Wednesday, June 29, 2011

There, but for the grace of God...

I had a meeting with our county prosector the other day. I'm toying with the idea of writing a novel, not because I'm such a great writer, but because I see so many common, ordinary people ending up behind bars. People who are not criminals. Ron confirmed my thoughts.

The fact is that a huge number of people behind bars wish they could take back a few fateful seconds of their lives, seconds during which they made one rash, thoughtless move. They had never been in trouble before, had never been arrested, had never been in prison and were very much like you and me.

But for a great percentage of people, they made one stupid mistake, and they're spending the rest of their lives regretting it.

For another larger percentage than you might imagine, the wrong person was accused of a crime, and convicted, and sentenced.

Add up those two totals and you have a country with the largest percentage of people in prison in the world. And many of them who have no business being there.

My whole point is that it is very easy to ignore this subject. Many people refuse to support our organization,not because they don't like us, but because they don't see why they should help someone in prison. They have no idea how simple it is to get in there, and how difficult it is to get out.

I would not have known that if I hadn't plunged into the Maurice Carter case. I invite you to read the story in the book SWEET FREEDOM. It'll change your mind.

Believe me, it can happen to you. I'm going to show, in my new book, just how simple the procedure can be.

For now, we need your help and support, as we continue to befriend people just like you and me who, because of some unusual chapter in their lives, wound up behind bars.

There, but for the grace of God... .

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Choices

In the past day and a half I've had an amazing number of telephone calls from people wanting money. This in a time when money is tight, conditions are tough, and people can't pay their bills. I'm sure the society helping leukemia victims is worthy, certainly we must worry about homeless veterans, and I know that my alma mater Christian high school needs dollars to keep going. That leads me to my point: It cannot be easy for YOU to make an intelligent, informed decision when it comes to donations to charity.

There's a battery of fund raisers hammering on your door daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. It doesn't stop.

It's no wonder that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is struggling. We're a tiny organization with a budget of $100,000 a year. We don't hire out to get the envelopes stuffed and stamped. We do it ourselves. We don't pay lobbyists. We testify ourselves. We don't beg volunteers to visit our prisoners. We go ourselves. We don't hire professional publicity people to write our newsletters and email pitches. We write them ourselves. We don't make up syrupy stories about tragedy and hardship in the prisons. We tell the truth about things that are happening here everyday.

I am humbled by the fact that, with all of these people clamoring for a piece of your small line item in your personal budget for charities, you continue to help us. It means more than you know. Please continue to help us if you can. I promise you that we treat every penny given responsibly...we don't waste a cent. Your dollars touch lives, and are not spent on professional telephone solicitors. They follow us right into prison.

We're not making ends meet, so if you wouldn't mind telling others how you have chosen HFP to be included in your monthly contributions, please spread the word.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On starting the day

I've always believed in getting a good start each day. Nutritionists claim that a good breakfast is important. Preachers claim that devotions are important. Body builders claim that exercise is important.

In a busy lifestyle it's easy to ignore any or all, but I think we can agree that it's good to try.

My friend Bee Bee, who has been in prison for 40 years, has a different take on it. He thinks the right frame of mind is absolutely essential.

Doug, I have this ritual I try to follow every morning when I get up, and every evening before I go to sleep.

I listen to this one gospel song by Waler Hawkins entitled LIVE IN ME JESUS.

Live in me Jesus, have your way in me
I'll be flesh for you Jesus
If you'll be spirit for me
So live in me Jesus and have your way in me.
I'll be your legs to walk,
I'll be your mouth to talk,
I'll say whatever you want me to say Lord
To show the world that you love.

With so much darkness and distraction in the prison environment, this ritual helps to keep me centered and focused on helping rather than ridiculing.


Tell you what, how's about you and me taking time to follow Bee Bee's pattern today. And then let's both agree to do more helping and less ridiculing.

Deal?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A new voting bloc?

Throughout history politicians have targeted different groups in society to get voter support: women, African Americans, and Latinos come to mind.

