All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From the mom of a mentally ill teenaged prisoner

The Woodland Center Correctional Facility is located at Whitmore Lake, Michigan. This is the prison facility where the Michigan Deparment of Corrections lodges its most serious cases of mental illness.

The office of HFP today received this message from the mother of a mentally ill teenager:

I have learned some troubling things. When the prisoners are taken to the CRISIS UNIT at Woodland, they have just the clothes on their back for over a week; there is no quartermaster there to issue new clothes. On top of that, they don't have enough wash cloths for each prisoner, so they give them pillow cases! Is this only because these men come in such horrific conditions that no one cares whether they have a means to dry off? Even in other units, prisoners are given 1 wash cloth, which they have to use to shower and to wash up before meals and all other times. My son has not seen a wash cloth since he has been there. The mentally ill are at such a disadvantage when it comes to holding the prison system accountable! Someone else has to be their voice, as I am seeing it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Benefit concert a success!

More than $2,000 was raised for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS in a Sunday afternoon benefit concert, it was reported today by HFP President Doug Tjapkes.

More than 250 people attended the concert at Ferrysburg Community Church yesterday afternoon, featuring music by the western Michigan male chorus HIS MEN, and Grand Rapids soloist Asonja James. HIS MEN is directed by John Mattson of Muskegon, and accompanied by Sherry Merz of Spring Lake.

Two former prisoners told the audience how HFP had been instrumental in their release.

Tjapkes explained the work of HFP, and said a current emphasis during this holiday season is helping those in prison who are physically and mentally ill. He pointed out that one in four Michigan prisoners is mentally ill.

Dr. Dan Rooks of Holland, chairman of the Board of Directors, expressed thanks to an attentive audience for their willingness to support a 501c3 agency that serves as an advocate for prisoners.

Tjapkes explains that the organization assists prisoners and their families in all 50 states, but the focus is on cases right here in Michigan.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is based in Grand Haven.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


The impact of the Michigan Department of Corrections' slogan, posted in almost every prison facility, hit me again yesterday.

I had agreed to be a prisoner's representative for a television-interactive parole board interview in Kingsley, Michigan---150 miles from here. It promised to be a relatively easy interview. The prisoner has already served his minimum, he has a clean record, and has a 14 year old terminally ill son back home. The parole board member should be empathetic on this one.

I was told, in advance, that the interview was to be held Monday morning of this week. Last week the prisoner's family frantically contacted me to inform me that it was rescheduled for Wednesday. Then it was set back to Monday. Then it was finally scheduled AGAIN for Wednesday, at 8 AM. No explanation.

I pause to stress that we take EVERY parole board interview seriously. A generous donor provided gasoline for the trip, our ever-ready prayer partners were notified in advance, and my words were carefully and prayerfully chosen.

I was up at 4, on the road at 5, arrived at the prison near Kingley at 8, only to be casually informed by the woman at the desk that the new time for the interview was 11 AM...three hours later!

I wasted three hours in northern Michigan, returned to the prison, and was told that I could bring no items into the interview room. I always bring in two sheets of paper with me bearing my comments. A mild protest. The officials relented. My papers could go in, but not my pen!

I met the prisoner, we chatted amiably, 11 o'clock came and went, then 11:30, then 12. Apparently the time of prisoners and their representatives is not as valuable as that of someone serving on the parole board. It was after 12 o'clock noon before the parole board member BEGAN his interviews, and we were fourth in line!

I departed from northern Michigan at 1:30 PM: All-in-all, a 12-hour day, in which I spoke a maximum of 60 seconds to a callous board member who bluntly told the prisoner, “ You'll get a decision in 30 days.”

My friend was disappointed. I was beat, but I'd do it again today if necessary. It's where we belong. It's what we do!

But, I must say that our former-prisoner/advisor's addendum to the MDOC slogan came to mind:

...and never finding it!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Are cops exempt?

Recently a well-liked, veteran Grand Haven City police officer was arrested for using his position to obtain sexual favors from two women over the past several years. His sentence was light, compared to those we see for other sex offenses. He was also exempted from having his name placed on the Sex Offender Registry. In Michigan, as in many states, there are no categories or classifications in the sex registry. Whatever the offense, from a simple mistake to the worst case of child molestation, those convicted are lumped into one list.

I sent this letter to the Grand Haven Tribune, which was published yesterday:

Now let me get this straight.

The name of a person who is arrested for indecent exposure for urinating in public is placed on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry, along with those of rapists and pedophiles.

The name of a teenager who has consensual sex with his girl friend who is a juvenile is arrested for criminal sexual conduct, and his name is placed on the Sex Offender Registry.

A popular Grand Haven cop is arrested for using his position to get sex from two women is given jail time, probation, community service, and a fine. And his name is not placed on the Sex Offender Registry.

Is there something wrong with this picture?


Friday, November 6, 2009

We can't do it without you!

I sat at the kitchen table this morning with my bowl of low-carb cereal, and flipped on the computer to review my overnight messages.

From the distraught mom of a 17 year old, mentally ill kid:

He attempted suicide by hanging himself with a sheet. I learned it around noon after calling tons of people, but no one would tell me why.

This young man was doing fine in a private institution, but then had serious problems, and was arrested again for parole violation. He's back in the Michigan prison system.

I don't think he will be able to cope. I hope he can find the will to live, but I don't feel he has it in him anymore. He made it very clear he cannot live in this life anymore. It is so sad.

