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Showing posts from 2011

Prison grief takes no holiday

Mail to the HFP office doesn't let up during the holidays. It might even pick up tempo just a bit. A prisoner wants us to get his story out to all state legislators, because he can't make it happen. A prisoner wants us to help him find a location to parole to, because he was an only child, has burned a few bridges, and now has no family and no friends, should he ever obtain a release. A prisoner needs help filing a commutation application, but thinks we should do most of the work. A prisoner needs copies of the application form. (That's easy...we can honor that request.) The mother of a prisoner needs help getting medical care for her son. He was on medication for migraine headaches. As we often hear, the state stopped the medicine. He's not able to function anymore. He was supposed to have followup care following a CT-scan 2 years ago and that never happened. Can we help? And, if you can believe it...all requests in the above paragraph came in TODAY. Not this week.

trying to offer holiday cheer

It's not always that easy, trying to cheer up prisoners in the first place. Then add to the situation a series of unpleasant circumstances, and one is hard pressed for words. We're trying to help Mr. C to file for a medical commutation, because he has terminal cancer. He has less than 6 months to live, and would like to spend his remaining days with his family. Knowing how slow the system plods along, we're trying to make things happen, and meanwhile he struggles with imperfect and impersonal prison medical care. Says Mr. C: I'm supposed to have chemotherapy treatments every 21 days but the MDOC keeps interrupting my treatments, and not give me the bone marrow shots that I need. I am already two chemo sessions behind, and the doctor and nurse here are asking how long I'll be taking chemo. It sounds like the MDOC is tired of paying for my chemo session and paying for the two officers to take me to the hospital. Nice, huh? And then I had the audacity to get

on the making of an unpleasant Christmas

I'm thinking of my friend Teri a lot these days. I even have feelings of guilt. How come my Christmas can be so bright? How come hers haven't been bright for years? What would make Christmas bad for you? How about this scenario: Your husband is a teacher, and wrongly accused by some little girls and wrongly convicted? How about this one? The nation's leading lie detector examiner proclaims your husband's innocence, beyond doubt, but the courts refuse to listen. Or this? Because your husband is convicted of a sex crime, and one daughter is still listed as a minor, she may not visit her own father. Or this? While in prison he contracts cancer. And it's life threatening. Or this? Even while getting chemo therapy, he must be shackled and under guard, because he is a threat to society. Or this? Now it's a death sentence. Cancer will claim his life before his innocence is proved. Had enough? Well, if you can believe this, Teri is grateful this Christmas. Larr

'Tis the season

Doug Coupland said, "Christmas makes everything twice as sad." Each year at this time I hope for only warm and fuzzy stories to come to us from the prisoners. Well, once again this year, it's not happening. From one unit, 25 guys willing to put their names on the line in hopes of turning in a guard who is coming to work with alcohol on his breath, and whose behavior seems to indicate that he is working while under the influence. 25 men who are willing to risk retaliation and all sorts of unpleasantness just because they believe they deserve a sane and sober individual on duty in their facility. And yet, the complaint is rejected and retaliation begins almost immediately. I tread carefully, because I don't want to hurt these guys with any more crap than they are already experiencing. I must do something. In desperation, they've turned to us. From one unit comes a request from prioners. Steve cannot get appropriate care for his cancer, Stage 4. They tell him it&

Takes one to know one

I remember that as kids we threw that phrase back at someone who gave us a bad label. I'm reflecting on the phrase as I open the mail today, and I'm thinking there's some validity to it. I'm seeing incredible empathy for prisoners from those who are struggling with their own needs. Serious needs. Needs that might prevent you or me from functioning half-way normally. Needs that would definitely keep some people I know from even getting out of bed in the morning. A beautiful supporter who is at an age where many would be sitting home in a rocker sipping tea instead placed an order for six prayer books to be placed into the hands of needy prisoners. She accompanied the order with a generous gift of support. An African American supporter who has a son in prison and visits her best friend in prison got talking with another prison mom, and today they ordered five books for prisoners. A supporter on total disability with more health problems than I could list in one a

The news isn't always good

Our daughter-in-law received an early Christmas present this year. She learned this week that a dreaded lump was benign. All of us thanked God. But the reality is that a number of other people received news that wasn't as good, on the same day. I was reminded of that today. I was thinking of Missy's good news, as I was FAXing out medical reports to two of the fine physicians who work behind the scenes for HFP. One prisoner is terribly ill, but death isn't threatening. Maybe somedays he wishes it would hurry, as he suffers with some very unpleasant symptoms. Among other things, he has Hep C and he's going to need a transplant if he's going to survive. And so we're getting the machine fired up. You see, he can't have a transplant while in prison. He's really in on a non-serious charge and he has been in longer than his early release date. Why the state insists on keeping prisoners like this boggles the mind. He's got a great behavior record, the cha

