Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A prisoner prayer - for the New Year

Lord of the universe, as we end one year and begin another, we ask that you hear our pleas on behalf of those behind bars.

Prisoners will lose loved ones in the year to come.  Even though they will not be privileged to experience the physical closeness of friends and family in their time of grief, we pray that they may not only feel your presence, but also your comfort and your peace.

We know of your compassion for those whose minds were troubled.  We know how, in Bible times, evil spirits were ordered to depart from the bodies of the mentally challenged.  As we look to the new year, we ask you to do the same for those troubled souls behind bars who are not able to think clearly and respond correctly.  In addition, halt those inmates and staff members who would harm them or do further damage.  Instead, cloak their caregivers in a garment of compassion and concern.

Lord Jesus, may the women behind bars feel the same warmth and love that you showed to your dear mother, and friends Mary and Martha.  In 2016, we pray that the women in our prison may be granted their personal, private space in a facility where conditions now are seriously overcrowded.  May fellow inmates be tolerant of each other in these difficult times.  May staff members reach a new level of sensitivity and kindness.  May administrators climb to new heights to improve conditions for women in prison.  In the new year, may these women receive more than enough personal hygiene products, more than enough hot water, and may their lives be brightened by friendly caregivers and sparkling clean showers.

May elderly prisoners escape from the fear of personal attacks in prison next year.  Place a shield of protection around the sex offenders, the geriatric lifers, and the mentally challenged misfits.  Protect them from persecution and attack by predators and gang-bangers, but also from abusive guards and staff members.

You know that the vast majority, perhaps up to 90%, of inmates will not receive a visit this year.  May more kind people than ever before take a moment to visit a prisoner, and where there are no human visits, may your presence be felt in those lonely cells.

Your presence is needed in those cells, Lord.  As we begin the new year there are those whose families have either passed on or moved on, and are now alone.  There are those who can no longer be convinced that the courts are just, and can find no hope.  There are those who have done their best, who deserve to be released, who have served their time, and still cannot even generate any interest.  And then there are those who remain angry and troubled, who lash out at fellow inmates and staff, cause problems because they can, and have no qualms about hurting others.  Calm their minds and their souls.  Divert their plans to traffic in alcohol, drugs and sex.  Help them to see that there’s a better way than that of the gangs, and that there is no superior race. 

It’s not easy to be sick or injured in prison, and we ask that you remember those with medical and physical concerns today.  Where there is pain, grant relief when medication may be scarce or non-existent.  Where there is suffering, bless not only the inmate but also the caregivers.  In this new year, give all medical personnel in our prisons a generous measure of understanding and compassion.

There are many behind bars who love you, Lord.  They spend time thinking of you, speaking with you, and praising your name in worship.  Protect them from persecution and ridicule.  Wrap them in your everlasting arms.  Help them, also, to avoid ridiculing and condemning those whose beliefs are different.

And for those of us on the outside, give us the insight to see that placing young people in adult prisons, excessive sentences, death penalties, mass incarceration, and the use of solitary confinement do nothing to reduce crime, but instead make existing problems even worse.  We ask your specific new-year blessing not only on the prisoners, but also their families and loved ones, those entrusted to care for them, and those people and agencies advocating for them.

We close this prayer claiming your promises and believing that your miracles continue to occur, and can even take place in this dark and bleak environment.  In fact, we pray for them in the year to come.

Hear our prayer, O Lord!

Amen

Friday, December 25, 2015

In Santa's bag: Friends!

It’s always a pleasurable experience to develop a new friendship.  In our work, Matt and I quite often meet someone new who appreciates the work that we are doing, offers to help in some way, and becomes a new friend, not only to HFP, but to us, personally.

Sitting at my desk in the quiet of Christmas morning, carols playing softly in the background, I’m thankful for all my friends.  But my heart is filled with gratitude on Christmas, 2015, for my friends behind bars---especially those whom I hadn’t yet met just one year ago.  As we reviewed our contact records for the year, we discovered that we added at least one new person to our list of friends every day, 7 days a week.  By December 31, I will have added the names of more than 365 persons behind bars to my list of friends.  And these aren’t merely acquaintances…these are friends!

For example, Matt and I received an unprecedented number of Christmas cards in the mail from prisoners this year, and many, many more ecards and greetings via email.  And the comments in the cards went something like this:

Wanting to send a very warm and sincere Christmas wish to you and all those who seek truth and honesty for those of us incarcerated.

