Sunday, March 18, 2018

On rethinking Corizon: It's time!

A giant company is supposed to be taking care of the physical and mental needs of Michigan inmates. We contend that it’s not happening properly.

Corizon Health is one of the largest for-profit medical providers for jails and prisons in the United States. In 2016, the Tennessee-based Corizon signed a 5-year contract worth $715.7 million to provide both physical and mental health services in Michigan prisons, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Here’s our story.

We are blessed to have a panel of excellent, dedicated physicians, representing a variety of specialties, on the HFP advisory team. We call on them regularly to help us answer a variety of questions from prisoners regarding symptoms, aches and pains, injuries, treatment or lack thereof, and just general medical care. 

It seldom goes well, and invariably our doctors throw up their hands and say, “In the free world, you or I would demand and receive proper treatment. It’s anybody’s guess what he or she will get behind bars.”

Corizon, which has proven time and again that the bottom line is most important, is forever crowding the constitutional guarantees of the 8th Amendment. Perhaps that’s why Matt Clarke reported, in Prison Legal News last summer, Recent lawsuits against the company…call into question the quality, and even the availability, of the healthcare services it is supposed to provide. In addition to the lawsuits, Clarke reported a trend of non-renewal of Corizon contracts in Georgia, New Mexico, Indiana and New York.

I bring all of this to your attention after being contacted on a Sunday morning by our medical director. A 52-year-old client has a rare genetic disease. The diagnosis is unquestioned. Its treatment is not always terribly effective, but it is always very expensive. The inmate was promised treatment four months ago. Corizon admits it has the medicine. Yet, as of today, no treatment. Maddening!

I wouldn’t bother writing about it if this were the exception. But it’s the rule. It’s an uphill climb! It’s swimming upstream! It’s ridiculous!

To its credit, the Michigan Department of Corrections recently chose to break a contract with an outside provider for food service after an abysmal record of shortcomings. We think it’s time to take another look at Corizon. Based on our experience, we can honestly state that Michigan prisoners are not receiving adequate, appropriate medical care. The state doesn’t have the right to allow that. Incarceration is the punishment. We may not add to it!

In his Prison Legal News report Matt Clark concluded: Perhaps, if Corizon focused on providing competent and adequate care to prisoners, it would not be the subject of so many lawsuits and at risk of losing its lucrative contracts. 


Monday, March 12, 2018

WWJD? More thoughts for Lent

What would Jesus do?

Years ago, people wore wristbands with the letters WWJD in bold print, serving to remind them how to handle matters in their daily routines. The fad didn’t last very long. I suspect that reason, in part, was that we didn’t like the answers.

I’m thinking of that during the season of Lent, an insightful period for those of us who follow Jesus. It started when I received a message from a transgender inmate last week. She’s in the body of a man, and residing in one of Michigan’s prison for men. I’ve known her for years and had sort of lost track of her.

If you think life is challenging for a person struggling with sexual identity, just imagine how much worse it is behind bars. Hell on earth!

And yet, when I approached a Christian professional in the field of psychology for some input, she sniffed, “Lots of luck with that!” End of discussion.

It’s no surprise to me that the life of Jesus was cut so short by dissidents, many of them a part of organized religion. I can’t say that he’d survive all that much better if he were here today.

But, Lent may be the perfect time to look at how he dealt with those who we might consider a bit different. Religious leaders walked away in shame after Jesus challenged the one with no guilt whatsoever to throw the first stone at the Stormy Daniels of their day. He ignored an invitation to dinner with the Koch brothers to enjoy a light supper and a glass of wine with a crooked tax collector. Foreigners, women, children---all considered second-class citizens in that day---seemed to be at the top of his list. Not to mention the poor, orphans, widows and (gasp) prisoners.

If HFP claims to serve inmates with Christian compassion, this means that many unpleasant, uncomplimentary and unkind thoughts must be put aside. Contrary to the Christian psychologist's snooty attitude, it is precisely the transgender inmate who needs our love and care. Same is true for the gays and lesbians who struggle mightily in the prison system. And if Jesus’ treatment of the criminal hanging on a cross next to him is any example, we’d better revise our thinking of how we treat those convicted of the most heinous crimes.

All created in the image of God.

All deserving humane care behind bars, regardless of sexual identity, regardless of race or religion, regardless of the alleged crime.

