Wednesday, November 29, 2017

HFP: Not down for the 10 count!

HFP is still here, but not for lack of trying by the forces of evil.

Founded in 2001 under the name INNOCENT and based on the dream of Maurice Carter, our organization not only quickly proved its worth, but gained in popularity among prisoners. So, the first attempts to quash our efforts were rather mild.

Maurice died in 2004. His dream lived on.

Free office space ended in 2009 when our building was sold. We moved from Muskegon to Grand Haven, found a low-rent room, and continued.

Then came the major artillery.

I was attacked by a brutal staph infection in 2010. My kids flew home, I lost 65 pounds, was on a feeding tube for 6 months, but survived! And HFP’s work continued unhindered, thanks to my wife, my son and a dynamite intern!

All prisoner emails were shut down in 2015. HFP had been unknowingly violating two MDOC policies. Productive discussions in Lansing; apologies, compromise, and email service was restored.

Black Friday gained new meaning in 2017! There appeared to be a total black-out of all JPay email service between prisoners and HFP the day after Thanksgiving. This massive attack involved up to 1,500 prisoners!  FYI, our team regularly sends 300-500 email messages to inmates per month.

I want to assure all Michigan inmates, their families and loved ones, that this will not stop us. Christians define the evil one as Satan, Muslims as Shayton, and atheists and agnostics generally agree that a “force of evil” definitely exists. In our case, evil will not win!

I keep thinking of the Apostle Paul, who earlier in his life persecuted the Christian community and the Christian church. Through a miraculous conversion, he became a mighty force for Christianity. Opposition, problems and attacks were vicious:

I have…been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

Yet he persevered, stating flatly: If God is for us, who can be against us?

That’s where we are.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Doing little things for little people is big!

I don’t wish for hurricanes, earthquakes, or any kind of natural disaster. But there are days when I wish we had some kind of a spectacular accomplishment that might help major donors and wealthy foundations to recognize our value in our unique role.

No, we haven’t been sending material goods, food or dollars to stricken victims around the world. Instead, we’ve been

Trying to get a rescue inhaler to a prisoner who’s struggling with asthma attacks

Putting the finishing touches on a 9-month project where we got traffic fines paid for an indigent mother in Detroit, thus enabling her to resume visits with her two sons in prison…visits that got banned 3 years ago by unpaid traffic tickets

Doing our best to get a new typewriter ribbon for a wrongly-convicted inmate in the U.P. who needs his typewriter to prepare his own legal documents

Rushing to get clothing and shoes for an indigent ex-offender who found, upon his release, that the half-way house to which he had been assigned offered no provisions

Hoping to persuade a national agency to help us get appropriate prison care and treatment for a guy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, now in solitary confinement because he doesn’t follow orders

Exploring how best to show love and compassion to a transgender inmate who has been rejected by his family, mocked by peers and abused by officers

Pressuring the Department to give back a CPAP to a prisoner with sleep apnea. He was using the apparatus before he was incarcerated. The Michigan prison doctor told him he didn’t need it, and refused to allow him to keep it.

Spectacular? Hard hitting? Headline-attracting? Intriguing to major donors? Nope, but it’s what we do, responding to over a hundred calls a week.

We opt to stay working with the marginalized, one at a time, using Fr. Greg Boyle’s philosophy“If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.” 

Because, as he states: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be some lives out there that matter less than other lives.” 




Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What's in the brown paper bag?

On this Thanksgiving Day, 2017, I’d like to share a beautiful story...a story not written by me. I feel certain that Luis Ramirez would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him. He's dead.

This message came to me from Death Row in Texas a few years after our organization was formed. We hear a lot of stories about prisoners. As President of HFP, though, I think it's important for all of us to be reminded that prisoners are people, they have feelings and emotions, and as I understand it, all are created in the image of God.

Anyway, here’s my Thanksgiving gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez: (In all caps, just the way he sent it)

I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.  I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET.  I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST.

THE FIRST PERSON I MET THERE WAS NAPOLEON BEASLEY.  BACK THEN, DEATH ROW PRISONERS STILL WORKED.  HIS JOB WAS TO CLEAN UP THE WING AND HELP SERVE DURING MEAL TIMES.  HE WAS WALKING AROUND SWEEPING THE POD IN THESE RIDICULOUS-LOOKING RUBBER BOOTS.  HE CAME UP TO THE BARS OF THE CELL AND ASKED ME IF I WAS NEW.  I TOLD HIM THAT I HAD JUST ARRIVED ON D.R.  HE ASKED WHAT MY NAME IS.  I TOLD HIM.  HE HOLLERED AT EVERYONE:  “THERE'S A NEW MAN HERE.  HE JUST DROVE UP.  HIS NAME IS LUIS RAMIREZ.”

