Thursday, June 27, 2013

500 too many

Do you suppose government officials in Texas are proud today? Their state has just completed its 500th execution. Kimberly McCarthy, a woman of color, was 52.

I caught myself wondering why I was feeling so somber yesterday, and then it dawned on me that Dr. David Schuringa of Crossroad Bible Institute had sent out a press release that one of their graduates was being executed. Why, you may ask, does that hit me so hard?

Well, a little background is in order here. In 2006 a prisoner with whom I had established correspondence on death row in Texas asked me if I would be his spiritual adviser at the time of his execution. It wasn't high on my list of priorities, but I agreed to do it.

Until you go to death row, hear the horror stories, watch the way the inmates are treated, see the indifference among staff, feel the pain of family and friends, and experience the feeling of total helplessness...not until then should you express strong opinions about the death penalty.

To the shame of my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, its leaders this month refused to revisit an outdated position on capitol punishment. At the other end of the spectrum, sit in any bar and you'll hear bravado talk from those claiming they would be willing to pull the switch on a criminal in the death chamber.

You can't talk about the death penalty in committee meeting rooms and taverns with any meaningful contribution.

Wait until you stand in the polished hallway of the notorious Walls unit in Huntsville. Wait until you witness guards on the roof with rifles as you and your little band of supporters go to the viewing room. Wait until you watch your friend take the first dose of a lethal injection as the warden looks straight ahead. Wait until the loud lock springs open allowing you to leave after death has been pronounced. Wait until you hear the shriek of the steam whistle signaling that the execution is completed and prison lock-down is over.

Perhaps you'll then agree that this barbaric practice has no place in a civilized society.

As someone said, it's the most premeditated of all murders.

May God have mercy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Blood sugar blues

Statistics show that about 8% of Americans suffer from diabetes. My guess is that the number also holds true in prison. Michigan usually has around 45,000 people in prison, so do the math. We have many diabetics in prison, and from the increasing number of reports we are getting, many claim inadequate treatment.

Many diabetes suffer from a condition called neuropathy, a painful foot problem that requires special shoes. Michigan's prison system decided on doing away with the the line of doctor-ordered shoes, and use prison labor to make their own. From all reports, it's not working. One inmate reports he has gone through 7 pairs of these inferior shoes in six months. The sizes aren't right, and they rip apart at the seams. Because of these problems he's had numerous sores on his feet.

Another report indicates that the medical care system has been switching to different and less costly types of insulin. It's something that we cannot confirm, and our medical consultants aren't sure about. But the inmates are convinced of one thing: The change in medication has resulted in much higher blood sugar rates, and they're only recourse is to file grievances or file suit. Either alternative takes time. Meanwhile the unsatisfactory sugar level remains.

A report from the women's prison says that diabetics are given meters to check their sugar levels, but no needles. So, these ladies must save up their sewing needles and use them to check their blood.

A report from another of the men's facilities says that medical personnel in that unit have been randomly taking away meters from diabetics. "Someone's going to die here," he said, "and it won't be their fault."

I was reading the other day about the wonderful, caring health treatment that is becoming available for our pets.

How much more valuable are our prisoners, created in the image of God? The least of these.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wrongly convicted? You'd better listen!

I'm especially reminded of those words this week. That's what Rubin Hurricane Carter told me back when he and I were working to free the late Maurice Carter. The myth seems to be that all prisoners claim innocence, which is not true. But some protest their innocence the rest of their lives, and those are the ones that we must listen to, according to Rubin.

HFP is not an Innocence Project, but we do try to find help for those inmates who seem to have compelling evidence of a wrongful conviction.

We were heartened in two cases this week.

David, who has claimed innocence from day one and who has now exhausted all court avenues, remains in prison for life. BUT, he and I found a glimmer of hope when a retired state police officer, now on the Parole Board, believed him and recommended that I help in attracting the attention of an innocence project. A retired judge visited him this week, as a volunteer assisting two innocence organizations. After a two hour discussion, he informed him that he completely believed in his innocence!

Tony, who has been telling us that he is innocent since we met him several years ago, is about to be paroled but wanted to prove to his family and friends that he wasn't lying. They were able to put up the money, and we assisted them in retaining the services of a reputable polygraph examiner. Tony informed me this week that the lie detector test was administered in the prison, and he passed with flying colors!

These are just two cases, in the books of a very small organization. I say it's the tip of iceberg.

Before meeting Maurice Carter, I pretty much assumed that when someone was found guilty in America's system of justice. Many years later, I'm skeptical. Our system is badly flawed, and I'm wondering today how many innocent people are sitting behind bars.

