Friday, August 17, 2018

What are we going to do about mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners?

Are we getting better at treating the mentally ill in prison? I don’t think so!

Years ago, with overwhelming evidence about mistreatment of mental patients in the Women’s Huron Valley Facility, we filed a complaint with the U. S. Department of Justice. It led to a lengthy investigation.

Evidence included numerous signed affidavits smuggled to us by trained prisoner observers whose job it was to keep an eye on the mentally challenged. They scribbled their signed statements on scraps of paper, courageously revealing shameful details of food deprivation, water deprivation and even hog-tying.

With our evidence, the ACLU prepared a pages-long letter to the Michigan Department of Corrections and specifically to that facility, demanding that the practices be stopped and the procedures be changed.

There may have been some improvement in care of acutely ill. But then a few days ago we received this message from another of our trustworthy informants, about one of the same patients from years ago:

“It is now going into years that she has been locked in a room with nothing. She no longer even sings, raps or talks. She just makes noise. Four days ago an officer withheld her food because she would not get up. He yelled down the hallway (which is on camera), ‘You’re not getting your food unless you get up.’ The observer on duty said that in her time there, the food was never delivered. Years of being locked in a cell with nothing has made her worse.”

For the record, this young woman is only 28 and should have been released years ago. But, because of continued issues, the Parole Board refused. Then she assaulted a prison employee, got charged again, and now is not eligible for parole until 2024. Can’t anyone see the real problem here? Besides not giving this woman proper care and treatment, guess what it’s costing to keep her there!

Half of the people in Michigan prisons are mentally challenged. Because many of our mental institutions have been closed, many of the mentally ill now wind up behind bars. And corrections officers are the wrong people to care for mental patients.

Here’s my point. If we’re going to wait for the US government, like the DOJ, to do something, we can forget it. We saw what happened there. Same thing for going to the ACLU. They do a lot of good things, but other than a strong letter, we got no additional help from them and I don’t see any more coming. So, it’s back to my previous blog. It’s up to you and me. It’s election time, and if those persons in office aren’t willing to help the mentally ill, it’s time to throw the bums out! And before we choose replacements, it’s time to find out where they stand.

Please don’t ignore this just because it doesn’t affect you personally. The next time it could be your mother, or sister, or daughter.

It’s time to do something. Silence and inaction are not options.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

We don't need Doug, we need you!

Keep up the good work, Doug. We need people like you!

As a young broadcast journalist, my radio editorials used to bring in a lot of comments like that. But that’s about as far is it went.

In the City of Holland, for example, back in the days before Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, I badgered the city council mercilessly for holding regular secret meetings. The people loved it, but nobody ever did anything about it.

Fast forward to today.

I’m not writing radio editorials anymore, but the pieces that I post on this blog site are just as direct. But I’m going to tell you something. If mass incarceration is going to get serious attention, if sinfully lengthy sentences are going to get reduced, if prison overcrowding is going to be dealt with, if the number of wrongful convictions is going to be reduced, if prison conditions are going to be improved, if spiritual communities are going to change their attitudes about those behind bars, it’s not going to happen because of something I wrote. It’s because somebody who reads what I write decides that enough is enough!

No, we don’t need another Doug Tjapkes. Society is stuck with him for now.

We need you!

We need people who will go to the polls and vote out of office those politicians who want to be tough on crime by imposing long sentences and building more prisons.

We need people who don’t just nod their heads when they read our blogs, but who, instead, email or call their state legislators regarding prison reform, prison conditions and mass incarceration.

We need people, regardless of age, who will get off their butts and work in soup kitchens, carry picket signs for refugees, crusade for better senior citizen care, and assist with prisoner re-entry.

We need people who will insist to their church fathers that the only mission fields aren’t overseas, that teaching Bible lessons isn’t the only way to help prisoners, and that if ex-offenders aren’t appreciated in their pews, the EVERYONE WELCOME sign should be taken down.

I conclude with this quote from a church newsletter: 

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference….
The opposite of life is not death, it’s complacency.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Prison visits: Important, stressful, heartbreaking!

Dr. James Woodall, a researcher in the United Kingdom, writes important blogs on issues facing prisoners and their families. He lists ten reasons why prison visits are so important:

  1. Humanitarian reasons. A prison sentence means the loss of liberty, not the desolation of family ties.
  2. Prisoner well-being. Visits are important markers for prisoners, often providing a much needed ‘boost’.
  3. Visits from family and friends mitigates against prisoners becoming institutionalised.
  4. Visiting helps family (children especially) to understand what prison is like for their loved one.
  5. Prison visits make it more likely that the family remains intact this means that when the prisoner is released he/she is better able to integrate into society.
  6. Better integration means lower likelihood of re-offending.
  7. Visits allow prisoners, albeit temporarily, to maintain their role as husband/wife/father/mother/son/daughter. It is an important reminder that they are more than ‘a prisoner’.
  8. Maintaining family ties through visits is a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism.
  9. Visits keep families together and potentially prevents family-breakdown.
  10. Visits and the maintenance of family ties can help prevent intergenerational offending. 
Considering the fact that only about 12% of Michigan prisoners receive any visit at all, one would think that the department would do everything in its power to make visits easy and simple. But it doesn’t go that way.

