All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

If our goal is vengeance, we're doing just fine!

Someone once labeled these as The Seven Last Words of the Church: “We never did it that way before!” 

For years American penologists have been studying alternatives to incarceration, but I’m afraid the same philosophy is winning. We just can’t get past our penchant for using jails and prisons to “punish and deter.” Never mind how ineffective or inefficient the process. 

When Roger Stone was sentenced to a federal prison earlier this year, even conservative Detroit News writer Nolan Finley joined my bandwagon: “Up to 39% of the 2 million Americans rotting away in prison cells shouldn't be there, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.” 

It makes me sick when I think of the number of people I’ve seen behind bars in the last two decades who were over-sentenced, who shouldn’t be there at all, or who could benefit themselves and society by serving a positive, alternative sentence. 

Hear me out on alternative sentencing. 

You may remember the high-profile national case some years ago, when billionaire Martha Stewart was sent to prison for corporate fraud. Does it take a genius to figure out that, instead of paying for her room and board, we could assign this nutrition expert to community service, perhaps helping poor people find a healthy way to buy food and prepare meals on a low budget? Duh! 

Years ago friends of a woman who had embezzled from her employer met with me to complain about her sentence. The accountant had no criminal record, but wrongly chose to steal the money to cover her husband’s financial indiscretions. I’m not defending the crime, but I’m saying that a professional accountant could be handed an effective community service assignment. Just imagine mentoring and tutoring possibilities!  Less cost. Greater benefits! 

The researchers Nolan Finley referenced earlier “…found 14% of those incarcerated have already served long sentences, are reformed and no longer present a threat to society. Another 25% are non-violent offenders who…are not likely to repeat.” 

Concludes Finley: Locking them away for months or years serves no societal purpose that couldn't be achieved by other means. It simply sates our thirst for vengeance. We have to get over our insistence that a prison sentence is the only way to deliver justice to the victims of crime. It may make us feel good to see Roger Stone and others like him marched into a cell, but that satisfaction is not worth the price in taxpayer dollars and ruined lives.  

I’m sure I won’t see it anymore in my lifetime, but I’m still hoping for the day when U.S. penal experts say, “We’ll never do it that way again!” 

May God grant us wisdom and foresight, as we consider humanity for prisoners.

Friday, July 31, 2020

What not to read in the doctor's office

I’m sitting on a little bench in the examining room, waiting for the doctor, who is about to perform my annual physical examination. No magazines allowed, thanks to COVID 19. So, I scroll through the daily email dispatch from the wonderful Marshall Project on my telephone screen.

Item #1, Nearly 79,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 in state and federal penitentiaries.

Item #2, New Jersey legislators are poised to pass a COVID-19-related measure that would authorize the release of about 3,000 state prisoners who are within eight months of their release date. (Something like that could and should be happening in Michigan, but it is not!)

Item #3, Death row prisoners in California are dying of COVID-19 while the state’s attorney general defends dubious convictions and sentences.

Item #4, Patricia Ann Prewitt is the longest-serving woman in Missouri’s prison system, sent away for life after being convicted of murdering her husband in 1984. There was little evidence against her—she professes her innocence 35 years later.

Item #5, William Haymon has spent more than 500 days in an adult jail in Mississippi without any charges filed against him and without prosecutors presenting evidence to a grand jury. Haymon is 16 years old.

Item #6, Prosecutors in Miami-Dade, Florida, dropped charges against a county prisoner after a video shows him, handcuffed and with a cane, being attacked by a guard.

I stopped reading, as the door opened.

“Do I detect I spike in your blood pressure, Mr. Tjapkes?”


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

On prisoner deaths, we opt for compassion!

A reader took me to task recently for suggesting that a dying inmate should have been released to spend his remaining days at home. She checked his arrest record, and based on his checkered past, it was her decision that the state did exactly the right thing by keeping him behind bars for his last breath.

I respect her comments and position. I have never written editorials in an effort to convince readers or listeners that I am right. My goal has always been to stimulate discussion on a particular topic.

I think it’s important, then, in response to the reader’s observations, that I explain once again, our philosophy for helping Michigan inmates. I found it interesting that she checked his “rap sheet.” That’s something we just don’t do. The crimes they’ve committed and their sorry track records have nothing to do with the quality or depth of our help and compassion.

There’s a good reason why I call this “Jesus work.” Our Lord was notorious for showing kindness to tax collectors, lepers, adulterers and the like. Said Pastor Randy Hyde, of Little Rock, Arkansas: “…if he saw people who had need of what he uniquely was able to offer, he gravitated toward them and they toward him. In fact, he was quite careless about the company he kept. Why, he just threw his mercy and his grace around as if he had an unlimited supply of it. And the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t like it.”

