Wednesday, May 28, 2014

It's how God works

I prayed for my friend David, but couldn't see how God could really help him.

David's on the sex offender registry. He was wrongly convicted, but that makes little difference. The courts said he was guilty, so that makes him a sex offender, and the sex offender spin-off makes his life hell.

He can't live in many neighborhoods because of the proximity of schools, etc.

Neighbors know about the registry, and they're wary.

Police know about his whereabouts, and they keep a constant eye on him.

Besides all that, he's on disability, so he cannot get a job. He has no money, no family to help, and so he lives on a very small monthly income and an inadequate supply of food stamps. He has learned how to survive with almost nothing, and with almost no help.

And yet, over time, he has proven himself. Many in the community have come to know him, and realize that he's an OK guy, a straight shooter. He's angry about the way the system treated him, but he doesn't take it out on his friends. He studied law while in prison, and knows what has to be done to clear his record, but he has no money for legal assistance.

So many problems, so many needs.

Then, the other day, a little girl came to his door. He couldn't tell what she wanted...he was unable to understand her. She obviously had some physical and mental challenges. This could be a serious problem for a convicted sex offender, so he played his cards right. He kept her on the front porch where she could be seen, immediately called 911 and as one might expect, police responded promptly. The lost child was returned to her parents.

But that was not the end of the story.

Today the father came to David to shake his hand and personally thank him. The man is an attorney, and he's running for judge. He listened to David's story and believed him. He has a lawyer friend who deals with cases of alleged judicial misconduct, and who will take a look at David's case without cost.

Life suddenly has new meaning. The sun is a little brighter, the sky a little bluer, and the grass a bit greener.

You'd think I would know this after all these years: It's the way God works!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Some thoughts on prisons in the U.P.

Pete Martel raised an interesting point in a recent speech. The representative from the American Friends Service Committee was addressing a group of seniors in Holland. He wondered out loud why the Michigan Department of Corrections opted to close one of the Detroit prisons, when it came to down-sizing, instead of one in the Upper Peninsula.

We know that legislators and voters in the UP are opposed to closing any of the prisons up there (we have 8 of them!) because they provide jobs. In fact, the MDOC is a major employer in those communities. So politically it would be unwise to close a northern Michigan prison. But how much sense does it make to keep them up and running, otherwise?

To answer that question you must acknowledge several points here---
80% of prisoners and their families are very poor
The heaviest population in the state is in the southeast sector
Thus, most of the state's prisoners come from that part of the state
This means that many of the prisoners would be African American
Most local prison employees in the U.P. would be white.

Perhaps the most serious problem is not that the staff will be mostly or all white up there, and the prisoners sent from down below will be mostly black...but that is, in itself, a problem.

But here's the real issue for the poor black folks in the Detroit area who have a son or father incarcerated in the UP---
The prison in Newberry is 350 miles away
The prison in Munising is 400 miles away
The prison in Marquette is 450 miles away
The prison in Baraga is 500 miles away
The prison in Marenisco is 600 miles away!

So the poor prisoner who gets shipped up there finds a staff that probably cannot relate to him and his culture, and he winds up with little or no family visitation simply because the facilities are too far away. Poor people can't take that kind of time, don't have transportation that reliable, and can't afford the fuel and lodging costs.

It's way past time that we consider inmates as just a number, just a statistic. They're people, and they need family and friends and understanding just as much as we do.

Jesus said so.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

When prisoners say "Thanks!"

One of the early lessons in life comes from your mother and father: Remember to say “please” and especially “thank you.”

Many prisoners obviously forgot some of the early lessons in life, or they wouldn't be where they are today. But we will be the first to tell you that many have NOT forgotten the early lesson of saying “thank you.”

And that means so much to those of us trying to help them.

Matt and I were overwhelmed with tokens of thanks in the past week.

Three separate financial gifts arrived from prisoners; two from individuals, and one from a PBF or Prisoner Benefit Fund. Each prison facility has a PBF. The moneys come from places like the prison store, the prison vending machines, etc. And a committee made up of two prisoners and two staff members makes recommendations to the warden as to how this money should be spent. Most of it goes toward services, equipment and supplies that will improve the lot of prisoners. But they are also allowed to make contributions to agencies that help them. And that's where the third gift came from this week.

Keep in mind that the weekly paycheck for an inmate job could be $11.00. That will give you an idea as to the magnitude of the actual gift to HFP. A $5.00 gift from a prisoner, for example, is a sacrifice. We know that, and its meaning does not escape us.

In the same week we received a letter from another prisoner whom we have helped, in another facility. The PBF has made major donations to charitable organizations, and he wants us on the list. Send literature and information as soon as possible. Another gift is a strong possibility here.

And then came a short note from a guy we have helped along the way who is about to be released. His words: “One week to go and my appreciation for all you have done to help me get through this is starting to bubble up more each day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

We are often asked if we ever receive positive strokes midst all the negative activity in which labor daily. We are pleased to report that, in addition to the satisfaction that we are doing the work of Jesus, we do, indeed, receive enthusiastic attaboys from behind bars.

It's the kind of thing that keeps us going.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When little is much

Matt and I were reminded of that widow who Jesus watched dropping two pennies into the temple treasury, as I opened the mail yesterday.

