All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, August 31, 2008

HFP needs you!

We must talk. This shaky economy is doing a number on us!

I think that it is important for you to know how we use donations.

Last Thursday I was in Jackson to testify in a commutation hearing for Mr. R., WHO WAS WRONGLY CONVICTED AND GIVEN IMPROPER MEDICAL CARE! In a letter just before the hearing he said: I will never be able to find the words that will express my gratitude in my heart for all you have done and still do for me, I shall never forget again the way love and peace can change a life.

On September 23 I will be in Jackson to testify in a commutation hearing for Mr. K., WHO WAS SUFFERING EXCRUCIATING PAIN AND DYING IN PRISON! In a recent letter he said: I know that no one has worked as hard as you have and without your intervention I’d still be back where I was before. Words will never be able to cover my gratitude for all you have done.


We do not receive foundation grants. I am asking YOU to hold us up with your prayers, and YOU to help us pay our bills. I can optimistically report that we look forward to an exciting future! But I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t inform you that, in order to maintain our amazing track record of prisoner advocacy, we need some immediate generous contributions.

As you think about enabling us to serve the less fortunate, please consider this statement from this saint:

In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love. Mother Theresa

With your help and prayers, we’ll continue to advocate for the wrongly convicted prisoner, the one deserving parole and/or commutation, that inmate not getting appropriate medical care, the dying convict being ignored or mistreated; and we pledge to continue helping the released to get jobs and lodging and food and dignity!

Yours in the service of helping the least of these,

Douglas J. Tjapkes, President

Saturday, August 30, 2008

We lost!

The five-word message from Fargo, North Dakota, attorney David Chapman:

We lost the hearing. Unbelievable.

It's the most recent disappointing chapter in a hellish story about a Bosnian family in Fargo.

Mevludin Hidanovic was enjoying a day at the Red River Valley Fair with his family when a skirmish broke out at another location on the fairgrounds. Yet, he was arrrested.

Hidanovic was convicted in January, 2007, on a charge of engaging in a riot, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. This all came after he refused to accept a deal from the Prosecutor to plead guilty and accept a 30-day jail term. Six months later, HFP got involved. That was when we learned that a juror came forward after the guilty verdict and admitted to the media that she had found him guilty due to race. That was when a woman who witnessed the fight came forward, after seeing his picture on the news, and said she knew it was the wrong person. That was when the family members voluntarily took a lie detector test to prove that he had been with them at the time of the incident. They passed.

One of the nation's leading eye-witness identification experts, suggested by HFP, said cross-racial identification is rarely accurate.

But, this tragic case went all the way to the North Dakota Supreme Court with no success. Then attorney Chapman persuaded the state to consider a new trial. A hearing on that request was held yesterday, and Chapman was confident. We started a prayer chain.

Not only Chapman, not only the Hidanovic family, but fairness, and justice for all, lost in that courtroom yesterday.

Hidanovic's wife and four children are citizens of the United States. He is not, and he now faces deportation.

We are all in this together.

It's a sad day for all of us.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Got time for a prayer today?

I am asking you to focus your thoughts and your prayers on a courtroom in Fargo, North Dakota, at 1:30 PM Central Time today.

The case of Mevludin Hidanovic came to our attention over a year ago. Mevludin is a Bosnian who was wrongly identified as the instigator of a fight in an amusement park, and subsequently wrongly convicted. Because of this conviction, he now faces deportation...something that would split up a beautiful family, because his wife and children are American citizens.

HFP's involvement early on was to assist in obtaining media coverage, and we were quite successful.

But nothing was successful in the courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court of North Dakota.

And yet, we thank God for attorney David J. Chapman, who never gave up. Recently, he persuaded the state to consider a new trial for Mr. Hidanovic, based on ineffective counsel.

Again, HFP got involved. We found one of the leading eyewitness identification experts in the country to assist attorney Chapmen. Solomon Fulero insists that cross-racial identification of witnesses is highly inaccurate.

Our dear friend Chanda Hidanovic has spent thousands of dollars on this case. You may read her story in an earlier blog entry here.

Finally, this afternoon, the court will decide whether there will be a new trial. Attorney Chapman has told HFP that he feels very confident, going into the hearing. I told him that, at 1:30 PM Central, we would have a battery of wonderful people upholding him and the case with prayer! And at the same time we promise to remember the Hidanovic family.

We will keep you posted.

Thank you for remembering those in prison as if you were together with them in prison (Hebrews 13:3)!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Their words, your words, His words

4:00 AM

I can't sleep, and by 4 this afternoon I'll be paying the price.

