Friday, July 24, 2015

July 24: A very special day!

The note in my pocket calendar on this date consists simply of two names---Matt and Maurice.  Both family members.

Matt is our youngest son, sometimes referred to as a tag-along because he came along so much later that his three older siblings.  He was born in 1978 when his parents already had passed the age of 40.  Today is his birthday.

Maurice’s full name was Maurice Henry Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, who also became family to us.  He was a wrongly convicted Michigan prisoner whom I met back in the 1990s.  Today is the day he walked out of prison, in the year 2004, after serving 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

As Maurice’s closest friend, I was there to walk out that prison door in Jackson with him.  As a cub reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune, Matthew was there in Jackson to cover the story.  In fact, it is his photograph that appears on the cover of my book which tells the Tjapkes/Carter story, SWEET FREEDOM.  Maurice is clasping his freedom papers in his upraised hands.

It’s fitting that Matt and I take a moment to reflect on this day, not just because we celebrate his birthday and the three months of freedom that Maurice enjoyed before we lost him, but also to marvel how God took the life of that dear man to shape the future for father and son.

It’s easy for me to see, in retrospect, that my careers as a radio broadcaster/journalist and then as a church organ salesman, were merely preparation for my final and most important occupation as an advocate for prisoners.  And it’s fascinating to see how, thanks to Maurice Carter, Matt’s career path made some zigs and some zags and he landed right here in the same business:  helping prisoners!

Together Matt and I handle communications with and requests from prisoners on a daily basis, 7 days a week, in addition to raising funds to support our meager budget, maintaining daily entries on social media, writing and publishing a monthly newsletter, coordinating efforts of some 50 professional people who serve us regularly in an advisory panel, and just plain working hard at touching the lives of Michigan prisoners one at a time in the name of Jesus.

On July 24, 2015, I am so thankful

-that Matthew became a member of our family
-that Maurice entered the lives of our entire family
-that the legacy of Maurice Henry Carter lives on through the vibrant ministry of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, with father and son at the helm!

Some son, that Matthew!

Some guy, that Maurice!

Some God, that master planner!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

That can't happen to me!

A person who has the means chose not to support our work this week.  That’s not so unusual…after all, our work really isn’t very popular.  But his reason sticks in my craw, and deserves a response.  Here’s what he told a member of our board:  I can write a book on the issues I have with prisons, legal system, overcrowding and any other issue someone in jail has BUT the biggest is just don't go to jail.

Here’s the problem I have with that.  The guy is really saying, “That couldn’t happen to me.  If people just lived the way I live, they wouldn’t wind up behind bars.”  And that is so sadly untrue.

While it is true that many of the inmates with whom we work are poor and didn’t have the means to hire good legal counsel, the wealthy are not exempt.  It may be true that it’s difficult for a rich man to get into heaven, based on Jesus’ words, but it’s certainly not hard for him to get into jail!

Let me just cite a few examples of people who, I am sure, probably thought the same thing:  That can’t happen to me.

I know of not one, but two TEACHERS, both exemplary Christian men, who were brought down by naughty little girls who concocted stories that juries believed.

I know of two BUSINESSMEN, both followers of the gospel, who were brought down by little girls and their scheming mothers.

I know of a PHYSICIAN who was physically unable to commit the crime for which he was charged brought down by a malicious patient and an equally malicious prosecutor.

I know of a BANKER whose wife was killed when she fell down the basement stairs, but who wound up behind bars because some cop was convinced that the man gave her a shove.

I know of an ATTORNEY who specialized in dealing with exotic coins who was falsely accused in a criminal scheme and spent much of her life behind bars.

All of these people didn’t have a worry financially.  All were able to hire good lawyers.  But police officers with tunnel-vision and voter-seeking prosecutors in an imperfect system put these innocent people in prison.

Here’s the thing.  You don’t have to support HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS if you don’t like what we do, or if you don’t believe that prisoners deserve to be treated like humans.  That’s between you, your conscience and your God.