Thanks for everything!  You all are a blessing more than you know.

Just wanted to say I appreciate all that you do for us.  Thank you, my brothers!

I am very, very thankful for all that you do for Michigan prisoners.

It’s also fair to say that not everyone behind bars considers us a friend.  Frustration and anger can get in the way of friendship when we’re not able to get the desired results on behalf of a needy inmate.  Sometimes the best thing we can do, in this business, is simply hold the prisoner’s hand.  We can’t right an injustice, we can’t change the mind and practices of an obstinate healthcare staffer, we can’t convince a stubborn Parole Board that many of these people would be productive citizens outside of prison.  Sometimes the only thing we can do for the unhappy and unsatisfied prisoner is offer a prayer.  God may seem to hold the only key to solve their problems.

Am I thankful that there are prisoners?  No!  Am I thankful that these people are in prison?  Certainly not!  Am I thankful for the friendship of so many inmates?  You bet!

Their friendship is an unparalleled, unmatchable gift!

Join me in a prayer, on this Christmas day, remembering all who are incarcerated.  This is a lonely day for them.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Christmas Spirit, as told by Channel 8

The producers of Channel 8 News had no idea they were giving me a lesson on the Spirit of Christmas.  But that’s exactly what happened late yesterday.

It had been a hectic and heartbreaking day at the HFP desk:  stories of wrongful conviction, shabby and callous treatment by the Parole Board, an inmate struggling with mental illness, another dealing with an embarrassing physical ailment that prevents him from even wanting to leave his cell.  As you know, this week we have been publicizing the plight of women in Michigan’s prison facility, where overcrowded conditions are making life miserable. 

Back to the 6 o’clock news.

Much of the news was dominated by presidential candidate Donald Trump, doing the thing he seems to do best:  bad-mouthing Mexicans, immigrants, women…anybody who doesn’t look like him or think like him.  And that started my thought processes in this Christmas week.  There are many people who, I’m sure, claim that they follow this Christ Child, and yet who think it’s all right to speak that way about other people.  I’m particularly sensitive to this issue, because many people speak of prisoners the same way.  After reading my blog on the subject of women’s prison overcrowding, for example, one fine citizen, cloaked in anonymity, found it important to issue this public comment:  Are you kidding me?  They are prisoners, not tenants.  If they don’t like the circumstances then tell them not to make the reservations.  They are prisoners, plain and simple.  Who cares…?

The Trump story was enough to make me mutter, “Bah.  Humbug!”

Then later in the newscast, another story…a story of compassion and forgiveness, unlike many you will ever hear in any news report.  Last August, a guy was driving down the highway blithely eating a sandwich and looking at his GPS screen when he looked up to see that traffic had come to a stop.  He hit the brakes too late, and in the ensuing crash, 13 year old David Talsma was killed.  Now, in the week of Christmas, 40 year old Travis Fox is a convicted criminal.  His life will never be the same.  But in the courtroom, he found forgiveness!  David’s parents forgave the man.  It was something they had to do.  As followers of the Baby Jesus they had no choice.  The father of the victim put his arms around the accused driver, and both grown men wept.

That, I thought, gives me a better picture of the Christmas spirit.

The ministry of the baby Jesus didn’t actually begin until 30 years after his birth…and then it lasted only 3 years.  But during that brief period, Jesus got called many of the same kind of names that people are using today to talk about Mexicans, immigrants, blacks, women, Muslims and yes, prisoners.  And the religious leaders of the day, not the criminals, put him to death!

In one of Jesus’ sermons, Dr. Luke tells us in Chapter 4:  …the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

A former broadcast newsman, I often shout at and criticize television newscasts these days.  Yesterday was different.

As we observe his birthday, I’m hoping we’ll take a moment to stop the name-calling and reflect on the life of that itinerant preacher who forever changed the world.   



Friday, December 18, 2015

I'm just plain disappointed!

You’d think a veteran worker in this field, with a journalism background, would have learned by now.  Yet, I stubbornly remain an optimist.  And that’s why I was so disappointed this week.

