Tuesday, December 31, 2013

More compassion for the ailing in 2014?

As I sit enjoying my first cuppa on the last day of the year, I'm reflecting on the huge challenges ahead for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. And some of the biggest challenges we face involve sickness and death.

Matt and I are reviewing the statistics for 2013, but a cursory glance at the daily log shows us that health issues are a dominant theme.

In short, here's what we're aiming for in the new year: better health care for ailing and injured inmates; more compassionate releases for prisoners with terminal illnesses; and, some form of hospice care for those who are dying and who do not get released to their families and loved ones.

Throughout the year we have heard terrifying stories of lack of proper care for prisoners who were afflicted with various illnesses, or who were injured either accidentally or intentionally. It is not uncommon, for example, to receive reports that medications have been taken away from prisoners...especially pain meds. We're the first to agree that there can be abuse. Some people with no moral character are not above faking pain, hoping to get narcotics. But one doesn't have to be an MD to tell when an ailing or injured person is in pain. Inmates tell of a young man who died of an asthma attack after his inhaler was taken away.

Throughout the year we found a callousness among Michigan Parole Board members when it came to compassionate releases. A woman who died of cancer in the Huron Valley infirmary had no business being there. She should have been home with those closest to her. A man in the Thumb Facility who died of lung cancer was the perfect example of heartless PB decisions. A request for a compassionate release was denied last year...another was denied this year. He died alone, behind bars. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Throughout the year we heard stories of prisoners who died behind bars who should have had more compassionate care...the kind of care that only hospice can provide. We tried to raise the issue with the prison system and the health care provider at a high-level meeting in Lansing in 2013, but it went nowhere. There seems to be a lack of concern, because hospice care is readily available to us and our families. And those people...well, they're just prisoners, and they are there for a reason.

Jesus loved prisoners, and still does. And as his representatives, we do, too. We made some strides in 2013, but you ain't seen nothin' yet!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

On playing the race card

I'm not above playing the race card.

I'm a kid who was brought up in a white, Dutch church in Muskegon, with all white friends and relatives. In addition to the N word, we also heard numerous other titles for people of color. And all this from Christian folk who thought that somehow they were more righteous than those with a different skin. Nothing wrong with using words like that. Perhaps these weren't children of God after all.

It has taken me a long time to get here. But there's no turning back now, after people in my life like the Rev. Cy Young, who had memorized all of Martin Luther King's speeches (who my kids called “Uncle Cy”); Alma Perry, one of the finest and most devout gospel singers to make an appearance in my life (who sang a new song to me in her inner-city kitchen); and then Maurice Carter, my hero and my brother, who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. I easily place these names at the top of a list of people who made a huge influence in my life.

A couple of prison visitation issues steered my thoughts once again toward our treatment of people of color.

I told a story in an earlier column about an old black preacher who came to visit his son in prison. He had traveled a long way, but upon his check-in, discovered that he didn't have his driver's license with him...no picture ID. The prison people all knew him...he had been there many times before. He had credit cards and other forms of ID. He was not allowed to visit his son. Might have been his last time. Not a problem for the white guard at the desk. Rules are rules.

This week a member of our Board of Directors went to Ypsilanti to visit some women prisoners who are among our friends. The delay in processing visitors was maddening, and she waited 2 ½ hours just to make her first visit. Judy is healthy, and had the time, but it still was unpleasant.

Not to be confused with an elderly African American woman in bad health who came to visit her daughter for the holidays...perhaps for the last time. She was accompanied by another daughter. She waited for over two hours, then had to go home without seeing her child...she couldn't hang on any longer. Judy saw the mother weeping...saw the daughter in the visitor room weeping. Not a problem for those at the desk.

I know that it happens to white people, too.

But somehow, with blacks, I'm not sure everyone feels that it matters all that much.

In Christ there is no east or west.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Holidays without a loved one

The joy of the holiday season is tarnished for those who lost someone dear to them in the past year.

For those of us working with prisoners and the prison system, we know there will be stories involving deaths of loved ones...but HFP is going to try to make a difference in the new year!

Our resolution to try to bring about change was strengthened last week when I spoke to James.

We lost another prisoner this past week, man...another one of our guys passed. He had lung cancer. He had been coughing and choking. We knew he was in bad shape. The docs had recommended a compassionate release to the Parole Board last year and it was turned down. The Parole Board considered another request this year and turned it down. That's so sad. It didn't have to be that way, man. He had family that just wanted him home for his last days.

That's the kind of stuff that just about sends me to the moon.

