All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Good news/bad news

I’ve always been one to pick the good news.

As a broadcast journalist, I did my best to cover the bloody stories, the tragedies, the disasters, as well as the crimes and the crap. But I loved the good stories: tales of kind and generous people; and I loved the funny stories, the happy stories that brought smiles to the faces of my listeners.

Decades later, as I work with our team to help prisoners, I still opt for good news. So, it was a great day this week when I received an email from Adam, who had been in prison since 1993, saying, “I’m out! I’ll meet you for lunch!” That same day I stopped at the post office to pick up the mail, and spotted an unusual envelope. Opening it, I discovered a check from an anonymous donor for $25,000.00! Our bills would get covered this month!

I drove to the office, stepped through the front door with all of this good news, and Melissa interrupted me: “Doug, it’s Allen on the phone.”

Reality came crashing in.

I had chatted with Allen’s mother by telephone just an hour earlier. Her son, only 33 years of age, is in prison. A year ago, doctors discovered cancer behind his eye. The eye was removed, and part of his face, from the way it sounds. “They got it all,” she and her son were told. Not so. It’s back, it’s everywhere, and it’s not good.

Some might say that his mother is quick to blame the system. Not adequate treatment, not enough treatment, too little, too late. I think she’s right, but there’s no one who can or will do anything about it. These are poor black people, and he’s behind bars.

I took the telephone from Melissa. My heart broke as Allen tried explain his situation to me. His face is so deformed from surgery that he can’t speak very well. He’s in pain. He may have six months.

He and his mother want only one thing: they’d like him to be out of prison for his final days. That’s a huge challenge for HFP. Compassionate releases are difficult to obtain. Those who have read my book SWEET FREEDOM understand. The state is not quick to release prisoners, even when they’re dying.

I had done my best to reassure Allen’s mother that we would try, but I don’t dare share with her the reality of the situation. I tell her I'll pray for her, and her son. While on the phone, I do my best to comfort and reassure Allen, but I don’t dare share my cynicism, my pessimism.

These aren’t the fun stories, these aren’t the happy stories. These are the real stories,

Pray for Allen. Pray for us.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Free at last? Not yet!

I’ve gotta hand it to this Martin Luther King fellow. As I researched the data to write this piece about racial disparity in America’s system of injustice, I decided that if I were black, I’m not sure I could favor peaceful resistance any longer. I’d be mad as hell. Truth of the matter is, I’m white, and it makes me mad as hell.

Here’s the truth, pure and simple: Racial disparity permeates every stage of the United States criminal justice system, from arrest to trial to sentencing to post prison experiences!

I’m just going to rattle off some statistics here. Maybe you’ve heard some or all of them before. I’m not going to list all of the sources of this information, but rest assured that the data are accurate. After carefully reading this list I’ll give you two questions.

-African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites
-The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women
-Black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to federal or state prison in their lifetimes
-Among black kids, 1 in 9 has had a parent in prison
-Blacks are over-represented in solitary confinement
-Black youth are disproportionately sent to adult court by judges
-In Michigan, more than half of the prison population is black (the black population in the state is less than 14%!).

Question number one: Does it make you mad?

Question number two: What are you going to do about it?

I close with two quotes from Dr. King. Both of these quotes come from a man experienced on the subject of incarceration. These are from his letter written while sitting in the Birmingham Jail:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'”

I suspect we’ve all said it, we’ve all thought it. They’ve waited long enough.

Today, as we honor one of our nation’s greatest heroes, let’s not stop with the quotes and the tributes. May Dr. King’s words from a jail cell give us new resolve:

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Friday, January 17, 2020

When stepping into freedom, fairness may be in short supply

Local television coverage of the release of a prisoner this week really hit a sore spot for me. I am in a unique position to make some comments about the coverage from two perspectives. Number one, I am a broadcast journalist. I no longer cover the news, but I was a member of the Radio-Television News Directors Association for over 25 years, and I won that association’s highest national award for editorial writing. And number two, I am a prisoner advocate. The agency that I founded is working with thousands of Michigan prisoners, and to claim that we have little understanding of prisoner issues would be a serious miscalculation.

Here's what happened.

A woman was released from prison who, with a partner, committed a heinous crime over 30 years ago. No one challenges the seriousness of the crime, or the extent of pain for all affiliated with the victims.

