Thursday, July 25, 2013

Enjoy the little things

I'm thinking a lot about Maurice Carter these days. He was released from prison this week,in the year 2004. I've never experienced anything quite like it.

I'm not sure you can even imagine what it must be like to have been out of touch with the world for 29 years. The video camera had not been invented yet. No one knew what a cell phone was. The internet wasn't even part of the English language.

I had to teach him how to shop in a convenience store. He would pick out one item and take it to the counter, and the clerk thought he planned to check out. Not so, he was just setting it there while he went and looked for another item. I was forced to intervene before the frustrated clerk exploded.

Maurice Carter's presence in my life taught me many lessons, but there was this huge one: Enjoy the little things.

I still remember the day that I rented an apartment for another prisoner just released. He stood in his apartment late at night, and marveled at the experience. He told me the next morning that he enjoyed three things for the first time in ten years: being alone, being in the dark, and silence. All things that we take for granted.

If you have the opportunity, go to our web site today and read Charley Honey's column, written in 2004 after he and two other guys from the Grand Rapids Press paid a visit to Maurice. It's a poignant piece. You'll see that Charley captured exactly what I am saying now.

Yes, enjoy living in a free country, and enjoy the benefits of democracy...but also enjoy being able to go to the bathroom whenever you feel like it, having enough toilet paper, having heat or air conditioning to maintain a pleasant temperature, having a warm blanket on your bed, having silence when you need it, having medications and medical assistance whenever the need arises, and never living in the fear that you could be attacked at any moment.

May we all learn from Maurice.

And may we all show compassion to those still living behind bars.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Tragic story of wrongful conviction

Because of national news stories, much attention is being focused these days on the plight of young black men in America. An exceptionally high percentage of them end up behind bars.

I'd like to share a story with you that didn't make the national news. I'm afraid it's more common than we want to believe.

I'm so aware of it because I was with Andre' in prison this week, trying to get him some badly needed legal assistance.

Andre' was 21, living with his girl friend and a 1 year old baby, when things came crashing down. An acquaintance was shot and killed on the other side of town. Andre' was home at the time.

But somehow, a friend of a friend dropped his name to police, and he became a suspect. He was picked up and questioned and questioned and questioned. He was told to confess to the crime because witnesses already tied him to the crime. It's very important to insert two facts here: number one, he was learning disabled and could not read or write; and number two, he had no history of criminal behavior. No prior arrests.

So when this happened he was in a terrible state of mind, weeping and begging them to leave him alone. But the white lady cop wouldn't let up on him, and finally wrote out a whole statement on a sheet of paper and asked him to sign it. If he would sign it, she would leave him alone.

I asked him if he knew what the statement said...if she read it to him. He said that she read something to him, he doesn't remember. How could he possibly know what he was signing? He couldn't read! But he signed it, and it turned out to be a statement of confession. This is how false confessions rank high up on the list of reasons for wrongful convictions. He didn't even own a handgun at the time of the crime.

Well, a jury found Andre' guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison. And because he was indigent, the attempts at appeals were amateurish and not well prepared. He didn't let up until he went all the way to federal court, which means that he has exhausted all legal avenues. That makes things very difficult now.

19 years later, he's still protesting his innocence, wondering how he ever ended up there. For Wayne County authorities, it was another Detroit crime solved.

I tell this story to stress how easy it is for the young black man to end up in jail, and how hard it is to get out again...even when the man is innocent.

HFP is not going to abandon Andre'.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hot enough for you?

I've been watching the various ways people are dealing with the nation's heat wave on Facebook. Some have swimming pools in their yard or in the neighborhood, some live along or near Lake Michigan or an inland lake, some are blessed to have central air conditioning in their homes. While I, too, enjoy air conditioning in our home, in my car and in our office, I am living in a slightly different world: the world of prisoners.

Prisoners, for the most part, have no escape from this heat. A friend in a Nevada prison contacted me during the last heat wave to say just how terrible it was. I wonder how he's doing now. One of our supporters in Las Vegas said it was 117 there yesterday.