On who's boss

There's one thing you gotta learn when you're in prison. You gotta learn who's boss. The system will keep pounding it in to you until you've got it straight. You're a nobody. Your opinion means nothing. You are simply a number. It took good ol' Joe a little while to figure that out. Joe's parents are in their 80s and in bad health. They live in Lapeer, and there's a prison right there in the home town. So they thought it would be nice if Joe could be transferred from Ionia to Lapeer, in that Joe's dad has just suffered and heart attack and all. Certainly if Joe lived in the Thumb CF it would be easier for elderly parents to visit him. Joe asked if we'd help. We wrote a letter to the warden, and we suggested that he contact his state legislators. His state senator was kind enough to contact the MDOC, and was told that Joe would probaby do best by just talking with his own housing unit personnel. He was informed that the state cannot really cons

That old-time religion

I gave a copy of our new CD, SWEET FREEDOM, to my friend Beth at church this morning. In a way, she started this whole business of a benefit CD for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. When her husband Don died, she asked that I play the piano for the funeral service. He had always enjoyed my keyboard musings. And, because he had a love for trains, he wanted an old railroad song sung at his funeral service: Life's Railway to Heaven. I asked fellow-musician John Mulder to join me for the funeral music. A fellow prison worker liked it so much he suggested a fund-raiser in his church. John and I added a few more musicians for the fund-raiser, and people liked that so much we decided on a CD. The rest is history. Charley Honey, fine religion writer for the Grand Rapids Press, did a story about the CD yesterday, and called it a "delightful collection of old-time gospel chestnuts." In fact, when he listened to the CD, his first reaction was: Old-Time Religion. And I guess he's right. W

Mentally ill behind bars

A Michigan sheriff recently stated a fact that a whole lot of families already knew: prisons and jails have become the new institutions for the mentally ill. In a fine piece on the subject, Detroit Free Press writer Jeff Gerritt said that, according to a University of Michigan study, more than 20% of the state's prisoners had severe mental disabilities---and far more were mentally ill. The same study found that 65% of prisoners with several mental disabilities had received no treatment in the previous 12 months. An outrage. The big question. What are you going to do about it? If our experience provides that answer, we'd have to say that John Q. Public will do very little. HOWEVER, it's a different story for people who have a loved one in prison. I worked side-by-side with Mary Ann when her brother Arnie---who was mentally challenged---suffered abuse on a routine basis in prison. We didn't just work. We fought! And we're still working side-by-side with Lois,

even on Thanksgiving, stark reality

I was reflecting on my blessings on this Thanksgiving Day. A year ago I had just survived a brutal attack by a staph infection that many thought would claim my life. I'm feeling so good this year that I almost feel guilty. My list of blessings is so long that I cannot document it all. I feel like the Psalmist. My heart was overflowing with gratitude when I spotted a letter on my desk that hadn't been opened. I'm amazed that it ever got here. It was sent to the wrong address. It had insufficient postage. Instead of my name on the envelope, it simply said "Dear Sir." It had been sent from San Quentin. Dear Sir: My name is Paul Wesley Baker. I've been on death row since 2009. I was arrested in 2003 in L.A., California. My attorney did absolutely nothing to help me in trial. I only saw my investigator once in 5 years. My trial was in 2008. The DNA was tampered with and some of their witnesses lied under oath. Some of this could have been proved if my attorney di

a meaningful Thanksgiving

I was able to give my friend James the most incredible Thanksgiving message today. James has been in prison almost 30 years. He was guilty of assault, but he turned his life around. While in prison he has moved mountains for law enforcement. Now he's seeking a commutation of his sentence, well deserved for a number of reasons. But here's the exciting news I was able to deliver. The Prosecutor who put him away 28 years ago is now leading the fight to get him released! I've never seen this before. I know many former and present prosecutors. They are really good friends, but I gotta tellya, these guys are prosecutors. The man who put James away is so convinced that he deserves a new crack at life that he has written a three-page letter pleading with the Parole Board to give him a chance. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't read it. Well, HFP is in the middle of this effort, and it makes me so proud. I was the middle man today. I had the opportunity to te

Mr. or Ms. Anon keeps giving

Way back when Maurice Carter was alive, and we founded the organization INNOCENT, a very kind person on the other side of the state (based on the postmark) began sending anonymous contributions to our office in Grand Rapids. Once every month or two, I would receive a crumpled little envelope with squiggly writing on it. Inside I would find a sheet of lined paper folded up, and there a five dollar bill. No note, no message, no name, no address, no nothin.' And it has never stopped. Maurice has gone to heaven. INNOCENT is now HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Our office is no longer in Grand Rapids. Neither is it in Muskegon anymore. My former employer gets the envelopes now. I would like to thank the donor, and advise him/her that our address has changed. But we have no idea who it is. I have a feeling that this is another example of the widow's mite. We treat the contributions the same as we would a major gift. Each time the gift gets recorded and deposited. And we take care to spend

