Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Prison guards need non-violent communication training, too!

It’s a terrible thing to lose your mom.  It’s even worse for someone in prison to lose a mother, or any family member for that matter.  There’s no way to mourn.  No one to talk to.  There’s no quiet time for reflection.  Other family members can’t be there with you to share memories.  You may not even attend the memorial service.  It’s heart-wrenching!

So a young, 28-year-old Connor was hurting last week on the day of his mother’s funeral, and it’s no surprise that he got into an argument with a Corrections Officer.  From that point on, specific details aren’t available, but we’ve received enough reports that substantiate the final chapter of the story.  Connor told the officer his mother had died, and the aggravated officer replied, “F*** your mom!”

Connor’s response was a quick punch to the officer’s face.  And predictably, other guards raced to help and Connor became a punching bag.  He was hauled away to Level 4 in a cart, we’re told, bleeding and suffering from possible head injuries.  Connor has now been transferred to a prison where they have a Level 5, which is tantamount to solitary confinement.  His grandmother is worried, and we’re trying to find out more.

It's easy for me to use a broad brush when painting a picture of Michigan prison guards, and I want to avoid that.  I regularly meet very nice people behind bars who try hard, and do their best.  It’s not an easy job.  Many prisoners live up to their reputation and make life miserable for these officers.  And that leads me to my topic for today.

In recent years our former Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I have traveled to numerous prisons in the state to lead workshops.  I talk about the services that HFP can and does provide, and Dan, who is a practicing clinical psychologist, talks about non-violent communication.  In fact, Dan is so adamant in his determination to help prisoners with anger management that he teaches a course, twice a month, on that very topic in a state prison.

Every time he speaks, prisoners beg him to start a similar course in their facility.  They take notes.  In the noisy environment of the prison, you can hear a pin drop when Dan discusses alternatives to violent responses to provocation.  The inmates seem like sponges, absorbing every drop of precious information on the subject.

In addition, I have seen prisoners take the initiative on this topic.  In my two most recent visits to the Cotton CF in Jackson, I’ve witnessed hundreds of inmates taking a peace pledge…swearing to do their best to lower incidents of violence in their environment.         

BUT, I’ve never heard of such a thing among corrections officers.  And as I see it, this is a two-way street.  If their union is already making work of providing non-violent communication skills to their members, God bless them.  It’s the route to go.  If not, then such action is past due.

I’m not a violent person…dunno if I’ve ever hit anyone.  But I can tell you this:  You’d better watch out if you say to me, “F*** your mom!”

Friday, April 21, 2017

When we can't help, that's what breaks my heart!

“War is hell.”  A quote attributed to General William Tecumseh Sherman dating back to the Civil War.

“Prison is hell.”  A quote attributed to Doug Tjapkes at the turn of the 21st Century.

Articles appearing in our newspapers and on our television sets in recent years seem to show a dramatic improvement in prison life:  college and seminary courses, community college affiliations, new programs offering vocational training, new dog-training programs, new and improved arts and hobby-craft projects.  But the reality is:  Prison is still hell!  Pure and simple.  No if, and, or but about it.  And while the reformers and politicians are grabbing the headlines about our improvements, you can be assured that there are enough of the old guard, the hard line establishment, to make sure that prison remains hell.  Retribution and punishment are rife!  Rehabilitation and restoration are almost non-existent!

We are as guilty as others in painting a rosy picture.  If HFP hopes to raise enough money to fund a smooth operation, we must demonstrate success.  We must show not only how many prisoners are contacting us, but also how many we are helping.  And so we do our best to talk about results. 

But what breaks my heart is when we cannot help!

Example.

Robert is a 56 year old white man who has served 30 years.  He’s not only eligible for parole, but he should be paroled.  He minds his own business, stays out of trouble, helps other prisoners, plays his guitar for the church praise band, and stays in touch with his 80-year-old mother.

For some unexplained reason he got transferred to one of the state’s more unpleasant facilities in the Upper Peninsula this week, disrupting his life and placing him out-of-reach for his elderly mom.

That wasn’t all.  When he arrived at the new facility, all of his earthly goods were dumped on the floor, and officers started labeling things “contraband.”  One of his footlockers containing his precious legal documents was labeled “contraband.”  He was told that guitar amps are not allowed at that facility, and if he didn’t send it out within 30 days it would be destroyed.  When he tried to protest, the guard shouted that if he argued he would write him a “Class 1” ticket, and he would throw him in the hole for possessing “escape paraphernalia” because he owned a pair of leather gloves.  They forced him to sign some document that he couldn’t even read, because at that point they still had refused to give him his glasses. For the moment, all of his legal documents are being held hostage.