That’s our response in answer to the question WWJD.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A prisoner at the right place at the right time: A story for Lent.

That story about the criminal on the cross next to Jesus catches me off guard every time!

I’m sure, earlier in my life, I felt a bit of envy when hearing the story about Jesus welcoming this dude into Paradise. “Not fair! We served you all our lives, and he gets the same reward?”

But that changed 20 years ago when I began working with prisoners. Just last Sunday I started getting choked up when Pastor Nate read Dr. Luke’s account of that familiar story. And that reminded me how I get choked up every time I hear Gloria Gaither read an account of the same story. And that prompted me to share her reading with you…something I encourage you to savor in this season of Lent. It’s called The Misfit, it was written by Bob Benson, and it was taken from his book LAUGHTER IN THE WALLS.

It seemed to be his lot, he was one of those unfortunate people,
With a talent always to be in the wrong place … always at the wrong time.
He was born wrong: The declining Roman Empire, the broken home.
The conquered Jewish nation, the poverty-stricken slums.
He lived wrong: When others went to school, he played hooky,
Others played ball, he stole apples.
Others learned trades, he learned to cheat.
Just a common thief … he started wrong, he lived wrong,
And it looked as if he’d finish wrong: The wrong place, and the wrong time.
A Roman cross, a painful death … A final shame.
When, from the middle cross, came words of redeeming love:
“You shall be with me in Paradise!”
In all the stream of history,
One and only One
Of all the numberless sons of Adam could have said these words
… and he hung beside Him!
In one instant his life, given to evil … thoroughly misused,
Doomed to die, was changed and ended in crowning glory,
It was the one sentence without which there is no success,
It was the one sentence which redeems all failure,
And it was said to him at life’s final flickering moment.
The one most important issue of all was gloriously solved:
At long last, he was in the right place at the right time! 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Prisoners teach me about patience

God, grant me patience. And I want it now!

Someone who knew me well gave me that little plaque which decorated my office wall many years ago. You’d think I might have improved by now, but after 80 years, I still struggle with impatience.

Patience is on my mind today, after spending an inordinate amount of time on the cases of two prisoners this week. Both are Christian men. Neither belongs in prison. Both have exhibited patience beyond human understanding. Today I can report one good outcome. Sadly, the other is questionable.

One guy has been in prison for 33 years. During this time he has worked with state and federal prosecutors to solve case after case. He has saved the State of Michigan millions of dollars, and that is no exaggeration. He possesses letters of commendation from personnel within the prison system, the Michigan State Police and the FBI. He never sought a deal. It just seemed right. If he became aware of filth and dirt, he wanted to help clean it up. And yet, the powers that be kept resisting his meritorious release from prison. He’s been praying for decades. This week it became apparent that his prayers may be getting answered. Finally. There’s light on the horizon.

Not so for the second guy. He’s been locked up for nearly 20 years for something he didn’t do. Despite his patience and the best efforts of the finest professionals, all avenues of appeal were exhausted and resulted in no success. It is so frustrating! So discouraging! He’s been praying for almost two decades. Those prayers haven’t been answered according to his desires so far. From a human standpoint, I don’t sense any indication that he’ll ever see freedom.

I cannot imagine the faith. I cannot imagine the patience to endure all of this. I cannot imagine the pain.

Henri Nowen says: “A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” 

That’s an easy thing for you and me to say, when we’re not sitting behind bars with little or no hope for freedom.

I’m praying for my two friends today, and asking you to do the same. Unless we’ve worn their shoes, we have no idea how difficult their walk has been. And still is.

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho: The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.” 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What a day!

I wish you could have been there.

It was an unforgettable day! Visits with two ex-offenders, just released from prison.

The reason our friends should have been there with me is because so many people have had a part in this. The words of thanks that I received from Anthony “Bear” Johnson and Roger Church were not expressions directed specifically at me, or at Matt. This was a thank you to HFP, and especially to everyone who sees to it that HFP stays right out there on the front line.

Anthony was placed on a bus by MDOC guards this morning, en route to Maryland for a new life. He’s in his 60s now. He was 19 when he went to prison. I was at the East Lansing bus station this afternoon for a “Bear” hug!

From “Bear:”

When you’re in prison, it can feel like there’s no one there for you anymore. After 42 years, you don’t hear from many of your friends. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS was there. They care!

