Friday, July 29, 2016

On air and water needs: pets vs. prisoners

Something strange was happening at the prison.

I was at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia yesterday with attorney John Smietanka, hoping to try to help a poor black man who got seriously crapped on by the judicial system.  Unfortunately, we arrived at the prison just in time for the shift change.  Corrections officers were arriving in droves.  I’m a newsman.  I notice little things.  That’s how I helped to inform my community for many, many years.  I mentioned to attorney Smietanka that the officers must be planning an outdoor exercise on this hot summer day.  Each guard was carrying a jug of water.  In fact, the majority of them were carrying gallon jugs. 

We thought no more of it until we had a break in the middle of our legal conference.  “What’s the story with the water,” I asked the prisoner.  “Every CO is bringing in bottles and jugs of water.”  His face turned angry.  “The water here isn’t drinkable,” he said. “You should see it.  It’s brown when it comes out of the tap, and it stinks!  The officers refuse to drink it.  They bring in their own.  We’re the ones stuck with the bad water.”

During the current heat wave, we’re seeing messages on television and on the internet, warning people to take care of their pets, making sure that they get fresh air and adequate water.  It may surprise you to know that prisoners are also struggling in the heat.  We’re reading of serious heat problems in some other states, where it has become a serious health hazard for inmates.  But it’s no picnic here in Michigan, either.  One inmate contacted me yesterday to complain that the officers wouldn’t let them keep the flap open on their food slot, so that more air could circulate.  Don’t wanna make things too comfortable for those bad guys!  And, for some strange reason, water is also bad in some of our facilities.  It may not be tainted with lead, but you wouldn’t want to drink it!

So, if you get a sec today, while in your air-conditioned study or office, say a prayer for prisoners who are struggling with excessive heat and bad water issues.

But when it comes to your doggie, take action.  He deserves better care.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

July 24: A very special day!

July 24 is a red-letter day!  For two reasons.  First, it’s our youngest son Matthew’s birthday.  And second, it’s the day that Maurice Henry Carter walked out of prison into the free world, after spending 29 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.  I was at his side when he walked out of the Duane L. Waters Prison Hospital on this date in 2004.

Matt would agree that his birthday in 2004 was special, because as a young reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune, he was assigned to cover Maurice Carter’s release.  His story was on the front page of the newspaper.  His picture of Maurice holding his freedom papers high above his head graces the cover of my book SWEET FREEDOM.

Neither Maurice, nor Matt, nor I could have predicted our future involvement with prisoners.  My 9-year battle to free Maurice led to the formation of what we now know as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  Maurice kept insisting that there was a critical need for an organization like ours, while I quietly dealt with a personal desire to get back into radio broadcasting---my first career and my first love.  Matt made a few career changes, while he quietly dealt with his desire to do radio sports broadcasting.  He had no intention of getting into the prison business.  Today, with a generous amount of divine intervention, I serve as President of HFP while radio is nothing more than a fond memory.  And Matt is now Executive Director of HFP, and he enjoys an avocation of high school and college sports broadcasting.

Over the past 15 years, our goal and our mission have been fine-tuned, and the number of professional volunteers who assist us in an advisory capacity now totals over 50!  Unlike other advocacy agencies who spend some time helping individual prisoners, HFP devotes all of its time and energy assisting Michigan inmates who are struggling with a variety of in-prison problems, issues and needs.  Our case file is in the hundreds, and for more than two years running we have added the name of one new prisoner per day to the list of people whom we are serving.

Continuity is our goal now, and to help with that our aggressive Board of Directors has retained a fine consultant who specializes not only in assisting 501c3 agencies, but who has a personal history of working with prisoners.  After a thorough evaluation of our work, he boldly stated, No one is doing what you are doing; no one wants to do what you are doing; no one dares to do what you are doing!

High praise, indeed, but something we have realized for a long time. 

May God bless our plans for growth, expansion and continuity!

May we look forward to that day when chapters of HFP can be established in many other states!

But most important, may we never lose sight of the fact that our primary goal is to get down into the trenches, roll up our sleeves, and help prisoners with kindness and compassion, one at a time, in the name of Jesus.






Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On anger and injustice

Many years ago I spoke at a prayer breakfast.  I had recently assumed the prestigious position of President and General Manager of Radio Station WGHN in Grand Haven, and I was still in my 20s.  I knew a lot in those days.  The topic of my remarks was “Righteous Indignation,” and I pointed out that even Jesus got angry with the money changers in the temple…that, if for the right reasons, it was OK to get angry.

