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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, October 18, 2019

It was delightful...for a few minutes!


It was a wonderful evening! Against all odds!

Renowned author and lecturer Alex Kotlowitz was in Grand Haven for a community event, sponsored by HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. He was to speak in a local school auditorium. The key word here is “was,” because that is not where the event ended up.

Just one day earlier, the school system advised us that the auditorium had been double-booked. Sorry, we’d have to find another place. ONE DAY BEFORE OUR PROGRAM!

So, we had to punt. But thankfully, we have a team including our staff, board members and committee members, that can roll with anything. And they did!

A pre-program dinner and reception were planned to be held at St. Patrick’s Family Center in Grand Haven, so why not just keep people there, and hold the event in the same spot? It took a lot of scrambling, a lot of last-minute publicity, and a bit of finagling, but it all worked out.

More than 100 people gathered in a beautiful, intimate setting to listen to and interact with the author of some delicious books that everyone should read.

Board Chairman Russ Bloem introduced a new legacy program that is designed to keep our agency running for years to come.

Long-time board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete were honored guests, receiving the Maurice H. Carter Humanitarian award for their many services over the years.

Alex answered questions and signed books.

It was a wonderful evening.

This morning, however, it was a different story. There was no time to bask in the warm fuzzies, the good feelings, the kind words, the warm compliments. In the echo of Alex’s praise of HfP work, insisting that there should be similar chapters in every state, reality rushed in as we walked through our front door. There were between 30-50 unopened letters from prisoners, all asking for help. There were 50 unopened email messages from Michigan inmates, all wanting attention and needing answers now.

The phone rang…a collect call from a prisoner. A prison dentist was quick to pull out the inmate’s teeth, because they were all bad. But now he’s invoking some silly rule, and the guy has to wait two years for his dentures. Look, Ma. No teeth! No way to eat!

A sigh.

On the plus side, also in the mail was a generous $5 donation from a prisoner. It represented one week’s wages!

A tear.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

AG Nessel, where are you?


For a while, there, I really believed we had a kinder, gentler State of Michigan. Memories of former Attorney General William Schuette and angry Parole Board members faded into the past.

The occasion was a Public Hearing, conducted in Ionia by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Readers of this column know just how much criticism these public hearings have prompted from me in the past. Some members of the Parole Board have been cold and rude, some hearings have been poorly run, and there were times when the Assistant District Attorney was brutal.

Today, it was a different story. Presiding Parole Board member Sonia Amos-Warchock, whose anger and brusque manner I’ve personally witnessed, was on her best behavior. She quietly and patiently explained what was happening to the prisoner. Not once did she raise her voice. Her kind manner set the tone for the entire hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, whose sometimes raw prosecutorial-style questioning has driven many prisoners to tears, actually seemed sensitive to the prisoner’s personal story and emotions. He remained calm, and he actually demonstrated patience. Was the fact that he answers to a new boss with a radically different philosophy actually making a difference?

I should take a moment, here, to tell you about the prisoner. Joe is one of our clients, and Matt, Holly and I were all in the hearing room to support him. His story is a shameful indictment of the judicial system in Michigan. At the age of 18, this young black teenager and his buddy needed some pocket change, so, from their car, they aimed their pellet rifle at two kids operating an ice cream cart on the sidewalk and demanded money. While all this was going on, a little child came up to buy some ice cream. They gave the lad his ice cream, as well as his change…then continued with their robbery operation. They stole 27 dollars and 50 cents! That was 38 years go!

Joe received a life sentence for that crime! Without the persistence of our Holly, I don’t think that, even now, he’d be getting this Public Hearing.

I must say that today’s hearing was by far the most calm and sedate of any I have attended. 

Then, at the very end, it got spoiled.

That’s when Assistant AG Scott Rothermel stated that the Michigan Attorney General’s Office objected to the proposed parole. It was an assaultive crime. No mercy recommended.

Aaaargh!

Shades of Bill Schuette!

Michigan is better than that.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

YOUR story deserves applause!


I’m humbled by that applause. Johnny Carson

To my delight, reruns of the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson are still available on cable TV. At the end of each performance, the producer inserts the above quote. I’m sure Johnny made it “tongue-in-cheek,” because performers thrive on applause.

But here in the quiet of my office, I must admit: I am humbled by applause.

I’m basking in the afterglow, after viewing another staged reading of the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. It was presented over the weekend at the prestigious Atlanta Black Theatre Festival. This powerful stage presentation, capsulizing the story of my ten-year battle with Maurice Carter to seek his freedom, was written ten years ago by award-winning Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne.

