Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mentally ill behind bars

A Michigan sheriff recently stated a fact that a whole lot of families already knew: prisons and jails have become the new institutions for the mentally ill.

In a fine piece on the subject, Detroit Free Press writer Jeff Gerritt said that, according to a University of Michigan study, more than 20% of the state's prisoners had severe mental disabilities---and far more were mentally ill. The same study found that 65% of prisoners with several mental disabilities had received no treatment in the previous 12 months. An outrage.

The big question.

What are you going to do about it?

If our experience provides that answer, we'd have to say that John Q. Public will do very little.

HOWEVER, it's a different story for people who have a loved one in prison. I worked side-by-side with Mary Ann when her brother Arnie---who was mentally challenged---suffered abuse on a routine basis in prison. We didn't just work. We fought!

And we're still working side-by-side with Lois, who has a son in prison who has mental issues. She fights 24/7. She has to, or her son will receive shameful treatment.

The simple fact is that prison staffers don't have training to deal with the mentally ill, and fellow prisoners don't know how to handle the mentally ill. For the unstable prisoner, it's a double whammy. Prisoners beat the tar out of him because they don't understand him. Guards beat and punish him because he doesn't understand the rules, and therefore he violates them.

I hope you won't leave this up to those with mentally ill family members in prison.

You can make a huge difference by applying pressure to your elected state officials. Jails and prisons are no alternative for mental institutions, and jail and prison guards are no alternative for trained caretakers.

It's time for change.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

even on Thanksgiving, stark reality

I was reflecting on my blessings on this Thanksgiving Day. A year ago I had just survived a brutal attack by a staph infection that many thought would claim my life. I'm feeling so good this year that I almost feel guilty. My list of blessings is so long that I cannot document it all. I feel like the Psalmist. My heart was overflowing with gratitude when I spotted a letter on my desk that hadn't been opened.

I'm amazed that it ever got here. It was sent to the wrong address. It had insufficient postage. Instead of my name on the envelope, it simply said "Dear Sir." It had been sent from San Quentin.

Dear Sir: My name is Paul Wesley Baker. I've been on death row since 2009. I was arrested in 2003 in L.A., California. My attorney did absolutely nothing to help me in trial. I only saw my investigator once in 5 years. My trial was in 2008. The DNA was tampered with and some of their witnesses lied under oath. Some of this could have been proved if my attorney did a small part in my behalf.

We don't even try to handle cases outside the State of Michigan. But Paul is on my heart on this Thanksgiving Day. I can do little more than pray for him. I shall write him a letter of encouragement anyway. And I'll send him a copy of our new book of prayers.

After actually visiting a prisoner on death row, and actually witnessing an execution of a man whom I believed was wrongly convicted, I am especially sensitive to the plight of people on death row.

How about you? Will you pray for Paul today? I suggest that you also remember all the others on death row who find it very difficult to be thankful on this Thanksgiving Day.

A blessed holiday to you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

a meaningful Thanksgiving

I was able to give my friend James the most incredible Thanksgiving message today.

James has been in prison almost 30 years. He was guilty of assault, but he turned his life around.

While in prison he has moved mountains for law enforcement.

Now he's seeking a commutation of his sentence, well deserved for a number of reasons. But here's the exciting news I was able to deliver.

The Prosecutor who put him away 28 years ago is now leading the fight to get him released!

I've never seen this before. I know many former and present prosecutors. They are really good friends, but I gotta tellya, these guys are prosecutors.

The man who put James away is so convinced that he deserves a new crack at life that he has written a three-page letter pleading with the Parole Board to give him a chance. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't read it.

Well, HFP is in the middle of this effort, and it makes me so proud.

I was the middle man today. I had the opportunity to tell this man in prison that the prosecutor who put him away will lead the effort next week to ask for a recommendation for commutation by the Michigan Parole Board. And I was able to tell him that this former prosecutor, now retired, is supported in his position by key people in the Michigan State Police and the FBI.

Thanksgiving Day is very special for James this year. And for good reason.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mr. or Ms. Anon keeps giving

Way back when Maurice Carter was alive, and we founded the organization INNOCENT, a very kind person on the other side of the state (based on the postmark) began sending anonymous contributions to our office in Grand Rapids. Once every month or two, I would receive a crumpled little envelope with squiggly writing on it. Inside I would find a sheet of lined paper folded up, and there a five dollar bill. No note, no message, no name, no address, no nothin.'

