Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A kinder, gentler DOC

I had forgotten the words of former President George H.W. Bush, who back in 1988 called for a "kinder, gentler nation."

Last week I had an opportunity to hear the Director of the MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Daniel Heyns, talk about his hopes and goals for the MDOC. I heard about lower recidivism rates, and improved training for corrections officers. But I heard nothing about a kinder, gentler DOC.

And that's one of the things we really need.

My thoughts turned to that today because the office of HFP is dealing with several issues, once again, in the women's facility. All of Michigan's female inmates are housed in a large complex at Ypsilanti, Michigan.

First and foremost on our plate, as many of you know, is the toilet paper issue. New restrictions give the women only two small rolls of single-ply tissue per week...tissue that must also take the place of facial tissue and paper towels, because the inmates don't get anything like that. We have been bombarded with complaints. Women have kept logs of how many sheets are used at a time, and they're still running out in four days!

Then there's our friend the wheelchair lady. Prisoners contacted us because the staff treats her so poorly, and doesn't provide a pusher. She told me that when she asks someone to push her, they want to be paid, and she makes prisoner wages. That amounts to pennies, not dollars.

And now a new one today...a young woman with the HIV virus who just cannot get appropriate care and medication, and is terribly sick. Her mother contacted us from another state. She's beside herself with fear that, without proper treatment, the girl will develop full-blown AIDS.

HFP's goal is to seek kinder, gentler treatment of all prisoners. That's why I met this week with representatives of HOSPICE OF MICHIGAN to explore how we can better serve dying inmates and their families.

Instead of just praising MDOC Director Heyns for being a man of faith, the many faith-based initiatives working in Michigan Prisons should be reminding him that Jesus expects us to show compassion to the least of these. And when we don't, we are not following his precepts.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Honk if you love a reporter

I'm going to digress this morning. For just once, I'm going to get away from prisoner issues.

While it's true that I am a prisoner advocate, and a life-long church musician, what I really am is a reporter. I'm not in the broadcasting business anymore, but it's kinda like a cop...once a cop, always a cop. Same with being a journalist.

I'm coming to the defense of journalists this morning in the wake of the Oklahoma disaster.

One cannot have been watching all of this coverage without gaining new appreciation for the street reporter...the journalist out there in the thick of things.

I'm so tired of hearing the phrase "liberal media."

I could identify with those Oklahoma reporters. As a very young newsman I have spent all night in severe weather headquarters on occasion, broadcasting updates to the people in my community. My personal politics had nothing to do with my desire to make sure our listeners were informed.

Thanks to the liberal media, if you insist on using those words, many fatalities were avoided in Oklahoma because of the outstanding warning information that was fanned out by the local outlets.

And the great coverage in Oklahoma was not provided by the big network guns flown in to get ratings...it was provided by those guys and gals in the trenches, doing their best to provide news coverage for their friends and neighbors.

That's the way it really is, ladies and gentlemen. The media does not consist of a few high profile people on the cable networks. The media are made up of thousands of conscientious journalists who, regardless of their personal political beliefs, are committed to seeking the truth on behalf of their readers, listeners or viewers. That's how you are getting informed everyday.

Some bad apples in the bunch? Yep, just like anywhere else.

The reporter is an important cog in the gears of democracy, and I'm proud to be called one of them.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thanks, for what?

A friend came up to me after church this morning to thank me for all that we are doing. While I very much appreciated this man's kindness, I had to explain that some days we really aren't doing all that much.

A woman behind bars was told by police ten years ago that she failed a lie detector test. She was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. She claims innocence. All she wants is a copy of that polygraph exam. I'm striking out trying to find it.

A man in the UP claims he is bleeding, and doctors say he is dying. The warden says he's being treated. It's too far away for me to go, and too far away for his support system. So here we sit in the middle. What is really going on?

I was encouraged by a Parole Board member to enlist the aid of an Innocence Project for an inmate whose story seemed very credible. We seem to be getting nowhere fast.

The women in Ypsilanti are bombarding this office with complaints about the new toilet tissue restrictions, something that one of our jailhouse lawyers says is actually cruel and unusual treatment. Yet, no matter how hard we try, we seem to hit brick walls.

One of our inmate friends claims DNA evidence would free him. But the police department in the case destroyed the evidence. Now where does he go? Everyone agrees this isn't right, but he stays behind bars. I don't know which way to turn.

Another of our inmate friends who claims innocence must take psych prison classes, where they badger him, try to convince him to show remorse, and say that if he continues to say he didn't do it he'll max out. He's having anxiety attacks. i don't know how to help him.

Prisoners need prayers.

So do we.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day?

