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.