All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, February 21, 2020

Adequate medical care: elusive!

As a young news reporter, I smoked anything legal that I could get my hands on: cigarettes, a pipe…even cigars. And though I quit the nasty habit over 50 years ago, nicotine did its number on me. I live with COPD.

That means that even a common cold can give me some serious grief. So, when the symptoms appeared last weekend, I immediately contacted my medical care people. I was able to get an appointment, and proper medication, within hours.

This wonderful medical care, which we take for granted on the outside, is in stark contrast to what our friends behind bars must endure.

Sylvia tried to get help when she experienced early symptoms, but that’s not the way it works for the incarcerated. Based on her email message this morning, let us walk you through just one episode in Michigan’s prison for women.

Well, I’m finally seeing progress in my health problems. At first it was respiratory problems. The treatment: Alka Seltzer. Two days in, it was nausea, stomach pain, extreme headaches and weakness to the point I couldn’t walk. Healthcare refused to see me, and instead insisted that I “push fluids.”

Finally, on the 7th day, an officer contacted Healthcare and they said I could come. A nurse reviewed my symptoms with the doctor, and he sent me to the hospital via ambulance. They took good care of me with IV fluids, as well as pain, nausea and vitamin meds. All symptoms stopped. I begged the doctor not to discharge me, knowing that there would be no follow-up care in prison. He replied: “I tried, it was denied.”

I was discharged with orders to take magnesium, potassium, antibiotics for 6 days, along with a liquid diet, to control nausea and pain. Yet, the only thing I received was a liquid diet. I was on the floor of my cell, begging the officers to call Healthcare again, as all symptoms had returned. The nurse refused: “They sent her to the hospital, there was nothing wrong with her. Push fluids.”

Finally, after 12 days, food was good to my body.

Many of us have had similar problems. It’s upsetting to see these people crying and needing basic medications, only to be told to “push fluids.”

Sylvia’s getting back to her routine now, as a busy person involved in numerous projects. She says she has a lot of paperwork to do, must get to her ironing, and wants to do some walking.

A little extra time is all it will take with Jesus.

Our office is flooded with stories like this. In a typical month, we will receive 200-250 messages via letter, email and telephone, regarding inadequate or inappropriate healthcare in Michigan prisons.

Jesus is available to them. Medical care is more elusive.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Prosecutors can make a difference!

I suppose it’s pretty unusual to pay tribute to a couple of Michigan Prosecutors during Black History Month. But then again, who could ever make the claim that Doug Tjapkes marches to a given drummer?

Those of us in prisoner advocacy rarely have high appreciation for county prosecutors. I have always grumbled about, what I call, a “prosecutor mentality.” I point out that prosecutors are elected to office, and it is not uncommon for the number of convictions to be a strong campaign issue for reelection.

To set the stage for my comments, let me first point out, as we observe Black History Month, that

-African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites
-Black men have a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison in their lifetime
-Among black kids, 1 in 9 has had a parent in prison.

Let’s move on with a couple more stats:

-Nearly 80% of prosecutors in the United States are white men, and
-Here in Michigan, we have 83 counties…21 with female prosecutors.

I’m paying tribute today to two of those prosecutors: Kym Worthy, in Wayne County; and Carol Siemon in Ingham County. Prosecutor Worthy is black, Prosecutor Siemon is white, but notably, both are women!

We’ve had our differences with Prosecutor Worthy, but we honor her today for forming Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit. This unit “investigates claims of innocence, to determine whether there is clear and convincing new evidence that the convicted defendant was not the person who committed the conviction offense.” It’s about time! Chosen to head up this unit is another female lawyer of great integrity. Says the State Appellate Defender Office:  Valerie Newman has battled prosecutors as an attorney at the State Appellate Defenders Office for 23 years. Now she has joined the other side – to help her former opponents avoid sending innocent people to jail. 

We also pay tribute to Carole Siemon in Ingham County, today, for taking a bold approach to lifers in prison. Quoting an article in CityPulse: Siemon — with pro-bono help from former Assistant Attorney General Ron Emery — this year plans to begin a formal review of the 90 convicted murderers serving life in prison without parole in Ingham County. And for a select few, she said she plans to seek a gubernatorial commutation that could get them back out on the streets.

Why is she doing this?

“I just don’t believe in the death penalty,” Siemon explained. “I think life in prison without parole functions in a similar way, and I think everyone should have an opportunity to be able to get out some day.”

A tip of the HFP hat to these two prosecutors, striving to right some wrongs in Pure Michigan!

This is an election year. Know who you’re voting into the Prosecutor’s Office. There are things more important than party affiliation.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

In the ditch, or in gotta stop and help!

