All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Without blacks, my life would have been colorless! Some Black History Month musings

I propose that those of us who are white make Black History Month a time for reflection, showing gratitude to God for placing people of color along our pathway. I can tell you this: African Americans helped shape the life, the personality and the mission of Doug Tjapkes.

My life was never the same

-after, at the age of 17 in my very first radio job, hearing Sister Mattie Davis of the Heavenly Echoes broadcast praying for the ‘policemens and firemens’ who were on duty through the night in racially insensitive Muskegon in the 50s

-after meeting and hearing the Spiritualaires, a black singing group that taught me just how little white people know about a cappella gospel music

-after granting the Rev. Cy Young a guest appearance on my radio show in Grand Haven in the 70s, as I listened spell-bound to his recitation of ‘I Have a Dream’

-after weeping and praying at the bedside of gospel singer Alma James Perry, whose glorious soprano voice was silenced far too early by cancer

-after adding Asonja James’ soprano descant to the anthem ‘Majesty,’ so majestically performed by this dear woman and HIS MEN in the Crystal Cathedral

-after spending 9 years trying to free a wrongly convicted black man named Maurice Carter, one of the most decent, kind and gentle individuals I’ve ever met

-after having one of my favorite people and favorite vocalists, Ben Reynolds, sing the old gospel song to me during a very difficult time: ‘I’ll be all right!’

-after my friend Pastor Rodney Gulley stood tall against blatant racism in so many forms, some of which took the lives of his son, father, grandfather and great-grandfather

-after kindling relationships with hundreds of black men and women behind bars in my pleasurable, gratifying and ordained role as an advocate for ‘the least of these!’

My life would have been colorless without the influx and influence of people of color. To those listed above, and many others, I owe a debt of gratitude. I feel pity for those who haven’t experienced this richness. I feel sadness for those who embrace ideas of white supremacy. “Hating skin color is contempt for God's divine creative imagination. Honoring it is appreciation for conscious, beautiful-love-inspired diversity.” 
― T.F. Hodge

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
—Desmond Tutu

Monday, February 11, 2019

Forget the damn roads! This needs fixing now!

I realize that our new Governor has pledged to get the roads fixed. And the Lord knows that Michigan’s infrastructure is long overdue for some serious attention.

But at the moment, I’m concerned about people like Nathaniel Hatchett.

The Detroit News reports today that Hatchett, age 39, of Detroit, is unable to collect $500,000 from the State of Michigan. He’s unemployed, broke, and he needs that money.

Hatchett, as it turns out, spent 10 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. He was arrested at age 17 in Sterling Heights, and spent 10 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2008 and he was released from the Michigan prison system.

As you may recall, many of us who advocate for prisoners were able to persuade state legislators to adopt the Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act which says that wrongly convicted people are to receive $50,000 for each year spent in prison.

That was easier said than done, however, as our former Attorney General did what he could to drag the state’s heels in order to keep these poor people from getting their money. Hatchett had to go to court for his dollars, and in December he won his petition. Michigan Court of Claims Judge Colleen O'Brien ordered the state to pay him the full $500,000 by Jan. 16. 

But he’s still not getting his money!

Michigan Department of Treasury spokesman Ron Leix is quoted in the Detroit News as saying that the exoneration fund contains about $1.6 million — or $400,000 less than the $2 million it owes just one wrongfully convicted murderer, Richard Phillips. Phillips spent 46 years in prison before his case was overturned.

So, Hatchett is still on hold.

It’s like a sign I saw in a little tavern where I stopped for a beer years ago. THOSE WHO CANNOT PAY FOR THEIR BEER ARE ASKED TO CONTACT OUR CREDIT MANAGER, HELEN WAITE.

Sounds to us like Hatchett has been told to go to the same person! 

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, when contacted by the News, said: "At this time, we are not commenting on specific items in the budget until the Governor releases her executive budget in March.” 

Sorry, not acceptable. State legislators, you made the law. Now live up to your agreement.

The roads can wait.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Needless spending/shameful treatment: that's Michigan!

Where are the voices of budget-minded Michigan legislators when it comes to corrections?

The State of Michigan Corrections budget has been $2.2 billion annually for years, even though the state boasts that the population keeps going down.

One of the simple reasons for the high cost is that we refuse to let go of parolable lifers. More than a thousand of these men and women deserve to be released, they no longer pose a threat to society, and the cost of keeping them is astronomical!

While the prison system says the cost of housing a prisoner for a year is around $36,000, that figure isn’t very realistic because many of these people have serious health issues.

I want to give our writer/reporter from behind bars, Ricardo Ferrell, credit for his assistance with this story. It’s one thing to talk about dollars, but it’s not fair to do so without talking about people. Ricardo has provided a few names, and I’m adding one of my own.  I stress that these are not the only people deserving of parole. We give their names strictly as examples.

Ricardo, himself, has served 37 years, and his medical needs are considerable. He’s 61.