Big Ben Logic

My friend Big Ben makes so much sense so much of the time. He was talking with Michigan legislators about the state's abominable prison situation. And he was talking about his particular situation. He's among about 40 lifers in the system who didn't get covered by new legislation, and therefore cannot become eligible for parole. I was convicted at 22. I am now 64, diabetic, hypertensive, and afflicted with a number of other ailments for which I take 8 different kinds of prescription medications. On average it costs the state $33,000 to incarcerate one healthy individual for one year in the D.O.C. I, on the other hand, cost the Michigan tax payer somewhere in the neighborhood of $45-50,000 a year in incarceration costs. If you multiply that by the remaining 40 or more Aaron Lifers in the prison system, you begin to understand how this affects the state's efforts to contain its deficits. Regardless of whether these words come from behind or in front of prison bars

More on birthday wishes

The unwritten policy of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is based on an old, anonymous slogan: You have never really lived until you've done something for somebody who can never repay you. I guess that's why I'm so taken aback when expressions of kindness come to me from prisoners. Now I'm making it sound like these expressions are infrequent. Quite the opposite. They're coming all the time, and you'd think I would get used to it. But I don't. A birthday comes, and I receive a home-made card, beautifully created by a woman in Michigan's women's facility. These people have no money for guards, but their artistic skills are amazing. A letter comes from a dear friend in another facility. I should have expected it. A series of telephone calls from prison. I can't even imagine how they remember my birthday. And now, a $10.00 check in honor of my birthday, from a prisoner whose monthly wage is less than most hourly wages on the outside. I am just astound

On birthday wishes

One doesn't pay much attention to birthdays anymore at my age. I must say that the celebration of my 75th was exceptionally pleasing. More than 50 guests showed up at a party featuring jazz greats John Shea and Tim Froncek. My family was more than gracious. Even grandkids from afar called to talk to their grandpa. In view of the fact that exactly one year ago I was on a feeding tube, a process that continued for six long months as I did my best to recover from a vicious attack by a staph infection, it was indeed a time for celebration. I greet each day this year with a feeling of exhilaration. Son Matthew put out a notice on the HFP email network and my inbox was flooded with birthday greetings from around the world. I am blessed with so many beautiful friends. My snailbox was filled with letters from prisoners who remembered my birthday, and some even called. Perhaps the most meaningful greeting, though, came from a mentally challenged teenager in prison. You have done so muc

Prayers for prisoners

I'm so excited. I'm holding in my hand a brand new book that actually had its origin right here in the HFP office. It's called THE PRISONER'S PRAYER BOOK, and it was written by a dear friend of ours, Louise Reichert of Marquette, Michigan. Louise and I have worked together for the past several years, as she was advocating on behalf of a seriously ill prisoner. When I discovered that she was a gifted writer of prayers I began forwarding prisoner problems to her that we encountered in our work. Each time she skillfully penned a short, gritty prayer that could have been uttered by the prisoner. And should have been. And from that we started dreaming of a book. Today, that book is a reality. It's a masterpiece. 100 meaningful prayers on issues faced by prisoners every day. I'm going to do my best to get the book into the hands of every Michigan prisoner who wants a copy. And I challenge prison programs in other states to do the same. Go to our website a

The face of Jesus

I was feeling good. I just given a very short address to more than 100 criminal defense attorneys at their annual Michigan conference. It went well. They bought some of my books. They had kind words. I got into my nice car, outside the posh Park Place Hotel, located in the heart of pricey Traverse City. And then I spotted the face of Jesus. It was pasted on the front of a homeless woman---not an old lady, either. She pulled all of her belongings in a little coaster wagon, right in front of me in the parking lot. Her face reflected all the pain and agony and shame of being homeless. She was probably planning to poke through trash bins outside the hotel. This was it! This was the person I was talking to the attorneys about! I wanted to go back in and take her with me. All she had to do was get arrested for some kind of offenses that we find for charging the homeless and the down-trodden...and she would need a court appointed attorney. Her attorney would be her only hope. That's wha

On chiding a prisoner

I rather like the word chide, especially when I feel that I must try to realign a prisoner's thinking. It seems kinder than scold, or reprimand, or criticize. I felt that I had to chide Mr. H. this week, and I don't do that quickly. Prisoners have enough problems and enough issues. First I should say that I am blessed...I'll go farther than that and say I am actually humbled by the stellar character of a whole list of dear friends who are in prison. Their attitude toward others, their efforts on behalf of the needy, their disposition even in peak times of unpleasantness go far beyond the way I think and act and talk every day. They are amazing individuals and an example not only to me but to all who meet them, including those in charge over them in the prisons. But then there is Mr. H. He was wrongly charged, but he wasn't completely innocent. His past life was checkered, including a prior conviction and incarceration. Because he was over-charged and over-sentenced,

