Showing posts from June, 2011

There, but for the grace of God...

I had a meeting with our county prosector the other day. I'm toying with the idea of writing a novel, not because I'm such a great writer, but because I see so many common, ordinary people ending up behind bars. People who are not criminals. Ron confirmed my thoughts. The fact is that a huge number of people behind bars wish they could take back a few fateful seconds of their lives, seconds during which they made one rash, thoughtless move. They had never been in trouble before, had never been arrested, had never been in prison and were very much like you and me. But for a great percentage of people, they made one stupid mistake, and they're spending the rest of their lives regretting it. For another larger percentage than you might imagine, the wrong person was accused of a crime, and convicted, and sentenced. Add up those two totals and you have a country with the largest percentage of people in prison in the world. And many of them who have no business being there.


In the past day and a half I've had an amazing number of telephone calls from people wanting money. This in a time when money is tight, conditions are tough, and people can't pay their bills. I'm sure the society helping leukemia victims is worthy, certainly we must worry about homeless veterans, and I know that my alma mater Christian high school needs dollars to keep going. That leads me to my point: It cannot be easy for YOU to make an intelligent, informed decision when it comes to donations to charity. There's a battery of fund raisers hammering on your door daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. It doesn't stop. It's no wonder that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is struggling. We're a tiny organization with a budget of $100,000 a year. We don't hire out to get the envelopes stuffed and stamped. We do it ourselves. We don't pay lobbyists. We testify ourselves. We don't beg volunteers to visit our prisoners. We go ourselves. We don't hire p

On starting the day

I've always believed in getting a good start each day. Nutritionists claim that a good breakfast is important. Preachers claim that devotions are important. Body builders claim that exercise is important. In a busy lifestyle it's easy to ignore any or all, but I think we can agree that it's good to try. My friend Bee Bee, who has been in prison for 40 years, has a different take on it. He thinks the right frame of mind is absolutely essential. Doug, I have this ritual I try to follow every morning when I get up, and every evening before I go to sleep. I listen to this one gospel song by Waler Hawkins entitled LIVE IN ME JESUS. Live in me Jesus, have your way in me I'll be flesh for you Jesus If you'll be spirit for me So live in me Jesus and have your way in me. I'll be your legs to walk, I'll be your mouth to talk, I'll say whatever you want me to say Lord To show the world that you love. With so much darkness and distraction in the prison environme

A new voting bloc?

Throughout history politicians have targeted different groups in society to get voter support: women, African Americans, and Latinos come to mind. A former prisoner from Michigan is promoting a new group: convicted felons. Says John Witherow, We vote the tough-on-crime idiots out of office and replace them with people interested in helping people and providing jobs, education and health care to people being released back into the community. One of the first challenges will be to make sure that they may even vote. It is the feeling of some politicians that convicted felons have forfeited their right to cast ballots in the U.S. Witherow is asking for your feedback on Ex-felons are barred from certain employment and must, instead, pursue more demanding and less paying jobs so that non-felons can have the white collar jobs. I don't know about you, but I am sick of this type of b.s. and would like to develop a large-scale 13th Amendment

on tearful situations

The last time I saw Annie in person I had tears in my eyes. She and I were talking with a member of the Michigan Parole Board. She was trying to explain to a not very sympathetic board member why she should be paroled. In my opinion she shouldn't have been convicted of this crime in the first place, but my opinion doesn't count. Anyway, her story is a sad one, because she got blamed for a death. It's true that someone killed her former husband, but she didn't. As she made her case, she finally just broke down and sobbed. And that's when I discovered that I was weeping, too. It made no difference. The Parole Board wasn't convinced, and she's still in prison, where she has been for the past 21 years. That's when I feel so helpless. I was at her side to help her, but the two of us were not persuasive enough. I failed. And yet this week I received a Father's Day card from Annie. God bless her. And in her note in the card, she said, "Fore

On prison conditions

Many people try to make the case with me that prison conditions in one state are far worse than those in another state. I don't buy it. Just as the old statement, WAR IS HELL, always holds true, so does this one: PRISONS ARE HELL. I am always touched when decent, law abiding citizens who know nothing about the inside of a prison are suddenly faced with the reality of these hellish conditions when a loved one is imprisoned. They think they are telling me something new when they relate these true stories: -My son is trying to do something wrong so he can get a ticket. That's the only way he can get a different cell. -He can no longer tolerate being in the same cell with a 300 lb. skinhead who spends the entire day yelling obscenities and racial slurs. -He is diabetic and should not be in a top bunk because of the danger of falling, but his cellmate couldn't care less. -Every time he snores the guy below him reaches up and punches his mattress as hard as he can. He's

Harry: never forgotten

I ran across a neat story this week. It happens often when you're working with prisoners. Back in the 1990s when I first got started trying to free a wrongly convicted prisoner, my day job was selling church organs, and my territory was not only the western half of lower Michigan, but the eastern tip of Michigan's beautiful Upper Peninsula. In those days I made friends with the congregation of a delightful little church nestled in the Upper Peninsula woods at the northern tip of Lake Huron. If you're driving too fast on M-134 and if you're not watching for the tiny sign or the little building, you'll miss the DeTour Christian Church. I love this church and its members. In making small conversation, I told two of the church leaders, Gladys and Frank Malette, about inmate Harry Bout. Harry is a citizen of the Netherlands and claims wrongful conviction. He also claims that his incarceration is a treaty violation between the US and the Netherlands. That was more t

