Thursday, June 14, 2018

The AAG's recommendation: worthless!

The Public Hearing is a big deal for those Michigan prisoners fortunate enough to get one. It often leads to freedom.

The Public Hearing, as we have explained many times in the past, is conducted by the Michigan Parole Board. Its purpose is to determine if a prisoner is fit and ready to reenter society. It is held on the campus of a Michigan prison and chaired by a member of the Parole Board. Another participant is an Assistant Attorney General, who does the lion’s share of the questioning. For more than a decade, AAG Scott Rothermel has participated in hundreds of such hearings.

I’m not going to focus on differences of opinion with him. Today I want to focus on his recommendation to the Parole Board.

At the conclusion of each session, Mr. Rothermel explains to the inmate that the final decision regarding the outcome is completely up to the Parole Board. He does not have a vote, he says, and can only make a recommendation. Then he goes on to recommend against the prisoner’s release. Every time!

He once explained that if the crime was of a serious nature, especially if it involved injury or death, the recommendation is no parole. Automatic. Rehabilitation, renewal, rediscovery, rejuvenation, and yes, conversion, may seem important when considering a prisoner’s reentry to society. But not to the Attorney General’s Office. The decision is made in advance.

I honestly expected a different recommendation this week, because a Public Hearing was conducted for my friend Jimmy. Two years after he was locked up, James decided he was going to make a difference. For the next 30 years he worked with state and federal officials to help solve crime. Up to 8 cases. Numerous arrests, all the way to the federal level. A two-year investigation into an MDOC fraud case saved the state millions of dollars.

Despite all of this, despite the fact that Jimmy had letters of support from important state and federal agencies with whom he had worked, despite the fact that he had actually assisted the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, and despite the fact that the Assistant Prosecutor who put Jimmy away submitted a letter supporting his release…despite all of this, a recommendation against commutation! Can you believe it?

True, the PB often ignores Mr. Rothermel’s recommendation and approves the release of inmates who have satisfactorily contended that they can and will be productive citizens.

Which then begs the question: Where’s the integrity in a line of questioning that ends with a recommendation already cut and dried? That recommendation means nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Why does the AG’s office persist with this policy? Perhaps it has appeal to the Attorney General’s “law and order” support group. One thing is certain: If, perchance, that prisoner screws up, the AG can always say, “See, I told you.”

Improvements in this procedure are long overdue. The State of Michigan can do better.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

It's time to raise the age, and you can help!

I love teenagers! And we’re doing them a real disservice here in our state.

If you’re a Michigander and the parent of a 17-year-old, you probably know most of this already. But here’s a reminder…important information for all of us.

Your 17-year-old cannot vote.

Your 17-year-old cannot serve in the military.

Your 17-year-old cannot buy a pack of cigarettes.

Your 17-year-old cannot purchase a six-pack of beer.

BUT, your 17-year-old can be arrested as an adult, tried as an adult, and placed in an adult prison!

An article in the Grand Rapids Business Journal points out that between 2003 and 2013, nearly 20,300 youth were convicted as adults in Michigan. 95% were 17 at the time of the offense. Some were even younger. This has to stop!

HFP has been remiss in not focusing more attention on this earlier and more often. It recently came to our attention again when we noticed that the State of Missouri has adopted legislation raising the age. That means that Michigan will soon be one of only four states that automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults.

There are so many arguments against this practice, from so many different directions.

We give them a criminal record at a very young age, affecting their future.
It increases in-prison problems of violence and sexual assault.
It leads to higher rates of mental problems and suicide.
There are SIGNIFICANT racial disparities in rates of youth incarceration.
Youths prosecuted as adults are 34% more likely to reoffend than those in the juvenile system.
From a cost standpoint alone, it’s dumb!

I’m pleased to report that there’s an excellent Raise the Age campaign in Michigan. It’s time to get involved, and not just those of you who have teens at home. This campaign deserves widespread support of individuals, as well as organizations. The movement actually has a package before the Michigan legislature, and it’s a good one. These bills would not only raise the age but also establish other important reforms. For more information, please go to Then, be sure to let your lawmakers know that we want action.

The time is now.

As writer Jenny Kinne says in the GRBJ article:

This is not only an unethical system, it is an unintelligent investment. We can be a whole lot more effective in how we spend our tax dollars.

Our precious teens deserve better.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Prisoner medical co-pay: A terrible idea!

If your doctor charged a $500 co-pay for every visit, how bad would your health have to get before you made an appointment? 

That’s the question Wendy Sawyer asked last year, in a Prison Policy Initiative blog. She was talking about the shameful co-pay policy for prisoners. 42 states have co-pay policies, ranging from $3.50 to $8 per visit. Here in the State of Michigan, prisoners are charged $5 for every visit to the health center. BUT, keep in mind the prisoner pay scale. Michigan inmates can earn as little as 75 cents a day, or at the peak, up to about $3.35 per day.  So, according to the estimates calculated by PPI, the average Michigan prisoner would have to work 35 hours a week to make one co-payment. That’s just unacceptable!

I bring all of this up because I just learned that Illinois lawmakers have eliminated the medical co-pay plan for prisoners. Illinois prisoners make 5 cents an hour, so the $5 co-pay was roughly equivalent to a month’s wages.