They're really not any different

Prisoners really aren't different. Sure there are some bad apples. That's what prison is for. It's a place where we put people who have committed crimes against society. Having said that, I will tell you what I hear the most from volunteers who finally go into prison, from non-criminals who actually find themselves in prison, from my friends in a singing group that perform in prison: They're not any different than the rest of us. The reason I bring this up is this. I just opened the mail today. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS received a contribution from a gang of guys in the Ionia Correctional Facility. I've talked in the past about prisoners and finances. They work for wages unlike anything you're seen or heard. $15-20 a month, for example. Money is important to them, because they must purchase their own supplies from the state's own store. Because the food leaves a lot to be desired, they like to purchase snacks in the store, also. So they really watch their pe

Remembering Maurice Carter

I could envision a beautiful building perhaps in the style of the Supreme Court structure, with letters carved in marble or granite: THE MAURICE HENRY CARTER INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE. Perhaps it would be located on the campus of my favorite college, Calvin in Grand Rapids. It would house Michigan's finest Innocence Project, handling cases with and without DNA evidence. Pre-law college students would fight on behalf of indigent prisoners claiming wrongful conviction. But the institute would go beyond that. It would help those who had fallen through the cracks, and had no family, no friends, to stand beside them in fighting for fair treatment, medical care, a halt to mental health abuse, etc., etc. It would fulfill every dream of Maurice Carter, who insisted that his negative had to be turned into a positive. It would be funded by foundations and trusts with never a financial worry. That's what I was dreaming exactly 7 years ago today. I had already spent my final moments alone wit

It's gotta be prayer!

Sometimes I just don't know what works. A few years ago I made reference to a young lad who was sentenced to prison after being arrested on a minor sex charge (playing doctor with his cousin---his mom decided to teach him a lesson by calling the cops!), he was sentenced to the Michigan prison system. That, in itself, was an outrage...but I haven't told you the rest of the story. He's mentally ill. At that time, he had the mind of about a 6 year old. I could see little or no help for this lad. His mother had her own emotional problems, and didn't have custody of the boy. That left only his grandmother, who resided in another state and who was in a wheelchair. When I heard the story I went to see him in prison. I bought him soda pop and candy bars. We had a fine time. I've got grandkids, I know how to talk to kids, and I personally love kids. But my heart was broken when he came walking in with shoes far too big. He had lost his own, and the staff found another p

A stitch in time

Another shipment of yarn has just left western Michigan, heading for the Women's Unit at Huron Valley CF in Ypsilanti. It all began as just a few women in prison wanting to do something creative with their fingers, wanting to do something meaningful with their time. They learned to knit, and they started knitting clothes, and the prison people saw to it that the clothing made its way to the homeless. Word of the project got out to a woman here in our town who, as a part of HFP's Project Window started corresponding with a pen pal in Huron Valley. She asked if she could do more to help, and the prisoners said they could always use more yarn. That's all it took. Bags and bags of yarn now make their way to Ypsi. Last week four large bags. More ready to go this week. And some 100 female inmates are now participating in the program. And the clothing keeps right on going to homeless people. Little things mean a lot. Your continued support of HFP helps to keep this ball rol

Another one freed!

I received great news yesterday afternoon from the Innocence Project Team. Another wrongly convicted prisoner has been freed. Henry James walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola yesterday, a free man for the first time in three decades. DNA tests prove his innocence of a 1981 rape. So today, this man can start over again, reconnecting with family and rebuilding his life, at age 50. It's not going to be easy. There's a good chance that it may not even work. James was arrested charged with rape in 1981 after he victim mis-identified him as the attacker. And here's one more shameful little fact about this case: blood tests pointed to his innocence, but his defense attorney failed to share that with the jury. Sometime I wish that everyone who reads our material and supports our project could go with us to a national Innocence Network Conference. The speeches and the workshops are wonderful, but the real meaningful experience comes when the exonerees are intr

One day with God

Here at the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, unpleasant messages from prisoners arrive on a regular basis. It can be very discouraging. Perhaps that is why, when a rare ray of sunshine beams into the office, one feels like cheering. That's the way I felt yesterday after talking with Terry, program coordinator for a prison a mere ten miles away from here. He introduced himself and told me about a project coming up next month at his facility called ONE DAY WITH GOD. Here's what happens. He and his associates choose about 25 model prisoners, most of whom are fathers of small children, for a special weekend. On Friday, there will be a day of prayer and preparation with those 25 prisoners. Preparation means packaging donated gifts for children, which they will be able to present to their kids when they come to visit the next day. On Saturday, some 50 kids will meet at a local church, and will be bussed to a special prison gate where they can safely enter to see their fathers f

The dreaded message

Well, we finally got the message from the bookkeeper last week. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is flat broke. It took 10 months for it to happen, but we finally reached the bottom of the barrel. This doesn't mean that HFP is going to fold up. No Way. A series of fund-raisers has been planned for the end of the year to provide many ways for our supporters to keep us going. But it's a wakeup call for our Board of Directors. Prayers are important for our survival. But so are dollars. If you live in this area, we'd love to see you at our two music programs coming up. A sacred concert Sunday night the 16th at the Ferrysburg Community Church, featuring two outstanding groups, HIS MEN and JUBAL BRASS. And next month, on the 9th, we have a fun evening of the best piano jazz in the midwest in the Harbourfront Grand Hall in downtown Grand Haven. If you live farther away, but would like to be a part of this ministry, we welcome your donations. We are a 501c3 organization and your gifts are

