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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Kudos for Prosecutors? Maybe pigs do fly!

Our readers know that we’ve been critical of prosecutors over the years. But, a couple of Michigan prosecutors are rocking the boat, and it feels so good! 

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, perhaps the greatest maverick of them all, announced the other day that her office will no longer pursue certain criminal charges resulting from traffic stops that are not related to public safety. Hallelujah! 

What happens is this. Police officers will stop a suspicious motorist for tinted windows, or a defective tail light, or an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. You get the picture. But what the cops are really looking for is something more serious. Prosecutor Siemon’s office found, for example, that Black and Hispanic people are significantly more likely to be searched for contraband in situations like this. 

So, guess what? While the Black and Hispanic population in Ingham County stands at about 12%, they make up a whopping 41% of those arrested for misdemeanors. It’s even worse for felonies: 54%! 

To give credit where credit is due, Prosecutor Siemon isn’t the first to adopt this traffic-stop policy. One step ahead of her was Prosecutor Eli Savit in Washtenaw County. He says his office will not file a possession of contraband charge if that stuff was discovered during one of these sometimes-called "pretext stops."

Well, as you can imagine, the cops are raising hell. Robert Stevenson, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, is labeling these steps as a disservice to the community and a “free walk” for criminals. 

Prosecutor Siemon explained, in an MLive story: “Those of us who are trying to make changes are saying that we have to admit all the warts, the problems that have existed, some of our own creation. We need to be willing to look at this honestly and make changes.” 

She said she believes public officials are trying to what’s right, and she really doesn’t want the new policy to feel like an attack on the police. But that ain’t the way they see it. 

Grumbled Stevenson: “The police are in the process of trying to protect their communities, and she’s basically taking a tool away from them. If I were a citizen of Ingham County I would be extremely concerned.” 

That is, I guess, unless you happen to be a Black or Hispanic citizen.



Friday, July 23, 2021

July 24: M&M Day!

Matthew Douglas Tjapkes was born on this day in 1978, 11 years after Marcia and I were convinced that we were finished with child-raising. Wrong!

That means that Matt was still living at home in the 90s, when I got started trying to help Maurice Carter, a poor black prisoner who claimed he was wrongly convicted. As I recall, Matt received an A on a college speech he gave about Maurice. And it was Matt, who as a young reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune, snapped the picture of Maurice holding his walking papers that graces the cover of my book SWEET FREEDOM. That photo was taken on another historic July 24---2004. 

Matt would hear bits and pieces of Maurice Carter stories, the highs and lows of that amazing journey, every time he came home. 

The prosecutor battling our efforts all the way.

The court system refusing to listen.

Maurice getting dangerously ill.

A stubborn governor refusing to budge.

Welterweight Champ Rubin Hurricane Carter joining our fight.

Parole Board hearings held in the prison hospital.

Commutation granted while I was drag racing a Studebaker.

Finally, stepping into freedom on July 24---1st time in 29 years! 

Who could ever guess that sportscaster Matt Tjapkes would ever follow his newscaster father into a field of prisoner advocacy? Other than our Heavenly Father, who had it all planned at the very outset, I suspect that Maurice Carter could. For both Matt and his dad, it was a circuitous route. But we both eventually landed right here! Right where we belong. 

Over time, neither of us could ignore the pull to help “the least of these,” to recognize that all persons residing behind bars deserve humane care and treatment, and to understand that somebody had better stand up and do something about it. 

And so, on this July 24, we again celebrate Matt’s birthday and Maurice’s freedom day. 

On this date in 2004, moments after leaving prison, Maurice Carter stepped out of a motorhome in a supermarket parking lot in Jackson, Michigan, to greet his fans and supporters. After snapping Maurice’s photo, Matt threw his arms around me and whispered just one word: “Awesome!” 

Yes, it was! 

Yes, it is!

 

 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Unfair sentences----simple or complicated?

I’m simple-minded. That was the inference, in a recent discussion with a well-educated friend. 

She insists that things just aren’t that simple...issues aren’t just black and white. 

And that’s where I get into trouble, especially when we talk about things like Black Lives Matter. 

See, I take a look at the recent sentencing of Paul Hodgins, 38-year-old white guy from Florida, who pleaded guilty last month to obstructing congressional proceedings --- which he helped delay on January 6. He was among those hell-raisers inside the Senate chamber, wearing a Donald Trump shirt and carrying a Trump flag. As a result, he rightfully got arrested and charged. 