Tiffany must drive hours with her two little kids to visit her husband. Long waits can be an issue, but food and dollars are really important. She writes:

Newberry Correctional Facility is hours away from mostly anything. Having adequate food in the visiting room is an issue now more than ever. With visitors expected to forfeit one of their two weekend visits a month if they leave and come back, many choose to stay and be hungry. The reason? Empty vending machines. NCF's most recent solution: Raising the price of meal options by $1. Hamburgers and boxed items are now $5 while small burritos are $4. Last time I visited, the one vending machine offering meals is now well-stocked -- and I can understand why when I spend $10 just to feed my 7-year-old two small trays of mac and cheese!

She added:

...This last time I felt very sick thinking about whether to feed my kids or my husband. I don't question going without myself because that has been happening for a while now. The kids will get fed, of course, but why should it come to this?

No wonder Jesus praised those willing to make a visit behind bars: I was in prison and you visited me.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

We get a failing mark on treating prisoners, especially the mentally challenged!

Persons doing hard labor may develop callouses on their hands, but I can assure you that persons doing prisoner advocacy never get callouses on their souls!

I’ve shared this Bob Pierce quote before, as our Medical Director Bob Bulten has it posted on every email that he sends: "May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God."

That happened again yesterday in a message which I received from my friend Lois. Her son Kevin, who has struggled with mental issues all of his life, has been in and out of prisons since he was a little kid. Sometimes it would appear that we choose not to handle mental illness in appropriate ways, when it’s so much easier to just put someone behind bars.

Lois and Kevin and I go back a long way. Back in the early days of this organization, when I was making a lot of prison visits, I went to see this young kid, chatted, drank root beer and ate candy bars with him. And I worked with his mom when and where I could.

Life has been a struggle for this young man, and Lois gives updates and seeks prayers from time to time. Meanwhile, she has devoted her life to prisoner advocacy and prison reform.

Anyway, getting back to that message of yesterday, she mentioned that Kevin is now serving some time in an Indiana prison. And here’s the part that really hit me. Here are the meal times in that facility's unit for the mentally challenged:  Breakfast 2 AM, Lunch 9 AM, and Dinner at 2 PM!  What the????

I’m reminded of Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s famous quote: The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

We’re failing.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Healthcare delayed is healthcare denied!

We’re seeing a disturbing trend in Michigan prison healthcare, and I find it upsetting. It can be described in one word: delay.

John has a cyst in his throat, near the vocal cords, and health care says he needs surgery. Yet it doesn’t happen.

New tests show that Scott’s cancer has metastasized and is spreading along his spine and his neck. He needs to see his oncologist now. Yet it doesn’t happen.

David is in terrible pain. They say he needs thoracic surgery. Yet it doesn’t happen.

We are blessed to have a team of wonderful physicians on our panel of consultants, and they are constantly frustrated and alarmed by these delays. It’s as if the prison healthcare people are thinking along the same lines as Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

One has to wonder whether it is a simple issue of procrastination, by unconcerned and uncaring people who are just collecting their paychecks. Or is it something deeper than that? Sometimes we see clear evidence that some individuals in the corrections system believe that prisoners deserve nothing, and that, in fact, there is nothing wrong with additional punishment beyond that of incarceration. What other explanations can there be for postponing or even denying needed treatment, surgery or x-ray? For refusing to honor or allow post-op procedures? For denying pain meds when there is proven legitimacy?

Believing that all behind bars are created in the image of God, our HFP mission statement deals with that very topic, saying that we do what we do “in order to alleviate suffering beyond the just administration of their sentences.”

As proof that the Michigan Department of Corrections has a problem in this area, I must point out that we remain busy responding to complaints like those listed above. Approximately 15% of all calls to our office have something to do with medical and/or healthcare issues. We’ve logged about 60 this month!

I wonder if the professionals who work for Corizon, the healthcare provider for Michigan prisons, have read their own company’s statement: As the correctional healthcare pioneer and leader for 40 years, Corizon Health provides client partners with high quality healthcare and reentry services that will improve the health and safety of our patients, reduce recidivism and better the communities where we live and work.

Yeah, right!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Wasting dollars and lives, say Doug & Ricardo

I have long contended that the State of Michigan could save a ton of money by releasing aging prisoners who pose a threat to no one. Let me throw out a few numbers.

