All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

To Sherry, with our sympathy and love

Ronald Patrick Swiney

Patrick can breathe perfectly now. And he has no pain!

He had been in the Alabama Prison System since 1989, when he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole. He maintained his innocence until the moment he died.

Patrick, and his wife Sherry (who campaigned tirelessly for his release and his well-being 24/7) became friends of ours in 2002. Sherry was fighting on behalf of Patrick, and I was fighting on behalf of Maurice Carter.

I most recently corresponded with Patrick late last year. I learned that he loved to talk about drag racing, and so I sent pictures of Doug racing Studebakers. How he loved those memories! He closed his last letter to me: I appreciate all your hard work on my behalf, and making my heart happy with using one word: STUDEBAKER!

But, as his appeals and requests for legal assistance continued to fail, so did his health.

Last night, Sherry sent out an urgent appeal to those of us who remained close to the case: If each of us could stop everything we are doing right now and give a few moments to focus on Patrick's well-being, that will be powerful!

Many of us did that, but that was about the same moment that he was called home. Perhaps that was the answer we were given. No more pneumonia, no more health problems of any sort, and not even any more false accusations of guilt. I have a feeling that Maurice Carter, who could relate to most of those experiences, was there to welcome him with open arms.

Patrick can breathe perfectly now. And he has no pain!


Monday, July 27, 2009

Is MPRI working?

The Michigan Department of Corrections states that the primary goal of the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative is to promote public safety by increasing the success rates of prisoners transitionaing from prison to the community. According to the MDOC, MPRI delivers a seamless plan of services, support, and supervision from the time a prisoner enters prison through their return to a commmunity.

We are receiving word from some Michigan prisoners questioning the effectivess of the program. Today this:


The program consisted of an offender refresher class, learning about programs available to a released individual in his/her area, meeting with the assigned parole agent and a transition team, and learning about the GPS electronic tracking system.

The program down here at Ryan (Correctional Facility in Detroit) is a huge mess: mass confusion! The trip, leaving Muskegon, traveling to Detroit and getting settled in a housing unit, took 15 hours in 86 degree heat and no food.

Our security level has been increased, and we are getting paired up with inmates who resent the fact that we are getting out. I have a lifer living with me who hates me, and I have to live each day as if I am walking on egg shells.

That is not the worst of it. The program has turned into a sex offender test-and-trap AND a keep-or-revoke paroles program.

Men are still here who were supposed to have been home June 29. They have been given up to 3 new parole dates. The claim is that this is the result of a 560-question test about sex that is being given under the claim that this is a survey. They have revoked between 70 and 200 paroles, depending on who you talk to and what paper you read.

There are also men who thought they were riding out to their placement only to find themselves in Jackson quarantine!

Many others are just being held down here with no communication with their parole agent or their family.

This is a huge problem, and it is getting bigger by the day.

We were granted our paroles, and most of us are years past our "early release date." We need someone who can shine a light in this darkness. We need a voice. I hope you can help us and our families

OK, Michigan voters, we're talking about your tax dollars in a state where the economy is on the rocks, now being spent on a program with a questionable reputation.

Will you communicate with your state legislators?

P.O. Box 687
Grand Haven, MI 49417

Friday, July 24, 2009

Carter freed 5 years ago today!

Letter to heaven:

My dear brother Maurice, how time flies! I can hardly believe that it was five years ago today that you walked out of the prison hospital. Your cousin Mary and I were at your side. I've never experienced anything like it before or after that date, July 24, 2004! After 29 years, you were free. Your smile told it all! A book and a stage-play assure that the story will never die.

And oh, the dreams we had: We would carry our new organization, INNOCENT, to a new level; we would travel the country so that you could give lectures, speak to students, make radio and television appearances, and meet with church leaders. I just want you to know that, because your health problems prevented the two of us from carrying on that mission, one of us is still on the battle front. Liver disease and other complications may have allowed you to live for only three months, my friend, but your dream is alive and well. Perhaps I shouldn't say "well," because we face a serious financial struggle. But thanks to you and your dream, more prisoners have been freed, some are now getting proper medical care, and many have new hope!

Your constant advice to me: "Just leave it in God's hands."

The organization has a different name now, and the mission has been modified to cover not only the wrongly convicted, but those prisoners who have special needs, regardless of guilt or innocence. Because you set the bar so high, those of us at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS---staff and volunteers and consultants---are doing everything humanly possible to carry out our mission statement. May we never weaken. May we never forget your sage advice, and always place our future in God's hands.

