Friday, October 19, 2018

Matt calling the game and Matt's mind games


Not everyone knows this, but Matt Tjapkes is not only the Executive Director of HFP…he’s the voice of the Grand Haven Buccaneers. Matt is a professional play-by-play sports broadcaster when he’s not running our office.

The final game of the year was between Grand Haven and Grand Rapids Union. The Buccaneers wasn’t a terrific high school football team this year, and the record hasn’t been very exciting (even though our two grandsons were on the roster). But the GR Union Red Hawks’ record is dismal. And it goes way back. The school is located in an older neighborhood, the football team hasn’t won a game in a long, long time, and nobody even bothers to come out to watch them anymore. A while back, at a high school contest in Muskegon County, there were 4 fans in the stands.

So tonight, Grand Haven finally had excitement in the stadium…the Bucs tromping the opposition. At half-time, 35-0. It was raining, and it was cold, but our local fans finally had something to cheer about. For Grand Rapids Union, on the other hand, it was same old, same old. A 54-0 loss.

“It gets tired,” says team captain Caleb Smith. “It gets old. But you can’t stop.”

“We don’t quit,” says Coach Rick Angstman, “no matter the score.”

One has to admire this rag-tag group of football players who, in these dismal conditions and in this unfavorable situation, keep on keepin’ on…some tears perhaps mixed with the raindrops in a game like that of tonight.

The emotional storm for Matt, while he excitedly calls the touchdowns for the Bucs, is that all day long he’s working for the societal counterpart to the Red Hawks, Michigan prisoners.

People cheer when they’re put behind bars, sneer when they trip and fall, seldom show up for visits, and nod knowingly when they fail time after time. Like the Red Hawks, these losers behind bars tolerate the sacks, the fumbles and the interceptions every day of the week.

Yet, on a regular basis, Matt hears prisoners echoing the words of Captain Caleb: “It gets tired, it gets old, but you can’t stop!”

And Matt, and I, and the HFP team echo Coach Angstman’s words every day, as we do our best while standing beside these Michigan prisoners: “We don’t quit, no matter the score!”

Matt is outstanding at promoting the Bucs. That’s one of his jobs. But as his dad, I can tell you this: At his other job he’s for the underdog.

He comes by it honestly.



Sunday, October 14, 2018

Why prisoners identify with #MeToo


My friend Jerry has an interesting perspective on the #MeToo Movement. Jerry Metcalf resides in a Michigan prison, and he points out that it’s not just female prisoners who support this protest movement. The subject strikes home for guys.

“That's because,” he says, “many prisoners have experienced it, too. Everything the system does to us is designed to tear us down, to degrade us. I imagined a woman with a couple of kids. She has to keep a job to take care of her kids, to feed them and whatnot. So, when she’s at work and her boss sexually harasses her or grabs her, she just grins and bears it. That’s us, I thought.”

For example…

“A guard once made me eat off the floor (literally)! Others degrade us and don’t even know they’re doing it. I remember a guard who used to stand in the chow hall and constantly belittle our food. She’d scrunch up her face and say things like: ‘That looks disgusting,’ or ‘I wouldn’t feed that crap to my dogs.’ It wasn’t like we could go down the road to a different cafeteria. She made me feel less than human.”

Prisoners will tell you, says Jerry, that many times they have needed toilet paper to go to the bathroom, but when they asked for it the guard made them wait an hour or two! "Like getting up out of their chair in front of the fan was too taxing. Screw you, you’re just a scumbag prisoner."

“I thought of all of the stories over the years of guards and other staff sexually harassing inmates or pressuring them to have sex—I’ve even had to deal with those things myself. Like many of those from the #MeToo movement, we prisoners have for years remained quiet about such abuses. Some out of shame, others out of fear of retaliation, but most because that’s just the way it’s always been. The guards make it a point to label you a ‘rat’ and destroy your peace of mind and what little you may own in a thousand different ways if you tell on them or one of their coworkers. Yet, when they tell on you by writing you a ticket, they’re ‘just doing their job.’”

Jerry’s contention: “Just like with the #MeToo women, it’s a system-wide cover-up.”

American actress Alyssa Milano last year encouraged #MeToo victims to tweet about it so that people could get a sense of the “magnitude of the problem.”

Jerry couldn’t tweet from his cell, but we can help pass along the word.

Getting “a sense of the magnitude” isn’t enough. Shabby treatment must come to a halt for women.

For prisoners, too.

.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

More than one reason why old-timers should be released!


Denials are arriving by the boatload in the Michigan prison system. Many inmates who deserve a second chance are not being considered for clemency by Governor Snyder. And that’s a shame.

Darnell Epps, student at Cornell University who served 17 years for a violent crime, wrote a great op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled: The Prison ‘Old-Timers’ Who Gave Me Life. “Aging inmates,” he said, “some serving life sentences, helped me turn my life around.” His next sentence is important: They could do even more good on the outside.”

