Saturday, October 29, 2011

They're really not any different

Prisoners really aren't different.

Sure there are some bad apples. That's what prison is for. It's a place where we put people who have committed crimes against society.

Having said that, I will tell you what I hear the most from volunteers who finally go into prison, from non-criminals who actually find themselves in prison, from my friends in a singing group that perform in prison: They're not any different than the rest of us.

The reason I bring this up is this. I just opened the mail today. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS received a contribution from a gang of guys in the Ionia Correctional Facility. I've talked in the past about prisoners and finances. They work for wages unlike anything you're seen or heard. $15-20 a month, for example. Money is important to them, because they must purchase their own supplies from the state's own store. Because the food leaves a lot to be desired, they like to purchase snacks in the store, also. So they really watch their pennies. This means that when we receive a check for $100 from a group of prisoners, it is an incredible gift. A huge sacrifice. And making a contribution isn't simple or easy for them. The state makes it difficult. Finally, in frustration, the guys gave up trying to make individual contributions. Instead, they put all their money together, gave it to a spokesman for the group, and he withdrew the money from his account for a contribution to HFP.

They're a lot like you and me. In spite of the mess-ups in their own lives, they want to do good things. They appreciate friendships. They want to help others in trouble. They want to help others avoid trouble in their own lives.

It's no surprise to me that Jesus said if we show kindness to them, we're actually showing kindness to HIM.

A decent lot, this gang from Ionia. Nice guys trying to do nice things.

I love 'em.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Remembering Maurice Carter

I could envision a beautiful building perhaps in the style of the Supreme Court structure, with letters carved in marble or granite: THE MAURICE HENRY CARTER INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE. Perhaps it would be located on the campus of my favorite college, Calvin in Grand Rapids. It would house Michigan's finest Innocence Project, handling cases with and without DNA evidence. Pre-law college students would fight on behalf of indigent prisoners claiming wrongful conviction. But the institute would go beyond that. It would help those who had fallen through the cracks, and had no family, no friends, to stand beside them in fighting for fair treatment, medical care, a halt to mental health abuse, etc., etc. It would fulfill every dream of Maurice Carter, who insisted that his negative had to be turned into a positive. It would be funded by foundations and trusts with never a financial worry. That's what I was dreaming exactly 7 years ago today.

I had already spent my final moments alone with Maurice in a Spectrum critical care unit. He was attached to every piece of equipment the hospital had that might be able to keep him alive for a few more minutes. But the staph infection was obviously winning. His frail, tired body finally gave up. Just past midnight, October 25, 2004.

I hadn't expected his death. I expected that he and I would work side by side to help prisoners. I did not expect to be carrying this torch alone. And so the organization, at that time named INNOCENT, continued its work. Later we changed the name to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS to better reflect our mission. We incorporated as a Michigan non-profit agency. We obtained IRS approval for tax exemption. But the Carter dream didn't evolve into a major justice institute. Instead, we're a tiny agency with a huge heart, located in a single-room office, but carrying out the Carter dream with an amazing panel of professionals, a band of committed volunteers, and a loyal albeit limited crowd of supporters who faithfully see that the bills get paid.

But as I reflect on Maurice's life and his dream on this meaningful day, I believe he would be pleased. I feel him at my side.

An African American gospel singer whom I loved and who died far too early in life, Alma Perry, used to sing this song. It doesn't exactly apply, but this is the spirit in which we carry on from day to day.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they're traveling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

We're on the job, Maurice. Rest in peace.

Monday, October 24, 2011

It's gotta be prayer!

Sometimes I just don't know what works.

A few years ago I made reference to a young lad who was sentenced to prison after being arrested on a minor sex charge (playing doctor with his cousin---his mom decided to teach him a lesson by calling the cops!), he was sentenced to the Michigan prison system. That, in itself, was an outrage...but I haven't told you the rest of the story. He's mentally ill. At that time, he had the mind of about a 6 year old.

I could see little or no help for this lad. His mother had her own emotional problems, and didn't have custody of the boy. That left only his grandmother, who resided in another state and who was in a wheelchair.

When I heard the story I went to see him in prison. I bought him soda pop and candy bars. We had a fine time. I've got grandkids, I know how to talk to kids, and I personally love kids.

But my heart was broken when he came walking in with shoes far too big. He had lost his own, and the staff found another pair for him, albeit the wrong size.

My heart was broken time again again as I kept up with his situation. The guards would tease him and scare him. Sometimes he could be seen in his cell just sitting on his bunk and crying.

He would get angry at the guards, so they'd throw him in the hole...a mentally ill little boy, sitting in the dark in seclusion! He'd get even more angry, so he'd urinate thru the meal slot in his cell door. Well, the guards retaliated by mopping up the puddle with his clothes. I guess they showed him who was boss.

