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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Federal executions resume. YOU can do something!

 

Charles Anthony Nealy. Not many people remember that name. It’s the name of a young man executed by the State of Texas in 2007. 

Here are two more names that will be new to you: William LeCroy and Christopher Vialva. These two men are scheduled to be put to death this week by the United States Government. 

Not many people can say that they witnessed an execution. I can. 

I didn’t want to watch Texas put Anthony to death. But he was my friend, and he asked me to be there with him as his spiritual advisor. I’m the first to admit that I’m not much good at that “spiritual advisor” stuff, and I’m afraid my presence and my last-minute prayers were quite inadequate. 

The experience, however, solidified my feelings about the death penalty...something I find immoral. 

Sadly, our federal government has opted to resume this barbaric form of punishment. The Catholic Momentum Network has announced plans to conduct two Virtual Prayer Vigils on the scheduled dates for the executions this week. I’ll share the announcement. 

Together we will hold in prayer the victims, their loved ones, and all those who will be impacted by these acts of state-sanctioned violence. 

Virtual Prayer Vigil for William LeCroy 
Tuesday, Sept. 22  |  2-3 pm EDT

Virtual Prayer Vigil for Christopher Vialva 
Thursday, Sept. 24  |  2-3 pm EDT

“I hope you will join us in witnessing against these attacks on human dignity. Your prayers are an act of hope.”

This all comes in the week that we are mourning the loss of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Here is one of her observations re capital punishment: 

“People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty. I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve of execution-stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” 

Said Justice Ginsberg to a college audience: “If I were queen there would be no death penalty.” 

Alas, she is not the queen, and not even with us anymore. 

But you and I are still here, we have voices, and we have the ability to do something. 

If you are a person of faith, I invite you to participate in one or both of the prayer vigils. 

If you are a registered voter, I encourage you to express your opinion to your U.S. Representative and Senator. 

And if their opinions are different than yours, I encourage you to do something about it in November. 

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.

Sister Helen Prejean

Thursday, September 17, 2020

If happiness is a good night's sleep, some women aren't happy!

 

Deliberate sleep deprivation has been used for centuries as a form of torture.

 Optalert

Hundreds of women serving time with the Michigan Department of Corrections are complaining about sleep deprivation. Here’s the deal. 

Women’s Huron Valley is the only prison in Michigan that houses women. Some 2,000 convicts are incarcerated at this facility in Ypsilanti. There are actually two prison sections on the campus, East Side and West Side. At one time, the West Side was used for housing mentally ill male prisoners, and so large, strong fluorescent lights were installed in the ceiling. They were called “observation lights,” and their glow could light up the whole room. The lights were important and necessary for caring for these special needs people. 

Well, women occupy all of the housing units now, and they’re not mental cases. But, the “observation lights” on the west side remain, and said lights are keeping prisoners awake. The inmates don't like it, they've been complaining, but not much is happening. 

Our sources tell us that putting all the ladies in one prison meant that these cells on the west side had to be double-bunked. And that left inmates on the top bed just one yard away from these four-foot-long light fixtures. The light shines right in their eyes, and there’s no escaping it. 

How often do these lights get turned on, you ask? Not just once or twice: 9 PM, 10 PM, midnight, 2 AM, 5 AM and 6 AM. Residents of these housing units on the West Side no sooner get back to sleep when the lights come on again. 

We have friends in these units who swear that the sleep deprivation is having a detrimental effect on the physical, emotional and mental condition of prisoners. One inmate claimed the on-again/off-again light situation is triggering migraine headaches. 

It doesn’t bother the staff...they’re in the building to work, whether lights are on or off. 

It doesn’t bother the warden. It’s nice and dark in his bedroom at home. 

It doesn’t bother the MDOC people in Lansing. They get to go home at night. 

But it does bother hundreds of women on the West Side at WHV! 

It’s not fair, and something should be done about it! 

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.

E. Joseph Cossman

 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

State COs are picketing! Are we listening?

Michigan prison guards are making some strong demands, and it’s time that somebody listens. 

A couple weeks ago the Michigan Corrections Organization organized a picket at both prison sites in Muskegon. This week they did the same at Marquette Branch Prison in the U.P. The MCO is a union that represents more than 6,000 corrections officers who serve in our 30 state prisons. 

The problem, simply stated: They’re shorthanded. 

Employees with the Michigan Department of Corrections say 750 officer vacancies statewide have made working at prisons dangerous. Byron Osborn, union president, is being quoted in media reports as saying that widespread mandatory overtime, sometimes several days a week, is normal practice. “It’s not uncommon for our folks to be on the clock for 24 hours because they can’t get relieved. We don’t have anybody to go relieve them.” 