We have about 39,000 people in the state prison system, and it costs us about $36,000 per person per year to keep them there. Of that 39,000, more than 3,000 are age 60 and older: 8.1% of the Michigan prison population. And in that group, about 70-80 are 80 years of age and older! Now common sense will tell you that if it costs $36,000 to care for the average, healthy prisoner, it’s going to cost double or triple that amount to care for these old-timers.

Ricardo Ferrell, a 60-Year-old  Michigan prisoner with who enjoys writing essays, helps us with this topic.

Despite serving over 43 years on a parolable life sentence, Darnell, 66, sits languishing in a Michigan prison even after being assessed by the MDOC as having a low risk of violence and an unlikelihood of reoffending. This prisoner over the last four decades
-has only accumulated a minimal number of misconducts, none of a violent nature,
-has been a mentor to younger prisoners,
-has been an example for fellow prisoners.
Recently, he was able to mediate between two gangs by utilizing Alternative Dispute Resolution Skills he taught himself. Darnell continues to show himself worthy of fair and positive parole consideration.

Despite all of this, last year on his 65th birthday he received the standard Notice: "The Majority of the Parole Board has 'NO INTEREST' in your case. Your next consideration date is scheduled for August 12, 2022."

It would seem that any logical-minded individual would realize that Darnell poses a low risk to public safety and a readiness to finally be paroled. It’s apparent his many accomplishments, strong support network, gainful employment offers, mental stability, substantially showing of his ability to succeed, expressing remorse for his crimes, showing empathy for his victim(s), and taking full responsibility were not fairly considered. He’ll be 70 years old at his next scheduled file review.

Darnell’s situation is quite indicative as to why there is a dire need for parole reform for parolable lifers who have served 3, 4, or 5 decades on a sentence that was not intended to mean life behind bars. Irrespective of the opinions of lawmakers, prosecuting attorneys, parole board members, and general public - parolable lifers certainly are not the 'worst of the worst!' Often they actually are the opposite---the most well-behaved prisoners, usually tutoring and mentoring others, and having the lowest recidivism rate.

-- The MDOC and Michigan Parole Board should seriously look at ways to release elderly prisoners like Darnell, who has unequivocally been proven by COMPAS assessments and other factors, not to be a danger or risk to public safety.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Guest Post: Tony and Joe

HFP Vice President Holly Honig-Josephson and her husband Tony recently drove to the U.P. for a prison visit. Here is Tony’s story:

As I left Kinross Prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and drove south across the Mackinac Bridge, a disturbing and unsettled feeling kept creeping into my subconscious. I had spent the weekend there visiting my friend.

Joe is serving a life sentence for robbing an ice cream push cart with a friend when he was 18 years old. They used a broken pellet gun as the weapon. During the robbery, which he openly admits, he stole $27 and an ice cream sandwich. Ironically, he also made change and served ice cream to a child who was unaware of what was occurring. He had no prior offenses, and the accomplice with him who held the gun during the crime received 7 years. He received life. This was in 1981. He’s now 56.

During my visit, he and I discussed things that normal friends do. Books and politics took up a lot of the discussion. Also music. He has a love for blues guitar. We also talked about family. Except for the surroundings, it was much like many other conversations I have had with old friends over beer at my neighborhood bar.

As we discussed family, I was amused and shocked by his quiet admission that he was an avid follower of “I am Jazz” – a show on TLC about the life of Jazz Jennings, a transgender teenage girl navigating her world during adolescence. He said he didn’t fully understand being transgender, but thought she was courageous and amazing, and should be allowed to be whoever she needed to be. He then went on for some time expressing his admiration for her parents for “loving and supporting her.

As I traveled south, the unsettled feeling I first experienced earlier had now turned to a full-on knot taking residence in my stomach. And then it struck me. What responsibility do I have for his incarceration?

The state says Joe is being held in prison to protect me, and others like me, from him.  Some candidates for public office still talk of expanding the prison system. As I look at my friend’s incarceration, I have to wonder how many of the 38 years that he has already served is he responsible for due to his original crime? And how many am I for supporting a broken system? Is a lifetime sentence for making a bad decision at 18 justice? And if I am even partially responsible for supporting those that create and maintain this system, then what am I morally obligated to do to right this wrong? And if not me, then who?

I wish I had answers. I don’t, and am troubled by these thoughts still. As I prepared to leave, I saw a tear come to his eye. I knew I was the only other human being to have visited him in over 13 months. He and I hugged, an embrace that conveyed a sense of warmth and humanity that is sadly too rare in the world today.

Then I went home, and Joe returned to his cell. That’s his name, Joe, and he is my friend.