But Robert still had hope, because this could be the year for his release

Said he:  “Thinking that my chances are really good for parole, I didn’t want to rock the boat.”

And then, the very next day, the boat sank.  He received a 5-year flop.  He must remain behind bars for another 5 years.

“I just can’t believe God would put all this pressure on me like this.”

He’s begging for help, and we can’t give it. “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”  He’s not alone.  I’m not only at a loss to find the right actions, here.  I can’t even find the right words.  I’m praying.  That’s the extent of it for now.  It would be nice if you’d pray for him, too.

Robert feels all alone in a prison, in a world, that today seems like hell.





Sunday, April 16, 2017

And IF we're Easter People, it's time to show it!

In my Easter blog this year, I made reference to a delightful Avery and Marsh song that Marcia and I have loved ever since we attended their workshop eons ago.

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
the past is over and gone!

Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear, good riddance!
Hello Lord, Hello sun!
I am one of the Easter People!
My new life has begun!

I am so impressed that, on Ash Wednesday, so many people are not ashamed to wear the sign of the cross smeared on their foreheads.

I am so impressed that, on Easter morning, so many people who aren’t all that interested in church during the year, feel that it is important to get to the Easter service.

That tells me that many people are not ashamed of what this Jesus stood for.  And if that is the case, and if every day is “resurrection day” from now on, then those of us who call ourselves “Easter People” must not be ashamed to

-stand with the victims of war;
-stand with homeless refugees;
-stand with immigrants;
-stand with battered women;
-stand with the mentally and physically challenged
-stand with victims of all types of discrimination
-stand with victims of religious persecution (all religions!);
-stand with victims of racial hatred;
-stand with the poor and homeless, without condemnation;
-stand against the death penalty;
-stand against mass incarceration;

And this one is especially important to me---

Stand with men, women and children behind bars, regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of the severity of the alleged offense.

Then we can sing the last two verses of the song!

Daily news is so bad it seems the
Good News seldom gets heard.
Get it straight from the Easter People:
God's in charge! Spread the word!

Yesterday I was bored and lonely;
but today look and see!
I belong to the Easter People!
Life's exciting to me!

Refrain

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
the past is over and gone!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why the Risen Lord relates so well to prisoners?

I have an idea why Jesus relates so much to prisoners and their various plights.  Hear me out.

It’s Easter time, 2017.  On Maundy Thursday Pope Francis, one of my heroes, entered a prison in Italy and washed the feet of more than a dozen former mafia figures, now incarcerated.  On Good Friday, around the world, people attended services observing the death of our Savior.  On Easter morning, church attendance records will break as people attend services celebrating the resurrection of the Christ.

Then comes Monday.  I love the whimsical Avery and Marsh Easter song that goes like this:

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
the past is over and gone!

I always hope it will be that way.  But the reality of the situation is that, once Easter is gone, it will be forgotten by many until this time in 2018.  We went to church.  We thought of Jesus.  Our dues have been paid.  Now it’s back to the real world.

No wonder Jesus identifies with prisoners.

Let me use the Maurice Carter story as a perfect example, and prisoners around the world will be able to relate to this.

Maurice served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.  Less than 10 years after his arrest he appeared live on a TV show on a new and exciting network called CNN.  He was given a lie detector test on camera.  The test was repeated two more times.  He passed.  People all over the country shook their heads in disgust at a system that would convict an innocent man.  At least one attorney vowed to help him.  Action was needed.  Months later, all was forgotten, and Maurice remained in jail.

We put up billboards.  We held rallies.  We brought in former welterweight champ Rubin Hurricane Carter for personal appearances.  Time after time the story made front page news.  Promises and commitments were made.  This man had to be freed.  Nothing happened.

We found the real criminal, the person who committed the crime that put Maurice in prison.  We still hold the evidence.  It made news for a minute, but the next day it was back to normal.  The system would not budge.

Maurice didn’t get out until the system reluctantly released him because he was dying.  He was never exonerated.

The good news is that one day he will be freed, thanks to the Christ whose resurrection we celebrate tomorrow.