Many of the activities in Michigan prisons are canceled when it is this hot. The heat is brutal in the prisons. One inmate told me that he went out into the yard in the evening, where it was still 85 degrees. But he said that was still cooler than the air in his cell. Another reports that when the temperature gets so high, tension gets higher also. Another said he had a heat-related illness, but still was not issued a fan, and the windows in the cell won't open. We contacted the prison, and were told that if the inmate wants a fan he's going to have to buy it, and it's not necessary for the windows to be open because there's a good air circulation system.

I post this little message, not to tell you anything new, but to remind you how good we have it, and how unpleasant it is behind bars.

Follow the advice in Hebrews, and remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them.

Friday, July 12, 2013

More thoughts on wrongful convictions

Almost every day, after hearing what I do for a living, someone will say, "Well, all prisoners claim to be innocent."

Not true.

The truth is that most prisoners know those who are innocent. When I worked to free Maurice Carter, some admitted that they belonged in prison, but they thanked me for helping Maurice because they knew he was innocent.

I just received a letter this morning from a guy who claims wrongful conviction, and it sets my mind to thinking about situations like that again. Do you ever wonder what it would be like, what your state of mind would be like, if you found yourself behind bars for something you didn't do? I'm not sure I could stand it. I know that I could not have remained the gentleman that Maurice Carter was.

When my friend Kenny Wyniemko was in prison, wrongly convicted, his father died. He was unable to attend the funeral, and it broke his heart.

In the letter received this morning, Leo tells me that his two grandmothers died. Oh, and his dad died of a heart attack, also. Oh, and he lost track of his two kids, also. Oh, he has now lost his home and his vehicles.

It's not pretty, ladies and gentlemen, and if his claims of wrongful conviction are true (some very knowledgeable about the case support his claims), then we have another crime here. It's a crime that he's in prison. It's a crime that he has been robbed of these years of freedom. It's a crime that he couldn't be there when loved ones passed away. It's a crime that he wasn't able to keep his family together.

Sorry, don't mean to be ranting and raving, but this is serious stuff.

Put yourself in that position.

Pray for the wrongly convicted. And those close to them.

As Rubin Hurricane Carter told me, "If someone claims innocence all the time he is in prison, you'd better listen to him!"

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Thumbs up, Rep. Haveman; Thumbs down, Sen. Jones

Advocates for Michigan prisoners were encouraged by an AP story today showing that Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers are considering changes to prison sentencing guidelines. It's about time. 15 years ago the guidelines were made tougher, and they stuck. But the times, they are a-changin' and the state now has a corrections budget that exceeds $2-billion.

Everything is Republican controlled right now in Michigan, but the Guv is a bit of a maverick, and at his side he has Representative Joe Haveman from Holland, who heads up the House Appropriations Committee. Representative Haveman is a conservative, but we happen to know that he has taken an interest in prisoners, and more than just a passing interest. Says Representative Haveman: “Being tough on crime above all other concerns simply hasn't created a safer society.”

His statement is backed up by actual statistics.

Then comes along Senator Rick Jones, from Grand Ledge, a former sheriff who heads up the Senate Judiciary Committee: “...in my experience, most of the inmates at Michigan prisons are pretty dangerous.”

Gimme a break. MOST of the inmates, Senator Jones? Just what is your experience with the Michigan prison system?

I wonder if he has checked the percentage of people in prison who are mentally ill. Who are physically ill and in hospitals and infirmaries. Who are elderly and virtually harmless. Who are battered women who fought to save their lives. Who are in on non-violent drug or alcohol charges. Most of the inmates?

We hear from inmates daily, on a regular basis, and there's a criminal element in there, all right...it's prison. That's where they belong. I was trying to explain to my grandkids the other day how nice many of the prisoners are, and how special they are in my life.

Corrections Director Dan Heyns is all for an update, hoping that the Law Review Commission can figure out what the state can do to lower prison spending and reduce recidivism rates.

It's going to be a hard sell, with numerous lawmakers and many people having the same former cop mindset as Senator Jones.

It's our job to let our state lawmakers know where we stand. The guidelines need revision.