The greatest gift

As you drive north on scenic highway US 31 in Michigan's lower peninsula, you pass through a little town called Conway. There's not much in Conway except a Post Office. Not much, however, except a monastery that sets back off the highway. You'll miss it if you don't make a point of looking. For years I drove past it, wondering that was and what happened in there. And then one day, in my second career, that of selling church organs, I learned that the nuns in this beautiful little facility needed a new organ for their chapel. The old one was emitting sparks and smoke. Doug to the rescue. We sold them a beautiful little ALLEN organ (the best name in the business), and my dad joined me in driving it up there and hauling it into the chapel. What a time we had, as each of the sisters had a different idea as to where the organ should be placed. My dear friend Sister Rosemary finally uttered in exasperation, "Lord, help us all!" Through all of this I learned more

on employing prisoners

I would like to tell you about a genuine hero. She certainly would not let us use her name, nor would she let us disclose the identity of her former employer. We can tell you that she was employed in a supervisory position at a reputable company here in the western half of Michigan. Among the entry-level employees for whom she was responsible was a guy who voluntarily disclosed to her that he had served time in prison. She thanked him for the information but said it made no difference to her. He was a good employee, and did his job well without complaint. She stated her position, that he had served his time, and the past was the past. He thanked her, but said he just wanted her to know because all supervisors don't feel that way. Well, sure enough, someone complained to the company that one of its employees was a former prisoner. And, the mid-level manager ordered the man's supervisor to fire him. She refused. Instead, she went to the top, explained the situation, said that

Two kinds of Christianity?

I was meeting with board members of a fine, socially aware downtown church in a nearby town, hoping to persuade them to give HFP some free office space. But then I noticed one board member with an angry look on his face. It didn't take long for him to speak up, and express strong opposition to giving HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS anything. He didn't want his church affiliated with some do-gooder group that wanted to free vicious criminals and might put the church in a controversial position. No way. Another retired reporter and I were talking about the anger in people these days. Even, and perhaps especially, among those claiming to be Christians. We think it's getting worse. What do you think? We recalled the recent scene where gay military personnel who have been serving their country were booed. Where a presidential candidate who boasted about his death penalty position received applause. Where poor people in need of welfare were angrily advised to get a job, get a

Is prison the best answer?

Do you ever take the time to review prison sentences when they are listed in the newspaper? Some people do, just to see if they recognize any names. I do, just to see who goes to prison, for how long, and for what reason. I am astounded by the number of people in our Michigan prison system for crimes that are non-violent. There were a dozen state prison sentences in the local newspaper today, sentences starting at 3 and a half months, and extending up to a maximum of 40 years. And the crimes? Drugs, drugs, drugs, probation violation, failure to pay child support, home invasion, fleeing police officers, larceny, bad checks, retail fraud. All bad stuff, especially when the crimes have been repeated time and again, as indicated by the notation of habitual offender. Is this the best way to punish violators of crimes that do not even involve theft, such as probation violation, drugs and child support? As a society, can't we do better to prevent these people from reoffending and to he

It's just part of the punishment

I know that this is a broad generalization. I know my contention cannot be proved. I believe that prison systems---not just ours in Michigan, but prison systems in general---make things difficult for prisoners just to heighten the punishment of prisoners. The stories of prison visitors encountering problems are non-ending. One would think that if the prison system is making it difficult for certain people to visit certain visitors, these people must be trouble-makers, perhaps hoping to smuggle in contraband, perhaps looking at ways to violate rules. But the stories don't come from people like that. They come from elderly parents, from handcapped people, from children of prisoners, from people for whom a trip to the prisons is already difficult. Just in the past couple of days in the HFP office we had a report from an irritated clergyman who has visited the same prisoner in the same facility time after time, never once having to produce his clergy card. But the last time he went, y

On the execution of Troy Davis

The execution of Troy Davis this week underscores the need for this civilized nation to abolish the death penalty. And even if you believe that scripture doesn't forbid the death penalty, I cannot find a single good reason to keep it. The simple fact is that only God knows whether a prisoner is guilty. And because the system is so flawed, we shouldn't be taking chances. I happen to agree with Sydney Harris who says, "To execute a criminal is to simply accept his point of view." I am particularly saddened when Christians, even in my own denomination, attempt to justify the death penalty and strongly support it. I am especially offended by those pro-lifers who cling to the sanctity of life position for those human beings at the start of life, but then apparently abandon that position for human beings at the end of life. Either all life is sacred, it seems to me, or none is. A retired federal prison chaplain this week told me that according to the statistics he h

Wish you could take it back?

