Saturday, December 29, 2012

They're just prisoners

Some end of the year thoughts.

It was a week ago that I wrote about the women being so cold in a couple units of Huron Valley. It doesn't have to be that way. The fans on the cold air return can be turned down. We complained, all the way to the top.

Just got word as to how the state responded. Our source tells us that a sergeant ordered that everyone in the cold area be issued a blanket. It wasn't a heavy blanket, but at least it helped the girls stay warm. Two days later, they collected all the blankets again. So much for staying warm in the bleak mid-winter. After all, they're just prisoners.

And on another subject, for several years we've been wondering how a seemingly inept judge who persists in abusing his power remains on the bench in Berrien County. Judge Wiley mistreated a client of ours to such an extent that it was an outrage. The man was a professional, with no prior arrests, who was involved in an unpleasant incident that police and a prosecutor and Judge Wiley escalated into a major case. Our friend is in prison, and will be there for years if his legal efforts fail.

And then this week, almost the same thing happened to an Indiana woman who made the mistake of muttering some oaths under her breath in the court clerk's office in Berrien County. Judge Wiley decided that was highly inappropriate, and ordered her arrested and jailed. And just like in the aforementioned case, when it appeared that bond would secure her release, he upped the bond. Instead of spending Christmas with her loved ones, this professional woman---again with no prior arrests---spent 8 days in the horrid Berrien County jail. Her rights were no longer important...she was just a prisoner.

We're hoping that appropriate steps will be taken against Judge Wiley this time. And we stand ready to help. We have some excellent ammunition from the prior case.

They may be just prisoners to Judge Wiley.

We see them as the faces of God.



Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cold Christmas

Marcia and I were returning from a delightful week in Hawaii with our son and his family. We were just getting used to temperatures in the mid to high 70s when we were forced to wait for a commuter airplane in any icy wing of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Even when wrapped in a blanket Marcia couldn't get warm. When we eventually arrived at our warm home, it still took hours before she felt comfortable again.

Then I opened my messages from prisoners, and stared at this one from the women in one of the units at Michigan's facility in Ypsilanti:

Lack of heat in our unit, Calhoun B. They have the return air set on 15, that pulls the outside air inside. Heat is barely on. Honestly can't even feel any heat in our rooms. All we feel is the cold air from the outside blowing on our beds all day/all night long. The head guy says they cannot turn the return air off because of germs. OK, so can we at least have enough heat so we can sleep at night, not having to curl up in a ball with 10 layers of clothing on? Why can't they turn this air down to 5. Then maybe, just maybe, we would be able to feel some heat. Highly doubt they will turn any heat up. Please, please help us. We are all so tired of being cold inside this unit. Our counselor had everyone uncover their vents and it still did not do any good. Lockers, desks and floor in all rooms are like ice cubes. Let me know if you can do anything about this inhumane treatment.


Readers of this column know of my concerns for the women. We don't treat them well in Michigan, and this is just another example.

Marcia was able to get warm eventually. These women may face a cold Christmas.

HFP has called this issue to the attention of the top brass. We'll keep you posted.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

This. too, is why we're here

If you read the previous post, you'll certainly want to follow-up with this one.

It was the sister of Mr. D. who gave all of that information to HFP, and today we're pleased to advise her that some progress has been made.

We've learned over the years that every problem cannot be solved at the top. In fact, sometimes one must start very near the bottom. So in this case, we simply contacted one of our good friends behind bars, an inmate at the same facility.

We knew that we could count on Mr. R. He's a former executive, with take-charge skills. We passed along the information that we had received from the sister of the suffering inmate.

It's the Christmas season, and Mr. R. responded to our appeal for help saying he was "Santa's helper."

His word to us: "Two very capable older prisoners have taken him under their wings. I believe you and his sister can rest for a while."

May Mr. D. have a peaceful Christmas.

May the Prince of Peace be near every prisoner this holiday season.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's why we're here

Seems like we hear stories like this every holiday season.

62 year old inmate Mr. D. is in poor health. He uses walking assistance and is going deaf.

He had gotten robbed several times after receiving a store purchase of $85. But fortunately he found a room-mate who watched out for him, and that stopped the robberies for a few months. This nice roomie would also alert him for call-outs---meal time, counts, etc., as he can't hear. Some think perhaps dementia is even setting in.

Well, the nice guy got transferred, and Mr. D. now has a new room-mate. He was just robbed again. But this time the thieves stole all his property, including a footlocker that contained not only his personal belongings but his legal papers to try to fight his case. They stole his radio and head-set. They tried to steal his TV set but it was zip-locked in place.

As far as we know, the prison did not conduct any searches, because it would have been relatively easy to find a footlocker, one would think.

And because he cannot hear them call him, the guards are now writing Mr. D. tickets for missing his call-outs, and have punished him by putting him on cell restrictions...so he cannot leave his cell.

Our sources tell us that Mr. D. is a veteran and should be covered by VA for hearing aids, but we are told that the prison will not let him use this service. We are unable to confirm this.

All I can say is that regardless what you hear from the top, all this talk about compassion for Michigan inmates is just that: talk. We still have a long way to go.

This is no isolated incident. It just happens to be one that caught the attention of an HFP informer.

We're now on the case, and we'll update the story.

Pray for Mr. D. and many others in similar circumstances.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Open letter to the boss

To Mr. Daniel Heyns, Director
MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

Dear Mr. Heyns:

You make one generalization in your letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press, published in the November 11, 2012 edition, that must be challenged. In praising your team of employees, you say this about their work with prisoners: “Every day, they deal with the worst of the worst of Michigan's citizens.” It's a generalization that must be challenged. The worst of the worst?

I started going through the HFP files to list exceptions to that rule. I intended to list names of prisoners, and a list of reasons why I so admire these men and women...all of them friends. I found too much material. Many of these inmates have gone 10, 20, 30 and 40 years without one misconduct. They are active in positive programs like the National Lifers Association. They are mentoring and teaching. They are knitting clothing for the underprivileged. They go out of their way to help senior citizens and the mentally ill. They care for the ailing and the injured. Old-timers do their best to give valuable advice to youngsters coming into the system. We encounter it daily. My friend Dr. David Schuringa, President of Crossroad Bible Institute, insists that these are the people that Jesus would enjoy hanging out with. The worst of the worst?

Kenny Wyniemko, wrongly convicted and freed from prison thanks to DNA testing, claims that up to 15% of prisoners may be innocent. Some statistics show that perhaps 20% of Michigan prisoners are mentally ill. The worst of the worst?

How about those employees of yours who do not meet your description of the most dedicated, compassionate, honest and hardest-working? How about those dirty cops who bring in the drugs and allow the resulting illicit activity. How about those guards who tease and abuse the mentally ill, especially the youngsters...the ones who throw a teenager into the hole wearing only his underwear and then open the window on a January day. Or the ones who throw a mentally ill man in the hole on a hot summer day, and turn off his cold water tap. How about the medical people taking away asthma inhaling devices and discontinuing important prescriptions for no particular reason? The medical and dental people refusing basic services?

We hasten to add that we are not to be classified as liberal bleeding hearts who want all prisoners released. We work in the prisons. We know that there are people who belong there. We realize that prisons are here for a reason. We also acknowledge that there are many honest, dedicated, kind people working in the prison system.

Jesus informed his supporters that HE was in prison, chided them for not visiting him, or praised them for calling on him. That wasn't Jesus making the visit. That was Jesus being visited. The worst of the worst?

There are good and bad people behind bars...very much like we have in a free society, and inmates deserve that acknowledgement from the director of our prison system.

Doug Tjapkes, President

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS

Saturday, December 1, 2012

When will it stop?

I had sort of lost touch with Pete. He's in a prison in California, his writing is so small I can hardly read it, and now that HFP takes cases only in Michigan there was little reason to be communicating.

But this week I heard from him. Still tiny print. Still hard to read. But this time it was not only difficult, it was painful.

Pete's prison has been in lockdown a lot lately...he didn't say why. But that means that inmates can't get out. In his case, it was worse.

He said that he was brought breakfast and lunch in paper bags, which were shoved through the opening in the door. Dinner was also served through the same slot. The door, locked from the outside, was never opened so he could get out, so there was no human contact for a month. There was no window in the tiny room, which he described as the size of a closet.

He had no radio or TV to help pass the time, and he said his newspaper subscription had expired several months ago.

Said Pete: "I've been out of touch for three months."

I need someone in the field of corrections to explain to me all the positive reasons for this type of incarceration.

I'll bet money that the only thing that results from this terrible segregation is mental deterioration.

Pete describes it as a nightmare, especially since he claims wrongful conviction.

I contend that, regardless of guilt or innocence, it's a crime on behalf of the state.

Monday, November 26, 2012

One small step

You've heard me talk about the roller coaster. Lately, it seems, most of the rides were downhill. But, it's a new week, and we're heading up again!

In my recent blog, I sounded pretty much like scrooge when discussing the holiday season behind bars.

After the last blog entry, I decided that it was time to actually communicate with the Michigan Department of Corrections regarding this business of no visits on Christmas Day. We already had the MDOC decision that eliminated Tuesday visits for budgetary reasons. But we had also heard that one warden was hoping to make an exception for holiday visits.

And so we contacted the head of communications for the department, Russ Marlan, whose relationship with the President of HFP goes back to the days of Maurice Carter. We've communicated a lot over the years. I sent the email question to Russ over the holiday weekend. After all, if Christmas visits were going to be denied, we wanted to hear it straight from the administration. Today came the formal response.

