Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Do you make up those stories?

Marcia and I were enjoying a cup of coffee and a dish of ice cream with friends dating back to high school days, Timmy and Char. The question came from Tim, who knows the truth but has a hard time believing that all of this stuff goes on in the prisons day after day.

Actually, I couldn't tell him one that I'm dealing with right now, where prisoners have a contract out on a friend of ours who dared to tell the truth despite a threat of retaliation. Jimmy lives in constant fear, and his spirits are so low it's getting hard for me to prop him up. Last weekend some terrorists hit him in the face and mouth with human waste. Nothing is too low, too degrading. I couldn't tell this to Timmy because it would spoil his ice cream snack. One cannot imagine anything so horrible. Makes me gag to talk about it. It took him over an hour just to get rid of the smell and taste, gargling and using mouthwash. Nope, I'm sad to say, I don't make up these stories.

General Sherman is credited with being the first person to use the phrase "War is Hell," which he did in a graduation speech back in 1879.

I have paraphrased it just a mite, to say that PRISON IS HELL. Honest, it is. Relious experts have been debating Rob Bell's wonderful best seller, LOVE WINS, because he questions some of our old concepts of hell. I can tell you, here and now, that hell exists. Prison is hell.

That's why it's so important that we never flag in our mission. We may not falter or slow down. Every issue that comes to our desk is of utmost importance. Each prisoner who contacts us, no matter how unpleasant and no matter how ugly his/her crime, is a real human being created in the image of God. And he/she must be treated with care and respect, and his/her issue is, indeed, critical.

Thanks for being a partner with us.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I'm tired of this mess we're in

I agree that she rambles, but maybe someone ought to listen to Jennifer, mother of a 17 year old kid in the Michigan prison system.

Who is our voice? This state cannot have it both ways. They can't keep whining about the budget and then disallow people who can help to do so. I visited my son in prison yesterday. He said "They're taking away the food tech program at some of the facilities, discontinuing the trades programs and stopping a lot more programs to help these guys when they get out. They are evening stopping the GED program!" What the hell is wrong here? I want to use my own money and labor to cook these guys a real dinner once with something that might resemble real meat. Hell, I'll go in and help these guys study for their GED and I know other people that will, too. It's not enough we lock 'em up like animals. Now, we can't even be sure there is any kind of incentive to improve their lives out in the world. Are we just going to sit back and do nothing? I have cabled my congressman's office. It's not so much what they say. They even listen in a very condescending way. Their attitudes are: they're just prisoners. Finding a way to bring in our own programs and food has to stop fitting under the guise of contraband. That's old and worn out. Aren't you sick of it? I want to give more money. I want to give more than money. Isn't there a way to find more people willing to be on committees to bring back good time? I know you've heard all of this before. I know it's frustrating. I read your book SWEET FREEDOM. It broke my heart. If keeping these guys in so long isn't wrong, than nothing is wrong.

Well-said by a frustrated mother of a prisoner.

What say ye?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

This is SWEET FREEDOM DAY!

July 24 is such a special day. It was on this day in the year 2004 that I walked out of the Duane Waters prison hospital in Jackson, Michigan, at the side of my dear friend Maurice Carter. He was a free man. I had met him 9 years earlier, and after some side-stepping and walking on tip-toes, we became best friends. Over the years I came to believe his claims of wrongful conviction, and did my best to mobilize forces to seek his freedom. Things didn't turn out the way we had hoped. He obtained his freedom because of illness, not innocence.

But, on this day in 2004, he stepped into the free world. The emotions of that day cannot be described. We sat him in a recliner in the front of a luxurious motor home as we drove away from the ugly prison setting to a beautiful neighorhood of friends waiting in a public reception. He chatted on a cell phone for the first time in his life, as he marveled at the beauty of nature on that glorius day.

We tried to pack a lifetime of experiences into the next 90 days. Exactly three months later his life came to an end, but not before he tasted SWEET FREEDOM. The legacy of Maurice Carter, on the other hand, will never die.

If you had not met him, if you didn't know him, you still must read about him. Let him touch your life, as he did mine. I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book SWEET FREEDOM.