We’re tough on crime in Michigan! We like to “throw away the key.” Right now more than 8% of Michigan prisoners are 60 and older…some 75 of them over the age of 80!

Our friend Doug, age 54, who has served 33 years, has had the door slam shut on every opportunity for reentry into society, and that saddens us. A teacher, mentor, and a person who has done so much good behind bars, he deserves a new crack at freedom. Besides that, he could do even more good on the outside!

In a rare rant this week, he said,

“When this place opened I worked around Ed Rozek. His comment about the MDOC erring by keeping people too long is something I'm only really appreciating now, 23 years later. He said most guys steadily improve, but rather than release at the peak, the State keeps people not only when they plateau out, but start sliding back downhill, having given up on all the rhetoric about second chances. With decades served and no end in sight, Ed's observation has finally sunk in. Now don't fret that I'm on some downward spiral of despair, but at the same time I'm not going to pretend this disillusionment with a system I've wanted to believe in despite the growing evidence to the contrary doesn't hurt. A large part of my joining the Marines was because I really believed in America being the best country of all time, that a person really could be whatever they want, and, yes, second chances even for screw-ups were available. Far too idealistic for my age and circumstance, I admit, but up to now it's gotten me through this sentence. Now, my idealism is gone, replaced with resignation. I still don't want to ever use the word "unfair!" given what I did to get myself here, but, well, damn, in a fair, objective review I can't help but think I'd finally get to go home before any more of my family passes away from old age.”

Says Darnell Epps: We must seriously consider whether society would benefit by letting reformed offenders re-enter their community, and whether it’s economical and humane to punish solely for the sake of retribution. When I hear of all the gun violence on Chicago’s South Side, for instance, I can’t help wondering what would happen if Illinois’s many reformed old-timers, who hail from those neighborhoods, were granted parole with a mission of working to reduce the violence. It’s not unreasonable to think they’d have a better chance of reaching the younger generation than the local police or federal law enforcement.

One shameful certainty: It won’t be happening in Michigan!



Friday, October 5, 2018

A Penny saved is a Penny earned: a nice story!


Here’s a neat story about Penny. Actually, it’s about Penny and HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. If you haven’t caught it by now, we’re the place prisoners go when they don’t know where to turn.

Penny got convicted of a non-violent charge in Detroit in 2008, and was given probation. In 2015, she apparently violated probation and was sent to prison for 3-10 years. But that was an error. The most she should have received was 3-5 years. Nobody caught it.

Nobody, that is, except Penny.

The state’s legal counsel helped her appeal, but the Michigan Court of Appeals said no.

Not one to just let things drop, Penny---a 63-year-old African American---spent her time in the prison’s law library, and all by herself went all the way to top. And wonder of wonders, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with her! The order came down that she must be sent back for re-sentencing.

That was in May, 2017. Since then, nothing happened. No word from anybody, the five years  served, and she’s still behind bars. Still awaiting resentencing.

Not knowing where to turn, she came to HFP.

Now it’s very true that our daily workers are just common, ordinary people doing extraordinary work. But behind the scenes, we have an amazing panel of doctors and lawyers in all kinds of specialties, boasting all kinds of backgrounds, who have an infinite number of contacts, sources and skills. These men and women, who love and believe in what we do, are movers and shakers!

I’m not going to betray confidences here---not names nor methods used---but I can tell you that the story sliced through red tape and got to the right people in a heartbeat. This week Matt was pleased to pass along a message to Penny from the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System: She would be assigned a lawyer to get this resolved, “right away!" 

HFP: Quietly making things happen!

I use this story to explain the unique work that HFP does on a daily basis. There are many fine prisoner advocacy agencies in this state. We love all of them, we support them, and we work with them when and where possible. But no one except HFP is down in the trenches 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, helping “the little guy” with things that may seem like little cases, little problems, or insignificant issues.

Insignificant?

Just ask Penny.





Monday, October 1, 2018

Wrongful Conviction Day. Don't make light of it!


It was a wrongful conviction case that got me started on this journey. My friend Maurice Carter, whom I came to call my brother, served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. Not a week goes by that we don’t encounter another claim of innocence.

October 2 is International Wrongful Conviction Day, and once again the general public will take a look at the title, grumble that they hope it never happens to them, perhaps mutter that all prisoners say they are innocent, and go about their daily tasks.

Well, I think it’s worth breaking down a few statistics to give this some meaning. Take a look at these numbers and see how this information hits you:
3-5% of all prisoners are innocent.
Which means that
We have more than 1,000 wrongly convicted inmates right here in
Michigan.
Which breaks down to
Approximately 40 in every  state prison.
            So we can conclude that
Possibly 80 or more innocent people reside in the two Muskegon prisons just 10 miles from our office!

