Saturday, March 31, 2012

Remembering Maurice Carter

Maurice Carter's birthday appeared on my calendar this week. We were so busy tackling a couple of prisoner issues that the day went by almost unnoticed. Maurice would have understood. After all, we were doing the work that he dreamed about. The formation of INNOCENT!, now known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, was the idea of Maurice Carter, who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. He wanted to form an agency that would help others in situations similar to his. After many years in prison, he finally found help, but he pointed out that many do not.

And so we began, at first attempting to help just those claiming wrongful conviction. But it soon became apparent that others needed help. There were other prisoners like Maurice, for example, suffering from maladies like Hep C, and unable to get treatment. Maurice was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 1995, and didn't get treatment until 2003 when he collapsed in his cell. They didn't bother to tell him that he had the disease, therefore they wouldn't have to treat it. There were others dying, like Maurice, who had no one to be near them through these difficult times. There were others needing parole or a commutation of sentence, with no one to stand at their side, to help them fill out the forms. In other words, there were tons of prisoners "falling through the cracks." And those very prisoners are the ones that Maurice wanted to touch, to help, to befriend. And it is those very prisoners that HFP is dealing with on a daily basis.

Maurice didn't live long enough to see his dream come true. In fact, he died just three months after his release in 2004. But I assured him we would press on, and we have. It's not a popular cause, which should have been no surprise, but it did catch us a bit off guard. We felt that in the American spirit of kindness and generosity, the disenfranchised in prisons would find some compassion. It didn't happen. And we felt that certainly in the Christian community, especially because of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, we would receive overwhelming support. No such luck. It was there, but it was minimal.

Our band of supporters is rather small, but exceptionally loyal. These wonderful people remain at our side through thick and thin. We're not making ends meet, but we're determined to keep on.

And as we do, HFP continues to quietly make its mark time and again in the Michigan prison system. The prisoners know, and love us. Maurice would be 68 this year, still a young man. We lost him far too early. But his name lives on, and we press on in his spirit. He would be proud.

Friday, March 30, 2012

This roller coaster ride ain't for sissies

And the ride never ends.

Seemed like a quiet week...a week with no rides.

But we reached a little high on Wednesday. No money in the mail...just letters from prisoners. But when I opened one of the envelopes, it was actually a check from a prisoner. That just moves me, every time, without exception. It is a huge sacrifice when a prisoner sends 50 bucks to HFP. That's more money than the prisoner makes---not in a day, not in a week---in a month!

The nose dive came on Thursday. Our friend Harry had been complaining about lazy prison officials who were refusing to crack down on problems in his joint and threatening to take things into his own hands. I received an email message from another prisoner in that facility saying that it finally apparently happened. Word was that Harry not only got into a fight, but seriously injured another inmate. That makes me sad. It makes me angry. It's easy to blame Harry, and that's what the Parole Board will do. They warned him before about avoiding fights. But the system is seriously flawed, and when you hear all of the stuff Harry has been keeping a journal about, you'll become angry with him.

But hang on, the ride goes up again...this time very high. I'm leafing through my mail while I'm standing in line for stamps at the post office when I spot the words "We did it!" on the front of an envelope. Couldn't wait...had to rip it open. It was a letter from a friend in Michigan's women's prison. I had been a guest speaker there just weeks ago, and when I explained what we do, they asked if there was any way possible that I could speak at a public hearing for their friend. Tracy has terminal cancer, and wants to die at home. She's not a violent prisoner...her background involves serious drug abuse. Board Chairman Dan Rooks, who was with me at the facility, and I decided that I should make every effort to attend that public hearing in Jackson and advocate for that ailing illmate. I not only testified, but while there complimented the chairman of the Parole Board and the representative from the Michigan Attorney General's office for the manner in which they conducted the hearing. It was one of the most humane I had ever attended.

I did it, but I must confess I was afraid it was an excercise in futility. This Governor rarely commutes sentences.

I yanked the note out of the envelope. The message: Tracy is going home!

Praise God, who orchestrates our work. We're simply his tools.

And thanks to our supporters. You have no idea how effective your dollars are, day after day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Where's the beef?

I just cannot find anyone willing to take on the prison system, and I find that quite amazing. It's not that attorneys are all that busy anymore. Granted, the well established legal eagles have thier clients and their business, but we keep hearing that newcomers in the legal field are having difficulty getting started. Why can't we find one of these young, hungry attorneys to consider some of these cases?