Father Greg Boyle pretty much summarizes our thoughts on people behind bars:

“I’ve never met an ‘evil person,’ ‘cause the minute you start to know what people carry, it breaks through and you stand in awe at what folks have to carry rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”

So, that’s our attitude here. We offer kindness and compassion to all, no questions asked.

After all, says Pastor Hyde, “If we want to keep company with Jesus, we might just have to re-think our daily agenda and go where he goes, do what he does, love those he loves.”

When we moved into our new quarters, we had quite an internal debate among our team as to what quote should be painted on the wall of the HFP conference room. Matt and I settled on this, from Father Boyle:

You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad 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.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

16 years later, whaddaya think, Maurice?

“Hey, Big Bro, I can see us now, working on cases…”

Maurice Carter always called me “Big Bro,” pronounced “bruh.” We were standing on the banks of the Grand River in Lamont, Michigan…Maurice living in an adult care facility up on the hill.

I’m thinking about it today because it was exactly 16 years ago that I accompanied him as he walked out of prison. He had served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

In the delightful stage play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER, written by Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne, Maurice has a poignant chat with me. He’s in heaven, and I’m still here on earth. I’m thinking how that chat might be today, as I reflect on our story.

I spent nearly ten years of my life trying to free Maurice. He walked out on July 24, 2004, and lived in freedom for just three months. The Hepatitis C that he contracted while in prison claimed his life.

In our riverside conversation, leaning on a fence, Maurice was fantasizing about that day he and I would be working side by side in an organization called INNOCENT. Years later, that name would be changed to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

Maurice envisioned it as a relaxing atmosphere, with a conference table, where he and I would sit reviewing cases of inmates before making a decision as to whether to help that individual. Well, things didn’t quite turn out that way.

Were he and I to have a similar conversation today, he would be speechless, dumbfounded! He could never imagine arriving in the office on a Monday morning, only to have 100 email messages from Michigan prisoners waiting in our “inbox” for a prompt response. And, not to be confused with reviewing one case, our team is responding to 1,500 messages a month!

He would be blown away to know that we have our own offices, a staff of 5, a great list of eager and dedicated volunteers, a panel of doctor and lawyer consultants, and an amazing Board of Directors committed to our mission!

And the messages.

I know he would be proud to hear from James. HFP helps inmates reconnect with loved ones. “My son is back in my life! Thank you.”

I know he would feel the heartbreak. Allen died last weekend. Said his ailing mom: “I saved almost a thousand dollars from my disability checks so I could pay for his cremation. Now the funeral home tells me I owe another 700 dollars! Where the hell am I going to get another 700 dollars?”

We found it for her.

“You’re doing good, Big Bro!”

Yes we are, Maurice, yes we are. And you started it all! RIP.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Did this black life matter? Allen Hollins, Jr. 1986 – 2020

I was going to make the statement that, to the State of Michigan, black lives do not matter. But that wouldn’t be quite fair, or quite accurate.

Here’s what I can say with some degree of accuracy: The State of Michigan doesn’t give a damn about sick and dying prisoners!

Yes, my anger is evident today. It’s right at the surface, after a tearful telephone chat with the mother of Allen Hollins. Allen died Saturday afternoon at Henry Ford Hospital just 7 minutes before his mother arrived to say goodbye. He was 34.

Readers of this column will remember when we launched an effort to get him released from prison, to die surrounded by family. His mother, Mrs. Yvette Patton, first contacted our office in January. Surgery had been performed a year earlier to remove cancer from behind his eye. Doctors thought they got it all. They didn’t. The cancer returned with a vengeance.

Optimistic despite MDOC warnings that efforts to obtain compassionate releases rarely succeed, we jumped through all the hoops. By early spring, HFP had rushed a commutation application, signed by his mom, through the process and into the hands of the Parole Board. Letters were sent to the Governor. Mrs. Patton was assured by the PB that they would get back to her. She’s still waiting.

So, here’s why I make the board statement that the State of Michigan doesn’t give a damn about sick, dying inmates in our state prisons.

Medical Care

If the Michigan Department of Corrections really cared, they’d provide better medical care for prisoners. It cannot be proven, but there’s strong indication that if Allen Hollins’ cancer had been properly handled from the beginning, he’d still be here today.

Commutation Process

If the Parole Board really cared, applications like that for Allen Hollins, could and should be expedited.

