Saturday, May 28, 2011

Prisoners caring for prisoners

Prisoners can't really afford to contribute to charity. Monthly wages of most prisoners, if they have jobs, total about the same as pocket change for you and me. That's why it's all that much more meaningful when a group of prisoners contacts HFP to report a fund-raising drive for our charitable organization. The last time the guys did that at Ionia Max they raised well over a hundred bucks. This comes from money that is terribly important to prisoners. It's money they use for spending at the state store. It's money they use for cards and gifts for family and friends, as well as for their own personal needs, and it's in short supply.

All of this came to mind when I went to the post office this morning and found only one envelope. I was hoping to find more, because contributions haven't met our expenses for the month of May.

It was a letter from behind bars. David said, "I know your needs are great, especially as gas prices continue to wreak havoc on everyone in the real world." The envelope contained a check for $25 from his prison fund, accompanied by these words: "Please use this money however you see fit to further God's kingdom through the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS."

No gift of any size, no words of any length, could have meant more.

God bless David.

Friday, May 27, 2011

In absentia

They'll be holding a funeral service for Lee's mom near Detroit today. He won't be there. He's serving a life sentence in prison.

Never mind that he's handicapped and in a wheelchair. Policies are policies, and lifers aren't granted permission to attend funeral services, even those of immediate family members.

I have established friendships with many prisoners over the past 15 years, and I can tell you that one of the saddest experiences for the incarcerated is losing a loved one. And that sad experience is made even worse when inmates are forbidden to attend the last rites.

Remember Lee today. And remember his friends and his family. And remember all prisoners going through similar experiences.

May Lee feel God's presence and God's peace today.

He'll be alone. Behind bars.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A somber reminder

We began this week with a dose of reality. The first name was posted in Ferrysburg Community Church's new Memorial Garden Sunday: Ronald W. Ross. Ronnie was a poster boy for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. We were able to obtain his freedom despite his refusal to confess to a crime he did not commit and his refusal to show remorse. It was a long, hard fight, but we won! Our buddy Mitch and I were at the gate to welcome him when he stepped into freedom. It seemed to us that he had a whole new life ahead of him, but some old demons wouldn't let up on him, and last July Ron gave up and took his own life. The heartbreak touched all of us at HFP, his many friends and supporters, his widow and a little boy, and even his pet.

My heart breaks for Dawn and Dakota all over again, but we must go on. We must continue to remember prisoners as if we are in prison with them, per the advice in the book of Hebrews. Ron would have it no other way.

Remember the survivors in your prayers, and please remember the efforts of prisoner advocates. Pain and heartbreak are always in the shadows.

His demons finally pursue Ron no more.

May God comfort all survivors of prison tragedy.

May God's peace touch ALL prisoners today.

May God bless every person who touches the lives of prisoners.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Music makes you feel better

I was thinking about Saul, Israel's first king this morning. For those who didn't know it, I've been sick for the past year. For months a staph infection did its best to take my life. And then for months after that, I did my best to survive. As a church musician I wasn't sure that I would ever be well enough to play the organ or piano for worship again. I missed it so much. But thank God, I'm back on the organ bench and piano bench again. This morning it was particularly pleasing to me because guest trumpeter Ross Hoksbergen took part in the service. It was exciting making music with him, and I confess that while I wasn't feeling all that great, the music made me feel so much better.

And that reminded me of Saul, who was troubled with mental illness. When reading about his ailment in First Samuel, I found the part where David the harpist would be called in. "David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better..." I missed music so much while recovering in a hospital room last year I made arrangements to have a digital piano delivered to my hospital room. The piano not only improved my situation, but touched other patients as well as staff members in the hospital.

When I think about how music improved Saul's condition, and when I consider the amazing healing quality of music in my life, I wonder what we could do to bring more music to prisoners.

Proponents of music therapy insist that the results are not just speculation. Improvement can actually be documented.

If that is the case, and if we have such a problem with mental illness among prisoners, and if we cannot figure out that the condition of these prisoners could actually improve in a better setting, maybe we could at least work on a plan to bring music to the prisons to offer some relief.

Whatcha think?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mentally ill, but not crazy

Because of the nature of our work, we are often in contact with people who have mentally challenged family members in prison. It's the worst place in the world for them. Prison staffers aren't trained to handle the mentally ill, and prison facilities are not appropriate for those who can't watch out for themselves.

A mother was just telling me this week that her son's behavior has gone awry because of a change in medications. He was apparently doing all right on a certain medicine, but she said the change was made strictly for saving money and with no regard for patient care. I have no way to challenge her assertion. She said her son also keeps asking to meet with his psychologist, to no avail. He explains the side effects that he is experiencing from this new medicine, but that gets him no where.

