All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Memorial Day salute to the MDOC and its incarcerated veterans!

The Government calls them “justice-involved veterans.” They’re former service members now serving time under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

On this Memorial Day, I’d like to pay tribute not only to incarcerated veterans in the State of Michigan, but also to the Michigan Department of Corrections for its treatment and care of veterans.

How many are in prison, and what brought them there?

Well, there are more than 100,000 military veterans locked up  in prisons throughout the United States…2,300 of them right here in Michigan. More than 98% are men.

According to the VA, more than half of “justice-involved veterans” have either mental health problems or substance-abuse disorders, most notably alcohol or cocaine addiction. In addition, a large percentage are also homeless or at-risk for homelessness, and many others face such challenges as finding work and reintegrating into society. Sadly, these vets also may be at higher risk for suicide.

What can we do about it, and how is the State of Michigan handling it?

While there are veterans groups in several Michigan prisons, there’s an actual veterans unit at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland. It’s a good program, and we hope to see more.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency was recognized for its first-in-the-nation initiative that ensures incarcerated veterans receive the same measure of advocacy as other veterans. The program makes Michigan the only state in which a veteran can get connected to VA disability benefits while incarcerated.

Central to the program was the MDOC’s commitment to create that veterans unit at Saginaw CF. The department also transports incarcerated veterans to VA medical centers for  physical examinations at no cost. Previously, these people were unable to attend their exams and their applications for benefits were often terminated.

MDOC Director Heidi Washington says that starting the veterans unit was a priority and that she hopes to continue expanding services there.

On Memorial Day, 2019, deep appreciation to the MDOC for forward-thinking steps to improve the lot of our military veterans. And, deep thanks to these men and women for their service! You’re just not going to find a nicer group of people. HFP has always had a fine relationship with Michigan’s “justice-involved veterans,” and we’re committed to continuing our help and support.

"How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!" -- Maya Angelou

Yes, including those behind bars!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Some random thoughts on hypocrisy

Example one:

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, while signing that state’s Human Life Protection Act on April 15, 2019:

“…this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”

ONE DAY LATER, Equal Justice Initiative issued this statement in a news release:

Today, the State of Alabama executed Michael Brandon Samra, who was 19 at the time of the crime, despite evidence of an unfair trial and unreliable conviction and sentence.

Example two:

I have a very good friend who abandoned his church after the church leaders aggressively urged the pastor, as well as other “evangelical” churches in that community, to condemn homosexuality as sin.

The sign in front of the church proudly states: “Everyone Welcome!”

Example three:

One of the largest churches in our community boldly proclaims on its website:

We are a community that experiences the transcendent glory of God and is transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.

When HFP asked if we could meet with the church leadership to explain our prison ministry, based in the same town, a curt email message said:

“…this is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in.”

Thanks to a wonderful supporter of our work, I was able to meet with, discuss prison ministry with, and pick the brain of former Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske this week. My quest is this: To persuade the Christian community that showing kindness and compassion to all prisoners---regardless of their crime, regardless of their belief, regardless of their color, regardless of their sexual orientation---that is the basic ministry that must come before all other ministries can be effective. Ministries such as Bible lessons and correspondence courses, Christian concerts and in-prison worship services. First, we must prove that we care!

We didn’t come to any conclusions in that discussion, but the conversation was rich.

Once again, I fall back on the healing words of one of my heroes, Fr. Greg Boyle. This is HFP:

You see the needy and downtrodden and lonely and abused and actually do something for them - and your goal is not to get them to your church, but to be the hands and heart of Christ.”

Friday, May 10, 2019

Happy Mother's Day?

Paula often dreamed of being a mom. Now, it can’t ever happen. One stupid mistake. That’s all it took. Now she’s spending the rest of her life in prison.

Someday she would settle down. Someday she would find the right partner and have a family. But for the moment, life in the fast lane was fun. Fun, that is, until a tragic day when the wrong crowd with whom she had chosen to associate got involved in some shady activity. And then something went horribly wrong.

“The jury finds the defendant guilty, Your Honor.” Life without parole.