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?” The expert in the Law of Moses answered, “The one who showed pity.” Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”

Marcia and I were driving home from our daughter Sue’s home in a snowstorm last night. We had just pulled onto Hickory Street, a rural road in Spring Lake Township, when I spotted a set of headlights on the wrong side of the street. They were way down in a water-filled ditch. Sue and our grandson Brenden were following us. Seeing my hazard lights, they stopped as well. I told Marcia, “I gotta see if that driver’s OK.”

By the time I got back there Brenden was already down in the ditch talking to the guy. He wasn’t injured, but getting his car out of that steep gulley was going to be a challenge.

Hickory is not a busy street, but along came another car as we were stopping. When he saw that we trying to help the guy, he kept on going. One other car approached. Same situation: cars along the street with hazard lights flashing, a set of headlights far down in the ditch. This driver not only chose to disregard someone else’s misfortune, but he stepped on the gas! He blew through the scene with snow flying and exhaust roaring. I doubt that he could have seen my gesture, had I thought to give him one.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan came to mind. Nobody wants to get out of their car on a dark, cold, snowy night to check on someone in a ditch. But the simple fact is that someone could have been you or me…it was a real person, in real trouble.

I tell this story not to boast about stopping. I tell it to draw a parallel.

This is what we do at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

One of our supporters told Matt and me this week, “A lot of people really admire you for what you are doing, but they wonder why you are being kind to this segment of society.”

The words of Jesus: Go and do the same.

That’s exactly what we’re doing. Just as the unfortunate driver was a real person, people in prison are human beings. Truth be told, they’ve been created in the image of God just like the rest of us living on the outside.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has already touched the lives of 200 new Michigan prisoners this year. Our records show that we have now assisted at least 10% of the entire state prison population, in one way or another, since we began 19 years ago!

I’m proud of our gang, our work, and our mission.

…the same.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Message to Governor Whitmer

OK, Governor Whitmer.

We’ve finally taken steps to fix the damn roads. Your response, on behalf of your party, to the State of the Union Address went flawlessly. Now it’s time for you to take a hard look at the #$%&* prisoner commutations!

Granted, it wasn’t very nice of former Governor Snyder to leave all those unanswered commutation requests in your lap. Decency would have suggested that he, at the very least, give all of those Michigan prisoners seeking clemency either a “yes” or a “no.” Yes, he did commute a handful of sentences. But, the rest of the applicants (and there were hundreds), never got answers.

Here’s the thing. When an application is denied, prisoners may try again in two years. Well, two years is coming up for some of these men and women, but they still haven’t received a formal answer to their first application! You can’t put this off any longer.

In recent months, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has reached out to you personally, and to your staff, offering to help with this massive stack of applications. We have commutations experts on our team (we’ve actually prepared a printed guideline for inmates to assist them in filling out the application forms!), and we’re willing to help, without charge or obligation. But to date, we can’t even get a meeting. We can’t even get someone to talk about it.

The stack continues to grow by the day. You not only have all of those old applications from the Governor Snyder days, but you have applications coming in now from prisoners who see and feel new hope because of a new administration, a new attitude.

We believe there are prisoners who deserve to have their sentences commuted. Regardless of how you and your staff feel about the 38,000 people who are housed and fed by our state prison system, they are human beings. They deserve an answer, a response.

Will you respond?

Can we help?

The position of HFP has been, and always will be, that 95% of the incarcerated will someday leave these prisons and reenter society. They’re going to be neighbors. To make them better citizens then, they deserve humane treatment now. They need someone to care.

Ignoring pleas for help from this segment of our society is no longer an option.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Not to worry if you have lotsa dollars and good lawyers? Think again!

I don’t have a law degree.

Worse than that, I don’t have a good understanding of the law. I’m also confused by what we call our system of justice.

I’ll give you three very short stories, changing names.

Bill was a highly successful businessman. By all appearances, he had everything. Beautiful family, several cars, and even three homes that his family enjoyed in various seasons. His two young sons were exceptionally popular. Parents of two of the boys’ acquaintances, however, were jealous of all this wealth, and connived to get a piece of it. They persuaded their boys to claim that Bill had molested them once in a back-yard camp-out. Bill would get arrested. Then, they could and would file a damage suit for thousands of dollars. It worked, just as they had planned.

Diana was a highly successful corporate executive. But, life wasn’t all that pleasant at home. Her husband struggled with mental illness. While dealing with extreme paranoia, he was constantly confiding to others that his wife was plotting against him, that she wanted to get rid of him. He wrote a document to that effect, saying that, “If I’m gone, you’ll know who to blame.” Then he took his own life. Guess who got blamed, arrested and convicted? You got it!