Our paralegal intern, Linda, believes strongly that an attorney could make a good case in a class action suit on behalf of Michigan prisoners seeking appropriate medical care.

Our friend Harry, who is behind bars, is ready to blow the whistle on his facility. He claims to have kept a log of prison situations including rapes, assaults, robberies, drug incidents and other illegal activities. He says he'd be willing to stand up for what's right and expose the guilty staff members and complacent guards who "passively allow these things to happen while they're either sleeping, playing cards, or doing suduku puzzles." He concluded: "There are so many kids being vicitimized here it sickens me."

Another friend, Andre, has been trying to get someone to take action against a corrections employee who abuses prisoners of other races. He said the guy teased and abused a Native American to the point where the prisoner finally snapped and there was a skirmish. Three guesses as to who won and who lost, and the first two don't count. You don't have to believe Andre, but he says "If I didn't lie to the judge, I have no reason to lie now. In my estimation, the officer involved is not worthy of a lie." Andre wants justice for the American Indian prisoner, and doesn't know where to find it.

So where can we go with this stuff? Who will help these guys?

Contact the HFP office.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The heartbreak of collapsed support

Anyone who has been in business is braced for occasional disappointment. Stuff happens. A deal falls through. A major account is lost. A key person switches loyalties. Each time it's difficult, but you learn that you must press on, and that usually better days are ahead.

For a prisoner, such types of disappointments become monumental. This is especially true when legal support collapses.

A few weeks ago one of our friends informed me that his attorney apparently took him to the cleaners. Not only did he fleece the prisoner and his family of thousands of dollars, but he also failed to produce. There were huge promises, and with that came a substantial downpayment. But then red flags started popping up. Failure to call at agreed upon times. Failure to show up for meetings. Failure to accomplish promised legal goals. It's one thing in business to grab your bootstraps and start again. It's another thing when you're in prison, and you've placed all your hopes on the work of this one person. Hopes for freedom. Hopes for recovered losses. What comfort can we offer this man?

And this week it was my job to inform another dear friend that his legal support had collapsed. A reputable innocence agency just dropped the ball. I don't know any other way to describe it. Agreement was made to involve university students, numerous legal documents were reviewed and discussed. There was obviously a wrongful conviction here, and the hope of the wrongly accused were high. But the same story...eventually the prisoner was hearing nothing. No word for months at a time. Then it became years. Well, other issues came up according to the agency, and the case got sidetracked. The university students graduated and moved on. This kind of heartbreak is monumental. Indescribable. And where does he go from here? And what comfort do we offer?

Big responsibility, this business of befriending and helping prisoners. Not to be taken lightly.

Pray for inmates and their support systems.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why I hurt, not only for prisoners, but their moms

Brenda was determined to find out, first hand, what's going on with her son.

He's in prison in Michigan's Upper Peninsula...she lives way down near the bottom of the lower peninsula. He's been complaining that he's dying, and she started believing the claims when she heard that he was bleeding, contantly, and that he had lost 45 pounds in 15 days.

She didn't have a car worthy of the trip, and so HFP quietly collected a few bucks so that she could rent a good car and properly insure it for the long trip. Our UP Representative promised to look after her, and provide food and lodging if necesary. We wired the money to her, and she departed from Benton Harbor last Wednesday with our prayers.

No word. Nothing.

Brenda called me this evening and could hardly speak. Here's the story.

Just three hours from the prison she was involved in a traffic accident. Two kids who admitted they were texting ran a red light, and crashed into the driver's side door. Brenda's head bounced on the steering wheel, and the impact caused her to bite down on her tongue causing serious injury. The reason we didn't hear from her: She was in the hospital. She never made it to the prison. Never got to check on her son.

No one ever said life was going to be fair.

But God bless her, Brenda isn't giving up. She's making plans to head north next week. After all, there's her son to worry about.

Friday, March 16, 2012

On where help comes from

The idea seemed so simple. Tell the supporters of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS just exactly where we stand. Lay our cards on the table. And so at the end of February we frankly stated that we weren't sure how much longer we could continue. Due to lower contributions in January and February, our wonderful year-end surplus was gobbled up. Going into March it appeared we would have to raise about $10,000 to stay afloat.