When it comes to the risen Lord, when it comes to the people behind bars whom he loved and loves so much, this year let’s determine that every morning will be Easter morning from now on!


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Innocent until proven guilty? Don't you believe it for a second!

You’re guilty until proven innocent.  It’s not something we proclaim out in the open here in the home of the brave and the land of the free.  But it’s a fact.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys know it.  Cops know it.  Judges know it.  And if other factors are involved, such as race and poverty, the situation gets even worse.

Why am I thinking about this, or, it seems, ranting?

Well, I’m reviewing the Maurice Carter story.  The publisher of my book SWEET FREEDOM has asked me to write and voice personal intros to each chapter of the book, for an “enhanced” e-book version that will be coming out.  And so, during my brief vacation when I enjoy taking a little time to do some writing, I’m reliving the Maurice Carter story.  Now the enjoyment is turning to renewed disgust.

Maurice Carter’s story demonstrates, once again, just how difficult it is to prove you are innocent once you get sucked into the so-called justice system.  Not only that, it proves just how easy it is to get into prison, and just how difficult it is to get out.  For those not familiar with the story, and my involvement in it, the late Maurice Carter served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.  In the last decade of his life, I tried to help him.

Regardless of your innocence---

If cops with tunnel vision decide that you’re the perpetrator of a crime, facts are going to make little difference.

If Prosecutors with a win-at-any-cost mentality decide that you’re going to prison, they’ll find just enough alleged “facts,” just the right witnesses willing to shade the truth for a price, and just the right junk science to help their cause.  You won’t have a prayer.

If you’re poor and must rely on court-appointed counsel, God help you!  Back in the olden days in Berrien County, where Maurice was charged, tried and convicted, those lawyers hired by the county to defend alleged felons were low-bidders for the job.  The man didn’t even meet with Maurice prior to his trial, and failed to cross examine the only witness to the crime, who swore that Maurice was not the perp!

If you are non-white, don’t expect to get a ruling from a jury of your peers.  Maurice Carter’s jury was all-white, even though there were a few blacks in the jury pool.  He was arrested by the Benton Harbor Police Department representing a populace that is almost entirely black, but that made little difference.  White people decided his fate.

And once you’re in, it will take heaven and earth (plus a strong measure of divine intervention) to get you out again.  Innocence has nothing to do with it.

I really don’t know how to put a positive spin on this blog, except that we are hearing more and more about wrongful convictions, Innocence Projects are working hard to get more and more exonerations, and some elements in the US judicial system seem to be moving toward genuine fairness.

Meanwhile, depending on whose figures you believe, between 3 and 15 percent of prisoners in our overcrowded institutions did not commit the crimes for which they are serving time.

Shameful.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

Belated Happy Birthday, Maurice, from the Detroit Police Chief!

Maurice Carter would have been 73 years old yesterday.  It’s tradition that I put together some kind of a blog on his birthday. 

March 29 came and went, and so did any ideas for the blog page.  Then, at a minute before midnight, the Detroit News published a great story!  The Police Chief of City of Detroit is going to put forth a major effort to slow down wrongful convictions.  It’s an article worth reading…a story that tells about Chief James Craig, and his meeting with Innocence Clinic people at the University of Michigan Law School.  He pledged his full cooperation.  This from a county whose system of justice has seemed seriously flawed over the years.

This is huge!

I say this because a lot starts with the cops.  Let’s go back to the Maurice Carter case.

It was action by crooked cops that got it all started in his case, and that led to Maurice spending 29 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Maurice and a buddy were questioned shortly after an incident in Benton Harbor where an off-duty police officer was shot and injured, while shopping with his wife in a downtown store.  The policeman was white.  The shooter was black.  They paraded him in front of the store so that the clerk could try to identify him.  She insisted that Maurice was not the assailant…wasn’t even the same color black.

Two years later, it was crooked cops who persuaded Maurice’s buddy---who was facing drug charges---that if he told some lies about Maurice his charges would be reduced.  He agreed to sign a statement claiming he saw Maurice running from the scene of the crime.  And that led to his arrest and eventual conviction.

True, there were other typical factors in this wrongful conviction:  faulty eye-witness identification, and the testimony of a jail-house snitch.  But it all began with some police officers with tunnel vision; officers who (in my humble opinion) knew who the real perp was, but were determined to put this outsider in jail.  Maurice was from Gary, Indiana, and had no ties to Benton Harbor or Michigan.

