Saturday, June 24, 2017

God loves them all?

75 years ago, when I was a tiny tot in Sunday School, we sang this little song:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.

Then, when we grew up, we sang the adult version in our worship services:

In Christ there is no East or West,
No North or South;
Only one great love
Inside and out.

Those old songs are in my mind today, as the HFP team does its best to help those behind bars who struggle because of race, color, belief, nature of their crime, sexual orientation, gender issues. 

-An inmate tries to find some Wiccan connections on the outside.
-A young man writes: “my family are extremely religious and have always hated me for being gay."
-An African American claims discrimination is rampant, but cannot get a rights group to even respond to his complaints.
-An admitted sex offender prays for healing and a second chance.
-An Asian prisoner battles a serious illness alone because of a language barrier.
-A prisoner struggling with transgender issues faces unimaginable problems.
-Two Muslim women endure shameful treatment during Ramadan.

We’re not able to speak on behalf of other agencies and other ministries…I can only speak on our behalf.  We’re here for them all: red, yellow, black and white; Asian or American; gay or transgender; Wiccan or Muslim and yes, even the sex offender.  And while doing so, I can honestly admit how much we continue to learn by doing this.  AND, we continue to discover beautiful similarities among people whose differences seemed so dramatic and unsettling! 

May God give us open minds, so that we can keep our doors open.

As I understand it, God loves them all.

We’re trying to reflect that.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Who has sinned, this prisoner or his parents?

So what’s the big deal?  Another prisoner died.  He was only a sex offender.

And that, boys and girls, IS the big deal!

In my previous blog, I pointed my finger at the State of Michigan.  And rightly so.  After all, Mr. M. went to a prison doctor in 2012 complaining about coughing up blood.  The doctor asked him if he was anxious, and he replied in the affirmative, as would just about anyone coughing up blood.  So, he sent the inmate to a psychologist.  Three years later, after numerous requests, Mr. M. finally was given medical tests, only to learn that he had lung cancer and less than two years to live!

I’m still troubled over his death, and today I’m pointing the finger at you and me.

I hear it time and again:  He got what he had coming to him.  No, he didn’t!  His cancer was not detected, and his cancer worsened, because of poor medical care.  His punishment for the alleged offense (I say alleged because the man claimed innocence) was incarceration.   We may not, nay, we must not add to the punishment by denying appropriate medical care!  The constitution says so.

For those of us following Jesus, the issue is even more condemning.  You’ll hear people of faith say, “the judge didn’t give that man a death sentence, but God saw to it!”  We completely forget that the Master debunked that theory while he was still here on earth, when his disciples saw a blind guy and asked him, “Who sinned?  This man, or his parents?”

The state will only begin to show compassion when you and I, the registered voters of Michigan, start showing compassion.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

With some change, a story like this could have a different ending

There’s gotta be a better way!

I say this every time we hear another tragic story.  Well, the stories keep coming, but the better way never seems to arrive.

I’m specifically focusing on sex offenders here, because I feel many aren’t getting fair treatment in Michigan.  And I’m not referring to the sex offender registry, although I have serious issues with that as well.

Let me be clear at the beginning of this little diatribe:  I’m not minimizing sex offenses, and I’m not trying to make sex offenders look good. 

Here’s the story of Mr. M, who got arrested 37 years ago at the age of 21.  He became eligible for parole 20 years later, but the Parole Board never saw fit to release him.  His family claims he was flopped by the board 15 times, despite a prison record that was not bad.

There’s more to the story.

In 2012 he started coughing up blood, and despite his requests for treatment, nothing was considered serious.  It got serious, though, in 2015, because when they got around to testing, they diagnosed lung cancer.  And by then it had spread.  He was told he had 2 years or less to live.