May the memory of Maurice Carter stir us to new heights of compassion for those behind bars, and remind us that many people do not deserve to be there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Here's why Peggy supports us

I believe, as a society, we are acountable to our laws and to those we punish by those laws. I know that prisoners are the "lowest hanging fruit" and often become forgotten, neglected and sometimes abused by those whose role it is to guard them. It is easy to say, "Well, they deserve what they get for what they did." But as often as that might be true, it is too often more wrong than right. And without encouragement, hope and knowing that people on the outside do care, what motivation is there to otherwise change one's behavior? They have no rights and cannot protect themselves, so we MUST stay alert and attentive to what goes on behind the otherwise forgotten walls and fences. Thank God for people like you and HFP. Warmly, Peggy

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What took so long?

Sometimes you just hafta shake your head.

A happy message arrived in the HFP office this week:

GOOD NEWS FOR A CHANGE! I just received a phone call from Harry, in prison. He has received his orthotic arch supports. No more pain in his legs and feet, knees and lower back. Apparently the prison administration decided he can have them after all, and so now he does not have to file a civil lawsuit to get what he doctor had prescribed already long ago.

The amazing part of this little story is that it took months to get this good news. Grievances had to be filed, complaints had to be made, and because Harry is a Dutch citizen there was international communication and involvement. All over arch supports. All over something that was prescribed by a doctor long ago. All over something that was working in the past. All because someone obviously consumed with power to make controversial decisions decided that Harry no longer needed the inserts for his shoes. Shouldn't a prisoner be expected to suffer pain?

One wonders if we'll have get this train back on the tracks again.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

appointed juries?

Seems like we always find some goofy ideas under any old wet rock after a controversial jury decision like that of the Casey case.

One columnist wondered aloud whether we should consider professionally appointed juries. I spoke to this issue early on, giving the jury credit for a fair decision. The jurors acted on what they heard, and I think they acted responsibly. What a shame that people are in an uproar now simply because they didn't get the verdict they wanted. I remember when that happened in the OJ Simpson case. People were angry at Simpson because he got off, when they should have been angry with the Prosecutor for letting him get off. It all starts with good police work. Prosecutors then work with what they have. And the jury then responds with what it sees and hears.

Instead of suggesting that juries be professionally appointed, how about considering the appointment of prosecutors rather than having voters choose them. One state claims this has made a major difference. Let's face it, prosecutors run for office on the number of notches in their belts. Convictions are key.

An appointed Prosecutor may make a whole lot more sense than an appointed jury.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why people don't support HFP

My friend Roger thinks he knows why many people do not contribute to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. He and his wife read through the long list of appeals for help that we recently published in a newsletter. Many of these pleas for assistance describe terrible conditions in prison. Roger said his wife concluded: "If these prisoners just thought about this ahead of time, maybe they never would have ended up in prison." And that's the type of thinking that we must counter all the time. There's no quick answer.

There are no hard data to quickly drop on people who make these statements. We cannot tell, for example, just how many people have been wrongly convicted. But let's be real about it. If our judicial system is accurate 90% of the time, the flip side is that 10% of the judgments were wrong. A wise man once said that if one innocent person is in prison, I am not free. Well then if 10% of the prison population is innocent, that is indeed an outrage. I have a friend who was freed by DNA testing after he served 9 years for a crime he did not commit. He insists that the number of wrongly convicted may be as high as 15%.

I deal with this on a daily basis and that's why it makes it so hard for me to bite my tongue when someone just assumes that people in prison belong in prison. In addition to the wrongly convicted, we also have no hard data on the number of mentally ill who have wrongly been incarcerated. Then think of the number of addicts who are in prison, because some prosecutors and judges decided that the way to treat alcoholism and drug addiction is incarceration. Now we're getting into high numbers of prisoners...hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

So it's not just making a simplistic statement about prisoners any more. Thousands upon thousands of prisoners have no business being there, and have no business being treated the way they are. As a fellow member of the human race, it's your job to remember your brothers and sisters behind bars. As the president of HFP, it's my job to daily focus attention on the needs of THE LEAST OF THESE.

We need you as a partner.