For those who are not familiar with the story, Carter was never exonerated.  I was privileged to lead a fight seeking his freedom for the final decade of his life.  We ultimately obtained a compassionate release, because of serious illness.  Maurice walked out of the Duane L. Waters prison hospital in July of 2004.  He died exactly three months later.

But today, in the aftermath of his birthday, we can celebrate the fact that a prominent Michigan Police Chief has not only made an important decision, but is doing so in a high profile manner that may encourage others in law enforcement to take similar stands.

Maurice would be pleased.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hey, St. Dismas, we won't forget again!

It was a day I pledged to remember and observe.  And it quietly came and went without a peep, not only from me, but from those in other denominations who place a much higher emphasis on saints than the conservative Dutch.

I’m talking about the Feast of St. Dismas Day.  Sometimes observed in the Roman Catholic tradition on March 25.

And just who is St. Dismas, you ask.  After all, March is known as the month when we focus on St. Patrick.

Well, Dismas is the name that was given to the penitent thief hanging on a cross next to Jesus at the time of the crucifixion.  Of the gospel story tellers, only Dr. Luke relates this part of the story:
       
“Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us."
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen, I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise."

I wasn’t even aware that anyone had given him a name until last year, when I heard a powerful message by dynamic preacher Jim Liske, former CEO of Prison Fellowship.  And it was that message that prompted me to make a note in my calendar that, regardless of what anyone else does on March 25, I intended to observe the day.  And from now on, I’ll still do that.  Here’s why.

Well, before explaining my reason, it’s probably wise that I point out, once again, that I am not a theologian.  Back in the 50s, God knew what he was doing when he pulled me from Calvin College’s pre-seminary program, and nudged me into radio broadcasting.

But here’s the deal.  This is where Jesus put his talk into action.  He talked about prisoners in Matthew 25.  But he actually put his words into deeds on the day of his crucifixion when he showed us how to demonstrate kindness and compassion to a hardened criminal.

I won’t belabor the point, but this tells me that those who claim to follow Jesus should do more than look at our HFP team and say, “Good for you.  We need guys like you!”  I think it would be much more like the Master to say, to all of us in prison ministry, “What can we do?  How can we help?”

Nuff said.

Thanks to St. Dismas for the reminder.  Thanks to Jesus for his amazing grace,

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Not much peace around these days, but I saw some in prison!

Many, many years ago, when our kids were little, the piano tuner was in our house struggling to get our little baby grand up to pitch.  I say struggle, because Marcia had her hands full.  The kids were chasing, then fighting, and then one started crying.  It was Christmas time.  The tuner muttered, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”

I’m remembering that incident late on a Saturday night.  I’ve just returned from the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, one of several state prisons located in Jackson.  Former board chairman Dan Rooks and I were there as featured speakers today, guests of their Chance for Life Chapter

To set the stage for my comments, I perhaps should make brief reference to this week’s happenings.

On the International level, another terrorist attack…Isis taking credit.

On the national level, a stunning defeat in Washington that left not only Republicans fighting Democrats, but Republicans fighting with each other.

On the state level, many constituents this week had been fighting with their congressmen.

On the local level, residents are fighting mad over how to handle the over-population of deer in our city.

In church circles, I’m aware of people so angry about the style of music in their worship that they’re thinking of making a switch.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss personal issues, but I’m aware that some of our friends are in the midst of personal battles.

Not much peace.  At any level.

In the midst of that, I drive to Jackson on a cloudy, rainy, cold day.  And here’s what I find: 200 men---different races, different backgrounds, different faiths---gathered in an assembly, hoping to launch a 6-month peace initiative! 

Last summer I was privileged to the deliver the keynote address at this same prison, when a group of men pledged to harness what they called the Divine Force of Peace for one month.  The results in the prison were amazing.  And so this time, the Chance for Life Chapter decided to go for a six-month stretch.  Six months, for men serving time in prison, to restrain from fighting, bullying, arguing and causing problems…six months to see the other guy’s point of view, stressing forgiveness, kindness and compassion. 

Before I was introduced, one of the leaders---explaining this dream, this goal---stated that as of today, more than 600 men have already signed the pledge!  600 men who are convinced that if peace starts with them, there’s no telling where it will spread.

Think we could learn from them?

I do.  I did.

