“I need some specifics as to just what you do.”
The words of an employee of the Michigan Department of Corrections. He attended a public performance in East Lansing last night. A nice cast made of up Michigan State University students, members of the nearby Unitarian Church and some other local residents were on stage and had presented some excerpts from the powerful play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. I went on the stage following the performance to answer questions.
The story of my ten year fight at the side of the late Maurice Carter, hoping to seek his release from prison, usually generates questions on police work and the judicial system. People are justifiably alarmed when they hear that a man served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. And that leads to the assumption that if it happened to one, it probably happened to many more.
But back to the question.
I had been asked by Professor Lisa Biggs, who produced the performance, to briefly explain the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, which emerged from that experience. I love to tell our story, because I’m so proud of the things that Matt and I try to accomplish each day, I’m so proud of our active and aware board members, and I’m so proud of the 50 professionals who daily serve as advisers in our action with compassion. But it’s very difficult to be specific. For example, how do I explain exactly what we do in cases like these:
-a prisoner with no teeth has been told he must wait two years for dentures
-there aren’t enough disinfectants and cleaning supplies for showers in the women’s facility and they’re really getting nasty
-a woman with a leaky colostomy bag was refused a replacement and told to just use some Scotch tape
-a guy in one facility has been threatened by gang members, and is so afraid he doesn’t dare leave his cell
-an inmate with a broken tooth cannot get it pulled…in fact, can’t even get something for pain
-a male prison guard decides he must remain in the hospital delivery room as a female prisoner changes clothes and receives pre-birth procedures
-the family of a prisoner with a growing brain tumor seeks his early release just to get appropriate surgery
-due to overcrowding, some women are not able to get their necessary meds in a timely manner?
I know that I didn’t answer the question to his satisfaction. I’m not a quick thinker on my feet, and didn’t list all of these types of issues. Not only that. I sensed a defensive feeling on behalf of this MDOC rep, who very obviously felt that he and his people were trying to do the right thing, but also a bit of annoyance with us...with me.
I can only point out that we’re not the adversary here. His side and our side want the same thing, don’t we? Appropriate and humane care for our inmates must be our goal.
We’re not pointing fingers, but we're not the ones to blame, either.
After hearing these and the hundreds of stories that flood our office, one could respond by saying, “If the shoe fits…”.