All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

"If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice." Sister Helen Prejean

An overnight vigil was held this week in Washington DC. Protesters are urging the US Supreme Court to stop a Texas execution. 51-year-old Rodney Reed is scheduled to be executed on November 20. He’s been on death row for more than 20 years. Reed and many of his supporters claim he is innocent.

Reading this stuff brings back one of the darkest chapters of my life. I went to Texas, and I witnessed an execution.

In September, 2006, I received a letter from my friend Charles Anthony Nealy, a 42-year-old black man on death row. He asked if I would be his “spiritual adviser” at the time of his execution. How does one respond to a request like that? “No, I really don’t feel like it?” “I’m not qualified, go find someone else?

Marcia and I flew to Texas in March, 2007.

I cannot begin to describe the ugly memories---

The indifference and “business as usual” attitude on death row
The braying bloodhounds in kennels just outside the prison
The refusal to allow contact visits (We’d press our hands together on both sides of the glass partition as I prayed with him)
The laughing and flirting of guards with reporters in the “death house”
Armed guards on the roof as we were led to the death chamber.

In his final statement, while strapped to the gurney, Anthony thanked me for being there. Then, as his sister Debra and I watched, the State of Texas murdered my friend. Chemical one put the prisoner to sleep. Chemical two stopped his breathing. Chemical three stopped his heart. Right in front of our eyes. The silence was deafening.

Where were my profound words of sympathy to Deb and my expressions of faith in this traumatic time? Seems like I could have found some powerful piece of scripture, like Death, where is your sting? Instead, I mumbled, “Have you ever seen such horse-shit?”

I couldn’t wait to take a shower. I couldn’t wait to get out of Texas.

Sister Helen Prejean, among those fighting for a stay of Rodney Reed’s execution, says:

If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.

It’s time to pray not only for a stay of execution for Rodney, but for a halt to this nonsense.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Prison: Bumpy road for gay and transgender inmates

A front-page Associated Press story caught my eye this week. Only 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

I think about the difficult road for gay and transgender persons a lot these days.

I knew very little about this kind of thing when I was a child. Back in the 40s and 50s we gave gay people terrible labels, and it was not uncommon for bullies to beat up gays just because they were different. I was silent and did nothing about it.

That has changed.

I’m in the sunset years of my life now, and in my third career I’m closely aligned with prisoners. Just as in the outside world, there are sexual identity issues in prison. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I can tell you this about gay people in prison. Many gay inmates, even those who may have been openly gay while on the street, stay in the closet while behind bars. That’s because any man or woman in prison who is known or perceived to be gay faces a high risk of sexual abuse. And this can come from guards as well as from fellow inmates.

Transgender prisoners have an awful time of it. They are especially vulnerable due to a general policy of housing them according to their birth-assigned gender or genital configuration, regardless of their current appearance or gender identity.

I’m no longer silent.

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does its very best to treat these people in a kind, humane and dignified manner. We stand beside those who are gay, we find clergy who will visit them, we go to bat for them when no one else steps up to the plate. The same for transgender inmates. We politely call them by their new transgender name, and refer to their sex as that with which they identify, regardless of genital configuration.

I so appreciate the position of the Episcopal Church:

“Homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the church.”

I spotted a paraphrase of a familiar hymn while putting together this piece: In Christ there is no gay or straight.

And that’s the way we operate, that’s our philosophy. The business card of every HFP team member proudly bears these words:

“…all prisoners and their loved ones deserve to be treated with humanity, kindness, and dignity---without exception.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

On quietly doing the work of the deacons

The work of the deacons seldom attracts attention.

The work of the pastor and the elders are often the main focus in a church. After all, what can be more important than the preaching and the teaching?

And so, when the Executive Director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (my denomination) decides to comment on Hebrews 13:3, his article in the denominational magazine focuses on a program conducted by Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in one of the Ionia Prisons offering undergraduate courses to inmates. He draws attention to the wonderful work of our friends at Crossroads Prison Ministries. He praises a worship team that goes into one of the Muskegon prisons to lead services each month.

The agencies and the people mentioned deserve that spotlight.

But once again, the work of the deaconate didn’t draw any attention. I’m not a theologian, and I know better than to pretend that I’m knowledgeable on these matters. But Calvin Seminary prof Dr. John Rottman, who serves on our Board of Directors, knows what he’s talking about. And he insists that the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is the work of deacons.

If you stopped in our office today, you’d likely find the team

Helping a guy straighten out a Social Security number mix-up
Helping a brain cancer victim in his final days
Sending a photo behind bars for an artist to paint
Finding a long-lost relative
Helping a dyslexic inmate prepare a commutation application
Helping a transgender inmate with multiple in-prison issues
Helping a wrongly convicted inmate obtain legal documents.

I’m not complaining about Steven Timmermans’ piece in the Banner. Not at all. We thank God for every person, every agency, that is willing to do something for prisoners.

But his conclusion asks members of our denomination to consider gifts and opportunities to those agencies remembering prisoners, as challenged in Hebrews 13. And when it comes to “gifts and opportunities,” I’m suggesting that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS should be high on everyone’s year-end list. We’re the ones down in the trenches, quietly doing the work of the deaconate.

"Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated…”

Thursday, October 31, 2019

I'm telling you: It CAN happen to you!

Our conversation centered on the plight of prisoners, as it often does. Marcia asked me, “Have you ever added up the number of people you know who were wrongly convicted?”

I had not, but as I thought about it, names popped into my mind. I’ve been working on wrongful convictions since the mid-1990s, so there were certainly a few. Riiiiight. So far, I’m up to 11 here in Michigan, and 11 more from other states. 22 people, some of whom served decades, and some who died behind bars! God knows how many years they served, collectively, and the sad thing is that many of them were never exonerated.