Meanwhile, he has very few visitors, with almost no family and friends.

I tell you all of this to underscore why I couldn't muster up hope for this kid. His whole situation seemed hopeless to me.

Often, I asked people to pray for him.

I haven't heard from him in a long time. Then came word from his grandmother this week. He is doing good now, and has received his GED! I am so proud of him. I wish I could be there, so if you could go on his special day when he receives his certificate that would be greatly appreciated. He has worked so hard for this.

It's gotta be prayer.

Thank you, Lord.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A stitch in time

Another shipment of yarn has just left western Michigan, heading for the Women's Unit at Huron Valley CF in Ypsilanti.

It all began as just a few women in prison wanting to do something creative with their fingers, wanting to do something meaningful with their time. They learned to knit, and they started knitting clothes, and the prison people saw to it that the clothing made its way to the homeless.

Word of the project got out to a woman here in our town who, as a part of HFP's Project Window started corresponding with a pen pal in Huron Valley. She asked if she could do more to help, and the prisoners said they could always use more yarn. That's all it took.

Bags and bags of yarn now make their way to Ypsi. Last week four large bags. More ready to go this week.

And some 100 female inmates are now participating in the program.

And the clothing keeps right on going to homeless people.

Little things mean a lot.

Your continued support of HFP helps to keep this ball rolling.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Another one freed!

I received great news yesterday afternoon from the Innocence Project Team. Another wrongly convicted prisoner has been freed. Henry James walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola yesterday, a free man for the first time in three decades. DNA tests prove his innocence of a 1981 rape.

So today, this man can start over again, reconnecting with family and rebuilding his life, at age 50. It's not going to be easy. There's a good chance that it may not even work.

James was arrested charged with rape in 1981 after he victim mis-identified him as the attacker. And here's one more shameful little fact about this case: blood tests pointed to his innocence, but his defense attorney failed to share that with the jury.

Sometime I wish that everyone who reads our material and supports our project could go with us to a national Innocence Network Conference. The speeches and the workshops are wonderful, but the real meaningful experience comes when the exonerees are introduced. It's a reunion every year, as more and more people are freed after being found innocent. These people are like family. They welcome each other. They hug each other. They weep openly. And while I tell about these meaningful experiences, I must confess that there's another side to the coin. At the same time I get very angry. In a country that boasts justice for all, why does a man have to wait 30 years to be found innocent? Is it because he doesn't have money, or stature?

And how many more Henrys are there? Care to guess? If the system is right 99% of the time, care to figure out the total of 1% of 2.5 million? That's how many are in prison in the US of A.

Let's get angry together, and let's vow to do something about it.

No more Henrys.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

One day with God

Here at the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, unpleasant messages from prisoners arrive on a regular basis. It can be very discouraging. Perhaps that is why, when a rare ray of sunshine beams into the office, one feels like cheering.

That's the way I felt yesterday after talking with Terry, program coordinator for a prison a mere ten miles away from here.

He introduced himself and told me about a project coming up next month at his facility called ONE DAY WITH GOD. Here's what happens.

He and his associates choose about 25 model prisoners, most of whom are fathers of small children, for a special weekend.

On Friday, there will be a day of prayer and preparation with those 25 prisoners. Preparation means packaging donated gifts for children, which they will be able to present to their kids when they come to visit the next day.

On Saturday, some 50 kids will meet at a local church, and will be bussed to a special prison gate where they can safely enter to see their fathers for ONE DAY WITH GOD. A day of special activities is planned, including the presentation of gifts. A tiny slice of heaven on earth. But it doesn't stop there.

The regular caregivers for those kids, who get a day off thanks to this event, are not forgotten. Activities are scheduled in a local church for that day to make it special for these unsung heroes as well.

Think about it. We have over 2-million people in prison. Terry's project is going to help 25 of them. Insignificant? Not in the least! It's a huge start. Now we need more Terrys. And more Days with God. Kudos to Terry. Prayers for many more program coordinators like him, and for more wardens like his boss who believe that prisoners are real people, created in the image of God.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The dreaded message

Well, we finally got the message from the bookkeeper last week. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is flat broke. It took 10 months for it to happen, but we finally reached the bottom of the barrel.

This doesn't mean that HFP is going to fold up. No Way. A series of fund-raisers has been planned for the end of the year to provide many ways for our supporters to keep us going. But it's a wakeup call for our Board of Directors. Prayers are important for our survival. But so are dollars.

If you live in this area, we'd love to see you at our two music programs coming up. A sacred concert Sunday night the 16th at the Ferrysburg Community Church, featuring two outstanding groups, HIS MEN and JUBAL BRASS. And next month, on the 9th, we have a fun evening of the best piano jazz in the midwest in the Harbourfront Grand Hall in downtown Grand Haven.

