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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Martin and Cy: Free at last! Thank God Almighty, they’re free at last!

I must admit that Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t make much of an impact on my life while he was alive. 

Sure, I remember the I Have a Dream Speech. I remember the sadness and dismay upon his assassination when I reported that story on the air in 1968. 

But, frankly, I was white, living in an all-white community, attending an all-white church, and Dr. King’s challenges and concerns bore little resemblance to mine. 

Then, a few years later, I booked a guest for my morning radio talk show to discuss Black History Week (that was before Black History Month). 

The date arrived, and this tall, striking black man with a tiny patch of white hair in the front walked in. His name was Cy Young, a Grand Rapids taxi driver and former nightclub entertainer who would later become an itinerant preacher. 

What a delightful radio interview! Cy Young told how he found a discarded book of Dr. Martin Luther King speeches in a parking lot. As he sat in his taxi waiting for calls, he started memorizing. He had been blessed with the gift of recitation, and he learned all of MLK’s speeches. With his big, booming voice, he delivered those addresses with a fervor that stirred audiences and would have made King proud! 

At the conclusion of that one-hour show, Cy recited the entire I HAVE A DREAM SPEECH. 

I must confess that I was teary-eyed when I signed off. 

That began a long and meaningful friendship that lasted until he was struck down by a car, as he left a civil rights meeting. I place Cy Young’s name on a list of people whose influence led me into this honorable profession of prisoner advocacy. 

Cy’s dream was to form a Martin Luther King Association with the express purpose of seeing that young and budding African Americans would get a fair chance in life. That leads me to believe that Cy already knew what I still had to learn: African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites; black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to federal or state prison in their lifetime; and, the imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women. 

It reminds me of these words. 

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK 

Both of these men are my heroes, and I honor them today. 

Rev. Cy Young and Dr. Martin Luther King: one local, one international, both with voices for harmony among the races, today enjoying their reward, side-by-side, in the Promised Land!

 

 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Some people in Washington DC didn’t have a dad like mine!

It was early in the 1940s. A little boy named Doug Tjapkes went down the street to play with his friends Billy and Chucky. Playing in their spacious back yard was always fun. And, their mother had a nice vegetable garden back there. 

On that particular day, Billy and Chucky asked me if I liked to throw tomatoes. Well, I had never considered it...we didn’t raise tomatoes at our house. So, we all gave it a try, and I must admit it was fun. The neighbor lady had just received a new shipment of cement blocks across the alley, and we splatted tomato after tomato against that block stack. 

Much later in the day, my father asked me if I had been playing with Billy and Chucky. I allowed that I had. Then he asked if I had thrown tomatoes. Yep, I said, we all did. Turns out the owner of those cement blocks was a customer of my dad’s neighborhood grocery, and she was steamed. 

The elder Tjapkes assured me that, after supper, he and I would take a walk to Mrs. Smith’s house and tell her that we were sorry. Supper hour was somber. 

Turns out that Mrs. Smith was very kind, but pointed out that Billy and Chucky had placed all the blame on me. I would learn later just why my dad wasn’t all that surprised. He had had some unfavorable business dealings with their father earlier, and had experienced similar behavior. Trickle down. 

Well, I learned two important things from that experience. 

Number one, the harsh reality of life is that some people without a strong moral compass won’t accept blame...they’ll pin it on you or someone else. 

And even more important than that, number two: Apology is an integral part of the Christian walk. 

The writer of Proverbs says: Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it. 

Over the years, as I have helped dozens of prisoners prepare their applications for clemency, I always stress the importance of owning up to their mistakes and offering a genuine apology. We all blow it at one time or another. But we don’t all admit it! 

As I’m reading the major news stories of the day, I’m struck by the fact that many public officials obviously didn’t have John Tjapkes as their father. 

I can assure you that, if they had, some headlines would be different.

 

 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Second chances for juvie lifers? Elusive!

I blame it on prosecutors!

Here’s what’s going on. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012 and 2016, ruled that we may not sentence juveniles to life without parole. AND, those who are now in prison serving that kind of sentence must have those sentences reviewed.

And that’s where the rub comes in.

The Marshall Project, which recently published an in-depth report on the topic, found that we’re not doing our job here in Michigan. We had about 350 juvenile lifers whose sentences needed review. But get this: It’s 2021, and 200 of those lifers have yet to receive a new sentence! 

What the ? 

This, even after the Michigan Legislature responded by ruling that prosecutors should take less than 6 months to get these prisoners resentenced. 

Did that happen? Heck, no! 

To no one’s surprise, according the Detroit Free Press, many prosecutors decided to take a lengthier approach. Simply put, they chose to defy the high court’s determination that life without parole for a kid should be exceedingly rare. 

Four of those waiting to be resentenced were 14 when arrested. 33 others were 15.

The reason this is becoming such a hot issue right now is because while prosecutors continue to drag their heels, COVID 19 continues to run rampant through Michigan prisons. The Marshall Project reports that Michigan is third, only to Ohio and Texas, with more than 3,000 confirmed COVID cases. 