My family could not attend my Public Hearing (the Parole Board session held to determine whether an inmate should be freed). I cannot explain my feelings when Matt showed up, and when I heard what he had to say! (He breaks down in tears.) 

The Parole Board approved his release.

Roger Church walked out of prison a couple weeks ago, after serving 11 years. I chatted with him in a Grand Rapids Veteran’s Facility later this afternoon.

Roger’s comments:

The MDOC refused to treat my rare kidney disease for 7 years. The pain was so intense I couldn’t get out of bed. I don’t know what HFP did, but a specialist got involved, and I received proper treatment and pain control.

As an American war veteran, I headed up a vet’s group that took care of the flags in our facility. They were in terrible shape. I contacted HFP, and through them a donor sent us new American and POW/MIA flags.

We wanted to do something to contribute to society, so as veterans we decided to crochet blankets for a homeless veterans’ facility. When HFP learned of our plight, they shipped hundreds of pounds of yarn. And we donated hundreds of blankets to the homeless!

I humbly accept these tributes, but they honestly belong to every person who supports HFP with a dollar and/or a prayer.

This is what we do, and this is why we do it.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Marching for a cause. A great idea!

There’s a Chinese proverb, says Father Greg Boyle, that says, The beginning of wisdom is to call things by the right name. 

I’m thinking about Fr. Boyle’s explanation this morning, as I’m reading and hearing accounts of kids responding to the school massacre in Florida. In his book, BARKING TO THE CHOIR, Fr. Boyle says, “We want to find the right name for what was done to us, for what turned us around, for what is happening to us now. We all want to find our maximum capacity. And when that desire is strong enough, we find the legs to walk us through the hallway, down the path, on the Good Journey.”

He was referring, or course, to former gang members. But the words also seem to apply to the thousands and thousands of demonstrators who are grabbing headlines today.

God bless these kids, who---unlike many state and federal legislators---have found the right name for what was done to them. They’re now “finding the legs” to keep walking on what is certainly a good journey!

I love to see people marching for good.

I love to see old film clips of the civil rights marches! I loved it when women marched on Washington! I love to see teenagers holding public office holders accountable for their shameful inaction…marching to their state houses, marching to the nation’s capitol, marching to the white house.

My hope, my prayer, is that someday we’ll see this kind of support right here in Michigan, when it comes to issues involving prisoners. Like the topic of guns, prisons and prisoners are not popular, either.

I’m hearing about wrongly convicted persons who served years of prison time for a crime they did not commit, yet cannot collect the money the state promised them.

I’m hearing about prisoners deserving clemency for a variety of very justifiable reasons, yet so far, no hint of a heart by this Governor.

I’m hearing rumbles about parole reform that would include “presumptive parole,” meaning that deserving inmates would get out at their earliest release date. Yet, no action.

May the determination and optimism of these courageous teenagers be contagious!

May God give us the wisdom and the insight to “call things by the right name.” And then to find our legs to walk the good journey!

Unlike the kids, I’m 81, and in, what we politely call, the “sunset years.” But in my mind I’m marching!

Critical issues affecting prisoners, like those touching teenagers, deserve our attention. Now.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

They're not numbers; they're people!

My friend Troy argues that, according to the State of Michigan, he’s not a person.

As he researched Freedom of Information Act requests, he learned that “persons” could be entitled to such information. Said the state: 'Person' means an individual, corporation, limited liability company, partnership, firm, organization, association, governmental entity or other legal entity. Then it went on to say: Person’ does NOT include an individual serving a sentence of imprisonment in a state or country correctional facility in this state or any other state or any federal correctional facility.

Troy’s conclusion: He is a prisoner of the State of Michigan, therefore he is not a person.

I use this simple illustration to highlight an issue that troubles me.

We talk about 39,000 people in the Michigan prison system, numbers of blacks, numbers of whites, numbers of reoffenders, numbers of women, numbers of seniors…heck, each prisoner has his/her own ID number, and that’s how they’re known. No names, just numbers.

We’ve dealt with a lack of humanity in prison statistics forever. But look at the rest of the news.

No one talks about gymnast Rachel Den Hollander. Instead, we lump together the incredibly large number of athletes who were sexually molested by Dr. Larry Nassar.

