Sunday, May 27, 2018

It's Memorial Day behind bars, too

I love Memorial Day.

When I was a kid, back in the 30s and 40s, it was often referred to as Decoration Day. I did some checking on that, and found this:

Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

The parades on Memorial Day were somber events back then. People didn’t clap, and bands didn’t play. Soldiers and sailors marched. I remember seeing quiet weeping among bystanders as military units passed by.

Many years later, as a radio station owner and manager, I did my best to make this a special day for our listeners. No up-tempo music and fun lingo. Instead, meaningful commentaries and appropriate music.

Two careers later, I’m working with prisoners on a daily basis, but my Memorial Day focus is still the same. Nationwide, about 8% of the prison population is made up of military veterans. Here in Michigan, the percentage is slightly lower. We have about 1,900 vets in Michigan’s 32 prisons. About 5%. I’m thinking of them today.

Researchers have listed three major factors that send returning veterans to our prisons: alcohol and drugs, difficulty adjusting to civilian life, and economic disadvantages.

The purpose of my piece today is not to delve into the problems. Those who are veterans, or who personally know veterans, will not be surprised that these issues sometimes result in problems. And those problems sometimes result in incarceration.

I just want to say that while enjoying picnics, boating, swimming, fireworks and family holiday fun, take time to remember the importance, and yes, the solemnity of the day. Give thanks not only for those who paid the ultimate price, but also to all veterans, all still serving, and then offer a special prayer for those veterans now residing behind bars.

Many are feeling lonely, unloved, un-thanked, unappreciated, and unwanted today. May God be near them. Their present circumstances do nothing to diminish the value of their contributions to our nation and the freedoms we enjoy.

How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!
Maya Angelou

Never was so much owed by so many to so few
–Winston Churchill

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

It's true: We are family!

Ev'ryone can see we're together
As we walk on by
(Hey) and we fly just like birds of a feather
I won't tell no lie
(ALL!) all of the people around us they say
Can they be that close?

That was a good old song we used to hear on the radio in the 70s and 80s: We are family. The phrase was sung and shouted over and over again. Loved it!

I was thinking of that this morning as I checked my calendar. We’re rejoicing, we’re celebrating with Bryan today. He walked out of prison this morning…his first day of freedom in 30 years! We helped him get to this point, and attended his Public Hearing to testify before the Michigan Parole Board that we felt this man was ready to reenter society. Family.

Yesterday was Mark’s birthday. Nobody but other prisoners to celebrate with him. His mother died last year. His grown kids are out of state. Mark has been in prison for nine years for a crime he did not commit. We’ve been at his side, and we’re hoping he’ll be working with us upon his release. We sent him birthday greetings yesterday. Family.

Mark was also one of 15 of our friends who graduated this week with college degrees. They got their Associate’s Degrees as part of a program started some years ago by Calvin College of Grand Rapids. The Calvin Prison Initiative project is conducted at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. It’s a rigorous program of actual college credit classes, taught by college professors. The guys will be the first to tell you that it’s a real challenge. Yet, these 15 inmates---some of them lifers---are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees. HFP paid tribute to them this morning. Family.

On a sadder note, Rick died a few days ago. He was still being pursued by his demons when released from prison the first time, and before he new it, he was right back in the slammer. Then cancer intervened.  He was finally granted a compassionate release just in time for him to be placed in a private facility on the outside, where he spent his final moments. It was sad. Bridges had been burned, so no family around. Yet one of our volunteers stuck with him through it all, and Rick remained in touch with our office by telephone until the very end. He’s finally free from pain and distress. But those left behind are hurting. Family.

The HFP team and Michigan prisoners are family. No question about it.

A family is a place where principles are hammered and honed on the anvil of everyday living. ~ Chuck Swindoll, Pastor

We are family
Get up ev'rybody and sing!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Kudos to two local TV journalists!

Doug complimenting local TV news coverage! Will wonders never cease?

OK, OK, I agree that I do my share of complaining. That’s what "old-timer" reporters do when they listen to the radio, read the newspaper and watch the boob-tube. Marcia will tell you that on some days, such coverage or lack thereof can result in a loss for me---loss of temper, loss of appetite, etc.