I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF IT.  LIKE MOST OF YOU, I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT EVERYONE ON D.R. WAS EVIL.  NOW THEY ALL KNEW MY NAME.  I WAS SURE THEY WOULD SOON BEGIN HARASSING ME.

WELL, THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED.  AFTER SUPPER WAS SERVED, NAPOLEON WAS ONCE AGAIN SWEEPING THE FLOORS.  AS HE PASSED MY CELL HE SWEPT A BROWN PAPER BAG INTO IT.  I ASKED HIM, “WHAT'S THIS?”  HE SAID FOR ME TO LOOK INSIDE, AND CONTINUED ON HIS WAY.

MAN I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT.  I CAREFULLY OPENED THE BAG.  WHAT I FOUND WAS THE LAST THING I EVER EXPECTED TO FIND ON DEATH ROW, AND EVERYTHING I NEEDED.  THE BAG CONTAINED SOME STAMPS, ENVELOPES, NOTE PAD, PEN, SOAP, SHAMPOO, TOOTHPASTE, TOOTH BRUSH, A PASTRY, A SODA, AND A COUPLE OF RAMEN NOODLES.  I REMEMBER ASKING NAPOLEON WHERE THIS CAME FROM.  HE TOLD ME THAT EVERYONE HAD PITCHED IN.  I ASKED HIM TO FIND OUT WHO HAD CONTRIBUTED…I WANTED TO PAY THEM BACK.  HE SAID, “IT'S NOT LIKE THAT.  JUST REMEMBER THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE SOMEONE COMING HERE LIKE YOU, YOU PITCH IN SOMETHING.”

I SAT THERE ON MY BUNK AND THOUGHT OF HOW MANY TIMES I HAD SEEN “GOOD PEOPLE” OF THE WORLD PASS BY SOME MAN, WOMAN OR CHILD HOLDING A SIGN THAT SAID HUNGRY, OR WILL WORK FOR FOOD.  I'M GUILTY OF THE SAME.  I JUST PASSED THEM BY.  YET HERE ON DEATH ROW AMONG THE “WORST OF THE WORST,” I DIDN'T HAVE TO HOLD UP A SIGN.

I NEVER GOT TO TELL NAPOLEON ABOUT MY FEELINGS.  HE WAS EXECUTED.  I COULDN'T FIND HIS FAMILY.

WHAT'S IN THE BROWN PAPER BAG?   I FOUND CARING, KINDNESS, LOVE, HUMANITY AND COMPASSION ON A SCALE THAT I'VE NEVER SEEN THE “GOOD PEOPLE” IN THE FREE WORLD SHOW TOWARDS ONE ANOTHER.

After reading this story, I wanted to send a note of thanks to Luis Ramirez. But I was too late. He was executed by the state of Texas in October, 2005. He was 42. He claimed wrongful conviction until his death.  

“What you do to these men, you do to God"
--Mother Teresa during her visit to San Quentin Prison



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Standing with the powerless and the voiceless: HFP at Public Hearings!

We chose to stand by two guys today. Perhaps some would call them losers. 

Why, you might ask. Why speak up for someone who committed a terrible crime against humanity 30, 40 or 50 years ago? Human life seemed to mean very little to that person back then. Why suggest freedom for that kind of criminal?

I’m referring to Public Hearings, sessions conducted by the Michigan Parole Board to determine if serious offenders should be paroled. I first became aware of the Public Hearing in 2004, when the Board tried to determine whether to release my friend Maurice Carter. Since that time, our office has made it a priority to speak up, when possible, for our friends.

There’s something you gotta know about Public Hearings. They’re not fun.

-The prisoner is nervous and, more often than not, unprepared.
-The Parole Board members are concerned about freeing a dangerous person.
-The Assistant Attorney General, who claims to represent all the people of the State of Michigan, tends to lean all of his support toward victims of the crime, and refuses to recommend parole for anyone who has committed a violent crime. Regardless of any extenuating circumstances.
-Friends and/or family members of the victim(s) sometimes show to support that position.
-Judges and Prosecutors, also, often oppose the release.