That was a sad day in American History. As writers Dan Zak and Karen Heller put it, in the Washington Post: Some defendants seemed bent on bloodshed and were charged with felonies including conspiracy. One group dressed in combat attire, used walkie-talkies, adopted code names such as “Gator 1” and “Gator 6” and, once inside the Capitol, appeared to be searching for legislators, according to the government. One militiaman wore a patch on his vest that read “I don’t believe in anything. I’m just here for the violence,” according to an affidavit from an FBI agent. 

So, what kind of sentence does this white man receive for his involvement in domestic terrorism? 8 months in prison! District Judge Randolph Moss, while agreeing that Hodgkins had contributed to a grave offense against democracy, allowed that he deserved some leniency. Why? Because he pleaded guilty "exceptionally early," wasn't involved in violence and issued a "sincere" apology." 

And then I look at the recent case of Crystal Mason. 

This black woman, mother of three, cast a provisional ballot in 2016 while she was on “federal supervised release,” a preliminary period of freedom for individuals who have served their full time of incarceration in federal prison. Problem is, that happened in Texas, and you may not do that in the Lone Star State. It was an honest mistake. Crystal had no idea she was not allowed to participate in an election 

What was her sentence for casting a vote? 5 years in prison! 

For me, it only takes a glance at these two stories to grasp why the BLM movement continues to gain momentum.  

I know, I know. It’s much more complicated than that. 

Simple-minded me! (Sigh)



Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Douger: Still a crusader!

 “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble...”

John Lewis 

I’m thinking a lot about editorials these days. Perhaps because a new book is being published as we speak. 

As a radio journalist, I wrote hundreds of editorials about local community issues and problems. One thing my listeners knew for certain: Doug stood for the “little guy.” 

I couldn’t begin to list all of the events and all of the people who influenced my passion for helping the underdog. I can’t remember anything as a youngster that started me on that path. The neat thing is, I’m still walking on it! 

I’m proud to announce the publication of a brand-new book: Tri-Cities---One Grand Community! It’s a book of radio editorials that I wrote and aired between 1964 and 1978. A fellow broadcaster had saved several hundred of them, unbeknownst to me. Upon discovering them, I was assisted by Julie Bunke of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum and Jeanette Weiden of the Loutit District Library in getting them sorted out, retyped and categorized. 

When presented with the final manuscript, a collection of about 80 editorials, our publisher was elated. “A veritable historical masterpiece,” he exclaimed! Details of availability will be announced soon. 

All of this is a long explanation as to why I continue to write editorials. 

At age 65, when most normal people think about retirement, I entered my third and final career, as an advocate for prisoners. It was my calling, my destination. 

And my pen still worked, my fingers still typed. 

So, you continue to see editorials by The Douger in this blog site on a regular basis. I hope you'll keep reading them, because this stuff is important!

Some listeners used to complain that I was trying to sway opinion. That’s because editorials do, indeed, express opinions. My goal, however, was to help local citizens see the issue. To think about it. To look into it. And, after getting available data, to then form an opinion. 

Here in this blog site, I’m trying to get you to focus on the needs, the problems, the issues, that our friends behind bars face and must deal with on a daily basis. Too many people don’t care. I don’t see that as an option. 

In an article titled “What is a Good Editorial,” writers Ajai Singh and Shakuntala Singh said: “Scratch the surface of any good editor who enjoys his job, and a crusader will shine through.” 

The Douger: Crusading until his pen runs dry.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Just another empty bed

The story is so sad, so frustrating, so anger-inducing, in so many ways. 

Kevin, a resident in one of Michigan’s 29 prisons, was only 61, but he wasn’t in good health. Three times last week he was taken to Health-care in his wheelchair with chest pains. Each time the nurse sent him back to his cell. The third time he reclined on his bunk and died of a massive heart attack. 

That’s the upsetting part. Now here’s the sad chapter. The man had no known friends or relatives. The body was cremated, and the cremains taken to the state’s Cherry Hill Cemetery, on prison property. 

Since the cemetery opened in 1932, more than 1,000 prisoners have been interred there. 

Even our veterans without home or family are remembered by vet’s organizations when they die. But nothing like that for prisoners. Nada. Gone and forgotten. 

Well, I’m not forgetting them, and today I’m going to dedicate one of my favorite readings to those incarcerated men and women---created in the image of God---who left this earth with no dollars and no family. 

This is my tribute to deceased and abandoned prisoners, but who were never forgotten by Jesus. 