Several factors, not the least of which is my age, make it very difficult for me to leave home for any period of time. But, thanks to the love and generosity of HfP board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete, I got to Atlanta and back in 24-hours, and in one piece! What an amazing experience!

I counted nearly 100 people in the compact theatre of the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, near Atlanta. At the conclusion of the presentation, the cast of 10 received a warm and well-deserved standing ovation. As the applause died down, a festival spokesperson introduced each member of the cast. Then, said the emcee, “We feel very fortunate to have with us the real Doug Tjapkes! Gasps, and then enthusiastic applause. And that leads me to my opening premise: I am, indeed, humbled by such applause.

Taking advantage of the moment, I rushed on stage to give Greg Daniels and Carle Atwater, the guys who played Doug and Maurice, bear hugs. One by one, I grasped the hand of each member of the cast. A lot of emotion. And yes, a lot of tears.

The reason for my humility on the applause issue is very simple, and very real. Granted, it’s a great story! I’m proud of that. BUT, it’s one of just thousands and thousands of similar stories that never get told. I’m well aware of this because I and my team see them and hear them every day!

Today I applaud all the unsung heroes of similar, and even better stories!  Yes, our story happened to catch the attention of playwrights, and happened to get publicity. But, yours/theirs is equally as important.

We have a system of justice in [the US] that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes
Bryan Stevenson


Monday, September 30, 2019

A famous athlete takes on injustice!


Boy, does that sound a lot like the Maurice Carter story!

National basketball star Maya Moore, of WNBA fame, is in the news these days. She shocked the basketball world earlier this year when she quit basketball, saying she wanted some time to pursue “criminal justice reform.” But it’s more personal than that. The real reason is making headlines right now, just in time for the observance of International Wrongful Conviction Day. She’s doing her best to free a prisoner who has served nearly 23 years for a crime he did not commit.

The man was arrested for a non-fatal shooting. After meeting him, hearing his story, and digging into his case, this basketball superstar is flabbergasted. “No physical evidence. No DNA, footprint, fingerprint,” she exclaims! Yep.

Sound familiar?

Granted, Doug Tjapkes was no superstar, but at the turn of the century, he did almost the same thing. Starting in about 1995, I became aware of this black dude who claimed he was innocent, and had already served 15 years for a non-fatal shooting. No physical evidence, no DNA, no fingerprints, no weapon, no motive. Let me add a few more “nos.” No blacks on the jury. No legitimacy to eye-witness accounts. No qualified legal assistance. No integrity in the Benton Harbor Police Department, or in that Berrien County courtroom.

Maurice Carter served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. He was released on a compassionate release, and he died just three months later, in October, 2004. He was never exonerated.

Wednesday, October 2, is wrongful conviction day. Basketball superstar Maya Moore points out that more than 10,000 people are sitting in prisons for something they didn’t do.

What a terrible blight on our alleged system of justice!

And the sad part of all this: The real criminal, quite often, is still out on the street. In Maurice Carter’s case, the drunken bully is not only still alive, but he’s still boasting about how he “shot that white cop!”

As we approach International Wrongful Conviction Day, we pay tribute to Michigan’s two fine Innocence Projects: the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project, and the Innocence Clinic of the University of Michigan Law School.

And we pray for success not only for Maya Moore, but also for all the other advocates with lesser credentials and lower profiles, but with similar stories, hoping for similar outcomes.

As author John Grisham puts it:

“Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in this country, and the reasons are all varied and all the same—bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, arrogant prosecutors.”





Thursday, September 26, 2019

You'd better listen to a whistle-blower!


Some readers are going to accuse me of being very political with this piece. That’s your call.

The topic of “whistle-blowing” is big news today, because it involves the President of the United States. Regardless of your political affiliation, I have something to say to you: You’d better listen to a whistle-blower!

I go back to the year 2014, when MDOC personnel at our only prison for women, Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, were accused of mistreating and abusing mentally ill inmates in the acute care section. There were charges of hog-tying, tasing, excessive use of pepper spray, and food and water deprivation. We’re talking about the treatment of human beings here, not animals in the dog pound.

