All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Riff raff in heaven?

I’d like to spend a few minutes today talking about “riff raff.” This is the perfect day for it. March 25, St. Dismas Day.

Never heard of it?

Our Roman Catholic friends tell us: St. Dismas is the man known as the "Good Thief" who was crucified with Christ alongside another criminal on Calvary. He is described in Luke's Gospel (29: 39-43) as repenting from his sins and asks Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replied to him, "I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Enemies of the state were often crucified by the ancient Romans. Another favorite target for this humiliating form of torture was “scum of the earth,” perhaps better known as “riff raff.” And that’s how these other two guys could best be described…the pair who flanked Jesus on the hill of Calvary.

“Riff raff” strikes a familiar chord with me, because from the very beginning, a common perception was that our agency was showing compassion to that same segment of society. Now, to be clear, those who know me and know about HFP, also realize that we don’t consider any human being to be “riff raff.” But, I know the question remains hidden in the minds of many: “Why spend time, money and resources helping that kind of person?”

Pastor Nate may have said it best, this morning, in his sermon about the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Those who worked for only one hour received the same pay as those who had labored all day, even though that was the agreed-upon salary. And it didn’t set well with the all-day workers.

Nate’s response: Compassion is greater than fairness!

On this St. Dismas Day, a legitimate question for the theologians might be why this low-life criminal, who didn’t study the scriptures and didn’t spend his life being nice to people, receives the same kind of eternal reward that we do? And a legitimate question for those of us in prisoner advocacy might be why those persons behind bars deserve the same kindness and compassion as needy people on the outside?

If our staff and volunteers are followers of that itinerant preacher on the cross who welcomed St. Dismas into Paradise, the answer is the same: Compassion is greater than fairness.

In conclusion, this message from a Roman Catholic publication:

On this St. Dismas Day – March 25 – special blessings to all inmates, families, staff, volunteers – everyone involved in prison life and ministry one way or the other. Read & reflect on Luke 23: 39-43, the story of our patron the good thief.

From now on, let's not ignore St. Dismas Day.

Or the beautiful message that it generates.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The heartbreak of helplessness

There’s nothing more frustrating, more heartbreaking, than knowing that someone is innocent and striking out with every attempt to do something about it. We do a lot of good things for prisoners in this office. But, our record with the wrongly convicted isn’t so great.

It’s on my mind again today as my friend Gary Weingarten takes another shot at freeing Ray Gray. Dear Ray has now served over 45 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He was one of our first clients. I started trying to help him back in the 90s. I’ve still done nothing that was effective. Frustrating.

It’s on my mind again today after chatting with my friend David, another old client, who served his full sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. He may have been released 8 years ago, but it would be a stretch to say that “he’s free.” He’s unemployed, he’s listed as a sex offender, he’s in terrible health, he’s indigent, and he lives in shameful conditions without even the luxury of running water. Is it any surprise that he’s so angry? I couldn’t help him then. I can’t help him now. Frustrating.

It’s on my mind again today as we put away the case file of another man named David. This David died of complications from pneumonia while in the hospital. But if the pneumonia hadn’t done the job, a broken heart might have. We were just about to inform him that we could find no more legal avenues to pursue in his quest for freedom. An innocent man who served 18 years, spending every day trying to find justice. He failed . I tried to help, and I failed. Frustrating.

It’s on my mind again today as I read the latest posting on Facebook from Jeff’s wife Lena. I believe in his innocence, but he’s already served 6 years for someone else’s crime. I stood by this couple in their prison wedding ceremony. I’ve tried to guide them in the right direction. Bottom line: I’ve not been able to help. Frustrating.

I’ve said it so many times: It is so easy to get in; so difficult to get out!

Prayers, today, for the wrongly convicted. It’s estimated that there are more than 1,000 of them right here in the Michigan prison system! Prayers that wrongful convictions will get more attention. Prayers for an improved justice system where the number of wrongful convictions can and will be reduced.

Imagine being charged with a crime for something you didn’t do.  Imagine being thrown into jail, alone and scared and seemingly defenseless. Imagine the injustice of being one of the wrongfully convicted.  This isn’t a movie plot based on a Kafka novel.  This is the fate of some people at the hands of some other people. 
Honey Novick, Poet

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Paul gets 7 years; Joe gets life! Fair?

Is there anyone besides me who fails to see fairness in our courts when it comes to treating the rich vs. the poor?

Is there anyone besides me feeling outrage at the light sentences handed to Paul Manafort?

Let’s put politics aside for the moment. It makes no difference whether Mr. Manafort managed a campaign for the President or not. His political affiliation means nothing right now. The man got arrested on charges of conspiring against the United States, and conspiring to obstruct justice. And it must not have been the result of a “witch hunt,” because he entered pleas of guilty. He admitted in court that he did these things.

