Friday, October 20, 2017

Does it have to be this way?

I’m always pleased to read about positive advances in the Michigan prison system. I see that Director Heidi Washington is providing leadership into exciting expansions of education opportunities, as well as vocational training. And news that the recidivism rate is going down and the population is being reduced is welcome, indeed.

I’m concerned, however, about some other issues…perhaps considered, at the top, to be smaller items or less important.

It’s on my mind this week, because, right now

-We’re scrambling to get an appointment for a prisoner with a corneal transplant, because it appears his body may be rejecting the new piece in his eye! The U of M physicians who performed the operation gave strict instructions, but they apparently were not followed appropriately. Our medical consultant and the eye doc that provides his invaluable insight to HFP are incensed. Does it have to be this way?

-We’re doing our best to persuade a warden and his health-care staff to get immediate treatment for a prisoner with an aggressive skin cancer. The medics have just been dragging their feet. The oncologist working with HFP insists that he needs treatment right now! Does it have to be this way?

-We have a law firm and a medical team trying to get medical records so that a woman with colon cancer gets appropriate surgery and treatment. Yet the delays continue. Does it have to be this way?

-A prisoner who has been diagnosed with colitis is living with it, even though he must use the bathroom 8-15 times a day. But the toilet tissue is rationed. He’s in a new facility, with a new doctor, and they’re not about to renew his request for extra toilet paper! Does it have to be this way?

-The daughter of a terminally ill inmate who is dying contacted our office: “ The thing that causes us the most pain is that we won't be with him when he passes.  It will be a stranger and not a loved one.  Isn't there anyway that they can contact the family when they know that he is hours away and allow them (or even just his wife) to be at his bedside at the time of death?” Does it have to be this way?

These aren’t smaller items in our book, and certainly not to the inmate involved.

Our corrections officials, all the way to the top, need to heed this reminder in the book of Hebrews:  …remember those in prison as if you were together with them. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Matthew 25 refresher course for the Douger

It may not be the blind leading the blind, but at best it’s one crooked stick trying to help a bunch of other crooked sticks.

God uses every prison experience to teach me another lesson.

Even though I refuse to admit it, I suspect that down deep I harbor a certain smugness when I walk through the prison gates. The inmates will welcome me, they’ll applaud when they hear that I’m nearly 81 and still carrying on, and they’ll listen politely as I impart my wisdom and explain the fine work of HFP.

Well, the first parts are true. Last Saturday I received a warm welcome from nearly 200 men at the Thumb Correctional Facility. How nice to renew an old friendship! And I think they were pleased to hear that this old man is still plugging along.

But then my learning began.

I thought I had clearly explained that, even though I am a follower of Jesus, we’ll help any inmate with any problem. I am not a US citizen…I’m from Turkey. All I want is to serve my time in my homeland. But I’m not a Christian. Will you still help?  My heart sinks to think that our message did not get through. Of course we’ll help.

I boasted that, while some agencies procrastinate, delay their responses, or don’t call back at all, HFP treats every request in a prompt manner. My ex-wife contacted you about two months ago, and you informed her that would write me on JPay. I have not yet received an email message from you. Gulp. (He was contacted the next day!)

I’m wrongly convicted but the Innocence Project turned me down. Where do I go now? I have no answer.

If the Parole Board won’t tell you what they expect in commutation applications, how do we know our answers are what they want to hear? I have no answer.

What can you do about unfair sentences in Michigan?  No answer.

I’m starting to feel inadequate. We’re not doing all that much good. We’re not providing all that much assistance. We don’t have the information they want and need.

Yet they stand in line to shake hands and say “thank you.” And a young black Christian, with glowing face, smilingly comments, “I’m a man of God, and I recognize when someone is obeying Scripture and ‘speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.’” (Prov.31:8)

There’s my lesson: a review of Matthew 25. It was the visit that counted. Duh! Any assistance or helpful information imparted was simply a bonus.

Says Father Greg Boyle: There is no 'them' and 'us.' There is only us.