The MDOC hadn't really thought of holiday visitation. Russ indicated in his email message to me that he discussed the matter with the director, Daniel Heyns, and Mr. Heyns decided to amend the current visiting policy and allow visits at all correctional facilities on Christmas Day and New Years Day. Said Marlan: "Director Heyns recognizes the importance of family visits and maintaining family unity during this holiday season. The wardens were all notified today."

Thank God.

Thank you Russ, and thank you Director Heyns.

Glad we could have played a role in this situation.

It's what HFP does, thanks to the support of many generous people.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Happy holidays?

This Thanksgiving week was a good time to start working on the December newsletter which gets mailed to many HFP friends and supporters.

I have been communicating with prisoners, hoping to find some touching holiday stories from behind bars to brighten the mood of the newsletter. But you cannot imagine how difficult this has been. The negative keeps outweighing the positive.

Some guys at Kinross are scared this holiday season. Violence is common-place in that facility, and prisoners sometimes join gangs simply for protection as staff members look the other way.

A friend at Chippewa just got out of the hole, to find that---while he was in segregation---somebody ransacked his cell. Belongings are missing, including his beloved MP3 player. Legal documents are in disarray or missing. A lamp was broken.
Merry Christmas.

A prisoner at the Thumb told me that it's really sad to see the mentally ill patients in one unit of that facility. He said they're zombies: heavily medicated to keep them under control. I have no way to validate this, but I have no reason to doubt the man. Happy Holidays to these guys and their families.

There's a geriatric division that we've been told about that is really sad. Very much like the nursing homes that you visit. Doesn't it make you wonder why our tax dollars are paying the prison system to care for these individuals? Are they really a threat to society?

Then there are the visitation issues. So far no word on holiday visits, but Christmas comes on Tuesday this year, and Tuesday is not a visitation day with the MDOC. Gotta save money, you know.

A friend of ours won't be visiting her husband. She's been banned for life, and he's in prison for life. What kind of sense does that make?

Women are complaining at the one prison where all women are housed in Michigan. Not enough visiting hours, not enough visiting space. Long waits. Peace on earth.

I know, I'm sounding like Scrooge, and I don't mean to do that. What I mean to do is introduce you to the reality of prison life. It's not a country club, with three squares a day and a warm bed. It's hell, and it's the very reason that we open the office every day. We've got work to do. Lots of it. And we need your help.

Thanks for being there for us. And for them.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On death and dying

It was a difficult week, but that comes with the territory.

As mentioned in my last post, the State of Ohio took the life of my friend Brett Hartmann this week. He first contacted me in 2005 asking for assistance, claiming wrongful conviction. That's when our organization was called INNOCENT and we were taking cases from all states. More than once I made plans to visit him, and we took steps to try to help. Then I became very ill, and our correspondence faded. What a sickening feeling: to receive word that the government has purposely snuffed the life from the body of a friend.

Things didn't get any better.

My friend James called to inform me that Tommy Holt's wife had died. Tommy is a lifer in the Thumb Correctional Facility of Michigan, and his situation was different than that of many prisoners. His marriage held together despite incarceration. He had been married 48 years; an incredible accomplishment even for someone not in prison. Because he's a lifer, he won't even be permitted to attend his wife's funeral. I spoke with him in person yesterday by telephone, and gave him our love. He's such a nice man, and he's hurting.

The next morning my friend Al emailed me to inform me that Helen Milliken had died. She was the long-time wife of William Milliken, certainly one of the finest governors of the State of Michigan in all of its history. Governor and Mrs. Milliken were dear people, and took me out to lunch one day in Traverse City because they were so supportive of the work of HFP. Governor Bill is alone today, and I'm sad for that. He and his wife had a wonderful life together.

Said the writer of Ecclesiastes: There is a time for everything---a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.

This was the weep and mourn week.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Tuesday ride

When discussing my emotions of any given day in this business, I often refer to a roller-coaster.

Today was a typical HFP day.

It began with my anxiety over saying the right things to college kids. I had agreed to speak to and interact with members of a Criminal Justice Class at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. I always jump at chances like this. I love being with the future generation, and I enjoy telling our story. Yet there is always that uncertainty before the actual experience...what if they don't listen? What if they don't care?

That was not the case, and the roller-coaster reached a peak when a young woman quietly approached me after class to talk. "I'm going to start crying," she said. "I had just asked God to show me some place where I might be able to make a difference. Then I came here today and heard what you had to say. I don't know if you have volunteers. Is there anything I can do?" Tears streamed down her face.

Well, I'm not exactly sure what Valerie can do...we'll have to take it one step at a time. But I assured her that, if nothing else, she could become a prayer partner. We always have prayer requests. We agreed to stay in touch and to see where this leads. It was a beautiful experience. She heard me. She gets it.

Then I returned home to check messages. The roller-coaster began its descent.

I learned that a friend of HFP was executed this morning...just before that GVSU class started...killed by lethal injection by the State of Ohio. Brett Hartmann was only 38 years of age. For the past 15 years he had been claiming innocence, and he traveled every avenue of the court system to no avail. I have no way of knowing whether he was guilty. I know that Rubin Hurricane Carter once told me, as we worked on the Maurice Carter case, that any time a prisoner never gives up on his claim of innocence, "you'd better listen to him."

I know how I feel about the death penalty. I was there for my friend Anthony Nealy when the State of Texas put him to death. It's barbaric. I believe it's un-Christian, regardless of guilt or innocence, and regardless of the nature of the crime.

The roller-coaster hit bottom.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The last chapter

I was spiritually preparing myself for a prison gig, where Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I would be guest speakers. It was early Sunday morning, and I clicked on the TV set for the 30-minute broadcast from the Crystal Cathedral.

I was pleasantly surprised to note that the visiting pastor for the day was Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary...one of my favorite preachers. He didn't disappoint.

Dr. Mouw, after laying the groundwork for his sermon, changed course for a moment to make an interesting confession. He said that as an alternative to the stress of his position, he likes to take a break and read a thriller novel. But he didn't stop the confession at that point. He went on to say that by the time he gets to page 245 of the 400-page book, anxiety builds as the hero is surrounded by enemies and the heroine has been separated from her lover. "So what I do," said Dr. Mouw, "is go to the last chapter." He hastened to add that he doesn't quit then...he still goes back and reads through the entire plot to see how they got to the end. He just wanted to make sure that the hero was still alive and the man got his woman.

The fatherly speaker returned to his sermon. "I know that many of you who came to church this morning came with heavy problems, major issues. But you must remember something: You're on page 245. I come with good news for you today, because, you see (and he held up his Bible), I've read the last chapter."

That's it! That's HFP's message to all of these prisoners and their parents and their husbands and wives and their siblings and their kids...all who are experiencing so many issues.

I snapped off the TV and headed for prison.

I knew the end of the story.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A heart-breaker

Yvonne is in her 70s. She was so looking forward to the release of her daughter from prison. Debra had served nearly 14 years, but she was being freed a few weeks ago.

"I didn't even recognize her," said her mother. "She was all bent over, she couldn't connect her words, and she was stuttering." "I don't know what's wrong, Mamma," said the released prisoner. "My head hurts."

The next day, Debra collapsed at home and her mother had to call an ambulance.

She was taken to Henry Ford Hospital, and that's when the truth was discovered. Debra has brain cancer. Not just any old brain cancer: Glioblastoma. The kind you don't want. The aggressive, fast growing kind. Its victims do not survive. Surgery was performed on one of her five tumors, to relieve pressure on that part of the brain that deals with motor skills. She's in a nursing home now as therapists try to help her walk again. As for the prognosis, looks like she may have a year to live.

"I couldn't get answers to any questions when she was in prison," said Yvonne. "She had a stroke a few weeks before she was released, "but I can't find anything in her medical records to show that they did an MRI of her head."

Apparently Debra had been complaining of headaches and speech problems, but her mother said that prisoners who seem to complain too much somehow get branded as trouble-makers and get less attention.

There's no proof of any of this. And of course, nobody's talking. All Yvonne wants is some answers, some closure. But it appears that ain't gonna happen.

Yvonne's dream for a future with her daughter turned into a nightmare.

Pray for both of them.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Prison Visitation Part 5, the women's facility

The State of Michigan said it was a budget issue. Two prisoner visitation days a week were eliminated. MDOC spokesman John Cordell said it would save his department millions of dollars. But he conceded that it might result in an inconvenience to some people. Oh, really? Check with the women at Huron Valley.

The problem gets more serious because all female Michigan prisoners are in one facility, some 1,800 of them. Weekday visitation is a thing of the past, so all husbands, brothers, parents, siblings and qualified children must visit these women on the weekend.

Prisoner A told me, "there are many, many problems, with visitors waiting 2 hours to get in, and prisoners waiting in the visiting room that long, only to be told that their visitor has left." She went on: "My husband has driven 4 and 1/2 hours, but his visit was terminated because of lack of space."

"Besides that," said Prisoner B, "instead of having their once-a-month emergency count on a non-visitation day, they choose to have it on a visiting day. All movement stops. Families waste gas driving here for nothing...they make them all leave, and if they bought food from the vending machine they make our visitors throw the food away. Some waited to get in and were only there 5 minutes and had to leave and throw the food away. And if too many people are there, they will start terminating your visits so others can get in."

"Visitors do not get treated any better than prisoners do, except they are not strip-searched and they get to go out the front door when the visit is over," said Inmate C. "The extremely undersized visiting rooms make visiting a real frustrating experience for both prisoners and their visitors. Many grievances have been filed. I'll get copies for you."