Medical reports were sent to the Parole Board several times.  He met with a member of the Parole Board as recently as January of this year, and, as usual, much of the time was spent in discussion about the alleged crimes.  It must be stressed here once again that, regardless of whether the prisoner admits to the crimes (and Mr. M. consistently claimed his innocence!), the Parole Board wants to see remorse.  Even if you didn’t do it!  That session didn’t end well, and in January of this year, with less than a year to live, he was given an 18-month continuance!  What?  Did the PB really believe this dying man was a threat to society?

Mr. M. died over the weekend in a Jackson hospital.  He was 58.

Now here’s what I’m getting at when I call for change.

-If Mr. M. had received appropriate healthcare response to coughing up blood in 2012, he might still be alive today.

-If the Parole Board would treat those charged with sex offenses the same as it treats other offenders, he might have died a free man.

It wasn’t fair to Mr. M.

It wasn’t fair to his family.

It wasn’t fair to the taxpayer, in that the State of Michigan was paying up to $100,000 a year to keep this man behind bars, 17 years past his earliest release date.  Our prison budget is too high.  Our prison population is too high.  This is a good example as to why.

May God help all of us in our state to see:  There’s gotta be a better way!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Happy Father's Day?

I’m a dad who, but for the grace of God, could be observing Father’s Day behind bars.  I’ve been talking a lot about the wrongly convicted in recent days, perhaps because there have been a couple of high profile exonerations in the news.  It’s still on my mind. 

As I write this blog on the evening before Father’s Day, I’m sitting in my tiny office in the lower level of our modest condo.  My little buddy hummingbird sips from a feeder that I have positioned outside the glass sliders.  I’m having fun watching a kingfisher diving for fresh fish in the nearby pond out back.  It could be different.  I’ve never been in trouble with the law, but…

My friend Matt is a wrongly convicted businessman.  He had never been in any trouble, either, until a tragic weekend when he got blamed for a crime that never even occurred.  Some innovative police officers and an ambitious prosecutor changed this man’s life forever.  That was nine years ago.  He’ll be observing Father’s Day in prison for four more years.  His grown kids are out of state, so there’ll be no visits this year.

My pal Anton is likely to be in prison for the rest of his life, unless the Innocence Project reviewing his case is able to turn things around.  Anton has some learning disabilities and couldn’t read or write when he was wrongly convicted.  I’m convinced the bullying cops got him to sign a document which he couldn’t read, and which turned out to be a confession. He was a teenager then.  He has a daughter and a grandchild living in the inner city now.  Once again this year, he’ll have no visits on Father’s Day.

For Harold it was a different story, and one that we’ve seen several times, where an aggressive prosecutor turns a tragic accident or a tragic suicide into accusations of a homicide.  A legal team is hoping to undo the damage, but this professional person suddenly found himself surrounded by armed officers, then was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.  That was 17 years ago.  His kids are grown now, but a daughter hasn’t appreciated having an incarcerated dad and won’t speak to him anymore.  It won’t be much of a Father’s Day.

These are three true stories.  With 2.2 million people in jail or prison in the United States, do you think they are isolated examples? 

I pray for a special group of hurting dads this year…dads who are in prison, dads who have family members in prison, and dads who love their kids just as much as you and I do.

May they feel warm and loving hugs of the Heavenly Father. 

There may not be much else.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

Oops, Sorry. Your 17 year imprisonment was a mistake!

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a college education like the folks do in the courthouse, or under the capitol dome.  And here, for the past 8 decades, I believed that those simple lessons taught by my parents and my Sunday School teachers, were true:  What you sow, that shall you reap.  Wrong!

Here’s the reason for my reflections today.

Over the weekend I’m watching the network news, and I see that this black dude is freed after serving 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  But the explanation was a simple one:  the real criminal looked just like him!  Could have been his twin!  So now even the poor guy walking free seems to have a forgiving spirit.  It was an honest mistake.

Wait until he figures out he can’t get those 17 years back.

Wait until he tries to get a job. 

Wait until he looks at his bank balance.

Wait until he wonders how to stop the nightmares that routinely wake him up during the night.