And it has never stopped.

Maurice has gone to heaven. INNOCENT is now HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Our office is no longer in Grand Rapids. Neither is it in Muskegon anymore.

My former employer gets the envelopes now. I would like to thank the donor, and advise him/her that our address has changed. But we have no idea who it is.

I have a feeling that this is another example of the widow's mite. We treat the contributions the same as we would a major gift. Each time the gift gets recorded and deposited. And we take care to spend that 5 dollar bill just as carefully as we do all of our precious funds.

I wish I could thank this donor. Somehow, I believe that he/she feels our gratitude.

Meanwhile, the gifts keep coming.

And we keep going.

HFP is blessed to receive many small gifts. Small, but not insignificant.

For all of them we are thankful.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Big Ben Logic

My friend Big Ben makes so much sense so much of the time.

He was talking with Michigan legislators about the state's abominable prison situation. And he was talking about his particular situation. He's among about 40 lifers in the system who didn't get covered by new legislation, and therefore cannot become eligible for parole.

I was convicted at 22. I am now 64, diabetic, hypertensive, and afflicted with a number of other ailments for which I take 8 different kinds of prescription medications.

On average it costs the state $33,000 to incarcerate one healthy individual for one year in the D.O.C.

I, on the other hand, cost the Michigan tax payer somewhere in the neighborhood of $45-50,000 a year in incarceration costs. If you multiply that by the remaining 40 or more Aaron Lifers in the prison system, you begin to understand how this affects the state's efforts to contain its deficits.

Regardless of whether these words come from behind or in front of prison bars, they make sense and should be considered by our elected officials.

Big Ben is a considerate, highly intelligent inmate who should someday be elected to represent others in public office.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

More on birthday wishes

The unwritten policy of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is based on an old, anonymous slogan: You have never really lived until you've done something for somebody who can never repay you.

I guess that's why I'm so taken aback when expressions of kindness come to me from prisoners. Now I'm making it sound like these expressions are infrequent. Quite the opposite. They're coming all the time, and you'd think I would get used to it. But I don't.

A birthday comes, and I receive a home-made card, beautifully created by a woman in Michigan's women's facility. These people have no money for guards, but their artistic skills are amazing.

A letter comes from a dear friend in another facility. I should have expected it.

A series of telephone calls from prison. I can't even imagine how they remember my birthday.

And now, a $10.00 check in honor of my birthday, from a prisoner whose monthly wage is less than most hourly wages on the outside. I am just astounded.

I often say that some of the nicest people I have ever met are in prison, and some of my best friends are in prison.

No wonder Jesus was so intent on having us care about them.

There are beautiful people both inside and outside. I can prove it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On birthday wishes

One doesn't pay much attention to birthdays anymore at my age.

I must say that the celebration of my 75th was exceptionally pleasing. More than 50 guests showed up at a party featuring jazz greats John Shea and Tim Froncek. My family was more than gracious. Even grandkids from afar called to talk to their grandpa. In view of the fact that exactly one year ago I was on a feeding tube, a process that continued for six long months as I did my best to recover from a vicious attack by a staph infection, it was indeed a time for celebration. I greet each day this year with a feeling of exhilaration.

Son Matthew put out a notice on the HFP email network and my inbox was flooded with birthday greetings from around the world. I am blessed with so many beautiful friends.

My snailbox was filled with letters from prisoners who remembered my birthday, and some even called.

Perhaps the most meaningful greeting, though, came from a mentally challenged teenager in prison. You have done so much great work over the years and my mother and I really appreciate your work. I remember when you came to see me. Man, did we have a good time! I'm continuing to work on myself, to try to grow and better myself each day. I just wanted to let you know I'm thinking of you and praying for you. Thanks again for all your hard work. Have a great birthday!

A dose of that medicine is sure to fill one's heart to face the next year.

Thanks to all who were kind enough to remember. And a special thanks to my friend Kevin.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Prayers for prisoners

I'm so excited. I'm holding in my hand a brand new book that actually had its origin right here in the HFP office.