Penny wise and pound foolish?

Kay Perry, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, said the department should have found ways to save money without keeping prisoners from their families. "Those people that have a social support network are going to do better when they're released."

Barb Levine, Executive Director of Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending said people look at these visits as perks for prisoners, somehow. "This is not just about the prisoner. It is about kids separated from parent, and spouses living apart from their mates."

Grrrrrrr.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Prison Visitation Part 4, Meaningless Rules

I'm the first to admit that this example of prison visitor mistreatment isn't the worst of the bunch. It just shows the lack of consideration for friends of visitors, and the silliness of unnecessary and unbending rules.

Mr. D, a senior citizen, had promised his dear friend Mollie that the day she walked out of prison, he would be the first to hold the door open for her. Even though the winter weather was threatening, he made the 150 mile drive. It was a harrowing experience. Because the drive had to be made early in the morning, it was dark, it was snowing, at times visibility was bad and at times the highway was slippery. But his prayers were answered, and he arrived in Ypsilanti safely and in plenty of time. In fact, because he allowed so much extra time, he was more than an hour early.

He didn't mind that at all, because the waiting room in the prison was inviting, well-lighted, warm, and was served by vending machines. At least he could sit and let his jangled nerves relax.

But that was not to be. There was absolutely no one in the waiting room, and there would not be. The guard at the desk politely but firmly informed him that he would have to leave. The rules stated that he could enter the building only 15 minutes prior to the scheduled release of the prisoner.

Where to go? What to do? He didn't know the area, had no idea where to find a coffee shop, and the weather was still unpleasant. Those factors were not of consideration. he had to leave.

Perhaps he could just go sit in his car, turn on the heater and listen to the radio.

Nope, the rules say one must not be on the premises. That includes the parking lot, and a roaming guard in a prison pickup truck would enforce the rule.

Not one person would have known of a minor variance to this harsh prison rule, but it didn't happen.

The old man was banned from the property until they said he could come back.

Grrrrrr.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Prison Visitation Part 3, Apparel Issues

The Michigan Department of Corrections must regulate apparel for good reason. One of the more controversial parts of the rules involves outer wear. Coats are not permitted, but blazers and sweaters are.

With that background, here is the story as told by my friend Anna, a prison mom. Her companion,also a prison mom, had a very unpleasant experience. She and her husband had driven a couple hours to visit their son in prison, and here's how it went:

She had on a nice jacket from Christopher Banks...not a "coat jacket" but a dress-up blazer that you wear with nice clothes. The woman working the visiting room told her she could not get in, because the blazer had metal buttons. Ms. B promptly returned to her seat, pulled all the metal buttons off her new blazer, and re-entered the visiting area. The officer allowed her husband in, but insisted it was still a "coat," and again blocked her entry. She was told that there was a department store 10 minutes away. She left, purchased a new knit-button-up long-sleeved cardigan top, and came back to be checked in. The officer decided this was also a coat, and allowed that she would have to call in someone higher up. By then Ms. B was in tears, precious time was being wasted, and she was waiting. Two officers arrived...one said to let her in, but the Sgt. said that he still believed this was a coat. So, she had to go back to the store one more time. This time she purchased a button-up sweater with no snaps, no pockets, and she was finally admitted.

The nice prison moms, who meant no ill will, are able to provide pictures and receipts.

Are we having fun yet?

Grrrrrr.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Prison Visitation Part Two---Picture ID Horrors

These are two real-life stories involving the elderly: two octogenarians hoping to visit their sons in prison.

Mr. A was hoping to visit his son, a wrongly-convicted professional person behind bars. He was experiencing early symptoms of dementia, but his eldest son and namesake took him to the prison.

Alfred, Jr, took charge of everything and presented the two drivers licenses to the guard at the control center---the licence for Alfred, Sr., and the license for Alfred, Jr.

That's when the guard raised her voice, claiming the two picture IDS were phonies because they carried the same name, Alfred and Alfred. And besides that, to no one's surprise, the pictures looked very much the same. She refused to allow the elderly gentleman, who had been there many times before, to continue with the visit, and she refused to get advice from a superior. The situation was saved, however, when a veteran guard came along, recognized young Alfred, and sorted through the details. But that did nothing to soothe the disturbed mind of the senior citizen.

Mr. B was hoping to visit his son. An African American clergyman, he had visited the prison many times, and was well known to the desk staff. He had to rely on a friend to drive him for the two-hour trip to prison. But alas, when they arrived, he discovered he did not have his picture ID with him. He had all kinds of legitimate identification, and the people at the desk knew him, but rules are rules. One can never take chances with a well-known elderly black pastor. The visit was denied.

Grrrrr.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On visiting Michigan prisons

You're going to be hearing a lot about this. The reason is I have a belly full of complaints, and I'm darn mad. The MDOC's prisoner visiting policies are ambiguous at best, capricious at worst, and completely and totally inconsistent from one facility to another. It's a joke, and not a funny one. The situation is so serious that it deserves legal attention, and I hope we can attract some. I'm thinking of the possibility of class action, and I'll bet we'd get hundreds of interested families.

I'll deal with more of these situations in follow-up entries. But right now HFP is working on two cases...a permanent visitor restriction and a temporary one. I'm incensed over both of them. I don't dare give the names for fear of retaliation. The families are frightened. Some of the prisoners are enraged.

The permanent restriction doesn't come until after what is called an administrative hearing. After obtaining documents from the hearing as well as a statement from the spouse of the prisoner, I think this could more accurately be labeled a kangaroo court.

It was a genuine mickey-mouse charge over a minor incident, and it mushroomed into a situation where the wife of a prisoner has been permanently banned from visiting her husband. Can you believe that? He's 49 years old, and he's in for life. And now he's been told that his wife may never visit him again. Gimme some kind of a break, here.

The temporary restriction is just that. There has been no hearing, and the mother of a prisoner has no idea whether she'll be able to see her son again. Let me just tell you this much about the case: the young man in prison suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and finds it very difficult to behave. It's the nature of the problem. But somehow in the twisted logic of the MDOC, the mother caught some blame also, and was ordered not to see her son any more. Now please try to come up with one good reason why an elderly mother, nearly my age, cannot visit her mentally ill son, whom she loves and adopted many years ago to care for him. She's all he has.

I have a statement from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction:
Visits give inmates something to look forward to, an incentive to participate in rehabilitative programs, and a mechanism with which to cope with prison life.

That being the case, what do you suppose the prohibition of visits does?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Livin' Humble

My favorite male chorus, HIS MEN, used to sing an old spiritual called LIVIN' HUMBLE.

That title came to mind over the weekend, when we celebrated 40 years of ministry by this wonderful regional ensemble. At the conclusion of the weekend, we presented a 40th anniversary concert in a large Grand Haven church, to a warm and responsive audience that overflowed the sanctuary, despite the threat of bad weather. It was an incredible experience.

But now back to the subject of humility.

In case you are not aware of it, I was the founding director of HIS MEN, back in 1972. We had no long-range goals for this little rag-tag group of singers. A few of us just picked out the finest voices we knew in the area for each of the four parts, invited them to come sing some songs, and a group was formed. We knew that we loved to sing, and we knew that we were devout in our Christian faith. Our goals were simple: to sing familiar songs and do it well, to help worthy causes in their fund-raising efforts, and to reach out to others. That's all. We didn't want to compete in the church hit parade with other music groups. We were not interested in buying a bus, wearing fancy suits, using elaborate sound systems, and making a big impression. God took the rest.

The ministry of this group over the past 40 years has been astounding, and the group still focuses on raising money for others, like HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, and still makes an effort to reach out to the disenfranchised, especially prisoners.

But now back to the subject of humility.

After the concert Sunday night, one lady insisted on giving me the credit. And she wouldn't be sidetracked. "But look what you did," she insisted. "You get the credit. Think of it. You started all this."

I'm sorry, Mrs. S. That's where I have to bow out.

God blessed me by allowing me to be the director of this simple little group of dedicated singers. That's it. My successor, John Mattson, feels the same way.

From that point on, it was not my path, but His.

And still today, it's His path, for HIS MEN.

Still Livin' Humble.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lois for president?

I'm reading and listening with interest as political candidates prepare for public debates. From what we see and hear, it takes a lot of coaching and prepping.

I've been thinking about that since last Sunday.

My friend Lois DeMott, mother of a mentally challenged teenager in the Michigan prison system, had been booked to speak to an adult education class in our church. In preparation for that, we wondered about her presentation, and we even discussed a computer-based program with charts and a screen. But as things got more complicated, we decided to scrap the plan and go with something simple. We would just have Lois tell her story...the story of a single mom, going through the hell of worrying 24/7 about a mentally ill son behind bars. And it could not have gone better.

The only prop she needed was a box of Kleenex for occasionally wiping her eyes.

The presentation was riveting, as I knew it would be. Most of the people in an audience like this are parents. Just imagine what it's like, listening to a mother describe situations like this:

-a son who is so mentally disturbed he keeps cutting himself, breaking light bulbs or whatever is necessary to find something sharp

-having guards hog-tie a lad so that he cannot stand up or sit, and cannot reach the toilet so he must use the floor

-having guards open the window in January to make the cell colder, as your son remains hog-tied wearing only his underwear

-learning that the prison staff had to revive your son after finding him hanging in the cell, after you made a point of warning them about uncertain messages

-having your son transferred more than 200 miles away, to make it more difficult to arrange visits

-or worse yet, having your visits terminated for several months as a means of treating your son's mental illness.