Prisoners in this special category now fear that the virus will get them before they can get resentenced. As if it wasn’t scary enough to walk into an adult prison as a teenager in the first place.

For one Michigan inmate, it's already too late. William Garrison had served 44 years for a crime he had committed as a teenager. Just 24 days before he was finally scheduled for release, COVID got him last month. What a tragedy! 

In a December blog, I referred to what I call a “prosecutor mentality” that leans strongly toward victims, victims’ rights, and punishment. I quoted former prosecutor Paul Delano Butler, now a Georgetown law professor: Like a lot of prosecutors, I possess a zeal that can border on the bloodthirsty .... I put a lot of people in prison, and I had a great time doing it. 

I’m at a loss here...how to get things moving? To whom should we complain? Where should we apply pressure? The state attorney general? A former prosecutor! The Michigan governor? A former prosecutor! 

To summarize: We have the U.S. Supreme Court and the Michigan Legislature saying our prosecutors must get on with resentencing 200 juvenile lifers. Meanwhile, a raging pandemic is threatening the very lives of these prisoners. Nothing is happening.

And how do our prosecutor’s respond? With the third finger. 

Disgusting. 



 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

2021: Year of burying the hatchet?

While fighting to free Maurice Carter, at the turn of the century, I learned some important lessons about forgiveness. 

I’ll not forget when a consortium of Innocence Project professionals decided to conduct a public seminar on the fallacies of eyewitness identification to focus attention on our case. It would be held on the campus of Andrews University, right in Berrien County where Maurice had been wrongly convicted. I was floored to learn that one of the nation’s leading experts on the topic, Dr. Gary Wells of Iowa, would coordinate this program on our behalf. 

That’s when I first met Jennifer Thompson, who came to share her story. DNA testing cleared a man, 22 year old Ronald Cotton, whom she positively identified as her rapist, and who served 10 years. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Jennifer explains that she humbly begged for forgiveness. And Ronald, who could have remained bitter over the ordeal, was big enough to forgive. They later co-authored the best-selling book Picking Cotton...a must read. Both of them came to Grand Haven some years ago for our lecture series. Beautiful people! 

I got to thinking about that the other day when I read a fine newspaper column by Alabama free-lance writer Leslie Anne Tarabella. She recalled that rather obscure 2020 story where Christian Cooper, a black man, was in Manhattan’s Central Park bird-watching when he politely asked a white woman to put a leash on her dog, as the law required. The woman, instead, called police, screeching on her cell phone, “An African American man is threatening my life!” 

Police sorted it out, and some friends urged Cooper to get even. However, he refused to file false report charges and publicly shame the complainant. “She shouldn’t have to live with her mistake the rest of her life,” he quietly told reporters. 

I am astounded when one after another of my friends gets released from prison---perhaps wrongly convicted, probably over-charged or over-sentenced--- and decides against any future retaliation, choosing, instead, to bury the hatchet. Prisoners have taught me a powerful lesson that theologian Frederick Buechner describes this way: 

When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. 

When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. 

Three Ps were at the heart of most of our shouting at each other in 2020: politics, pandemic and police misconduct. 

It’s a new year, time for all of us to find that “kinder, gentler nation” that former President George H.W. Bush described. 

Please join me in digging a pit for the hatchet.

 

 

 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Resolved: That 2021 will be The Year of the Prisoner!

 “New Year's Day ... now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”  Mark Twain 

OK, this time, a resolution you can keep. I promise. 

First let me say that we let our prisoners down in 2020, and we can’t allow that to happen again. 

Granted, we were obsessed by more than a handful of other issues: political division, Black Lives Matter, a pandemic with all of its spinoffs and problems, etc. 

But while we were fretting and whining about our own situations, Michigan prisoners sank into the depths of hell. Due, in part, to poor planning and bungling, more and more prisoners caught the virus. More and more prisoners died. And the hundreds of prisoners who could have been safely released never got to see daylight. We’re now approaching 120 prisoner COVID deaths. Positive tests are way past the 60% mark among our 35,000 inmates. 

People often ask, “What can I do?” Or, “Is there anything I can do?” 

The answer is a resounding “YES!” It’s resolution time. 

One of the problems with New Year’s resolutions is that we set unrealistic goals. This year, our proposal is a simple one: Make 2021 the Year of the Prisoner. It can be done with simple, easy steps. Here are some suggestions. 

Write to a prisoner. We can put you in touch with an agency that specializes in connecting you with an inmate. All experiences aren’t positive, but it’s worth the gamble. This can be a life-changing experience. 

Pray. If you are a person of faith, here are three prayer suggestions: 1, pray for prisoners and their plights; 2, pray for those who care for prisoners, such as guards and medical personnel; and 3, pray for those agencies that serve or advocate for prisoners. 