Says Mother Teresa:  We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Are we the criminals for ignoring their gifts?

In my quiet moments this morning, I’m thinking: What are we missing by not tapping the vast resources behind bars?

This thought came to the surface as I glanced through materials about Nelson Mandela, who was South Africa’s first black president. Prior to that he served 27 years in prison!

Here’s my thinking.

The longer I work in this prison business, and the more I associate with and communicate with this vast population behind bars, the more I realize that we’re treating these people like cast-offs, and not taking advantage of their productive minds and abilities. I’m serious about this. My life is immeasurably richer because of my daily association with this mostly ignored segment of society.

There are highly skilled musicians, gifted artists, well-educated scholars and professionals in our prisons. Just because they are on the wrong side of the bars doesn’t mean that their expressions should be suppressed. Just because they erred doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute. And on the flip side, nor does that mean that you and I should be deprived of their offerings.

I’ll stop my ranting and raving a moment to concede that great progress is being made in exhibiting prisoner art, publishing prisoner poetry and literature, and exposing inmates to higher education opportunities.

But we are remiss if we stop there. I’m not sure how to do it, but we’re missing the boat by not using these talents, these minds, these skills, to the fullest extent! And it’s a two-way street. We are blessed by this exposure. The incarcerated, on the other hand, finally get the message that they are not “throwaways,” and their offerings are welcome and appreciated…even necessary!

Just imagine what would happen if these many gifted musicians, artists and educators were invited to give lessons and teach others behind bars.

Just imagine what kind of health, hospice and palliative care we might get if we used the skills of the many incarcerated medics, now wasting their talents and knowledge.

Just imagine what kind of policies governing such things as mail and visitation would be developed if the Department of Corrections held a series of town hall meetings to get the input of our 40,000 state prisoners.

Just imagine what kind of legislation might be introduced if state lawmakers listened to those directly affected by judicial reform instead of lobbyists and corrections personnel.

Here in Pure Michigan, we have 40,000 people in more than 30 state prisons, stretching from Detroit at the southern limit, to Baraga in the U.P. I contend that there’s a gold mine behind those bars.

We’re the criminals if we don’t explore these opportunities!

Quoting Nelson Mendela:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Wrongful Conviction Day, 2000 innocent people sit behind bars in Michigan! Do you care?

The second of October marks the fourth observance of International Wrongful Conviction Day. I contend that it should be declared a holiday in this country. Not a fun holiday like Christmas, New Year’s Day, Fourth of July or Thanksgiving Day. No, this would be a sad observance, like Memorial Day. Yes, there should be a nationwide effort calling attention to this dreadful infection in the body of what we call the judicial system.

Wrongful Conviction Day was organized to raise awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction and to recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional costs of wrongful conviction for innocent people and their families.

I'd like to call your attention to the Innocence Network, an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing free legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted, working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions, and supporting the exonerated after they are freed.  

As you probably know, it was a wrongful conviction that got me into this business many years ago. As a result, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has always kept a strong focus on the topic. And for good reason.

4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent: 1 in 25, according to the Washington Post.

Time Magazine reports that, for the third year in a row the number of exonerations in the United States has hit a record high. A total of 166 wrongly convicted people whose convictions date as far back as 1964 were declared innocent in 2016. On average, there are now over three exonerations per week—more than double the rate in 2011!

There are no hard data re the number of wrongly convicted prisoners in our system, but estimates range between 5% and 15%. Here in Michigan, that means there are probably 2,000 innocent people in our state prison system, and possibly as many as 6,000

Leading causes, as listed by the experts:

  • Eyewitness Misidentification.
  • Junk Science.
  • False Confessions / Admissions.
  • Prosecutorial Misconduct.
  • Informants or Snitches.
  • Bad Lawyering. 
So take a moment today, not only to say a prayer for the victims of wrongful conviction and those working on their behalf, but also to support all efforts to reduce this problem.