No one talks about geography teacher Scott Beigel, or his 14 year old student Gina Montalto. They are just among the sad number of casualties in the latest of many school shootings in this country.

In church, in the coffee shop, in our city council, in our state legislature, with our congressman and senators, and yes, with our president, we talk numbers. When we do that, we don’t really have to dig below the surface to discover that these are, or were, tender, fragile human beings just like you and me.

Says St. Paul, in describing the body of Christ: …its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

So when x-number of Michigan prisoners aren’t getting adequate health care and inferior food, that includes Troy, but we all suffer. When x-number of athletes are abused by a physician/molester, that includes Rachel, but we all suffer. When families are torn apart as students like Gina and teachers like Scott get gunned down, we all suffer.

I was reading of a rape victim who used adversity to bring about change. “Mama Masika” committed her entire life to protecting and raising awareness of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It’s past time to react and respond.

On that day when all citizens join families and friends of inmates to support humane prison care, when men and women who are not affected by molesters stand with victims to demand change, when all US citizens join hands with Florida teenagers to hold our government accountable for mass shootings, we all win! 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Helpers of prisoners: All part of the body!

The Apostle Paul says it better than I can.

HFP team members sometimes hear questions about overlap of agencies and ministries.

We’ll be the first to admit that there are wonderful organizations in Michigan working on judicial reform through new legislation. They work, they discuss, they lobby. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t help Anthony, who right now is trying to find and connect with a son who was born just after he entered prison, and who is now 21 years of age.

There are wonderful groups, many of them in church settings, who study mass incarceration, criminal justice issues, judicial reform, restorative justice and other similar matters. They meet, they discuss, they hold retreats, they pray. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t have anyone to sit at Bobby’s side as he meets with a Parole Board member. After 40+ years behind bars, Bobby doesn’t have family or friends anymore.

There are outstanding Bible study programs, local and national, that strive to convince prisoners that Jesus not only loves them, but wants them as followers. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t have anyone to help Annalise, who can’t read or write, in filling out her application form as she appeals to the Governor to commute her sentence.

There are amazing reentry resources doing their best to help inmates through the trauma of leaving prison and entering a free society. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t have anyone to advocate for appropriate medical treatment for David, who is struggling with a terminal illness. He’s frightened, in pain, fears dying, and feels alone.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Each has a niche, but somebody's gotta be down in the trenches. That's who we are. That's where we are.

Says St Paul:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…But God has so composed the body…that there may be no division…but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Weaker? Possibly. Indispensable? Definitely!

May we all work together, suffer together, rejoice together!

Friday, February 9, 2018

OK, I'm jumping into the prisoner mail fray!

Decades ago, when I was young, it was not uncommon, when kids questioned a parental judgment, to receive this blunt reply: “Because I said so.”

I must admit that, as a parent, it took me a long time to recognize that listening to the input of kids, with a willingness to modify decisions and guidelines, worked best.

That’s where we are now on the highly controversial mail decision being enforced by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

True, like the position of our parents, the MDOC had every right to make such a decision without any input from the kids, and without answering any questions. Now it’s time to rethink.

No one questions the seriousness of the drug problem behind bars. Neither does anyone argue that those who want to deal in drugs, as well as those who want to receive drugs, will keep right on being innovative in finding new ways to continue this illicit activity.

But we (and by “we” I mean prisoners, as well as friends, family, and the general public) deserve answers.

For example, how many illegal drugs entered the prison system via U.S. mail in 2016? In 2017? How many arrests were made? If the issue was dealt with in-house, how many tickets were issued? Of those who received tickets, how many were found guilty? What percentage of the total drug picture has involved prisoner mail?

Similarly, since the new policy was implemented, how dramatically has the influx of drugs decreased? What statistical proof do we have that this is working?

Beyond that, prisoners, their families and friends, deserve more answers, based on recent messages to our office:

How do these particular examples establish a means to funnel drugs into the prison system:
-A hand-written note on a yellow legal pad
-A hand-written note on white paper with red ink
-A Christian devotional printed with colored ink
-An HFP newsletter containing a colored photograph?

I’ve stated previously that the MDOC would have been wise to seek input from some responsible inmates, who are well aware of the drug problems, before developing this unusually strict and restrictive policy. That would have automatically and dramatically reduced the number of complaints.