I was troubled by their words:

-Those of a mom whose son (in prison) cannot get DNA testing to prove that he was not the father of a dead new-born, left in a toilet by his frightened step-daughter;

-Those of a mom whose frightened son (in prison), driving through snowy white-out on a pitch-black night, felt his car hit something but told no-one. The pedestrian died;

-Those of a daughter whose battered mom is going to prison because her father, while struggling to kill her mom with a shotgun, took the blast himself. He died.

-Those of my friend whose Bosnian husband is threatened with deportation over a wrongful conviction, and who drives four hours one way to see him in a federal facility, only to encounter uncaring prison officials and heartless prison rules, concluded by a husband-wife conversation via video cam, limited to 20 minutes.

I was encouraged by your words:

"We were touched, once again, by your recent letter to the editor."

"We REALLY BELIEVE in what you are doing!"

"You will always have my deepest respect and support as you often stand alone to bring a better quality of life and hope to the forgotten and discarded."

I was comforted by His words:

Come to me and I will give you rest, take my yoke upon you, it is easy and my burden is light.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

That the innocent may be freed!

The first words in the mission statement of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS ARE: Seeking rightful resolutions to wrongful convictions...

This week, we'll be rolling up our sleeves to do just that!

Tomorrow, Wednesday, a legal team from the Toronto-based ASSOCIATION IN DEFENCE (Canadian sp.) OF THE WRONGLY CONVICTED will be in Detroit for a strategy session regarding Ray Gray. Gray is now 56, and has served 35 years in prison. This fine group of legal experts believes he is innocent. HFP is proud to have been invited to participate in that conference. Gray is a fine artist, and a number of his paintings were on display for our benefit art exhibit a couple years ago.

On Thursday, my car will head south again. I will be traveling to Jackson to testify at a public hearing, scheduled by the Michigan Parole Board, for Ron Ross. Ron, now 42, was convicted of a safe cracking and has been in prison for nine years. He is a Master Gardener, and has used his gifts to develop a prison garden program that has distributed fresh vegetables to hundreds of disadvantaged people in the Upper Peninsula over the years! He has consistently maintained his innocence, and is now crippled because of improper medical care while in prison.

In your own way, remember us as we travel more than 450 miles in the next two days in an 8 year old car with 201,000 miles and a soft tire; and especially as we seek God's guidance to say the right words and make the right moves in our imperfect effort to give new life to two fine human beings. It is our position that they have been wronged by an imperfect system.

This is the work that we do in the trenches: Work that we are called to do, but work that limits the amount of time we can spend trying to make up our financial deficit.

Thank you for being our partners in this amazing, exciting, on-going adventure!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Words for starting a new week

Dr. Samuel Johnson:

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

Perhaps the best way to accomplish that this week would be to do something for a prisoner.

I know of a prisoner advocacy agency that MUST raise $10,000 yet this week. Slow economic conditions and summer contributions, combined with a strong surge of requests for help all resulted in an unexpected financial crisis.

A Christian organization, hearing of our plight, has already awarded a grant of $2,000! May God bless those generous, considerate people. That leaves a balance of $8,000.00.

Perhaps you know of a church, a club, an agency, that has a contingency fund for situations like this. September will be here in a minute, accompanied by a new set of monthly bills.

You know that I don't regularly use these "start-of-the-week" quotations to raise money. I'm merely calling a critical situation to your attention.

Dr. Johnson's statement stands on its own.

20 W. Muskegon Ave.
Muskegon, MI 49440

Friday, August 22, 2008

A new life!

Many will never feel the flood of emotions that erupt in the soul upon watching a prisoner step into freedom. But, in Muskegon, Michigan this week, nearly two dozen people had that experience. Mr. Keith Weiner, #125162, was freed, after serving over 30 years! We would not have known about this commutation, except the fine group that worked on this project needed some help filling out commutation forms. It was our pleasure at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS to not only assist, but to send a letter of recommendation. Now you MUST read this. It's a summary of the account provided to us by Dr. Roger Sellon, one of the people who had worked so hard for this prisoner's freedom:

"20-some family members and friends were in the parking lot at 7:30 AM, many of them carrying signs that read, "welcome home Keith!" Once inside, stories and hugs were shared as we talked of our history with this inmate. Whether a blood relative or a friend, for a brief time we were all family. We all stood watching the prisoner entry area where for so many years we had waited for Keith as he came in his prison blues. Suddenly he appeared in street clothes, sun glasses and a suede jacket. A cheer went up from his support group. Prison officials moving through our area looked shocked until we told them someone was being released. I recall watching our group alternate between tears and cheers as we waved to Keith, who had a smile and arms extended in a welcoming pose. He walked through the slamming door for the last time. Keith then took the time to embrace each individual that had come. Family first, then me, and last but not least, the pastor who would provide him housing for the next few weeks.