We hear it from the prisoners’ perspective in our office. You know things aren’t good when you have inmates taking the side of the COs. Time and again we hear prisoners feeling sorry for officers who are working double shifts, so tired they can hardly see straight. 

The union is making some pretty strong demands. 

They want MDOC Director Heidi Washington replaced. And, they’re asking that the state legislature and the Governor make work of addressing this issue. 

We’re not going to get into pensions, and what the state ought to do about retirement for officers. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that recruiting people for a highly stressful position is difficult enough. Then, when you factor in other issues, like COVID 19 and working double-shifts, red flags abound. How are you going to entice people to make this a career when the people already employed hate to go to work? 

This cannot continue. Families, friends and loved ones of 35,000 men and women who reside in our state prisons expect them to be cared for and treated properly. That’s what the state promises when these people get locked up. That’s what our constitution guarantees. 

“We believe a complete overhaul in leadership is needed, and there also needs to be a commitment made by the legislature and the Governor’s office to address the recruitment and retention of corrections officers in Michigan,” said Osborn.

We’ve been critical of some officer behavior in the past, and we’d certainly love to see more training, especially in areas of handling the mentally challenged. But for now, we’re siding with these men and women on this immediate problem. 

It’s a difficult and thankless job, that of being a corrections officer. If we want good people doing these tasks, we’ve got to be good to them! 

Friends and family members of Michigan inmates should be contacting their state legislators and their Governor right now. 

Time’s a wastin’!



 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Four Labor Day heroes nominated by prisoners

Labor Day, 2020, like none other in the history of the United States! 

While paying tribute to all laborers on this special day, it’s especially important that we honor first responders in the COVID crisis. The nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude! 

My focus today, however, is on four first responders in the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. These four people last month, while trying to cram in some last-minute summer vacation time and while working around a two-day J-Pay collapse, still managed to respond to 1,695 messages from prisoners or their loved ones! A one-month record! (There was a day, not that many years ago, when we thought 100 calls in one month was a big deal!) 

It’s no wonder so many prisoners are contacting our office. They’re hearing first-hand reports from their friends behind bars about an agency where people care, where people help, where people listen. 

Like Clement, who claims innocence and who needed legal files to prove it. HFP filed FOIA requests on his behalf. Based on the results, two powerful attorneys are taking on his case! 

Like Linda, a transgender inmate in a male prison, who struggles with dyslexia and ADD: “My bleakness turned into light by just having someone to listen and care about what I am going through as a forgotten person in prison.” 

Like David, who reported that, in his facility, maintenance took action to enforce social distancing, by forcing 60 prisoners “to share just 2 toilets, 2 sinks, and 1 urinal!” Thanks to HFP action, one day later the order was rescinded. 

Like Nelson, whose toothache got so bad he couldn’t sleep nights. He contacted our team.I wanted to let you know that the warden called health service here and told them to take care of my dental problem ASAP!” The next day the offending tooth was pulled. 

Heather, another transgender inmate, put it this way: “Without HFP I would still be lost, angry, and probably worse. Matt, Susie, Holly, Melissa, and all the volunteers at HFP are heroes and true credits to the human race.” 

On Labor Day, 2020, I salute Matt, Susie, Holly, Melissa, our wonderful gang of volunteers and our exceptional panel of medical and legal experts. You are, indeed, heroes! We know, because prisoners are telling us! It’s not only your work, it’s your heart! 

My dear friend Alma James Perry used to sing this old Mahalia Jackson gospel song when we held prison services together. I dedicate it now to our team: 

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 travelling wrong,

 Then my living shall not be in vain.

 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

On following rules: good or bad example for prisoners?

I love this quote by Albert Schweitzer: Example is leadership! 

If we want prisoners to be law-abiding citizens someday, it is important that all of us set good examples. The Grand Old Party did just the opposite last week. While prisoners are expected to follow rules and abide by policies, Republican leaders chose a different route at their national convention. 

On rules 

Many prisoners wind up going back to prison after they are paroled. NOT because they reoffended, but because they violated some rules. 

The same is true about prisoner misconduct “tickets.” Many times, the tickets are issued for the violation of a rule, rather than troublesome behavior. 

Now let’s talk about the convention. 

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in most political activity inside federal buildings or while on duty. 

Yet, the political confab barely got started when 

There was a presidential pardon from the white house;

The Secretary of State gave a political speech while on business in Jerusalem;

The First Lady spoke in the rose garden; and

The Acting Homeland Secretary presided over a Naturalization ceremony. 

On Policies 

Due to the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control has issued these policy guidelines for all Americans. 

On social or physical distancing: “stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms' length) from other people...in both indoor and outdoor spaces.” 

On face masks:wear a mask in public settings and when around people who don't live in your household... 

Michigan prisoners have similar instructions from the Department of Corrections. In addition, to avoid personal contact, the department has stopped all personal prison visits. 