After all, there’s no guarantee that the next victim won’t be you!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

HFP, with a more-than-casual focus on innocent people behind bars

I cannot imagine anything more terrible, more heart-wrenching, more devastating, than sitting behind bars for something you didn’t do! Matt and I got talking about the topic today, because International Wrongful Conviction Day arrives next week.

I’ll be posting a blog with some outrageous facts and figures on Monday, but I just want to talk it through a little bit today.

Those who know me realize that my personal efforts on behalf of a wrongly convicted Michigan prisoner, the late Maurice Carter, led to a new career for me and the formation of this organization. And, Matt got an early taste of it as well, not only because, as a member of my family, he was a personal friend of Maurice. As a young reporter, Matt had an opportunity to cover some major portions of the Carter story, including a personal interview with Rubin Hurricane Carter.

I guess that’s why HFP never lets the focus on wrongful convictions wander too far, even though we’re not lawyers, and even thought HFP is not an Innocence Project.

Our first board of directors contained the names of Keith Findley, co-founder and co-director of the University of Wisconsin Innocence Project; and, Rob Warden, former Executive Director of NWU Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Later, Ken Wyniemko---the second person in Michigan history to be exonerated by DNA testing---served a brief stint on our board.

The Maurice Carter story developed into a book, and then a stage play.

Meanwhile, HFP has collaborated with various lawyers specializing in wrongful conviction cases and continues to support the on-going efforts to free some Michigan prisoners whom we feel are innocent.

In addition, hoping to keep the topic in front of the public, HFP was pleased to bring authors of a best seller, PICKING COTTON, to our community for a public appearance. People are still talking about the powerful message delivered by wrongly convicted inmate Ronald Cotton, and the person who wrongly identified him, Jennifer Thompson.

Our message has been, and continues to be, that it doesn’t just happen to others, it doesn’t just happen to poor people or minorities…it can happen to you! I can give examples of people in business, professional people like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and yes, even cops, who went to prison, and some who even died in prison.

It’s a real problem. A serious problem. And it deserves your attention.

Watch for my blog next Monday.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

It's time to listen!

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
― Bernard M. Baruch

I wish our President could grasp this common-sense approach.

In another of his infamous adlibs, while speaking in a political campaign rally in Alabama yesterday, he asked the audience if they’d “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired?’”

We all know what he’s talking about. It all began when a well-known player took a knee during the national anthem before games last year to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

I’m not going to get in the middle of the argument about the national anthem…I’m getting on the case of people who refuse to listen.

We struggle with this every day. A Michigan prison warden was so upset that I brought in the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate multiple claims of abuse of mentally deranged prisoners that he chose to ban me from giving a speech at his facility. Sorry, but the man didn’t get the point. By calling in the DOJ I wasn’t questioning his personal integrity…I was begging for change in the shameful way we treat our mentally ill inmates. He wasn’t listening.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has chosen to punish all kinds of guys who have been involved in demonstrations. These inmates weren’t trying to get deeper into trouble…they’ve got enough already. They were trying to point out serious problems like bad food. They didn’t get the changes they sought. Instead, they got transfers, tickets, changes in housing levels…retaliation was strong and prompt. The department wasn’t listening.

People are protesting national issues more than ever before, especially issues involving health care. Yet, our leaders continue to propose plans that have the endorsement of NO major medical organization in the nation. They aren’t listening.

It’s time to be quiet. Time to take a deep breath. Time to smell flowers. Time to meditate. Time to pray. Time, especially, to consider the needs and problems of others.

All noise is waste.  So cultivate quietness in your speech, in your thoughts, in your emotions. Speak habitually low.  Wait for attention and then your low words will be charged with dynamite.  ~Elbert Hubbard

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On dominoes, ripples and divine intervention

Go ahead, be clinical about it and call it the domino effect or the ripple effect. Or, be a skeptic and deny that there’s any supernatural influence. I’m here in the middle of it, day after day---have been for the past 16 years---and I know darn well what it is. It’s divine intervention. Pure and simple.

Case in point.