Mental illness leads to confrontation issues with guards, and so this past week, one of the officers came to her son. They had just dealt with a matter of misbehavior, and the guard said to the prisoner, "You are crazy. I've been dealing with your kind for 13 years." And then he started laughing at him. This made her son mad, soon he and the guard were in each other's faces. But the guard, who should know better, then says, "I want to beat your ass. Let's take this away from the cameras." Meaning the video cams that are on around the clock. Fortunately, another prisoner had the cooler head and persuaded her son to go back to his cell. You see, in his altered state of mind, this lad just doesn't realize that he cannot win. The guards always win. He was ready to fight.

It's a way of life in the prison system with the mentally ill. It goes on every day, and if the account of the dialog is accurate, one wonders if the term crazy better describes the other participant.

Think what the release of mentally ill prisoners would do for our prison budgets, let alone for the health and welfare of challenged inmates.

It's gotta change!

Friday, May 20, 2011

They're no different

For some time I've been trying to give our friends and supporters a glimpse of day-to-day life behind prison bars. I received a note from a friend this week who is struggling to keep his emotional bobber afloat despite a series of distressing circumstances. He was just a kid when he was placed in prison for life because of a terrible crime. But that was almost 40 years ago, and he has done an amazing job of making the best of a bad situation. He's an upstanding citizen now in every way, terribly sorry for his rash behavior as a youngster but determined to make up for it. He's a hard worker, he's doing things for others, and he now has his emotional and spiritual lives in order. That does not change the crime or the results however, and a judge and a Prosecutor and the families of victims will not hear of talks of a possible release. It's an uphill battle for him. With that hanging over his head, listen to what has happened within the period of a month: a close member of the family died and of course he could not be there; another close member of the family suddenly has become quiet and there's no way he can find out why; and tragedy resulted in serious injury to someone else very close to him. Is it any wonder that he's feeling down these days? You see, you and I have each other, in addition to our God, in times like this. He doesn't have the friendship factor.

And so I use this brief message to remind you, once again, that every individual in prison is more than a statistic. Behind that ID# is a name, a face, a person created in the image of God whose body and soul house the same hurts, feelings, emotions, dreams and heartbreaks that you and I encounter in our lives. Remember prisoners in your prayers. Remember those of us who interact with prisoners both with your prayers and your continued contributions.

Thank you.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

We gotta do it together

My body's trying to get used to a new situation today. For the first time in a year, no fresh dosage of antibiotics is being administered. I'm all finished, at least for now. The physician is hoping that the staph infection has been eliminated. After a one-year-long battle, I'm skeptical, but as my parents always said, "We'll see."

Many have interpreted by new lease on life as a message from God saying that there's still more for me to do.

And I'm interpreting that to mean there's more prisoner advocacy that must be done. I'm in agreement, and I'm already taking on the task. So if there's more to be done,

But you and I are in this together. In fact, I can't do it without your help. We gotta do it together.

Let's roll.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

on Michigan's prison system: a trainwreck

I'm wondering what it's going to take to bring about changes---real changes---in the Michigan prison system. I was hoping that something as simple as a change of state administrations would make the difference. So far, what we're seeing is very disappointing.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine was raped in his cell by his cell-mate, a convicted sex offender. Instead of owning up to the problem and doing something about it, staff members tried to get him to admit the act was consensual, promising a prison transfer if he cooperated. The offender was given a ticket and was found guilty. Big deal. That helps my friend a lot.

Last week a teenager in prison asked his mom to contact me about a fellow prisoner, a 25-year old mentally challenged inmate who doesn't know how to behave properly. But as a result, guards seem to think that brutal punishment will improve his mental status. The teenager claims that officers tried choking him and assaulting him to bring about proper behavior, and then wouldn't feed him for an entire day shift. No word that the corrective action helped.

A few days ago a beautiful Christian man in prison whom I trust implicitly begged me to get involved. A fellow prisoner, age 48, is in pain because of a disc problem (if you haven't had back pain, you have no idea how rotten this can be). The doctor, he says, discontinued the prisoner's medication. Worse than that is an undiagnosed problem that results in pain in the prisoner's abdomen and groin areas. He has complained of issues with his heart,too, but was not given an ekg or any other type of tests. I don't know how serious all of this is, but I know the story teller, and he's not making things up. Isn't this why we have doctors in prison?

I tell you all of this because one of the major concerns of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is appropriate medical care. We're the first to admit that prisoners are not entitled to exotic, cosmetic surgery. We'll also admit that prisoners can be a real pain, and without question give doctors headaches. But we don't approve of torture in this country, and that includes refusal to provide adequate medical care in prison.