The Michigan Parole Board did not make light of this case. In fact, the board denied parole for this inmate time and again. Finally, board members felt that she could be released into society without reoffending.

Both Channel 8 and Channel 13 covered the story of her release this week, with ominous quotes from victims and the police, asserting that she will reoffend.

From a newsman’s point of view, here’s my beef: These TV stations have the right to editorialize all they want, and if they want to express an opinion that this woman is a danger to society, they should go for it. BUT, when covering a story, it’s important to get BOTH sides. It would be very simple, for example, to also obtain the Michigan Parole Board’s success rate, and the recidivism rate of the Michigan Department of Corrections. Both are quite positive.

From a prisoner advocate’s point of view, I and my team have seen rehabilitation work. Prisoner Policy Initiative, an agency that grades parole systems, contends that 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, but survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed, having not seen them for years.”

Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), which also rates parole boards, has been insisting for years that the “’nature of the crime or seriousness of the offense should NOT be the reason for parole denial.”

Maybe this woman will reoffend. That will certainly give the TV stations an opportunity to gloat “We told you so!”

I hope she makes it. It won’t be easy. For every person released from prison after many years, it’s an uphill struggle. Compassion and assistance are often in short supply when needed the most. What that person really needs is an overdose of help and encouragement.

Invasive, one-sided media coverage doesn’t fall into that category.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Thanks from prisoners. It means the world to us!

May God forgive us if we ever, even once, take the thanks of an incarcerated person for granted.

Our team happens to agree with Mother Teresa on this one:

Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.

I bring up the topic because HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has already received two special gifts this year! A check for $500 arrived from the U.P. the other day. It was a donation from the Prisoner Benefit Fund of Chippewa Correctional Facility. A few days later a check for $50 came from Ralph Wallace, an 83-year-old lifer who resides in the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater.

I realize I’ve shared this before, but this passage from the Gospel of Luke bears repeating:

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites.  So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

I don’t know all the details leading to a decision by the PBF Committee at Chippewa to donate money to HFP. But I do know that this is a huge compliment! Those dollars come from the prison store and prison vending machines and go into a special fund for the benefit of inmates. This committee, made up of prisoners and staff members, usually chooses things like microwaves and exercise equipment. Only if a charitable organization makes a strong impact is it considered for a contribution.

I’m not sure what prompted Mr. Wallace to make a New Year contribution of this magnitude to HFP. But I do know that one of our doctors helped him a lot with some eye issues. And I do know what kind of wages these guys make in their prison jobs: $1 - $3/day!

These are thanks not just to Matt and me…they represent a thanks to Susie, Melissa, and Holly…a thanks to every volunteer who helps in our office…a thanks to every director who serves our board with such dedication…a thanks to every doctor and every lawyer on our professional panel who so promptly and so graciously respond to in-prison problems.

And we’ll never take one of these contributions, one of these expressions of thanks, for granted.


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Yep, we DO rejoice!

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t break open the champagne. We don’t wear party hats and pop corks. But, even in this little office where we struggle daily with heartbreak, anger and disgust, little steps forward bring more than satisfaction. We see reason to rejoice!

-Jimmy called me. We helped get his sentence commuted, and he was released last year after serving 30 years. He called to say he has his own phone, his own car, and now has a real job. “I wouldn’t be here without you,” he said! My heart rejoiced.

-In opening our first 2020 mail, Matt found a check from the Prisoner Benefit Fund of Chippewa Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula. Some staff members there don’t much care for HFP. But, obviously, the prisoners think so highly of us that they voted to contribute from their shop and vending machine money. That $500 donation speaks volumes! Our hearts rejoiced.

-Our Vice President, Holly, while preparing a commutation application for Joe some years ago, discovered a serious injustice and couldn’t let it go. It’s been a long struggle: getting the attention of the Parole Board, and getting a Public Hearing. But now she’s received word. After serving nearly 40 years, he has a release date. Our hearts rejoice.

-Matt was in a prison today when he spotted one of our long-time clients stepping into freedom after 25 years of incarceration. He caught him for a bear hug. We were at his side for a Public Hearing last year, and advocated for Silas’ release. We’re rejoicing with him.

-Long-time client and friend Mark reports that he’ll be graduating from the Calvin Prison Initiative program in May with a Bachelor’s Degree. AND, he hopes to be paroled in October of this year, after serving 10 years. We’re all rejoicing.