In a telephone conversation with Joyce Davis last May, I discover that this African American mother, battling cancer and living on fixed income in the City of Detroit, is banned from visiting two of her sons serving time in state prisons because of old unpaid traffic tickets.

HFP’s job is first to verify that information. Yep, Lansing says, once a bench warrant is issued for the arrest of someone with unpaid traffic fines, that person may no longer visit persons in the state prison system…not until those fines are paid.

How to help this woman. HFP reaches out to Equal Justice Under Law, fine civil rights organization based in Washington DC that loves to attack states where poor people are punished because they can’t post bond or pay fines. When EJUC gets no response from a prison warden, after explaining that this visitation ban is actually not even in compliance with prison policy, let alone the U.S. constitution, these crack lawyers decide to go to the media.

Enter the Marshall Project--- excellent non-profit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system---where a kind writer not only takes the ball and runs with it…he helps Mrs. Davis to write her own story, in the first person. Immediate response from readers, who ask how they can help!

EJUL quickly sets up a GoFundMe account. In five hours, kind and generous people around the country---many of them doing so anonymously---pony up the $1,500 needed to pay off the fines. For the first time in three years, Mrs. Davis will be able to visit her sons again!

Doug Tjapkes working miracles?

HFP experience and expertise?

Domino effect?

Ripple effect?

Nah, Divine Intervention, without question. It’s a God thing.

We see it daily.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Two Fs that are NOT obscene: FOIA and First Amendment!

Something very significant occurred recently in the City of Grand Rapids. The city was forced to release a series of audio recordings from the police department…recordings that were seriously damaging because they showed an obvious intent to give favorable treatment to an obviously drunk driver. The reason: the guy was an assistant prosecutor.

The significance, here, is not that they tried to go easy on somebody from the prosecutor’s office, although that, too, is not to be disregarded. One can be sure that if you or I got stopped by the same cops, for the same infraction, nobody would be on some secret phone line trying to save our butts. No, the real significance here is that the information was obtained through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

MLive, publisher of the Grand Rapids Press, refused to take no for an answer, contending that “the people have a right to know how government is acting on its behalf, how taxpayer dollars are being spent, and that good judgment is being exercised in a fair and transparent manner.”  MLive took this challenge all the way to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the public was served.

I raise this issue to point out the fact that journalists are not the only ones making good use of the Freedom of Information Act. I don’t think a week goes by that HFP doesn’t file a FOIA request on behalf of someone in prison. We have a lawyer who counsels and advises us on these issues, and Matt has become adept at using this system, thus providing valuable assistance to many Michigan inmates.

But, and here’s the rub, you cannot imagine the resistance to transparency. I have a friend who’s an elected county official , and who boasts that the FOIA coordinator in his county---a retired lawyer---makes certain that the absolute minimum bit of information is released under provisions of the act. Witness how the City of Grand Rapids battled the Press, perhaps thinking that the extensive fights and legal costs would prod the newspaper into just dropping the issue. Matt constantly meets resistance and encounters delays, making one wonder just how much stuff is hidden in those records that officials don’t want prisoners---or the public---to know!

As taxpayers and followers of HFP activities, I write this piece to remind you just how important this procedure is, but also to stress that it must be safeguarded against those who seem to like official secrets and believe the public does not have a right to know. Prosecutorial misconduct and the hiding of evidence can and do result in wrongful convictions. 

A tip of the HFP hat to those courageous journalists who effectively pursue the truth through FOIA requests.

We’re finding it a useful tool, also. And we’re not going to back down, either!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

That does it. Now we're mad!

It’s no secret that we’re declaring war on bad medical treatment and care in Michigan prisons. We’ll do it in a calm, reasonable, and legal manner.