I never get tired of talking about this, even though you may be getting tired of reading my tirades. The reason I keep beating this old drum is because it can happen to you!

Of the 11 people I know here in Michigan who were wrongly convicted, nine were white, middle-income folks, and none had any kind of police record. They were not criminals.

As I look through the list, here’s why enterprising cops and prosecutors decided to go for it:

To get even, Dan’s ex-wife accused him of molesting their daughters
To get even, Roger’s daughter-in-law accused him of molesting a grand-daughter
To get some of his wealth, parents of his daughter’s friends spread a lie about Gary
A suicidal son got even with his mom one last time
Someone killed Judy’s husband, and with a rocky marriage, all arrows pointed to her.

I’ve never forgotten a Canadian case we heard about as I was trying to help Maurice Carter. A prominent individual was arrested for the murder of his wife. She died of injuries from a fall down a basement stairway. Authorities claimed her husband gave her a shove. I think he spent 8 years in prison before the truth emerged.

It’s a blight. It’s a curse. It’s a national scandal. What an indictment on our so-called justice system when we must have Innocence Projects in every state, and that these teams of lawyers and students are swamped with business…year’s behind in their requests! How terrible that we just blithely accept the fact that about 3% of the people occupying our prisons are innocent! More than 1,000 men and women right here in Michigan!

Since 1989 about 2500 people have been exonerated. May that spur defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges to take a closer look at the reasons for wrongful convictions, and take steps to avoid them.

Meanwhile, remember that it doesn’t always happen to the other guy!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Honoring a hero! Remembering a hero!

Our nation pays tribute to one of its black heroes today.

Our office pays tribute to its black hero today.

Here in the United States, citizens mourn the loss of Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died on October 17. The Washington Post relays this interesting information:

Born to a family of Southern sharecroppers and Baptist preachers, Mr. Cummings grew up in the racially fractured Baltimore of the 1950s and 1960s. At 11, he helped integrate a local swimming pool while being attacked with bottles and rocks.

Here in the HFP office, we’re remembering the loss of our hero, Maurice Carter, who died on October 25, 2004. Born and raised in poverty in Gary, Indiana, Maurice wandered into the Benton Harbor area in the 1970s to visit a friend and look for work. Instead, he caught a wrongful conviction that placed him in prison for 29 years.

I learned of his case in the mid-1990s, and for the next decade he and I battled that injustice. And while we may not have attracted the attention of presidents, we quietly created a well-oiled machine that eventually focused international attention on a shameful case of wrongful conviction. Among our outspoken supporters were such prominent names as Keith Findley, Co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project; Chicago freedom fighters David Protess and Rob Warden; Dr. Rubin Hurricane Carter; and author Alex Kotlowitz.

The entire story is told in the book SWEET FREEDOM and the stage play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

Hepatis C claimed his life just 3 months after his compassionate release. He was never exonerated.

The overwhelming support and interest that helped form a defense “dream team” for Maurice served to inspire him to help other prisoners. And that led to the formation of our parent organization, INNOCENT, in 2001. Several years later our company name was changed to better reflect our mission.

Today, thanks to the vision and tenacity of my brother Maurice, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is now a leading state prisoner advocacy agency. We respond to a thousand calls a month, and boast a client list of nearly 10% of the entire population of Michigan prisoners!

Author Alex Kotlowitz said about HFP, in a recent visit, “It is so commonsensical…I don’t know why we don’t have a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS in every state in this country.

Someday that will happen.

Quite a legacy for an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana!

RIP, my brother.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Second chances on Sunday. None on Monday!

When it comes to redemption, we love to hear Bible stories from the pulpit on Sunday morning. On Monday morning, however, we’re not so sure about true-life stories on TV.

Reporter Ken Kolker refuses to let up on this story: The Michigan Parole Board has granted parole to 47-year-old Catherine Wood. Channel 8’s latest report once again quotes dire warnings by family members that this woman may kill again.

Well, it’s time to take a deep breath.

Catherine Wood has been in prison for 30 years for her alleged involvement in 5 nursing home deaths back in the 80s. News people call her the Nursing Home Killer.

Parole for her didn’t come quickly. In fact, 8 times in a row the Parole Board turned her down, claiming she didn’t show remorse. Last year, however, following a Public Hearing, the board approved her release. That got delayed when the Attorney General’s Office protested. But last week Kent County Circuit Judge J. Joseph Rossi determined that the Parole Board did not abuse its discretion. He said the decision came after hearing that she had done well in prison, was rehabilitated and no longer posed a threat.

Parole experts have a couple words of advice for our office, as well as for newsman Kolker. While comments of crime victims make for great news clips, Prison Policy Initiative contends: Survivors of violent crimes should not be allowed to be a part of the parole-decision process. The parole process should be about judging transformation, and survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed.

And point number two: The “nature of the crime” or “seriousness of the offense” should NOT be the reason for parole denial. This from Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). Both of these agencies review parole policies and decisions on a national level.

Two very good friends of mine, in younger days and influenced by drugs, committed absolutely terrible and brutal crimes. Both got their acts together while in prison. And, even though people raised hell about their parole, neither reoffended. Instead, both became outstanding citizens. In their cases, the Parole Board got it right.

I don’t know Catherine Wood, and can’t predict her future. But I do know she’s not getting a fair shake.

Judge Rossi’s opinion underscores our position that the nature of the crime is not a factor here, neither is one-sided news coverage, and neither is victim-opinion.

There’s a reason Norway has no sentences over 20 years. Rehabilitation can work.

Ms. Wood may surprise us.

Redemption is possible, and it is the measure of a civilized society.
Fr. Greg Boyle

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.