Friday, March 29, 2013

Bad news on Good Friday

It's Good Friday, and my preference might be to quietly meditate today on what Jesus did for me.

But instead, I'm dealing with serious issues that are troubling some of the people he seemed to love the most: persons in prison. In fact, he likened the way we treat these inmates with the way we treat him.

Problem #1 comes from the women's facility in Ypsilanti, where two of our friends---both model prisoners---have studied law and taken upon themselves to help other prisoners with their legal issues over the past decade.

One particular issue was so troubling that the ACLU jumped into the fray and managed to get a policy change. But the former practice of strip-searching female inmates was so outrageous that it traumatized many women, especially those in prison who had been raped or sexually abused. And so these two experts in the field of law assisted in preparing a class action lawsuit against the State of Michigan.

Today, one of the girls tearfully informed me by telephone that all of their legal documents have been confiscated; four footlockers full of stuff! No one is saying why, but it's obviously retaliation. The state doesn't like people suing the state. Understandable, except no one may legally deny prisoners access to the courts. The issue is especially urgent because there are court deadlines coming up. And there is no assurance if or when these documents will be returned. Meanwhile, there's no doubt that all of the supposedly confidential material is being read by the staff.

Then comes Problem #2 across our desk, from the parent of a young prisoner. She says her son was beaten by gang members and his life threatened for non-payment of money demands. He broke free, and obtained a transfer to another prison. He has remained in segregation at the new facility for fear of his life, but is now being poked fun of by some staff members, being threatened by other staff members...all of this while struggling with mental issues. He's already passed his early release date, but with all the problems, his parents fear that he won't get out, and they worry about his safety.

"Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

May our risen Lord bless us as we try to reach out to these hurting people on Easter weekend.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Too many sad stories

My friend Chuck has heard enough of our sad stories.

Each day, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS sends out a short message by email to a loyal group of supporters. More often than not, the message is a direct quote from a prisoner telling of the grief and misery in that particular facility.

Chuck thinks this probably is not the best way to raise money, and that perhaps we should tell more positive stories about what HFP is doing to make the lives of prisoners a bit brighter.

It's a valid suggestion, and we'll certainly try to put a more positive spin on our messages.

But the sad fact is that the tragic stories keep piling onto our desk daily, without fail. And just when you think you've heard it all, you hear a story even more outrageous.

My reason for feeding these excerpts out each morning is to give everyone we know a taste of what we face day after day, week after week. In my speaking engagements, I am reminded time and again just how little people know about the inside of prisons. Some actually believe that it's a comfortable place to live, where one gets three square meals a day. One of our jobs, I believe, is to convey these hellish stories to the public. Maybe if we make enough noise, and tell enough stories, someone will start doing something about it. Maybe someone in a position of authority will listen and decide that this is no way to treat fellow human beings. Maybe voters will tell their elected officials that this is not acceptable. Maybe.

Until then, maybe Chuck is right.

Now to find something positive in prison stories.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

This little light

Our son-in-law is a featured soloist in almost every HIS MEN presentation these days.

Before he sings, he tells a story to his audience about a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park as a child. When all lights were doused in the cave, he explained that he could not see his hand in front of his eyes. But then a tour leader ignited one little cigarette lighter. Light from the tiny, flickering flame filled the entire cavern.

He uses this story to introduce the next song: This Little Light. He sings the solo, backed up by the male chorus, and every audience finds it most pleasing. Especially in prison performances!

In a 40th Anniversary concert by HIS MEN last Sunday, HFP Board Chairman Dan Rooks spoke right after that presentation, and he picked up on the same theme.

He told about the darkness in prison...a darkness that you feel the minute you pass through the steel gate. And he asked the audience to just imagine the light that fills the room when HIS MEN goes behind bars to share music and the story of Jesus.

Some will contend that the HIS MEN prison visits over the years contributed to my career now as a prisoner advocate. Perhaps so.

But I can attest to one thing: Lee's story, and Dan's remarks completely apply to all that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is doing: not only behind bars, but also in our email, telephone and snail-mail communication with prisoners. 7 days a week, we're prying one little slat of the shuttered Venetian blinds to allow a little ray of light into prison darkness.

May God continue to bless our little light, that we might let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Pathetic Parole Board

Perhaps the single issue over which I feel strongest disagreement with the Michigan Parole Board is this whole matter of compassionate release...freeing inmates who are seriously ill.

As I write this, I'm having a little private argument with the board in my mind. Here's why.

I've been talking to Otto's wife, who has been so kind and patient. But she's about had enough.

Otto has had triple bypass heart surgery while in prison. He has serious heart problems. Not only that, he has Hepatitis C, he can hardly breathe due to a serious case of COPD, he is diabetic and must be checked and treated several times a day. Besides that, he's 76 years of age. An old, seriously ill inmate, who could better be treated at home.

Now one would think that this man would be a perfect candidate for release from prison. He's a parolable lifer, so that's not a problem. Nope. The Parole Board just gave him a flop.

And if it costs $30,000 to care for an average prisoner, you can bet that the state is paying twice that to take care of this man.

Can the board members really believe that this ailing inmate is some kind of a threat to society? He runs out of breath walking from here to the front door.

Do board members think he has not yet paid his debt to society? He has been in prison nearly 40 years!

Now you have just a glimpse at one reason why our prisons are too full, and why we're paying more for corrections than we are higher education.

In my opinion, keeping Otto in prison is a crime.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Maurice still touches lives

It has been a somber week.

Exactly a week ago, Marcia and I watched a staged reading of the powerful play written by our friends Alicia Payne and Don Molnar: JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

Maurice died in 2004, just three months after his release from prison. Since that time, I have buried many of his memories. Last weekend, watching two performances, those memories came rushing back. I've been mulling them over in my mind all week.

Perhaps the first question that might be asked is: So what's the big deal about the Tjapkes/Carter story? They set out to clear his name, and that never happened!

So here Maurice and Doug finally partner up after Maurice has been in prison for 20 years, determined to prove his innocence to the courts and to the world. Well, over the next 9 years, we proved it to the world, and we found the real criminal in the case, but the courts wouldn't listen. Instead, Maurice got sick...deathly ill, received a compassionate release from prison, and died.

It's very fair to say, in hindsight, that the story isn't of Maurice and Doug. The story is how God used the life of this beautiful, gentle, black man from Gary, Indiana, to touch others.

And touch others he did. Others in prison, others who were Innocence Project university students hoping to assist in his wrongful conviction, others in the legal profession, others who read of his injustice and joined the fight, others in churches who regularly prayed for him, others among my family and friends, others who read the book SWEET FREEDOM, others who have now seen the play, and yes, others who actually participated in these productions.

Only God knows how many lives he has touched.

Somehow, I think it's only the beginning.