In appearances before two federal judges, Mr. Manafort has now received two sentences. It appears that he’ll serve a total of about 7 ½ years in prison.

Does something not seem quite right about that?

Before we move on, let me point out that Mr. Manafort is white and rich.

OK, now let me give you a comparison right here in the State of Michigan. We could cite numerous examples, but I’m going to focus on just one. Some 38 years ago, when he was just a kid, Joe Johnson and a buddy decided to hold up the operator of an ice cream cart. Nothing violent was going on. In fact, they paused to let a little boy buy some ice cream and even made sure he got the correct change. But, they stole money…some 40-dollars if I remember correctly.

Just like Mr. Manafort, Joe pleaded guilty…he knew he had done wrong. He was sentenced to life in prison. As of today, he has spent more than 37 years behind bars!

Mr. Johnson may have needed some pocket change, but at least he didn’t try to sell out his country in order to get it!

Only now, after a member of the HFP team took a personal interest in this particular case, has the Parole Board even shown any consideration of a possible release.

The other factor here that deserves to be mentioned: Mr. Johnson is black and poor.

The prophet Isaiah said: Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.

Somehow, I think we missed that message.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Parole Board, you done stomped on my heart!

Let my heart be broken by the things that break God’s heart.
 Prayer by Bob Pierce, often quoted by HFP’s physician/consultant.

I’ve written time and again about changes in Michigan’s parole system that we feel would be beneficial. It has been our position for years that Parole Board reform is long overdue. But if we’re not careful, we wind up talking about practices, procedures and decisions, and we forget all about the human factor.

It’s like when we talk about mass incarceration. We toss around numbers and statistics, and forget that these are real people! There’s a face attached to every one of those numbers.

My friend Fred had a delicious sense of humor. He delighted in reviewing country and western songs, chuckling about the lyrics, and referring to unusual titles. The one that especially hit his funny bone was this one, as recorded by John Denver in 1977:  You Done Stomped on my Heart and You Mashed that Sucker Flat!

I often think of that title when we receive another message of disappointment from persons behind bars who’ve been rejected, not by a lover, but by the Michigan Parole Board. And then I don’t laugh any more.

Yes, our team has a lot of ideas for Parole Board reform, but even reform wouldn’t eliminate all of the heart-breaking decisions being handed down.

-At the time of his 5-year review, the PB coldly informs a lifer that it has “no interest”
-Compassionate release is denied to a terminally ill woman
-A wrongly convicted inmate is informed that without an admission of guilt, parole cannot and will not be considered
-Recommendation for commutation is denied to a battered woman who has spent years behind bars for taking things into her own hands when her husband tried to kill her
Late-in-life release is denied to a geriatric lifer who simply wants to die at home with family.

Perhaps Alexander Pope is right when he says: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” 

But I can tell you this: When these stories cross our desk, our heart is broken all over again. There’s never been a callous tough enough to shield or protect our hearts. We love these people, and we care. When they hurt, we hurt.

Thank God for this message from the Psalmist:

"He heals the broken-hearted, and bandages their wounds."

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

No bad guys? Really?

I have a bad habit. I tend to refer to some of my favorite people as “good guys.” When introducing my son Matt, for example, I love to point out that “he’s one of the good guys!” And he is.

My point, however, is that my statement gives the implication that the opposite also exists. If there are good guys, there must be bad guys. And that’s just not accurate.

Often when I speak at church or civic groups, someone will be quietly thinking that I’m one of those bleeding-heart liberals who want to free all criminals. So, they ask, “But don’t you agree that there are some really bad people?”

We constantly encounter negative terms for prisoners: animals, predators, savages, beasts, the “worst of the worst.”

Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang members, tackles negative descriptions like these head-on. He says we stand with those people until their behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.” 

Father Boyle was once asked by a Prosecutor to testify as a gang expert in a death penalty hearing. “What would you say, Father Boyle, about a man who …” At that point, the Prosecutor described an unspeakable act in gruesome detail. Well gosh, says Father Greg, imagine how bleak and dark one’s despair would have to be do such a thing.

Here at HFP, we’ve come to the realization that Fr. Boyle is correct:

There are no monsters, villains, or bad guys. There are only folks who carry unspeakable pain. There are among us the profoundly traumatized who deal in the currency of damage. And there are those whose minds are ill, whose sickness chases them every day. But there are no bad guys. Jesus seems to suggest that there are no exceptions to this.
From Barking to the Choir

At her sentencing for life without parole, a woman was heard to say: “I did what they say I did, but I’m not who they say I am.”