We'll keep on picking up the legitimate battles of untreated prisoners with your continued help and support, but that's doing nothing about the bigger problem. If you live in Michigan and are a registered voter, you CAN do something about it. Shame on you if you don't.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Our daily bread

The Lord's Prayer was used and heard far more often when I was a kid, I think. We learned it in the private school I attended, we recited it in Sunday School and catechism classes in church. Worshipers often recited the prayer in unison. And my dad often would have me offer the prayer before our evening meal.

I was thinking about the petition asking for our daily bread this morning. I visited the physician who arguably saved my life last October by surgically implanting a feeding tube in my body. For the next six months carefully prepared formula replaced bread in my diet, but it was never late. God still cared for me daily. The truck delivering the cans of liquid nutrition was always on time. And since then my health has been improving. My doctor was encouraged by the progress brought on by the feeding tube, and that particular form of my daily bread.

All of this to say that I hope we never lose the importance of the prayer that Jesus taught us, and I encourage its use more frequently.

And that should prompt a prayer of thanksgiving.

"Thank you for my daily bread.

And for the health and strength it provides."

Monday, May 16, 2011

musings on a HIS MEN concert

One can only imagine Jesus looking down on the sanctuary of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, last night. The male chorus HIS MEN was presenting a benefit concert on behalf of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

He would obviously be pleased with the beautiful harmonies floating heavenward.

I expect he would nod in appreciation as several of the singers explained to the audience how their lives have been changed by taking their music behind bars, singing songs of Jesus to prisoners.

I know he would recognize the stories told by Doug Tjapkes, the man who started HIS MEN on the path of prison ministry who now advocates for prisoners on a daily basis with HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

I think he whispered to all participants, when the program was finished, "Now you know what I was talking about."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A prayer for prisoners

Ms. T has good advice to those of us who have a passion for prisoners: Watch for reminders to pray for prisoners.

Said she: "I was driving to work today, and saw that inmates were out on the highway picking up trash. Those are the lucky ones; at least they get outside and see something besides those walls. I said a prayer for them and for you."

I use her brief message to remind you to remember those who are incarcerated today. And please remember all who are working on their behalf.

It helps a lot of people

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS helped Mary Ann in obtaining freedom for her mentally challenged brother who was in prison, and she never forgot it.

Seeing that HFP had an online auction this past week to help us meet budget, she sent me a note. "I figured it would be just as good to send you a straight-out check."

"I remember one time after our parents passed, my brother Arn showed me $800 he had found among their belongings. I told him to keep it because he had so little and he could use it. He left the house and returned an hour later. I said, 'Where were you?' The local volunteer rescue needed donations to buy a piece of equipment for their ambulance. He had gone to give them the money! At first I was annoyed, and said 'That money could have helped you.' He replied, 'this way it can help a lot of people.'

Mary Ann sent a check for $500 to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

We can all learn from Arn's reasoning: THIS WAY IT CAN HELP A LOT OF PEOPLE.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I was in prison and you visited me

My buddy Don Boyink died late last month. He was 72, far too young to go home. I played the piano for his funeral service exactly two weeks ago today.

I didn't see Don often. Chances are, if I did, it would be in prison. I would be in prison making calls on behalf of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Don was a volunteer who served on a local prison ministry team.

He'll be remembered by many, many prisoners. He logged thousands of Michigan miles each year vising prisons.

One of the persons who delivered a eulogy at his service was a recently released prisoner.

A fellow-worker said that Don faithfully prepared and mailed a newsletter to over 40 people in prison each month.

I suspect that among the first words he heard was that familiar saying of Jesus: I was in prison and you visited me.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

She cares!

My new friend Cindy Anderson received a beautiful award last week. She was named the 2011 WOMAN OF THE YEAR by Counterpart, a fine service club based in Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg, Michigan.

In the presentation, there was much talk about her professional skills, her fine work on behalf of her church, and her reputation as the person to go to when you want to get things done. No argument there.

But, one thing on Cindy's record tops them all, in my book. She and her friend Wendy Creason formed an organization in our community called 100 OR MORE WOMEN WHO CARE. These women get together once every quarter to help community-based 501C3 charitable organizations. They vote for a different agency each time, and then agree to personally write a check for $100 to that organization. The number of women who care now totals around 300. Just imagine what it means to a small, struggling, charity to receive a windfall of approximately $30,000!

Cindy told me that the movement actually started in Jackson, Michigan, and is now spreading to many communities. What a wonderful thing! If you are living in a community that doesn't have such an organization, what's to stop you from getting something like this started? There is no way to measure how many lives will be touched. There is no way to measure how many lives have been touched since Cindy and her friend Wendy started this wonderful activity in our town.

In my opinion, the greatest compliment of them all should be, SHE CARES.

Congratulations, Cindy.