Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Absence does NOT make the heart grow fonder

Some people I know in the prisoner advocacy business are trying to come up with hard data on just how important family visits are to prisoners. It is their belief that frequent visits by loved ones not only contribute to mental and physical well-being, but actually enhance the rehabilitation process. They're hoping to find data to prove all of this.

One of the reasons these people want this information is to strengthen their position when arguing with the state about where prisoners should be located. We can't prove this, but it seems that transfer is one form of punishment for prisoners who get in trouble. If they do something wrong, they get sent to some distant facility where it's very difficult for the prisoners' next of kin and closest friends to visit them. So the guy sits in a God-forsaken place alone, and lonely.

One of the sad spin-offs of this alleged punishment is that it often is a direct punishment to the parents or the fiancee' or the dear friend or sibling. We knew of a prisoner in one of the facilities in Ionia who did something to displease the state, and in a heartbeat he was transferred to the U.P. But the inmate's parents lived in Grand Rapids, so they really caught the brunt of this punishment. Ionia was a skip and a jump away. Now it takes them 4-5 hours just to get to the bridge.

I received a letter this week from a very nice inmate with a very clean record, liked by prisoners and staff alike, who is also living in one of the facilities in Ionia. But his parents, in their 80s and in bad health, live in Lapeer. In case you weren't aware of it, Michigan has a prison facility right in Lapeer. Joe's parents, although elderly and in bad health, insist on visiting him regularly. Think how much easier it would be for them to visit him if he resided in the Thumb Correctional Facility, right in Lapeer. And think how much more comfortable it would make him knowing that his elderly and ailing parents wouldn't have to take so much time and travel so far just to see him. Seems like a no brainer.

Maybe with a new administration in the state we'll see positive changes on common sense issues like this.

I wouldn't bet on it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

No such thing as a coincidence

Do you believe the headline?

The older I get, the more I'm convinced that nothing that that happens is just an accident.

I have a beautiful example.

I'm getting more and more like Archie Bunker each day, in that I dislike answering the telephone. Each time it rings I grumble just like Archie used to. And this was the case one evening last month.

But this time, when I answered, a mostly friendly voice on the other end of the line said, "I can't believe that someone is actually answering the telephone this time." He went on to say how difficult it has been to find someone at home on our end of the line. Finally I interrupted him and asked him just who he thought he was talking to. When he responded I had to regretfully inform him that I wasn't the guy. He had a wrong number.

He was so friendly, however, that I kept the conversation going by saying that I ran a charitable organization and I wondered if he would like to make a contribution. Again, a friendly response instead of a hang-up. He wanted to know what I did, and so I told him.

And it turns out that he has a family member with prison issues. And it turns out that he is very interested in what we do.

So I told him that, as a gift, I would send him a copy of my book SWEET FREEDOM. It went out the next day.

I got a note the other day, thanking me for the book, which he had read shortly after its arrival.

Along with the note came a check to HFP for $50.00.

The note was signed, "Your new friend in Tampa."

Coincidence, indeed.



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A cruel hoax

The Michigan Department of Corrections has been playing a cruel trick on prisoners for years. It must be increasing lately, because the complaints are increasing...both from prisoners and from families and friends of prisoners.

The game goes like this. The state says a prisoner must participate in a particular program before he/she can be released. Sounds reasonable enough, if you can find the program. The prisoner agrees and tries to sign up for the classes, only to discover that that particular program is not available in his or her facility. Or, the prison finds out that there is a three-year waiting list, probably because there are not enough instructors. The prisoner complains to staff and writes to legislators, even sends messages to the Ombudsman's Office and the Parole Board. Not only does the prisoner not get satisfaction...he/she doesn't even get the courtesy of a reply.

And it doesn't stop there. When appearing before the Parole Board, the prisoner will be reprimanded for not taking said course. And it still doesn't stop. The PB then gives the prisoner demerits in ratings with the board for that time when a parole will be reconsidered.

One prisoner said in a letter to a newspaper editor: I've been told I need a class. I've been on a list for more than 10 months. Yet, I cannot even enroll in it, let alone complete it, because it doesn't exist. It's insane. I received a 12-month continuance for a class I've had zero chance to complete. I'm serving time for operating under the influence of liquor---a five year maximum.

Maddening.

Where are those people elected to office who make such big campaign promises?

And they wonder why the prison population can't be reduced? Gimme a break.

Holding a tin cup

I'm begging today. Again.

It's a way of life here at HFP, because we always have needs. This one comes as regularly as the seasons. We need more copies of the book SWEET FREEDOM.

