Thursday, September 29, 2016

Reading anything about former prisoners doing good? Me neither.

Marcia and I were watching the news, as a reporter explained that the man who committed this particular crime had recently been released from prison.  That’s the kind of stuff that makes the news, and that’s the kind of stuff that sets back possibilities of parole for many others.  We have no hard data to support this, but all of us involved in this kind of work are convinced that this negative publicity just stiffens the position of the Michigan Parole Board.  It gets tougher for worthy inmates to catch a parole.

I’ll be the first to admit that, even in our small organization we’ve been stung.  People who we thought were good immediately resumed doing bad things the moment they got out.  But the story that seems to get missed by the media (and I tread lightly here, because I was a part of the media for nearly 30 years and I felt that my reporting was very balanced) is the wonderful story of second-chance successes by ex-offenders.

This whole topic is fresh in my mind because this week Matt and I had a very productive luncheon meeting with a couple leaders of 70 X 7 LIFE RECOVERY OF MUSKEGON.  We were talking about the reluctance of Christians in general and some churches in particular to accept ex-offenders, let alone welcome them.  “When that happens,” said Executive Director Joe Whalen, “we just turn Nate on them!”

Nate Johnson is now the Mentoring Director for this fine agency, explaining the importance of second chances to parolees.  And when he speaks to a church group, people listen.  You see, as a teenager, he was among the most ‘successful’ crack cocaine dealers in Muskegon. He was arrested at 19, received a lengthy prison term. The big story here is that he made life-altering good choices while serving that sentence. He has successfully re-entered the Muskegon community and now helps to touch lives of those who traveled down similar roads.

I don’t remember reading any headlines about Nate’s amazing story.

And there are so many others; so many with whom we’ve worked who are now productive citizens, not only grateful for their freedom, but anxious to convert that earlier negative into a future positive!  We have a file full of beautiful stories of men and women who screwed up, but made a conscious decision to change.  Today they are more than paying their debts to society.  I’m not reading or hearing much about it in the media.

All of us can tell stories about second chances.  My name is at the top of list.  A second chance with endangered health; a second chance after a lot of mess-ups (for which, thank God, I did not get arrested!).

Yours and mine may not be newsworthy.  But, the comeback tales of many Michigan prisoners are exceptional and worthy of media attention.

These "second-chance" people are worthy of a welcome in your neighborhood, too.  

And your church.



Friday, September 23, 2016

Sometimes I cry

Country gospel artist Jason Crabb sings a song that I like…I believe it was written by his dad:

I look the part
Blend in with the rest of the church crowd
I know the routine
I could list all the Bible studies in town

Watch Christian TV
I know all the preachers, their cliches
I've been born again
And without a doubt I know I'm saved

But sometimes I hurt and sometimes I cry…

I was thinking of that song today, after I chatted with a pleasant woman who right now is making a one-hour drive to see her father in prison.  I hope it goes all right, because her father is dying.  At the top of his list of medical problems is Stage 4 cancer.  He’s heavily medicated, but things aren’t going well.  She has no complaints about his medical care.  A prison nurse has been most helpful.  A prison social worker has been more than kind.  But, her dad’s in prison, he’s only slightly beyond middle-age, and he’s dying. 

This comes on the heels of another situation that I have mentioned in an earlier blog, where a woman was working hard to get her mother out of prison for specialized healthcare in her final days on earth.

I don’t mean to minimize all of the other issues that come across our desk.  Each problem is terribly important to that particular prisoner.  We recognize that, and we give each situation our best shot.  But, having a parent in prison is terribly unpleasant; having a parent who is dying in prison is just plain painful.  And not only for family members.

We seldom shed real tears any more, or we’d be weeping all the time.

But I can assure you that we do not get calloused to the misery and grief that has become a part of our life and our work.

And deep down, inside…

Sometimes we cry.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

On showing love for animals. Prisoners, too!

Our youngest son, his wife, and their three beautiful children lost a family member this weekend:  their dog Zoe.  Matt put a beautiful tribute to Zoe on Facebook today, and as I read the obit I did a lot of reflecting.

You see, Zoe was a rescue dog.  Matt and Melissa drove nearly 400 miles one way to rescue Zoe from a shelter shortly before she was due to be put down.  They’ve had 9 wonderful years together.

Over on the other side of town, our youngest daughter Sue and her family are enjoying the company of another mutt named Grady.  He was rescued after being found wandering on a busy Muskegon street hungry and flea-infested.  Old, maybe a little blind and certainly a little deaf, somebody probably just didn’t want him anymore.  Sue and Jon, Brenden and Zachary did.

What I’m hoping is that this is trickle-down.  I’m hoping that all four of our kids learned about rescue when Marcia and I (and the kids, too, for that matter) took in Maurice Carter as a member of our family.  It was a rescue.  Maurice was a prisoner, he was of another race, he had very little family of his own, his support team was about down to zero.  Made no difference.  He was not only a child of God, he was a dear man.  A beautiful person.  We loved him like family, just like Matt’s family loved Zoe, and like Sue’s family loves Grady.

St. Francis of Assisi said this:  If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.  Obviously, he meant that this goes both ways---it’s a two-way street.

If people can learn to treat animals with kindness by watching us do the same with humans, the reverse must also be true.  It’s time that we learn from examples set by Matt and by Sue that there  are thousands of humans that need to be rescued, as well.  Their names can roll off our tongues, as Matt and I work with them individually 7 days a week, in the HFP office.

