Showing posts from 2012

They're just prisoners

Some end of the year thoughts. It was a week ago that I wrote about the women being so cold in a couple units of Huron Valley. It doesn't have to be that way. The fans on the cold air return can be turned down. We complained, all the way to the top. Just got word as to how the state responded. Our source tells us that a sergeant ordered that everyone in the cold area be issued a blanket. It wasn't a heavy blanket, but at least it helped the girls stay warm. Two days later, they collected all the blankets again. So much for staying warm in the bleak mid-winter. After all, they're just prisoners. And on another subject, for several years we've been wondering how a seemingly inept judge who persists in abusing his power remains on the bench in Berrien County. Judge Wiley mistreated a client of ours to such an extent that it was an outrage. The man was a professional, with no prior arrests, who was involved in an unpleasant incident that police and a prosecu

Cold Christmas

Marcia and I were returning from a delightful week in Hawaii with our son and his family. We were just getting used to temperatures in the mid to high 70s when we were forced to wait for a commuter airplane in any icy wing of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Even when wrapped in a blanket Marcia couldn't get warm. When we eventually arrived at our warm home, it still took hours before she felt comfortable again. Then I opened my messages from prisoners, and stared at this one from the women in one of the units at Michigan's facility in Ypsilanti: Lack of heat in our unit, Calhoun B. They have the return air set on 15, that pulls the outside air inside. Heat is barely on. Honestly can't even feel any heat in our rooms. All we feel is the cold air from the outside blowing on our beds all day/all night long. The head guy says they cannot turn the return air off because of germs. OK, so can we at least have enough heat so we can sleep at night, not having to curl

This. too, is why we're here

If you read the previous post, you'll certainly want to follow-up with this one. It was the sister of Mr. D. who gave all of that information to HFP, and today we're pleased to advise her that some progress has been made. We've learned over the years that every problem cannot be solved at the top. In fact, sometimes one must start very near the bottom. So in this case, we simply contacted one of our good friends behind bars, an inmate at the same facility. We knew that we could count on Mr. R. He's a former executive, with take-charge skills. We passed along the information that we had received from the sister of the suffering inmate. It's the Christmas season, and Mr. R. responded to our appeal for help saying he was "Santa's helper." His word to us: "Two very capable older prisoners have taken him under their wings. I believe you and his sister can rest for a while." May Mr. D. have a peaceful Christmas. May the Princ

It's why we're here

Seems like we hear stories like this every holiday season. 62 year old inmate Mr. D. is in poor health. He uses walking assistance and is going deaf. He had gotten robbed several times after receiving a store purchase of $85. But fortunately he found a room-mate who watched out for him, and that stopped the robberies for a few months. This nice roomie would also alert him for call-outs---meal time, counts, etc., as he can't hear. Some think perhaps dementia is even setting in. Well, the nice guy got transferred, and Mr. D. now has a new room-mate. He was just robbed again. But this time the thieves stole all his property, including a footlocker that contained not only his personal belongings but his legal papers to try to fight his case. They stole his radio and head-set. They tried to steal his TV set but it was zip-locked in place. As far as we know, the prison did not conduct any searches, because it would have been relatively easy to find a footlocker, one would

Open letter to the boss

To Mr. Daniel Heyns, Director MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS Dear Mr. Heyns: You make one generalization in your letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press, published in the November 11, 2012 edition, that must be challenged. In praising your team of employees, you say this about their work with prisoners: “Every day, they deal with the worst of the worst of Michigan's citizens.” It's a generalization that must be challenged. The worst of the worst? I started going through the HFP files to list exceptions to that rule. I intended to list names of prisoners, and a list of reasons why I so admire these men and women...all of them friends. I found too much material. Many of these inmates have gone 10, 20, 30 and 40 years without one misconduct. They are active in positive programs like the National Lifers Association. They are mentoring and teaching. They are knitting clothing for the underprivileged. They go out of their way to help senior citizens and the mentally

When will it stop?