If you haven't read it, please pick up a copy. You'll then understand why it's so popular in prison. Prisoners love to read my stories about visits with my friend Maurice Carter when he was alive and in prison. They laugh when I talk about the vending machine food in the visiting room. The smell of the food made me sick. Yet Maurice loved the taste of it, because it was so much better than the prison meals. The book gets passed from one prisoner to another until the pages are frayed, and that makes me feel so good.

You've gotta remember that many of these people do not have much to read if anything at all, but they do have time. And if radio and TV are limited, and there isn't a lot of printed stuff to read, a book is precious, especially a book about the things they understand. And that's why we give away so many copies to prisoners, not only in Michigan, but all around the world.

It costs less than $300 to buy a carton of 52 books. I'll order another box just as soon as we get confirmation of a gift.

Meanwhile, don't wait for us to stock up. Go to Amazon, and even if you're broke you can buy a book from the used book division. You should be able to pick one up for a buck.

Get back to me after you read it. I would like to hear from you.

And if you're interested in funding this little project, let us hear from you right away.

Thank you.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The mentally ill cannot win in prison

I had an opportunity to chat with Lois the other day. She has a teenaged son in prison who is mentally challenged and who, I fear, is in there for a long time. He shouldn't be in there at all.

She shared pictures with me that were heartbreaking. Her son was chained to the concrete floor, but the guards were kind about it...they placed a blanket in between him and the cement. The reason for the shackles was simple in the minds of the guards: He had been trying to injure himself, and for a while he was successful. So, to prevent him from hurting himself, chain him up, including legs and feet. No one suggested that he was trying to kick himself, but I guess if you're gonna do it, you'd better do it all the way.

Here's the problem, and it is a brutal, vicious cycle. This teenager and many mentally ill prisoners like him are not treated well by guards and fellow prisoners because their behavior is less than stellar. And so, their behavior get's worse. Then the guards take stronger action, and write tickets. The more they do this, the worse the behavior of the prisoner gets. And it goes on and on. And the worse this situation gets, the less likely the chances that a prisoner will be released early, or released at all.

In many cases, I think it's very fair to say that these people should not be in prison in the first place. Granted, there are some vicious and brutal crimes, and these must be considered in a separate discussion. But the prisoners I'm talking about are in for such things as home invasion or playing doctor with their little kid friends. No major violence, and no major sex crimes. And yet judges who aren't thinking clearly decide that the way to make society better for all of us is to lock up these mental cases. Where is the sense in all of this? Then the jailers go one step farther: They put these sick people in the hole. The nice term is protective segregation. In some cases the mentally ill prisoners are locked in seclusion in the dark! If a sane person was placed alone in a dark room for 22 hours a day with nothing to do, no radio or televion, no one to talk to and nothing to read, my guess is that person would come out mentally ill. Is this a way to treat our fellow human beings? I think it is absolutely shameful.

Lois would like to get her son out of there and into some kind of a private facility where his treatment would be guaranteed, where the medicine would always be correct and on time. She doesn't want her son injuring himself, but she's not convinced that the only way to stop that is to shackle his whole body with chains to the concrete.

Not until someone in authority with a conscience steps in will we see any improvement, or even any change.

Only you and I can make that happen, and that's by contacting elected officials. The one thing these people understand is getting re-elected.

Let's get started.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Little things mean a lot

Our blog title is a song that dates back to the Hit Parade of the 1950s. I was reminded of that important premise when I opened the prisoner mail over the weekend. One letter came from a woman whom I have known for several years. I love her, believe her story and will do what I can to help her win release from prison. She doesn't belong there. I apologize to her once in a while, because I'm not making much progress with my help.

"I am often puzzled when you write, 'I haven't done much for you lately.' I cannot express the feelings of not having anyone to believe in you and support you. You renewed faith and humanity for the community that I had lost long ago. I simply thought that no one cares. What comes to mind that you have done for me opened me to hope. Ps. 146: I have joy in me that was oppressed by my situation. Thank you."

Please join us in showing kindness to prisoners. You have no idea how much little things mean. A lot!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why writing letters is so important

My friend Cindy heard the HFP pitch for Project Window, our pen pal program involving prisoners, and hesitantly agreed to give it a try. We provided the name of a female inmate who had indicated an interest in receiving a letter. Cindy was disappointed that, after she finally made up her mind to take this big step, she didn't receive a reply.

She stopped me in church this morning. "My lady finally wrote back to me," she said. She was so pleased, and said that she received a very nice letter.