But sometimes, especially this week, when reading

-That a guy gave specific symptoms of a torn retina last February, when the physician says there was a 90% chance of saving his vision, but because they waited so long they think he’ll go blind…

-That a guy claimed he was having a heart attack, so they gave him Tums and sent him to his room, where he died of heart failure…

-That a woman with colon cancer who desperately needs surgery keeps getting postponements…

-That a prisoner with Crohn’s Disease is unable to get an appropriate diet…

-That a prisoner with sleep apnea was ordered to ship his CPap home when he was booked in, and now cannot get another…

-That a woman in the infirmary is complaining that her sheets are “awful…almost gray and black…”

That an inmate who suffered a torn ligament in his leg still cannot get treatment four years later…

…I feel like the guy in the 1970s film NETWORK. He was the guy who got so fed up with particular issues until he exploded: I want you to get up right now. Sit up. Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!

I promise to listen to our wonderful doctor, whose email messages continue to bear the beautiful, calm and insightful words from the founder of World Vision International:  May my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.

But---and I’m not a theologian---I call it “righteous indignation,” and we’re not gonna take this anymore! Things have got to change.

No question about it: We’re mad!

So are our doctors and lawyers.

In the battle of David vs. Goliath, I can assure you, David is selecting his stones!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Mrs. Jones, Fr. Boyle and HFP: touching broken spirits!

There are a lot of brilliant people in our prisons, but their hearts are not healthy. Their spirits have been broken.

The words of Grand Rapids public school principal Ruth Jones, who received the Hattie Beverly Education Award some years ago for turning around a failing inner city school. In trying to explain her formula, she said, “Everybody wants me to pass out a handbook and say, ‘Here’s the model you should use.’ But the bottom line under it all is love.”

Her words were sticking with me as I listened to Fr. Greg Boyle’s Ted Talk on YouTube. If you haven’t heard it yet, pry 20 minutes out of your schedule and make that happen. The author of TATTOOS OF THE HEART and founder of Homeboy Industries made the same point.

All of this so strongly underscores the importance of our interaction with prisoners.

But first let me address that first point by Mrs. Jones. As a pianist, organist and choir director, I am meeting and chatting with prison musicians who are far more skilled and far more talented than I could ever hope to be. As I writer, I am blown away by the penned words of some inmates. As an experienced public speaker, I couldn’t touch the abilities of some of the orators whom I heard in the SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS program! Our prisons are full of talented, gifted people who have their own personal struggles.

As HFP continues to experience record-breaking growth, some reorganization must come with our anticipated expansion. Perhaps we won’t be writing a handbook, but we must try to set out specific guidelines for handling the huge variety of in-house issues that we face daily in such categories as physical health, mental health, and injustice.  Our advisory panel of nearly 50 professional people play an important role. But I go back to our slogan which explains our work better than anything: Action with Compassion!

Jesus said he was giving a new commandment: “Love one another…”

There’s no handbook to show how Mrs. Jones turned around that inner city school, or to show how Fr. Boyle turns around the lives of gang members, or to show how HFP touches lives. It’s simply caring, simply trying. It’s love. 

A prisoner roundly chastised me the other day, rejecting my advice and doing his best to get rid of me. I had to patiently explain to him that he could drop me, but I’m not a fair-weather friend. He’s stuck with me.

St. Paul had it right: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love wins.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When prisoners deflected my end-of-summer blues

Jean, Michael, Scott, Shirlee. I’m sure those names mean nothing to you. But to me, they made the difference between darkness and light last week. To explain, I hate when summer comes to an end, and it’s almost like I’m in mourning in those final days of August. Four prisoners were among many who wouldn’t let me sing the end-of-summer blues this year.

From Huron Valley, Michigan’s only prison for women, a place from which we’ve received a ton of complaints about staff problems, came a surprising and refreshing request from Jean. She observed that too many of the officers at WHV are working too many hours, and she asked if we could do something about it. These officers are working sixteen plus hours daily on a regular basis and they are getting burned out. This affects us prisoners because the officers are short tempered, are too tired to proper manage the housing units they are assigned to, and occasionally they are falling asleep on the job. I don't blame them; they are completely exhausted and wiped out. My concern is not only for their safety (driving while exhausted, etc.) but for our safety as well. How well can we be protected when their response time to a crisis is diminished? How can the drug abuse be monitored properly when officers are too tired to care?  What a turn of events! Prisoners advocating for staff.