It's called THE PRISONER'S PRAYER BOOK, and it was written by a dear friend of ours, Louise Reichert of Marquette, Michigan. Louise and I have worked together for the past several years, as she was advocating on behalf of a seriously ill prisoner. When I discovered that she was a gifted writer of prayers I began forwarding prisoner problems to her that we encountered in our work. Each time she skillfully penned a short, gritty prayer that could have been uttered by the prisoner. And should have been. And from that we started dreaming of a book.

Today, that book is a reality. It's a masterpiece. 100 meaningful prayers on issues faced by prisoners every day. I'm going to do my best to get the book into the hands of every Michigan prisoner who wants a copy. And I challenge prison programs in other states to do the same. Go to our website and find out how your $25 can purchase a copy for yourself and place a copy in a prison cell.

Get a copy right away. You'll be touched. You'll understand my enthusiasm.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The face of Jesus

I was feeling good. I just given a very short address to more than 100 criminal defense attorneys at their annual Michigan conference. It went well. They bought some of my books. They had kind words. I got into my nice car, outside the posh Park Place Hotel, located in the heart of pricey Traverse City. And then I spotted the face of Jesus.

It was pasted on the front of a homeless woman---not an old lady, either. She pulled all of her belongings in a little coaster wagon, right in front of me in the parking lot. Her face reflected all the pain and agony and shame of being homeless. She was probably planning to poke through trash bins outside the hotel.

This was it! This was the person I was talking to the attorneys about! I wanted to go back in and take her with me. All she had to do was get arrested for some kind of offenses that we find for charging the homeless and the down-trodden...and she would need a court appointed attorney. Her attorney would be her only hope. That's what I tried to tell these wonderful lawyers. I wanted them to pause before telling a client they didn't believe the story, and they wouldn't check out witnesses. I wanted them to know that refusing to listen, refusing to check out a story, was a crushing blow to someone with very little hope.

Why did I say this was the face of Jesus? Simple. He's the one who told us that in Matthew 25. He said that when we show kindness to these people---sick, poor, homeless, prisoners---we show kindness to HIM.

Thank you for the reminder, Lord.

I'm praying that our simple little message in Traverse City hit home.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On chiding a prisoner

I rather like the word chide, especially when I feel that I must try to realign a prisoner's thinking. It seems kinder than scold, or reprimand, or criticize.

I felt that I had to chide Mr. H. this week, and I don't do that quickly. Prisoners have enough problems and enough issues.

First I should say that I am blessed...I'll go farther than that and say I am actually humbled by the stellar character of a whole list of dear friends who are in prison. Their attitude toward others, their efforts on behalf of the needy, their disposition even in peak times of unpleasantness go far beyond the way I think and act and talk every day. They are amazing individuals and an example not only to me but to all who meet them, including those in charge over them in the prisons.

But then there is Mr. H.

He was wrongly charged, but he wasn't completely innocent. His past life was checkered, including a prior conviction and incarceration. Because he was over-charged and over-sentenced, he feels very wronged. He's angry at the system. He feels all who know him should be trying harder to find justice for him. And because of this, he's not happy. Church really isn't for him. He hasn't actively tried to pursue higher education. There are volunteer group sessions on subjects like self-esteem, but those kinds of programs are for prisoners beneath his level. And so he goes to work everyday, does his job, and mopes.

In a recent Parole Board interview, the board member caught this and also chided Mr. H. She encouraged him to do more. Thinking that this would get him out of prison, he said, "I'll do anything you want me to." And she stopped him right there. "I don't want you to do anything," said stated flatly. "I want YOU to want to do something!"

I'm one of the few friends who sticks with Mr. H, and I felt it my turn to give him a slight nudge.

I encouraged him to thank God for meeting up with that PB member, because he could use that interview as the basis for changing his life, here and now.

I encouraged him to contact me again, not to ask if I can be at his side with a moment's notice for a PB interview, but instead to ask what he can do for HFP.

I encouraged him to contact his family, not to make more demands, but instead to ask what he can do for the family.

I encouraged him to start going to church, but more than that, to ask the chaplain what he can do to make the services more meaningful to those who attend.

I encouraged him to reapply to the group session on self esteem, and this time to ask the group leader what he could do to make the session even better for the participants.

And I said that it was my prayer that, if he must appear before that same Parole Board member again in years to come, we could then tell her about the new life of the new Mr. H.

With a little divine intervention, who knows?