And it seemed to have worked. The newsletter arrived in the mail boxes of our more than 300 supporters, and they responded. In the first week we raised several thousand dollars. And the exciting thing was that a number of people responded to a suggestion of one supporter that we form a 100 CLUB, whereby supporters would pledge to contribute $100 a month. The idea was that if we could get 100 people to do this, we wouldn't have to be fretting about fund-raising each month and instead could spend our time doing what we do best: advocating for prisoners.

Then came the second week of March. Everything came to a halt. We were busy spending our time on some critical prisoner healthcare issues. Today I reviewed the mail for the week. Not one contribution. Not one dollar.

What does that mean?

Well, for one thing, it means we must raise a lot yet this month. And even though we are reminded in the Bible not to worry about tomorrow, the month of April is a concern, because the same bills are going to come due again then.

Your thoughts and ideas are welcome. Your prayers are necessary.

I'm falling back on Psalm 121. The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What Jesus didn't say

I'm sitting here with my early Sunday morning cup of coffee, thinking about the words of Jesus specifically dealing with prisoners.

In Matthew 25, Jesus did not say, "I was a model prisoner, and you visited me."

He did not say, "I was of the same race, and so you visited me in prison."

He did not say, "I was a believer, a man of faith, and so you visited me."

Here at HFP, we take that to mean that our expression of love to prisoners must be unconditional.

This is on my mind this morning, because we're trying to help Ronnie. By his own mother's confession, he's been a bad apple. He gets in trouble. He gets tickets. The prison staff moved him to an unpleasant spot, where they keep trouble-makers. But there's something else. Ronnie may be dying. Because he's such a trouble-maker, he's not first in line to get appropriate treatment for his problems. But now his health issues are serious, and he's afraid of dying. Perhaps that's why he's now begging his mother to save him. He claims to be bleeding from every orifice, and even prison staffers admit to his mother that he's not in good shape.

And so we're trying to help. Regardless of his past behavior, his demeanor, his attitude, his track record, we claim that he deserves humane treatment and care.

We think that's what Jesus would have us do.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

on trolling for pro bono assistance

Our wonderful Paralegal intern Linda was suggesting to me that some attorney just might wish to take on the State of Michigan with a class action suit, representing the many prisoners who cannot seem to get appropriate medical care. It was fresh in her mind, because our office was hit with several outrageous cases in the past week.

I was explaining that we have tried broaching the subject with some excellent attorneys who specialize in civil cases, but with no success. Apparently it's not easy to win against the state.

But, Linda insisted, somebody's gotta help these people.

And then the phone rang. The woman on the other end of the line was so hoarse I could hardly understand her. She apologized, saying that she had been crying since she opened a letter from her son today. Ronald, in the Michigan Prison System, was wondering why she hadn't received his earlier letters. By the time he wrote this note he had been sick for 14 days, bleeding rectally. And that's not all. He's also bleeding in his urine, and he's vomiting blood. In other words, he's bleeding from all outlets. I'm sure you know that a person cannot bleed indefinitely.

Linda and I had to terminate our conversation. It was time to get our hands out of our pockets and get to work on still another case of unacceptable medical care offered by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

More on the case later, but give this some thought. There must be an attorney out there who is willing to take the plunge. These prisoners need more help than HFP can give them. Somehow the state seems to respond to threats of legal action.

Meanwhile, don't forget us. Your prayers and financial support keep us on the firing line at times like this.

Monday, March 5, 2012

At a loss for words

Yep, it just happens in this business.

I've been following this guy and his case for years.

I'm convinced its a wrongful conviction, which he has been claiming from the start. And while it's true that the police and the prosecution were determined to put this guy away, I think his own defense attorney made a serious blunder. I think the jury might have seen things differently if the attorney had not been so confident of winning that he failed to line up the best expert witnesses in the business. And because he didn't, jurors believed the testimony of a junk scientist hired by the state.

So here's where I'm at a loss for words. What do I say to this prisoner now, after

-a jury found him guilty
-none of his appeals were successful
-an appeal to the Supreme Court was turned down
-higher courts have now ignored his claims of ineffective counsel
-it appears that his very last open door is slamming shut?

His highly successful attorneys believe in his innocence.

He is a man of strong faith.

Everything he has tried has failed, and things don't look good for his very last hope of getting out.

Just telling him that God must have plans for him in the prison system seems pretty hollow. We're talking about a man's freedom here, and if this last effort fails he'll spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Some things just aren't very much fun in this business.

Pray for our friend, and others like him. There are more.

Please pray for HFP.