We've gotta try harder.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

F is for father; F is for forgiveness

I heard a television commentator discussing fatherhood this week, as he wished all of the fathers in his audience a Happy Father's Day. He said that, as a father, he liked a quote from Henry Ford: Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

He was right on the money.

I love being a father, but I'm the first to admit that I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I hope that I kept correcting them, when I started over again...with more intelligence. I'm blessed to have a wonderful relationship with my kids and our grandchildren, which means that they all are forgiving people. They don't have a perfect dad or grandpa.

I'm especially mindful of that this year, because in recent days I had to be the message carrier between an elderly prisoner and his adult son. The father is a friend. I do not know the son. Sadly, it didn't turn out well.

The two were reportedly very close at one time, but some demons in the father's life caught up with him and he wound up in prison. Apparently the alleged crime was so heinous that the son absolutely cannot forgive or forget. Now he wants nothing to do with his dad. He ignores messages that come to him from prison. He refuses to do a few little favors that could make life much easier for his father. His focus is only on his hurt feelings and the alleged victims.

When I called the son he said, very openly, "I don't want him anymore. You wanna adopt him?"

He expressed no interest in his father's living conditions or mental state.

And all of this hurt me. In the HFP office we deal with broken relations every day, and I must confess that I have not been in the son's shoes. I loved my dad, and on this day miss him a lot.

But if I claim my heavenly father's promises, that means I am forgiven. No further questions.

I hope on this Father's Day you can forgive your dad, no matter how seriously he messed up. You'd simply be treating him the way you have been treated.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A few rotten apples

Every once in a while, I need a reality check in this business of working with prisoners.

Today I am reminded, again, that there is a reason for prisons, and there are reasons why some people belong there.

When my nephew showed interest in hiring a former prisoner in his company, I hesitantly encouraged him to go ahead. At first, it appeared the business decision was a good one. Sales were up. Things were looking good. Then came the bad news: A telephone caller asked for a personal meeting, and it turns out the former inmate's dark past is also part of his present life. Things are not good, he's been behaving inappropriately, and there's every reason to believe he's going to go right back where he came from.

That makes me so sad. The man had a chance to do things right.

It reminds me of our efforts to help Ronny some years ago. We got him out, got him a place to live, got him going in a business of his own. He would be at my side to speak in churches...we would hug, and he would get teary-eyed. But all the while, he was still involved in the dark side of his life, stealing from the very people who were helping him. It all caught up to him finally, and he took his own life. Heart-breaking, because he had such a huge chance to start a new life.

And one more example...a good friend of ours, a senior citizen who has been so supportive of former prisoners, apparently was taken to the cleaners by one who thought he had found a blank check-book.

Now it's important for me to stress that these are the exceptions. Each day I work with wonderful people behind bars whom I completely trust, and with whom I would work in a heart-beat. And these few rotten apples spoil it for the whole bunch. We must keep our focus, instead, on the shiny, red, sweet apples out there.

The real message here is that we all know some unsavory people, regardless of whether they have ever been in prison. But that doesn't mean that we are not surrounded by many, many, honest, kind, genuine human beings worthy of our love and friendship.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Medical un-care

Years ago my friend David called me from prison just to chat. He told me that before this telephone call he had been reading to a prisoner. I asked him what that was all about. He explained that the man had recently had eye surgery. because one of his eyes was bad. Problem was the surgery was done on the wrong eye, and now the guy couldn't see. "And they call us the criminals," David said.

For some time I thought that was an isolated incident, but now I'm not so sure. The HFP office is receiving atrocious reports daily.

A woman reported that a friend of hers in Huron Valley had cancer surgery and a very devastating bout of chemo therapy, only to be informed later that she never had cancer. My informant said the state had been getting her friend and another prisoner with the same last name mixed up.

A prisoner reported to me today that personnel in health-care in his facility have been taking away meds from prisoners who have been on that particular regimen for a long period of time. In addition, he said, they're taking away meters from inmates with diabetes. "Somebody's gonna die here," he says.

A wife informed me that her husband has had three surgeries for cancer, but the healthcare people in his particular facility say they don't have the means to give him follow-up treatment, and are unable to take him anywhere for treatment. She's praying for a transfer.

A mother reports that her daughter had the HIV virus when she went into prison, but because the system refused to treat the girl, she now has full-blown AIDS.

Are all these people telling fibs? I don't think so.

The people of the State of Michigan are going to have to demand more from their state legislators, or nothing will get done.

Our nation is opposed to torture, yet I describe this as cruel and unusual punishment. Not in some foreign prison camp. Right here in Pure Michigan.