I may not even need a sermon tomorrow.  Their testimony was a divine message, and I thank God for their initiative and their courage.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I'm writing again...but I'm not happy!

The climate in this country is noxious!  It’s doing nobody any good, I swear.

People look at our blog site…no new entries.  Honestly, I don’t even feel like writing!  My job, and the job of this fine group of people working with me, is to care for people…and it keeps feeling like nobody cares for people anywhere anymore!  When it happens on the national level, I get the sinking feeling that maybe nobody cares down here, either.

Annie’s still in a wheelchair in the women’s prison, and still missing lunches because she can get no one to push the chair for her, and the staff members insist that she must find her own pusher.

Danny is innocent, and a former Parole Board member not only knows it but has information that could help Danny obtain freedom.  But he won’t respond.

David has sleep apnea, and he needs a C-Pap.  He had one before he came to prison three years ago, but a prison doctor said his problem wasn’t all that serious and they made him send the equipment home.  He’s waking up gasping, our doctors say the situation is life-threatening, but nobody’s doing anything!

Sara came to prison two years ago with a temporary upper plate…it wasn’t meant to last and finally broke.  Now she can hardly eat.  The prison dentist says she must wait two years for a replacement.

Billy was scheduled to get a compassionate release from the Parole Board because he has terminal cancer, but now a prison medical person with questionable credentials said this is a lie, so the Parole Board refused his release.

Linda is a diabetic whose blood sugar levels are so out of balance it’s life threatening…but no one is listening.

I just want you to know that, regardless of what is happening on the national level---and I know that it’s all terribly important to all of us---crap is still happening on the local level, too!  And one agency that I know of is handling a record number of more than 300 calls a month to try to respond!

We’re blessed to have a battery of volunteers and professionals willing to step up to the plate, and we’re doing our best to not only deal with issues, but let prisoners know that someone cares. Even if we can't solve every problem, kindness and compassion work wonders.  

It’s our role:  seeking to model Jesus, touching lives.

We need you, too.  Prayers.  Money.  Even just attaboys!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Exorbitant fees for commutation assistance: Criminal!

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

For many Michigan inmates, the magic word that offers hope these days is commutation!

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder can’t run for re-election, and that gives Michigan prisoners hope.  They’re hoping that, because he doesn’t have to worry about public opinion, perhaps he’ll grant some commutations.  The Governor can use his executive clemency powers to reduce a criminal sentence.  That means, for example, that even a man or woman in for life can still harbor the hope of seeing freedom someday.

The process is relatively simple.  An application form is readily available.  The prisoner must explain the details of the crime which brought about the conviction, must explain why he or she feels a release from prison is deserved, and is required to provide information regarding housing and employment after release.  That completed form goes to the Michigan Parole Board for initial screening, and then is forwarded to the Governor.

But there’s a huge problem here.

Many inmates, without proper guidance and assistance, are hurting themselves by not properly filling out the forms.  Instead of showing remorse, for example, they’ll angrily blame the cops, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury or maybe even their upbringing.  Now maybe all of these factors are legitimate, but that’s not what the Parole Board is looking for.  Some forms are filled out in longhand, because typing equipment is not available.  Spelling and grammatical errors shouldn’t play a part in this, but you and I both know there is something to be said about that first impression.

As a result, charlatans have appeared on the scene.  Some attorneys are falsely informing inmates that the Parole Board has designated them to help inmates in filling out the form.  For a fee, of course.  Other private offices are helping prisoners with their applications, but again, for a hefty fee.  We recently were informed by a prisoner that his lawyer was only going to charge him $2,500 to do the job for him.  We have heard from several prisoners who paid an agency $4-5,000 to get the job done.  And in one case, an inmate told us his mother spent $9,500 with a private organization to prepare his application.  While we don’t know the whole story, on the surface this seems criminal to us.  One prisoner told us last week that he’s making 72 cents a day in his job.  Do you see what I mean?  The Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections told me, in a personal conversation, that prisoners should not be paying for commutation assistance.

The thing is:  So far, it’s all a risk.  The only commutations the Governor has granted to date are to inmates with serious health issues.  We have no idea whether he’ll have a change of heart before he leaves office.