The main argument for medical co-pay for prisoners is to discourage frivolous visits. Now, just as in the free world, I’m sure you might find a few hypochondriacs behind bars. But really, how many people do you know who just love to go to the doctor, and who cannot wait for the next visit? And if we’re talking expense, these tiny co-payments certainly cannot make much of a dent in the cost of medical care for prisoners.

In an office where we respond to 20 messages from prisoners per day, 7 days a week, you can bet that we hear complaints about medical co-pay. Especially when a prisoner finally breaks down and agrees to give up a week’s wages, and the PA tells him to take two aspirins and get out of there! Sometimes they charge for doing absolutely nothing. Not even any medical advice!

Our congratulations to the State of Illinois. It’s way past time for Michigan lawmakers to consider the same action.

Back to Wendy Sawyer again:

Out-of-reach co-pays in prisons and jails have two unintended but inevitable consequences which make them counterproductive and even dangerous. First, when sick people avoid the doctor, disease is more likely to spread to others in the facility – and into the community, when people are released before being treated. Second, illnesses are likely to worsen as long as people avoid the doctor, which means more aggressive (and expensive) treatment when they can no longer go without it. Correctional agencies may be willing to take that risk and hope that by the time people seek care, their treatment will be someone else’s problem. But medical co-pays encourage a dangerous waiting game for incarcerated people, correctional agencies, and the public – which none of us can afford.

Amen and Amen!

Friday, June 1, 2018

OK, it's time NOW for a change in bedside visits!

First it was David’s parents (See blog post dated “The system needs a heart” dated April 18).

Now it’s Terry’s brother.

His message to me:

My question is, why wasn’t the family notified that my sister was in such poor health and on her deathbed? When I called the prison to see when I could visit, I was informed that if a prisoner was that sick, they would have been transferred to a hospital and no longer be in the prison infirmary. Also, was told I could not visit until Friday, June 1. Unfortunately, my sister passed away on Tuesday, May 29, the day I called. I had wanted to visit her that day. I’m sure the medical personnel were aware of her condition. I can’t believe the prison system would not want family to visit a dying inmate. That is just so inhumane. Can you tell me if this is normal protocol for prisons? I’m just heartbroken that I was not allowed to see her before she passed.

The sad story of Terry’s death is related in our previous blog, posted just prior to this one. Take a moment to go back and read it.

In our June newsletter, the HFP COMMUNICATOR, a front-page article explains how we are asking the Michigan Department of Corrections to modify its position on visits for prisoners in private hospitals. We cited the case where David’s parents traveled all the way to the U.P. to visit their son, in a coma and on a ventilator. Their visits were terminated a couple days later when a physician detected some movement, and made the determination that death was no longer imminent. Three days later David died. Alone.

It appears we’re going to have to modify our request. It was our belief that the department was already working on improving its policy for bedside visits for dying inmates still in prison. Over the years we’ve received complaints from family members who said they were not permitted to have a final visit with a loved one before he or she died in prison. Terry’s brother will testify that such change hasn’t happened yet.

What kind of person does the state have answering a phone who can simplistically conclude that “if she were that sick she’d be in a hospital,” and then deny a family visit for that day?

Change must happen, and the time is now. Gotta quit behaving like Congress with “thoughts and prayers,” but no action.

The department can and must do better.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Another sad tale of life's final hours behind bars

This is the story of a prisoner who experienced a taste of hell on earth. And it didn’t have to happen that way.

We never got to meet Terry.

The first we heard about her, and her plight, was late last year. The mother of her special friend contacted us, saying the 69-year-old woman was suffering from cancer. She had had at least two surgical procedures. The reason for the call to HFP was the shameful treatment Terry was receiving. A corrections officer was not only abusive and demeaning, but had also refused to undo her shackles and allow her to go to the bathroom.

We heard nothing further until a few days ago.

Terry is in a lot of pain because they ran out of morphine. The family can’t find out anything.”

Then her brother reached out to us.

I believe she is gravely ill, maybe terminal (not sure). As I am Terry’s Patient Advocate, I'm wondering why no one from the prison is keeping in touch with me regarding her condition. Do you know what the prison's responsibility is in regard to prisoners in her condition?

The next day.

An officer let an inmate see Terry today. Terry is in a lot of pain and wants to die. Don't know the exact facts but heard they ran out of morphine to alleviate her pain. How inhumane. The inmate who saw Terry called Terry's brother with this extremely disturbing news.

The next day.

As we were talking to our daughter tonight someone came to tell her that Terry had passed away. Another inmate did get to see her today thanks to some compassionate officers and she had a morphine drip and was a little more comfortable but still wanted to die. So I'm thinking that none of her family got to visit her. That is so sad. It's so comforting to know that HFP is there ready to jump on this case. Thank you ever so much for caring.

It grieves me to report that we did nothing. Breathed a prayer for her. That was it. We were tripping over ourselves trying to get better care, but sadly, it was too little too late.  

Thank God there’s no more cruelty, no more pain, no more suffering for Terry.

There’ll be another unfortunate prisoner in line for similar experiences tomorrow. We’ll be here. We’ll try harder.

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!