A slip in our post office box indicated that we had an oversize package waiting for us from Ionia. Prisoners sometimes ask if they can help us raise funds, and that’s the last we hear about it. Michael was among them, but he did something. A gifted artist, he used our photos of Grand Haven’s iconic lighthouse to create a series of original lighthouse paintings that are award winning. When I opened the package it felt like Christmas morning! No note. No invoice. Just something he wanted to do for HFP. They’ll sell, and those dollars will go to work for us.

Speaking of dollars, a check arrived in the mail, sadly one of only a few that crossed my desk last week. It came from Scott, a prisoner in Jackson. The amount:  7 dollars. That may not seem like a lot to you, but I happen to know that his take home wage is $19 a month! We’re one of three agencies to receive his donations quarterly. I feel called of God to do it, says Scott!

Then came this nice note from Shirlee: I woke up today thinking about all you do for the women here at Huron Valley. HFP has made its impact on our little society here in the most wonderful way! From our clothes, to cleaning supplies, to medication, to health care, food, segregation, one-on-one, the list just continues. But when you put it all together you really can see just how much we mean to HFP. We love you!

Beauty, sunshine, love, kindness, from the place where you might least expect it. God’s little way of pointing out that, in my daily work with inmates, there’s really no room for end-of-summer blues.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

David just picked up the first stone!

A black preacher recently challenged leaders in the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination to which I belong, with these words: We’re talking and meeting, and the world is dying.

That has been my point on this prison healthcare issue all along.

We love to meet and discuss these matters, and bitterly complain about the woeful lack of compassion and integrity by healthcare providers in the Michigan prison system. We love to go on Facebook and bad-mouth the whole department for allowing this shameful guise called “healthcare” to continue. We talk about writing our legislators and our Governor. We call for the dismissal of Corizon, the company with whom Michigan has contracted for prison health services. Talk, talk, talk! One horror story after another.

For HFP, the talk ends now! We may be the little guy, but I’m here to report today that we’ve got doctors and lawyers on board. They’re convinced. They’re ready.

Now we need evidence. No more stories about what happened to our brother, our cousin, our aunt, our daughter. It’s time to back up all of these claims, all of these stories, with hard evidence. We need actual documentation that accommodation orders, prescriptions, diagnoses, existed…yes, and then proof that these orders and requirements were deliberately ignored, treatment was deliberately not provided, special needs went deliberately unattended. If you can’t prove it on paper, our professionals can’t help. Word-of-mouth isn’t enough.

We’re especially looking for “commonality.” If we can provide our legal people with documented proof that, for example, doctors’ orders and accommodation instructions are ignored when a prisoner gets transferred to another facility; if we can prove that there’s a pattern of disregarding post-surgery instructions, therapy and medication; if there is hard evidence that required surgery was provided too late or not at all…then we promise that something will be done about it.

What I’m saying is that we have the professional help and guidance; now we need the grass-roots assistance. Forget the claims and the stories, we want to see the documents. Once you get your hands on this material, please contact our office.

The story of David vs. Goliath has begun.

David just picked up the first stone.

Monday, August 28, 2017

He may be in a better place now, but it was hell when he was here!

Reggie’s gone now. Looking back, prison was no place for him from the get-go.

I’m here to tell his sad story today, trying to point out, once again, how the system fails people. In this case, the failure came at three levels: in the fields of mental health, justice, and physical health. Granted, people struggle with all three of these, and many more issues, daily. But I gotta tell ya, when you factor in racial minority and poverty, the struggles are amplified, and can seem insurmountable.

A year before he entered prison Reggie suffered a stroke, and mentally, he was never right since then. Those close to him would sometime get turned off by his uncontrollable laughing, for example, even though he couldn’t help it. But, mental health care was elusive.

Then came that prison business. Those close to him say it was a wrongful conviction…no motive, no weapon, no proof.  Justice was elusive. We see and hear and read about wrongful convictions every day, but again, factor in issues of race and poverty, and chances are things won’t turn out well.