A former prisoner from Michigan is promoting a new group: convicted felons.

Says John Witherow, We vote the tough-on-crime idiots out of office and replace them with people interested in helping people and providing jobs, education and health care to people being released back into the community.

One of the first challenges will be to make sure that they may even vote. It is the feeling of some politicians that convicted felons have forfeited their right to cast ballots in the U.S.

Witherow is asking for your feedback on americanfederationofregistrants.blogspot.com.

Ex-felons are barred from certain employment and must, instead, pursue more demanding and less paying jobs so that non-felons can have the white collar jobs. I don't know about you, but I am sick of this type of b.s. and would like to develop a large-scale 13th Amendment challenge and/or claim for compensation. Until then we appear peons.

Go for it!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

on tearful situations

The last time I saw Annie in person I had tears in my eyes.

She and I were talking with a member of the Michigan Parole Board. She was trying to explain to a not very sympathetic board member why she should be paroled. In my opinion she shouldn't have been convicted of this crime in the first place, but my opinion doesn't count. Anyway, her story is a sad one, because she got blamed for a death. It's true that someone killed her former husband, but she didn't. As she made her case, she finally just broke down and sobbed. And that's when I discovered that I was weeping, too.

It made no difference. The Parole Board wasn't convinced, and she's still in prison, where she has been for the past 21 years. That's when I feel so helpless. I was at her side to help her, but the two of us were not persuasive enough. I failed.

And yet this week I received a Father's Day card from Annie. God bless her. And in her note in the card, she said, "Forever, thank you."

Tears again.

Friday, June 10, 2011

On prison conditions

Many people try to make the case with me that prison conditions in one state are far worse than those in another state. I don't buy it. Just as the old statement, WAR IS HELL, always holds true, so does this one: PRISONS ARE HELL.

I am always touched when decent, law abiding citizens who know nothing about the inside of a prison are suddenly faced with the reality of these hellish conditions when a loved one is imprisoned.

They think they are telling me something new when they relate these true stories:

-My son is trying to do something wrong so he can get a ticket. That's the only way he can get a different cell.
-He can no longer tolerate being in the same cell with a 300 lb. skinhead who spends the entire day yelling obscenities and racial slurs.
-He is diabetic and should not be in a top bunk because of the danger of falling, but his cellmate couldn't care less.
-Every time he snores the guy below him reaches up and punches his mattress as hard as he can. He's getting only a couple hours of sleep a night.
-His mind is completely idle. He has nothing to do: no classes, no job, no library visits.
-He believes he has a shoulder problem. He can raise his arm only halfway. He asked for an X-Ray. The prison doctor laughed at him, said it was probably stress, and told him to get back to his cell.


The parents ask good questions: Shouldn't even prisoners who are guilty be treated humanely? Can't we do something to help? If we write to or call the warden will it do any good? Aren't there medical rights for inmates?

These parents and this naive young man are merely getting a heavy-duty dose of reality. That's the way it is in prisons. All of them. And no matter how hard you try, you're not going to make much difference. That doesn't mean that one shouldn't try. We heartily applaud all prisoner rights groups and their efforts. Keep the pressure on. But don't expect miracles.

Prisons are hell.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Harry: never forgotten

I ran across a neat story this week. It happens often when you're working with prisoners.

Back in the 1990s when I first got started trying to free a wrongly convicted prisoner, my day job was selling church organs, and my territory was not only the western half of lower Michigan, but the eastern tip of Michigan's beautiful Upper Peninsula.

In those days I made friends with the congregation of a delightful little church nestled in the Upper Peninsula woods at the northern tip of Lake Huron. If you're driving too fast on M-134 and if you're not watching for the tiny sign or the little building, you'll miss the DeTour Christian Church. I love this church and its members.

In making small conversation, I told two of the church leaders, Gladys and Frank Malette, about inmate Harry Bout. Harry is a citizen of the Netherlands and claims wrongful conviction. He also claims that his incarceration is a treaty violation between the US and the Netherlands.