That day has passed.

But, there’s still time for the Department to take the high road (one that it took this parent years to travel!), and that is to lay out the cold facts about the drug war, and then, together, work out an effective policy that will not only make an impact, but have strong support from all sides.

It may come as a surprise to the top brass, but the majority of Michigan prisoners don’t like the drug problem either. They can also provide a lot of input as to how the drugs are coming in.

What they don’t understand is how banning a child’s homemade greeting card, bearing a crayon drawing, will stop it. Or even slow it down.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Don't kid yourself. It's NOT safe in prison!

“I will not stop pressing for prison reform until it is safe to be in prison.” The words of my friend Carol as we discussed the general topic of incarceration.

I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but she has something there.

Recent high-profile cases can help us to focus on that issue today. How safe is Dr. Larry Nassar going to be in prison? Especially when upright citizens like you and me, who could never imagine ourselves behind bars, quietly assure each other that additional justice will be done when “the prisoners take care of him.” How safe will that couple be that starved and tortured a house full of kids? Especially when our thoughts concede that, “If anything happens to them in prison, they had it coming!” How safe will that guy be who just got sentenced for torturing and killing his girlfriend’s 5-year-old boy? Especially when our thoughts drift to, “Someone ought to beat and torture him the very same way!”

And it’s not just the high profile cases.

Robert (Roberta) is a transgender inmate. It’s not safe for him in prison.

Gary is gay. It’s not safe for him in prison.

Cindy is mentally ill, doesn’t know right from wrong, and gives the officers trouble at every turn of the way. She’s not safe in prison.

Tony is an old man, accused of inappropriate behavior with little boys. It wasn’t safe for him in prison. He no sooner got there and someone slashed his face!

Michael was only 15 when sentenced to prison years ago as an adult. It wasn’t safe for him at all…he was fresh meat. He was raped in no time!

Carol is accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with her own kids. It’s not safe for her in prison.

Kasim is an Iraqi. It hasn’t been safe for him in prison since day one.

Conrad ratted on a crooked corrections official who was convicted and sent to a federal prison. Connie is still in prison, but he has a target on his back! He lives in fear every day.

Agreed, prison is and can be safe for some. Slugger was a boxer, weight-lifter and body builder before he was incarcerated. In no time he established his credentials, abilities and territory. He’s safe in prison. But for how long?

Carol is exactly right: People are not safe in prison, and the onus is on the system. We need more and better training in handling those with mental and physical disabilities, those with sexual orientation issues, those convicted of exceptionally brutal or heinous crimes…well, let’s just leave it there. Our training and orientation of corrections officers needs refining.

And it’s not only the system. We need an attitude adjustment, as well.

Jesus said that what we do to the “least of these,” we actually do to him.

After what he did for me, the old “eye-for-an-eye” concept doesn’t work anymore.

Friday, February 2, 2018

A Black History Month tribute to my friends of color

How does it happen that a white guy with roots in the conservative Christian Reformed Church has over a thousand black friends?

“That’s easy,” is your response. “You have something they want.”

Your assumption is that these people are likely “fair weather friends,” right?  The black men and women in Michigan’s prison system with whom I have this relationship just say they like me because of the services we offer. Stop offering the services, and the friendship disappears, right? Not quite accurate. In fact, totally inaccurate!

After nearly 20 years in this business I’m finally figuring this out:  The assistance which HFP offers is not the magnet. The big draw is caring! Those behind bars are accustomed to labels like “misfits,” “trash,” “outcasts.” Many have lost close relationships and perhaps even personal contact with friends, relatives and loved ones.

HFP is pretty special this way. We don’t bother to look up the nature of the crime, or check the person's background. We’re not even sure if we can help, but we know that we can hold a hand, offer a cup of cool water. A friend told me a story the other day about how the various churches in her community developed a split over a home mission project. A fundamentalist group insisted that, if the cool water was offered, it had to be publicly stated this was “in the name of Jesus.” The more progressive group insisted that just offering the water was the message…the rest would take care of itself.

Well, if anyone asks, we do this in the name of Jesus. But we don’t post that tag on the gift we offer. We silently ask Jesus to bless what we’re doing.

Willie, who was denied parole, still calls me his friend, simply because I took the time to advocate for him in a Public Hearing. We didn’t win. He’s still in prison. But someone cared!