Monday, July 11, 2011

That's gotta be hard

Those were Marcia's words when I hung up the telephone. I had been speaking with the mother of a prisoner and didn't realize my wife was overhearing my half of the conversation.

A wave of empathy goes out over the telephone line every time I speak with the parent of a prisoner. It never fails. And that's because you can ALWAYS hear and feel the pain in their voice. Always.

I have often thought that if criminals knew how much their bad decisions hurt their mothers, there would be a lot less crime. Don't you agree? Think about it. For the most part, people love their mothers. Granted, some kids have hated their moms much of their lives. While I have no statistics to back me up, I think the majority of people love their moms. How I loved my mother. And, my mother-in-law. How I miss both of them.

I can truthfully say that anything and everything I did that hurt my mom REALLY hurt me.

Well, back to the telephone conversation, the mother who spoke to me today was hurting. Her son has been in prison for some 15 years. He was in a group of unruly kids abusing substances and misbehaving until a fight broke out. The fight ended when one young man was killed. More bad decisions, including dragging the body into a nearby body of water.

When the dust settled, criminal charges. Unfortunately for this young man, everyone called him the ring leader and a zealous prosecutor decided he could get away with first degree murder for that one. I don't agree with that stuff. You and I both know how these fights get started after kids drink and smoke, but it's really a stretch to say that the death of a victim was the result of premeditation.

Today, his mom is hurting, and there's a good chance he'll never see freedom again. I encouraged them to try various legal angles to get a reduced sentence and/or to try to get a commutation of the sentence. There's every reason to believe this young man won't reoffend. But, these are long shots, and I would be a liar if I didn't level with the parents.

But, back to my claim, I'll bet money the kid is sick about how much pain he has caused his mom, let alone the mother of the victim of a senseless fight.

Empathy is the least I can offer.

HFP stands ready to help. And to listen.

We invite you to stand next to us.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tain't always fun

Ask anyone who works with prisoners. The good guys don't always win. The stories don't always have a happy ending. Twas never thus. Twon't ever be.

I'd have to go through the files once again to see how many years we worked for freedom for Ronnie. There were others who worked longer and harder than I did on this case, but I was in the middle of it.

I visited him in his lonely cell in the UP.

I was at his side for the Parole Board interview.

His buddy Mitch and I were at the prison gate when he stepped into freedom. It was the only case in the State of Michigan that I have ever heard of in which a prisoner was freed by the Parole Board even though he refused to admit wrongdoing and refused to show remorse. Until his last breath he maintained his innocence.

And it wasn't easy after he got out. There were uphill fights just getting him a place to live, getting him a driver's license, getting him a job, getting him a vehicle, trying to maintain a relationship, wanting nothing more than to be accepted, hoping for nothing more than a normal life.

But it was not to be.

Those who study the human mind can explain many more things than I can. I know that stuff wasn't going right for Ronnie. He knew right from wrong. He knew who his friends were. He was most grateful for love and assistance. And yet old demons persisted and refused to leave him alone.

I'm the last to know what really happened.

I know that a year ago I was very sick, and many thought I wouldn't make it.

And instead, he didn't make it. Ronnie couldn't cope with it any more, and took his own life.

Only God knows how many people were hurt by that decision, including a new bride and a new little son.

It was just a year ago. And God also knows that many of us are feeling bad these days. Even though we must admit that our lives are all the richer for having had Ronnie in the middle.

May his memory serve to give us even more compassion as we work with prisoners in the future.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Place the blame where it belongs

One will be hard pressed to explain how a court case suddenly gets propelled into the national spotlight. A criminal defense attorney pointed out to me the other day that we have cases right here in Michigan that are much more compelling than the Kaylee case.

Whatever the reasons, the public suddenly was bombarded with details of this case day after day. And now that the public has been exposed to all of this information, people seem to feel that they probably know as much or more than the jury knew. Since the not guilty verdict was reached on the murder charge, people are outraged. How could the jury make such a serious error?

It reminds me of the OJ Simpson case. People were convinced that OJ had commmitted the crime. How come the jury didn't reach a guilty verdict?

Well, I'll tell you how come, in both of these trials. The prosecution screwed up.