I had sort of lost touch with Pete. He's in a prison in California, his writing is so small I can hardly read it, and now that HFP takes cases only in Michigan there was little reason to be communicating. But this week I heard from him. Still tiny print. Still hard to read. But this time it was not only difficult, it was painful. Pete's prison has been in lockdown a lot lately...he didn't say why. But that means that inmates can't get out. In his case, it was worse. He said that he was brought breakfast and lunch in paper bags, which were shoved through the opening in the door. Dinner was also served through the same slot. The door, locked from the outside, was never opened so he could get out, so there was no human contact for a month. There was no window in the tiny room, which he described as the size of a closet. He had no radio or TV to help pass the time, and he said his newspaper subscription had expired several months ago. Said Pete: "I

One small step

You've heard me talk about the roller coaster. Lately, it seems, most of the rides were downhill. But, it's a new week, and we're heading up again! In my recent blog, I sounded pretty much like scrooge when discussing the holiday season behind bars. After the last blog entry, I decided that it was time to actually communicate with the Michigan Department of Corrections regarding this business of no visits on Christmas Day. We already had the MDOC decision that eliminated Tuesday visits for budgetary reasons. But we had also heard that one warden was hoping to make an exception for holiday visits. And so we contacted the head of communications for the department, Russ Marlan, whose relationship with the President of HFP goes back to the days of Maurice Carter. We've communicated a lot over the years. I sent the email question to Russ over the holiday weekend. After all, if Christmas visits were going to be denied, we wanted to hear it straight from the admini

Happy holidays?

This Thanksgiving week was a good time to start working on the December newsletter which gets mailed to many HFP friends and supporters. I have been communicating with prisoners, hoping to find some touching holiday stories from behind bars to brighten the mood of the newsletter. But you cannot imagine how difficult this has been. The negative keeps outweighing the positive. Some guys at Kinross are scared this holiday season. Violence is common-place in that facility, and prisoners sometimes join gangs simply for protection as staff members look the other way. A friend at Chippewa just got out of the hole, to find that---while he was in segregation---somebody ransacked his cell. Belongings are missing, including his beloved MP3 player. Legal documents are in disarray or missing. A lamp was broken. Merry Christmas. A prisoner at the Thumb told me that it's really sad to see the mentally ill patients in one unit of that facility. He said they're zombies: heavily

On death and dying

It was a difficult week, but that comes with the territory. As mentioned in my last post, the State of Ohio took the life of my friend Brett Hartmann this week. He first contacted me in 2005 asking for assistance, claiming wrongful conviction. That's when our organization was called INNOCENT and we were taking cases from all states. More than once I made plans to visit him, and we took steps to try to help. Then I became very ill, and our correspondence faded. What a sickening feeling: to receive word that the government has purposely snuffed the life from the body of a friend. Things didn't get any better. My friend James called to inform me that Tommy Holt's wife had died. Tommy is a lifer in the Thumb Correctional Facility of Michigan, and his situation was different than that of many prisoners. His marriage held together despite incarceration. He had been married 48 years; an incredible accomplishment even for someone not in prison. Because he's a l

The Tuesday ride

When discussing my emotions of any given day in this business, I often refer to a roller-coaster. Today was a typical HFP day. It began with my anxiety over saying the right things to college kids. I had agreed to speak to and interact with members of a Criminal Justice Class at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. I always jump at chances like this. I love being with the future generation, and I enjoy telling our story. Yet there is always that uncertainty before the actual experience...what if they don't listen? What if they don't care? That was not the case, and the roller-coaster reached a peak when a young woman quietly approached me after class to talk. "I'm going to start crying," she said. "I had just asked God to show me some place where I might be able to make a difference. Then I came here today and heard what you had to say. I don't know if you have volunteers. Is there anything I can do?" Tears streamed down he