But fair is fair, and two local TV journalists this week did outstanding work!

On Channel 8, WOOD TV’s Ken Kolker created a great piece entitled “Miscarriage of Justice:” State fights wrongful conviction payments. It’s a shameful account of how state legislators passed a law that would enable persons who had been wrongly convicted to receive a payment of $50,000 per year for every year that they had spent behind bars. It was the honorable thing to do. But the dishonorable result, Ken points out in his insightful piece, is that the Michigan Attorney General, William Schuette, seems hell-bent to prevent these poor people from ever collecting what’s due them. Wrong, immoral, unconscionable, from so many perspectives!

On Fox 17, Dana Chicklas did her homework, and put together a fine piece entitled Backlog of rehabilitation programs keepssome prisoners in past their early release dates. It’s a serious problem which our office deals with regularly. Simply put, the Parole Board demands completion of certain programs by prisoners before they are released into society. But the programs aren’t always available in the right facility or at the right time. And so you get prisoners who should be free, and who deserve to be free, having their release dates delayed by the Parole Board because they didn’t take all the necessary programs. There are more than 250 inmates, she reports, who are past their earliest release dates, but who are still locked up. If you think that doesn’t affect you and me, consider that it costs $36,000 of state money to care for one prisoner for one year. Multiply that times 250 to see how your tax dollars are being spent.

I’m writing this to encourage two things: viewing and response.

Go to the TV web sites, watch the reports, but don’t stop there. Contact your state legislators, the people elected to serve you in the Michigan House and Senate. Voice your disapproval promptly and forcefully.

And finally, give serious thought to your choice for the next Governor of Michigan.

A tip of the HFP hat to Ken Kolker and Dana Chicklas! Well done!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Prison is especially tough for transgender inmates!

I read something from Reuters over the weekend that shouldn’t have surprised me. But I found it upsetting.

The Trump administration has rolled back protections for transgender prison inmates introduced under former President Barack Obama after some prisoners challenged the policies in court. An inmate’s “biological sex” will now be used to make the initial decision as to where transgender prisoners are housed, instead of the gender to which they identify, according to a change in guidelines announced on Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The word “transgender” gained popularity in the 1990s as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and expression did not necessarily match the gender they were assigned at birth, according to Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Arizona.

I’m not going to use a blog to examine this complex issue. What I want to address is this matter of treating all people with respect. Our staff has positioned itself at the side of several transgender inmates in the Michigan prison system, and I want to tell you that for those people, it’s a rough road! We’re here for them, and that’s where we’ll stay.

It may be the real “he-man” thing to do to ban transgender personnel from our military, and to roll back advances made by the U.S. Bureau of prisons. It may appeal to certain political factions, but it’s dumb. Not only that, it’s inhumane, and it’s setting a terrible example that must not be followed.

I read an overly-simplified explanation the other day, showing a can of sliced carrots, but the outside label showed green beans. The writer pointed out that this incorrect information had nothing to do with the quality of the contents. The beans weren’t rotten or spoiled. They just didn’t match the product on the label.

So if we take our mission seriously at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, we’d have to say that the prisoner who stutters, who is autistic, who is gay, who worships Buddha, who can speak only Vietnamese, or who struggles with gender issues…these inmates are all created in the image of God, and they all deserve equal and fair treatment.

I’ll tell you what we’re doing in the HFP office. We’re working on developing a list of resources for transgender inmates…resources that can perhaps help them while in prison, and for sure help them as they prepare for reentry into society. It’s no less or no more than we’re trying to do for all prisoners facing all kinds of problems, and don’t know where to turn.

It’s our job.

Our name says it all.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Cold temp/Hot topic

Maurice Carter was freezing!

I was granted special permission to visit him in his hospital room at the Duane L. Waters medical facility, a part of the Michigan prison system. He was in the final stages of Hepatitis C, and eventually would have his sentence commuted for medical reasons. But right now, he was fully clothed in a hospital bed, locked up in tiny, grey room.

“Can’t you get another blanket, Maurice?”

“Well, I asked for one.”