But back to my point.  The educated folks downtown just pat my knee and explain that if I were a bit more savvy, I’d understand.

Do you mean there’s no punishment for the cops who felt they didn’t have to investigate any further, because with their “tunnel vision” they just knew this was the right man?

Do you mean the Prosecutor who just shrugs his shoulders and admits that getting a conviction was his goal, not attaining justice…do you mean this guy is accountable to no one?  He’s the one who made the mistake, but when you have that job and you screw up, there’s no punishment?

Do you mean there’s no hell to pay for the defense attorney who didn’t think he had to work all that hard, because he thought everybody would see this guy was innocent?

And the State of Kansas, which hasn’t yet adopted a compensation bill for the wrongly convicted…do you mean to tell me that they can just open the prison doors, say “Oops, wrong guy,” and not have to pay for their mistake?

I’m sick and tired of it.  But that’s just me:  uneducated small town newsman, village organist, and 80-year-old prisoner advocate. 

Nothing’s going to change until you get sick of it, too.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The longest prisoner email in history,and how we handled it poorly

I made a mistake.  I brushed off a prisoner who is mentally challenged.  Now I’m struggling with guilt feelings.

It all began when the guy wrote to tell me about a sinister plot…a prison physician had secretly implanted a chip in him, and he was worried.  But his communication with HFP didn’t end there.  A couple days later, he sent the longest email message ever received by this office.  I’m thinking it probably broke every record through JPay, the prison email system.  The letter totaled 8,400 words!  Will said that it took him 9 hours to write that message, supporting his fears!

And that’s precisely the point where our staff must sit back and take a closer look.

Instead, because of record-breaking numbers of messages from prisoners, their families and their loved ones, we simply explained to him that we were not equipped to handle issues like that.  On to the next guy, and problems we can better deal with.  That wasn’t quite fair. 

What we keep forgetting, and what I think the state keeps ignoring, is that we have a critical mental illness problem in our prisons, and these people deserve our attention. The US Department of Justice, for example, says that more than half of all prison inmates have a mental health problem compared with 11 percent of the general population, yet only one in three prison inmates receive any form of mental health treatment.

We’ve discussed this so many times in the past.  Those of you who are older will remember when we started closing down Michigan’s mental institutions and, wonder of wonders, as that population diminished the prison population increased!  Think there’s any connection?

Here are some questions for Michigan officials, which I just lifted from THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PSYCHIATRY AND THE LAW: 

Are our prisons' rehabilitative services set up to provide comprehensive mental health and psychiatric programs to deal with the increasing population with such severe psychopathology and impairment? Shouldn't standards of care of psychiatric disorders be respected in the correctional setting as they are in other community provider settings? Shouldn't inmates have access to the same standard of treatment consistent with the principle of equivalence?

Shouldn't access to specialized diagnostic procedures and assessment protocols, including general and neuropsychological testing, be available and applied to identify neuropsychiatric and behavioral consequences of brain injury and other organic disorders? Are states willing to allocate sufficient budget and manpower resources to meet the needs of mentally ill and substance abusing offenders? Are legislators and administrators willing to take a serious look at the criminal justice process to determine how to refer mentally ill arrestees and offenders to various treatment programs?

I’m not dropping Will’s case.  HFP can and must do better.

So must the State of Michigan!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Wait 'til it's someone close to you. Then you'll care!

It seemed to have many reasons why we should turn down a plea for help.  A claim of wrongful conviction (all prisoners say they are innocent!); the accused was a gay man (we prefer not to talk about the gay and lesbian community!); and sex between gay men (makes us gag to think about it!).  Yet, Gary’s case was one that our fledgling little organization, then called INNOCENT, gladly took on in 2005.

I’m reminded of it because I received this message a few days ago: I felt the need to inform you - on what would have been Gary’s 55th birthday - that he died due to cancer on May 12. He had been falsely imprisoned since April 2003.  Thank you for your past efforts on his behalf. At least he is free from prison and pain now.

