Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Michigan PB hearings

My memories of Parole Board public hearings are not fond.

It all began with the hearing for my friend Maurice Carter in 2004, when a stern-faced board chairperson stuck with his belief that Carter was guilty, and a crack-pot representative of the Michigan Attorney General's office recommended no release for this dying prisoner because he might get a gun after his release and start blazing away.

In a later public hearing, the same AG attorney shouted at a dying woman in a wheelchair, seeking release for medical reasons, until he reduced her to tears. Sitting next to me was former Governor William Milliken who was appalled.

So my hopes were not high yesteday, as I drove to Jackson for a medical commutation hearing for inmate Tracy Snay. She's dying of cancer, and has been given less than a year to live. I don't know her, but I promised her friends in prison at Huron Valley that I would put the reputation of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS behind her request for release.

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. Board Chair Tom Combs was courteous through the entire session. And the amazing contrast continued with the approach of Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, who reviewed all of Ms. Snay's checkered history without ranting and raving.

In my brief testimony, I complimented both of them for their courtesy, and explained why HFP is so strongly behind medical commutations. It costs the state a fortune to care for ailing inmates, and their release poses NO threat to society. So what's the issue?

It was very apparent, listening to Ms. Snay, that she is fully aware of what drugs did to her life. She has a year to clean house, and I believe she's going to. It's my hope that HFP set an example by standing behind her and her request, even without knowing her, just as her Lord offering amazing grace with no strings attached. She is blessed with good friends at Huron Valley. Now the ball is in her court.

Pray for her.

Pray for our work.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

We're all in this together

One of my favorite and oft-recited phrases took on new meaning yesterday.

Board Chair Dan Rooks, his wife Deb, and I, were special guests of Chapter 1014 of the National Lifers of America, in Michigan's huge women's facility. All 1,800 women incarcerated in Michigan are at Huron Valley in Ypsilanti. When community volunteer Mary Lynn Stevens invited me to speak at one of the chapter's monthly meetings, called a soiree, I readily accepted, and then asked if Dan and Deb could participate as well.

Saturday, the three of us were guests of honor at HVW, and it was one beautiful experience. We learned so much about their NLA chapter, and will talk more about it in the future. These women and this organization are amazing. To say that we were impressed would be an understatement.

But back to the title of this entry.

I do have manners, and the last thing I would ever do in a prison speech is hit on inmates for money. They don't have any. They are incredibly poor. Their expenses are high, and if I had it to send, I would send money to them.

But here's what happened. In my overview of HFP, I explained that we are facing a financial crunch. I told the women that in the past week I was forced to inform Dan that we had an uphill fight coming in March. We would have to raise $10,000 to stay in business, because we have used up our surplus. I honestly did this because, as I often say, we are all in this together, and I knew that many of these ladies would become prayer partners for our cause. I've had first-hand experience with this. Dozens of these women prayed for me during the staph infection health crisis of 2010.

One inmate tried to stop me right there in the speech, I got a little flustered but waited until Q&A time to respond. I hurried to the end of my presentation.

But the prisoner was not to be deterred. She wanted the address of HFP. Not sensing the connection, I put it up on the chalk board. Often prisoners ask for our address so that they may correspond with us.

Then another woman asked if she could send a contribution. Another asked if she could send a tithe. Still another asked if we were a tax-exempt agency. I started getting the picture and became alarmed. I quickly responded that I wasn't asking for that. Several more jumped into the fray and quickly said they understood, but they wanted to help. And then still another prisoner said, "We're talking about that $10,000 that you need."

I was dumbfounded. This wasn't heading in the right direction. I wanted to end my presentation, and then came the part that we may never get used to, the standing ovation. Cheering. Applause.

I'm going to tell you something. It's love.

True, we represented the love of Jesus with our presence there.

But there was love in the room. Not just respect. Not just kindness. There was love.