That wasn’t all. During his prison stay, physical problems seemed to multiply: a heart attack, kidney failure, blood pressure issues. Still only 51 years of age, things turned even worse with a serious infection and gangrene. With limited mental capacity, he would refuse dialysis on some days because he didn’t feel like it, not realizing that this was a life and death matter. Those involved in medical care seemed indifferent. He was just a prisoner.

Things weren’t easy for frustrated family members on the outside, either. They didn’t know where to turn, and sadly, our office held no magic wand. They’d go to see him, and he wouldn’t be there. Heartless prison staff would say he’s gone for medical treatment, but wouldn’t say where. Adequate and caring medical care was elusive.

Word is that he went from hospital to hospital, then ended up at the prison’s dark and dank Duane Waters health center. That’s where his sister found him, seriously bloated from lack of kidney flushing. And that’s where he died a few days ago.

The state has another empty bed, and another statistic addition.

These stories never get any easier for us.

Our Medical Director found one bright spot in this one: He’s in a better place now.

Thank God.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Poor medical care demands our attention. Now!

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” – Mark Twain.

I use those quotes to begin this blog, because it’s past time that we do something about poor medical care in Michigan prisons.

I’ll be releasing statistics this week showing that HFP has responded to more than 3,000 prisoner contacts already this year, a new record! And of those contacts, approximately 20% discuss claims of poor medical care.

Just in the past few days:

-Prisoner 1: I had a hip replacement, but my leg still hurts to the point I’m in tears. My hip still hurts, but healthcare has told me I don’t need therapy, and I walk with a limp because one leg is longer. Hurts so bad I can’t eat or sleep.

Prisoner 2:  I had a stroke and was given physical therapy. Then I was transferred, and since I’ve been here I’ve been denied meds and physical therapy. (His enclosed accommodations order also demanded a walker, which he didn’t get!).

Prisoner 3 Complained of problems year and a half ago, was recently sent to a hospital ER, and the diagnosis: colon cancer. Said our consulting oncologist: This kills me. If she would have had proper access early-on, this could have been found sooner.

This stuff crosses our desk on a daily basis. We are blessed to have a medical consultant on our HFP team, and we use him almost every day of the week. He finally concluded last week: “I think the only thing worse in MDOC than medical is food service.” (That’s really bad!)

Health care in Michigan prisons is provided by Corizon, the nation's largest for-profit provider of correctional health services. It’s a company with a checkered history, and has been known to have contract battles in numerous other states, usually over quality-of-care concerns.

If the Michigan Department of Corrections refuses to do anything about this, if the state legislature is only concerned about the bottom line, if prisoner advocacy agencies want to just talk about the issue, maybe it’s time for David to meet Goliath.

HFP is the little guy in town, and our mode of operation fits into the guidelines offered by a Bible verse: …remember those in prison as if you were together with them.

Whether or not you agree with the Bible, the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees medical care for prisoners.  Yet, says the National Journal of Health Care:  Many inmates with a serious chronic physical illness fail to receive care while incarcerated. 

Today, it feels to me like the ball’s in our court. Perhaps it’s time to listen to Dr. King!

Monday, August 14, 2017

RADICAL PROPOSAL #1: Listen to prisoners!

I’ve taken some time before responding to the new prisoner mail regulations. It’s easy to throw darts at the Michigan Department of Corrections. It’s far more complicated (but certainly more productive) to offer positive ideas.

I’m going to do a series of blogs under the theme RADICAL PROPOSAL, and I’m going to do my best to avoid argumentative rhetoric. I believe we have the credentials to speak out. Our Michigan case load had exceeded 1,000 by the first of this year. HFP has worked with well over 600 inmates in 2017 alone! To quote a popular TV commercial: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

The first in this series is about the new prison mail policy.

