All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, September 28, 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 them get out of the situations that lead to these offenses?
By legalizing marijuana, how much prison space would we free up and how many underworld criminal drug operations would we put out of business?

I'm not giving answers, I'm asking questions. Rather than continue to lock people up where there is no hope of rehabilitation, or education, or life-improvement, I have to believe there are better ways. The cost of incarceration, alone, should prompt an immediate study of alternatives.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

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, you guessed it---he had to produce his clergy card, and he couldn't find it. No visit.

The husband of a wife experiencing mental issues was refused permission to see his wife. The warden's office claimed there was a personal protection order issued against the husband because of past abuse. All paper work was produced proving that the PPO story was just a rumor, and there was no such thing. It changed nothing. No visit.

The wife of a prisoner who just learned that his cancer has returned has requested permission to be with him at the time of his surgery. Even though he will be in shackles while strapped to the gurney, her presence was deemed a threat. No visit.

The motto of the Michigan Department of Corrections is EXPECTING EXCELLENCE EVERY DAY.

One of our prison friends finishes the sentence: BUT NEVER FINDING IT.

Friday, September 23, 2011

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 on record, in the last 10-15 years the violent crime rate has gone down by more than 50% in our country, but the incarceration rate has not changed at all. In fact, it has gone up.

The President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, Lisa Wayne, issued a statement after the execution: "Politics killed Troy Davis just as surely as the lethal poison injected in his veins. Troy Davis went to the death chamber not for something he did, but for what he represents---a failed system driven more by emotion than facts. His death makes it clear to me that the only way to prevent the execution of an innocent person in Georgia, or anywhere, is to abolish the death penalty everywhere."

In closing, I would like to ask you to read the thoughts I wrote after viewing an execution of a wrongly convicted prisoner in Texas. I am troubled when I hear people say that they would be the first in line to pull the switch, or inject the poison. I offer these words in response.

(date of execution: March 20, 2007)

I saw someone die.

That’s not an unusual claim. Many have been at the bedside of loved ones who have died. Many have witnessed tragedies.

This is different, so let me revise my statement. I saw a friend in good health deliberately put to death by lethal injection.

The friend was Charles Anthony Nealy of Dallas, Texas, who would have been 43 years of age three days after the execution.

He was found guilty of murder by a Texas jury in 1998 in, what the Dallas Morning News, called the “fastest death penalty trial in the history of Texas.” Nealy swore he was in Oklahoma at the time of the armed robbery/shooting, but the state claimed that a grainy picture from a surveillance camera proved that he was the perpetrator. Never mind that the perp wore a gold chain (Nealy is allergic to gold and never wore jewelry) or that he was wearing a cap (Nealy’s hair was styled in corn rows, so he rejected headwear). Never mind that a prosecutor who had been suspended twice before for his pre-trial misbehavior threatened Nealy’s nephew with the death penalty if he refused to sign a statement identifying Anthony in the picture.

Our small organization makes no attempt to screen the innocent from the guilty. We leave that up to some 40 Innocence Projects, mostly anchored in university law schools around the country, which have incredibly accurate procedures. The fine Texas Innocence Network in Houston, led by Professor David Dow, provided the last-minute legal work for my friend Anthony. But it was too little, too late.

Our office was alerted to his plight in 2002 by a support group in England. While in Texas for an Innocence Conference in 2003, I made a side trip to visit this Charles Anthony Nealy on death row in Livingston. We became instant friends, and remained in contact over the years.

The jarring news that an execution date had been set arrived last September, and immediately following that came the request from Anthony that would change my life: “I am wondering if you would be willing to be my spiritual advisor?” The spiritual advisor of a condemned inmate visits him during his final two days, spends a 30-minute period alone with the prisoner in the “death house,” and then witnesses the execution.

Why me? Certainly there were other friends. “I know that you are a writer. Executions are so common they do not make the news in Texas. I want you to tell the story as you see it.”

I answered in the affirmative, as any friend would do, but a stay was granted before the November 16 execution date based on a claim of prosecutorial misconduct. From that point on, however, Nealy’s legal team struck out, and a new date for death was set: March 20, 2007.

I didn’t enjoy visiting the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, where death row is housed, in 2003. I enjoyed it even less in 2007: The dark cloud of death hovered overhead, and I could feel evil in the air.

Monday, March 19, and a most pleasant visit with Anthony at this hell-hole of a prison, where bloodhounds bray in a nearby barn, cowboy-looking guards circle the grounds in pickup trucks with shotguns, and women guards laugh and chatter as though the shadow of death was non-existent. We prayed together, and I relinquished the rest of the visiting hours for the day to family members, because only two people may visit an inmate at one time. All visits are non-contact, right to the very end…glass in-between, conversation by inefficient telephones.