Mother’s Day is a busy day at Women’s Huron Valley, Michigan’s only prison for women. Of the more than 2,000 women housed in the facility, many are mothers. And, many occupants have moms who are still alive. It’s a bittersweet time. The visits are usually pleasant, but then come the “goodbyes.” Inmates must return to their cells. Alone.

How Paula would love to chat with her mother one more time! Yes, her mom would be so pleased that she is finally using that beautiful voice to sing in the prison praise team for Sunday morning worship. And she’s even writing songs now! Who would have guessed it? She’s also furthering her education.

But Paula’s mother died, and that was another story. Paula was unable to attend the memorial service. Prisoners are sometimes permitted to attend the funerals of family members, but it’s complicated and costly. Permission isn’t quickly granted. And then, it all hinges on the hiring of off-duty corrections officers to accompany the inmate. That leads to two important requirements: a lot of money; and, availability of officers. Her family helped raise the necessary funds, but on the day of the service, alas, due to overtime issues, no corrections officers were free. Paula remained behind bars.

Yes, it took a while, but Paula’s life is getting straightened out, and she praises God for that.

But on this Mother’s Day, 2019, she’s alone.

No kids.

No mother.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Yep: Joe's mad at HFP!

Old Joe is pissed!

It says right in the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS brochure: No request for assistance is ignored or denied!

And Joe, who has been in prison since 1984, is flat broke. So, he asked HFP for money. And guess what? He got denied. Joe was so angry that he filed a complaint with the Michigan Attorney General. Now our team will have to take time off from helping other inmates to explain to Dana Nessel’s office that we really weren’t ignoring him, and that his request just didn’t fall into any categories otherwise outlined in that same brochure.

But be that as it may, the incident points out a couple of things.

First and foremost, prisoners do have money problems. There are times when I wish I could be a DeVos or a Van Andel, just so that I could help people like

 Joe, who needs money to pay for his deodorant, toothpaste, bath soap and other personal hygiene needs;
Karen, who desperately wanted money to pay the cost of prison guards so that she could attend her mother’s funeral service;
Daniel, who needed only $150 for tuition so that he could continue his community college classes behind bars.

But it’s true in all of life, isn’t it? People of means could do so much more to help the plight of the poor. If they wanted to.

And the second point is, even though old Joe is upset with us, and even though our team is bummed that they must put prisoner assistance aside in order to provide all the necessary information to the State AG’s office, we’ll still be here for him.

On that day when he has some problem getting appropriate medical care, needs some help in filing a FOIA request, wants some assistance in preparing to meet with the Parole Board, hopes to track down a missing loved one, or wants some guidance in preparing a commutation application, HFP stands ready to help. We go the extra mile to provide assistance…even to the ornery ones! Truth of the matter is, we love ‘em, we think they have worth, and even the meanest and the most unlikable still deserve humane treatment.

That now-famous itinerant preacher who is our leader once told his followers:

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

We’re pretty good at that.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Matt: An award winner!

Some years ago a very nice person with ties to a major university insisted that she was going to see to it that I received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree.

I tried to be kind and polite about this, but the effort was doomed before it even started. I tried to explain that showing compassion to prisoners isn’t something that attracts praise and recognition in our society. Nevertheless, she insisted. She had connections, she loved what HFP does, and she wanted the founder to get recognition. Of course, she never saw the little things that we experience daily: the subtle frowns of disapproval, the silence from those whose religious and/or patriotic beliefs supposedly involve support for those less fortunate, the lack of financial support from churches and civic organizations. Society doesn’t really like to think about prisoners.

I’m not complaining…merely explaining. After all, I and those people who work with me, receive amazing awards like they don’t offer at the university:

The prisoners in one of Michigan’s facilities voted to make a $500 donation to HFP from their Prisoner Benefit Fund (What a compliment!)

A prisoner just sent us a $10 check, which he called a “tithe,” because he believes in what we’re doing (His prison salary amounts to less than $20 a month!)

And, a long-time friend just emailed to inform me of positive results from a biopsy. He’s starting to call me “Dad,” because I care and listen to him! (He doesn’t have one of his own.)

I’m thinking about this right now, because son Matt is taking over the helm of HFP. Matt, like his father, is a broadcaster. He’s in sports…I was in news. Broadcasters can and do receive awards. They covet awards. And award publicity attracts listeners and viewers…it can also result in pay raises.