Matt’s consulting business was on a roll, and it kept him traveling most of the time. For one of his trips he unwisely chose an “on-and-off” woman friend who struggled with substance abuse. She assured him that she was no longer taking prescription meds. But, that was not the case, and while staying in a luxurious Michigan resort, she overdosed, stumbled and fell while Matt was gone with a client. Upon his return, Matt found the women bruised and bloodied, an argument mushroomed over the recurring substance problem, and the noise upset the neighbors. Hotel occupants called the cops, the woman claimed that those injuries were caused by Matt, and he wound up in the pokey. He’s still there!

Now here’s what I don’t get. All three of these people had the means to hire what they thought was the best legal counsel. Yet, in all three cases, these innocent people lost. Now, I can understand how that sometimes happens with jury trials. Prosecutors don’t win by accident. They’re good, and they strive for convictions. But here’s the confusing part. If our system is the best in the world, if, indeed, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, how come these three people are still in prison? Worse than that, all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. All this money spent, all these powerful attorneys, still no resolution, and nowhere else to turn! No more options. That’s justice?

I give these examples to my friends with law degrees. They pat my hand, and say, “Doug, you just don’t understand.”

There could not be a more accurate statement.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Who are these people?

The President of the United States claims wrongful conviction in an impeachment trial. His alleged supporters, who believe he is innocent, oppose the introduction of witnesses who could prove their point. Duh!

Maurice Carter, black man accused of shooting and injuring an off-white cop in Benton Harbor back in the 70s, has a team of supporters who found the real shooter and found his friends who admit that they hid him and whisked him out of town. Berrien County’s white prosecutor and white judge refuse to listen.

Across the United States, prosecutors are informed that DNA evidence could establish proof of innocence or guilt in their cases. They oppose its introduction.

Battered women who finally take action to save their own lives, wind up charged by prosecutors with murder, convicted by juries, and sentenced to prison by judges…all citizens of their own communities!

Beautiful signs in front of churches expound the message: EVERYONE WELCOME! Everyone, that is, except those who struggle with sexual identity and preference, or whose skin is of a different color, or whose past includes imprisonment…especially on sex charges. Members prefer not seeing them, or hearing them, let alone sitting with them.

Corrections officials hope to establish re-entry centers in communities so that former inmates can get a new start. Local citizens are in support of re-entry into society, but not in their neighborhoods.

Certainly, the mentally challenged need help. Our institutions should not have been closed. Our jails and prisons are now overrun by persons struggling with psychological problems. But change won’t come quickly…we’re reluctant to spend tax dollars on things that don’t really affect us.

An itinerate preacher who sees to it that the sick are healed, the blind get new vision, the deaf hear again, the insane become sane, even some believed to have been dead are given new life…this preacher gets taunted and teased by a crowd during his actual execution!

Who are these people?

Just a minute. Join me in front of the mirror.

I think I just found them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Free at last! Free at last!

“Look at this. I’m walking around with no one hanging onto me! I don’t have any shackles. No one is telling me what to do, where to go!”

It’s early in the morning, dark, cold, with a light combination of rain and snow. For you and me, it would be just plain miserable. But not for Joe. We’re standing in the parking lot of the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility. Joseph Johnson, formerly Michigan inmate #164659, has just walked out the front doorway of this prison for good. His first time without handcuffs and shackles in nearly 40 years! He's free!

“I really don’t have words…I don’t know what to say,” he whispers to me as I give him a bear hug. “You don’t have to,” I reply. “Just savor the moment! These are the moments we live for.”

And that’s the truth. Before the sun came up, I was in the car, driving through marginal weather, heading to Ionia, Michigan. I was in town for less than hour…then drove back home again. But I gotta tell you something: For this 83-year-old man, the thrill of these moments never lessens. What a blessing to walk beside an inmate as he or she takes those very first steps out of the visiting area and into freedom! No more restraints. No more clanging gates. No more barking officers. No more noise.

In this case, the story belongs to Holly. Holly Honig-Josephson is Vice President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, and our commutations specialist. It was back in 2017, while preparing an application for a commutation of Joe’s sentence, that she reviewed the details of his story. Then she saw red!

The kid was 18, in the year 1980, when he and a friend decided they needed some spending money and used a pellet gun to hold up the operator of an ice cream cart. They got $27.50 in cash. And, for that, a Flint judge gave Joe a life sentence! That’ll teach that naughty black kid not to mess with the law!

Holly befriended Joe and offered her assistance. Her assistance turned into persistence. She persuaded the chairman of the Michigan Parole Board to review the case. She drove to the Upper Peninsula to participate in his Parole Board hearing. She testified at his Public Hearing.

Now, this huge step: Holly and her husband Tony have graciously opened their home and their hearts for the next chapter in Joe’s life. Free at last, free at last… !

The words of Aaron, brother of Moses, come to mind:

“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace. ”
(Numbers 6:24-26)