An unconcerned corrections officer, assigned to guard Maurice so he wouldn’t try to escape, paid no attention. I don’t know if Maurice ever got his blanket. That was back in 2004.

I’d forgotten about that incident until I chatted with a guy who recently had visited a Michigan prison psych unit while on special assignment. He explained that it was exceptionally cold in there.  As he left the facility, he tried making conversation with an officer who was bundled up in his own coat. My friend kidded him about staying warm. The guard saw no reason for discussion, and had a curt response. “These guys are prisoners,” he said. “You think we’re going to do anything to make them comfortable?”

Under different circumstances, I could hear Jesus saying, “I was cold in prison and you gave me a blanket,” or, “you turned up the heat.”

This summer, it’ll be a different story. There’ll be reports during the warm weather months of extreme heat in prisons, also resulting in serious discomfort.

The issue isn’t hot or cold temps. It’s defining what we hope to accomplish. Are we here to punish, or are we here to rehabilitate?

I’m reading impressive numbers about a reduction of the recidivism rate here in Michigan, due to some positive program improvements. Director Heidi Washington and her administration are to be commended for this.

But attitude trickle-down is equally important. If Director Washington’s goal is rehabilitation, the wardens whom she appoints will also reflect that attitude. And with common-sense wardens in place, officers under them will soon get a clear picture as to the attitude and atmosphere that are expected. It’s not going to happen overnight. But if we can improve the recidivism rate, we can also improve the departmental attitude. And that could and should improve the comfort rate.

Encouraging, or even simply allowing, discomfort because “these are just prisoners” is not acceptable.

I tell you the truth. Whatever you did for the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.

Cold temperatures, cold attitudes, cold comments…they all hit my hot button.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Little things/big point: You’re just a number!

Little things.

Often, it’s the little things that touch me. I’ve written several blogs about that.

But then, it can be little things that set me off, too!

Rudy recently sent this message to me by email:

My mother came to see me on Sunday and was refused to be let in because she cannot go through the metal detectors because she has a heart pace maker because she is battling cancer. I believe that was kinda harsh to reject the visit, when they could have pat her down or scan her with the wand.

His elderly and ailing mom comes all the way from Detroit to Jackson to visit her son, and the CO can’t take a moment to use the metal detection wand? Harsh? Are you kidding me? One will never prove whether race might be involved, or whether the officer was just having a bad day. Guess whether this is the first time something like this has ever happened.

Second example.

Carl sent me this message by email:
Dear Doug:
My wife died this Easter Sunday. She thought the world about you and the support you have been providing me with.

The message arrived in my in-box exactly one month after he sent it. One month! We realize that HFP messages, in and out, are under high scrutiny. Delays are inevitable. But for someone in the department to delay this meaningful and highly personal, intimate message for four weeks is inexcusable. No one can prove whether the specific charge that sent Carl to prison might have played a part in this, or whether the screening officer was just having a bad day. The spin-off, of course, is that there was no prompt heartfelt response from me. For all Carl knew, I didn't care.

These are people, Ladies and Gentlemen. They're behind bars. You and I are not. We all have feelings. We all count, based on my interpretation of the Holy Writ. 

In my column, published in the May, 2018, HFP newsletter, I point out that once you enter the prison system you’re no longer a person. These two small examples underscore the point:  In there you’re still just a number.

I truly believe the current Michigan prison administration is making progress, but I’m also convinced that it will take a miracle to warm up a cold, heartless system.

That’s why our name and our mission are so important. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is our name, and that describes our philosophy.

Every inmate deserves to be treated in a humane manner.

No exceptions.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Prison volunteers: lightening the burden!

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.

I discovered something very important back in the 70s, when I was leading a little rag-tag group of 13 singers in a new group called HIS MEN. It was important to stretch these white, middle-class businessmen, teachers and laborers. So I constantly pushed them into unfamiliar venues with their message of song: jails, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, and churches unlike theirs.

The results were predictable. Not only were listeners of these fine old gospel melodies blessed beyond compare, but the singers were touched even more! Their world was suddenly expanded. The ripple effect followed. They shared with others.