Now let’s check on what prisoners saw on TV at the political convention. 

No wearing of masks;

No social distancing;

All kinds of personal contact---even shaking of hands! 

On behalf of all my brothers and sisters behind bars, I ask: What kind of a message is this sending? Where is the respect for rules and policies? 

Don’t talk to me about political bias. If the shoe fits, ... 

I’m standing in solidarity with all occupants of prisons---inmates and guards. Rules are rules, policies are policies, and neither have been written or adopted to be disregarded by those of us in free society. 

“Example is leadership!”

Albert Schweitzer 

“To flaunt is not!”

Doug Tjapkes

Monday, August 31, 2020

A ray of sunshine, a glimmer of hope, for 2 MI prisoners!

Two innocent men behind bars have new hope today. That makes us very proud! 

As I’ve mentioned before, Michigan prisoners are not permitted to seek legal documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The act, adopted in 1976 so that all persons would have access to legal documents, got amended in 1994. Claiming that prisoners were abusing this privilege, the Michigan legislature determined that prisoners are not “persons,” and put a stop to this activity. 

Our position is that of many legal scholars: Denying prisoners the right to seek important legal documents by submitting FOIA requests actually deprives them of the right to due process of law. So, we file the claims for them. The word has quickly circulated among Michigan prisoners, and we are inundated with requests. To give you an idea, we’ve already filed more than 300 FOIA requests for prisoners so far this year. An amazing number when you consider the fact that we couldn’t file any, due to COVID, in March and April. 

But back to my story. 

A year or so ago Mr. K. contacted our office for FOIA assistance. He’d been trying to prove his innocence for the past 15 years, to no avail. Working hand in hand, he and Matt started retrieving important papers. I’ve just been notified by an attorney specializing in wrongful convictions that he and another lawyer believe the man has a case. They’re going to help! 

That makes two! Last year, documents retrieved through our FOIA assistance produced enough evidence for an Innocence Project to take on another guy’s case. 

Two doesn’t seem like very many. After all, an estimated 1,500 men and women in the Michigan prison system are innocent. Locked up for something they didn’t do. It’s a shameful statistic, and casts a dark shadow over our entire criminal justice system. 

BUT, two guys have new hope today, thanks to the diligent work of the HFP team! 

If this reminds you of the rejoicing in heaven over finding one “lost sheep,” in a parable that Jesus told, keep in mind that the other 99 were safe. In our case, the other 98 just haven’t proven their innocence yet. 

So yes, we’re rejoicing today. 

Tomorrow we’ll try again. 

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Lao Tzu

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fresh, clean water: a prison rarity!

As I sat in a prison waiting room, I noticed that all incoming employees were carrying their own water container.

 “What’s the deal,” I asked my prisoner friend? I should have known the answer. Because the prison water was terrible. He said the nasty water not only had color but also had odor. Yet, that’s what prisoners were stuck with. Staff brought in fresh water. 

It’s that way in many Michigan prisons, and yet our state does nothing about it.

A couple years ago prisoners filed a class action suit in St. Louis, Michigan, because the water in that city’s two state prisons was contaminated. They should not have been surprised when they lost that case over some dumb argument. Prisoners are used to getting crapped on. 

I’ve had reports most recently from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia about bad water. That’s the same prison where the MDOC Director and the warden proudly show off the Calvin University classroom project and the vocational job-training program. They make no mention of the stinky water. 

I have purposely waited to pass along this information because retaliation is rife in the prison system. Now that my reliable snitch is no longer there, here’s what I can tell you, straight from the whistle-blower’s lips: 

“All staff are advised not to drink from the potable water supply; instead, they are permitted to bring in water or purchase bottled water. Meanwhile, prisoners are forced to drink dirty water. The vendor contracted to serving vending machines here ceased placing bottled water in prisoner vending machines some years ago, but they do provide bottled water in staff and visiting room vending machines. This is not coincidence or oversight. Rather, it is intentional. Maintenance workers have confirmed to me that staff sink fixtures contain water filters. Prisoner sinks and water fountains do not. Prisoners who try to do something about it are met with either implied or overt threats by facility leadership. Elected block representatives who try are initially admonished. If they continue to raise concerns, they are indiscriminately transferred to another facility. I know of Calvin Prison Initiative students who were threatened with dismissal by MDOC staff if they didn’t abandon the issue of clean drinking water.” 

If you think the bad water problem is exclusive to the Handlon facility you’ve got another guess coming. We hear complaints like this all the time. Many of our prisoners are consuming, showering in and washing their clothes with bad water. 

But, with Michigan’s outstanding water history---lead poisoning in Flint and PFAS contamination all over the place---what else could we expect? 

An outrage! 

“Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”

– Luna Leopold