There's nothing like the truth to touch the hearts of an audience, and that's exactly what Lois did. No props necessary, thank you.

And for those who are wondering...there's good news. There are reliable reports that Kevin is finally going to be released to get the care he so desperately needs.

He was arrested on a goofy charge at the age of 13. He's 19 now.

Please remember, especially, those prisoners who are mentally ill in your prayers. Their families, too.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A PROMISE MADE IS DEBT UNPAID (Robert Service)

I'd like to tell you about my friend John.

John's a neat guy. He's in prison but he has a conscience. He heard a fellow prisoner confessing to a murder, and decided that the authorities should know about this. He asked for nothing in return. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

But the State of Michigan chose to make this an even better situation. When a prosecutor learned that John's testimony could convict a suspected killer, an offer was made. If John would testify, and if the testimony proved to be effective, the State would do its best go get John re-sentenced. He's a lifer with no hope of release.

John's attorney was ecstatic. He encouraged him to cooperate. “This is a done deal,” he assured my friend.

Keep in mind that this was the State's idea. Not John's.

Well, John testified, and his words were effective. The state got a conviction on first degree murder.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that John is still behind bars. No one seems to remember the deal.

Cops, retired State Police personnel, former FBI personnel, and even the Assistant Prosecutor who put John away have taken his side. But no one is listening.

The Prosecutor's office now refuses to budge. The Judge expresses no interest. The Parole Board has ignored a plea for commutation.

Meanwhile, behind bars, the prisoners have learned that John was a snitch. Their activity involves things like tossing human feces at him and on his bed. He faces death threats.

But that doesn't seem to matter. The State got what it wanted from John.

Said Harold Geneen: It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises but only performance is reality.

Indeed.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Blessed are the dreamers

Two men unknowingly gave hope to prisoners over the weekend. I saw it in person.

I have never met Mark Carpenter and Bob Johnson, but they had a dream and they refused to be defeated by the naysayers. Their idea was to create an entry in the ARTWALK competition in Grand Rapids, called LIGHTS IN THE NIGHT GR. They wanted to release thousands of real Chinese lanterns, lifted aloft by the heat from actual flames, over the river in downtown Grand Rapids.

The fire chief didn't like the idea, the Mayor wasn't pleased, others said this wasn't genuine art, some said it had been done elsewhere so it wasn't even original, and then on the night of the scheduled release came rain.

Undaunted, the pair rescheduled the release for last Friday night and this time conditions were perfect. The moon was shining and winds were calm when thousands upon thousands of Chinese lanterns were released. It was an amazing site. Marcia and I watched from the lounge of the Marriott Hotel downtown.

The heavens sparkled, light from the lanterns reflected in the waters of the Grand River and off the shiny glass buildings in the heart of the city. People cheered, wept, oohed and aahed, and hugged...some dedicating the released lanterns to loved ones. It was a magical moment never to be duplicated.

It was as if Carpenter and Johnson had read Shannon Wolf's delightful poem, Blessed are the Dreamers.

It made me think of prisoners. Sometimes all they have is a dream. Yes, realism is important. But so are dreams. As an eternal optimist, I can attest to that.

Let the naysayers claim the charming evening was not art. First prize is no longer important. The dreamers won. It was in the sighs and cheers, especially from the dozens of mentally and physically handicapped who watched from their wheelchairs.

Blessed are the dreamers, Who see the world another way. Who have seen fairies come out at night, And know where unicorns play.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bad news, good news

As the assigned organist for our Sunday morning worship service, I was sitting right under Pastor Nate's nose when he informed the congregation, "I have bad news and good news for you today. The bad news is that you're not in control. The good news is that you're not in control." Boy, did the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS ever have to hear that message this week.

On day one of the business week, I was startled by a telephone call from a prominent attorney who has agreed to help us with James, who had been promised a deal by the state for critical testimony in a murder trial. The state is now hesitating, and our case is not being helped by a judge who is refusing to discuss the matter. The frustrated attorney finally headed out of town in his car, hoping to catch the judge unawares. Whoa!

On day two, I received a disturbing message from the sister of a prisoner. Harry has been informed that there's a contract on his life. He's afraid of being stabbed and killed. Harry is the second friend of ours in Chippewa now living under a death threat. It's easy to just dismiss this and say that these are the things that happen in prison. But stop to think about it for a minute. These guys are human beings, and have feelings and emotions no different than yours and mine. You are able to go about your business today. Harry and Lester don't dare go for a walk outside their room. They're living in the private hell of fear for their lives.

On day three, a fine criminal defense attorney and I will be planning our strategy to present the case of David to an Innocence Project. David has exhausted every avenue available through the courts, and even though I believe in his innocence, the judicial system hasn't seen it that way. This is critical. If we don't do it right, and an innocence team rejects this request, David's hopes will be dashed. That's heavy!

I've never lost the faith in my 75 years of existence.

But Nate's timing could not have been better with the reminder that if God is for me, who can be against me?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Going to the dogs

My friend Dodie doesn't belong in prison. She should have been out long ago. She hasn't been treated fairly, and there's no guarantee that things will ever change. But rather than sit and whine about it, she is involved in the most amazing program. it's called MI-PAWS (Michigan Inmates Providing Assistance Work & Service). It involves dogs. It's a program operated jointly by the Humane Society of Huron Valley and the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Dodie is one of the inmates hand-selected to participate in the program. She is expecting a new dog any day now...it will be her 12th! Each dog lives around the clock with inmate handlers for eight weeks. The women work with the animals on different aspects of training which will make them highly adoptable at the end of their stay.

It's important to point out that these weren't choice dogs to begin with. Some have been abandoned by their owners, or just surrendered. Some have been injured by fights. Some are very afraid, either of people or of other dogs.

It's an around-the-clock assignment, starting at 6:30 AM for a potty break, and ending at night sleeping on a state mattress on the floor of the cell. Each dog learns basic commands such as sit, down, come, etc. They will be house-trained, be able to walk on a leash, and most likely will know some tricks that will make them proud.

Dodie points out that this does more than benefit the dogs. She said, "It softens prisoners hearts, teaches us patience, communication with other team members, conflict resolution, and to be held accountable for our actions." She said, "you really need people skills," and points out that it has been especially helpful for prisoners who did not like dogs or who were afraid of animals. "Gentleness and compassion is a must on all ends," she states.

Says our friend: "Joy and further growth in us is in saving a dog's life."

Methinks it's doing a good job of saving prisoner's lives as well.

All creatures great and small...the Lord God made them all.






Thursday, September 13, 2012

HIS MEN---still singing

A fine Christian ensemble is quietly observing a milestone of exemplary kingdom work.

Exactly 40 years ago, a few friends and I focused on the hope of forming a small male chorus. We invited 13 singers and a pianist. In that the other guys were better singers, we agreed that I should be the director. Our base was in Holland, but our members also came from the Muskegon, Grand Haven and Grand Rapids areas.

Some would think there should be a constitution with the formation of a group, but nothing was that formal. There were no bylaws or organization goals. A few simple goals included love of music, love of God, and a desire to use our music to help others. As director, my personal goal was to present simple, familiar gospel music in good taste.

There was the issue of choosing a name...but the suggestion from a singer's mom quickly won approval: HIS MEN.

The members bore proud ownership of that name, as they immediately began raising funds for worthy organizations. Instead of heading down a path seeking fame and fortune, traveling in buses and carrying fancy equipment, the guys just drove to wherever they would sing. The rag tag band of 13 men would simply stand up and sing their hearts out. The music from day one was beautiful. Some would say anointed. And it never stopped.

The group traveled overseas and over land, singing for a crowd as small as one 80 year old woman in Appalachia, to millions in the television audience of the Crystal Cathedral. The compassion for the disenfranchised led HIS MEN to hospitals, orphanages, VA facilities, rest homes and prisons. Especially prisons.

The group numbers at least 18 now. John Mattson succeeded me as director after the first 21 years, and has done an outstanding job of carrying on the HIS MEN tradition. My dear friend Sherry Merz serves as accompanist, and I'm proud to say that our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll represents our family in the group.

All past singers have been invited to the Tri-Cities for an anniversary observance in October. Past and present singers will present an anniversary concert in the SECOND CHRISTIAN REFORMED CHURCH of Grand Haven on Sunday, October 14. at 6 PM. If you're in the area, it's a musical event you won't want to miss.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Politics no, justice yes

HFP stays out of politics. Our support comes from a broad spectrum of wonderful people from just about every political persuasion, and we respect all of their opinions.

With that disclaimer comes this information, about a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court.

I must confess that I usually know very little about the Supreme Court candidates whose names appear on the Michigan ballot. But some months ago a good friend, Professor Keith Findley---co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project---called our attention to the fact that a colleague was running for Supreme Court here in Michigan.

Bridget McCormack is a professor at the University of Michigan. But here's the information that caught our attention: She is the founder and co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the U of M Law School. This is the only Innocence Project in the State of Michigan that handles non-DNA cases, and this was the first exclusively non-DNA innocence clinic in the country. This clinic does a splendid job and has an amazing track record in its short history.

The legal people with whom HFP deals on a regular basis highly recommend Ms. McCormack. It's a rare opportunity, indeed, to place someone with a heart for wrongful convictions in the state's highest court. Please check her credentials. We think you'll be impressed.