I’m reminded of all this while basking in warm feelings over a weekend experience at the Muskegon Correctional Facility. I attended the annual Volunteer Appreciation Celebration. I barely qualified to participate. Most volunteers are regulars, while I had merely gone into the prison to conduct a couple of workshops.

I was amazed at the number of people who go into Michigan prisons weekly to interact with inmates. Volunteers of many colors and persuasions. At the Muskegon CF event the warden thanked them, the chaplain thanked them, and prisoner after prisoner stood up representing his particular group to say thanks.

Over lunch, my friend John was quick to explain. The reason we are all so grateful is that this is our window to the outside. We can’t be out there, and so these wonderful people come in here. They’re busy people. They have their own families and their own churches. The reason you are hearing so many words of thanks is because these busy people GIVE OF THEMSELVES! Just to make a difference here!

The prison’s Activities Director presented a token gift to every volunteer. But HFP’s significant award came from two prisoners. John, who said to me: We can’t say enough about your work. For 17 years you’ve been helping us!  And an anonymous prisoner who made certain he shook my hand before he returned to his cell: You don’t know me, but when I heard your name I had to thank you. I’ve been in here over 30 years, and I’ve heard of the good things you do many times.

My dear friend and gospel singer par excellence Alma James Perry used to sing this old Mahalia Jackson song:

If I can help somebody, as I travel along
If I can help somebody, with a word or song
If I can help somebody, from doing wrong
My living shall not be in vain
No, my living shall not be in vain.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

John C. Carlyle, 1938-2018

Back in the days when the media in Grand Haven were locally owned, we paid genuine tribute to a pillar in the community when that person died. It’s not that way anymore.

An out-of-town implant came to Grand Haven in the 60s and quietly began moving mountains, playing a key role in the building of a new YMCA, the formation of North Ottawa Community Hospice and the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, just to name a few.

Front page stuff.

And yet, when John Carlyle died the other day, hardly a word in our media, now owned by people who don’t live here, don’t work here, and don’t seem to know much about our history.

Well, I no longer have the voice to thank him on behalf of our town, but I can and shall pay tribute to one of the finest people I’ve met in my lifetime.

I’m an implant here as well. When I came to Grand Haven as the new owner of WGHN, I was not only the General Manager but also the News Director. As a reporter, I remember being summoned to a news conference, conducted by this new attorney in town, who impressed me so much that I retained him as our company legal counsel.

Thus began a friendship that ended only a few days ago.

Long after I left radio, John Carlyle became keenly interested in my efforts to free Maurice Carter, an innocent man in prison.

Then I informed him that I was about to embark on a third career. After years of radio broadcasting, followed by years of church organ sales, I was heading into uncharted territory: prisoner advocacy. My attorney/friend was there with me. All the way! John personally undertook the effort to get our non-profit status. As a gift!

This was no simple task as there was no blueprint. No one had ever tried to form an agency like this before. It wasn’t like we were developing another program to save puppies and kittens. And so this savvy legal eagle, with degrees in both law and public accounting, personally worked with the IRS until all of the documents were satisfactorily prepared and submitted. To no one’s surprise, our application was approved!

Doug Tjapkes is who and where he is today, and HFP is the highly successful agency that it is today, in no small part due to the personal involvement of John C. Carlyle.

I know. Mention his name, and you’ll hear all kinds of descriptions: crabby, crusty, brusque, intense…but those of us who knew him also heard his laugh, spotted his tears, and sensed his love for family, his loyalty to friends, and his compassion for those less fortunate.

The list of people who made a difference in my life is one name shorter today, and it saddens me. A lot.

RIP, my dear friend.

Monday, April 23, 2018

And Part Three, on the purpose of punishment

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought this much about punishment. Probably not since March, 2007, when I viewed the execution of my friend Anthony in Texas, where they love to punish killing by killing. Anthony was put to death right before my eyes, for something he didn’t do.

I’ve just returned from the funeral service for my friend David, a Michigan prisoner who took ill and died of pneumonia complications. He claimed he didn’t commit the crime, but still his sentence was life in prison without parole. I got the feeling, though, that friends and family of the victim felt that even a life sentence was not punishment enough. Their vitriolic comments could be heard in the courtroom and read in the media.