We were still feeling it all the way home.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

on strange bedfellows having lunch

Cal Thomas and Rachel Maddow having lunch together? Many would never have believed that this could happen. If you haven't read about this, Google Cal's apology to Rachel.

Cal Thomas is an enigma to me. He embraces Christian principles. And yet his tongue can be so sharp. I cannot imagine Jesus talking that way.

But then Cal made an unfair comment about Rachel, and realized it. You must read his apology. It is very Christian, and it led to a luncheon meeting between these two people with opposing viewpoints. I'll bet the meeting will be a success, because these people will discover that you can disagree with someone and still like that person.

Now I share the rest of this story...another luncheon meeting.

This week I had lunch with prominent west Michigan attorney John Smietanka. He was the Prosecutor of Berrien County in the 1970s when Maurice Carter was wrongly convicted. Even though he didn't personally try the case, and claims now that he cannot even remember it, my position was that the buck stops at the top, and I decided that I could not like this person who placed my dear friend in prison.

Then, several years ago, a prisoner insisted that I contact Smietanka because he had tried a wrongful conviction case similar to his, and could offer invaluable advice. I hedged and hedged, but finally agreed to contact the attorney. And the most amazing thing happened. We not only found a lot of common ground, but over the years we became very good friends.

When Smietanka and I had lunch together this week, I had a couple of suggestions that helped him in a wrongful conviction case, and he had some advice for one of our thorny cases that was invaluable. Our lunch lasted two hours.

I have apologied to John several times about my early feelings for him, even though he wasn't even aware of me or my thoughts.

My dad taught me when I was a little boy that apology is an integral part of the Christian walk. That lesson has served me well in my 75 years.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Where do we go from here?

It's a question we must continue to address here at HFP. The problem is simple: we cannot survive. It takes money, and we don't have any.

HFP is an amazing organization, an agency that appears, on the surface, to be very small. But it's not. It has a vast network of advisors in all kinds of professions, even to public officials and former public officials, doctors, lawyers, investigators, you name it. They just want to remain below the radar, and so we don't tell anybody who they are. It gives us a huge advantage when it comes to advocating for prisoners. We know good people, who know more good people, who know how to press buttons. They have answers, and they have contacts. And so, we get results.

And, because we get results, prisoners love us. It's a two-way street, of course. Just read my last entry. We love prisoners in this office.

But having said all that, we must go back to my original premise: We need dollars to continue. We need dollars to survive. We don't have them. We're not getting them. And I don't know how to make that happen.

Sage advisors tell us that the financial part of the business is the responsibility of the Board of Directors. Our board members have never been able to handle those issues. And we haven't been able to attract the financially astute people who could serve us well. And so we're now down to three board members, $5,000 in the bank, no new fund-raisers in sight, and a trim but firm annual budget of $100,000.00.

We feel God has richly blessed HFP, and continues to be at our side all the way. We believe that we take our marching orders from Jesus.

I could work full-time in fund-raising, but when I'm doing that I'm not helping prisoners. As President, I'm finding that I cannot do both.

I'm not worried, but I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't anxious.

I want to remain in the work where I feel called. I want HFP to continue to be a help to prisoners who have fallen through the cracks. I want HFP to be financially stable.

The big question is: how to make this happen?

Only God knows.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

One more reason why I love prisoners

When I correspond with some of my friends in prison, I share personal information.

It's no secret that Marcia has been experiencing some health issues. They are not life-threatening, but they certainly do affect everyday living. And so, knowing that Marcia would be going to the University of Michigan Health Center for a certain procedure a week ago, I asked some of my Christian friends behind bars to pray for us.

Today Marcia received a letter from a Michigan prison.

Marcia:

I hope this letter finds you whole. About 18 of us came together a few days back and prayed for you. Your spirit, wisdom, and struggle has been a blessing to HFP, which has been a true blessing to us prisoners.

Be blessed,

Robert


Thank you, Robert, and thank you, prayer team of 18, for thinking of others, when your own situations aren't all that great.