Those were the days when we were still starry eyed and filled with boundless enthusiasm, thinking we could help to reverse wrongful convictions anywhere in the country.  Gary was in California. 

At that time we had a working relationship with a professional polygraph examiner with international credentials and arguably one of the finest in the nation.  He lives and practices in California, and so we arranged a polygraph exam for Gary.  He passed with flying colors!  It made no difference.  He remained behind bars, serving a 50-year sentence on a forcible rape conviction.

Years passed and realism set in.  Our organization became re-badged with the new name HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, our team eventually understood that our work had to be confined to the State of Michigan, and we learned that even those who were in prison for the right reasons deserved humane treatment and care.

We never lost touch with Gary, but we had to explain that there was little more that we could do on his behalf, other than pray.

Facebook notified me this morning that I had written a blog about wrongful convictions on this date last year.  Today I’m back at it.  I continue to return to this subject because it gets so little attention.  Some people in the know believe as many as 4-5,000 innocent people are in prison right here in Michigan!  And as I have pointed out in the past, all are not poor and black (although many are!).  Some are rich and white.  Some are professional people.  Some are the kind of people sitting next to you in church.

God bless those agencies and individuals helping the wrongly convicted.  God bless those agencies and individuals clamoring for judicial reform, protesting prosecutorial misconduct, condemning evidence based on junk science, and opposing the use of jailhouse snitches. 

I’m praying that innocent people behinds bars discover that Jesus cares.  As long as it doesn’t affect us, many of the rest of us aren’t all that concerned.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Sorry, there's no wiping that smile off our face!

Some guy tore us to shreds this week.  The email message was lengthy and bitter, and arrived from a Michigan prisoner who wasn’t pleased with the way we handled an issue.  It’s a simple fact that when we’re dealing with hundreds of people, we’re not going to please them all.

But I must tell you, he’s not wiping the grin off our collective faces at the office of HFP this week!

-For two years we’ve been trying to help Jim find a daughter he hasn’t communicated with in 18 years.  We finally made it happen!
Just wanted to inform you that I got a letter from my daughter today. She was at the address that you provided me with. I was very happy to get the letter. I wanted to thank you for your time and efforts. If there ever is anything I can do for HFP please do not hesitate to ask! 

-For fifteen years we’ve been trying to get help for Ray, who has served 44 years on a wrongful conviction.  We finally got him hooked up with a potential new network TV series!
I had a very, very informative and uplifting conversation with the producer. I was impressed by his candor and honesty. I was thrilled and inspired when he give me insight on the pedigree of the attorneys that would be involved. I am praying that all goes well. This is a very big deal.  I love you more than much!

-We recently joined hands with a group of his friends to support David’s efforts to get into the Calvin Prison Initiative program. 
I'm so blessed.  Just wanted to deliver the good news.  I got accepted into Calvin! Praise God! Please tell our friends. Thank all of you so much.  Can't wait to tell you more. LOVE YOU!

-HFP made the two-hour drive to Jackson to speak at the Public Hearing for Carol, who deserves a parole. 
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming to my public hearing. Please know that I am so very grateful for your presence there and for speaking on my behalf. I felt the holy presence throughout my hearing. It was grueling but I had a peaceful heart. God bless you again!

-Richard’s special friend was recently killed in a hit-run accident.  He asked if HFP would simply relay some of her pictures by email so he could keep them in his pad. 
There is a special place in heaven for people like you. I'm serious! I don't think that you guys realize just how much you help people, and make us feel important and not forgotten. THANK YOU!

We’ve been hoping to raise extra funds in June with the help of matching grants.  May these powerful examples convince our friends that dollars aren’t needed to keep the lights on.  They support dreams!

With your help, and by God’s grace, we’ll keep helping.  And smiling!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Convicted of a sex crime? Don't expect a good time in prison!