Our lives will never be the same, because of the example of your life!

While safe in the arms of Jesus, I believe you're smiling on us.


In life and in death, Carter changes lives! Grand Haven Tribune, October 26, 2004

You may order copies of the book SWEET FREEDOM at 616.935.0075

You may send a contribution in honor of Maurice's memory to P.O. Box 687, Grand Haven, MI 49417

Monday, July 20, 2009

We were there. God was there!

Dan Rooks, clinical psychologist from Holland who chairs the board of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS had never been in a state prison. Today he would accompany me in a precedent-setting meeting where some Michigan prisoners had invited HFP to explain its purposes and its functions.

What would he think? Would his enthusiasm for our purpose remain, or grow? Or would he leave in disgust, thinking this is a worthless cause and prisoners are a worthless bunch?

If decisions were based on first impressions, I might not have stayed!

From the prison staff:

“That's the building where they house the level 5 and level 6 prisoners. Most of them are crazy! It's being converted into a facility for mentally ill prisoners. About 500 of the 700 are crazy, and they're dangerous!”

“That's the segregation building. We call that 'the hole,' and it's where inmates go for punishment. They spend 24 hours a day locked in their cells!”

As we walked across the large courtyard in mid-day, we could see all of the buildings where pain, misery and evil were contained. The silence was eerie. No sounds, in the hub of a thousand prisoners! But our fears, suspicions and doubts were cast aside when we walked into the auditorium. The emcee was saying, “These men took a Saturday afternoon of their personal time to come here and meet with us. Let's give them a welcome!” Applause and cheers!

In the next hour and a half

Among their messages to us:

Will you help us in preparing commutation and parole application forms?

Can you find more educational programs for us, on specific topics? I'm thinking of finances. Many of these men are going to be freed, and some have never even written a check!”

Among our messages to them:

We love you, we are in your corner all the way, we are not double agents!

We do everything to help and support you, in the name of Christ!

Prisoner Big Ben's final statement on behalf of some 40 attentive and kind prisoners in the auditorium: “We can't let this organization go down. We've heard stories that PLS has closed for lack of funds, AFSC is experiencing financial difficulties...we can buy books from Doug, there may be other ways we can help financially. Let's keep HFP going!”

Before we left, prisoners lined both sides of the auditorium for the opportunity to shake our hands, give us hugs, share tears and comments, and thank us for being there.

It was an amazing experience for Dan and me!

Dan will stay!

God was there.

Friday, July 17, 2009

We MUST press on!

Yesterday HFP made a prison visit. A New York businessman (and definitely not a criminal!), with no friends or family members in Michigan, is hoping to find friends, a pastor, and eventually justice here. It was a beautiful visit!

Today HFP completes and sends out an application for commutation of the sentence of a deserving Michigan prisoner who, during the war on drugs (which we lost), got caught up in those outrageous sentences, and received life without parole! He, his family and friends, have been counting on us to do things properly. We can only pray that our application receives favorable attention.

Tomorrow HFP makes a presentation at Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility. We will be speaking there about the role of our charitable organization, at the request of a group of prisoners! What a compliment!

We have just received word that another Michigan prisoner advocacy program is on hard times, and its staff must take a two-week unpaid vacation. Last month our contributions dropped in half.

We need you! We can't quit now.

P.O. Box 687
Grand Haven, MI 49417

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Any suggestions?

Several Michigan prisoner advocacy agencies, including ours, received this urgent message from the friend of a prisoner last night. Steve is 53, has chronic heart problems, and is on dialysis:

Steve was hospitalized 3-4 weeks ago for high blood pressure and shortness of breath. He was told he needed to see a cardiologist. To date, that has NOT happened.

The high blood pressure readings continue. On 7/4, it was 186/112. On 7/8, it was 186/111. Last night (Monday) he was taken to the hospital with a BP reading of 220/129. He then was told to go into a particular room. A doctor came in and asked him one question and never came back. He was taken back to prison at 3 AM, having had nothing done. He just called me this evening, and it was 220/140!

It appears that a diuretic should be given with the medicine he is receiving. It appears that is not happening. Are they trying to kill him?

Please, please, please, I beg of you, if there is something you can do on Steve's behalf, please do it.

How would you respond? How should we respond?

Doug Tjapkes
P.O. Box 687
Grand Haven, MI 49417

It's time to do what is right!

What is the religion that grounds our understanding of human identity and purpose, of government and its duties, of crime and punishment, and of the responsibilities of families, schools, businesses, churches, and social-service organizations?