The list of similar stories out of this office is endless. And so is my list of names of black friends.

That’s the way it is with more than 1,500 women and men who sign their personal letters and email messages with the words, “your friend.” The interpretation, of course, is just the opposite: You are my friend!

I pay tribute to them all this month. Granted, there may be one or two “fair weather friends” in the bunch. But for the most part, they know I don’t have money or material goods. All I can give them is my friendship. They expect nothing in return.

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… just be my friend”
― Albert Camus

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Be it cancer or constipation,'tain't the same in prison!

We old folks love to talk about our physical ailments and shortcomings.

Just sit in when old codgers are gathered at your small town coffee shop in the morning, or eavesdrop at the local senior citizens center. Health issues and physical problems are sure to be part of the conversation, and not just aches and pains. You’ll hear about leg cramps, vertigo, blood pressure, cholesterol, constipation and/or its opposite malady. And it won’t stop there. There’ll be interesting discussions about pills and salves, cough syrups, tonics, laxatives and suppositories.

You’ll also do some chuckling as you listen, because the conversation will be laced with graphic descriptions and mispronunciations!

But the deal is that most of us old folks are able to get adequate medical care, and have access to medical care practitioners. We gripe and complain, but many services and treatments are available to us.

I’m so mindful of that as I listen to 20-25 medical messages a week from prisoners. Just check out these complaints:

-Needs knee surgery, but is given a wheelchair instead
-Needs a wheelchair but is given a cane
-Struggles with Celiac Disease
-Terminally ill with Huntington’s Disease
-Living with MS but struggling with rickety wheelchair issues
-Incontinence, but not enough pads available.

The problems may seem similar, but the conditions and the responses are not.

And that’s why HFP has taken major steps forward, by actually adding a Medical Consultant to our team. Thanks to Dr. Bob Bulten’s huge compassionate heart, we do our best to triage these complaints and requests as they come in. We’re proud to say that the list of medical professionals who regularly assist us includes an oncologist, an ophthalmologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a palliative care specialist, a sleep study specialist, an anesthesiologist, a cardiologist and an allergist! Think of it. Fine professionals willing to offer opinions, advice, and even medical muscle if and when necessary. Because they get it. Because they care.

It’s a challenge getting essential medical care, not only in the Michigan prison system, but in all correctional facilities, for a wide variety of reasons.

One of the aims of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is to see to it that inadequate, inappropriate, or rudely provided medical care is not unconstitutionally added to the inmate’s punishment. Our Mission Statement says that we do this “in order to alleviate suffering beyond the just administration of their sentences.”

Here’s why. Our surgeon general is The Great Physician.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How Dr. Larry Nassar hurts our cause

We hear the news that Dr. Larry Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison, and we breathe a sigh of gratitude. Once a world-renowned sports physician, the nasty little pervert---it turns out---has been abusing young women for decades. Perhaps hundreds of them. Especially for those of us who are parents of daughters, the sentiment is sure to be, “Throw away the key!”

Also in the news is the story of Louise and David Turpin. These mean-spirited parents abused, starved and tortured all 13 kids in their home for years. They’ll never see freedom again, either. Especially for those of us with kids and grandkids, our sentiment may very well be, “Throw away the key!”

But here’s the rub.

Some prison employees will then contend that nothing is too cruel for these inmates. Beaten, tortured and abused by fellow inmates? So what…look the other way! Necessary to provide adequate medical and dental care, especially in time of pain or crisis? Hell, no…they didn’t care about others, why should we? Tolerable, edible food? Why? The needs of others was never any concern of theirs.

That train of thought also permeates our society, and sometimes even our churches. It may be subtle, but I and my team see and hear it.

But, we have no choice, really. We must take the high road, and avoid stooping to the level of Dr. Nassar and the Turpins. Simply put: Incarceration is the punishment, and we may not add to it! Something that’s actually guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Says Academic Commentator Juan Cole: We know what the Founding Fathers believed. They believed in universal rights. And they believed in basic principles of human dignity. Above all, they did not think the government had the prerogative of behaving as it pleased. It doesn’t have the prerogative to torture.