Then there’s Charles Ross, age 75, who has served 44 years; Darnell Bolden, 66, who has served 44 years; Raymond Richardson, age 50, has served 35 years (he was 15 when he came to prison!); and finally, I want to mention my friend Herbert Collins, who is now 77, and has served 50 years and who struggles with serious health issues.

Ricardo and I estimate it has already cost the state well over 10-million dollars on these five guys! And there are a thousand more names!

Now here are a couple things that just annoy the dickens out of me. By the state’s own assessment mechanism, Ricardo, Charles, Darnell and Raymond are considered low risk! Then why the holdup? Why the delay?

The second issue is this: admission of guilt. I was at the side of Herb Collins when he met with a member of the Parole Board. I did so AT THE REQUEST OF THE WARDEN, WHO INSISTED THE MAN SHOULD BE RELEASED! But no soap. The problem? Herb cannot remember the details of the crime because he was in an alcoholic blackout when it was committed. He doesn’t contest the details, he even pled guilty…he just can’t remember. Because he refused to lie and say he remembered all the details of that crime, the Parole Board member wouldn’t let him continue. She was tired of it…wanted to hear no more. She sent him back where he came from.

That’s the stuff that’s gotta stop.

Holding prisoners who have been eligible for parole for decades, especially those who are elderly, makes absolutely no sense.

Michigan spends 20% of its general fund in corrections…1 in every 5 dollars. "If this sort of wasteful spending doesn't shock the conscience of ordinary people, then what will?" asks Ricardo.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Doug says "Thank You" to prisoners!

Now that I’m well on the road to recovery, it’s appropriate for me to send a special message of thanks to many Michigan prisoners.

Their response to my recent heart problems has me thinking about the words of Sister Helen Prejean when she was in town last fall. She could have been talking about my state of mind back when we formed HFP.

“I cannot walk away from this. I cannot put my head on the pillow at night as though this is not going on. And then by God's grace we move. We begin to take simple steps. We write letters, we do visits. I know how overwhelming it is. I know sometimes you must feel like you are the smallest little Rolaid in the biggest stomach in the world because there are so many needs. We go into prison, we turn to each other, and we keep going back. We make a commitment that we will not abandon them, that we will be with them and we will work for justice until the dawn comes, until justice comes in this one life…”

Nearly 20 years later, following my heart attack and subsequent triple-bypass operation, prisoners begin responding: get-well cards and letters, email messages, even phone calls. Not just a few. Loads of them! One card from the Handlon CF contained personal messages of 21 different guys! One woman from Huron Valley said, “We’re ALL praying for you!”

It’s two months after the surgery now, and I’m still opening another card. A little single-fold hand-made get-well treasure containing short notes from 17 inmates at Lakeland CF! Not just trite “get well soon” wishes…actual meaningful, personal messages.

These words from Sister Helen prompt my words of gratitude today:

“We meet people in prison, and once you cross that barrier and go and look in the eyes of this human being who others are saying is nothing but disposable human waste. And we go, ‘Oh my God, he's a human being!’ And then when we hear the stories and we put it against our own privileged, cushioned, protected life. We begin to develop a humility and gratitude. But we also develop a reciprocity of mutuality. After a while we begin to realize, ‘I’m not just going there for those prisoners. It's what they also give to me!’ The super people, the Super Christian people that go to those ‘poor prisoners’ and shower love and mercy on them…it's a one-way gift. NEVER! The best stuff is always going to be when it's mutual.”

Yes, I love what I’m doing. I love these prisoners. But I must confess: It’s what they also give to me!

My heartfelt thanks!

Monday, January 28, 2019

When will things change for the mentally ill?

I honestly don’t know how to write about this subject anymore.

A series of weekend articles in the M-Live newspapers has prompted me to write about mental illness one more time. Their focus is on the relationship between untreated mentally ill people and their deadly threat to our police officers.

Not meaning to minimize the threat to those in law enforcement, I want to concentrate on the actual people who are mentally challenged. I say we’re not giving them a fair shake. In fact, I contend that we’re dropping the ball.

I hear some Democrats say, “Fix the damn roads!” My response is, “What about people?”

Fact: 257,000 Michiganders suffer from severe mental illness.
Fact: Michigan has closed all but four state psychiatric hospitals.
Fact: These hospitals have a 200-bed waiting list.
Fact: Michigan ranks 47th in the nation when it comes to beds available.

I hear some Republicans say, “Protect the unborn!” My response is, “What about those already born?”

            Fact: Michigan’s population consists of more than 2-million kids under 18.
Fact: Suicide is one of the 5 leading causes of adolescent deaths (mental illness).
Fact: Michigan has one (1) state psychiatric hospital for kids.

Where am I going with all of this? Just bear with me for a sec, because I’m going to shift our focus to prisoners. History has shown that, when we don’t have enough psych wards, the mentally ill eventually go to prison. And here’s what I can say for certain: Locking up the mentally challenged is NOT the answer!