Support. There are wonderful tax-exempt organizations doing their best to help prisoners. Go on line, review their credentials and mission statements. Some are very religious, handling things like Bible study and in-prison services. Some work on legislation to improve our system. Some help prisoners as they re-enter society. Only one works to provide one-on-one assistance on a full-time basis to assist prisoners with their daily, every-day issues, needs and problems. Carefully review. Then pledge your regular financial support. It takes dollars to do this work. 

These are not difficult commitments. BUT, they are important ones! 2021 is approaching. As you reach your conclusion and form your decision, consider these words from American novelist Herman Melville, penned already in the 1800s: 

How feeble is all language to describe the horrors we inflict upon these wretches, whom we mason up in the cells of our prisons, and condemn to perpetual solitude in the very heart of our population. 

Let’s touch those lives! As you consider New Year’s resolutions, please consider making 2021 THE YEAR OF THE PRISONER. 

May God bless your decision.

 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Too many prosecutors on the bench!

 Prosecutors have dominated the bench for too long. We need more public defenders to become judges. Headline, Business Insider.


 Like a lot of prosecutors, I possess a zeal that can border on the

bloodthirsty .... I put a lot of people in prison, and I had a great time doing

it ... Now I describe myself as a recovering prosecutor-"recovering" because

one never quite gets over it. I still like to point my finger at the bad guy.

Paul Delano Butler, former prosecutor, and current Georgetown University law professor.

 

Business Insider is not a publication that I subscribe to, or even read. But I just happened to spot that headline a few days ago, which prompted a quick response from this old man: “Yes!” 

The article was written by Brendon Woods and Emily Galvin Almanza. Woods is the only Black chief public defender in California. Almanza is a former public defender and co-founder of Partners for Justice. 

Their main contention was this. From the Supreme Court on down, the country's judicial benches are occupied by fewer people who have fought for compassion over cages. For every public defender on the federal bench, there are four former prosecutors. 

We have had a similar beef over state courts right here in Ottawa County. 

When our most recent district judge was sworn in, media stories were complimentary, and rightly so. Just thirty-five years ago, Juanita Bocanegra was a migrant worker, born in Mexico, working in fields not far from her courtroom. Now, she’s the county’s first Latina judge. We add our congratulations. 

The only red flag to this story: One more time, we have a person on the bench with a prior history in the county prosecutor’s office. 7 of the 9 judges in Ottawa County spent earlier years in the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office! 

I was a reporter for nearly 30 years before getting into this prisoner advocacy business, and I have always contended that there is a “prosecutor mentality.” Here in conservative western Michigan, our prosecutors may not speak as bluntly as Paul Butler. But I’m convinced that once a prosecutor, always a prosecutor. 

In explaining why public defenders should be on the beach, the authors said, “Being a public defender is not a job, but an identity. It's an identity that prioritizes the needs of the most marginalized and makes sure that every person is fought for and empowered. Attorneys who share this identity believe that the people most impacted by structural racism and systemic harms are the people whose visions will bring us toward a new, more just world.” 

Public Defenders, are you listening? Right here, right now, there’s an imbalance in the justice scale. 

“If we want liberty and justice for all we have to demand it...and put judges on the bench who will do it.” 

Amen and Amen!



Saturday, December 26, 2020

Coal in Christmas stockings!

Many prisoners and their families received coal in their Christmas stockings this year. You probably won’t hear a lot of complaining. These people are accustomed to having their situations ignored. On the other hand, you can expect to hear it from this writer. 

The two St. Nicks who could have made a huge difference failed. 

The President of the United States is given the power to grant clemency, thanks to Article Two of the United States Constitution (Section 2, Clause 1), which provides: “... shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States...” 

The Governor of the State of Michigan is given executive clemency authority by the Michigan constitution, to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons for any offense except impeachment. 

At the national level, President Trump thumbed his nose at compassion and tradition, and instead granted pardons to war criminals, crooked politicians and family. Even more reprehensible, he chose to dangle pardon offers in exchange for loyalty and favors. 

Those familiar with the federal prison system say our facilities contain many men and women who have clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses. No end-of-the-year breaks for these deserving people. 

At the state level, Governor Whitmer had the right idea, but instead of making an impact, she threw us a bone. She granted requests for clemency to four men serving lengthy prison terms for nonviolent crimes tied to drugs. That was it. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. Those four commutations were well-deserved, and the Governor and Parole Board are to be commended. 

BUT, the list of Michigan inmates who also deserve consideration numbers into the hundreds! We know, because we helped many of them file their applications. For example,

          Lifers, especially LWOP

          Aging and ailing inmates

          Those serving long, indeterminate sentences

          Battered women.

With overcrowded prisons and a raging pandemic that is seriously affecting those behind bars, this would have been the perfect year for high numbers of clemency. Unfortunately, the descriptive words “care” and “compassion” do not seem to apply to those who can and should do more. 

So, for Christmas of 2020, the Clemency Santa was elusive. 

Let’s pray that these old chunks of coal in the stockings might be diamonds some day.