That was more than 15 years ago. What I didn't know was that the church kept Harry's name and placed it on their prayer list.

My friend Frank Malette died some months ago, and Gladys and I have remained in constant contact. Gladys asked me the other day how Harry was doing. I was so touched that these wonderful people have been keeping this prisoner in their prayers.

I sent Harry a letter this week encouraging him to contact the church.

He's had a whole group of prayer partners that he knew nothing about! What a gift.

It's the kind of thing that happens in this business.

Harry Bout and DeTour Christian Church: divine partners.

Another one of those God things.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Heartbreak Hotel, Part Two

Prisoner advocates routinely hear stories of heartbreak. I guess that's why it is such a thrill when we hear a good story.

My friend Big Ben shared such a story with me over the weekend.

He politely asked about my health and my condition first in his weekly telephone call. But then he allowed that he had some good news to pass along. I was all ears.

As a matter of background he explained that he was a renegade with little regard for the law as a kid, and it soon got him into trouble. At age 22 he was sent to prison for life, and his pending plans for marriage had to be abandoned.

He'll be 60 this summer, so that will give you an idea how long he has been in prison.

He fell in love as a young man, but lost track of his woman after he went to prison. The early years of his life had been spent on the east coast, and he is in prison here in Michigan.

Last week, he learned from the friend of a friend that his girl friend of yesteryear was not only alive, but was single again. She is 64 years of age.

He cautiously proceeded, asking his friends to ask if she might be interested in talking to him.

She was, and they did!

He said they talked and they talked. And here's the thing that excites Big Ben the most: After all these years, she's just as crazy about me as I am about her!

Concluded Big Ben: "God is good."

By then I had tears in my eyes, and I could only echo his sentiment.

You are absolutely right, Big Ben. God is good.

Heartbreak Hotel

Prison is a haven for heartbreak.

Heartbreak is rampant. Families are breaking up, marriages are breaking up, romance disintigrates.

And there's so little that anyone can do.

Probably the best way you and I can help our incarcerated friends struggling with heartbreak is to listen. Do no more than that. Just listen. You have no idea how much that gift is appreciated by the heartbroken.

I can cite a couple examples of how God used HFP in heartbreak situations, and I quickly stress that God ALONE gets the glory.

The first occurred years ago when my friends from an Innocence Project called me in to help a guy who was wrongly convicted but could get no support from his immediate family. And the reason was simple. He had completely burned all bridges. He had left his wife of many years for a tramp. He had abandoned his kids. He had gone to a life of drinking. I felt like a U.S. Secretary of State doing my shuttle diplomacy in absentia, using a telephone. I called one of his adult children, and then another. My argument was always the same: I cannot defend the behavior of your father, BUT, that does not mean the state has the right to send an innocent person to prison. The long and short of it is that eventually we got much of this family back together again, and his kids were at his side when he walked free. Sadly, prison ruined the man's health, he had a stroke and eventually the physical issues ended his life. God answered prayer and, in my opinion, healed relationships that appeared to have no chance for repair.

And I saw God at work in another case that we were involved in.

This prisoner was also a scoundrel, and so it was no surprise that his siblings and his parents wanted nothing to do with him. They made no secret of it, just as he had made no secret of the terrible ways he had abused his family relationships in the past. But now he was dying. His sins caught up with him and he was in prison for life, and his abuse of his body caught up with him and he was dying. Again, in my pleadings with family members I could not defend his past behavior. I could only state that in his final days he was trying to get his house in order, he embraced Christianity, he showed genuine remorse, and all he asked was forgiveness from those closest to him. I refuted claims of foxhole Christianity, as I always do. I just will not hear of it. The Bible tells of a foxhole Christian on the cross next to our Lord, and he was welcomed by Jesus. And so we finally got grudging forgiveness. It wasn't perfect, but it was meaningful. And I helped to make up for the lack of family visits by personally visiting my friend in his last days. He died a happy man.

These are the things that HFP does best.