The last chapter

I was spiritually preparing myself for a prison gig, where Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I would be guest speakers. It was early Sunday morning, and I clicked on the TV set for the 30-minute broadcast from the Crystal Cathedral. I was pleasantly surprised to note that the visiting pastor for the day was Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller of my favorite preachers. He didn't disappoint. Dr. Mouw, after laying the groundwork for his sermon, changed course for a moment to make an interesting confession. He said that as an alternative to the stress of his position, he likes to take a break and read a thriller novel. But he didn't stop the confession at that point. He went on to say that by the time he gets to page 245 of the 400-page book, anxiety builds as the hero is surrounded by enemies and the heroine has been separated from her lover. "So what I do," said Dr. Mouw, "is go to the last chapter." He hastened to add that he doesn'

A heart-breaker

Yvonne is in her 70s. She was so looking forward to the release of her daughter from prison. Debra had served nearly 14 years, but she was being freed a few weeks ago. "I didn't even recognize her," said her mother. "She was all bent over, she couldn't connect her words, and she was stuttering." "I don't know what's wrong, Mamma," said the released prisoner. "My head hurts." The next day, Debra collapsed at home and her mother had to call an ambulance. She was taken to Henry Ford Hospital, and that's when the truth was discovered. Debra has brain cancer. Not just any old brain cancer: Glioblastoma. The kind you don't want. The aggressive, fast growing kind. Its victims do not survive. Surgery was performed on one of her five tumors, to relieve pressure on that part of the brain that deals with motor skills. She's in a nursing home now as therapists try to help her walk again. As for the prognosis, lo

Prison Visitation Part 5, the women's facility

The State of Michigan said it was a budget issue. Two prisoner visitation days a week were eliminated. MDOC spokesman John Cordell said it would save his department millions of dollars. But he conceded that it might result in an inconvenience to some people. Oh, really? Check with the women at Huron Valley. The problem gets more serious because all female Michigan prisoners are in one facility, some 1,800 of them. Weekday visitation is a thing of the past, so all husbands, brothers, parents, siblings and qualified children must visit these women on the weekend. Prisoner A told me, "there are many, many problems, with visitors waiting 2 hours to get in, and prisoners waiting in the visiting room that long, only to be told that their visitor has left." She went on: "My husband has driven 4 and 1/2 hours, but his visit was terminated because of lack of space." "Besides that," said Prisoner B, "instead of having their once-a-month emergency c

Prison Visitation Part 4, Meaningless Rules

I'm the first to admit that this example of prison visitor mistreatment isn't the worst of the bunch. It just shows the lack of consideration for friends of visitors, and the silliness of unnecessary and unbending rules. Mr. D, a senior citizen, had promised his dear friend Mollie that the day she walked out of prison, he would be the first to hold the door open for her. Even though the winter weather was threatening, he made the 150 mile drive. It was a harrowing experience. Because the drive had to be made early in the morning, it was dark, it was snowing, at times visibility was bad and at times the highway was slippery. But his prayers were answered, and he arrived in Ypsilanti safely and in plenty of time. In fact, because he allowed so much extra time, he was more than an hour early. He didn't mind that at all, because the waiting room in the prison was inviting, well-lighted, warm, and was served by vending machines. At least he could sit and let his jangle

Prison Visitation Part 3, Apparel Issues

The Michigan Department of Corrections must regulate apparel for good reason. One of the more controversial parts of the rules involves outer wear. Coats are not permitted, but blazers and sweaters are. With that background, here is the story as told by my friend Anna, a prison mom. Her companion,also a prison mom, had a very unpleasant experience. She and her husband had driven a couple hours to visit their son in prison, and here's how it went: She had on a nice jacket from Christopher Banks...not a "coat jacket" but a dress-up blazer that you wear with nice clothes. The woman working the visiting room told her she could not get in, because the blazer had metal buttons. Ms. B promptly returned to her seat, pulled all the metal buttons off her new blazer, and re-entered the visiting area. The officer allowed her husband in, but insisted it was still a "coat," and again blocked her entry. She was told that there was a department store 10 minutes away.