It's time for you to quit placing the blame on high profile criminal defense attorneys. I'm tired of hearing that these attorneys will do anything to win. I'm sorry, but they're hired to win. That's what they do for a living. Here's the bigger issue: One of the main causes of wrongful convictions is PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT! Where is the screaming and shouting that Prosecutors will do anything to win? Let's face it. They win re-election by winning in the courtroom. Talk to any Prosecutor currently in office. He/She won't boast that justice has been reached during their reign. Instead, they'll boast that they never lost a case. Which is more important?

So here we have prosecutorial misconduct as a major cause for wrongful convictions, along with the fact that one may not sue a prosecutor.

Casey Anthony has been found not guilty, and as a result, I suspect we'll start seeing better-prepared cases from prosecutors around the country.

It's not the fault of an unethical defense attorney that Casey is free.

The blame must be placed squarely on the prosecutor who failed to even establish a motive and a cause of death, but still insisted that he/she could prove premeditation. The jury got it right. The jury abided by the law and by the instructions of the court.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I should be worrying about growing pains

But instead, I'm worrying about survival.

As we approach the birthday of the land of the free, the home of the brave, this is hard for me to imagine.

Are we the only ones who see the problem?

One of our nation's greatest heroes, if not the greatest, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made this profound statement that could be one of our business slogans: INJUSTICE ANYWHERE IS A THREAT TO JUSTICE EVERYWHERE.

Our Board of Directors will hold a quarterly meeting next week, and in preparation for that I have been reviewing some of our activity records for the first half of this year. We could use and should have a paid staff of several people tackling issues of major importance.

Instead, we're operating on a shoestring with a long list of committed professionals who ask nothing more than to remain anonymous.

If you can believe this, already this year, we have been involved in the rescue of a just-released prisoner stranded on the streets of Ann Arbor, and another stranded on the streets of Grand Rapids. We helped a released mom to get transportation, and then found the funds to cover expenses in making the vehicle road worthy.

And we're still working with teams of highly qualified professionals to find freedom for a prisoner who was promised credit for time served if he testified against a known criminal. He did, and now the state is dragging its heels. We're trying to find the right formula to get examinations and treatment for a prisoner who claims to be going blind, and we're trying to help another prisoner get on top of health problems that have him worried beyond belief..

We're putting together an amazing team that will try to help a kid who, at the age of 14, was wrongly accused of being a sexual predator and given 40-80 years in prison by a judge with no conscience, even though his mother isn't interested in getting any help for him.

Now tell me, doesn't this impress you when you read it? If you were a donor to our program wouldn't you be pleased with what your money is doing? Wouldn't you be excited about prospects of growth and expansion to handle all of these issues?

Why, then, are we struggling to raise a measly little $8,000 a month? Where are others who are excited about doing good, and who abhor injustice? Why aren't they lined up behind us?

We don't have the time to analyze all of this, as we have problems to solve.

Think about it, let us know, give us ideas, continue to pray for us, and please remain in partnership with us.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I'll say a prayer for you

How often do you make that statement, when someone shares a need or a problem with you? It's often how Christians respond. It's kind and reassuring. It's what we do for each other. And then we go about praying for this person or this need in private.

I must tell you about an experience yesterday.

I was speaking with a Christian brother in prison, and we were talking about the status of my health. This has been a topic of concern for the past year, after a one-year battle with a staph infection. I nearly lost my life several times. I'm grateful now for every day of my new life. BUT, as I shared with my friend in prison, I get very nervous now when a minor health issue comes up. For example, I have been troubled with, what I believe, was just a bout with the flu this week. But I immediately worry that the staph infection may be returning. As I explained that to Mike, he interrupted me and immediately launched into a brief prayer for me! He didn't say "I'll be praying for you." He did it. And I was touched as I sat listening to him claim the promises of Jesus, praying for good health and calmness of spirit for me.

It's not really that hard to do, this business of living our Christianity right up front...we're just not used to doing it.

That's the way my friend in prison lives. His Christianity is more exemplary than mine.

I share the story because I see it time and again. There are beautiful Christians behind bars. May we never forget it.