With six years of experience at HFP under his belt, Matt gets the picture. He’s likely to receive some awards in the broadcasting business, but there ain’t gonna be none here.

One of my dearest, bestest, most favorite and most precious friends of all time---a friend that I connected with late in life---was Rev. Al Hoksbergen. How I loved that man! How I miss that man!

As we sipped a little whiskey, he would say, “Doug, you’ll get your reward in heaven.”

And that’s the best advice I can give Matt today, as he capably assumes the role of CEO and President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

HFP’s hero and leader happens to be a rag-tag preacher who told his followers, “He has sent me to tell the captives and the prisoners that they have been set free!”

For showing kindness to the prisoners he loved, Matt, and I, our staff and our volunteers, could receive no greater reward than to hear that same preacher, the Master, utter these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Are you in good hands? Yep!

A guy with a big, deep, bass voice asks that question in TV commercials. At this moment of transition for HFP, the question deserves an answer.

Some time ago I sent out this popular quote as Father’s Day approached:

"Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a Dad."

I bring it up today as a footnote to the public announcement that our son Matt has been appointed President and CEO of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. At first glance, that announcement smacks of nepotism. But, in truth, it’s far from that.

It’s no secret that I’ve had some serious health issues since HFP was founded in 2001. Some friends tease me about having nine lives.

In situations when my future is in question, two things happen. Number one, some people see a possible opportunity to replace me. And number two, our Directors take a hard look at a possible replacement.

-One highly qualified guy really wanted my job, and let our directors know that he was available. They soon learned, however, that while the man apparently had a big heart for prisoners, his past record of treating employees was dismal.

-A seemingly very religious person seemed to have the right qualifications until the discussion of transgender prisoners arose. There was little empathy for those potential clients.

-Then there was the gay/lesbian issue. This person had room for plenty of love and compassion of prisoners, as long as they’re “straight.”

-Religious belief was another hot-button. Some found it difficult to extend love and compassion to Muslims and Buddhists. Some even insisted that Bible study be included in our in-prison efforts.

And so, when it got right down to it, Matt was the obvious choice. Not because he’s my son, but because his track record over the past six years revealed a genuine compassion for the incarcerated. In this office, ALL prisoners are deemed worthy to receive fair, kind and equal treatment. He gets the picture.

It took 18 years to create this atmosphere. So, to paraphrase that old Father’s Day saying, a whole lot of people might seem to have the credentials to serve as CEO of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. But, for someone to take charge of our unique program, it takes a leader with a mind as open as Matt’s, and a heart as big as Matt’s. I proudly pass the mantle, without reservation.

May God bless Matthew, our team, and our agency, as we begin the next chapter.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

If we are the "Easter People," it's time to take a stand!

Response to the tragic fire that damaged the Cathedral of Notre Dame is an excellent example of our double standards. Millions of dollars’ worth of pledges are pouring in, thus assuring restoration and reconstruction of this majestic structure. Yet, three historic churches recently burned up in Louisiana, and response hasn’t been nearly the same.

As I reflect on that during Holy Week, I can only conclude that similar things can be said, similar comparisons can be made, about our treatment of people.

While millions of dollars get committed for the cathedral, people in Puerto Rico still struggle to get hurricane relief, and Flint’s little kids still struggle to find clean drinking water.

We righteously quote the Constitution:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Except Native and African Americans.

Except gays and lesbians.

Except prisoners.

We piously quote Galatians 3:28 

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female… 

Except those struggling with sexual identity.

Except those with differing religious beliefs.

Except prisoners.

Yet, I think it’s undeniable that the Jesus, whose death and resurrection we remember this weekend, not only gave us guidelines, but also gave us personal examples insisting on fair and equal treatment for all. In his preaching: As I have loved you, so you must love one another. In his teaching: the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus. By example: dining with a tax collector, showing kindness to a prostitute.

Praying for a change of heart is a beginning. But, it’s time now for us to make an Easter resolution: From now on, equal love; equal compassion; equal treatment---equality for all people! No exceptions. Not even prisoners.

Then, as “Easter People,” we can all proudly sing with Avery and Marsh:

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning from now on! Ev'ry day's resurrection day, the past is over and gone! Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear, good riddance!