Prison Visitation Part Two---Picture ID Horrors

These are two real-life stories involving the elderly: two octogenarians hoping to visit their sons in prison. Mr. A was hoping to visit his son, a wrongly-convicted professional person behind bars. He was experiencing early symptoms of dementia, but his eldest son and namesake took him to the prison. Alfred, Jr, took charge of everything and presented the two drivers licenses to the guard at the control center---the licence for Alfred, Sr., and the license for Alfred, Jr. That's when the guard raised her voice, claiming the two picture IDS were phonies because they carried the same name, Alfred and Alfred. And besides that, to no one's surprise, the pictures looked very much the same. She refused to allow the elderly gentleman, who had been there many times before, to continue with the visit, and she refused to get advice from a superior. The situation was saved, however, when a veteran guard came along, recognized young Alfred, and sorted through the details. But t

On visiting Michigan prisons

You're going to be hearing a lot about this. The reason is I have a belly full of complaints, and I'm darn mad. The MDOC's prisoner visiting policies are ambiguous at best, capricious at worst, and completely and totally inconsistent from one facility to another. It's a joke, and not a funny one. The situation is so serious that it deserves legal attention, and I hope we can attract some. I'm thinking of the possibility of class action, and I'll bet we'd get hundreds of interested families. I'll deal with more of these situations in follow-up entries. But right now HFP is working on two cases...a permanent visitor restriction and a temporary one. I'm incensed over both of them. I don't dare give the names for fear of retaliation. The families are frightened. Some of the prisoners are enraged. The permanent restriction doesn't come until after what is called an administrative hearing. After obtaining documents from the hearing a

Livin' Humble

My favorite male chorus, HIS MEN, used to sing an old spiritual called LIVIN' HUMBLE. That title came to mind over the weekend, when we celebrated 40 years of ministry by this wonderful regional ensemble. At the conclusion of the weekend, we presented a 40th anniversary concert in a large Grand Haven church, to a warm and responsive audience that overflowed the sanctuary, despite the threat of bad weather. It was an incredible experience. But now back to the subject of humility. In case you are not aware of it, I was the founding director of HIS MEN, back in 1972. We had no long-range goals for this little rag-tag group of singers. A few of us just picked out the finest voices we knew in the area for each of the four parts, invited them to come sing some songs, and a group was formed. We knew that we loved to sing, and we knew that we were devout in our Christian faith. Our goals were simple: to sing familiar songs and do it well, to help worthy causes in their fund-ra

Lois for president?

I'm reading and listening with interest as political candidates prepare for public debates. From what we see and hear, it takes a lot of coaching and prepping. I've been thinking about that since last Sunday. My friend Lois DeMott, mother of a mentally challenged teenager in the Michigan prison system, had been booked to speak to an adult education class in our church. In preparation for that, we wondered about her presentation, and we even discussed a computer-based program with charts and a screen. But as things got more complicated, we decided to scrap the plan and go with something simple. We would just have Lois tell her story...the story of a single mom, going through the hell of worrying 24/7 about a mentally ill son behind bars. And it could not have gone better. The only prop she needed was a box of Kleenex for occasionally wiping her eyes. The presentation was riveting, as I knew it would be. Most of the people in an audience like this are parents. Just


I'd like to tell you about my friend John. John's a neat guy. He's in prison but he has a conscience. He heard a fellow prisoner confessing to a murder, and decided that the authorities should know about this. He asked for nothing in return. He did it because it was the right thing to do. But the State of Michigan chose to make this an even better situation. When a prosecutor learned that John's testimony could convict a suspected killer, an offer was made. If John would testify, and if the testimony proved to be effective, the State would do its best go get John re-sentenced. He's a lifer with no hope of release. John's attorney was ecstatic. He encouraged him to cooperate. “This is a done deal,” he assured my friend. Keep in mind that this was the State's idea. Not John's. Well, John testified, and his words were effective. The state got a conviction on first degree murder. That's the good news. The bad news is that John is