Who are these people who decide that a dying inmate, regardless of how serious the crime that sent him there, is still a threat to society? In our discussion, James then told me of another inmate who died of liver cancer shortly before that.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS was saddened in 2013 when we lost Joey and Otto. We heard of Linda's death in the women's infirmary. These prisoners could have and should have been home, surrounded by friends and loved ones. Instead, they died alone in a cold, impersonal atmosphere. What a shame!

If the past holds true, some 125 prisoners will die in the Michigan prison system in 2014, and about 60% of those will be from natural causes.

The HFP Board of Directors has determined that we must make a strong push for two things in 2014: getting Hospice care into the prison system for those who are dying; and doing our best to increase the number of compassionate releases for those inmates who are terminally ill.

Obviously, the state has no heart.

We're about to demonstrate again that HFP does.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Just the ticket!

I always cringe when I hear a member of the Michigan Parole Board question an inmate about tickets. A ticket is what happens when a prisoner gets written up for some kind of infraction. The Parole Board doesn't like to hear about tickets. And so, when an inmate appears before a board member for an interview, or during a public hearing, the issue of tickets invariably gets brought up. Board members love to refer to an inmate who has been in for 40 years and hasn't had one ticket. It's interesting to note that the ticket-free inmate, however, is still behind bars.

I cringe because I hear so many stories about ridiculous tickets.

It goes back to the days of my friend Maurice Carter. A friend owed him a debt, while in prison. The friend worked in the kitchen. So, he paid off his debt to Maurice with an onion. That seems harmless enough, but one isn't supposed to be walking around in prison with an onion. Could be dangerous. So Maurice was written up.

One would think that tickets should be for genuine misconduct...but prison guards can put their own spin on it, and use their own definition of misbehavior.

In Ypsilanti, an ornery prison guard who was fed up with the complaints about a shortage of bathrooms during remodeling finally warned the women: "Anyone who complains about having to go to the bathroom during my shift will be written up." Does having to pee sound like misconduct to you?

We just received word from the family member of a prisoner in the frigid UP. Her man got written up for wearing two sets of gloves. The prison-issue gloves are pathetically thin and inadequate. All he wanted to do was keep his hands warm. Nope. An infraction. Against the rules.

Recently one of our female friends who is a hairdresser for other inmates in her facility got written up for cutting hair. That's what she does for a few extra pennies. She had no idea that such activity wasn't allowed at that particular moment in that particular place...never heard of the rule before. Makes no difference. Ticket time.

Prisoners have often told us of getting tickets for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You're just not supposed to be in some areas of the prison, I guess...and if by mistake you happen to show up there, by golly you're misbehavin.'

The Parole Board members and the Attorney General's corrections lawyer are correct in showing concern about tickets. But they would do well to also consider that there may be more than one side to the story.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What are you going to do about it?

So here's the deal.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS can keep right on bringing up important issues involved Michigan prisoners, but if we're standing alone in this fight, it's an uphill battle.

For weeks and weeks we've been talking about the shameful toilet paper and sanitary napkin policies that affect all of the women incarcerated in Michigan. People who learn about this through HFP have been understandably outraged. They stop Matt and me on the street. They send us email messages. They click "like" on Facebook. They make strong comments of support. And that's where it stops.

My guess is that you could count on one hand the number of people who actually did something about it...sent a message, or a letter, or made a telephone call to a state representative, a state senator, the Governor, or the MDOC itself.

That ain't gonna cut it! We need help.

The reason I bring this up today is that we have just received another complaint from prisoners in the UP, where Michigan winters are at their harshest. These guys are issued thin shirts and pants...short-sleeved no less. They get a thin cap, a windbreaker jacket, thin gloves and inadequate footwear. This even though they must wait in some lines out-of-doors for meds, chow, etc. And how do the guards dress? You guessed it: heavy parkas, heavy-duty boots, big warm gloves, warm caps.

We've said it time and again: The incarceration is their punishment. Once there, these inmates deserve humane treatment.

Now we need support. We don't need "likes" and strong comments and "shares." We need pressure on state legislators and even the Governor's office. Please don't just cluck your teeth...do something! Not for us. For them!

Please.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Keeping it in perspective

The beauty and charm and magic of the holiday season is frequently just a myth. As a veteran newsman, I recall tragic stories year after year that tug on the heart-strings during this season. Fires, accidents, tragedies, unexpected deaths, serious illness. For many people around us, the holidays aren't magical...they're difficult.

I don't mean to minimize this, but ask that you keep it in perspective.