Why had it taken to long?

The inmate confessed to Cindy that she was nervous about writing. While it took an amount of courage on Cindy's part to write a letter to a prisoner, turns out it also took an amount of courage on the prisoner's part to respond.

In her letter to Cindy the woman explained that she has no contact with the outside world any more.

We see that often. Many prisoners agree that after about ten years, contacts with family members and friends start to die off. For many prisoners, it drops off to nothing. No contacts. No word from family or friends. Can you imagine it? Think about your activities today. The people you talk to. Your communication in person, on the phone, on the computer...all of your conversation with people you know. What if it were to stop? Completely!

That's exactly why our Project Window is so very important. Cindy didn't realize it when she finally decided to take the plunge...she may be the only contact for this prisoner in the outside world. She may be the only friend of that inmate. What a privilege. What a responsibility.

God bless Cindy for daring to take this step.

God bless all who agree to befriend a prisoner, even if the effort isn't returned.

Jesus was pretty firm in his words. He wants us to do it.

We'll help to get you started.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On heroes and heroism

We loosely throw around the word "hero." Genuine heroes, however, are few and far between.

I have a friend who is a real hero, genuine in every sense of the word.

This man has saved one of our telephone companies an estimated $5-million or more by breaking up a credit card fraud that resulted in several arrests.

He broke up an auto theft ring that resulted in huge savings for one of our major car insurers.

He worked with the FBI and played a central role in exposing a prison escape plot.

He heard a prisoner boasting about how he killed a woman, could not live with his conscience, and brought the criminal to justice. A Michigan prosecutor and a municipal police detective were elated with his testimony and they obtained a conviction that resulted in a life sentence.

He was instrumental in breaking up criminal activity at the staff level in one of our prisons.

The list goes on, if you can believe it. If successful in winning just one of these cases, I would say the man was worthy of being called a hero. But this guy has done a bunch of them.

Now here's the kicker.

Is the man holding some honored position, where he can be paid tribute by private business and government alike?

Nope.

You wanna know where he is? In prison. That's right. In prison. Our system, made up of all these wonderful people who benefited from his testimony, is sitting on its hands, taking its sweet time about repaying this hero who has been promised a chance at freedom.

Meanwhile, this man is constantly afraid, always watching behind his back because so many people want to get even with him.

If he's to be called a hero, what would you call all of those people who don't seem to get around to paving the way for his freedom?

I'm praying that this hero someday will get some of his reward here on earth.

Friday, August 5, 2011

We need a Prison Justice Day

For 35 years now, prisoners in Canada have been observing a Prison Justice Day on August 10. I say that it's past time for a similar observance in the United States. I'd be in favor of holding it the first or second Sunday in August, rather than on a set date, and I'd love to have churches of all faiths involved.

The oservance began in the prisons. Prisoners set aside this day to fast and to refuse to work in a show of solidarity to remember prisoners who died unnecessarily---victims of murder, suicide and neglect.

And at the same time, organizations and individuals in the community were to hold demonstrations, vigils, worship services and other events in common resistance with prisoners.

I'm encouraging others to get this ball rolling, and let's throw the ball to churches...churches of all faiths...to observe this day on a Sunday. It's past time that we listened to what Jesus had to say about prisoners, and it's past time that the churches got on board. Get it started in your church. Let's make things happen.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thinking would help

I got a call this week from a guy who admits he broke the law. He's on the later side of middle-aged, and was growing some wacky tobacky in his back yard. I'm not sure why people think they can get away with this stuff, but that's another story. Anyway, he got arrested and convicted. But then he got sent to prison for a couple years. That, in itself, doesn't make a lot of sense. But now you gotta hear the rest.

The man had been injured several years earlier in a snowmobile accident, and is paralyzed from the waist down. This means that he cannot get around. It also means that he has problems with bowels and his urinary tract.

Now stop to think about it for a minute.

I know that this well-meaning judge wanted to get terrible criminals off the street. But guess how many problems it might cause not only for the new prisoner, but for the current occupants of the prison and for the prison staff, to suddenly admit this man. And when you get done thinking about that, stop to think about how much more this is going to cost the state than housing a healthy human being.

The results were completely predictable.

Prisoners couldn't stand having this guy around, with all of his personal hygiene issues, and they finally took things into their own hands and beat the guy to a pulp. That was their only solution to the problem. The man recites a litany of disasters that no one should have had to experience. His punishment turned out to be much worse than the actual crime.

There has to be a better way. This is sheer stupidity.

In a case like this, it's hard to believe that anyone was thinking.