Blessed are the dreamers

Two men unknowingly gave hope to prisoners over the weekend. I saw it in person. I have never met Mark Carpenter and Bob Johnson, but they had a dream and they refused to be defeated by the naysayers. Their idea was to create an entry in the ARTWALK competition in Grand Rapids, called LIGHTS IN THE NIGHT GR. They wanted to release thousands of real Chinese lanterns, lifted aloft by the heat from actual flames, over the river in downtown Grand Rapids. The fire chief didn't like the idea, the Mayor wasn't pleased, others said this wasn't genuine art, some said it had been done elsewhere so it wasn't even original, and then on the night of the scheduled release came rain. Undaunted, the pair rescheduled the release for last Friday night and this time conditions were perfect. The moon was shining and winds were calm when thousands upon thousands of Chinese lanterns were released. It was an amazing site. Marcia and I watched from the lounge of the Marriott Hotel

Bad news, good news

As the assigned organist for our Sunday morning worship service, I was sitting right under Pastor Nate's nose when he informed the congregation, "I have bad news and good news for you today. The bad news is that you're not in control. The good news is that you're not in control." Boy, did the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS ever have to hear that message this week. On day one of the business week, I was startled by a telephone call from a prominent attorney who has agreed to help us with James, who had been promised a deal by the state for critical testimony in a murder trial. The state is now hesitating, and our case is not being helped by a judge who is refusing to discuss the matter. The frustrated attorney finally headed out of town in his car, hoping to catch the judge unawares. Whoa! On day two, I received a disturbing message from the sister of a prisoner. Harry has been informed that there's a contract on his life. He's afraid of be

Going to the dogs

My friend Dodie doesn't belong in prison. She should have been out long ago. She hasn't been treated fairly, and there's no guarantee that things will ever change. But rather than sit and whine about it, she is involved in the most amazing program. it's called MI-PAWS (Michigan Inmates Providing Assistance Work & Service). It involves dogs. It's a program operated jointly by the Humane Society of Huron Valley and the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Dodie is one of the inmates hand-selected to participate in the program. She is expecting a new dog any day will be her 12th! Each dog lives around the clock with inmate handlers for eight weeks. The women work with the animals on different aspects of training which will make them highly adoptable at the end of their stay. It's important to point out that these weren't choice dogs to begin with. Some have been abandoned by their owners, or just surr

HIS MEN---still singing

A fine Christian ensemble is quietly observing a milestone of exemplary kingdom work. Exactly 40 years ago, a few friends and I focused on the hope of forming a small male chorus. We invited 13 singers and a pianist. In that the other guys were better singers, we agreed that I should be the director. Our base was in Holland, but our members also came from the Muskegon, Grand Haven and Grand Rapids areas. Some would think there should be a constitution with the formation of a group, but nothing was that formal. There were no bylaws or organization goals. A few simple goals included love of music, love of God, and a desire to use our music to help others. As director, my personal goal was to present simple, familiar gospel music in good taste. There was the issue of choosing a name...but the suggestion from a singer's mom quickly won approval: HIS MEN. The members bore proud ownership of that name, as they immediately began raising funds for worthy organizations. In

Politics no, justice yes

HFP stays out of politics. Our support comes from a broad spectrum of wonderful people from just about every political persuasion, and we respect all of their opinions. With that disclaimer comes this information, about a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court. I must confess that I usually know very little about the Supreme Court candidates whose names appear on the Michigan ballot. But some months ago a good friend, Professor Keith Findley---co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project---called our attention to the fact that a colleague was running for Supreme Court here in Michigan. Bridget McCormack is a professor at the University of Michigan. But here's the information that caught our attention: She is the founder and co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the U of M Law School. This is the only Innocence Project in the State of Michigan that handles non-DNA cases, and this was the first exclusively non-DNA innocence clinic in the country. This clini

I have a secret

I get my Bible lessons in the most unusual places. As a church musician, I am often busy practicing at the time of adult Sunday School or Bible study sessions on Sunday morning. But I do not go without Bible study. My good friend and retired pastor Al Hoksbergen and I set aside an hour a week for a little libation and discussion, and this invariably turns into a meaningful lesson for me. This week, I got a bonus. Al and I were asked to do a funeral service. A 90-year-old charter member of our church had died. I know of no one who does a memorial service better than Al. He doesn't have a "canned sermon" on file for funerals. He not only meets with the families, but then relies on his many years of ministry, preaching, teaching and counseling, to find a perfect match of scripture and the current situation. The title of the message was "I Have a Secret," and the scripture passage was from Philippians. The Apostle Paul, writing from a prison where he