The Misfit

(The story of the robber who showed compassion on Jesus) 

It seemed to be his lot, he was one of those unfortunate people,

With a talent always to be in the wrong place … always at the wrong time.

He was born wrong: The declining Roman Empire, the broken home.

The conquered Jewish nation, the poverty-stricken slums.

He lived wrong: When others went to school, he played hooky,

Others played ball, he stole apples.

Others learned trades, he learned to cheat.

Just a common thief … he started wrong, he lived wrong,

And it looked as if he’d finish wrong: The wrong place, and the wrong time.

A Roman cross, a painful death … A final shame.

When, from the middle cross, came words of redeeming love:

“You shall be with me in Paradise!”

In all the stream of history,

One and only One

Of all the numberless sons of Adam could have said these words

… and he hung beside Him!

In one instant his life, given to evil … thoroughly misused,

Doomed to die, was changed and ended in crowning glory,

It was the one sentence without which there is no success,

It was the one sentence which redeems all failure,

And it was said to him at life’s final flickering moment.

The one most important issue of all was gloriously solved:

At long last, he was in the right place at the right time! 

(Bob Benson: Excerpt from Laughter in The Walls/© Copyright 1969 Peggy Benson)



 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Bible and the Constitution. Two great documents. Both misused!

Sunday, July 4...anniversary of that important day in history when the United States formally declared its independence. Seems to me that it’s also the perfect day to make some observations about two incredible documents: God’s Holy Word and the United States Constitution. 

I am amused how religious zealots paw through the Bible to find some isolated verse to justify their extreme positions. They’ll find a few words tucked away in some passage to prove their point, but totally ignore other passages that might disagree with their opinions. 

People do the same thing with the Constitution. 

If there is disagreement in categories such as illegal search and seizure, civil rights, free speech, or (gasp) even a hint that some controls are necessary on weapons, the favorite line of defense is to fall back on the Constitution. Other guarantees for other citizens are not so readily recognized. 

The thing is, you can’t just pick and choose. You either take all of God’s word, or none of it. You either buy into all rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, or none. 

I read and hear news reports from people claiming constitutional violations involving their rights as US citizens...but seldom if ever do I hear about violations that affect people who reside in our jails and prisons. 

It is not uncommon for those of us in prisoner advocacy to routinely struggle with reports of excessive bail, excessive fines, extreme temperatures, poor medical care, excessive force, shameful feeding issues, etc., etc., etc. All fall under the category of “cruel and unusual punishment.” We hear this stuff all the time! Where is the hue and cry? Amendments to the constitution say this stuff is forbidden! 

On this 4th of July, it’s important to repeat these cherished words once again: 

“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.”

And, it’s also important to remember that we must recognize the incredible depth and meaning of God’s Word and the US Constitution, two separate documents, not at all intertwined...two profound documents, neither of which deserves to be fractionalized to support petty arguments.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

It's hot. And it's hell in prison!

 It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.

 Yogi Berra

With all the coverage these days about the proposed new Michigan budget, have you heard anything about air conditioning for state prisons? Me neither. 

We’re tough on crime in this state. If they hadn’t committed the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time. And by God, when it’s hot, they can just sweat! 

Michigan’s 29 state prisons don’t have air conditioning. The news reports of heat waves in the western and eastern sections of our country remind us that it gets hot in the summer. In Michigan, too. And when it does, conditions in our prisoners become unbearable. 

Courts in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Mississippi have ruled that incarceration in extremely hot or cold temperatures violates the Eighth Amendment. But those rulings had no national impact on air conditioning in prisons. 

Except for special units, Michigan’s prisons have no AC. Last year we were flooded with complaints, as the high temperature situation became more complicated with all of the COVID issues. But just imagine how terrible it might be if we got hit with some kind of a heat wave like that in other parts of our country. 

Think about it. We’re not just talking about persons dealing with high temperatures. Many people in prison are especially susceptible to heat-related illness. Some have certain health conditions or medications that make them especially vulnerable. Conditions such as diabetes and obesity can limit people’s ability to regulate their body heat. Old age also increases risk of heat-related illness and problems. 

More than 30,000 people are living in these Michigan pressure cookers while the rest of us enjoy our AC. And no one is rushing to improve the situation. 

We contend that refusing to install air conditioning isn’t a matter of cost savings at all. It’s appearing to be tough on crime. Furthermore, it’s our contention that denying air conditioning to incarcerated people is subjecting people to cruel and unusual punishment, and even handing out death sentences. 

How do you feel? Your state representative and state senator should know. 

Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me.

Frederick Buechner