Father Boyle says about violent gang members, Every homie I know who has killed somebody…has carried a load one hundred times heavier than I have had to carry, weighed down by torture, violence, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or mental illness. Most of us have never borne that weight.

Desmond Tutu once stated: There are no evil people, just evil acts; no monsters, just monstrous acts.

And that’s where I am today with this posting. I love prisoners. Our team loves prisoners. We may not like all of them, and we certainly don’t like what they did. We may argue with some, and some of them may speak to us in loud voices. But, it’s important for them to know that our care and compassion comes to them in love. We don’t see them as “bad guys.”

Fr. Greg sums up this topic: We are free not to like that truth, but we are not free to deny it.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Should Prosecutors have a say in Public Hearings? PPI says NO!

Last November Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz drove to Ionia to testify in a Public Hearing staged by the Michigan Parole Board. Spring Lake industrialist Ronald Redick had been convicted of killing his business partner in 1991, and the Prosecutor let it be known that, in his opinion, parole was not a good idea.

Now comes an expert from Prison Policy Initiative who says Prosecutors shouldn’t even have a say in the parole process! PPI is a national organization, a think-tank that uses research, advocacy, and organizing which it claims show “how over-criminalization harms individuals, our communities, and the national well-being.”

Jorge Renaud is a Senior Policy Analyst at Prison Policy Initiative, and holds a Masters in Social Work. Prior to his schooling, he spent decades in prison. His report, released by PPI just days ago---Failure should not be an option: Grading the parole release systems of all 50 states.

Michigan received a grade of C-minus. Frankly, we think that’s generous!

Now back to this Prosecutor business, here’s what PPI contends: Prosecutors should not be permitted to weigh in on the parole process. Says their report: “Their (the Prosecutor’s) voices belong in the courtroom when the original offense is litigated. Decisions based on someone’s transformation or current goals should not be contaminated by outdated information that was the basis for the underlying conviction or plea bargain.”

And it doesn’t stop there. The report goes on to state that the victim(s) of the crime shouldn’t have a say in the decision, either! “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. A truly restorative collaboration would ask survivors of crime for their help in crafting transformative, in-prison programming for individuals convicted of violent crimes, but would not allow their testimony to influence parole decisions.”

We can already hear the cries of protest from Prosecutors and the State Attorney General!

Yet, this conclusion makes a lot of sense:

The decision to release someone should be based on a number of factors — participation in educational and vocational programs, in-prison disciplinary history, and other verifiable metrics that indicate personal transformation. All too often, denials for subjective reasons like the “gravity of the offense” or whether the release will “lessen the seriousness of the offense” serve only to diminish the motivation necessary for change.

I’ll be surprised if we ever get such dramatic change in Michigan, but it is our hope that the new administration will take a look at overhauling the entire parole process.

It’s time.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Holding Hands: Successful on the human level; unsuccessful in raising dollars!

It’s not easy raising money to underwrite the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. As a professional fund-raiser recently explained to the chairman of our Board of Directors, “Potential donors want success stories!”

While we do have an occasional success story---we helped a sleep apnea patient get his CPAP device, we paved the way for a grant of commutation by the Governor, we found housing in a lovely facility for a dying inmate---more often than not, we fail. It’s kinda like climbing Sleeping Bear Dune: one step forward, three steps backward.

Here at HFP, it’s not like at the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or Pacific Garden Mission. We can’t just spew out spell-binding success stories that touch heart strings and loosen purse strings. Daily we encounter almost insurmountable problems faced by struggling prisoners. Ergo, one of the most frequent methods of helping is, as I describe it, simply “holding hands.” Our Medical Director and I will discuss, for example, a situation where an inmate needs and deserves better medical care, but it just ain’t gonna happen. There’s no way the State of Michigan is going to grab that responsibility and pay the often-exorbitant cost. As a result, we wind up just “holding the prisoner’s hand,” assuring him/her that we care, that we’re trying, that we’re praying. That may be all we can do.

And yet, even when we met complete failure trying to help one of the women at Huron Valley, she sent me this short note: Thank you for continuing to advocate on our behalf. Without you, we would have no voice.

When I did my best to help a guy catch a parole, even speaking at his Public Hearing, but completely failed, he still said: Thank you for believing in me, where there are those that don't ... and want to see my corpse buried among the ashes of the many thousands that has been FORGOTTEN.

My HFP team and I see that as a success! To our professional fund-raiser, however, it falls short.

Father Greg Boyle encountered similar issues in his ministry of working with gangs: “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.”

He concluded by quoting Mother Teresa:

“We are not called to be successful, but faithful.”

That IS success, in my book!