When two or three are gathered

That simple little promise in scripture has deep meaning for me. In my 75 years on this earth, I have had some rich experiences in small groups of worship. I participated in a worship service for Viet Cong prisoners in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Two singers and I took communion in a storefront church in a San Juan ghetto where the only music was the pastor, singing unaccompanied and on perfect pitch, The Lord's Prayer. As the director of HIS MEN, I took the concert to an audience of one person in the hollers of Appalachia, when an 80 year old woman wasn't well enough to get to our program. The same male chorus went down into the bowels of the giant San Juan Penitentiary to sing for prisoners living in conditions not acceptable for most of mankind. I learned early in my life that a large audience was not a necessary ingredient for something spiritually meaningful. All of these experiences, and many more, came to my mind this week when I read a letter

Welcome home, Bobby

For today's blog entry, I'm going to write an obituary. As a news writer, I've penned my share of obits over the years, but never for these reasons. I'm writing this obit because I'm sure no one else will do it. I'm writing it because Bobby deserves it. And I'm writing it because this glimpse of prison life must also be seen on the other side of the bars. Robert McKinney: 04/07/1952 - 08/26/2012. Mr. McKinney died less than five hours ago at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan. Liver disease claimed his life at the age of 60. His health had been failing, and the prison doctor suggested a transfer to the Duane Waters Health Center for McKinney, where he might receive better pain control medication. McKinney refused, saying that he would prefer to remain among his friends and endure the pain. And endure the pain he did: the methadone he was given wasn't adequate. He was in such pain, according to his friends, he was unable to

Being alone makes it worse

When as a little boy, I stumbled and skinned my knee, my loving mother was there to wipe my tears and tend to my pain. Even when I was in high school, and had to stay home from school with the flu, Mom was there with chicken soup. Many years later, when a stubborn staph infection tried to introduce me to the grim reaper, Marcia---my partner for life---was there to fight off the demons and ride out the storm with me. I cite these examples to show the stark contrast with my friends in prison. Mark has been struggling for years to get appropriate surgery after a prison injury, and an even simpler matter: he wants something for the pain. We're doing our best to try to help, but we're on the outside; he's on the inside. He's alone. He said to me today: "I am in so much daily pain and finding it hard to even walk around or sit still without complaining about pain." I'm sorry. He has no mother, no wife, not even a friend to help him through this

On losing a loved one

I played the piano and the organ in a memorial service for a dear aunt last week. Aunt Clara was almost 95 years old, and the last of all of the brothers and sisters in my father's family. It sounds rather bizarre, but I really love a service like this. No one was really sad that she died. She was in misery, and had lived a full and complete life. It was time to move on. I'm family, and it felt important to me to be a part of that service. Today I received a short message from a prisoner: "I would like to ask you for prayers for me and my sister. Our father passed away last Thursday, and it has really taken a toll on our lives." George couldn't be at the memorial service for his father. His sister had to go alone. It's one of the little things we don't think about when we think about incarceration. My friend Kenny Wyniemko gets very emotional about this very subject. Kenny served nearly 9 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

A soft answer

It's Sunday, and I played hooky today. I didn't make it to the service this morning. But the most unusual thing happened. I watched commercial television, and actually had some time with God. Let me explain. One of the things I regret about having to be in church every Sunday morning is that I must miss one of my favorite broadcast personalities---Charles Osgood. I think one of the reasons he is such a hero of mine in the industry is that he's actually a radio man. Granted, he's in TV now, but he's a radio man. And that's what I am. I haven't been in the business for 30 years now, but I'm radio man. Started at age 12, and will be until I die. And I forgot how much I like Charles Osgood, and why, until I turned on the set this morning while staying home from church. There was no shouting, no rancor, no bitterness. The terrible political battles were missing. Instead, there were beautiful stories, and a very emotional story really touched