Christians should be pleading for God's forgiveness for our complicity in a criminal justice system that perpetrates and perpetuates so much injustice. And genuine repentence means turning around to do what is right!

James W. Skillen, President, CENTER FOR PUBLIC JUSTICE

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Encouragement from a supporter of HFP

Laura writes:

Hi Doug, I'm reading a daily devo by Max Lucado and it centers on enduring til the end. The verse he uses is found in Matt. 10:22, " Those people who keep their faith until the end will be saved."

The following is is an excerpt."Are you close to quitting? Please don't do it. Remember, a finisher is not one with no wounds or weariness. Quite to the contrary, he, like the boxer, is scared and bloody. Mother Theresa is credited with saying, 'God didn't call us to be successful, just faithful.' The fighter, like our Master, is pierced and full of pain. He, like Paul, may even be bound and beaten. But he remains. The Land of Promise, says Jesus, awaits those who endure. It is not just for those who make the victory laps or drink champagne. No sir. The Land of Promise is for those who simply remain to the end."

Doug, I think of YOU and all the trench workers that endure the process of action on behalf of the prisoners (and families). I thank God for you, AND pray for His strength, wisdom, and patience to hold you up. I also thank you (all) and God for the encouragement upon hearing of prayers answered; freedom gained, medical needs provided, protection offered, stays of execution, special hearings, outside hospice allowed, consoled family members, and whatever means God uses to help you get His work done for the least of the brethren.God bless you Doug, keep up the great work, & ENDURE, I trust your reward will be great!Laura

P.O. Box 687
Grand Haven, MI 49417

From a Michigan prisoner to the GR Press

I am a professional project manager specializing in business and finance. I am a resident of New York, and was sent to Michigan for a two year contract assignment. The story of my incarceration is most unusual, but is not the topic of this letter.

I was recently given a book to read from a fellow inmate. The author was Doug Tjapkes, and the book: SWEET FREEDOM. I was so moved by this book, the story line, and the true message of hope… that I have continuously circulated it to others in the prison. I tried to write to Doug, but the letter was returned. I am now turning to you in hopes that you might be willing to help me locate him. My primary purpose is to obtain several copies of this book for my immediate family, and to perhaps establish contact with someone involved in prison ministry. All of my family and friends are in other states or other countries. I am virtually alone
. Mark

The letter made its way to the office of HFP, and I had a wonderful visit with Mark in a Muskegon facility yesterday! He now has a friend in Michigan.

I was in prison and you visited me.

P.O. Box 687
Grand Haven, MI 49417

It seems so simple

As an advocate for a prisoner in his/her parole board interview, you speak for only two or three minutes.

-the inmate has been waiting for that interview since the last rejection for parole or commutation
-this poor prisoner hardly slept the night before the interview
-one slip of the tongue, one inappropriate statement, one comment in the wrong direction

I've done many of them, and each time I am uneasy.
I pray before each session.
I ask others to pray.

My name is called. Our interview is next. We sit in a tiny prison room with a social worker, the inmate and I side by side, we face a member of the Michigan Parole and Commutations Board on an interactive television set-up, and we do our best. We choose each word carefully. We try not to offend or irritate. We silently pray. And then it's over.

Today, the kind interviewer was compassionate enough to indicate that freedom may be on the way for my friend Ray, an innocent man who has served 36 years in prison! As we leave the little room, the prisoner and I have just enough time to throw arms around each other. Then back to his cell; back to my car. I think we succeeded!

Thank you, Lord.

Doug Tjapkes
P.O. Box 687
Grand Haven, MI 49417

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A powerful voice is silenced!

It's a sad day for journalism in western Michigan.

Pat Shellenbarger, fine writer and investigative reporter for the Grand Rapids Press, has taken early retirement. They said "goodbye" to him yesterday.

Shellenbarger's interest in the plight of prisoners was heightened when he became aware of the Maurice Carter case in the late 1990s. He became a friend of Carter before Maurice's death in 2004, and he worked with me to help find the perpetrator of the crime for which Carter spent 29 years in prison.

In addition to that, he tirelessly investigated other prisoner issues, and dared to tell the truth about prisons and prison personnel. He sought balance and fairness in all of his reports, but he refused to compromise.

I join with prisoners and all who advocate for prisoners in thanking Pat for his courage and integrity, as he repeatedly exposed situations of inappropriate care and/or injustice. Words alone cannot express our gratitude. God knows that he and his quest for truth will be missed.

He's a special friend, and all who know and love him wish him the very best. That's exactly what he gave his readers!

Doug Tjapkes, President