And to me, that raises questions about the reason for punishment, as well as its effectiveness.

I like this quote by Haim Gnott: 

When a child hits a child we call it aggression
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility
When an adult hits an adult, we call it a crime
When an adult hits a child we call it discipline.

That’s really what we think we’re doing with the death penalty and life without parole, isn’t it? Discipline! If they can’t learn it any other way, by God, this will teach them!

In John MacMurray’s soon to be released book, A Spiritual Evolution, he asks these powerful questions---

“Can punishment undo, offset, atone, or make up for sin in any way?
Can punishment, regardless of the amount or its severity, change or untwist the wrong into, right?
Can punishment change and heal the brokenness in me that wanted to do evil in the first place?
I’m suggesting punishment is powerless to do any of these things. And if I’m right, that punishment has no ability to amend, undo, or atone for evil, then why do we believe that punishment is required for justice to be called justice?”

God bless those who are clamoring for restorative justice in our state! Contrary to the position of the Michigan Attorney General, being an advocate for victims does not necessarily mean harsh punishment of the perpetrator. 

Author Paul Young, who discusses the fallacy of the death penalty in his blog THE KILLING HOUSE, says:

“Should we turn a blind eye to injustice, to betrayal, to murder, to abuse? No. That is exactly the point. There should be no blind eyes. And yet human justice stands with eyes covered, blind. With such blindness, we lose sight of our humanity. The restorative justice of God requires eyes that see, not only the victim, but also the human being who is the perpetrator.”

Back to David, again.

Even with his passing, those hateful folks won’t be happy. They'll feel no closure.

The only one smiling through all of this is David. Jesus is explaining to him how his own death settled this whole business. Once and for all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The system needs a heart, Part Two

It’s easy to point fingers, especially during a time of grief.

David, Michigan prisoner, is with his friend Jesus now. His parents were not permitted to be at his side as he passed from here to there.

Even though he was still in a coma and unresponsive, a doctor determined that there was some improvement. Based on that report, a prison warden had no alternative but to terminate the visitation rights of David’s parents in his final hours. They were sent home. Department policy. A top official in Lansing explained it this way: MDOC only allows visits at outside hospitals when the prisoner is deemed critical and unlikely to survive by the treating physician.

It is in that particular section of the Visitation Policy where we desire modification. In the wake of this sad story, seeking change seems more productive than placing blame.

We know, for example, that prison visits are a good thing. A study has found that inmates who were visited were 13 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony in the future and 25 percent less likely to return to prison for a technical violation.

Likewise, hospital visits can be beneficial. Daily Mail Reporter Angela Epstein writes: “Though it might seem like a chore to you, visiting a sick friend or relation in the hospital really could make a difference to their health. Recent research has shown it’s what your visit does to their brain that helps.

Says medical expert, Dr. John Mulder: Having been involved in the practice of hospice and palliative medicine for over 30 years, I am intimately familiar with the needs of both patients and families when death is imminent.  Peace, comfort, reconciliation, and healing can occur in those bedside moments when life is coming to a close.  I am concerned with any policy that stands in the way of this important moment of closure for families, whether intentional or inadvertent. 

He concludes with this important statement, which underscores our request:

Prognostication is an inexact science.  As physicians, we may not fully appreciate how close someone is to death, or if they might even possibly recover.  But we can identify how sick they are at any given moment.  It is in that moment that physicians strive to bring every available option to the patient to facilitate the best chance for improvement and recovery.  And in that circumstance, family can be the critical, positive factor.  

Our goal is simply to bring about change. We’ll be seeking 1), a slight modification in policy so that, even if death is not imminent, visitation by loved ones could still be permitted; and 2), if a decision by a medical practitioner eliminates visitation, there might be some avenue of appeal, not unlike seeking a second opinion.

May God’s grace rest on seriously ill prisoners and their loved ones, as well as medical caregivers, prison staffers, and those of us advocating on their behalf.

Nothing is simple.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

David needs prayers; the system needs a heart!

Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
Robert Burns

I’ll try to make this story very short.