You deserve to know how your money works.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Berrien County justice

If you're read my book SWEET FREEDOM, you are aware of the fact that some of us know who really shot Tom Schadler. Maurice Carter was accused of shooting him in what may have started out as an armed robbery. Schadler was an off-duty police officer who was shot and injured while shopping with his wife in a downtown Benton Harbor store.

Maurice Carter's only mistake was that he happened to be in Benton Harbor on the day of the shooting. He was a resident of Gary, Indiana, and so he didn't know Tom Schadler from any other guy on the street in Benton Harbor. That's why the Prosecutor could never show a motive.

The real shooter, on the other hand, was a drunken bully from the inner city who knew all the cops. And it turns out that many people from Benton Harbor know who really shot Tom Schadler. But, they're going to keep right on covering up for one of their own. As it turns out, Maurice Carter served 29 years for this crime. If you haven't read the book, please pick up a copy.

But now back to the shooter.

Even though Maurice Carter died in 2004, the case didn't die. We've tried to persuade the Berrien County Prosecutor's Office to reopen the case, to no avail. We have tapes made with a hidden microphone which pretty much point to the fact that Billy Lee not only shot Schadler, but also that he was very proud of the accomplishment. Word from our sources is that he still shows up at a drinking party now and then, boasting about how he "shot that white cop."

The reason the subject came up today is that one of our sources just gave us a tip that Billy Lee is back in town, after having moved to Ohio all these years. Word on the street is that he's thinking of moving back to Benton Harbor.

He might just as well.

The judicial system doesn't care.

The Prosecutor and the cops don't want to know anything about it. Why let facts get in the way of their opinions? This case is closed.

In Berrien County, the judicial system may sometimes be wrong, but it's never in doubt.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Where to perform

All the world's a stage, according to Shakespeare.

Yet we can't find a venue for our play.

Here's the deal.

Two award-winning playwrights have written a delightful stage play based on the story of Maurice Carter and Doug Tjapkes. If you're not familiar with the story I invite you to read the book SWEET FREEDOM. It's not a best seller. You can probably go right to Amazon's used books department and find a copy for a few bucks. It's a love story, based on my nine-year attempt to free Maurice from prison. He served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

Alicia Payne and Donald Molnar of Toronto learned of the story and obtained some grants to do a thorough research of the tale. They were so captivated that they wrote a most beautiful play that involves a small cast of characters and a small gospel choir. Marcia and I were guests of the playwrights at a performance in a historic church in downtown Toronto last summer. If we or they could persuade the right people to read the play and see all or a part of it performed the production would be off and running. But trying to get exposure is the problem. I invite you to read about the play by going to arbezdrama.com in your computer. And then I ask for your help.

One day it could be traveling the country for performance in churches for Christian groups, and in little theatres for secular drama groups. Hopefully, by then, it can be a major fund-raiser to keep HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS operating.

What can you do to help? Do you know someone? Do you know someone who knows someone?

Please contact the playwrights at the Arbez Drama website, or contact us on our website.

The story of MAURICE CARTER'S INNOCENCE deserves to be told, and needs to be heard by thousands.

Help!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's your turn

One of the frustrating parts of this business of being an advocate for prisoners is the inability to help them all. HFP, for example, handles only cases in Michigan. We can't even handle that load, but there's no way we can consider expanding into all of the other states. But, each day we get letters from other states, and I just wonder where these people are going to turn. Who will even listen to them?

Here's a guy from Ohio getting frightfully abused.

"I was given another inmate's medication, and subsequently fell and busted my head 3 times. The medication wore off, but I didn't improve. I didn't get to see a doctor until I fell again 3 days later. I could not move and was taken to a hospital where I was denied treatment and released within an hour. As I regained the ability to move the pain did not let up. I was given Motrin which I did not receive until 5 days later. I continued to have pain, lose consciousness for no apparent reason and falling from time to time. Three weeks later I fell twice in one evening. After the second time was also maced by the CO who stated 'since I have to do paper work, take this.' He maced me directly in the face as I stood there bleeding from the fall. That's what they do here, continue hurting inmates, many of whom are shackled and maced, rendering them unable to see while they are being beaten."

