutal crimes that we read about on the front page.  No.  Instead, it was the kind of crime that disgusts us, the kind that we detest to the nth degree.  We want these kind of people put away.

I’m reminded of that today, because Paul called our office from his new home in Grand Rapids.  He is enjoying transitional housing, provided by a fine ministry that works hard to keep prisoners from re-offending.  He simply wanted us to know that he’s doing great, and that, at the age of 41, he’s intent on making a new life for himself.

I’m not about to use his real name, or describe his crime, because I suspect you’d get disgusted all over again and ask why he’s on the outside.

Actually, those are the thoughts we struggled with at first.  But Paul’s letters to HFP seemed genuine.  From what we could tell, he had a real conversion experience while in prison.  I know, I know.  The Parole Board hears this all the time.  “I’ve met the Lord, and now I’m not the same person I was when I entered prison.” 

Even if Paul’s letters were accurate, because of the nature of the crime and because of the psychological issues that led him into this kind of activity, he would have a long, uphill struggle.  Still, we believed him, and we stuck with him.

When it came time for his appearance before the Parole Board, he had no friends or family willing to be at his side, so Matt Tjapkes was his representative.  We were surprised to learn later that parole had been granted.

The State of Michigan wasn’t about to just let this man out on the street.  He was first paroled to, what the state calls, a community corrections center.  This type of program provided not just housing, but also much more structure than just regular probation.  Unlike many other prisoners whom we have helped, Paul stayed in touch with us.  Periodically I would receive a letter from the center.  No complaints about the strictly-enforced structure…only positive statements.  He was there for a year, before he was allowed to get his own lodging through a ministry in Grand Rapids.  That’s where the call came from this morning.  Still positive.  Still upbeat.

Kind of reminds us of another Paul.

This guy was persecuting Christians, and not just pestering them.  He was seeing to it that they were placed in jail or even put to death.  That is, until a most remarkable conversion experience, as reported in the book of Acts.  Christians weren’t quickly ready to accept the new convert.  Even Jesus’ disciples were skeptical.  The rest is history.  Just check your Bible to see how many of the New Testament books were written by this reformed criminal.

I’m not saying today’s modern-day Paul, our friend, is going to set the world on fire.  I’m reporting to you that he’s taking one day at a time, and doing a great job. 

Let’s not be quick to say, “Throw away the key!”

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The system ain't working the way it's supposed to!

I was in prison twice this week.  The two visits proved to me, once again, just how difficult the system makes it for someone to walk out of there.  My first visit was to participate in a Public Hearing, conducted by the Michigan Parole Board, to determine whether an inmate should be granted a parole.  The second visit was a strategy session to make some legal plans.’

The cases are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Case number one involves an indigent, Hispanic prisoner guilty of his crime.  Case number two involves a middle-class white man who is completely innocent. 

I was the only person to testify in the Public Hearing for Mr. A.  After being in prison for nearly 39 years, friends and family are gone.  His wife and mother died years ago.  I’ve participated in enough Public Hearings to know that this was going to be an uphill effort.  I felt that I should be there for him.

Here’s the thing I don’t understand.  The Parole Board members, but more specifically the Assistant Attorney General, spent one hour and 45 minutes trying to get this man to clearly and succinctly state why, at the young age of 18 and completely drunk, his hormones raged out of control and he committed a heinous crime.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t find the right words to please them.  And then, after battering him for nearly two hours, they spent less than five minutes to cover the fact this uneducated young Latino made it his business not only to get his GED but also to go on and take college courses.  He enrolled in all necessary programs, and his prison record is really quite good for 39 years behind bars.  In other words, the prison system’s goals seemed to have worked with Mr. A.  But I can feel it in my bones.  They’re not going to let this poor dude out for a second chance.  40 years isn’t enough!  Someday he'll learn his lesson.

Now let’s move on to case number two.  Mr. B’s attorney screwed up in the trial.  He didn’t sufficiently challenge the junk science used by the Prosecutor to obtain a conviction.  As a result, all appeals have been exhausted, and after 15 years this innocent man remains behind bars.  I was part of a team of four, including two businessmen and a retired judge, trying to figure out how we can help this well-educated, well-spoken white man get back into society where he belongs.  The frustrating thing is, it’s just not easy.  Never mind that the man had no priors, never mind that two polygraph tests couldn’t trip him up, never mind that shady junk science was used to put this man behind bars.  The truth be damned.  Nothing has worked so far!

My experiences this week provide just a little window into a system that badly needs repair and revision.

When all else failed, my friend Maurice Carter, who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, used to say, “We’ll have to leave it in God’s hands.”

And that’s exactly where I am today after these two experiences.

I have no faith that men are going to fix anything.