To be clear, we don’t boast about or tout results, much to the dismay of grant writers. Many so-called “successes” to the HFP team are so subtle they would hardly be noticed: a hug from a grateful parent, a thank-you note from a grateful spouse, a home-made card from a grateful prisoner who felt blessed just because someone cared.

We’re in Father Greg Boyle’s camp when it comes to success:

“Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I'm not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.”

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

That prisoner ain't heavy, Mister. He's my brother!

I remember the first time I saw the drawing. It was in the 1940s. A political cartoon showed a boy carrying a younger boy on his back. The caption read: He ain’t heavy, Mister, he’s my brother. The cartoon first appeared in The Messenger, an early 20th-century political and literary magazine.

Later, of course, it became the logo for Boys Town, and then in 1969, it became a popular ballad recorded by the likes of the Hollies and Neil Diamond.

I’m thinking about that drawing today, on the last day of the year, the last day of the decade.

Major newspapers and TV networks, in reviewing the past year and projecting news stories for the new year, are hitting on important topics like impeachment, politics, the economy, terrorism, climate change and foreign relations. To no one’s surprise, we are hearing nothing about prisoners. Not a popular topic.

I submit to you in my old year/near year message, it IS important because these are your brothers and sisters! Listen to these USA stats:

-One in five has had a parent sent to jail or prison
 -One in eight has had a child incarcerated
 -6.5 million adults have an immediate family member currently in jail or prison
-One in seven has an immediate family member who has spent at least a year behind bars
-One in 34 has an immediate loved one who has spent more than 10 years in prison.

It’s not them and us. It’s us!

I was excited to report to our Board of Directors that my church was going to designate a Sunday last October as Prisoner Awareness Sunday. Dr. Michelle Loyd-Paige, who not only serves as a trustee on our board, but also professionally serves as executive associate to the president for diversity and inclusion at Calvin University, stated that we should be thinking of a Prisoner Awareness Month. She’s right, of course.

As we end 2019, and begin a new year, I’m suggesting that in the short range, we should make 2020 Prisoner Awareness Year. But, thinking like Dr. Loyd-Paige, Prisoner Awareness Decade would be even better.

Because, like it or not, these are not numbers…they are people. These aren’t other people. These are our brothers and sisters.

Fr. Greg Boyle, who has dedicated his life to working with gang members laments: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be some lives out there that matter less than other lives.”

The entire HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS team, in extending New Year wishes, encourages a new focus on the prisoner: our brother, our sister.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Sorry. What you're hearing on TV ain't right. Joy wins!

Two songs come to mind for me this Christmas season: one very old, one very new.

I remember having to lead singing at a Christmas Carol Sing while still a teenager in high school. I ran across the little carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and didn’t much care for the music. The verses were so short, and there were so many of them. I concluded that it would not be a pleasant musical experience. But I loved the words! While a pianist played the melody, I recited the verses.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this poem as a result of a very personal Civil War experience in 1863. But the lyrics apply to the USA today with precision.

The poem starts innocently enough:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

However, as a result of his traumatic experience, the texts kept getting darker until, in exasperation, he wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head ;
"There is no peace on earth," I said ;
    "For hate is strong
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men !"

Sound like today in our country? But then he concludes with these beautiful words, which I’m clinging to today:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

The second song was performed by my friend John Mulder, written by him and Robert Lindsay. Again, the circumstances had nothing to do with today’s political or social woes. John was waiting for a lung transplant that was needed to save his life. His eternal optimism shined through the song: Joy wins!

He sets the stage with these words:

Here in the light, here in this place
With stones and storms and sorrows scattered ‘bout
Beyond the shadows, if I look the other way
I find joy in the heart of my doubt

Then he reaches a conclusion with the same optimism that Longfellow exuded:

There are many ways to find my way back home
Through ups and downs, all the outs and ins
And at the moment where joy and sorrow meet
Joy wins

I’ve decided that’s where we must let our minds rest this Christmas week, with all the garbage and bitter rhetoric that I’m hearing on the news. An elderly black woman once told my daughter, when Sue was manager of a nursing home, “Ain’t nobody goin’ to steal my joy!”

Every one of our kids and grand-kids gathered for the holiday this week for the first time in years. Not an unkind word. Lots of laughter. Lots of love.

John Mulder was right on the money!

No matter what’s going on, Joy wins!