Matt and I have been dealing with problems related to overcrowded conditions at the one and only Michigan prison for women, Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), in Ypsilanti, for weeks.  Nay, months.  I even drove to Lansing for a personal meeting with the new Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Finally, a ray of shining light this week!  Paul Egan, fine writer for the Detroit Free Press, agreed that the overcrowded conditions and a resulting 21-hour-a-day restriction to prison cells were worthy of a story.  Perhaps, just perhaps, now the MDOC will respond, administrators at the facility might consider adjustment, attorneys might consider class action, Michigan voters might consider contacting their elected officials and demand change.

Alas, none of the above.

Word from the front office:  Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington denies there is an overcrowding problem.

Word from the prison:  I spoke with the Warden yesterday, and he told me that we were going to “pay” for the story in the Free Press.

Word from a prominent civil rights attorney:  It is extremely hard to litigate overcrowding cases because just because you have double the number of inmates that the facility was built for does not get you even close to winning a case.  You need high level of violence; poor food; poor medical care; poor environmental conditions; etc.  It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate such cases. You likely will have better luck seeking to make changes in the manner you are.

Response from Michigan voters to our email notice of the Free Press Story, and a subsequent blog on the HFP internet blog site:  Underwhelming!

Why, why, did I expect more?  I really know better.  This isn’t my first rodeo.  It goes way back to the days when I first started trying to help Maurice Carter in 1995.  I tried to explain to my friends in positions of influence that I was trying to help an indigent black man who claimed wrongful conviction. I needed their help. A moment of silence, then a shake of the hand.  “Good for you, Doug.  We need people like you!”  And no further assistance.

Let’s face it, this is the Christmas season…time for happiness, fun and joy.  It’s no time to be thinking about the terribly unpleasant plight of 2,200 women behind bars.

Except for here in the HFP office.  The plight of these women remains at the forefront of our thinking.  It remains a priority!  I’ll go one step farther.  I’ll remain the optimist.  I not only believe that God is still on his throne, I believe we are on the right track and Jesus is on our side.  I believe the state is treating these women poorly.  I believe that someday, someone in authority is going to see the light.  I believe that good will prevail.  Someday.

It’s certainly not happening at the moment.

Merry Christmas!



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Scrooge pays a visit to women in prison!

Women in the Michigan prison system received a piece of coal in their Christmas stocking this year.  A new policy, enacted just before the Christmas holiday limits their time in the Day Room to three hours per day.  What this means, in effect, is that inmates are then confined to their cells or perhaps the yard for the rest of the day.

The Michigan Department of Corrections claimed, in an interview with Paul Egan of the Detroit Free Press, that the action was taken because of intense competition for Day Room space, even coming down to near-criminal activity.  I’m not saying that kind of stuff doesn’t or didn’t happen…after all, this is prison.  But here we see two typical MDOC responses:  1), place the blame somewhere other than on the real problem, which is very obviously overcrowding; and 2), over-react by penalizing everyone. 

I hope you read Mr. Egan’s article in the FREEP this morning, and we hope you’ll respond by forwarding the piece to the Governor and to your state legislators.

But let me add a few things to the article that were not included...notes that we picked up in our office from the many, many complaints we have received.

The grooming area is in the Day Room.  Why is it important to mention this?  Because for many, if the three-hour assignment comes at the wrong time of the day, the inmates will not be able to get adequately groomed in preparation for visits.  For men this may not be all that important, but for women it is, for very obvious reasons.

Overcrowding affects the Day Room, too!  One woman writes to us:  “200 plus women are being forced to share a day room area with no TV and only 42 chairs.”

Going outdoors isn’t all that simple, either.  Words of another prisoner:  “Warden says we can go outside, but days on end yard closes and opens late, or not at all, due to bad weather, chow lines running over, etc, which causes us to be in our cells 21 hours daily---with 1 desk, 1 chair, having to sit, write, type, do hobby-craft, eat and sleep on my bunk.”

And there’s one more factor that everyone seems to be avoiding:  Inmates are being told that this is in retaliation for their whistle-blowing about overcrowded conditions!  “ Officers tell us we asked for this by complaining. All we've been doing is asking for humane living conditions!!!

And

Ya’ll are the ones who want to write to newspapers and news stations telling them s**t!

Yet, the MDOC refuses to admit this is an overcrowding problem.  In a November 22 article in the Freep:    Still, when newly appointed Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington was questioned about Huron Valley when she appeared recently before a House committee, she said: "I wouldn't characterize it as being overcrowded."