Does anyone speak up on behalf of the inmate? Sometimes…perhaps a family member or a friend. Some claim to be too nervous. Some are embarrassed by the nature of the crime. Some have nothing to do with the inmate anymore and stay home. In some cases, no one shows.

Today we spoke up on behalf of two inmates. One guy, 64, has served 40 years. Rehabilitation has worked, and we’re convinced he’s going to make it. The other is 68, has served 33 years, and won’t live much longer. He’s terminally ill, and in our communications with him, he just doesn’t want to die in prison.

Two losers? We didn’t think so. It meant a day away for Matt, while calls and messages stacked up in the office (We’re getting over a hundred a week).

Matt will be the first to tell you: It’s where we belonged.

Perhaps Father Greg Boyle says it best:

We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

Yep, that’s HFP!



Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Feeding a prisoner for under four bucks a day!

As a teenager in the 1950s, I was a grocery bagger in my father’s supermarket. Of all the people who came for their weekly food supplies, I remember one woman who paid over $20 consistently for her grocery order. She was obviously very poor, but was the parent of a large flock of kids. I would carry her bags to the car, while her husband sat in the vehicle reading the newspaper. Usually 4-5 bags, filled to the brim. Not many people spent that kind of money on groceries.

Today, in 2017, I did the grocery shopping for Marcia and me. I paid $104 and some odd cents! Two octogenarians do not consume a lot of food, and I don’t purchase filet mignon and caviar.

I’m fully aware of the fact that those entities that purchase large amounts of food can save plenty. I did some checking on school meals. The latest statistics I could find showed the average cost of lunch for an elementary school student was $2.34. That’s a deal!

I bring up all of this stuff because my mind is still reeling over a story that Detroit Free Press writer Paul Egan broke recently regarding meals in the Michigan prison system. Once again maggots were found. Besides that, dirt was found in some of the food.

Meals are provided in Michigan prisons by Trinity Services Group, a national agency based in Florida. Rather than use state employees, Michigan chooses to outsource for chow.

I’ll save the comments on maggots and dirt, problems with Trinity employees, and the numerous penalties already paid by that company. I want to focus on cost.

I asked Egan to break down the contract so we could figure out how much money is spent on a meal for a prisoner. His reply: The cost for a single meal is $1.29! In other words, the State of Michigan spends $3.87 per day to feed the nearly 40,000 persons supervised by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Granted, because I know I can’t take the money with me when I leave this earth, I now enjoy the luxury of buying my sandwich ham from the deli instead of in a bargain package. And I now feel that it’s OK to purchase higher priced bread from the bakery, rather than the stuff off the shelf.

But $1.29 per meal? $3.87 per day?

The next time you’re in the store, see what you can buy for under four bucks.

Quoting Mahatma Ghandi: “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

Wonder how Pure Michigan stacks up?


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The kind of guys Jesus would hang out with

My friend David once said, in describing prisoners, “I think these are the kind of guys Jesus would hang out with.”

I seldom write blogs when I’ve had a little quaff. Generally, I try to create the blogs in the morning when the mind of this octogenarian seems to be most productive. I admit, I’m mellow this evening. And for good reason.

HFP’s wonderful volunteer Jennifer and I went to the Muskegon Correctional Facility this afternoon, at the request of the prison’s National Lifers Association Chapter, to lead a workshop on how prisoners might fill out application forms for a commutation of sentence.

For background: No one knows whether Governor Rick Snyder will soften his stance and think about clemency during his last year in office. But there are many prisoners, especially lifers, especially those serving life without parole, who are hoping this might happen. That has led to business propositions from lawyers and agencies who say to vulnerable inmates: Such a deal we have for you!  For $#### we’ll prepare this application for you, because we know legal people in the Governor’s office, or we have special contacts, or we are exceptionally brilliant.

We know this is a crock, because we’ve been told so by top officials in the MDOC. So, to counter that, we’re offering to help inmates file these applications at no charge.  Hence, today’s seminar.

I don’t want to discuss who knows what about commutations, except to say that if someone claims to have an inside corner he or she is full of it. No one knows.

And that’s the kind of straight talk that I shared with 25 guys at MCF today. What a beautiful experience! We shared thoughts. We shared ideas. We asked questions. We tried to answer questions. Do we know it all, like the experts claim? NO. But here’s what many experts don’t have: a genuine bond between inmates and advisers. It was that kinship that we felt today.

I’m not exactly sure how much the guys got out of our workshop this afternoon. But I can tell you this: Jen and I were blessed beyond measure!

In my humble opinion, David was right.