Wednesday, April 30, 2014

We are not ashamed!

The apostle Paul, known for his fiery personality, stated boldly in his letter to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel...”

In another letter he describes all the abuse and torture that came about as a result of this bold stand. But he stood by it.

In today's culture, we're seeing a segment of society that I can only label as cowardly. They love to shoot off their mouths, but they'll only do it only under a cloak of anonymity. This is especially true on media web sites, where newspapers and television stations not only report the news of the day, but also invite comments from readers. The only thing is, the readers do not have to identify themselves.

I find this offensive on two counts. I don't think the media should allow it unless there are names and addresses. They insist on that if you send a letter to the editor. Why not apply the same rules if you wish to comment on line?

And, it's only a coward who fires away at targets while refusing to disclose identity.

I'm bringing this up because members of the HFP Board of Directors were dismayed at comments on the Grand Haven Tribune website in response to a story about our prisoner art sale. Grumbled one reader: “Doug Tjapkes has more pro-felon initiatives than Carter has liver pills.” And when Matthew wrote a response to the varied negative comments, another reader allowed that he sounded like “one of those prison groupies.”

When I was in the media business I had a simple policy regarding unsigned letters and anonymous telephone calls: If there was no signature I refused to read the letter, and if the caller refused to give a name I disconnected. Dialog is fair only when both sides are out in the open.

The cowards are welcome to keep right on firing their darts anonymously.

As for Matt and me and the HFP board: We are not ashamed!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Unlimited power in Lansing---no one watching!

There's a little band of people in Lansing with far too much power.

I realize that I'm starting to sound like a broken record (for those who remember a crack in vinyl discs that prompted a repeat until one lifted the needle), but why is no one paying attention to the Michigan Parole Board?

Thanks to former Governor Engler, these people are no longer civil service employees. They are appointed by the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, who is appointed by the Governor. It's incestuous!

This board is not affected by the Open Meetings Act, so no one may know what happens in closed meetings. The Parole Board interviews with Michigan prisoners are not recorded, so a decision by the board regarding parole for a prisoner is based on the hearsay of just one board member. Inmates are not allowed to appeal Parole Board decisions. In fact, if the PB says it has “no interest” in considering parole at the regular review time, an inmate may not even ask why. If an inmate and his/her family wish to appeal a Parole Board decision, that simply is not allowed! Where is the transparency here?

This panel of 10 is expected to make 20,000 decisions affecting the lives of prisoners each year. And our contention is that this cannot possibly be done with care, concern and efficiency.

And the action or inaction of the Parole Board costs money. Tons of it! The Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending points out that each Parole Board decision to incarcerate a lifer for another 5 years costs taxpayers roughly $200,000.00. In fact, if the board would parole just half of the eligible, aging, low-risk lifers sitting behind bars right now, it would save the state nearly $17 million a year!

There are 44 inmates in a Michigan prison unit in Coldwater who are over 80 years of age, many of whom cannot even dress themselves, and whose highlight of the week is Bingo. Yet the PB even refuses to release them because they might be a threat to society.

For service to the state, each member of the Parole Board is paid $90,000 a year. Except the chairman. He's paid more.

I'm trying to shout from the house tops that these un-elected officials have unlimited power over peoples' lives and the public purse!

Does anyone care?

Is anyone listening?





Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Visiting prisoners---some Holy Week thoughts

I was speaking with David Schuringa, President of the fine prison ministry CROSSROAD BIBLE INSTITUTE. We were discussing prison visits. He told about the first time he went behind bars, and he expressed his surprise at the great times he has had since then visiting prisoners. And then he made this statement, one that I keep uppermost in my mind: “I think these are the kind of people that Jesus would like to hang out with.”

Do you ever wonder in whose company you are the happiest?

One of the first answers that comes to mind is the company of believers...church people. But those of us who have labored in church over the years, especially in the music department, know that it's not always pleasant there. Mark Twain once said, with tongue in cheek, “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”

Another answer that might quickly surface is that of family...it's fun to be with family. But that's not always ideal, either. Mark Lowry, musician and comedian with the Bill Gaither team, once chided an audience with the words: “You know that there is someone in your family who's a problem...you'll cry at his funeral, but you don't want him over for Thanksgiving dinner! And if you can't think of anyone, chances are it's you!”

As the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I speak in various circles...church groups as well as civic groups. I enjoy all of it, and so appreciate the opportunity to tell our story. Some of these groups are professional people,in what might be called the top rungs of society.