We could do nothing about this without the help of whistle-blowers. And yes, they came through! I had in my possession a stack of affidavits scribbled out on scrap pieces of paper. Prisoners don’t have access to legal pads, and all the other paraphernalia that we might use to put together a proper legal statement. They used what they could find. These affidavits from prisoners who witnessed cruelty and abuse were smuggled to me by a gutsy inmate who later won a legal battle with the State of Michigan. But that’s another story.

My tribute, today, is to whistle-blowers.

It’s very easy, especially in today’s story, to claim that there’s political motive, or interest in personal gain. But that’s pure and unadulterated baloney! It’s no fun being a whistle-blower. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Unless, that is, you’re hoping to expose the truth. Unless, that is, you’re hoping to bring about change.

I’m proud to say that thanks to some daring whistle-blowers at Huron Valley, subsequent action by our office led to involvement not only by the American Civil Liberties Union, but also the U. S. Department of Justice! The courageous women who dared sign their names will be proud to learn that those little scraps of paper made their way into the files of the ACLU, and led to a lengthy letter of demands to the prison warden and the Department of Corrections.

The acute unit for the mentally ill in Huron Valley isn’t perfect these days. But there is improvement.

I salute, today, every whistle-blower, from the bottom to the top.

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.
Albert Einstein


Monday, September 23, 2019

Parking at the four-way stop isn't very smart!


As I headed into town this morning, a well-meaning driver about ruined my day. As he approached a four-way stop, he made the decision that this was BE KIND TO DRIVERS DAY, and so he just sat there. He let all other cars go first! Of course, that didn’t work. The result was not a "kind" thing at all. It gummed up the works! People stopping, starting, pointing, gesturing. The four-way stop can be a well-oiled machine, but it involves heads-up participation by every driver. Each has a responsibility.

On Facebook one day some contributor allowed that a very Christian thing to do, that day, would be to let the other guy go first at a four-way stop. No! No! No! That has the opposite effect. Very un-Christian words get uttered in cars approaching that intersection!

I see that as quite symbolic of all of life.

You can’t go to your church and just sit there, letting all the others go first to sing in the choir, serve on the council, volunteer to be an usher, teach Sunday School or work in the food pantry.

You can’t join the Rotary Club hoping that the membership will make you look good, then just sit there, refusing to serve on committees, run for office, or volunteer for projects.

You can’t send your kids to the best school, but then refuse to serve on the PTA, run for school board, car-pool kids to the special events, or assist the coaches.

It doesn’t make much sense to complain about your government in the coffee shop or bar, but then refuse to run for office, or at least communicate with elected officials, or even get off your duff and go to the polls.

Fred Rogers, famous kid’s show TV host, said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say ‘It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

As a prisoner advocate, I’m not suggesting that you must help prisoners, and your job is to do it now. Although that would be nice.

I am saying that you’re doing the world no favor by staying put at the four-way stop, leaving others to the task of negotiating that intersection.

“We have to do the best we can.  This is our sacred human responsibility”
Albert Einstein

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Kindness begets kindness evermore. Sophocles


HIS MEN, the male chorus that I founded in 1972, is no more. While the music has stopped, my memories continue. We liked little things!

While other Christian groups seemed to thrive on performing in prominent venues before large crowds, our most meaningful experiences were in circumstances exactly the opposite. We performed an entire concert for an ailing missionary on the Haitian Island of La Gonave. When we were traveling in the “hollers” of Kentucky, we sang for a little old lady who wasn’t well enough to come to the concert. We performed in the back of a pickup truck down her little two-track road. An audience of one.

I’m reminded of that today as we prepare for a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS Board of Directors meeting. For these quarterly sessions, key people in our team are asked to prepare activity reports.

Our kind and caring Medical Director, Dr. Bob Bulten, reported that in addition to answering more than a couple hundred email messages related to prisoner medical issues, he personally made some visits to inmates. Said Dr. Bob: “One of whom I have seen multiple times, as he is dying of tongue cancer at Duane Waters Medical facility.” Just doing it because he cares.

As with HIS MEN, we take pride in major successes---freeing Maurice Carter, freeing Jimmy Hicks! But there’s something really special about helping a musician-prisoner to finally get permission to play his keyboard behind bars, arranging transportation to prison for an elderly and disabled mom, or helping a young, imprisoned mother to see her little girl for a birthday visit.

I can tell you this: We may be responding to 1,000 calls a month, but small acts of kindness are common here, and we intend to keep it that way! It's part of our DNA.

My dear friend and gospel singer Alma Perry, who left this earth far too early, used to sing:

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he's traveling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Leo Buscaglia put it this way:

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.