Persons accused of committing sex crimes have a difficult time behind bars.  That’s no surprise, because negative attitudes toward alleged sex offenders are prevalent.  People on the street don’t like these people, corrections officers don’t like them, prisoners don’t like them.  Let’s face it, our friends sitting right next to us in church don’t like them! 

Before I deal with the subject of this blog, however, it’s important to stress a few very important points.  Criminal sexual conduct charges cover an exceptionally wide variety of alleged offenses.  We know of actual cases in which a man was spotted urinating in a dark alley, arrested on a charge of indecent exposure and actually sentenced to prison!  We know of numerous cases of wrongful conviction, often stemming from marital or family disputes, when someone choses to get even by accusing a person of molesting a child.  We know of numerous cases involving consensual sex with someone below the legal age limit.  So while it’s true there are pedophiles and rapists and child molesters in prison, the sex offender title covers a lot.

I bring up this topic following a couple of recent reports to our office.

The wife of a prisoner who claims wrongful conviction on a CSC charge says her husband has been told he may not have a maintenance job, yet the inmate/head of the maintenance program in that prison is in on a CSC conviction.  A classifications officer similarly told him he couldn’t have the job of midnight porter because of his case.  Yet, she can find nothing in the MDOC policies that supports denial of jobs like these.  But it happens.

Even more common is the way fellow prisoners and Corrections Officers treat many alleged sex offenders.  Here’s a message we just received from Thomas:

An officer went down to search my cell. He sat in the room, reading my legal work, then dumping out my legal envelopes. He trashed my bed, crinkled up a whole slew of my paperwork and pulled all of my pictures out of my photo album, crinkling them too. He mixed my cellmates stuff all in with mine. I went to my counselor’s office and explained everything to him. Then, I immediately went to speak with the Sgt. He just threatened to take me to the hole. When he looked in my room he stated, “I don’t know what it looked like before." I asked him to take pictures and he refused. Then another came in and saw my cell and I'm sure the camera will show him just shaking his head. Later on in the evening the original officer called me to the desk and asked me for my ID. I asked him if he was writing me a ticket and he responded in the affirmative. We started to exchange words and he stated to me and a group of guys on the base that us "child molesters" complain about everything.

It is not uncommon to receive reports that officers have tipped off prisoners about alleged sex crimes of others, simply to stir up trouble and to scare the alleged offenders.

These are not isolated incidents.  That’s why we take the time to write about them.  In fairness, let me say the Department doesn’t condone this stuff either.  But some of the old-timers in the system still seem to prefer the old way.

Men and women serving time for alleged CSC infractions, rightly or wrongly, deserve fair treatment.  The incarceration is the punishment.  Nothing may be added.  Period.

The Department should insist on it.

So should we.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Death alone! No loved ones present.

The system failed Mr. and Mrs. Glen Anderson.  Not once.  Not twice.  But over and over again! 

Matt and I became very close to this story, because while Glen was writing letters to Matt, I was chatting by phone with Susan.

Here’s the situation. 

-Glen struggled with alcohol problems for years, and even went to prison for driving while intoxicated.
-He was diagnosed in 2013 with liver cancer, and a transplant could have saved his life.  But he says he started drinking again, and that erased his name from the waiting list.
-Then got arrested again.  He went back to prison again in 2015.

And that’s when the questions first arise. When a judge was fully aware that Glen had terminal cancer, why send him to prison for 3 to 7 and a half years?  That, in effect, was a death sentence!

Glen’s treatments continued on and off, but a prison doctor finally explained to him that there was no chance for recovery and his days were numbered.

He wouldn’t qualify for parole until next March, but as he told Matt in his letter, I just want to be with my wife and kids before my time comes.  Armed with medical evidence, he asked the Parole Board to recommend that the Governor commute his sentence.

On February 13 the Parole Board simply advised him that it had “no interest.”

In desperation, his wife Sue appealed to the Governor’s office.  Glen received a letter from the Governor’s legal counsel dated April 12, denying the request.  Obviously no one had even looked at his medical records.  Here the man was at death’s door step, and the attorney reminded him that he could apply again in two years!