God be near you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting out is just plain difficult

One of the mysteries of this business is that it's so easy to get into prison, and so difficult to get out. I'm really upset today, because James deserves to be out. Never mind that he has served 28 years, probably longer than almost any other prisoner in the country on a conviction of assault with intent. Never mind that he has been a model prisoner, and helped the state on numerous occasions. Never mind that the state made promises to him in exchange for his cooperation. He's staying in prison, and that's that.

I'm convinced the Michigan Parole Board never even took at glance at the request for commutation of James' sentence. Because if board members had looked, they would have seen a three page letter from the prosecutor who put James away 28 years ago, RECOMMENDING HIS RELEASE. They would have seen letters from former FBI officials and Michigan State Police officials thanking him for helping to solve cases WHILE HE WAS IN PRISON. They would have seen praise from a prosecutor's office on the other side of the state for his testimony that helped to convict a known murderer. Two attorneys and our office spent months preparing this application, and it was impressive. Yet no one even took a look at it! Within days the PB refused to act on it, and simply sent it to the Governor for a rubber stamp rejection. And within days, the Governor did just that.

What a bunch of crap.

I work in the prisons, I deal with prisoners every day, and I'll be the first to admit that we have prisons for a reason. Many of the people behind bars deserve to be there. But when someone deserves to get out, what's so hard about admitting that, and doing something about it?

The sad thing is that no one with any muscle will get behind James to correct this injustice. Those who know anything about it will simply cluck their teeth and wish him better luck two years from now when he may file for a commutation again. As it turns out, the promises in exchange for testimony were pretty hollow. Why should the state care? They got their end of the deal.

It's my personal opinion that if he were a different color and of means, he might have a better chance.

But he's black and he's indigent.

He doesn't have a prayer.

Shameful.

Friday, February 3, 2012

May the words of my mouth...(Part Two)

"I don't think a round of applause is enough for our guest speaker," said inmate Ramano Wednesday evening at the Thumb Correctional Facility. "I believe his work at Humanity for Prisoners deserves a standing ovation!" And with that prompt, 100 men dressed in prison garb stood and cheered. I had just finished my part of the HFP presentation in a special assembly, arranged by Chaplain Hart.

I reviewed impressive case after case where HFP made a difference. We helped a prisoner who was abandoned on her release date when her bus trip was cancelled. We arranged a birthday party in prison for the 8 year old daughter of a female inmate. We prodded the MDOC into giving cancer treatments to a terminal patient behind bars. We were up early in the morning to be at the side of an inmate who had no one to represent him at a Parole Board interview. We found a beautiful hospice facility at the request of prisoners in Jackson who wanted their friend, Old Bill, to die outside of prison. The state was willing to release him, but he had no place to go.

And then I challenged the prisoners, explaining that some of the nicest people I know live behind bars, and some of my best friends are in prison. People on the outside need improvement in their perception of prisoners. Together, the prisoners and HFP must do a better job of public relations, telling all of the good things prisoners are doing. I pledged to help if they would agree to help.

And then the chairman of the board of HFP, Dr. Dan Rooks, a clinical psychologist, gave an entirely different type of presentation. He challenged the inmates to take a good look at themselves. To own up to their situation. He told of the course he is running twice a month at another prison, helping prisoners to learn to forgive themselves, to learn to love themselves, and to openly consider the issues of restorative justice. This especially includes how the crime impacted not only the victim, but the community. He concluded with a powerful piece written by one of his friends in the course, who reflected on his crime and on his pathway of growth since then. It was beautiful, and it touched the hearts of these men.

In a question and answer session, both of us gave straight forward answers to excellent questions. Dan and I were right where we belonged...surrounded by prisoners.

The men lined up to shake our hands and to thank us for coming.

One of the guys who helped to put this program together called the next morning to say the men are already organizing a fund raiser for HFP. They want to do their part to keep us going.

HFP doing its thing. And the President and Board Chair loving every minute of it.