"Someone said, 'Let's get some fresh air' so we took all of this man's worldly possessions, packed in two small boxes. Before he left Keith took time to wish well to the 3 prison officials on duty in the visitor area.

"Once outside, we formed a circle to praise God for His goodness in delivering Keith. Tears again began to flow as we realized that Keith's commutation was a miracle that God had delivered because of Keith's and his support group's faithfulness!

"I work for a mentoring program called Kids Hope USA which matches a caring adult with an at-risk child with the hope that by reaching children early, we can save them from the heartache of prison incarceration. In spite of my belief in the importance of preventing the kind of behavior that leads to incarceration, today I was filled with joy as I saw one of God's children experience the freedom that he has ordained for all of us."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thoughts on Parole Board policy

I did a television interview this week on a local cable channel. I don’t suppose many people will see it, but I gave it my all.

The interviewer asked me about Michigan’s high recidivism rate. That’s a fancy word that tells you that many of the people released from prison go back there again.

I couldn’t wait to answer. "The system is askew!"

I talked about the Michigan Parole Board, and laid much of the blame on the board. Let me tell you why.

The Michigan Parole Board members, in their interviews with prisoners being considered for parole, want to hear the inmates confess to their crimes and show remorse. Stop to think about this for a minute.

Prisons are full of con artists. The man/woman who knows how to work the system weeps, wails, confesses the crime, shows remorse, and jumps through all of the required hoops, then wins a parole. Is it any wonder that this rogue winds up in prison again? Does it take someone with a college degree to figure this out?

But then there are the people with integrity in prison. I’m familiar with people like that, because I befriended the late Maurice Carter, who spent 29 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. He was dying, we were in the Michigan prison hospital, and the CHAIRMAN of the Michigan Parole Board said, “If I would allow you to walk out of this hospital right now with Mr. Tjapkes if you admitted to this crime, would you do it?”

Maurice Carter, (one class act!), looked him in the eye and stated, while sitting on a hospital examination table: “I will never admit to something that I didn’t do.”

Do you see the problem?

I cannot correct it. You can!

The state and federal governments are made up of people you and I have put in office. What are you going to do about it?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On prisoners who are mentally ill

I was having breakfast today with one of the very fine newspaper reporters in this state, and one of the topics of discussion was the treatment of the mentally ill in Michigan prisons.

I had been working on a case in which a mentally challenged prisoner was beaten by guards at Huron Valley. I asked the Michigan State Police to investigate, and Detective Sergeant Dale Smith reported back to me that the behavior of the guards was justified because the prisoner started the fracas. That doesn't surprise me at all, and that is not the issue.

Simply stated, here's what has happened in Michigan. We closed the mental institutions, thinking we knew of a better plan for the mentally ill. Instead, many of those persons wound up sleeping under bridges, which led to their arrest and incarceration in county jails. Additional problems led to the placement of many mentally challenged people in the Michigan prison system.

The results were predictable. Prisoners don't know how to handle the mentally ill, so they beat the tar out of them. Guards don't know how to handle prisoners who don't have the mental capacity to respond properly to their orders, commands and demands, and so they punish them. Remember Timmy Souders? Prisoners tell me that similar incidents occur on a regular basis.

We need more advocates for the mentally challenged, not only in Michigan but in many other states.

And the quicker we get these people out of our prison systems, the better!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From a donor to HFP

"Please accept my small donation but my huge thanks for the incredible work you do in several capacities to help the wrongly convicted and the imprisoned. You will always have my deepest respect and support as you often stand alone to bring a better quality of life and hope to the forgotten and discarded. God bless and enrich your life as you bring your special talents to your crucially important mission."

Wrongly convicted husband/father faces deportation!

I received this heart-breaking letter from our dear friend Chanda:

Chanda Hidanovic: A Family Divided

I won’t stop speaking until I am heard. No one should have to suffer the pain of wrongful conviction.
We live in a country that prides itself in having the fairest judicial system. Other countries have based their judicial system on ours, as though we have the best. Immigrants move to our country because they have heard their whole lives how the United States is the best place to live.
Yet we still hear those stories about people who have spend 25 years in prison and were exonerated due to DNA evidence. I never paid much attention to those stories. I listened for a minute and thought to myself how awful it would be not to have people believe in your innocence. Then I would dismiss it to the back of my mind.
That has all changed. My husband is in prison for something he didn’t do. I am 100 percent positive he is innocent because I was right there with him. Mevludin Hidanovic was charged with engaging in a riot while armed. There was no physical evidence.
This conviction was based on only one positive eye witness. The one witness was African American with a felony theft history. Cross- racial eyewitness identification is up to 80% inaccurate. Imagine a fight with 25+ Hispanic and Bosnian men in the evening. They all have dark hair, dark skin and shorter build. It would be difficult to pick one out, especially by looking at driver’s license pictures. It took several years for me to be able to distinguish all of Mevludin’s relatives. We have done everything in our power to prove his innocence. We have motioned for new trial based on juror misconduct. A juror in his case came forward after his guilty verdict and declared to the media she found him guilty due to his race. Our motion was denied.
Shortly thereafter a woman who witnessed the entire fight at the fairgrounds that night came forward. She had seen his picture on the news and knew it was the wrong person in jail. Her boyfriend and father of her children was the one struck with the bat that night (he wasn’t permanently injured).
We motioned for a new trial based on new evidence and were denied. We took this case all the way to the Supreme Court of North Dakota and were very hopeful. There were many things in our favor. We have spent thousands of dollars but mental and emotional pain has cost us the most. We spent six months waiting for a decision and were denied.
Recently, we motioned for a new trial based on ineffective council. This decision decides whether our family gets to stay together or not. Our court date is August 29 at 1:30 p.m. at the Fargo Courthouse.
My husband is a permanent resident and has a green card. He is not currently a US citizen although I am. I was born and raised and have lived in North Dakota my whole life. I grew up in Langdon, North Dakota and have been in the Fargo area since 1990.
Any jail sentence of over a year automatically brings immigration into the picture. Mevludin has served his 18 month sentence and is still being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is currently being held in Sherbourne County Correction Center in Minnesota. He is facing a deportation trial.
Mevludin’s surviving family is here in the United States yet he could be deported to a country that he barely remembers, a country that is not stable. I just recently saw the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo getting attacked on the news.
Mevludin has two children and well as two stepchildren. We love them dearly and our family would be divided. I would stand by my husband as I have this entire time and leave with him. I love him and it has been a nightmare to see him go through this.
Nurija (our friend), Mevludin, our children and I know the truth about what happened that night of the fight at the fair. We were on a ride together when the fight happened. We took lie detector tests and passed. We paid for them with our own money to help prove our case. Nothing has helped, not even the innocence project that accepted our case or the website we created, I am tired of being hopeful and praying for a miracle. I have been let down too many times. I want my husband back. I want my family back. Is that too much to ask?
Chanda Hidanovic Fargo

Monday, August 18, 2008

From the HFP mailbag this week

Quotes from letters similar to those received daily at our office:

"We here at this unit have a problem: getting adequate footwear. We are diabetics, and the head of our region will not refer us to 'brace and limb' for evaluation, although this system has policies and guidelines for footgear for diabetics."

"I've been married since January, 1995. Unfortunately, my wife and I have not seen each other since the day we were married. She lives in San Diego, and wants to come to Michigan to visit me. Do you know of a church or an organization that could assist us?"

"I'm stuck in prison and don't know where to go. In the early 1990s a sergeant with the Detroit Police Department contacted me, and informed me that the Prosecutor never provided me with all the evidence in my case. I asked him if he would assist me in getting those items. He said yes. Almost immediately after our conversation he died! How can someone assist me?"

HFP on duty in northern Michigan

I had just made my fourth and final prison visit in one day! It felt like I had been working for a week! Who says the emotions can't drain more energy than physical labor?

I walked to my car in the parking lot of the Hiawatha Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan. It was 6:15 P.M. The weather was perfect, sun shining, temperature at 73 degrees, a slight breeze ruffling my hair. I stopped, transfixed by the typical, majestic U.P. nature scene, especially the tall, stately, pines. Then I did an about turn, and my eyes were drawn to the familiar sight of rolls and rolls of shiny, ugly barbed wire atop prison fences.

And that's when the wave of guilt hit me!

Who was I to be so privileged to leave four wonderful guys, whom I had visited in three different prisons, and step out into freedom? Why did each one of these treasured friends have to be subjected to the humiliation of a strip search and sent back to their cells following our brief time together, while I could return to my wife for a comfortable evening and a delicious meal? I had no answer. I still don't. I know this: Compared side-by-side, their qualities of character and abilities far outweigh mine! Not even close! They don't belong in prison any more than your grandmother! And yet, a stubborn parole board and an unaware Governor do not prevent these inmates from being pillars in their communities, shining examples to the other residents.

Each one of the four sent me off with a hug.

When I slid behind the wheel, I paused, as I usually do for just a moment, pleading that God may have used my brief visit to make an impact on four prisoners at least equal to that made on me. True, all four of us talked business. But the unspoken message as I walked out of the visiting rooms was that we were brothers!

I drove off. There but for the grace of God... .

I shall never underestimate the incredible responsibility placed in my hands by God, at the helm of HFP, and by you, who make it possible for us to go on.