David, a Michigan inmate and a dear friend, became ill in his prison cell at Kincheloe the other day. When it became apparent that he was really sick they rushed him to the nearest hospital at Sault Ste. Marie, in the Upper Peninsula. When it became apparent that he needed even more specialized care, he was given an emergency ride to Marquette, Michigan. That’s not next door. It’s a 165 mile ambulance trip for an unconscious and unresponsive patient!

Yet it must not have seemed all that serious to some prison officials, because David’s elderly parents weren’t notified for three more days!

Without hesitation, they made immediate plans to head north.

What a journey for this elderly couple---Grand Rapids to Marquette---400 miles one way! The past few days have been heart-breaking for mother and father. Little to no response from their 58-year-old son, kept alive in his hospital bed by a ventilator and the prayers of family and friends.

Then came even more devastating news on Friday. The parents’ visitation rights had been terminated. After pleading with prison officials, they were granted one more bedside visit Saturday morning, and that was it. David’s mom and dad tearfully returned to Grand Rapids.

Said their pastor: I found the emotional brutality hard to comprehend.  How can human beings behave this way?

Our team never gets hardened or calloused when it comes to matters like this. We experience the same pain and anger and frustration all over again. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
When asked by the onlookers when they had neglected him in those ways, Jesus answered:
I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

David is still in that hospital bed in Marquette, but now he’s alone. Except for the prison guard.

And he’s shackled.

We wouldn’t want him to escape, would we?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Will Gov. Snyder do the right thing? Nancy deserves clemency!

There’s more than one kind of wrongful conviction.  Let me explain.

Maurice Carter was wrongly convicted. A black man shot and injured a white, off-duty cop. Maurice was not on the scene when the crime occurred. Yet, a jury convicted him of assault with intent to commit murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. That was a wrongful conviction.

Now let me tell you about another dear friend, Nancy Seaman. The part of Nancy’s life that the public saw was her shining role as an award-winning school teacher. The part of her life that no one knew about was her role as a battered wife in an abusive marriage. Finally, as her husband tried to kill her, she retaliated. He wound up dead, instead of her. A jury convicted her of premeditated, first degree murder and she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. That, in my opinion, was also a wrongful conviction.

Nancy is 65 now. She’s been in prison for 13 years.

For a year I struggled to come up with ways to help this victim of the system. Then Kelle Lynn came along.

Upon hearing the story in 2016, this local activist formed her own organization, Justice Thru Storytelling, and made it her business to try to convert this negative into a positive.

One method for obtaining Nancy’s freedom was to seek a grant of clemency by Governor Rick Snyder. It was a long shot, but thanks to a strong team effort, an application for a commutation of Nancy’s sentence was filed with the State of Michigan. Overwhelming support came, not only from hundreds of petition signers, but also from the sentencing Judge and a former prison psychologist! Almost unheard of! And yet, the Michigan Parole Board refused to show any interest, and forwarded the application to Governor Snyder’s office.

Once again a discouraged Nancy Seaman lost hope. But those of us who believe in her, and who support the cause, are still hoping to persuade the Governor that considering clemency is the only decent thing to do.

Not everyone can attend a postcard-writing effort in Grand Haven tomorrow, but everyone can send a personal letter to Governor Snyder. Your personal involvement is essential right now!

Governor Snyder’s favorable action will not only give Nancy a new lease on life, but will also send a strong message of support to thousands of women, victims of abuse, now serving time as a result of, what I call, wrongful convictions!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Is a prisoner worth as much as a parrot?

I was watching a show on a cable TV channel. A state conservation officer had been called to help find the owner of a tiny, beautiful, frightened pet parrot that had escaped.

Granted it was part of the whole TV plot, but I was amazed to see how much effort was expended not only to save the life of this little bird, but to find its owner. First there was a kind person who spotted the bird in her yard, made a choice to catch it, and then get outside help. In the next phase, the conservation officer contacted a bird sanctuary and persuaded them to hold it. Finally, a successful effort on social media to locate the owner. A lot of work, a lot of effort, all for a little bird.

In the end, a happy reunion!

It reminded me of the parable Jesus told grumbling Pharisees.

 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

I love that story. And I love the old gospel song that Elizabeth Clephane and Ira Sankey created to remember it. But that’s the topic for another blog.