How often do you wish you could take back just one misdeed? Just one statement? It happens to all of us. I could really identify with Evan this week. He's a guy in prison for life for a horrible crime. Here's what he wrote me. I cried as I told my parents how ashamed I am of going to prison for a senseless crime I am quite guilty of committing. I destroyed so many beautiful people's lives, hurt so many people, and even after 34 years the pain, hurt or suffering has not subdued. Even at this late date the consequences have continued to affect so many. When I lay awake at night reflecting on my life, there is so much pain. I can recall the night I committed this senseless, horrendous crime...when I was leaving to go out my daughter kept sobbing as I tried to leave. The sad expression on my child's face has never left me, nor the face of the innocent victims. What I have done so many years ago haunts me endlessly. So many letters of apology, so many prayers

On when not to speak

The author of Ecclesiastes insisted, in chapter 3, that there is a time for everything, including: "a time to be silent and a time to speak..." (vs 7). That was certainly true for a defendant in Texas. I was contacted this week to see if HFP would be willing to help a Texas inmate who has already served 20 years on a charge of cattle rustling. His cousin told me that the judge told the defendant that he had to be quiet during the trial. But, said my contact, he insisted on trying to explain that a veteran cattle rustler had masterminded this crime and he just played a minor role. The judge evidently didn't like his interruptions and stated that every time he spoke up she was going to give him another life sentence. Before the guy stopped talking she had given him 7 life sentences! And they stood. Governor Perry speaks very highly of his Texas judicial system, and one can certainly empathize with a judge who has a short temper when it comes to court interruptions,

Three preachers, three churches

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Mark is amazing. A 48-year-old professional engineer from New York, he has experienced first-hand the ruthless injustice of Michigan's notorious Berrien County. But this hasn't stopped him. He could be sitting in prison doing nothing but moping, facing the possibility that if all legal challenges go south, he could perhaps spend the rest of his years behind bars. He's never been in prison before. Nope, this guy's glass is half-full...perhaps even more than that. That negative stuff doesn't enter his mind. He struggled with some of his religious beliefs before going into prison, but not any longer. In fact, he has enrolled in a reputable prison seminary program. He's going to be a trained, educated servant of and for God one way or another. He has a fist-full of degrees, but this prison business has changed his career thoughts, also. He's asking our board of directors if we would consider taking him aboard as an understudy with the possibility that

The magic of music

We're all old enough to realize that magic doesn't exist. And with our age has come the inevitable element of cynicism creeping into our thoughts, words and deeds. But I hope that we're also young enough to recognize that there are, indeed, magical moments. A small rag-tag group of musicians had that experience yesterday. I am honored to have musicians John Mulder, Cal Olson, Lee Ingersoll and Dave Mulder surround me as I plunk away at the piano. And I must confess, some of the moments are magical. We met yesterday in a church setting to record the instrumental track for what will be a classy CD of gospel favorites, done in a homespun, folksy way. John's guitar work is absolutely masterful. There's no other way to describe it. Then we blend in the bass work of Cal Olson, who, like the rest of us, never places a note of music on the stand in front of him. It just comes from the soul. Cal adds the haunting sounds of breathy whistles to the mix. As with all

Those welcome phone calls

Some telephone calls just make your day. Like the ones from your kids who live far away. Or from a distant relative who has been special in your life. Or from a long lost friend. Or, in our case, from a special prisoner. I used to think it was important---well, I still do, for that matter---to have a few good news items up my sleeve for that time when a prisoner calls. Because so much of a prisoner's life is negative, it's important to pass along some positive vibes. But the more I'm in this business, the more I've learned that it's equally important for my peace of mind to hear positive things from prisoners. It was that way today when Big Ben called. The minute I hear his name from the automated prison system, I get a smile on my face. He's one of those friends you just love to hear from. And he has good news. "Hey man, it's not much, but the guys got together and held a little fund-raiser for you. The check is in the mail." I'v

One day at a time

Sharon, our church secretary, commented yesterday on my walking ability. I had stepped sprightly up the church sidewalk. She talked about the contrast with my manner of walking just a few months ago, when I struggled to get out of the car, took a moment to get my bearings, and then slowly ambled up to the church door. Of course it's all relative. I hadn't resumed going to church until last Thanksgiving. A vicious multiple attack by a staph infection had nearly claimed my life more than once, kept me from church from Easter to Thanksgiving, and had me on a feeding tube for my only nourishment for six months straight. And I agreed with her. It's just exhilarating for me to walk in the sunshine today, a glorious, sunny Michigan day with temps in the 70s. But I must say that after a narrow brush with the grim reaper your mind works differently. For example, a flu bug got the best of me a few weeks ago. I didn't panic, but I'd be a liar to say I didn't worr