For some reason contributions to HFP came to a screeching halt 4 days in a row; the kind of drought that gives us concern. Things seemed exceptionally quiet after a highly successful matching fund promotion last month. I became all that more disheartened when I found no donor envelopes in the post office box...instead, more envelopes from prisoners. Invariably that means more HFP work, and for the moment, no compensation.

I opened envelope #1---a $10 money order from a prisoner in the U.P. whom we had helped.

I opened envelope #2---A $200 donation from the Prisoner Benefit Fund at Kinross Correctional Facility, thanks to the recommendation of a fine group of prisoners belonging to the National Lifers Association.

I opened envelope #3---A $20 gift check from a dear friend in the women's prison at Ypsilanti.

These three unexpected gifts won't put our monthly collections over the top, but they certainly put our pride right up there! There could be no higher praise for HFP than to receive three financial gifts from behind bars, all in one day!

We're hoping that this unusual demonstration of support will be instrumental in firing up our base again. This is proof positive that our assistance is appreciated.







Saturday, May 10, 2014

The real hero remains on his throne

There are times when we appear to be heroes, and that is not the case.

Our most recent effort to improve the lot of a mentally challenged female inmate is a perfect example.

After we had authenticated the daily reports that we were receiving from behind prison walls, we knew something had to be done. And so we began the thing we do best: pushing buttons and pulling strings below the radar. That's one of the reasons HFP's profile is so low. We have dozens of contacts, many of them at high levels, who are willing to help behind the scenes.

First reports indicated that this girl had been hog-tied, wearing no clothing. We tried several maneuvers, but sad reports continued...the woman was forced to sleep on a bare steel slab. No mattress, no blanket. These are violations of the 8th Amendment, according to our lawyer. We worked our contacts from every angle, and we pushed hard. We finally aimed our cannon all the way to the top. Still no response.

In frustration we had to leave the whole matter in God's hands.

Then, just when our feelings of helplessness reached a peak, the matter was resolved. The welcome news came from behind bars. Things suddenly happened. The woman was given clothes. She was moved into a new unit where she can actually sleep on a bed. She'll get the care that a mentally ill person needs and deserves. Prayers answered.

We were reminded, once again, who really pushes the buttons and pulls the strings.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Are we crying "Wolf?"

“You should mix in more good stories with the bad.”

The advice came from a well-meaning supporter of HFP, and he was referring to our daily dispatches on our email network. Each day Matt and I work on brief messages to give an insight into the work of this ministry. And frankly, it isn't pretty.

We made an attempt to lighten our message today, for example, with a thank you note from a prisoner who appreciated all of our work in just trying to help a dying inmate. But the real story was much more grim. The inmates had been complaining that the man wasn't being treated properly, and even though he was critically ill he was not granted a compassionate release by the non-compassionate State of Michigan. He died alone behind bars in the prison hospital. Without hospice care.

And while there may be bright sides to some of our stories (we did help to improve the toilet paper situation for women, we were able to obtain some heat for a chilly prison unit last winter, we prodded the state into granting Christmas day visits on a non-visitation day), the simple fact is that we're working in a dark area of society. Things aren't nice here:

-Some people are being denied necessary medication
-Some cannot get other appropriate medical and dental care
-Elderly prisoners are victims of extortion and attack by gang members
-Some mentally ill prisoners are being illegally hog-tied
-Some are even forced to sleep on a hard floor without a mattress or pad!

The list gets longer every day.

Sorry if it sounds like we're crying “Wolf.” The very last thing we want to do is to desensitize you. Quite the contrary. We know we can't find this battle alone. Not only do we need God's amazing intervention each day, we also need you. We feel we can best do that by telling the truth about what's going on behind bars...no matter how unpleasant the stories.

We hope these reports will result in prayers as well as financial support.

We're all in this together.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Treating prisoners worse than animals

Matt and I got a dose of reality last week.

We had been invited to an in-service training session by a local attorney who likes and supports the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

He had recently won settlements in two cases of cruel and unusual punishment of mentally ill inmates, and he wanted to give us pointers as to when there might be violations of the 8th Amendment. But here was the shocker: He informed us that treating prisoners like animals is not bad enough...the courts won't look at those cases. The only time there is grounds for a civil suit, he said, is when the prison system treats an inmate worse than an animal. Only then is it time to consider action.

He gave an example of a mentally ill prisoner who injured his finger behind bars, and it didn't get treated properly. It got infected, he was taken to the hospital, and the finger was amputated. Not cruel and unusual punishment, said the lawyer. But when the inmate was returned to jail, he was refused his pain medication. And while suffering excruciating pain and banging on his door to get his meds, he was maced by the guard. That was the tipping point. Refusing pain medication and shooting gas into the face of the inmate for trying to get attention was a violation of the 8th amendment. The lawyer sued on behalf of the inmate and his family, and won.

This means that many of the complaints we receive do not meet the criteria of cruel and unusual punishment. True, there are many areas where one might complain of medical malpractice, and there are often cases where corrections officers behave in an unprofessional manner, but the courts ain't gonna take a look at that. It's gotta be worse!

Right now we're looking at a claim that a mentally ill inmate was not only hog-tied as punishment, but was forced to sleep on a steel slate for a week with no mattress. If those claims are true, we're going for the jugular. Not acceptable. That is treating a prisoner worse than an animal.

HFP is watching, and poised.