The point of this little tidbit is to focus on the stuff that my team works on 7 days a week.  We’re helping prisoners, and in that work I identify so much with these anecdotes! We go the extra mile, day after day, believing that every person behind bars---regardless of the alleged crime---deserves humane treatment. In another of his stories, Jesus said our Heavenly Father takes care of little birds, then pointing out, “Are you not much more valuable than they?”

He’s obviously referring not just to you and me, but to the prisoner as well…much more valuable than they!

I can tell you this with certainty: Prisoners are getting glimpses of daylight, because HFP’s untiring efforts are prying open their Venetian blinds one slat at a time!

With that, the HFP gang is calling friends and neighbors together to rejoice.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Not your run-of-the-mill prison "do gooder" agency!

A typical day in the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS?

HFP Executive Director Matt Tjapkes was in Ionia, to testify at a Michigan Parole Board Public Hearing on behalf of an inmate who has served nearly 20 years, and who, in our opinion, has demonstrated that he is worthy of a parole. We don’t do this on a routine basis, but we try do it when we feel a prisoner needs someone at his/her side. In some public hearings, a deserving inmate may have no one. Not even family. Way to go, Matt!

HFP Vice President Holly Honig-Josephson was in Ann Arbor, to participate in a panel discussion at the Arts for Justice Conference on the Campus of the University of Michigan. She was speaking on the critical need for reform in Michigan’s parole system. HFP was honored to have been invited to participate by co-sponsor Shakespeare Behind Bars. When it comes to parole issues, to quote the bald guy on television, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Way to go, Holly!

HFP Medical Director Dr. Bob Bulten was preparing a letter to a Michigan prison warden, encouraging him to initiate medical tests for an inmate who appears to be experiencing seizures, and who apparently is not attracting the attention of prison healthcare personnel. Our office is contacted regularly by conscientious prisoners who are worried about the condition of fellow inmates. They turn to HFP. Way to go, Bob!

HFP President Doug Tjapkes was soliciting the assistance of a supportive immigration attorney in the complicated case of a Mexican native, in a Michigan prison for parole violation, who is desperately trying to reconnect with parents in his native land. HFP has a panel of lawyers, in a wide range of specialties, who serve us daily in many specific categories. We can’t promise positive results, but we can demonstrate that we care. Way to go, Douger?

Does this sound busy? Does it sound complicated? Does it sound intriguing? Does it sound overwhelming? Does it sound challenging?

To those of us now responding to up to 20 calls a day, 7 days a week, the answer is “yes” to all of the above.

Truth be told, we love it!

These examples, from just one day of activity in the HFP office, may help to explain our expanded definition of what it means to abide by a Matthew 25 mandate.

It’s where we are. It’s where we belong. It’s what we do.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A delightful Easter gift from me to you

I have an Easter gift for you.

The following piece was written by a very special friend, David Schelhaas. Dave is a retired college English professor who now lives in Iowa. But many years ago he lived here in our part of the state, taught at Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, and was a charter member of HIS MEN…a singing group that I founded in 1972.

He’s not only a fine singer, but an excellent writer. I invite you to savor this little gem on Easter Sunday, 2018:

Thinking He Was the Gardener

Thinking he was the gardener
she did not recognize him,
eyes blurred with tears, the weight
of grief breaking her heart.

Now, all these centuries later, we find
her misidentification of him as gardener
happily apt.
For he is the gardener
of our lives and our salvation---
planter, waterer, weeder, feeder, completer.

He is the gardener
of all green and growing things, of
grasses, flowers and trees. The great sequoias,
redwoods, and cedars of the world bow down to him
who bends to tend the almost invisible lettuce seeds
planted this morning in my garden.

He cares for all creatures, plants
the conies, those “feeble folk,”
in houses of stone to protect them, gives
water for the wild donkeys, delights
in the antics of leviathan.

Before time was, he cast stars
like seeds into the endless
furrows of space and still
charts their growth over seasons
that linger on for eons.

Dear, sad Mary, one word and she knew him,
yet all eternity may not be time enough
for her to comprehend him.

Christ, the gardener, is risen. He is risen, indeed!