In a country which claims its system of justice is superior to all others in the world, here are the leading causes of wrongful conviction:
  • Eyewitness Misidentification. 
  • Junk Science.
  • False Confessions.
  • Government (Prosecutorial) Misconduct.
  • Informants or Snitches.
  • Bad Lawyering. 
While preparing a podcast on the topic recently, I compiled a list of some wrongful conviction cases that have touched our office in the past 16 years. Surprise! The list included a police officer, a lawyer, a doctor, two teachers, two businessmen and a single mother. All in middle to upper income brackets, all white, and none with even a hint of a police record! May this dispel any thoughts that such a thing cannot happen to you. Or me.

Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, keeps official track of all those people in the United States whose wrongful convictions have been reversed.

I conclude with his conclusions:

“We can do better, of course — for misdemeanors, for death penalty cases and for everything in between — if we’re willing to foot the bill. It’ll cost money to achieve the quality of justice we claim to provide: to do more careful investigations, to take fewer quick guilty pleas and conduct more trials, and to make sure those trials are well done. But first we have to recognize that what we do now is not good enough.”

Amen and Amen!




Friday, September 28, 2018

We can learn from Maria and Anna Maria!


An interesting thing happened on the way to the hearing room.

The U.S. Senate was marching toward a confirmation vote for a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

I’ll not enter this fray with my opinions, (I have a lot of them!). What I want to focus on is what may have seemed an insignificant occurrence. This has to do with one of my favorite subjects: the little guy.

In this case, the little guy was a woman. Actually, two of them.

One of the senators who was about to vote on this motion got on the elevator and found himself facing Maria Gallagher and Anna Maria Achilla…two sexual assault survivors. They recognized Senator Jeff Flake, and wasted no time or words on him. They were in Washington to support a woman who claimed she had been abused by the nominee years ago, and they let him have it!

The senate hearing to determine whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh should be seated in the land’s highest court, as you probably know, was focusing on accusations of sexual abuse that had allegedly occurred during high school days. The hearing was a difficult and torturous experience for both the accuser and the nominee.

One of the major issues, however, was whether the accusation should be more thoroughly investigated. Democrats said the FBI should look into these matters. Republicans said it wasn’t necessary, as the senate was very capable of doing this, and the voting should proceed.

Then came that confrontation in the elevator, when Senator Jeff Flake met Maria and Anna Maria. With raised voices, he clearly heard “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter;” “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter;” “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me…that you’ll let people like that go into the highest court in the land and tell everyone what they can do with their bodies!”

Senator Flake won’t say that this experience made the difference. But the record shows that he went back and was able to encourage a delay until the FBI conducts an investigation into these matters.

Again, I’m going to restrict my opinions to the incident, not the subject.

There's a segment of our society here in Michigan that has been clamoring for prison reform, protesting mass incarceration, encouraging release of elderly and ailing prisoners, shouting that too many have been in prison for too long, and insisting that inhumane treatment of inmates is not acceptable.

Little guys (and by “little guys,” I mean people like you and me) can make things happen. Plopping our fat butts on the couch and yapping at the TV won’t do it. Shooting off our mouth to the guy on the next bar stool accomplishes nothing. It’s time to get on the elevator and get in the face of our elected officials and demand that they look at us! And listen to us!

Our opinions are important.

Our voices can make things happen.


Monday, September 24, 2018

One more on the subject, then we'll move on


I promise to let this go, because forgiveness and kindness are also key ingredients in the Christian walk. But honestly, I have a real problem when one of our area’s most popular and well-attended churches says, about (our) prison ministry, “…this is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in.”

That reply came to a simple inquiry whether we might be able to tell church leaders the story about HFP's work with Michigan prisoners.

What if we had given that response to the people who came to us when they didn’t know where to turn?

To those caring prisoners who begged us to find a place for Old Bill so that he could be paroled and die in freedom.

To the guy with sleep apnea who wasn’t allowed to have his CPap breathing device.

To those caring prisoners who begged us to intervene at Carol’s Public Hearing so she could spend her final weeks on earth at home with family.

To the prisoners’ mom who wasn’t allowed to see her sons because of unpaid traffic tickets.

To the mentally ill women being abused in the critical unit.

To a wife when the prison wouldn’t provide the location of her dying husband.

To the elderly inmate who found his long-lost son.

To the guy with bad eyes who finally got a pair of reading glasses.

Sorry Mary. Sorry Nathan. Sorry Willie. Sorry Johnny. Sorry Patricia. This is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in?

It’s not up to me to advise any church to dig into roots of Christianity, but I’d like to quote one of the early church fathers here. Saint Augustine of Hippo was an early Christian theologian whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity. He was viewed as one of the most important church fathers in Western Christianity.

Among his many profound quotes is this one:

“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”

And that, it seems to me, is exactly what a church might want to “invest its time and resources in.”

We can say for a certainty that it’s the rule of thumb here at HFP.