Please remember the name, and please tell others.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

I have a secret

I get my Bible lessons in the most unusual places. As a church musician, I am often busy practicing at the time of adult Sunday School or Bible study sessions on Sunday morning. But I do not go without Bible study. My good friend and retired pastor Al Hoksbergen and I set aside an hour a week for a little libation and discussion, and this invariably turns into a meaningful lesson for me. This week, I got a bonus. Al and I were asked to do a funeral service. A 90-year-old charter member of our church had died.

I know of no one who does a memorial service better than Al. He doesn't have a "canned sermon" on file for funerals. He not only meets with the families, but then relies on his many years of ministry, preaching, teaching and counseling, to find a perfect match of scripture and the current situation.

The title of the message was "I Have a Secret," and the scripture passage was from Philippians. The Apostle Paul, writing from a prison where he was actually on death row, said "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." But he didn't stop there. He said, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want."

And that sent my mind in another direction. I didn't listen very well for a few minutes. I was thinking of my prisoner friends. I have a few friends who, like Paul, have learned this secret, and I am astounded every time I hear them speak. I know of two men and a woman who know they don't belong behind bars, know they were treated wrongly, and yet they have the same testimony as St. Paul.

Then I thought about so many others who cannot find that contentment, and it reminded me that we must pray for many, many, many prisoners who are upset, sad, disturbed, angry, and distraught because the system hasn't been fair with them. Those prayers must also be extended to the family and friends of these prisoners...people who are equally angry and upset.

Their day will come. Perhaps not on this earth, but their day will come.

Until then, let's pray that they learn Paul's secret.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

When two or three are gathered

That simple little promise in scripture has deep meaning for me. In my 75 years on this earth, I have had some rich experiences in small groups of worship.

I participated in a worship service for Viet Cong prisoners in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

Two singers and I took communion in a storefront church in a San Juan ghetto where the only music was the pastor, singing unaccompanied and on perfect pitch, The Lord's Prayer.

As the director of HIS MEN, I took the concert to an audience of one person in the hollers of Appalachia, when an 80 year old woman wasn't well enough to get to our program.

The same male chorus went down into the bowels of the giant San Juan Penitentiary to sing for prisoners living in conditions not acceptable for most of mankind.

I learned early in my life that a large audience was not a necessary ingredient for something spiritually meaningful.

All of these experiences, and many more, came to my mind this week when I read a letter from a Michigan inmate: "We are in the 4th year of our daily evening sharing table for Christians and non-Christians who live in our unit. We have 5 regular attendees, and 6 others who often show up. God is blessing men in this daily support group regularly. We first pray, then read a daily devotion and discuss its meaning for us personally. We share what's doing in each of our lives, then pray for each of our needs. HE shows up regularly and blesses all who are there. We're doing discipling by example, showing the men around us that not all Christians are hypocrites as so many of the men here believe they are. Please remember our little group in your prayers."

Tom gets it...he sees the depth of God's promise.

Join me in remembering this group in our prayers.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Welcome home, Bobby

For today's blog entry, I'm going to write an obituary. As a news writer, I've penned my share of obits over the years, but never for these reasons. I'm writing this obit because I'm sure no one else will do it. I'm writing it because Bobby deserves it. And I'm writing it because this glimpse of prison life must also be seen on the other side of the bars.

Robert McKinney: 04/07/1952 - 08/26/2012.

Mr. McKinney died less than five hours ago at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan. Liver disease claimed his life at the age of 60.

His health had been failing, and the prison doctor suggested a transfer to the Duane Waters Health Center for McKinney, where he might receive better pain control medication. McKinney refused, saying that he would prefer to remain among his friends and endure the pain. And endure the pain he did: the methadone he was given wasn't adequate. He was in such pain, according to his friends, he was unable to keep food down. His weight was down dramatically.

Prisoners shared McKinney's frustration just two weeks ago when the Governor refused to commute his sentence, per recommendation of the doctor, for health reasons. It's supposition on my part, but I've learned that when rejection comes, someone still considers the victim a threat to society.

Bobby wasn't a threat to anyone. Quite the contrary: He was a friend to many. He had been in prison 39 years.

"He was a God-loving man," said his long-time friend James. "He liked to get together with a few of us to sing gospel songs with the guitar."

There'll be no funeral service. No one knows of any family or friends on the outside.

On the inside, life goes on. Without Bobby.

"I'm going to keep his Bible," said James.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Being alone makes it worse

When as a little boy, I stumbled and skinned my knee, my loving mother was there to wipe my tears and tend to my pain.

Even when I was in high school, and had to stay home from school with the flu, Mom was there with chicken soup.

Many years later, when a stubborn staph infection tried to introduce me to the grim reaper, Marcia---my partner for life---was there to fight off the demons and ride out the storm with me.

I cite these examples to show the stark contrast with my friends in prison.

Mark has been struggling for years to get appropriate surgery after a prison injury, and an even simpler matter: he wants something for the pain. We're doing our best to try to help, but we're on the outside; he's on the inside. He's alone. He said to me today: "I am in so much daily pain and finding it hard to even walk around or sit still without complaining about pain."

I'm sorry. He has no mother, no wife, not even a friend to help him through this.

Ben has MS, and is in prison. His mother says that, after a severe episode, he couldn't walk and they just made him crawl on the floor to get anywhere. He overheard a guard say, "Don't help him after what he did." He's alone. His mom is on the outside.

Mary is recovering from surgery in prison. Alone. And she gets no empathy in the infirmary. Her friend in prison says, "There is no compassion in that unit unless it comes from the inmates themselves." And then she asks: "Do health care professionals lose the 'do no harm' oath when it comes to the care of prisoners?"

St. Teresa of Avila said, "Pain is never permanent."

Maybe so, but I don't think there's any question that being alone makes it worse.

Somehow I believe that Jesus is there, holding the hand of each one of these hurting prisoners.

Pray for them.

Monday, August 20, 2012

On losing a loved one

I played the piano and the organ in a memorial service for a dear aunt last week. Aunt Clara was almost 95 years old, and the last of all of the brothers and sisters in my father's family. It sounds rather bizarre, but I really love a service like this. No one was really sad that she died. She was in misery, and had lived a full and complete life. It was time to move on. I'm family, and it felt important to me to be a part of that service.

Today I received a short message from a prisoner: "I would like to ask you for prayers for me and my sister. Our father passed away last Thursday, and it has really taken a toll on our lives."

George couldn't be at the memorial service for his father. His sister had to go alone.

It's one of the little things we don't think about when we think about incarceration.

My friend Kenny Wyniemko gets very emotional about this very subject. Kenny served nearly 9 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He was finally proven innocent by DNA testing. But during the time he was in prison, his father died. He wasn't allowed to go to the funeral service.

I've said it so many times, but it's important for us to remember that a prisoner is not a Department of Corrections ID number. A prisoner is not just a statistic. Jesus claimed to be one of them. He said, "I was in prison and you visited me.

Remember when a friend of Jesus died? He wept.

The same grief that overwhelms you and me over the loss of a loved one is felt, probably even to a greater degree, by a person behind bars. A real human being with real feelings. Not just a number.

Jesus cares. We must care, also.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A soft answer

It's Sunday, and I played hooky today. I didn't make it to the service this morning. But the most unusual thing happened. I watched commercial television, and actually had some time with God. Let me explain.

One of the things I regret about having to be in church every Sunday morning is that I must miss one of my favorite broadcast personalities---Charles Osgood. I think one of the reasons he is such a hero of mine in the industry is that he's actually a radio man. Granted, he's in TV now, but he's a radio man. And that's what I am. I haven't been in the business for 30 years now, but I'm radio man. Started at age 12, and will be until I die.

And I forgot how much I like Charles Osgood, and why, until I turned on the set this morning while staying home from church.

There was no shouting, no rancor, no bitterness. The terrible political battles were missing.

Instead, there were beautiful stories, and a very emotional story really touched me. I was reminded of the verse in Proverbs that says a soft answer turns away wrath, or as the NIV translation puts it, a "gentle answer."

I love the broadcasting business, but I don't like what I see and hear today.

I used to like to produce programs that made people laugh and cry, made them love their fellow-man, made them want to care and to do something, made them want to get involved. Granted, I did my share of controversial programming, and I made people angry. But community was at the center of our programming, and compassion was an essential ingredient.

Today, it's a different story.

A person by the name of Ambrose Pierce said, "Speak when you are angry, and you'll give the best speech you'll ever regret."

I wonder if anybody get's that any more.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Joy: it can't be stolen

Our daughter Sue tells of a delightful African American co-worker whose spirits never seem to dip. One day Sue had to ask her, "Tell me, how is it that you're always so happy, so positive, so upbeat?"

She looked at Sue, and said with conviction: "Ain't nobody gonna steal my joy."

Isn't that wonderful?

I thought of that yesterday when I opened a two-page letter from a dear friend in the Women's Correctional Facility at Ypsilanti. These women are not treated nicely. Granted, they are prisoners, but the incarceration is their punishment. They don't need or deserve such rude treatment.

HFP has been working with this prisoner in recent years to develop a wonderful knitting program for prisoners. These women knit items for shelters, hospitals, churches...they're doing good stuff for others.

We have coordinated efforts to get yarn to these knitters, sometimes as many as 100 women.

Our friend reported that the staff members do their best to disrupt this process even, although I'm not sure why. They hold up the yarn shipments, claiming the material must be closely inspected to avoid smuggling in contraband. Right!