I’m pleased to report that HFP is willing to help prisoners in filling out these forms, and of course our services are free.  And more good news is coming!  We’ll soon announce a major expansion of this service.  I’m excited about this for two reasons.  First and foremost, it may give prisoners a brighter ray of hope.  The second reason: Perhaps it will steal business from the money grabbers.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.
Demond Tutu



Monday, February 27, 2017

Hoping to keep kids from going to prison!

So here’s the thing.

I can be pretty quick to criticize wardens and prison staffers here in Michigan when I think that what they’re doing is wrong.

BUT.

Then I darn well better be up front with praise when I think something is good.  And that’s where I am today.

Several Michigan prisons have undertaken a project called the Juvenile Deterrent Program.  It’s a mentoring program, designed to keep troubled teens from winding up in the state prison system.

Among those prisons embarking on this project is the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility, right next door in Muskegon. 

Here’s how it works.  Prisoners are used to mentor juvenile delinquents who are on probation in that hope that they will deter and dissuade them from continuing in this negative behavior pattern.  They’re quick to point out to these kids that if they stay on that path, it leads to a room behind bars.

And to her credit, prisoners are telling us that Warden Shirlee Harry has announced that she will now include or permit single mothers who are having difficulty with their teenage sons to be eligible for this program. 

The first batch of kids came in this month…they were from Muskegon’s alternative high school. And, if the report to us from a prisoner is any indication, it was a huge success…on both sides of the fence!

Quoting this inmate:  “There were 9 teenagers who came up today, ranging in age from 16-18.  To me they just seemed so young, small and fragile.  It gave me another vantage point of how I must have appeared when I came to prison at the age of 17, only 5’6” and weighing only 135 pounds.  This event provided me insight from a different perspective.  Mentoring to these wayward youths today was truly a blessing and an honor!  It gave me a direct sense of purpose, impact and import.  I noticed that as I was striving to help these kids discover their value and self-worth, that my own sense of value was being reinforced.  We were able to reach most of them, according to their own accounts.”

He explained that, “one kid has already caught a weapons charge for illegal possession.  After the event he thanked us and by his account he was indeed affected by the mentoring he had received and has learned his lesson.”

Word from Brooks is that each month they’ll receive a new batch of kids.  As of now, there are ten inmate-mentors, and four of the ten are “juvenile lifers.”  The program is still in its fledgling state, but already we’re told that it is in the process of expanding and evolving.

So today, a tip of the HFP hat to Warden Shirlee Harry, every member of her staff who is taking part in this project, and to the inmates who are serving as mentors.  And this thanks extends all the way to Lansing, and Director Heidi Washington.

The sooner this exciting program goes to all Michigan prisons, the better!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yes, Tammy, he cares...and so do we!

Not much more could have gone wrong in Tammy’s life.

She came into the Michigan prison system with a fistful of charges four years ago, and did well until a few months ago when she claims she was set up on a misconduct charge of smuggling.  But until the state could conduct a hearing on her non guilty plea, she was placed in segregation…or as the prisoners call it, in the hole.

And while there, last month, things went south.

Her mother was brutally murdered in her Detroit home on January 6th…it was all over the TV news on the 7th.

Tammy’s sister Judith, who is on her visitor list and who serves as her emergency contact, immediately called the prison to relay the bad news.  That was on the 7th.  But the system resisted.  Who knows, could be a fake call.  Her sister tried again every day until January 13th.  Finally, one week after the slaying, Judith was advised to fax proof of their mother’s death to the Warden’s office.  The following Tuesday, January 17th, Tammy was officially notified of her mother’s passing and was allowed to make a phone call.

But, this was 11 days later.  And while there are no TV sets in the hole, Tammy’s friends had television sets, and that’s how she got the news.

She was so distraught that she was placed on suicide precaution.  Then, of course, she missed the memorial service.  A therapist gave her a book on how to deal with grief, suggesting that she create a scrap book and develop a strong support system among her friends.  None of which could really work very well since she was locked up in isolation.

But that’s not the whole story.

In addition to these problems, Tammy hasn’t been able to have visits since last August when somehow, the state claimed, there was a “system error.”  Between August of 2016 and January 31st of this year, her family continued to call about the visitation problem, and continued to receive the same answer:  The matter “had been forwarded to the Warden’s office.”

A friend suggested that she write to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  “It is my hope,” she said, “that someone will reach out to me concerning these issues.”

We promptly responded, and within 24 hours we received the reassuring words from the Warden’s office:  “Issue resolved. It appears that her list was deactivated in error.  I have reactivated her list so the family may now visit.”