I realize that we’re beating the same old drum, here, but we have to keep doing this until someone hears it and does something about it. We have more than 38,000 people in our state prison system, and Department of Corrections reports that 25% have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. That’s over 9,000 prisoners! (Our staff estimates that the actual figure is closer to 50% who are struggling with mental issues.)

The prison system employs nearly 400 people to deal with this: mental health workers, psychiatrists, social workers and counselors…a drop in the bucket. The rest of the day-to-day challenges unfairly fall in the laps of the corrections officers, who have had little or no training in how to handle mentally ill patients.

Our office routinely handles complaints of abuse and mistreatment of mentally struggling Michigan inmates.

It’s another challenge for our new state administration and our current state legislators. Previous administrations and legislatures haven’t done such a hot job. Can we look for change, for improvement?

We’re not talking about numbers. These are real people, with names and family members and friends. They’re crying out to you and me for help.

How will we answer?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Too much itching! Is it time to scratch?

We’ve remained silent long enough on the skin rash issue at Michigan’s only prison for women.

For over a year, women at Huron Valley near Ypsilanti have been complaining about this problem. Already last February, prison doctors ruled out scabies. Now, nearly one year later, an outside doctor offered proof: Yep, it’s scabies!

Dermatologist Dr. Walter Barkey, whose name showed up a lot during the Flint water crisis as he checked out skin rashes, finally made his way into WHV with his microscope. It took some doing, but he has a friend with a relative in the prison. Using that wedge, he finally made it.

Now, following absolute proof of the cause, the entire prison is closed to visitors, and all prison residents---more than 2,000 women---are undergoing treatment for scabies.

We use this story to beg the question, once again, as to the effectiveness of Corizon, the private health services provider under contract with the Michigan Department of Corrections. Our Medical Director has had issues with Corizon for years.

Last week it was reported that Corizon, one of the largest corrections healthcare providers in the country, got fired by the State of Arizona. The Department of Corrections refused to renew their contract.

Just a couple years ago, Indiana did the same thing. Media in both of those states reported numerous horror stories of terrible medical care behind bars.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is quoted as saying that “thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Corizon.” We read recently that some 150 lawsuits had been filed by New Mexico prisoners against Corizon since 2007. 150!

Months and months and months of inaccurate diagnoses at WHV is just not an acceptable situation! And while news media kept printing stories, and medical people kept debating the cause of the problem, the women kept on scratching. The itch, as well as the lack of a solution, was driving them crazy! What’s it going to take to bring about change?

Our new state administration has renewed the contract with MDOC Director Heidi Washington. We think it’s time, now, for Director Washington to take a hard look at the contract with Corizon.

That itch has been going on long enough.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Will 2019 bring more compassion to WHV?

With a woman at the top, can we expect more and better response to women at the bottom? Let’s hope so.

Some 2,000 women behind bars in Michigan, all residents of the Huron Valley facility, have been less than pleased with the woman who heads the Michigan Department of Corrections. One of our friends listed a few of the major complaints when she heard that incoming Governor Gretchen Whitmer had reappointed Heidi Washington to run the MDOC.

-Those restrictive mail regulations happened on her (Director Washington’s) watch.
-They have done nothing to stop the flow of drugs into this prison. There are more drugs here than ever.  Obviously, they didn’t come through the mail.
-Director Washington has been unresponsive to the outbreak of a serious rash that has infected many women in here.  People have not been properly quarantined, putting everyone at risk.  They don’t know what has caused it and nothing they have done has cured the rash.  Women are suffering in here. (Recent reports are that progress is finally being made, but HFP has a long list of women afflicted with the problem!)
-We get apples and bananas to eat, but no citrus.  We have begged to get our oranges back.  Lack of vitamin C is a serious problem.
-Our dental floss was taken away and replaced with plastic rubber band type floss.  It’s expensive and awful.
-We’ve begged the Director to let us continue to purchase typewriters for our Law Library through the PBS fund. Deaf ears so far.

I was privileged to have a private meeting with Director Washington shortly after she was named to that position in 2015. I relayed complaints to her from WHV at that time. She was new on the job, but assured me that women were high on her list of priorities and that she would eventually visit there.

To her credit, a new WHV warden was appointed and that was a positive step, but more positive steps are needed.

Grumbles a friend of HFP: As far as Ms. Washington goes, her credibility was tarnished when she made statements to the newspapers that this place is not overcrowded.  I live in a housing unit with 200 women and a day-room with capacity for only 42.  That means most women must stay in their rooms…not mentally or physically healthy.  Overcrowding has meant thinner portions of food, less clothing, inadequate healthcare and diseases. 

Director Washington has a new boss now, a woman. Hopefully she will get support from the top in moving forward toward more humanitarian care of our women behind bars.