Sue and Glen appealed to HFP.  When we receive calls like this, our first task is to verify the medical situation.  A fine oncologist on the HFP advisory team quickly responded, saying he wasn’t going to last long.

And he didn’t.  Prison healthcare officials in Adrian transferred him to a hospital in Jackson last weekend.  Meanwhile, HFP decided to attempt a Hail Mary pass and go straight to the front office of the MDOC the very first thing Monday morning.

Too late.

While his wife, his 95 year old mother and his sister were sitting in the hospital waiting room, hoping to make one last bedside visit, they were informed of Glenn’s death.

It’s our position the system failed.  A 60-year-old man, serving a sentence for a non-violent crime, who is dying of cancer, and he cannot get a compassionate release?  He’s considered a threat to society?  Come on.

A department spokesman would only tell me:  Medical commutations are rare, regardless of the offense type.

You think?

Sue tried, Glen tried, HFP tried.  I’m so sorry. 

Our condolences to the family.  The State of Michigan can do better than this.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

One more diatribe about the notorious Public Hearing

I hate Public Hearings.  They may be an essential part of gaining freedom for old-timers in the Michigan prison system, but I hate them.  I testified at a Public Hearing yesterday, and as usual, left in disgust.  Let me explain.

Before a certain population of the Michigan Department of Corrections can attain a parole, they must first be grilled by one or two members of the Michigan Parole Board, and especially by an Assistant from the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  Department officials will quote state law when explaining the reason for these hearings: 

"A prisoner shall not be given liberty on parole until the board has reasonable assurance, after consideration of all of the facts and circumstances, including the prisoner's mental and social attitude, that the prisoner will not become a menace to society or to the public safety."

The agenda at a Public Hearing is rather simple.  The Assistant Attorney General and the Parole Board members spend a lot of time discussing the crime.  A few minutes are then spent on the prisoner’s accomplishments over the decades spent behind bars.  A Parole officer is then asked to report on possible housing arrangements if the inmate is released.  And then the public is invited to speak; first those who oppose the parole, usually friends or relatives of the victim(s) of the crime, and then those who support the inmate.

HFP sometimes sends a delegate when one of our friends comes up for parole, especially if he or she has little outside support.  The longer they remain in prison, it seems, the fewer friends and family members either care or are still alive and are able to testify.  On occasion I’ve been the only person to speak on behalf of a man being considered for parole.  I’m proud to do it.

Here’s the thing I find so completely distasteful:  the stark difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots!”

The men and women from the Parole Board and the Attorney General’s Office drive up to the stark little Public Hearing facility at the prison in their expensive sports cars or Cadillac Escalades.  They stride into the meeting room dressed to the max.  Any and all could be on the cover of a fashion magazine.  All are well-paid individuals, feeding from the trough of the State of Michigan.

Then comes the lowly inmate, in chains, escorted by a burly guard, dressed in sloppy prison blues.

And the difference doesn’t stop there.  From the moment the hearing begins, the prisoner is never allowed to forget what a privilege it is to appear before these pillars of society.  You can be sure that, after intense questioning, sometime badgering, and sometimes outright abuse, the inmate will be reduced to shaking and weeping before the hearing mercifully ends.  Perhaps “breaking” the prisoner is an unspoken goal or requirement.  I am reminded over and over again of accounts about how slaves were treated in our country.  I almost expect the prisoner to reply, “Yes, Masta…yes, Masta.”

I keep wishing that these public officials would stop to consider, There but for the Grace of God go I.

But it ain’t gonna happen, and it ain’t gonna change.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Blessed are they who mourn

It may sound like my life, my words, my heart, are always kind and full of compassion.  While that is my prayer and my goal, realistically it is just not so.