Anyway, they stooped to a new low last week. The woman in charge of inspection not only delayed a delivery of yarn to the prisoners. Claiming that she suspected a contraband shipment, she unraveled every skein of yarn! She didn't roll it up nicely in a ball. Nope. She let it all unravel and get tangled. A massive job now for the knitters before they even get started knitting.

A complaint to the guard's superior officer fell on deaf ears.

And that's when Dianna's words came to mind.

Sorry, ornery lady on the prison staff, your actions and your attitudes ain't gonna ruin our program.

And more than that, ain't nobody gonna steal our joy.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

On prisoners' generosity

The wife of a prisoner gave me a challenging statement the other day.

She said: "I hear a lot about what HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has done. But if I'm going to donate any money to your organization, I don't want to hear that. I want to hear WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO DO!"

And that started my thought processes. Maybe we're going about this fund-raising business in the wrong way. Perhaps we should offer new programs, new ideas, thoughts about what HFP will try to accomplish in the future. I won't argue that plans for the future are not only exciting, but they also are important.

There's a flip side, however.

It's also important for us to continue doing what we have been doing. And here's why.

As I write this, Marcia and I are in northern Michigan for a rare experience. We're vacationing for a few days with all of our children and all of our grand-children. This doesn't happen often, because two of our grand-kids live in Hawaii and two live in South Carolina.

But our vacation was made even more special yesterday with the arrival of a simple email message from Pen Pal. It informed us that HFP had received a donation of $1,000 cash from the Prison Benefit Fund at Kinross Correctional Facility in the U.P.
The PBF consists of profits from prison store sales. Prisoners have a say-so in how this money is to be used...for recreational purposes, etc. They may also give to charity.

The guys at Kinross got the idea from inmates of Michigan's women's facility in Ypsilanti, who earlier this year voted to donate $500 to HFP.

These people didn't decide to give money to us based on elaborate future plans. They like what we have done so far, and they're betting that we'll remain at their side if we can simply stay alive.

I cannot think of stronger praise.

I cannot think of a stronger mandate.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Haleigh's mite

Dr. Luke tells in his gospel of a poor widow who stepped up to the temple treasury and dropped in two tiny copper pennies.

A little girl named Haleigh jogged my memory of that story this week.

Our little ragtag band of musicians was performing in a downtown Grand Haven church coffeehouse, hoping to raise dollars for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. In fact, we were hoping to raise lots of dollars. HFP is usually struggling to stay afloat, and today is no exception.

A wonderful couple who support us donated ten jars of their home-prepared Michigan maple syrup, which we used to attract contributions of $100 or more. Some gave even more than that, and one generous soul donated $1,000.00!

But now to the story of Haleigh, age 8.

Haleigh came with her piggy bank. She wanted to give her pennies to HFP, and said she hoped the money could help to send Bibles to prisoners.

Her grandfather emptied the piggy bank with her, and they turned over $3.00 in coppers to HFP. He introduced her to the audience. Then he brought her over to me at the piano so I could give her a hug.

Her wish will be granted. We have an arrangement with a publisher. When a prisoner wants a Bible, he/she will get it.

Jesus watched all the rich people putting their money in the temple treasury.

"I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."

Thank you, Haleigh.

I'll betcha two cents Jesus was smiling.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Blog: Thoughts on July 24

From Matt Tjapkes, Doug's son:

I always liked July 24. Of course, it’s my birthday, so that’s pretty normal.
But 2004 was a bit different. Probably for the first time in my life, my birthday wasn’t the big deal on that day. Celebration was on the agenda, but for a far better cause. It was finally the day that Maurice Carter would be free once again.
A large group of supporters headed to Jackson the night before, because Maurice would be released early in the morning. There was a lot of excitement in what was about to happen. Everyone was ready to celebrate, but after watching my dad work for 10 years to make this day happen, I don’t think anyone was truly ready until the moment we saw Maurice outside the cell.
Could you imagine what it was like on his end? Nearly 30 years of incarceration, knowing the whole time he did not deserve it. Struggling with illness, his day had finally come. And what a ride on the way out - A luxury motorhome! The last time he had really seen an automobile, it was 1976. He had clean clothes, a cell phone to talk on, hundreds of people ready to greet him. He must have been the talk of the prison that day.
While only a few people were allowed to actually go on prison grounds, a group waited outside to see him ride out in the motorhome. A mile down the road, we found a parking lot big enough to accommodate everyone. Maurice stepped out to cheers, TV cameras, hugs and tears. The celebration continued all the way back to West Michigan, where Maurice would finally hug his mom again.
It was three short months Maurice had out of prison before his body succumbed to liver disease. But he savored every waking moment. Every bite of food, every beautiful view of nature, everything we take for granted on a daily basis was a true treat to Maurice.
Eight years later, take a brief moment to think of Maurice and remember two things. First, there are others still in prison. They’re all God’s children. Pray for them, pray for HFP as we strive to make sure they are treated with fairness. Second, take a brief step back from your busy life and try to enjoy a day like Maurice did. We’re all blessed. Life is good today.
Happy July 24.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sweet freedom

To a small band of supporters, July 24 is considered something special, not unlike a holiday. This is the day that Maurice Carter walked out of prison in the year 2004.

As I reflected on that momentous occasion this morning, I concluded that this indigent African American from Gary, Indiana, wrongly convicted here in the State of Michigan, probably influenced my life more than any single individual.

I now feel certain that I wasn't placed on earth just to be a broadcast journalist, even though radio was my first love.

I wasn't placed on earth to sell church organs, even though I immensely enjoyed my second career and found it most satisfying.

I'm not here just to serve God's people with my music. I'm the first to recognize that it's not perfect. I also know that I couldn't live without music, and that it provides uniquely intimate moments for me with my Lord.

I'm here to follow the mandate of Matthew 25. My job is pure and simple: love prisoners, and care for them. And it's the last thing I had in mind for the final career of my life, when I was reporting local news, and when I was helping churches in the purchase of a new organ.

All of that changed when I met Maurice Carter.

He always said that, from the day of his arrest, "the wheels of justice ground to a halt."

And yet, he decided that anger and bitterness would get him nowhere. He was treated shamefully and with disdain by people in the judicial system, yet he responded with kindness and a gentle spirit. He was offered freedom in exchange for a confession, but he refused to compromise his integrity. His example made a profound impact on me, and would permanently change my direction.

A relatively small crowd was there to greet him in Jackson, and a nice group of people came to his freedom reception in Spring Lake...but the number of lives that this simple man touched can never be counted. It's certainly in the thousands. He and his story continue to touch lives today.

Maurice would say that because of me, he found new faith.

I'm here to say that because of him, I found a new life.

Monday, July 23, 2012

You're the only Bible

I heard a country gospel song the other day that may not make it to the top of the charts, but had a profound message. Here's the opening line, as I remember it:
"You're the only Bible a lotta folks are gonna read."

As a musician, I couldn't imagine how they were going to fit this into the metric structure of a tune and how they were going to fit the statement into lyrics that would rhyme. But I quickly abandoned those thoughts to consider those words again.

That's a pretty profound statement.

Reminds me of the old saying, "Your actions are so loud I can't hear your words."

A friend told me the other day that she was driving down the highway and apparently did something to enrage another motorist. The driver passed her and gave her the finger. As the car got ahead of her, she saw a bumper sticker that said, "Honk if you love Jesus."

Which message was loudest: the action or the words?

All of this leads me to the prison work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

I think that some evangelicals are dismayed that we do not make a specific point of trying to save souls when we go into the prisons.

Well, there are plenty of groups that do that, and we have no argument with them. In fact, we ask God to bless all efforts on behalf of prisoners. But here's the thing. I purposely do NOT carry a Bible with me when I go into the prisons, because I don't want inmates to think that we will not help them unless they have similar beliefs.

A prison chaplain recently commended us for helping all prisoners with specific needs, regardless of their religious beliefs.

I'm pleased to report that a couple of our best friends and our strongest supporters in prison are Muslims.

Let me be clear. Every prisoner knows, without question, that I take my marching orders from Jesus. They respect that, and this has prompted prisoners to rethink their spiritual ideas. I'm pleased to report that some have bought into my beliefs and today are serving their Lord in beautiful ways.

But it's our job to go about doing the work of Matthew 25. Jesus didn't say "You visited me because I was white," or, "You visited me because we shared a similar faith," or, "You visited me because I was innocent."

I won't say it, either.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Making music with my friends

The Gaithers have penned a wonderful little chorus:

Loving God, loving each other,
Making music with my friends;
Loving God, loving each other,
And the story never ends.


Music has been a part of my life since I was an infant. As a musician, my life has been brightened by making music with my friends starting when I was a kid, and it has never stopped.

Most recently, my physician friend John Mulder---a professional musician in my opinion---has joined me in making music as a fund-raiser for HFP.

It all began a year ago at a funeral, when the two of us sang and played some requested old gospel songs for the memorial service of a friend and co-prison worker. A supporter of HFP suggested that we keep this going to raise support money. The rest is history.

John wholeheartedly agreed, and suggested that we include more musicians: our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll, singer and percussionist; Cal Olson, singer, whistle-blower and bassist, and David Mulder, cornetist. And so last summer we experimented with a fund-raiser called Pickin' & Grinnin' in a local church coffee house. The moment was magical, people loved it, and dollars were raised.

That led to a recording. Thanks to donations of funds and talent, the album SWEET FREEDOM was put together in record time last year, featuring many favorite gospel tunes. More dollars were raised. If you don't have a copy, you'll want one. You won't stop listening to it.