I'm thinking of a little four-year-old girl early on this Mother's Day morning, as I sip my first cuppa. Our board member Judy VanderArk was making a prison visit at the women's facility in Ypsilanti Friday. She saw this little girl all dressed up, sitting with her grandmother in the waiting room. Judy complimented her on her pretty outfit. The child explained that she was going to visit her mommy...it was her mom's birthday. We see so many experiences like this in prison, and each one can quickly move a person to tears.

I'm thinking of that little girl today, because her mother will not be with her on Mother's Day.

I'd like to ask, today, that we take a moment to remember mothers behind bars.

Out of curiosity, I contacted our local Sheriff, Gary Rosema, to find out how many mothers might be in the Ottawa County Jail. Well, right here in our lily white county that we think is such an exemplary place to live, there are 41 women in jail. 26 of them are mothers. And Gary says this means that 62 children will not be with their mothers for this special day.

In Muskegon today an organization called LETTERS R BETTER is staging a solidarity demonstration outside the County Jail. They just want to not only honor the mothers in jail, but express solidarity with one another.

I haven't found specific figures on the number of mothers behind bars in the U.S., but one report claimed that there are 85,000 mothers incarcerated nationally.

That's a lot of moms who won't get a little hand-made card with the words WORLD'S BEST MOM scrawled in crayon today.

That's sad.

My God be near this special category of mothers today.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Our problems vs. Tony's problems

OK, let's pick three topics that rattle through your brain while driving to work in the morning...not terrible problems necessarily, but nagging issues. Under each topic, I'll tell you what I heard from Tony today...a Michigan prisoner who sent me a short note.

1. Your compensation.

I just got paid by the state today. $17.71. Now I can buy some stamps.

2. Kid issues.

My mom wants me to fight for custody of my 13 year old. His mother isn't taking very good care of him. Clothes are dirty and don't fit. My other brother and his wife, who have 5 boys of their own, took some of their money and got him two outfits and a pair of shoes. Now, when he comes over to go to school, he'll change clothes, so he can stop being teased by the other students.


3. Problems with a neighbor.

I just hate these living conditions---8 man cube. They climb over the wall when you go to chow and pry your locker open while the guards are not looking.

You and I have the ability to deal with matters like these, but imagine the helpless feeling of facing these issues while incarcerated. Small issues suddenly mushroom into big problems.

I hate that anyone even has to live this way.

Say a prayer for prisoners today.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

How to help the brothers

"The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do."
- John Holt

OK then, I guess it's time to test my character.

As the person who runs HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, and who thinks he has the answers for prisoners and their families, this one has me stymied.

I'm working with two brothers, Donald and Joseph. They're not young men anymore. Joseph is in prison, and mentally challenged. Donald is not in prison, but also struggles with issues. In its infinite wisdom, the MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS placed Joseph in the facility at Marquette, Michigan. His only contact is his brother in southwest lower Michigan, more than 450 miles away! Is this really necessary? These are simple people, struggling with simple issues that never bother you and me...why does this have to happen?

So Donald asks me what I can do to help Joseph. Some days he claims doctors are telling him he is dying. He has medical issues but says he doesn't get the right treatment. Donald has no way to get up there, and is counting on some angel to step in and pay his brother a visit and find out what is happening.

The email messages from Joseph to me are so confusing that I do not know what is really going on. One day he is dying, one day he is not. One day he begs for help, the next he sends me on my way.

I'm going to tell you something, ladies and gentlemen. These two men are children of God...created in the image of God.

I can find no one willing to go visit a mentally challenged prisoner in Marquette, let alone try to help him. I know of only one person willing to talk to these men, a female pastor who's not exactly sure how involved she can get, but who really cares.

Here's what we can do, and it's no small thing: pray. Please pray for Joseph and Donald. Maybe it's all we can do.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wrongful convictions: rare or common?

just when I think I have my life's Maurice Carter chapter buried away, along comes another presentation of the powerful play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

I've seen it enough times now so that I look around to gauge audience reaction to certain key issues, rather than watch the actors. People react in disbelief. They cannot believe that a trial can end successfully for a prosecutor who has no physical evidence, no fingerprints, no evidence, no motive, and not one credible witness. They gasp when they hear Maurice Carter's terrible court-appointed defense attorney say that he has no questions. He had the key witness, the only true witness to the crime who insisted that Maurice was not the shooter. Yet he blew it.

I'm so used to the whole issue of wrongful convictions that nothing surprises me. But in every performance of our play, people are surprised. And when the whole subject comes to the forefront in my mind, I become angry once again on behalf of those people behind bars who do not belong there.

That's the message that the play must continue to convey: There ARE wrongful convictions out there, lots of them. There are cops and prosecutors who arrest and convict the wrong guy. There are inept court-appointed attorneys failing to do their job for those who cannot afford legal counsel.

And the message to you and me: Complacency is a sin.