There’s a prisoner struggling with transgender issues being claimed by no one.  A crippled lady cannot get someone to even push her wheelchair to get chow in the women’s prison.  An 81 year old man is in danger of losing his leg because gangrene wasn’t controlled with a toe injury three years ago, and no one seems to care.  Will someone dare to step up and help these people?  Love them?  Rescue them?

I think it’s beautiful that we rescue animals, take them in, give them love and affection, food and shelter.

But let’s not forget humans.

Especially prisoners.



Thursday, September 8, 2016

TRYING to help those who don't know where to turn

Vision Statement:  Humanity for Prisoners seeks to provide personalized, problem-solving services for inmates who don’t know where to turn.

To some, that might seem rather trite and meaningless.  What?  Prisoners not getting along with a room-mate?  Prisoners not getting enough exercise time?  Prisoners complaining about a broken micro-wave oven? A sore finger? A toothache?  Etc, etc.

Hardly.  Here are four staring us in the face right now.

We’ve just appealed to the front office in Lansing to cut through red tape, and help an 81 year old man whose foot injury began with a blister on his big toe in 2013.  Due to what appears to be lack of appropriate care and treatment for the past three years, there have been resulting problems such as gangrene.  And it’s not restricted to the toe any more, or even the foot.  The leg is involved.  One of our consulting physicians labeled it “malpractice,” and said the man is in danger of losing his foot, or possibly even his leg! 

We’ve managed to pair up the mother of an inmate with an attorney, as they discuss possible legal action due to alleged poor treatment of a girl in Huron Valley who struggles with diabetes and seizures.  The claims about medical care, or lack thereof, are outrageous.  The mom has expressed a concern for her daughter’s life!

We’re holding the hand of a daughter whose mother was to have been released from prison last month…a woman who is not in good health.  She didn’t get out, due to some technicalities, and her health has gone south.  The woman is in a hospital, and it doesn’t sound good.  Meanwhile, the daughter still has not been able to gain permission to even visit her mom!

Our medical team has forwarded lab work to some specialists, as we try to help a 53 year old inmate.  Jimmy’s Hepatitis C and related issues have seriously worsened in the past 5 years.  He’s in misery, claims shoddy treatment by healthcare personnel, and says he can’t get the medical care that his body demands.  He’s now asking our doctors how long he has to live!

Trivial matters?  Not by a long shot.  These are life-and-death issues, and they’re not treated lightly by our staff and volunteers.

Only through the cooperation, assistance and support of an amazing Board of Directors, an impressive advisory panel of specialists in many professions, and the love, prayers and dollars of our partners can HFP continue to touch lives.

May God continue to bless our work down in the trenches.  Some days it’s not much fun.

Monday, September 5, 2016

HFP pays tribute to a Warden

Some days it seems that we can be highly critical of certain personnel and certain policies of the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Some days we remove all doubt!  But fair is fair, so when we see or find certain personnel and certain programs worthy of praise, we must not remain silent.

Today, HFP pays tribute to Shawn Brewer, Warden of the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson.  I’m quick to point out that we hardly know the man.  I met him just once, a little over a week ago.  But here’s why we’re giving him special recognition:  Good things are happening at that prison! 

CHANCE FOR LIFE is an exciting program that was founded in 1999.  Quoting CFL’s own statement:  The purpose of the Chance for Life Organization is to enhance the ability of ex-offenders to be successful after leaving prison by providing an integrated program that transforms and educates, while focusing on family reunification and community safety.  CFL has chapters now in 8 different prisons, including Cotton.

In August of this year, CFL enrolled some 250 inmates in a month-long Peace Initiative.  Here’s what these guys pledged:  I,________________ pledge to use my knowledge, influence, skills and abilities to promote PEACEMAKING and PEACEKEEPING throughout this facility as well as within my community. I pledge to not demean anyone with my words or hands. I lastly pledge to resolve all conflicts in a Peaceful Manner to the best of my ability.

It was my honor and privilege to deliver the keynote address for the day-long conference that concluded this project.  As I signed in, Warden Brewer was there to shake my hand.  His Deputy Warden, Douglas Smith, did the same, the likes of which we have not seen since the days of former Warden Mary Berghuis in Muskegon!  I then witnessed more than 150 men who some might describe has hardened criminals, stand up and recite the above pledge for all the world to see and hear! 

The good things don’t stop there.  A new chapter of the NATIONAL LIFERS OF AMERICA has started up at Cotton.  They’ve already been in touch with HFP, hoping to bring our former board chair and this writer to the prison for a special seminar.  I make a presentation on services offered by HFP, especially in helping inmates prepare to meet with the Parole Board and in filing commutation applications.  Dr. Dan Rooks, a clinical psychologist, gives a frank discussion on the topic of anger management.  It’s an exceptionally popular program, and it will be coming to Cotton.

Wardens of each prison have a lot of say-so when it comes to the PRISONER BENEFIT FUND, which consists of money collected primarily in the vending machines and supply store of each facility.  A Warden’s Forum, consisting of staff members and inmates, meets to discuss disbursement of funds, for the benefit of prisoners, like microwave ovens or exercise equipment.  But, occasionally the inmates express a desire to make donations to a few Michigan charitable organizations that specifically assist them, including ours.  One warden, in particular, refuses to let a dollar go to these agencies…especially ours!  At Cotton, however, the warden obviously gave his blessing, because HFP was one agency to receive a generous gift this month.

Jesus said, in Matthew 7, “By their fruits you will know them.”

We think we know Warden Brewer!  May God keep him on this path of recognizing the worth and potential of prisoner lives, and may he be a shining example to others.