All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

What’s in a name?

So, how do you refer to people who reside behind bars? What do you call them? Criminal, convict, offender, felon, super-predator, lawbreaker, delinquent, inmate, prisoner?

Our board chair, Russ Bloem, has been insistent that we reconsider the terms used for referring to someone who is incarcerated. This week we get some guidance from the Marshall Project, which has developed a policy on what to call someone behind bars. In a prison survey taken by the MP, 38% preferred being labeled an “incarcerated person,” 23% were OK with the term “prisoner,” but only 10% wanted to be called an “inmate.” 

I thought the Marshall Project gave an excellent explanation as to why they were taking a look at this issue: 

It’s important to note that our policy is not an attempt to exonerate anyone or minimize the impact of crime on people victimized by it. It is designed to promote precision and accuracy and to convey the humanity of people who are routinely dehumanized by the media and society 

So, here’s the Marshall Project’s new policy: the words “inmates” and “convicts” are never used! The preferred term is “incarcerated,” next in line is “imprisoned,” followed by “people or person in prison.”

After 20 years in this business, I’m thinking Russ and the Marshall Project are on the right track. We should be more considerate when choosing titles for those behind bars.

In my conversations with the incarcerated over the years, I have found that many are much less sensitive than others over what they are called. One of our clients bitterly complained to me about being called an “inmate” back in the early days of our formation. I asked others behind bars, and many just shrugged. They really didn’t care.

In all fairness, the Marshall Project survey wasn’t all that scientific, either. I think they polled about 200 incarcerated persons. 

The thing is, county jails also fit under the MP’s umbrella, and according to their statistics about 70% of people in jail have not yet been convicted! If the word “inmate” implies guilt, calling these people inmates isn’t fair at all. 

Really, it’s all a matter of dignity, and I and our team respect that. "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27. 

This statement from UNICEF underscores the importance of being sensitive when using labels referring to the incarcerated:

Every human being deserves respect, dignity and equality. No matter who they are. No matter where they live. No matter the colour of their skin.

The perpetrator of a heinous crime, you, and me: All created in the image of God.


Monday, April 12, 2021

The real message behind problem solving: Someone cares!

I had an idea for a radio show back in the 1970s. Call-in shows were popular on local radio, but they all sounded alike. My idea was to be active instead of passive, to help listeners solve problems. We labeled the show Problem Solvers, and I hosted it along with my assistant Barb Werly.                                                                                                                          

People could call with a problem. We and our listeners would then try to solve it. We did not limit the type of problem. If necessary, we would make an outgoing call to get an answer. 

I didn’t create the show for ratings...I did it to help people, but the ratings followed! It was one of the most popular mid-morning shows on west Michigan radio, emanating from our little 500-watt transmitter in our small town! 

That’s what is happening with HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 20 years ago, we started out just helping those who claimed wrongful conviction. We found we couldn’t limit our assistance to one category. Calls were coming in about problems with health care, abuse, Parole Board issues, etc. We had to help. And so, over the years, HFP became “the problem solvers.” 

-People were worried about mail tampering, because the Parole Board was no longer acknowledging receipt of their commutation applications. An HFP message to the Governor, and the policy was changed! 

-A client believed a medical examiner had lied on an autopsy report, but he couldn’t get his hands on the document because our state won’t allow prisoners to file FOIA requests. We did it for him, and he was right! He’s elated, and has new hope. 

Sometimes family members call. 

A young man had been diagnosed with a serious case of diabetes while in a private hospital, but when returned to prison he didn’t receive his critically needed insulin. HFP stepped in, and he got it. 

An elderly grandmother was dying and had hoped to speak with her grandson by telephone one last time, but his prison telephone privileges had been revoked. HFP persuaded the warden to grant an exception. 

It’s what we do. 

But this is even more important! Our prompt response to 50-75 calls a day, 7 days a week, conveys this message: Someone will listen. Someone cares!

We will and we do. 

"Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference." – Kevin Heath

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Heroes venture behind bars!

Every time I drive past a major intersection here in Grand Haven, I get a warm feeling. There’s a big skilled nursing facility on that corner, and I’m sure the past year has been a stressful time for both occupants and staff. But here’s the thing I like: There are signs in the lawn all around the building saying Heroes work here! 

The pandemic has helped us become aware of all kinds of heroes. In addition to the doctors, nurses and first responders, we have found heroes who kept our grocery stores open, for example; who kept public transportation alive; and yes, who hauled away our garbage. All kinds of unsung heroes. 