Michigan's Scarlet Letter

One of the first prisoners ever to receive assistance from HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, back in the days when the agency was still known as INNOCENT!, shamefully wears Michigan's Scarlet Letter. His name is on the sex offender registry. Mr. J. sent me a curt message from his computer this week. Yesterday, someone called my employer yet again...fourth time I lost a job in the last year because someone keeps calling my employers to tell them I am on the sex offender registry. Apparently the Scarlet Letter is alive and well. Some steps have been taken to improve Michigan's poorly structured and poorly managed sex offender list. There are arguments for and against a state registry, but we have yet to see the perfect program. There is no proof for this, but it seems like one could make a case that the state does everything it can to make it difficult for former prisoners to get a life in the real world upon their release. In fact, it seems to us that the state relishes

Well said, James

I often talk about my friend James, the prisoner who has listened to his conscience and who lives in fear every day because of that. He has testified in case after case where he saw wrongdoing. His devastating testimony has toppled people in high positions, as well as lowly crooks. If they did wrong, and James was a witness to their wrong-doing, he dared to take a stand for what is right. Because of his damaging testimony, James' very life is in danger. Constantly. This week prison officials decided his message was good enough to be repeated. And so the prison psychologist set up him to speak to a group of 26 teenagers in the youth unit at the Thumb Correctional Facility. I often worry about these kids, because many if not most of them have not been in prison before, and that's the perfect place to learn the wrong lesson. So James spilled his guts to these guys. "It's OK to blow the whistle when you see injustice," said James. "If you bel

Absence does NOT make the heart grow fonder

Some people I know in the prisoner advocacy business are trying to come up with hard data on just how important family visits are to prisoners. It is their belief that frequent visits by loved ones not only contribute to mental and physical well-being, but actually enhance the rehabilitation process. They're hoping to find data to prove all of this. One of the reasons these people want this information is to strengthen their position when arguing with the state about where prisoners should be located. We can't prove this, but it seems that transfer is one form of punishment for prisoners who get in trouble. If they do something wrong, they get sent to some distant facility where it's very difficult for the prisoners' next of kin and closest friends to visit them. So the guy sits in a God-forsaken place alone, and lonely. One of the sad spin-offs of this alleged punishment is that it often is a direct punishment to the parents or the fiancee' or the dear

No such thing as a coincidence

Do you believe the headline? The older I get, the more I'm convinced that nothing that that happens is just an accident. I have a beautiful example. I'm getting more and more like Archie Bunker each day, in that I dislike answering the telephone. Each time it rings I grumble just like Archie used to. And this was the case one evening last month. But this time, when I answered, a mostly friendly voice on the other end of the line said, "I can't believe that someone is actually answering the telephone this time." He went on to say how difficult it has been to find someone at home on our end of the line. Finally I interrupted him and asked him just who he thought he was talking to. When he responded I had to regretfully inform him that I wasn't the guy. He had a wrong number. He was so friendly, however, that I kept the conversation going by saying that I ran a charitable organization and I wondered if he would like to make a contribution.

A cruel hoax

The Michigan Department of Corrections has been playing a cruel trick on prisoners for years. It must be increasing lately, because the complaints are increasing...both from prisoners and from families and friends of prisoners. The game goes like this. The state says a prisoner must participate in a particular program before he/she can be released. Sounds reasonable enough, if you can find the program. The prisoner agrees and tries to sign up for the classes, only to discover that that particular program is not available in his or her facility. Or, the prison finds out that there is a three-year waiting list, probably because there are not enough instructors. The prisoner complains to staff and writes to legislators, even sends messages to the Ombudsman's Office and the Parole Board. Not only does the prisoner not get satisfaction...he/she doesn't even get the courtesy of a reply. And it doesn't stop there. When appearing before the Parole Board, the prisoner wi

Holding a tin cup

I'm begging today. Again. It's a way of life here at HFP, because we always have needs. This one comes as regularly as the seasons. We need more copies of the book SWEET FREEDOM. If you haven't read it, please pick up a copy. You'll then understand why it's so popular in prison. Prisoners love to read my stories about visits with my friend Maurice Carter when he was alive and in prison. They laugh when I talk about the vending machine food in the visiting room. The smell of the food made me sick. Yet Maurice loved the taste of it, because it was so much better than the prison meals. The book gets passed from one prisoner to another until the pages are frayed, and that makes me feel so good. You've gotta remember that many of these people do not have much to read if anything at all, but they do have time. And if radio and TV are limited, and there isn't a lot of printed stuff to read, a book is precious, especially a book about the things t

The mentally ill cannot win in prison

I had an opportunity to chat with Lois the other day. She has a teenaged son in prison who is mentally challenged and who, I fear, is in there for a long time. He shouldn't be in there at all. She shared pictures with me that were heartbreaking. Her son was chained to the concrete floor, but the guards were kind about it...they placed a blanket in between him and the cement. The reason for the shackles was simple in the minds of the guards: He had been trying to injure himself, and for a while he was successful. So, to prevent him from hurting himself, chain him up, including legs and feet. No one suggested that he was trying to kick himself, but I guess if you're gonna do it, you'd better do it all the way. Here's the problem, and it is a brutal, vicious cycle. This teenager and many mentally ill prisoners like him are not treated well by guards and fellow prisoners because their behavior is less than stellar. And so, their behavior get's worse. The