In the Bible we have the example of a man named Saul who did his best to stamp out Christianity. Beatings, stonings, whatever it took. One would think he deserved whatever kind of cruel and unusual punishment that might be inflicted in those days. Instead, he had a life-changing experience. The Apostle Paul became an avid missionary, and prolific author of New Testament books.

Modern scholars don’t seem to think that St Paul wrote the book of Hebrews, but following his early days as an evil torturer, and his latter days as an embattled and often imprisoned itinerant preacher, you can bet that he resonated with these words from Chapter 13: …remember those in prison as if you were together with them.

God’s Word; the U.S. Constitution: We have no choice.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

What we are called. Does it matter?

Last year a member of a fine, protestant church responded to my request for support of the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. That would not be happening, he explained, because his church opted to spend mission funds on those agencies actually teaching the Word of God.

Also last year, as I sought the support and assistance of a highly capable agnostic, she stubbornly insisted that unless HFP become more secularized, it was doomed to failure.

Granted, the topic is a touchy one. When we appeal to churches for support, we refer to this as a ministry. When we appeal to secular foundations that want to avoid religion, we call it an advocacy agency.

And all this gets me to thinking. Somehow, we’re missing the point. If we focus on the prisoner and his or her needs and problems, those issues fade in importance.

I’ll give you a couple examples.

Thursday, Matt got up early in the morning to make the drive to Jackson so that he could be at the side of an ailing prisoner for his Parole Board review. One might ask why Matt did this. After all, the guy had violated parole once before, and he’s known to be a bit of a con man. Well, here’s why: The man had no friends or loved ones willing to accompany him for this traumatic experience, he’s shown love and concern for dozens of other hurting prisoners, and besides all that, he’s terminally ill! Cancer will claim his life within the year. It’s where we belonged.

That same day, Volunteer Jennifer Juhasz and I went to the Muskegon Correctional Facility to meet with 12 prisoners who are hoping to file applications for commutation of their sentences. We did a free-wheeling two-hour workshop on how to fill out the forms. One might ask why we did this. After all, the Governor has shown reluctance to grant any commutations so far. Well, here’s why: The Governor will leave office by the end of the year, he may decide to show compassion to some deserving long-term inmates, and most importantly---it’s a sliver of hope for those who long for freedom! It’s where we belonged.

That's right. With 39,000 people in the state prison system, we spent all that time and effort on one inmate in Jackson, and 12 in Muskegon.

I must confess to the church man: Matt, Jen and I didn’t take a Bible with us, and didn’t mention Christianity once in those two sessions.

I must confess to the Agnostic: In both instances, we felt that this was what Jesus would do.

Ministry or agency. Does it matter?

What’s the famous line of Shakespeare? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Headliner or Heart-Warmer?

When a big story breaks, the adrenaline kicks in! As a veteran writer in the newsroom, I’ll be the first to admit this. But those who know me best will tell you that, even more than that the breaking bombshell, I loved the human interest story. The major headlines will always be there, but finding and writing the heart-warming stories…that’s where the fun and the satisfaction join hands.

So it is here in the prisoner advocacy business as well.

A big story is about to break. A prisoner is going to see freedom after decades of incarceration, and God saw fit to place HFP right in the middle of the behind-the-scenes engineering. We may not get the public credit, but our adrenaline is pumping! We know how it began, and we’re excited about how it will end.

But to me, here are the real stories.

Sonny has serious, serious eye problems. Getting appropriate glasses or contact lenses while in prison was an up-hill fight. That was only half the problem, however. Even with the new lenses, he still couldn’t read anything close up. You can only imagine how important reading is for an inmate, not only for enjoyment, but for dealing with legal matters. To make a long story short, it took nearly a year, but thanks to the persistence and determination of our team, Sonny is getting new reading glasses!

Mike’s letter to HFP dealt with legal issues, but he let slip that his elderly and physically handicapped mother nearly burned the house down recently while trying to cook. These are the kind of things that keep prisoners awake at night. Again, long story short, HFP made some contact with Meals-on-Wheels in that particular city, and arrangements are going to be made so Mike’s mom won’t have to try any dangerous maneuvers with her kitchen stove any more. Warm, prepared meals are on the way.

ACTION WITH COMPASSION! That’s not only our motto, but our goal: Putting those seemingly small human-interest stories on top of the page. To us, they’re headlines!

What’s the old gospel song? Little is Much When God Is in It!