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.