Showing posts from September, 2011

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 help

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, yo

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 has

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 seek

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, bu

Three preachers, three churches

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 ev

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 m

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've tal

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 worry.

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