Well, there are some things that still make me angry, but I must admit that 50 years later, my thoughts have tempered on the subject of anger.  I’m hearing and reading about anger higher than any levels that I can remember.  The newspapers, the TV, social media, are all bursting with vitriolic comments.

I’ve found three quotes that I appreciate:  one from a famous philosopher, one from the brother of Jesus, and one from a theologian.  Here goes:

On anger:

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”
― Aristotle

On human response to anger:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. ---James 1:19-20

Yes, as I work with prisoners around the clock, 7 days a week, I’ll admit I get angry.

I get angry at Prosecutors who deliberately avoid facts leading to wrongful convictions.

I get angry at the judicial system in my country, the “Home of the brave, and land of the free,” where we shamefully claim the highest rate of incarceration in the world, where we refuse to ban the death penalty, and where we continue to sentence people to life without parole.

I get angry when we refuse to properly compensate the wrongly convicted

I get angry when Parole Boards refuse to release prisoners who deserve to be free.

I get angry at all kinds of mistreatment of prisoners, both by fellow inmates and by some staff members.

I get angry, all right…and the list of things that make me angry seems to grow every day.

I mentioned at the beginning of this rant that I wanted to pass along three quotes.  I’ll conclude with the third one: good advice for all of us, especially me.  This comes from an article written by Jonathan Merritt, senior columnist for Religion News Service and the author of "Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars."

Leaders will debate what should be done in the face of an epidemic of violence, but something must be done. A life of faith is a life of prayer and action, but never one without the other. Action without prayer is merely activism, and prayer without action is useless piety.

Let’s take time to pray.  And act!

Friday, July 8, 2016

No getting around it: It's racism

Many of us are in a state of denial these days, as we read and hear about white police officers shooting young black men.  We don’t like the word racism, we don’t like to talk about it, and we especially don’t like to admit that it still exists…even in our own hearts. 

One would think that, in my first career as a broadcast journalist, I might have seen a lot of and know a lot about racism.  But that wasn’t the case.  The bulk of my local news coverage occurred in the Grand Rapids, Holland and Grand Haven markets.  In those days we could count the number of black families in Holland or Grand Haven on one hand.

No, my first real dealings with racism occurred when I tried to free a black man who had been wrongly convicted.  He was charged by a white prosecutor, was found guilty by an all-white jury, and sentenced to life in prison by a white judge.  He had been accused of shooting and injuring a white cop, and somebody of color had to pay.

While leading the fight to free Maurice Carter, I had occasion to work with black members of the cloth.  These preachers in Benton Harbor would tell horror stories about being stopped by the police for a faulty taillight, and having to get out of the car, put their hands on the roof of the vehicle, and be publicly frisked.  Even when out fishing in their nice boat, the water cops would stop them to check out everything.  If black people had an expensive boat, something must be fishy…no pun intended.

A young man known as “Bear” who had served in the U.S. military, took me around Benton Harbor.  As I drove, he pointed out shabby buildings where the little black kids went to school, compared to the nice schools across the river where the white boys and girls attended class.  He showed me the fancy, private baseball diamond where employees of Whirlpool got to play ball, and the dirty sand lot where the black kids competed.  He showed me the run down park on Lake Michigan where the blacks had picnics, as compared to the fancy white beaches in St. Joe.

Matt and I see and hear about and feel racism every day, in the year 2016, as we work with prisoners.  The American Friends Service Committee did a study showing how a disproportionate number of Michigan prisoners are black, as compared to crimes actually committed.  A report by the Center for American Progress notes that it is women — disproportionately women of color — who are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. African American women make up almost one-third of the female prison population and are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women.

It’s not just happening on the streets in Louisiana or Minnesota, either.  It’s happening way up at the highest levels in our country.  No president has ever experienced the obstructionism, scorn and derision as our nation’s first black commander in chief.  No one who is so openly bigoted has ever risen to the top of one of our major political parties.  Yet we blindly call it business as usual.

It’s here, boys and girls…not only on the local level, but right on up to the national level.  And all levels in between.  And it’s racism, pure and simple.

Rev. Al Sharpton is probably correct in saying things aren’t going to improve in the police shooting incidents until some white cops go to jail, instead of having all charges dropped.  But I think it must start with you and me. 

It’s gotta start with how we talk around the dinner table, and the things we chat about in our favorite neighborhood bar.  We must stand, and if necessary, join with our black brothers and sisters in protest.  Our church groups must make this a matter of discussion and prayer.  Our lily white church services must not just simply sing gleeful songs of praise (the cops aren’t shooting our kids!), but must also include songs of lament and prayers of confession. 

Today let’s take this stand with Dr. Martin Luther King:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”