Medically frail prisoner bill

If the State Legislature really cared, lawmakers would have drawn up a reasonable and effective bill to see that sick and dying prisoners get released. Instead, they rewrote and revised a bill, signed by the Governor in May, 2019, that was a cruel hoax. It specified criteria that few prisoners could meet. I checked today on how many prisoners have been released under that bill. Here’s the State of Michigan response:

To date zero prisoners have been released under the specific criteria of the Medically Frail Legislation. The Parole Board is reviewing a number of cases that may be eligible, but the definition for “medically frail” in the bill is narrow and has to be applied by the board consistent with the law.

And, finally

If the Governor really cared, she’d do something about it. So far, nada.

I rest my case.


RIP, my friend Allen.

We tried.

We really, really did.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Don't blame me! Really?

A Grand Haven businessman is the center of a local controversy today, after posting a 1,200-word diatribe on Facebook. It all began when the local health department insisted that his employees wear face masks. His anger festered, then exploded. His eruption on FB didn’t stop at face masks, but went on to express strong opinions on COVID 19, Black Lives Matter, journalists, politics, and much more.

After reading about that outburst, I was heartened to read another article, this by Washington Post writer Max Boot, who was reflecting on the pandemic, as well as blame being placed on the President and a variety of state governors. He recalled the adage, “every nation gets the government it deserves.” Said Boot: "Trump and the Trumpy governors did not seize power by force. They were elected by constituents…"

He’s singing my song!

You’ve heard numerous verses of that very song on this blog site.

On ill-advised commutations by the President, and zero commutations by the Governor: If we remain silent, we become part of the problem.

Our role in prison reform: …whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:17

On resumption of federal executions: A movement within the Catholic Church is calling on all of us to “proclaim on the housetops the dignity of all human life.” I’ve signed it. I’m asking you to sign it.

On prisoner problems: If you are a person who prays, I invite you to remember the thousands of prisoners and former prisoners facing problems like these or worse,

On Injustice: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Robert F. Kennedy
On attitudes re prisoners and prison guards: The ball is in our court. May change begin with us.

On racial injustice: The blame goes far beyond rogue white cops. It includes white prosecutors and judges, but goes even further. It is time for us to lament. To confess. And then to be voices and examples for change. We are to blame.

It’s easy to get pissed, like Carl Nelson, and start blaming everyone for everything we don’t like. It’s easy for me to get that way over all these darn prison issues.

The difficult part is accepting our own responsibility. From prisoner issues to national crises, we gotta stop the blame game. It’s time to look in the mirror!

"We live in a culture of blame. People will blame anyone or anything for their misery sooner than take the responsibility to own it and make it better."
 Dr. Henry Cloud

Monday, July 13, 2020

Our President and our Governor: Both let us down!

The controversial decision by the President to commute the sentence of Roger Stone has, once again, focused attention on the word “commutation.”

Commuting the sentence of a person convicted of a crime is something that both a President and a Governor may do. It falls under the umbrella of granting clemency, which means to give mercy, to forgive. This action allows the Pres or the Gov to show leniency or mercy…an act of grace “based on fairness, justice and forgiveness.” The action replaces the original sentence with a less severe punishment.

Readers of this column may remember our efforts to seek a commutation for James Hicks, who was serving a sentence of 50-200 years. Mr. Hicks, who helped state and federal authorities for years while behind bars, was finally granted clemency by former Governor Snyder. Under his new sentence, he was given credit for time served and released.

Here’s why we contend that both our President and our Governor have let us down.

President Trump grants clemency, but only to his cronies. He has commuted the sentences of 11 of his political allies now, and these were for serious offenses. Charges like war crimes, murder and arson! Roger Stone, who was just freed, had been convicted of seven crimes, including ones aimed at shielding the President himself.

Regardless of your political persuasion, you must admit that our founding fathers, when setting up this provision in the constitution, probably didn’t envision having it be used this way.

Exactly the opposite is true of Governor Whitmer. She doesn’t commute any sentences.

Lawyers, advocacy agencies, support groups, friends and relatives, have expended hours of work, blood, sweat and tears, to prepare hundreds of applications for worthy Michigan inmates. All for naught. The stack of apps remains ignored.

Victims’ rights groups and prosecutors aside, the release of many of these people would not jeopardize the safety of society. Instead, our prison population and budget would get some much-needed relief. And deserving inmates would be free.

So there you have it: A Republican President who grants commutations for all the wrong reasons; and, a Democratic Governor who won’t grant any at all.

Shameful…in both situations! We can and must respond.

On the national level, that can happen at the polls in November.

On the state level, we must make our voices heard, to the Governor and our state legislators.

If we remain silent, we become part of the problem.

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.
Albert Einstein