Those around us who experience serious illness or tragedy this time of the year are still surrounded by friends, family and loved ones who care and who show their compassion in many different ways. Those who are suffering pain due to injury or illness are able to get appropriate medication to relieve their misery. Those who need it can easily obtain the finest medical care. Those who are dying may receive hospice care and have the people closest to them at their side. We simply take all of this for granted, and it's a beautiful thing.

But in this Christmas season, I ask you to consider the plight of those in prison. They encounter some of the same experiences this time of the year: an accident or a vicious attack; serious, perhaps terminal illness; excruciating pain.

But here's the difference.

They often battle to get minimally appropriate medical care; their pain meds are often inadequate and sometimes non-existent; hospice care is not available for the dying, no matter what the MDOC claims; and prisoners endure all of these experiences alone...without the presence and comfort and hugs and compassion of family and friends and loved ones.

And that's why I ask you to remember them, especially this time of the year.

Keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

If you know a prisoners, send him/her a simple, kind note.

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mandela and Carter: heroes, models

The world is grieving the loss of one of its brightest shining stars today. A script-writer could not have improved on the story of Nelson Mandela, incarcerated for a third of his life and then ascending to the presidency of his country.

As I listen to the various commentators the morning after, I am reminded time and again of my personal experience with a man, also of dark skin, who spent half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

I hear statements that tell how Mr. Mandela touched lives around the world.

And I hear questions like: How could a man in prison for 27 years come out without being bitter?

I've been blessed to meet two men who had similar experiences. Both were named Carter. And as in the Mandela case, racism was involved.

Rubin Hurricane Carter, wrongly convicted not just once, but twice, told me that one day he looked in an old, cracked mirror in the prison and saw the reflection of a man he didn't even know. It was the portrait of a bitter and angry individual. He said that he made the decision right then to change, because "if I remained angry," he said, "they would be the winner, and I couldn't allow that to happen." Dr. Carter turned out to be one of the most warm and charming individuals I have ever met. He, too, touched lives around the world.

Maurice Henry Carter was something else. This indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, was arrested and imprisoned here in Michigan for a crime he didn't commit, and he was not a model prisoner for the first period of his incarceration. Would you be?

But he also told me that midway through his time in prison he made the decision to bury hatred, and try to turn his wrongful conviction into something positive. Unbeknownst to me, God used even me to help him change his attitude. When I joined his fight for freedom, nine years before his release, he realized that there could be people who care and that God had not abandoned him.

Maurice was in prison for 29 years...two years longer than Nelson Mandela. He didn't have the name recognition of a world leader, but I'm proud to say that before he died in 2004 he, too, touched lives---many, many of them---all around the world!

The sad thing is that we don't seem to listen to people like Mandela, Carter and Carter...and we don't seem to learn from them.

South Africa may be making progress, but here in this country, leadership by our first African American president has driven a segment of our population into a frenzy. And our government is taking steps backward to once again make it more difficult for people of color to vote. We also imprison an amazingly imbalanced number of young African American men.

I hear, through Mandela and Carter and Carter, these words of Jesus: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

We still have a lot to learn.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Think of prisoners when lighting the HOPE candle

I love the season of Advent...a time of expectation and anticipation. Dennis Bratcher, of the Christian Resources Institute, in explaining the meaning of this season, said: There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, first expressed by Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out from their bitter oppression. It is the cry of those who have experienced the tyranny of injustice...

And that made me think of Advent, 2013, where we still have hundreds of thousands of people behind bars, who right now cry out from their bitter oppression. Many are experiencing the tyranny of injustice. Some have been wrongly convicted, many have been over-charged and/or over-sentenced. Many are experiencing cruel treatment. Many are suffering the torture of solitary confinement. These aren't just empty words of speculation...these are words of truth right from the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

At the beginning of each week of Advent, many Christians light a candle on the Advent Wreath. And today's the day for the first candle: the candle of Hope.

The words of Dennis Bratcher again: It is that hope, however faint at times, and that God, however distant he sometimes seems, which brings to the world the anticipation of a king who will rule with truth and justice...It is that hope that once anticipated, and now anticipates anew, the reign of an Anointed One, a Messiah, who will bring peace and justice and righteousness to the world...

It seems to me that, on this first Sunday of Advent, until his second coming, it's up to those of us who follow this Messiah, to do everything we can to kindle and enhance that hope among the incarcerated. They must get the message that we care. They must be able to hear our cries for truth and justice. They must witness first-hand our expressions of love and peace...in deeds, not just words.

It's wonderful to anticipate the arrival of him who will finally bring peace and justice and righteousness to our society. But until then, the burden is on those of us who bear his title.