I’m struggling with how to be kind to a prisoner who has been untruthful to his supporter.  I’m upset with a guy who refuses to go to the people we suggest with his medical issues.  Instead, he keeps bombarding me with medical records which I don’t want, which I don’t know how to read, and with which I don’t know what to do.  I’m trying to be kind to a little girl who wants us to help file an application for commutation of her sentence, but she just keeps insisting that she is simple-minded and that we must do all the work for her.  I’ve got to watch myself, because I can have a quick tongue.  I must put myself in their shoes and take a deep breath, then try to respond in a kind and compassionate manner.

But then, in the midst of these and many more, I get hit with the simplest of requests, and I melt.

Says Richard:

I am writing to ask a favor if at all possible. The girl that I was pretty close to was killed in a hit and run accident.  She was not very computer literate, so I have no pictures of our memories or her on my JPay.  Can I send you 3 photos of her, and some of our personal memories and hang out spots, then have you put them on the computer and send them back to me on JPay so that I have them on my tablet?

Gulp.  Then he goes on:

I would not ask but I have no one else to ask or turn to.  One of the pictures is a put-together that I did myself to try to make it look like it was taken of us together, in one of our favorite places. I would be very grateful and appreciative. Also there is a website through the funeral parlor that is handling her remains, that allows loved ones to post comments for the deceased, and their family. Can you please go to the website and type a message for me and put my name at the bottom?

Yes, we can and we will, Richard.  We’re honored to be asked.  We’re happy that we can help. Consider it done.

I may be short tempered, ill mannered, fidgety and fussy sometimes, but HFP’s work is “Jesus work,” and we do our best to model his methods and practices during his short time on earth.

May Richard feel these words of the Master today:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

You can't visit your kids in prison, Susan, but Happy Mother's Day, anyway.

Each year at Mother’s day I write about moms of prisoners, or moms who are in prison.

This year, for a change, I’m going to write about only one mom.  Her name is Susan, she’s black, and she lives in Detroit on fixed income.  Susan had five children:  four boys and a girl.  Life hasn’t been a bowl of cherries. Two of her sons are in prison, and one was killed.  As we chatted, she expressed concern over one of her incarcerated sons who has been in segregation now for 6 months, which means he’s in a cell 23 hours a day. He's dealing with severe depression.

In the course of our conversation I asked if she had visited him recently.  That’s when she dropped this little bombshell:  She hasn’t visited either son in prison for two years.  Visitation has been denied by the State of Michigan because she has unpaid traffic fines!

You may have read about a class action suit filed against Michigan’s Secretary of State, claiming that traffic fine laws discriminate against the poor.  The suit claims that over the last three years more than 100,000 Michiganders have lost their driver’s licenses simply because they are too poor to pay these fines and costs.

That, in itself, is a huge issue.  But if we’re also denying prison visits to those who owe traffic fines, it becomes even more complicated…more severe.  We went to the top to ask, and even on a Saturday were granted the courtesy of a response.

Owing some traffic fines isn't necessarily an issue, but if those unpaid fines have resulted in a bench warrant being issued, we won't allow admittance. The reason for this is if someone comes to an MDOC property with outstanding warrants, we'd be obligated to contact law enforcement to see if they want to arrest them. That wouldn't be a good situation for anyone.  So while those warrants are outstanding, we simply deny entrance to our property…we ask that the person resolve any pending police or court matters.

I suspect Susan is not the only passenger in this boat.  Because her budget leaves no room to pay up old traffic tickets, visitation of family members in prison is not possible.  Sorry.

Kind of lends itself to a growing philosophy, it seems to me, that if the poor would just get off their collective butts they could pay their bills like the rest of us, and then they wouldn’t have these problems.  Life should be so simple.

Said the writer of Proverbs:  Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker…

Happy Mother’s Day, Susan.

Prayers for all moms wearing shoes like hers.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Marc Janness, 1953 - 2017

Ever since Maurice Carter days I’ve had negative feelings about prison health care.  Maurice had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C 7 years earlier, but no one bothered to tell him until the day he collapsed in his cell.  I know I’m painting with a broad brush here.  I’m sure there are some caring health care people in the prison system. But based on our experience, I contend there’s an unfeeling and uncaring mood that is pervasive among prison health care professionals.