Little things mean a lot

Our blog title is a song that dates back to the Hit Parade of the 1950s. I was reminded of that important premise when I opened the prisoner mail over the weekend. One letter came from a woman whom I have known for several years. I love her, believe her story and will do what I can to help her win release from prison. She doesn't belong there. I apologize to her once in a while, because I'm not making much progress with my help. "I am often puzzled when you write, 'I haven't done much for you lately.' I cannot express the feelings of not having anyone to believe in you and support you. You renewed faith and humanity for the community that I had lost long ago. I simply thought that no one cares. What comes to mind that you have done for me opened me to hope. Ps. 146: I have joy in me that was oppressed by my situation. Thank you." Please join us in showing kindness to prisoners. You have no idea how much little things mean. A lot!

Why writing letters is so important

My friend Cindy heard the HFP pitch for Project Window, our pen pal program involving prisoners, and hesitantly agreed to give it a try. We provided the name of a female inmate who had indicated an interest in receiving a letter. Cindy was disappointed that, after she finally made up her mind to take this big step, she didn't receive a reply. She stopped me in church this morning. "My lady finally wrote back to me," she said. She was so pleased, and said that she received a very nice letter. Why had it taken to long? The inmate confessed to Cindy that she was nervous about writing. While it took an amount of courage on Cindy's part to write a letter to a prisoner, turns out it also took an amount of courage on the prisoner's part to respond. In her letter to Cindy the woman explained that she has no contact with the outside world any more. We see that often. Many prisoners agree that after about ten years, contacts with family members and friends star

On heroes and heroism

We loosely throw around the word "hero." Genuine heroes, however, are few and far between. I have a friend who is a real hero, genuine in every sense of the word. This man has saved one of our telephone companies an estimated $5-million or more by breaking up a credit card fraud that resulted in several arrests. He broke up an auto theft ring that resulted in huge savings for one of our major car insurers. He worked with the FBI and played a central role in exposing a prison escape plot. He heard a prisoner boasting about how he killed a woman, could not live with his conscience, and brought the criminal to justice. A Michigan prosecutor and a municipal police detective were elated with his testimony and they obtained a conviction that resulted in a life sentence. He was instrumental in breaking up criminal activity at the staff level in one of our prisons. The list goes on, if you can believe it. If successful in winning just one of these cases, I would say the man

We need a Prison Justice Day

For 35 years now, prisoners in Canada have been observing a Prison Justice Day on August 10. I say that it's past time for a similar observance in the United States. I'd be in favor of holding it the first or second Sunday in August, rather than on a set date, and I'd love to have churches of all faiths involved. The oservance began in the prisons. Prisoners set aside this day to fast and to refuse to work in a show of solidarity to remember prisoners who died unnecessarily---victims of murder, suicide and neglect. And at the same time, organizations and individuals in the community were to hold demonstrations, vigils, worship services and other events in common resistance with prisoners. I'm encouraging others to get this ball rolling, and let's throw the ball to churches...churches of all faiths...to observe this day on a Sunday. It's past time that we listened to what Jesus had to say about prisoners, and it's past time that the churches got on

Thinking would help

I got a call this week from a guy who admits he broke the law. He's on the later side of middle-aged, and was growing some wacky tobacky in his back yard. I'm not sure why people think they can get away with this stuff, but that's another story. Anyway, he got arrested and convicted. But then he got sent to prison for a couple years. That, in itself, doesn't make a lot of sense. But now you gotta hear the rest. The man had been injured several years earlier in a snowmobile accident, and is paralyzed from the waist down. This means that he cannot get around. It also means that he has problems with bowels and his urinary tract. Now stop to think about it for a minute. I know that this well-meaning judge wanted to get terrible criminals off the street. But guess how many problems it might cause not only for the new prisoner, but for the current occupants of the prison and for the prison staff, to suddenly admit this man. And when you get done thinking about

Do you make up those stories?

Marcia and I were enjoying a cup of coffee and a dish of ice cream with friends dating back to high school days, Timmy and Char. The question came from Tim, who knows the truth but has a hard time believing that all of this stuff goes on in the prisons day after day. Actually, I couldn't tell him one that I'm dealing with right now, where prisoners have a contract out on a friend of ours who dared to tell the truth despite a threat of retaliation. Jimmy lives in constant fear, and his spirits are so low it's getting hard for me to prop him up. Last weekend some terrorists hit him in the face and mouth with human waste. Nothing is too low, too degrading. I couldn't tell this to Timmy because it would spoil his ice cream snack. One cannot imagine anything so horrible. Makes me gag to talk about it. It took him over an hour just to get rid of the smell and taste, gargling and using mouthwash. Nope, I'm sad to say, I don't make up these stories. General S