And now these wonderful people are going to gather around the piano with me again this year. The date is July 30, 6-8 PM, and again we'll be in the Coffee House of Covenant Life Church in downtown Grand Haven.

There's no cover charge, but it's no secret that we hope to raise desperately needed funds to continue our work with prisoners.

Making music with my friends. I promise you won't be disappointed.

And the story never ends.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lord, listen to your children

I'd like to introduce you to Laura.

Actually, I cannot introduce you in person. She and I have never met face to face. She's in the State of Washington. I'm in the State of Michigan.

But our friendship is a thing of beauty. Far more important than that is her beautiful contribution to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS...an ongoing, never-ending contribution.

Laura prays.

This relationship began in April of 2007, when Laura sent an email to me asking for a copy of a devotional booklet that HFP offers to all who ask, inside and outside of bars. Our conversations continued, I sent her a copy of SWEET FREEDOM, and our friendship took off from there.

But back to the valuable contribution of Laura.

In our conversations I learned that Laura could not be a financial supporter of HFP, but she could be a prayer warrior. Others have said they will keep us in their prayers, but here was a person who was making it a mission. Says Laura: "I've always believed in intercessory prayer and that anyone can be a prayer warrior, but perhaps God impressed it upon me more." Indeed.

When I travel on prison missions, I contact Laura.

When a touching story crosses our desk, I contact Laura.

When a prisoner contacts us with critical problems, I make all the necesssary contacts...and on that list of necessary contacts is Laura.

And so, when we have victories (and we get our share of them!), I contact Laura. It's important that she hears the good news, too. It's important that she gets another reminder that prayer works.

That's important for you and me, too.



Thursday, July 12, 2012

When God's people pray

I have left Parole Board interviews feeling utterly useless and totally ineffective.

The Parole Board interview, an integral part of the life of a prisoner, can strike terror in the heart of the inmate.

A woman formerly behind bars told me that the PB interview was worse than her trial.

I think some Parole Board members delight in making prisoners sweat, squirm and weep. I'm not sure why...perhaps, just because they can.

I tell you all of this as a long introduction to this blog entry.

I have been steeling myself for a ten-year Parole Board review of a lifer. This prisoner and his parents approached me some time ago to ask if I would be willing to serve as his representative. I immediately agreed, for a number of reasons. I almost always agree to do it, regardless of the prisoner, because I cannot stand the thought of an inmate going there alone. But in this case, I happen to believe that the man, in for life without parole for first degree murder, is innocent. And even if he wasn't, he has been the finest example of a model prisoner that I have ever seen. Ever. He's a gentleman. He treats his superiors and the system with respect, refusing to show his disdain for all of the shortcomings. He has love for his fellow man, and has served as a GED teacher in the prison system for years. His family believes in him. He has a strong support group.

But I warned him, and I warned his parents, that this could be an unpleasant experience. In preparation for the event, the prisoner and his family asked for prayers. And, I asked our Board of Directors and a couple special prayer partners to remember this situation.

And then the most amazing thing happened. The PB member, a retired state police officer, actually had empathy with the prisoner. He actually listened to his story in an objective way, and finally suggested that the case was so compelling that the prisoner---even though all court avenues have been exhausted---should immediately appeal to an Innocence Project for help. He concluded the interview by saying, "If you are innocent, it's a crime that you're in here."

Is that a tiny light that I see far down at the end of the tunnel?

Thank you, prayer partners.

Thank you, Lord.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

on feeling the heat

Heat is a hot subject these days.

I'm the first to admit that heat and I don't get along very well. And I've felt real heat. I've been in blistering conditions in Viet Nam, and in Haiti. People in those parts of the world really deal with heat. But right now, in our own nation, people are suffering. Because of a brutal high pressure system, and the ravages of storms, heavily populated sections of our country are not only experiencing high temperatures, but are doing so without electricity. People there have no air conditioning, and as we hear these news accounts, our hearts go out to those who must deal with this.

But I must confess that today I'm really feeling guilty. Temperatures are supposed to soar to near 100 degrees again today, and I have air conditioning, in my house and in my car. I am blessed, and I will not suffer.

But yesterday I received a telephone call from James, in the Thumb Correctional Facility. You may not have known this, but our prisons do not have air conditioning. They don't even have good air circulation. Fans are small and at a premium. I asked James how it was there. By 9 yesterday morning they had shut down all activities because the temperature had already climbed to 90. In the prison buildings, the air was stifling. He said the little fans that prisoners may have just don't cut it, and there are no big fans. In this sweltering heat, he said it felt like someone threw a damp cloth over you. Dew point was out of sight.

This is merely an update to ask you to not only remember those people suffering on the eastern seaboard, but those right here in Michigan who really deserve better. I don't know why we cannot provide better air circulation. I believe in air conditioning for prisons, but that's a stretch for many.

Prisoners are suffering today, my friends. Whether you approve of their conditions or not, please pray for them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

America: the greatest! ?

I love early-morning coffee time. I enjoy my first caffeine rush of the day in a glassed-in room surrounded by giant oak trees in the developed dune land a mile offshore from Lake Michigan. It's heavenly.

On the morning of our nation's birthday I cannot help but reflect on this country and its amazing attributes. I'm not willing to give in to the opinion expressed this week on a new cable TV show that America is not the greatest country. I love this country. I'm grateful for the opportunities I had, and I love the opportunities that lie ahead for my kids and grandkids.

But that doesn't mean I have to love everything about this great nation.

You can't be pleased about our rate of incarceration...far higher than that recorded by any other country.

You've gotta be alarmed when people involved in our Innocence Projects project that up to 10% of those persons in prison may have been wrongly convicted...especially if that person happened to be in your family.

Even more alarming are the statistics that show that prosecutorial misconduct is a major reason for wrongful convictions...misbehavior by the very people we elect to office to enforce our laws.

And then, we must also be ashamed of a flawed court-appointed attorney system that varies state by state, but can and does assign a real estate specialist to defend an alleged criminal facing a death penalty.

So on this birthday, enjoy the party. America is a great place to live for most of us.

Just don't forget the least of these.

Don't just remember them...pray for them. For their families too.

Happy fourth!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

LIFE W/O PAROLE: UNCHRISTIAN?

Christians have a difficult time agreeing on many issues. While they are certain to agree that Christ is Lord, from that point on it gets pretty difficult. We not only disagree on the weightier subjects of theology, but we have a difficult time deciding which hymnal is the best or what kind of church music pleases God the most.

And so it should come as no surprise that our opinions on the issues we deal with on a daily basis at HFP might differ sharply with those of others. There will be honest differences of opinion, for example, from victims of crime and their families, and from police officers. All may believe in the same Lord, but you can bet their opinions will vary.

Well, that's what happened in our weekly Saturday gathering of Studebaker drivers and friends over burgers and suds. This is an unusually electric group...a cross-section of many facets of society.

Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz was talking about the recent Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole, regardless of the crime. I sensed that the Prosecutor wasn't pleased with the decision. Let me stress before we continue that the Supreme Court did NOT say that juveniles must be released after a period of time, regardless of how heinous the crime. Not at all. The justices merely said that the possibility of parole must be there.

And that's when Rev. Al Hoksbergen piped up and said, "Life sentence without parole is un-Christian, regardless of the age of the offender."

Well that had the Prosector sputtering, and a few others sitting with perplexed looks on their faces.

"What's the Christian message?" asked the good reverend. "Forgiveness, pure and simple. I can't possibly win salvation by doing good. It's simply by God's amazing grace. For the secular world, sentencing people to life without parole may be acceptable. But for us, it's unacceptable. It's un-Christian."

Gulp.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

On alternatives, or lack thereof

This is one of those times when I just don't know what to say. It's not fair to offer false hope. What do you suggest?

Here's the situation. You can be convicted of first degree murder without actually committing the crime. If the court determines that you aided and abetted, you can go to prison for life with no chance for parole.

And that's what happened to my friend Ms. D. She's been in prison for 28 years, has done a fine job of improving her situation and helping others. She's a good prisoner, minds her own business, and gets involved in programs. But, she's giving up hope, and I hate that.

She doesn't want to go through another attempt at having her sentence commuted. We tried that once, and the Parole Board wouldn't hear of it. The emotional turmoil is very unpleasant, and she refuses to put herself through that wringer again. Besides, she says, no one believes her story anyway.

And the other alternatives?

Well, if she gets terribly ill, she could get a medical release. She's healthy.

The law could change in Michigan, and she might get another chance. It's one of those situations like when pigs fly.

Or, someone could try to get her case back into court, and have her properly resentenced. It ain't gonna happen.

Here's a perfectly healthy, 48 year old woman, causing no problems, spending her time behind bars when she could be a productive citizen. I have no idea what kind of hope or encouragement to offer, and I can't stand the thought of it.

I'm 75, but I still wake up with new hopes and dreams and exciting ideas every day. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live without hope.

Says Ms. D, "For people like me, it feels like we've thrown away the key."

Have we?




Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day

My emotions are divided right down the middle today.

On one hand, I feel like the Psalmist. I feel so blessed that I cannot stop praising and thanking God. I have four adult kids, four adult kids-in-law, nine grandkids, all in good health, all loving each other, and all loving their parents and grandparents. I am blessed beyond measure.

On the other hand, I am hurting for many today.

I am hurting for dads who are in prison today, and for whom the day will mean little more than perhaps a touch of extra heart-break. Many won't see their kids, or even hear from them. In some cases, they don't even know where their kids are.

