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