The man is on a hunger strike to protest prison treatment in Ohio. There, as in many states, prisoners are given smaller portions of food due to budget cuts. His existence is meager, as he lives on $3-9 a month.

All he's asking for is someone to write to, someone who would get interested in prison problems in Ohio, someone to help support peaceful protests of inhumane treatment.

We cannot help them all.

And that's frustrating.

What about you? Can you help some in your state? How about your church or service club? Do you have a Bible study group?

You don't have to jump into the ocean, but you could just dip your big toe into the kiddie pool to start.

Your life will never be the same.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Something's gotta give

I'm going to quote parts of a letter that I just received, altering it just enough to protect the identity of the writer. Actually, I could have written it before we received it, because it's almost identical to letters we have received over the past 15 years. Honestly, I could get by changing only names and places and minor details.

"I am requesting your assistance in getting my husband released from prison. He's a former police officer who loves and adores children and would help everyone who needed his assistance.

"He is innocent of the charges of sexual assault that were brought by the mother and daughter we took to church for 10 years, after they asked us for a large amount of money and we refused because we did not have it to give to them. In the past, we had paid many expenses for them when they needed it.

"After we turned them down, the daughter accused my husband of 'touching her boobies' almost every Sunday after church in the parking lot. The daughter's testimony was full of lies and inconsistencies, and the mother's testimony even proved she was lying.

"The prosecution then found a convicted meth dealer who stated my husband had inappropriately touched her when she was a child, but at the end of her testimony stated she was 18 years old when it happened.

"Another witness stated he saw my husband hit this woman on the butt in the parking lot. My husband did not even playfully hit me on the butt. This witness also refused to talk to the detective because he hated cops. Remember, my husband was a cop.

"The jury convicted him and gave him a 20 year sentence and a $10,000 fine for both charges. We appealed to the Supreme Court and lost.

"The justice system did not work in this case. There is no reason for an innocent man to be sitting in prison because of a lie that a minor child told, and a jury believed with no proof
."

I'm sorry to tell you this, Ms. D, but the system is failing you and the public on this very issue EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK.

Only God knows how many lives have been ruined by this reckless type of accusation. Invariably the charges come from someone who wants to get even: an estranged wife or girl friend, or perhaps a family member who has lost favor. Prosecutors smell victory with stories like this, because juries invariably rule in favor of little kids. Decent, law-abiding citizens cannot stand to hear about adults molesting children. As a result, each day innocent people are going to prison because they did something that made accusers angry, and prompted mean accusations.

And I am not exaggerating about the frequency of this scene.

I have two very dear friends who were victims of this very charge. AND IN BOTH CASES, THESE MEN HAD TO LIE AND CONFESS TO A CRIME THEY DID NOT COMMIT AND SHOW REMORSE FOR SOMETHING THEY NEVER DID, IN ORDER TO GET OUT OF PRISON! Otherwise, the Parole Board wouldn't budge. So now you have beautiful people who are not criminals and who never violated any laws who cannot live with themselves. Their spirits have been broken, they are labeled as sex offenders, their names are ruined, and NOTHING can be done to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Nothing.

Here's what I think must happen.

I believe that it's time that police officers and prosecutors demand substantial proof of these charges. I believe that law enforcement and the judicial system must hold the feet of these accusers to the fire. If it is discovered that the accusers lied, and the accused is actually innocent, the accusers MUST BE ARRESTED. THEY MUST BE CHARGED, TRIED AND CONVICTED. It won't help to restore the life of a ruined person, but it may slow down the frequency of these wrongful convictions.

Prosecutors MUST stop thinking about victory and convictions, and instead think about justice.

Give me your thoughts.

I'll bet that many of you know about cases like this.

If it happened to a relative or a friend, could YOU have done something about it?

It may be you or someone in your family next time.

It's gotta stop.

Something's gotta give.