I’ve been thinking about this subject since last weekend when I heard one of my favorite country gospel groups, The Isaacs, singing their song called Heroes. The theme is that you may not know their names, but many everyday people are heroes all the same. 

Today I’m going to do something about it. I’m surrounded by a group of heroes, and I’m going to tell the world about it. 

Here’s the story. 

Last month, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS responded to a record number of calls for help: 2,131! That boils down to 70 messages a day to our office via email, snail mail and telephone, 7 days a week for the month of March! 

To expand on that a little more, just a couple years ago, in 2019, we responded to a total of 6,800 calls. So far this year, we’ve already received 5,800 calls! 

Some of the requests for assistance are more urgent than others, but I assure you these are not frivolous matters. And our policy is, and always has been, that Michigan inmates seeking help from us will get a prompt response. We may not be able to help them right away, but they won’t be ignored. 

Obviously, to handle that kind of volume. It takes a team. 

So, here goes. To the office gang---Susie, Sarah, Melissa, Ted, and Matt; and to our group of marvelous volunteers--- Bob 1 and Bob 2, Jen, Taylor, Rebekah, Harley, Bill, Ron, Kathy, Paul, Gabriella, and Heather, I dedicate this chorus from the Isaacs: 

He's a hero and she's a hero

It doesn't matter that nobody knows their name

They keep on givin' to make life worth livin'

Might go unnoticed but they're heroes just the same 

Representing many men and women behind bars in Michigan, inmate Eddie summed it up best in his email message to HFP this week: In case you didn't know, you are appreciated!




Saturday, April 3, 2021

Dave and I have an Easter gift for you!

This is a very special Easter gift! 

The following piece was written by a very special friend, David Schelhaas. Dave is a retired college English professor who now lives in Iowa. Many years ago he lived here in our part of the state, taught at Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, and was a charter member of HIS MEN…a singing group that I founded in 1972. 

He’s not only a fine singer, but an excellent writer. I invite you to savor this little gem on Easter Sunday, 2021: 

Thinking He Was the Gardener 

Thinking he was the gardener

she did not recognize him,

eyes blurred with tears, the weight

of grief breaking her heart.


Now, all these centuries later, we find

her misidentification of him as gardener

happily apt.

For he is the gardener

of our lives and our salvation---

planter, waterer, weeder, feeder, completer.


He is the gardener

of all green and growing things, of

grasses, flowers and trees. The great sequoias,

redwoods, and cedars of the world bow down to him

who bends to tend the almost invisible lettuce seeds

planted this morning in my garden.


He cares for all creatures, plants

the conies, those “feeble folk,”

in houses of stone to protect them, gives

water for the wild donkeys, delights

in the antics of leviathan.


Before time was, he cast stars

like seeds into the endless

furrows of space and still

charts their growth over seasons

that linger on for eons.


Dear, sad Mary, one word and she knew him,

yet all eternity may not be time enough

for her to comprehend him.


Thank you, David. 

Christ, the gardener, is risen. He is risen, indeed!


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Holy Week means hope for prisoners

Everybody loves a “second chance.” Unless it’s for a prisoner. Then we have “second thoughts.” 

Prosecutors and victims’ rights groups argue that those who lost their lives in heinous crimes won’t get a second chance. Why, then, should the perpetrator? 

And so, unlike the country of Norway where they believe that every life is redeemable, all persons can be rehabilitated, and there is no such thing as life without parole...unlike that remarkable nation, we love life sentences and even the death penalty! Punishment and retribution reduce crime, right? (It hasn’t worked yet!) 

But then, in Lent, comes the poignant story of Dismas. 

And all protestants say, “Who the heck is Dismas?” Many Catholics do, as well. 

Well, that’s the name that was given to the penitent thief on the cross, one of the guys getting crucified next to Jesus, 

Only Dr. Luke publishes this story. 

One criminal taunted Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” And then the other thief rebuked him, saying, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus told him, “This day you will be with me in paradise” 

The powerful lesson: It’s never too late. 

On March 25, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of St. Dismas. I like that! As a person who works and mingles with inmates, the story has deep meaning for me. It should also have deep meaning for every person behind bars. 

The message of Easter is not just for those of us who are and have been long-time followers of Jesus. This guy never saw Jesus perform a miracle, never read a word of the Old Testament prophets, and was at death’s door. Yet, at the last minute, he chose to make a U-turn.

There’s a sermon here, of course...deep spiritual truths. But there’s broader meaning as well for the incarcerated. It’s not easy being judged by the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. It’s terrible to be locked up for a crime you didn’t even commit. We cannot even imagine the huge challenge in attempting to get a fresh start. This story offers hope.