Joy: it can't be stolen

Our daughter Sue tells of a delightful African American co-worker whose spirits never seem to dip. One day Sue had to ask her, "Tell me, how is it that you're always so happy, so positive, so upbeat?" She looked at Sue, and said with conviction: "Ain't nobody gonna steal my joy." Isn't that wonderful? I thought of that yesterday when I opened a two-page letter from a dear friend in the Women's Correctional Facility at Ypsilanti. These women are not treated nicely. Granted, they are prisoners, but the incarceration is their punishment. They don't need or deserve such rude treatment. HFP has been working with this prisoner in recent years to develop a wonderful knitting program for prisoners. These women knit items for shelters, hospitals, churches...they're doing good stuff for others. We have coordinated efforts to get yarn to these knitters, sometimes as many as 100 women. Our friend reported that the staff members do th

On prisoners' generosity

The wife of a prisoner gave me a challenging statement the other day. She said: "I hear a lot about what HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has done. But if I'm going to donate any money to your organization, I don't want to hear that. I want to hear WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO DO!" And that started my thought processes. Maybe we're going about this fund-raising business in the wrong way. Perhaps we should offer new programs, new ideas, thoughts about what HFP will try to accomplish in the future. I won't argue that plans for the future are not only exciting, but they also are important. There's a flip side, however. It's also important for us to continue doing what we have been doing. And here's why. As I write this, Marcia and I are in northern Michigan for a rare experience. We're vacationing for a few days with all of our children and all of our grand-children. This doesn't happen often, because two of our grand-kids live in Hawaii

Haleigh's mite

Dr. Luke tells in his gospel of a poor widow who stepped up to the temple treasury and dropped in two tiny copper pennies. A little girl named Haleigh jogged my memory of that story this week. Our little ragtag band of musicians was performing in a downtown Grand Haven church coffeehouse, hoping to raise dollars for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. In fact, we were hoping to raise lots of dollars. HFP is usually struggling to stay afloat, and today is no exception. A wonderful couple who support us donated ten jars of their home-prepared Michigan maple syrup, which we used to attract contributions of $100 or more. Some gave even more than that, and one generous soul donated $1,000.00! But now to the story of Haleigh, age 8. Haleigh came with her piggy bank. She wanted to give her pennies to HFP, and said she hoped the money could help to send Bibles to prisoners. Her grandfather emptied the piggy bank with her, and they turned over $3.00 in coppers to HFP. He introduced her to

Guest Blog: Thoughts on July 24

From Matt Tjapkes, Doug's son: I always liked July 24. Of course, it’s my birthday, so that’s pretty normal. But 2004 was a bit different. Probably for the first time in my life, my birthday wasn’t the big deal on that day. Celebration was on the agenda, but for a far better cause. It was finally the day that Maurice Carter would be free once again. A large group of supporters headed to Jackson the night before, because Maurice would be released early in the morning. There was a lot of excitement in what was about to happen. Everyone was ready to celebrate, but after watching my dad work for 10 years to make this day happen, I don’t think anyone was truly ready until the moment we saw Maurice outside the cell. Could you imagine what it was like on his end? Nearly 30 years of incarceration, knowing the whole time he did not deserve it. Struggling with illness, his day had finally come. And what a ride on the way out - A luxury motorhome! The last time he had really seen an a

Sweet freedom

To a small band of supporters, July 24 is considered something special, not unlike a holiday. This is the day that Maurice Carter walked out of prison in the year 2004. As I reflected on that momentous occasion this morning, I concluded that this indigent African American from Gary, Indiana, wrongly convicted here in the State of Michigan, probably influenced my life more than any single individual. I now feel certain that I wasn't placed on earth just to be a broadcast journalist, even though radio was my first love. I wasn't placed on earth to sell church organs, even though I immensely enjoyed my second career and found it most satisfying. I'm not here just to serve God's people with my music. I'm the first to recognize that it's not perfect. I also know that I couldn't live without music, and that it provides uniquely intimate moments for me with my Lord. I'm here to follow the mandate of Matthew 25. My job is pure and simple: love pr