Monday evening Marcia and I made the 60-mile drive from Houston back to Livingston so that I could make a brief appearance on KDOL, a low-power FM radio station that precisely aims all programming at the nearly 400 inmates on death row. On the evening prior to an execution, a two-hour SHOUT OUT program is scheduled from 7 to 9 specifically for the next unfortunate victim of the Texas death penalty. It was Anthony’s show, and dozens of email message were read to him from all around the world, inspirational music was dedicated to him, and I delivered a personal message to him and his comrades.

Lawyers were frantically working at the federal court level, but still no stay.

Tuesday morning, and an even shorter visit at Polunsky. Visiting hours ended at noon to allow time for the prisoner to be transported to the Walls Unit in Huntsville, some 45 miles away, where all the executions take place. Anthony was still in his upbeat mood, laughing and talking. It was time for me to depart, giving Anthony and his family members some final quality moments together. His sister Debra and I placed our hands on the glass, Anthony matched ours with his hand, and I offered a brief prayer. Tears were streaming down my cheeks as I walked to my car. Where was the stay? Why wasn’t this nightmare ending?

The last prison trip was to Huntsville, home of the infamous Walls Unit. On Tuesday afternoon I dropped off Marcia at the Hospitality House, a religious mission facility for families and friends of those to be executed. I was ushered to the death house for my final 30-minute private discussion with Anthony. Again, he talked and laughed, expressed optimism that he would receive a stay, but thoughtfully informed me that he had stayed up late to write three fund-raising letters for INNOCENT! If the execution took place as scheduled, Debra would receive his property and turn over the envelopes to me. The half hour expired in a heart-beat, and it was time for my final prayer, offered this time in the name of him who was wrongly convicted, handed the death sentence, and executed so that Anthony could have life eternal. Guards saw me to the door.

There’s no way to describe the atmosphere, the feeling in the air, the apparent indifference you encounter in this seemingly heartless environment. State Prison chaplains relate stories and jokes while family members suffer the dread of what is to come. Bored prison guards routinely search, frisk and use a magnetic wand on those planning to view the execution. A burly guard armed with a shotgun watches from a nearby roof. The inane chatter of a female reporter continues as she flirts with a guard. There is silence among the rest of us, appalled by the business-as-usual attitude.

When led into the viewing room during this Lenten season, my friend Anthony can be seen with arms stretched out not unlike the crucifixion. He’s on his back on a gurney, with tubes feeding into his arms. He can see us, and thanks to a microphone dangling over his mouth, we can hear him. He welcomes each of us by name. There are only four of us: Debra and her husband James, another friend, and the spiritual advisor. Others in the room represent the media and the prison system.

A state chaplain holds Anthony’s foot as a sign of human contact, we were told. An unemotional warden stands at the head of the gurney, looking straight ahead…refusing to lower his eyes to the prisoner. “Do you have a final statement, Mr. Nealy?”

He did, four minutes in length, thanking everyone, taking a lick at the prosecutor one more time, but expressing everything with an elegance and dignity that demonstrated to the state in no uncertain terms that he was not going down in defeat. “I’m sorry that you all had to go through this. Put it behind you now. I’m going to a better place.”

7 PM, and as he specifically directed his remarks to me, he said, “I love you.”

At the conclusion of the statement the warden gave the sign, and the first of three chemicals entered his body. “That tastes nasty!” The final words of Anthony Charles Nealy.

Chemical one puts the prisoner to sleep. Chemical two stops his breathing. Chemical three stops his heart. There was no thrashing, no gurgling…he could be taking a nap.

The silence in our room was deafening. Debra was quietly weeping in the arms of her husband. Why didn’t I say something? Where were the perfect words from scripture: “Death, where is your victory; death, where is your sting?” I was mute.

At 7:19, the warden gave a signal. A man dressed as a physician with white coat and stethoscope around his neck quickly checked for vital signs.

“7:20,” said the doctor.

“7:20,” said the warden.

A loud snap indicated that our room had been unlocked. We were led through the outer door. We were free to leave. As we walked into the fresh air an ungodly steam whistle shrieked a double blast. Every resident of Huntsville knew the signal: The execution was complete; the lockdown in the prison was over.

Life went on. For some.

I saw someone die.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

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 seeking forgiveness, yet this cloud of despair lingers. Those I love suffer. I cannot imagine what the victims have gone through, or may still suffer.

Now all I can do is keep working at and trying to be a much better person, contribute and make atonement to society for the wrongs I caused. Since accepting God in my life, these changes have taken place of their own accord.

Thank you for reaching out to assist me. Also for allowing me to share with you who I was, what I was, and who I now have become. I trust the Lord to do wonderful things in my life.