 Every second a seeker can start over,

 For his life’s mistakes

 Are initial drafts

And not the final version.

-Sri Chinmoy 

Holy Week is Hope Week. For all of us. Especially those behind bars.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Maurice H. Carter, born 3/29/44. Little did his mother know!

It’s funny how the mind works. 

My brother Maurice’s birthday is here. I’m thinking how much I miss him. My mind is flooded with memories. And I’m also thinking of his mother. I used to visit his elderly mom in her tiny, ramshackle home in a deteriorating Gary, Indiana neighborhood. 

She loved those visits! She loved her son! 

And as I’m thinking about a mother’s love for her son, and her hopes and dreams for the lad, a song runs through my mind. It’s one of my favorite Christmas pieces, introduced to the public exactly 20 years ago: Mary, Did You Know? 

To be clear, I’m NOT attempting to compare Maurice to Jesus, or Mrs. Elizabeth Fowler to the blessed virgin. 

I love the poignant questions to Mary, penned by Mark Lowry and set to music by Buddy Greene: Did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water, would save our sons and daughters? Did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man, will calm the storm with his hand? Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God? 

I can’t match that kind of stuff when talking about Maurice. But I’ll bet good money that his dear, little mother had no idea that her kind and gentle son---born and raised in poverty, falsely accused and incarcerated for nearly half his life for a crime he did not commit---would make such an incredible impact. 

She could not have known that his story would appear in book form and in a stage play. She never would have guessed that the little organization, founded on her son’s dream, would grow to become a leading prisoner advocacy agency in our state...that because of Maurice, HFP’s team members are compassionately touching the lives of thousands of Michigan inmates every day! 

In fact, his wrongful conviction became a rallying cry around the world. 

Phil Campbell, Toronto attorney, was paying tribute to my efforts at the time of Maurice Carter’s death, but his sentiments are accurate: 

The official record shows Maurice to be convicted of attempted murder. But in the eyes of the public, and of many more who studied the case, he achieved exoneration. When you met Maurice he was a forgotten man; he died a celebrity. When you met him he was reviled as a dangerous criminal; he died a symbol of wronged innocence. When you met him he had no real friends; he died surrounded by love. 

I conclude with this statement by Phil: 

The qualities he displayed during the bleakest years imaginable are answer enough to his accusers.

Happy Birthday, my brother Maurice. RIP!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

On why we tell you what goes on behind bars

I have an announcement to make. And a confession. 

The announcement: I have a new book in the works...I’m hoping it will be released in a few months. The confession is that I’m rather ashamed of some of its content. 

Let me explain. 

As an octogenarian, I have had three distinctly different careers. My first career was that of radio newsman, and as I concluded nearly 30 years in the business, I owned and operated Radio Station WGHN right here in Grand Haven, Michigan. 

As a local newsman/broadcaster, I felt it was my duty to air editorials on local issues. Unlike articles and editorials in the newspaper, which can and do get saved, many things on the air later disappear. 

A former employee enjoyed those editorials, and saved copies of some 300 of them, aired between 1964 and 1978. With the kind assistance of Grand Haven’s Historical Museum and Loutit Library, we’re assembling more than 80 from that collection into a fine book that accurately reflects the social history of our community during that era. 

I’m very proud of this book. My positions on some issues, however, make me ashamed. Based on my life experiences, those opinions seemed quite valid back then. Cops and prosecutors were seldom if ever wrong. Arrested folks were obviously “bad apples.” Problems involving young people were obviously the fault of the teenagers. Certainly not the adults. 

My opinions were colored by these inhibiting factors: I had been a radio newsman in three predominantly white communities; I had never met a prisoner; I had never parented teenagers. 

My life, and my opinions, are different today. Now my friends and acquaintances have a variety of skin colors, and many of them are, or were, in prison. Today, while I greatly respect those persons in law enforcement and the courts who do their jobs fairly and honorably, I am fully aware of those who misuse their power and authority. And today, I can honestly say that the joys of raising kids through the teen years far outweighed the challenges. 

When I founded HFP 20 years ago, the old newsman in me demanded that we tell stories. Only then would people know what it’s like behind bars. Many reports were shocking. All were enlightening. One day a friend asked if I was making them up! 

The average citizen has no awareness of prison conditions and problems. As a former newsman and founder of an agency that helps and promotes humanity for inmates, I encourage our team to face that challenge and communicate, communicate, communicate! We’ll keep telling you the stories. 

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll watch for the new book. 

And I hope you’ll pray for the incarcerated.