Heartbreak Hotel, Part Two

Prisoner advocates routinely hear stories of heartbreak. I guess that's why it is such a thrill when we hear a good story. My friend Big Ben shared such a story with me over the weekend. He politely asked about my health and my condition first in his weekly telephone call. But then he allowed that he had some good news to pass along. I was all ears. As a matter of background he explained that he was a renegade with little regard for the law as a kid, and it soon got him into trouble. At age 22 he was sent to prison for life, and his pending plans for marriage had to be abandoned. He'll be 60 this summer, so that will give you an idea how long he has been in prison. He fell in love as a young man, but lost track of his woman after he went to prison. The early years of his life had been spent on the east coast, and he is in prison here in Michigan. Last week, he learned from the friend of a friend that his girl friend of yesteryear was not only alive, but was single again.

Heartbreak Hotel

Prison is a haven for heartbreak. Heartbreak is rampant. Families are breaking up, marriages are breaking up, romance disintigrates. And there's so little that anyone can do. Probably the best way you and I can help our incarcerated friends struggling with heartbreak is to listen. Do no more than that. Just listen. You have no idea how much that gift is appreciated by the heartbroken. I can cite a couple examples of how God used HFP in heartbreak situations, and I quickly stress that God ALONE gets the glory. The first occurred years ago when my friends from an Innocence Project called me in to help a guy who was wrongly convicted but could get no support from his immediate family. And the reason was simple. He had completely burned all bridges. He had left his wife of many years for a tramp. He had abandoned his kids. He had gone to a life of drinking. I felt like a U.S. Secretary of State doing my shuttle diplomacy in absentia, using a telephone. I called one of his a

Berrien County justice

If you're read my book SWEET FREEDOM, you are aware of the fact that some of us know who really shot Tom Schadler. Maurice Carter was accused of shooting him in what may have started out as an armed robbery. Schadler was an off-duty police officer who was shot and injured while shopping with his wife in a downtown Benton Harbor store. Maurice Carter's only mistake was that he happened to be in Benton Harbor on the day of the shooting. He was a resident of Gary, Indiana, and so he didn't know Tom Schadler from any other guy on the street in Benton Harbor. That's why the Prosecutor could never show a motive. The real shooter, on the other hand, was a drunken bully from the inner city who knew all the cops. And it turns out that many people from Benton Harbor know who really shot Tom Schadler. But, they're going to keep right on covering up for one of their own. As it turns out, Maurice Carter served 29 years for this crime. If you haven't read the book, p

Where to perform

All the world's a stage, according to Shakespeare. Yet we can't find a venue for our play. Here's the deal. Two award-winning playwrights have written a delightful stage play based on the story of Maurice Carter and Doug Tjapkes. If you're not familiar with the story I invite you to read the book SWEET FREEDOM. It's not a best seller. You can probably go right to Amazon's used books department and find a copy for a few bucks. It's a love story, based on my nine-year attempt to free Maurice from prison. He served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. Alicia Payne and Donald Molnar of Toronto learned of the story and obtained some grants to do a thorough research of the tale. They were so captivated that they wrote a most beautiful play that involves a small cast of characters and a small gospel choir. Marcia and I were guests of the playwrights at a performance in a historic church in downtown Toronto last summer. If we or they could persuade the ri

It's your turn

One of the frustrating parts of this business of being an advocate for prisoners is the inability to help them all. HFP, for example, handles only cases in Michigan. We can't even handle that load, but there's no way we can consider expanding into all of the other states. But, each day we get letters from other states, and I just wonder where these people are going to turn. Who will even listen to them? Here's a guy from Ohio getting frightfully abused. "I was given another inmate's medication, and subsequently fell and busted my head 3 times. The medication wore off, but I didn't improve. I didn't get to see a doctor until I fell again 3 days later. I could not move and was taken to a hospital where I was denied treatment and released within an hour. As I regained the ability to move the pain did not let up. I was given Motrin which I did not receive until 5 days later. I continued to have pain, lose consciousness for no apparent reason and fallin

Something's gotta give

I'm going to quote parts of a letter that I just received, altering it just enough to protect the identity of the writer. Actually, I could have written it before we received it, because it's almost identical to letters we have received over the past 15 years. Honestly, I could get by changing only names and places and minor details. "I am requesting your assistance in getting my husband released from prison. He's a former police officer who loves and adores children and would help everyone who needed his assistance. "He is innocent of the charges of sexual assault that were brought by the mother and daughter we took to church for 10 years, after they asked us for a large amount of money and we refused because we did not have it to give to them. In the past, we had paid many expenses for them when they needed it. "After we turned them down, the daughter accused my husband of 'touching her boobies' almost every Sunday after church in the parking l