I am hurting for men and women in prison who would like to celebrate the day with their dads, but cannot. In some cases, their fathers have passed on while they were in prison. In some cases, their dads don't even want to see them. In some cases, they don't even know if they have a dad.

I am hurting for dads who have kids in prison, men or women who may have made some bad choices or, in some rare situations, who were wrongly convicted. Either way, incarceration prevents a celebration.

And I am hurting for a group of my friends in prison who were locked up at such a young age that they never had an opportunity to become dads. They are in a state that believes that youngsters must pay the same penalties as adults who commit heinous crimes...a state that is known for its lifers who entered prison in their mid-teens.

I review all of this not to spoil your Father's Day...not in the least. Enjoy it, and give thanks for your blessings. Just don't forget the people who were very special to Jesus, people who he insisted deserved a visit.

Happy Father's Day!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guest Commentary: On solitary confinement

A special edition of our blog with a guest writer. This is a copy of a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee by HFP friend, Joyce Gouwens, of St. Joseph:

Dear Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Graham:

I am extremely grateful that you are looking into the long-term affects of solitary confinement. I correspond regularly with 10 prisoners, two of whom are mentally ill and who are overwhelmed by the isolation of solitary confinement. My article on the subject was published by The Christian Century in its December 27, 2011 issue titled "Put Away." I served on Berrien County's Task Force on Juvenile Justice (Michigan) in 2001, and was involved in our county's study a year ago on how to head off imprisonment for the mentally ill. We were impressed by the successful pattern established by police and mental health advocates in Chicago and are working here now in trying to treat instead of imprison whenever possible.

I have volunteered for the past ten years on our county's Community Restorative Board, which gives juvenile offenders the choice of going through a restorative justice process instead of going before a judge. Mental health issues are checked out by professionals and treatment may be required. Typically 95% of the kids who complete the 4-week program of apologizing to all those affected by their crime, and making restitution financially and by community service, do not re-offend. The place to begin, then, to avoid the expense and the tragic results of long-term solitary confinement is in the local community with early intervention in cases of mental illness and dysfunctional family life.

Our nation's use of solitary confinement as punishment has been condemned by the Geneva Convention, and has been documented to trigger mental illness among prisoners when they are subjected to more than 30 days of this isolation. One mentally ill teenager I've been writing to has attempted suicide a number of times while being punished by months of isolation. The use of incentives in prisons has been found to be more effective than the use of this sort of punishment, which only decreases the prisoner's to cope in society.

One of the major financial concerns of prisons now is the extent of recidivism. The inability of those who have spent months or years in isolation to function in normal society has been a major factor in this problem. Time in prison needs to begin with efforts to educate, to socialize, and to train inmates for useful work and positive attitudes when they are released. If this doesn't happen, we are committing ourselves to life-long responsibility for these prisoners, to disrupted families without a parent and wage-earner, and to medical costs which escalate in the later years of life. The current rationing of medication in place now has been disastrous for two of the young men I write to. The effect of living in the round-the-clock noise of solitary confinement units and the lack of any human contact has been devastating for those who describe it to me as a form of torture.

Please study what is happening in those states which, with the help of the Pew Center for the States, have reduced recidivism dramatically. The inhumanity of solitary confinement needs to be ended.

Hoping for a better future,

Joyce Gouwens

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Think it's hot?

It's the warm weather season, and certainly a season here in Michigan to be enjoyed. But sometimes we forget how it used to be.

I'm old enough to remember the days before air conditioning, not only in homes but also in cars and commercial buildings. Traveling in our black, 1937 Dodge sedan was't pleasant on a hot, sunny, summer day. And I remember sweltering heat in my dad's little neighborhood grocery store in mid-summer.

Air conditioning is a way of life for most of us these days...unless you happen to be in prison. And there, it can still be struggle just to get some fresh air.

I suppose one can say this is for budgetary reasons, but one has to wonder why the Deputy Director of Correctional Facilities Administration in Michigan, a man by the name of Thomas Finco, decides to crack down on free electric fans for inmates.

Thanks to Kay Perry, of the MI-CURE office in Kalamazoo, we learn in her quarterly newsletter that a policy directive states that fans be provided in double-bunked cells unless specifically exempted by the CFA Deputy Director. And so, you guessed it, he decides in favor of an exemption. Mr. Finco has decreed that his decision affects Level I and Level II housing areas as of this summer.

MI-CURE points out that many prisoners can't find work because there just aren't enough jobs. Besides that, their pay hasn't been raised IN 25 YEARS. MI-CURE concludes that asking these individuals to purchase fans when there is a recognized need for them is simply unreasonable. But that's Michigan's new position. If you can't pay for it, you suffer.

I'll bet money that nothing will be done about this. It's another one of those situations where we cluck our teeth, then go on with our daily routine. After all, we're cool enough.

This time of the year we regularly see articles reminding people to be conscious of heat problems involving our pets.

How about our prisoners?



Friday, June 8, 2012

Pain is, indeed, cruel

In this prisoner advocacy business, it seems like we're always on the defensive.

A prisoner may make a claim that he/she has been wronged, but that's not going to be accepted at face value.

Every claim by a prisoner is challenged. Always. it's what the prison system does.

I find this especially frustrating when the prisoner is in pain.

It's one thing to make a claim that a medical issue is being ignored, and that symptoms are not being treated...but it seems to me that the situation changes when the prisoner is in such pain that it affects his daily routine.

We're working on two cases right now that seem to demand corrective surgery: One involves a torn ligament of the knee dating back to 2007, and the second involves a fractured shoulder dating back to 2009. According to the inmates, surgery was indicated at the time of the injury but still has not been performed.

And the arguments seem to vary as to why the surgery is being delayed, although cost is obviously at the top of the list. Besides that, one doctor just tells one of the prisoners to man up and put up with the pain until he gets released in the next year or two.

But in both cases there is excruciating pain. The man with the shoulder injury claims to get only a few hours of sleep a night before being awakened by pain.

And as an advocate for these prisoners, we get more opposition on the outside. Doctors aren't anxious to help, and suggest we contact state legislators. Attorneys say it's awfully hard to beat the state. Officials within the system say we don't know the full story.

Meanwhile the prisoner lives in pain, which I find maddening.

That's why it was so refreshing to talk to one of our legal consultants today who explained that an amendment to our constitution specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and yes, EVEN OF PRISONERS!

And if it can be proven that these authorities are refusing surgery that is medically deemed necessary, just because it costs too much or because they want the prisoner to wait until he gets out, there's a remedy through the federal court system to deal with this.

Thank you, Brad.

Somebody is finally making some sense.

Unnecessary pain can be cruel and unusual punishment for you or for me...and also for those persons behind bars.

My suggestion to Brad: Let's roll.

Friday, June 1, 2012

I'm third

Ages ago, when I was a kid attending summer camp, the YMCA's popular Camp Pendalouan had a slogan that I never forgot: I'm third. The counselors used to explain it this way to us: God first, the other fella second, I'm third. Good theology, really: Summary of the law; Golden Rule. And just plain, common sense...good advice.

The slogan came to mind this week when a prisoner resisted what I thought was rather gentle advice, and pretty much told me that with friends like me he didn't really need any enemies.

I'm sad about that, because no camp counselor ever repeated the slogan "I'm third" to him as a kid, apparently. I say that because, to hear him talk, he's first.

In all fairness, prisoners probably get a better rating than the people you and I meet on the street in our everyday lives. We meet many people who think that way. I can think of only three instances in the past 15 years, in dealing with prisoners, where I have had a real falling out. And it was over the same issues: an individual felt that he was number one, his problems and issues were number one, and my priorities in dealing with those matters didn't seem to match up.

One of the reasons this makes me sad is because Mr. F, Mr. D and Mr. H missed out on such an important part of life. When you make yourself number one, you have no thoughts at all about anyone else...and so you have no thoughts about caring for them, trying to help them, or praying for them.

Camp Pendalouan had it right: the camp slogan is as good today as it was then, both inside and outside of prison. It'll ensure a happy life. It's a good way to live. It's a Godly way to behave.

It's important for me to remember, daily, as I work among these beautiful people.

I am, indeed, third.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Don't take good health for granted

A very nice woman sent me a sad letter from her prison cell recently. She's feeling alone, can see no light at the end of the tunnel, wonders whether she'll ever get out, sees no positive action, and finds that she no longer believes or trusts people. There's not much chance that she would ever be considered for release for medical reasons because, as she put it, she's healthy.

Not having been incarcerated, I absolutely cannot identify with her feelings of despair.

But here's what I had to offer, after reading her letter:

Even though it was a letter of justified complaints, I felt compelled to respond to the shortest sentence of your letter: I'm healthy. As you may recall, an attack by a staph infection in the spring of 2010 prevented me from making that statement for the rest of that year. I'm not one to focus on my ailments and infirmities. I'm feeling amazingly good again, but I'll never fully recover...not after losing my ability to swallow, losing 65 pounds, nearly losing my life several times, and getting my nourishment from a feeding tube for 6 months. But I must tell you that after sitting here day after day thinking I've never been so sick, thinking that I've never experienced such severe pain, and wondering if my mind would ever be clear again, I will NEVER take good health for granted. It's a gift, I love it, and it's up to me to make the very best of it. And so must you. Many individuals and groups in your facility are doing good things for others, and that's really what we gotta do. You are such a wonderful person, just offering your friendship and kindness to another person is huge.

Keep prisoners like Ms. D in your prayers.