But as I'm thinking of Jesus in this Holy Week, my mind goes back to my visit last week with a group of 30 beautiful inmates who are members of SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS.

I believe Jesus would like hanging out with these guys.

Jesus said in Matthew 25 that he was in prison, and we visited him. He didn't say that he visited prison...he said he was a prisoner. I interpret that to mean that when we enter the clanging gates behind bars, we are actually seeing the faces of God.

When it comes down to all the groups I meet with, I must confess that prisoners rank at the top. It's a divine experience.











Friday, April 11, 2014

Drama behind bars?

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts...

I've heard those lines by Shakespeare many times, but never like this.

I was sitting in a large circle in the gymnasium of Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, and the actor so powerfully delivering these lines was a convicted criminal. One after another of these thespians stood up and recited their lines flawlessly...obviously the result of hours and hours of memorization.

I was a special guest at SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS, a national program that is the brainchild of our special friend Curt Tofteland.

Why Shakespeare, in this environment? Well, here's how Curt explains it:

"Shakespeare Behind Bars was founded on the beliefs that all human beings are inherently good, and that although convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings, this inherent goodness still lives deep within them and must be called forth.  Participation in the program can effectively change our world for the better by influencing one person at a time, awakening him or her to the power and the passion of the goodness that lives within all of us.

"Shakespeare Behind Bars offers participants the ability to hope and the courage to act despite their fear and the odds against them.  By immersing participants in the nine-month process of producing a Shakespeare play, Shakespeare Behind Bars uses the healing power of the arts, transforming inmate offenders from who they were when they committed their crimes, to who they are in the present moment, to who they wish to become."

But this is only part of the story. SBB in Brooks is producing the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER, to be presented later this year. I actually watched two wonderful inmate/actors portraying Maurice Carter and me! How neat is that? A thrill beyond imagination!

I am indebted to all of these actors, to Curt, and to my special friend James O'Neal for making this happen.

An experience like no other.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A sad, short story...may it make you sick!

I never cease to be amazed as to how human beings treat human beings.

It was a simple telephone call to the HFP office. Could we help a guy just released from the federal prison system? The situation was desperate.

The short answer was no. There are agencies that handle things like this. We don't. HFP works as an advocacy agency for persons IN prison, and only in the state prison system.

But then the lady from this re-entry agency went on to tell her story.

The man was injured while he was in the federal prison system. She informed me in a calm and matter-of-fact manner that the injuries left the man a paraplegic. No surprise. No emotion. Just the facts, ma'am. He entered as a healthy man...he departed as a cripple.

John Doe became eligible for release...and was then released to what was called a half-way house in the Detroit area. He went there because he had no family, no friends, nobody to care for him. A paraplegic. Alone. The kind of person Jesus talked about.

But, things didn't go well at this place. You see, there are rules you must abide by. Rules are important...for prisoners, and for the released. And one of these rules involved cell phones.

The man was simply trying to get some treatment for his health issues, being a paraplegic and all...but he used the cell phone when he wasn't supposed to. Only certain hours for cell phones. Sorry. So he was evicted!

Never mind that he can't get around, that he has no one, that there is no other program to take him in. He's out!

God bless America!

Somebody's gonna be held accountable for this kinda crap someday!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

GM & MDOC---Side-stepping the truth

Question: What do GM and the MDOC have in common?

Answer: When it comes to the truth, both sidestep the issues.

If you've been watching the hearings on television, General Motors is having a difficult time. The company obviously knew about defects that could cause problems, but failed to act in a timely manner. The CEO just kept side-stepping the real issues.

But, the truth wins out. GM failed to make necessary corrections, and lives were lost. No getting around it.

If you were at the HFP forum to discuss hospice care in Michigan prisons Monday evening, you heard heart-breaking stories from wives of two prisoners who died behind bars last year. Representatives of the Michigan Department of Corrections and its health-care provider CORIZON could only side-step the issues.

But the truth won out. The MDOC failed miserably in these two instances. The facts as described by these two women were shameful, and no one could shake their stories.

The interesting thing is that top officials would have you believe that these were the exceptions. Yes, perhaps some mistakes were made, but that's not really the norm.

You'll have to go a long way to convince us. Until someone can prove otherwise, we say it's the tip of the iceberg.

And that's why we'll keep clamoring for an improvement in care for dying Michigan inmates.

No more side-stepping.