I love this kid! I went to see him in prison, and when he was stabilized with proper medication he was a delight: a charming teenager with an award-winning smile. I bought him soda and candy bars. We laughed together, and hugged. His mother received a national award for working 24/7 to get him out of prison and into a proper institution. I was honored to speak at the awards ceremony. Now this. More charges, court arraignments, trials.

It's time for HFP to ratchet up our work with and for the mentally ill in prison! First and foremost, we must try to help these people. It's estimated that one prisoner in four is mentally ill in our prison system. Are you with us on this? It's going to take two things, in this order: prayer and dollars! Start today by praying for mother and son.

We have a psychologist as the chairman of our board. I pledge that he and I will begin to lay out plans for an expanded program as soon as next week. May we count on you? We cannot wait!

Doug Tjapkes, President
P.O. Box 687
Grand Haven, MI 489417

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mental illness and prisons don't mix!

As messages continue to flood into the HFP office, I am especially troubled by cases involving mental illness.

_____, (age 15!) called today and let me know he got a ticket and will probably be in the hole for 30 days, because he was hittin' the door to see when his school was. Now he can't have any calls or visits.

_____,(age 17) has gone into a spiral and become manic. He had cut himself on purpose, has other injuries, and may need hospitalization. He is suicidal at times.

_____,(age 23) was finally placed on meds, and I have never seen him more healthy looking and hopeful in the past 20 days. Yesterday I was informed that the prison doctor is cutting off all meds! He believes my son just has an anti-personality disorder and no pill can help him. I am willing to pay for the treatment myself if this is about money with the DOC.

Unless you have had similar experiences, you cannot imagine the pain suffered by these family members!

Please pray for them.

And, as you think about year-end giving, please remember HFP with your prayers and financial support, so that we can become a stronger force in helping mentally ill prisoners and their families.

Thank you!

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

Will your church be next?

This little church along the Lake Michigan shoreline wasn’t that much different than your church.

Its people loved the Lord, loved to worship, sang hymns with gusto, heard preaching that was true to the Word, and did their best to love and care for one another.

Years ago, getting a very subtle and almost un-noticed start in the church was support for a lonely, unknown, indigent, African American prisoner. A member of this church had started campaigning for the man’s release, claiming he had been wrongly convicted. Over the years the name Maurice Carter became a household word. His name was not only included in the prayers of church groups young and old, but in family devotions at mealtime. And so, by the time Mr. Carter was released from prison (after serving 29 years!), seriously ill and with only a few months remaining on this earth, he called the church his church. And before he died he slowly made his way to the pulpit on a Sunday morning to thank the people for their love and support and prayers, and then he received a standing ovation when he raised his voice with this statement/question: Isn’t God wonderful?! Mr. Carter died a few weeks later, but the congregation’s sensitivity for prisoners did not.

Five years later, members of the church were surprised when another prisoner showed up for morning worship. Turns out the same member of this church who started the campaign to free Maurice Carter---now working full-time in a prison ministry---was instrumental in the release of Ron Ross, who served 11 years behind bars, and who also claimed wrongful conviction.

No one ever encouraged Ron to come to this fine church, it wasn’t a part of any spoken or unspoken “deal,” he didn’t do it just because he thought he owed the church a debt. He liked it there! He felt at peace there! He met God there!

A generous couple gave him their second car so that he would have transportation. Learning very quickly that he was a skilled carpenter and master gardener, members of the church soon had him working long hours, not only enabling this once-penniless ex-convict to eat well and pay his bills, but also restoring his self-esteem!

But evil forces seem to hover over situations like this, and one day the borrowed car that Ron used for his handyman jobs was struck from behind as he waited in a stalled line of traffic. The old car was destroyed. God protected Ron and his minor injuries soon healed. But his work vehicle was gone.

He couldn’t have known that kind and generous people of this church, with selfless zeal and enthusiasm, quietly raised the necessary funds for Ron to purchase a beautiful and functional used pick-up truck.

His grin of appreciation nearly matched the one pasted on his face the day he walked out of prison!

A college intern, who organizes my lack of orderliness in the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS observed all of this. I know not whether she attends a church, but I know that she’s a spiritual being.

When the episode played out, she made this astute observation: I wonder what the recidivism rate would be if every prisoner who stepped out into the free world were adopted by a church!

I was in prison and you visited me.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Year-end gifts important to HFP!


Five years ago Maurice Carter died, after serving 29 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS was Maurice’s dream. He didn’t want another prisoner to suffer his nightmare of wrongful conviction and inadequate healthcare. Without Maurice our organization wouldn’t exist.

I recently read “When praying, don’t give God instructions … just report for duty!”

Well, that’s been our response here, and we thought you’d like to see the results.

As you consider which organizations deserve your year-end attention, take a look at the back of this letter. No question about it, thanks to YOU, HFP has made an impact! And, on a shoestring budget!

All organizations have impressive statistics. Our numbers are different: They wear faces! , For 5 years we’ve stayed true to our purpose of reaching out with compassion and helping to transform the lives of lonely and forgotten prisoners. And our work, unlike that of huge projects, is on the personal level: ONE ON ONE!




What better way to tell the prison story, what better gift for a dear friend, than my actual first-person account of the Maurice Carter saga in this fascinating book!

Here’s how we’ll work it:

YOU 1. Send us the name and address of the recipient
2. Send HFP a contribution of $20 or more

I 1. Will personally sign the book
2. Will ship the book, as a gift from you, to the recipient

Thanks to your loyal support, we’ll have another year of making a difference!

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