We lost Marc Janness a few days ago…a name I had never heard of until very recently.  And the death of this prisoner is still troubling me.

For Marc, it started with a sore mouth…and now I’m wondering just how much and how long he had to pester health professionals before he even got a diagnosis, let alone treatment.  Anyway, turns out it was gum cancer.  Fast forward to April 25. That’s when one of his buddies emailed our office:

…in the past 20 days (the cancer) has grown from his gum into his lip and is now the size of a tennis ball on his face.  The state is dragging their feet and are blocking what doctors are recommending.  Can you please do something for this fellow Christian who can’t even eat food?  He needs immediate attention.

I wonder if Marc even got my email saying that we were frantically trying, and that we were praying for him.

I wonder if he was aware of the fact that HFP promptly forwarded a letter from our kind and helpful oncologist/adviser directly to his warden: This man should be evaluated by an oncologist as soon as possible.  A tissue biopsy is critical.  His life may be at stake.  And that two days later we sent still another message to the warden from a second oncologist:  If he were not in prison I’d suggest he go directly to a hospital emergency room.

As I thought about it over the weekend, I felt Marc might be comforted just to know that somebody cared.  So I printed out everything we had done, including the oncologist messages, in hopes of sending all to him with a note of compassion.  I looked up his mailing address, and that’s when I discovered this notice: 

Discharged (meaning he died)
Discharge Date:  5/4/2017

I know. We should be used to it by now. Too little, too late. Wasn’t the first time.  Won’t be the last.   I had simply wanted Marc to know that, despite a cold and uncaring system, there was a little cluster of people, inside and outside, who cared and who wanted to help.  It wouldn’t cure the cancer, but it might soothe the mind. 

Thank God, he’s where there’s no more pain, no more suffering, no more tears.

Not so back here.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

And the prisoners take another hit

Something wonderful happened in Muskegon 6 years ago!

Something terrible happened in Muskegon last week!

In 2011, Founder and Director Curt Tofteland was given permission by then Warden Mary Berghuis to start an innovative program in the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility called Shakespeare Behind Bars.  Hardened criminals reciting Shakespeare?  Who woulda thunk it?

Curt’s explanation of the program:  Shakespeare Behind Bars offers theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.  

I’ve had the privilege of attending some of these sessions behind bars.  What a remarkable experience it was to join with these men, sitting in a large circle, and listening to one of their members in the center reciting lengthy passages of Shakespeare…and doing it with drama and with fire, walking around, pointing a finger, shaking a fist!  One after another took the stage. There was so much more to the program than I can describe here.  Inmates had to meet requirements to get in, and then there was a program of advancement for participants.  Prisoners not only met the demands, but thrived on it!  It involved a huge commitment, but it changed lives!

In 2015, the program expanded across the street to the West Shoreline Correctional Facility.

Over the past six years, more than 400 inmates in these two Michigan prisons participated in Shakespeare Behind Bars.  Curt doesn’t have exact statistics, but about 100 of those prisoners are now in the free world.  And while the state’s recidivism numbers hover around 30%---that is, about one in free wind up back behind bars---the SBB rate was around 5%! 

One of the exciting things about this positive program is that it didn’t cost the state anything.  There was no expense.  No cost, only profit.

And that’s what makes last week’s experience even more puzzling.

Director Curt Tofteland was summoned to a brief meeting with the Deputy Wardens of those two prisons, and informed that Shakespeare Behind Bars no longer “fit into the current programming of those two facilities.”  A stunned Tofteland was informed that this was his last day. He left, never to return.

What must those prisoners who participated in that impactful program be thinking?

Just when we thought we were making progress in Michigan.

One only hopes that, even though the program is dead, the prisoners whose lives were changed by SBB will at least remember the words of Shakespeare that live on:  Love all, trust few, do wrong to none.

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!”