I love the words of this old gospel song:

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth or song,
  As the burdens press,
  And the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?

O yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
  When the days are weary,
  The long night dreary,
  I know my Savior cares.

Yes, Tammy, Jesus cares.

So does HFP.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seems cruel and unusual to me!

As I review complaints about medical care, or lack thereof, in the Michigan prison system, I contend that the state is violating the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Let me explain.

Mr. A is a new prisoner.  He suffers from cerebral palsy.  He reports to HFP, “I need to get back on my prescribed medication ASAP.”  The prison system simply explains:  “You were not approved for this medication by the regional medical director in Lansing.  Will forward your request.”  He asks:  “So I’m wondering what I shall do in the meantime.  I’ve been waiting since I arrived on December 27!”  He's in pain.

Mr. B is a chemist, biologist and geologist who, while working as a civilian contractor, was accidentally exposed to nerve agents.  As a result, he has severe COPD.  Prior to his arrest, he was told by doctors to sleep in a chair to reduce lung problems.  At most prison units he was allowed to do this…until February 5, when without warning the prison refused to allow him to sleep in a chair, and officials refuse to discuss it.  Rumor is that this is retaliation because of some grievances he filed.

Mr. C had surgery that was apparently successful, but since then the scrotum swelled to 12 inches around.  As it turns out, this probably was normal, and the swelling will go down, according to our experts, but there was no one there to explain this to him and avoid this unnecessary angst.

Mr. D has Irritable Bowel Syndrome with diarrhea…he’s getting no help from the prison health people nor his family.  He’s going to the bathroom 12-20 times a day, and still goes in his pants and in his bed.  His roommate complains, and he hates living this way.

The lawyers who specialize in this kind of thing won’t touch cases like these…at least not until grievances are filed, and not without lots of printed documents and substantial proof that the neglect and abuse is willful.

The 8th Amendment says that cruel and unusual punishments may not be inflicted. The amendment is meant to safeguard Americans against excessive punishments.  In other words, for Messrs. A, B, C and D, the incarceration is their punishment.  Inadequate medical care may not be dumped on them as additional punishment.

This shoddy medical practice may not meet the criteria for attorneys, but I contend that it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Just sayin’.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

BLACK HISTORY MONTH, more meaningful than ever!

I’m 80.

When I was a child, we didn’t think it was black discrimination.

As a tiny tot, my mom read a book to me about Little Black Sambo.

When kids didn’t know how to make a decision, or how to choose, we said “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, catch a ni**er by his toe!”  Sorry, I just can’t make myself say that word, or even type it.

When we bought a package of mixed nuts to serve our company in the holiday season, the Brazil nuts were called, “ni**er toes.”

My cousins went to Alabama to visit with their aunt and uncle and cousins, and returned to joke about separate drinking fountains down south for whites and blacks.

And things didn’t improve when I grew up.

One of my first bosses, at a Christian radio station that featured predominately religious programming, urged me to persuade an elderly man on the staff to polish my car for me.  He said he could make it shine “like a ni**er’s heel!”

As late as the 1990s, a devout co-worker was referring to African Americans with the derogatory phrase “jungle bunnies.”

As a church organ salesman, trying to persuade the chairman of an ultra conservative church's music committee to drive to a certain neighborhood where he could hear one of our recent installations, he demurred, saying that there were a lot of “coons” in that area.

All of that garbage was quickly erased when my life was changed, in years to follow, in such a profound way by these African Americans who, I swear, walked on holy ground:  gospel singer Alma James Perry; the Rev. Cy Young; Maurice Carter; The Rev. Rodney Gulley; the James Family Singers;  and many, many more.

Black History Month is precious to me.  So are the names of every African American whose life has intersected with mine.  Especially the very long list of my black friends behind bars.

In February, 2017, please join me in this prayer, created by the Diocesan Commission to end racism:

“ One God, in Three Persons, creator of one human species, in many hues: all who pray to you are descendants of Adam and Eve, all members of one race called “human.” Forgive the blindness that causes our eyes to notice and magnify those things we regard as different from ourselves in others. Teach us to see clearly, that we, your children, are far more alike than we are different. Help us to put aside the racial prejudices embedded within us, and to see within every person the Child of God you created, our sister or brother, destined for Glory. In the name of One who died for all persons, of all colors, Jesus Christ.”

 Amen.