If you live farther away, but would like to be a part of this ministry, we welcome your donations. We are a 501c3 organization and your gifts are tax exempt.

And if you're flat broke, like HFP, you can still support us. Prayers are such an important part of this week. We need them daily. We covet them.

Thank you for being there for us. We're here for prisoners.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The greatest gift

As you drive north on scenic highway US 31 in Michigan's lower peninsula, you pass through a little town called Conway. There's not much in Conway except a Post Office. Not much, however, except a monastery that sets back off the highway. You'll miss it if you don't make a point of looking. For years I drove past it, wondering that was and what happened in there.

And then one day, in my second career, that of selling church organs, I learned that the nuns in this beautiful little facility needed a new organ for their chapel. The old one was emitting sparks and smoke. Doug to the rescue.

We sold them a beautiful little ALLEN organ (the best name in the business), and my dad joined me in driving it up there and hauling it into the chapel. What a time we had, as each of the sisters had a different idea as to where the organ should be placed. My dear friend Sister Rosemary finally uttered in exasperation, "Lord, help us all!"

Through all of this I learned more about the Augustine Center and the Sacramentine Monastery. I learned that the sisters in this little order of nuns were committed to a lifetime of prayer. That's all these beautiful little ladies do. They pray. They don't get out of that facility for any more than a few days a year. Their daily routine rarely changes. They believe that they've been called to pray, and they very much appreciate things to pray for. As our friendship deepened, I encouraged the male chorus that I directed at the time---HIS MEN---to rent the monastery for a weekend retreat. It was marvelous. We then sang for their Sunday morning mass as a token of thanks. The nuns were keenly interested in my third career, which took me into prisoner advocacy. How they prayed for Maurice Carter. And after he died, they continued to pray for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

What a ministry!

How much we can learn from those who have devoted a life to the practice of prayer!

And as I received a check from these poor/wealthy ladies today in the amount of $10.00 for HFP, which comes from their skimpy funds, I again felt so much gratitude. For the financial gift, yes.

But especially for the greater gift: the gift of prayer. And it never stops.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

on employing prisoners

I would like to tell you about a genuine hero.

She certainly would not let us use her name, nor would she let us disclose the identity of her former employer.

We can tell you that she was employed in a supervisory position at a reputable company here in the western half of Michigan. Among the entry-level employees for whom she was responsible was a guy who voluntarily disclosed to her that he had served time in prison. She thanked him for the information but said it made no difference to her. He was a good employee, and did his job well without complaint. She stated her position, that he had served his time, and the past was the past. He thanked her, but said he just wanted her to know because all supervisors don't feel that way.

Well, sure enough, someone complained to the company that one of its employees was a former prisoner. And, the mid-level manager ordered the man's supervisor to fire him. She refused. Instead, she went to the top, explained the situation, said that the man had done nothing wrong and didn't deserve to be let go. Sadly, she didn't get support, even from the big boss. She was ordered to dismiss her employee. Again she refused, and instead resigned.

The man was still fired.

Two postscripts.

Number one, the top level manager who ordered the firing claimed to be a part-time fundamentalist pastor, but informed the supervisor that he, too, had to do some things that were against his principles. I guess his job was more important to him than principle.

And number two, as if to demonstrate that God approved of her decision to get out, our friend later was extremely successful in her next position of employment, in an occupation that took her to numerous foreign countries.

It's a sad state of affairs, but I must tell you that it is very difficult for former prisoners to find work, and once they find it, to keep their jobs here in Michigan. And it won't change unless we become as courageous as the hero of our story.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Two kinds of Christianity?

I was meeting with board members of a fine, socially aware downtown church in a nearby town, hoping to persuade them to give HFP some free office space. But then I noticed one board member with an angry look on his face. It didn't take long for him to speak up, and express strong opposition to giving HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS anything. He didn't want his church affiliated with some do-gooder group that wanted to free vicious criminals and might put the church in a controversial position. No way.

Another retired reporter and I were talking about the anger in people these days. Even, and perhaps especially, among those claiming to be Christians. We think it's getting worse. What do you think?

We recalled the recent scene where gay military personnel who have been serving their country were booed. Where a presidential candidate who boasted about his death penalty position received applause. Where poor people in need of welfare were angrily advised to get a job, get a life. And much of this behavior is found in a group of people calling themselves Christians. Frankly, I'm not terribly surprised because, as an advocate for prisoners, I'm pretty used to it. Doesn't make any difference whether you go to church or not. If you never knew anyone in prison, and if your friends and family never had anyone in prison, chances are you don't like to hear about it. Because then you have to think about it. And Jesus said you darn well better do something about it.

Speaking of Jesus, maybe it's time to forget the rhetoric of people, and listen to the words of our master. We might start by once again reviewing the words to the Sermon on the Mount.