How I wish we could put Evan in a room with troubled teenagers today, and tell them to just listen to what this man says. How I would we could print his words and put them in the hands of every troubled youngster who is standing at a fork in the road, and considering the wrong route.

It's good for Evan to know that God is the only one who holds an eraser in his hand.

But as he points out, how much happier he would be if he had never written that chapter.

A lesson for all of us.

Friday, September 16, 2011

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, but 7 life sentences. Does that seem like a bit much?

And lest we start pointing fingers at Texas, I can tell you that stories about judges in other states also funnel into the HFP office, including confirmed reports of a judge who used to keep dirty magazines on his lap WHILE WORKING ON THE BENCH. And this was in Michigan. I won't say where, except to give you this hint: It was in a county where you just might expect that sort of thing.

Robert Green Ingersoll said, " being made judges,...their intelligence is not increased."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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 eventually he'll take over my position as CEO. We'll be giving that serious thought. I am, after all, getting into the golden years.

When HFP first learned about Mark's situation, we instantly befriended him. For one thing, with my background in the Maurice Carter case, we're well aware of what can happen in Berrien County. But there was another matter, here. Mark is from New York State, and that's where his friends and family are. This means no visitation. No communication.

As things turned out, two other guys representing HFP started visiting him, and both are preachers: Al and Nate. Actually, I'm ordained also, so that made three members of the clergy all visting Mark. One might think God was ganging up on him. But he didn't take it that way, and we didn't approach it that way. It was just a simple situation of very good friends enjoying the company of each other.

Over the weekend Mark called me from prison to suggest that I stop there and pick up a gift from him at the front desk. Three gifts, actually. One for Al, one for Nate, one for me.

You should see the gifts! Beautiful, dainty, hand-made little country churches with steeple on top, sign board in front, little trees and shrubs. Each church much the same as the other two, but each individually made with its own unique characteristics. I know not how he could have found the time and especially the materials to put these together. Didn't know he had gifts like this.

Well, there are no words to describe the gifts. But there are no words to describe the friendship, either. As my friend would say, it's a "God thing."

Dunno where all this business is gonna go with Mark, but gotta admit that it's fun.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

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 music, percussion is the spine, the back-bone, and that is provided by our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll, a true metronome. And finally, as every cake must have frosting, we have Dave Mulder, who pours his emotions into the lush notes of the cornet and flugelhorn. Is it any wonder that I enjoy playing the piano with this gang? I just go about filling in the cracks in the only way that I know how.

Well, that was the instrumental track. Now comes the vocal track. John serves as lead soloist, but often he will be joined by tenor Cal Olson and baritone Lee Intersoll with some of the sweetest three-part harmony you'll hear. More magic moments.

Cal's capable wife Vicki served as our recording engineer for phase one.

We're hoping all of this will be ready in time for Christmas. All of the musicians are donating time and energy and yes, even dollars, to make this happen as a fund-raising project for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

The magic isn't over.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

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 talked about this before. Gifts from prisoners are so meaningful. These guys may be making $10-12 a month, and yet they scrape up dollars to give to HFP.

"The guys are going to be putting on a music show. It's kind of a talent show, with playing and singing. Maybe some of us will be reading poetry, too. Anyway, your name is going to be on the invitation list. We want you to be a special guest. We know that your wife is in a wheelchair, so we're going to try to make provisions so that she can be here, also."

Two neat pieces of information that make my day.

In closing, I make sure to tell him how much I appreciate his phone calls, and how much this short quarter-hour conversation means to me.

"Well you know, man, we gotta be there for each other in difficult times. That's why the Lord put us together."

Yes, it is, Big Ben.

Yes, it is.

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. How I dread the thought of having that infection return.

But, the flip side is that I give thanks to God for every great day like this...for every day that I feel so good. I'm not fully recovered from that ordeal and maybe that'll never happen. But I am indeed grateful for the gift of health every day. It's a shame that it took a scary experience to make me that way.

I encourage you to be thankful for every good day. It can all change in a heartbeat.

We'll celebrate together.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

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 the idea of getting prisoners to trip up. In a state where prison population is too high, and where budget is such a huge problem, you'd think that the state would do everything in its power to, one, adequately prepare prisoners who eventually will be released to make the re-entry successful; two, take all steps possible to make the re-entry smooth and barrier free; and three, prepare society in advance so that we know how to best help those freed prisoners in their difficult adjustment to a new life.

Continued steps to modify and improve Michigan's Scarlet Letter would be huge.

God bless those who are trying. There are too few of them, and their efforts are shamefully inadequate.

Friday, September 2, 2011

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 believe in your heart that it's the right thing to do, do it!"

James spoke for an hour and 21 minutes, and he said, "Those cats listened!"

Said the prison psychologist, "Well said, James."

We say the same.

Well said, James.