But you hadn’t better say, “It can’t happen to me.”

The better choice might be, “There but for the grace of God…”     

Monday, July 13, 2015

An empty chair at the memorial service

Michelle’s teen-aged son will be buried today.  The boy’s father and grandparents will be there.  His mother will be absent.

I cannot begin to describe my emotions:  heartbreak, anger, disgust.  And I don’t even know Michelle! 

Here’s the story in a nutshell.

Our office received a message last week from the mother of a prisoner at the Women’s Huron Valley facility in Ypsilanti.  Her friend Michelle, age 44, learned that her 18-year-old son Josh had died unexpectedly at home due to an asthma attack.  A death in the family is a serious problem for prisoners…something, we believe, that must be improved in the future.

We followed the situation day by day, here’s the way it developed.

On the 7th, the day after the young man died, she was informed that she could be transported to the funeral home in the thumb area, accompanied by two officers, but she and her family would have to pay the tab:  $1,000 each way. 

On the 10th, we received a message that Michelle had found two off-duty officers willing to make the trip with her.

Then, later that same day, came this message:  The officers who were going to help Michelle have been mandated by the prison to work their regular shifts at the prison on Monday.  She wo't be able to go.  Her friends in the prison are showering her with love and sympathy.

I have difficulty accepting defeat, so I got up early this morning, summarized all of these messages, and fired off an email to one of our friends in the front office of the MDOC to ask if there was any way this grieving mother could still say farewell to her son at the 3 PM memorial service today.  And here is the response, verbatim:

I worked on this case most of Friday and unfortunately, we won’t be able to transport her today.  These funeral visits are based on the approval of the warden (which was received) and the availability of two trained staff members on voluntary overtime.  While one volunteer was located, the other volunteers could not be cleared for this assignment because they are on mandated overtime at the facility today.  As I’m sure you’ve heard, the facility is utilizing a significant amount of overtime right now because of our ongoing CO vacancies and as a result, it is difficult to find staff that are both eligible and willing to take voluntary overtime. While we ultimately had 3 staff people volunteer for the assignment, 2 could not be assigned because they were called in for mandated overtime today.  We simply don’t have the staff available to complete the funeral visit today, despite the best efforts of the family and the facility.

The name of our organization is HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  Giving our agency the name is one thing, but actually achieving humanity for prisoners is still another.  It’s easy to issue statements and cite policy.  It’s still another to hold the hand of a grieving mom.

I’m frustrated.  I'm angry.  I’m a parent and a grandparent. I’m hurting for Michelle.  I don’t know the answers, but I’m ashamed that my state couldn’t do better than this.  I find this completely unacceptable.

Thank God for the dear friends of Michelle behind bars who remain at her side.  May our Heavenly Father grant her peace in this difficult time, and enfold her in his everlasting arms.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

A happy holiday?

I love the Fourth of July, and I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade.

It’s important that we celebrate the birthday of this wonderful nation; fireworks, parades, and picnics…they’re all appropriate.

But it is important, as we pay tribute to the land of the brave and the home of the free, that not everyone in this land is free.  I’m going to give just a sample of some people who aren’t quite as enthusiastic on this Independence Day:

-Approximately 10% of all prisoners who have been wrongly convicted, due to flaws in our judicial system
-Many prisoners serving excessive sentences for non-violent crimes, due to such flawed programs as THREE STRIKES AND YOU’RE OUT
-Many women, victims of spouse abuse, who are serving excessive sentences for simply fighting for their lives
-Parolable lifers who are not getting another chance due to reluctant action by a Parole Board
-Former prisoners who, in some states, are not allowed to vote
-Many former prisoners who find that their record prevents them from getting jobs
-Many former prisoners who find life difficult because they are unable to get their names removed from poorly managed sex offender lists.

This doesn’t cover them all, but you get my point.

We would be remiss if we didn’t celebrate this wonderful day.

We would also be remiss if we showed no concern and no compassion for those who find it difficult to celebrate on the 4th.

May God help us, and be near them.