And,

…state Corrections Department officials deny they have a serious overcrowding problem on their hands.

There are approximately 2,300 women in the Michigan prison system, most of them with family and friends in Michigan.  And most of these family members and loved ones are registered voters.  If the MDOC won’t listen and respond, it’s time to go to elected officials, right on up to the Governor. 

Let your voices be heard.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Dirk was right!

Many people aren’t all that interested in making life a little better for prisoners.  It goes back to the old saying, “If they hadn’t done the crime they wouldn’t be doing the time.”  

Video producer Dirk Wierenga quickly made that discovery, as he started doing interviews for a new HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS documentary.  A theme on improving the lot of prisoners was not going to work.  If his video production was going to help us raise money, it would have to change direction.  As he adjusted the focus of the documentary, Wierenga took the approach that 90% of these prisoners are going to return to society someday.  They’re going to move into our neighborhoods, work in our businesses, and attend our churches.  If they come out with a positive attitude, having been treated with compassion while behind bars, 1) there’ll be less chance of re-offending;  2) there’ll be a strong chance that they’ll be good neighbors;  and 3), chances are they’ll want to give back to society.

I’m convinced Dirk is right on both issues.  I’ll give some examples in just a second here as to how prisoners, even before they get out, want to give back.  And I’m hoping that, when  people see and hear our story through the video, they’ll get it…they’ll see that it’s just plain common sense to treat prisoners fairly and with compassion.

Here are examples of how inmates are going far out of their way just to give back to society, even before they return to the streets.

We have boxes of warm kids hats, mittens and scarves, made by the women at Huron Valley to be sold in a charity store as a fund-raiser for HFP.

We have beautiful prayer shawls, knitted by the women, for our Prayer Shawl Ministry, where we send a shawl to the hurting loved one of a prisoner.

The men at one Michigan prison are knitting and crocheting items at an incredible rate for a homeless veterans’ shelter in Northern Michigan.

One of our friends makes hundreds of teddy bears in an atmosphere almost like a small factory, to be supplied to the Graham Crusade and other worthy causes.

The men at Brooks CF in Muskegon knit warm head-wear for needy kids in a program called Kaps for Kids.

A group of inmates has asked HFP to help in getting patterns for sleeping bags and mats from an Ohio prison, because they want to make these items for homeless people in Michigan.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  There are programs like these throughout the Michigan prison system.  Granted, there are gang-bangers.  Granted, some inmates are preying on the elderly and those convicted of sex crimes.  Granted, some are still pushing guards down the stairs, or selling booze and drugs, or running their con games.  But many want to change, and give back.

That’s why we say it’s important to treat them with kindness now.  We want to develop an attitude that will carry through into the free world.

That’s what the new video---to a better life---is trying to convey.

Dirk was right.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Christmas gift from behind bars

The question came up again just the other day:  With all the negative stuff that you guys deal with on a daily basis, how do you maintain a positive attitude?

Let me answer that right this second, because I’ve just opened the mail that arrived in our Post Office box today.

Seems our friend Roger, an occupant of the Muskegon Correctional Facility, shared the news with his bunkie that he was about to put together a little home-made Christmas card to Matt, me, and Father Jared Cramer (our unofficial chaplain who also serves on our Board of Directors).  His friend said that he wanted to sign the card, too.  And the word spread.  Other guys wanted to sign the card.  And they wanted to add messages.  Page after page of the tiny sheets got glued together.  I ripped open the envelope today, to find these electric-printer-generated words on the face of a pasted-together card:  Doug, Matt, Jared, and HFP Staff.

Here’s a sample of some of the messages attached to the holiday greetings:

Thank you for all you do for us!

Our prayers are with you today and always!

Thank you for all of your purpose-and-activated vision!

Thank you for all your hard work in helping us not be thrown away and forgotten.

There are not enough words that can express our appreciation for you.  You look beyond where we are to help us and uplift us…you make the world a better place.

Thank you for being a pillar of grace to the incarcerated.

Thank you for all you have done, from all the people you’ve done it for!

Every message was hand-written and signed.  I added them up:  28 signatures!  28 guys behind bars who took a moment to say “Thank you” to the HFP team. 

We won’t receive a more meaningful Christmas gift this year!