The nation-wide opioid crisis crosses all levels of society, and the prison systems are no exception. Well aware of the drug problem in Michigan prisons, the Department of Corrections has taken radical steps to change the way mail is coming into each facility. The Department recently handed out the list of things that people may no longer do, much like the Ten Commandments…no explanations or reasons given. Understandably, prisoners were blind-sided.

Within minutes everyone began speaking out: prisoners, families, friends, advocates, and the media.

Our RADICAL PROPOSAL #1: Listen to prisoners!  Not only now, but especially when making these decisions.

Wise wardens in the state, for example, pay close attention to what is discussed in the Warden’s Forums, which are made up of prisoners and staff alike. They listen, because they know it’s a way to keep a thumb on the pulse of what’s going on.

A small panel of consulting inmates, black and white, men and women, old and young, could have been helpful in hashing out new mailing regulations. If there is a good explanation as to why only two colors of ink can be used any more, why Valentines may not be sent in red envelopes any more, or why children cannot send crayon drawings any more---the advisory panel would have placed their stamp on the final decision. That, along with a properly formulated explanation, would have done wonders to avoid the tsunami the MDOC is now facing.

We’ve been impressed with changes under the new MDOC Director. The Heidi Washington regime has proved---to the chagrin of “tough on crime” legislators and “hardline” MDOC staffers---that it is concerned about recidivism rates and it is interested in preparing prisoners for re-entry.  We’ve seen a marked increase, not only in educational programs, but also in vocational training as well as an expansion of positive program availability.

Our bet is that they would be surprised to learn just how much prisoners know about this drug problem (drugs are coming in on both sides of the fence), and how effective and helpful their suggestions might be.

We speak from experience: These people are savvy. It’s time to listen to them.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Yes, indeed. We do our best to befriend and help the alleged "sex offender."

Once arrested on a sex charge, you can bet that---from that day on---your life will be hell.

The sad thing is, some of the people whom we so broadly label as sex offenders, may not even be sex offenders. It may have been as simple as foolishly urinating in an alley in the middle of the night, or it may have been a wrongful conviction as the result of malicious lies told by an ex-spouse. Makes no difference. From the day of that arrest, life is hell.

The cops treat them differently.

The Prosecutor’s office treats them differently.

The judge treats them differently.

Fellow inmates behind bars treat them differently.

Corrections officers treat them differently.

The Parole Board treats them differently.

The shameful treatment doesn’t end there. When these people get out, the state’s terribly unfair and inadequate sex offender registry brands them with a scarlet letter. Reentry is incredibly difficult. Some agencies don’t want to help them. Some, we are told, don’t even respond. Yes, even some of the so-called “faith-based” organizations. Housing is almost impossible to find. Employment is elusive.

Because of all this, these men and women, locked up as alleged sex offenders, get very paranoid and suspect that none of us will help.

For example, our office received a request from a convicted sex offender anticipating release in the near future, for financial assistance. He’s broke, and has been abandoned by friends and family alike. He’s going to be freed with only the clothes he’s wearing. No clothes. No belongings of any sort. No money. No job. No place to live. And now he’s annoyed with us. “Your literature says that you help prisoners with special needs,” he complains.

For those who know HFP, you know that our focus is strictly in assisting prisoners with personal, in-house issues, such as health care. There are other agencies who work in the field of re-entry. We collaborate with them, but we don’t try to duplicate their efforts.

Yet, because we didn’t immediately respond with all of these special re-entry requests, including money, the inmate grumbles that “you don’t want to help me because I’m a ‘sex offender.’”

I completely understand why he feels that way, but our position is clear: We’re here to help every prisoner. We don’t look at the charges or the alleged crimes. We try not to show favoritism. We promptly respond to every request for help. No one will ever claim that we fail to answer because we don’t like them. Our message to the guy complaining today, and to other sex offenders, as well as to our supporters, is based on the story of a genuine sex offender in the Bible. A bunch of pompous asses caught a woman in the act and brought her to the Master, suggesting that she should be stoned.

They quietly left shortly thereafter, though. Jesus replied that the one free of any guilt should toss the first rock.

Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
 “No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I…”

Neither do we.