You're the only Bible

I heard a country gospel song the other day that may not make it to the top of the charts, but had a profound message. Here's the opening line, as I remember it: "You're the only Bible a lotta folks are gonna read." As a musician, I couldn't imagine how they were going to fit this into the metric structure of a tune and how they were going to fit the statement into lyrics that would rhyme. But I quickly abandoned those thoughts to consider those words again. That's a pretty profound statement. Reminds me of the old saying, "Your actions are so loud I can't hear your words." A friend told me the other day that she was driving down the highway and apparently did something to enrage another motorist. The driver passed her and gave her the finger. As the car got ahead of her, she saw a bumper sticker that said, "Honk if you love Jesus." Which message was loudest: the action or the words? All of this leads me to the prison w

Making music with my friends

The Gaithers have penned a wonderful little chorus: Loving God, loving each other, Making music with my friends; Loving God, loving each other, And the story never ends. Music has been a part of my life since I was an infant. As a musician, my life has been brightened by making music with my friends starting when I was a kid, and it has never stopped. Most recently, my physician friend John Mulder---a professional musician in my opinion---has joined me in making music as a fund-raiser for HFP. It all began a year ago at a funeral, when the two of us sang and played some requested old gospel songs for the memorial service of a friend and co-prison worker. A supporter of HFP suggested that we keep this going to raise support money. The rest is history. John wholeheartedly agreed, and suggested that we include more musicians: our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll, singer and percussionist; Cal Olson, singer, whistle-blower and bassist, and David Mulder, cornetist. And so last su

Lord, listen to your children

I'd like to introduce you to Laura. Actually, I cannot introduce you in person. She and I have never met face to face. She's in the State of Washington. I'm in the State of Michigan. But our friendship is a thing of beauty. Far more important than that is her beautiful contribution to HUMANITY FOR ongoing, never-ending contribution. Laura prays. This relationship began in April of 2007, when Laura sent an email to me asking for a copy of a devotional booklet that HFP offers to all who ask, inside and outside of bars. Our conversations continued, I sent her a copy of SWEET FREEDOM, and our friendship took off from there. But back to the valuable contribution of Laura. In our conversations I learned that Laura could not be a financial supporter of HFP, but she could be a prayer warrior. Others have said they will keep us in their prayers, but here was a person who was making it a mission. Says Laura: "I've always believed in interce

When God's people pray

I have left Parole Board interviews feeling utterly useless and totally ineffective. The Parole Board interview, an integral part of the life of a prisoner, can strike terror in the heart of the inmate. A woman formerly behind bars told me that the PB interview was worse than her trial. I think some Parole Board members delight in making prisoners sweat, squirm and weep. I'm not sure why...perhaps, just because they can. I tell you all of this as a long introduction to this blog entry. I have been steeling myself for a ten-year Parole Board review of a lifer. This prisoner and his parents approached me some time ago to ask if I would be willing to serve as his representative. I immediately agreed, for a number of reasons. I almost always agree to do it, regardless of the prisoner, because I cannot stand the thought of an inmate going there alone. But in this case, I happen to believe that the man, in for life without parole for first degree murder, is innocent. And

on feeling the heat

Heat is a hot subject these days. I'm the first to admit that heat and I don't get along very well. And I've felt real heat. I've been in blistering conditions in Viet Nam, and in Haiti. People in those parts of the world really deal with heat. But right now, in our own nation, people are suffering. Because of a brutal high pressure system, and the ravages of storms, heavily populated sections of our country are not only experiencing high temperatures, but are doing so without electricity. People there have no air conditioning, and as we hear these news accounts, our hearts go out to those who must deal with this. But I must confess that today I'm really feeling guilty. Temperatures are supposed to soar to near 100 degrees again today, and I have air conditioning, in my house and in my car. I am blessed, and I will not suffer. But yesterday I received a telephone call from James, in the Thumb Correctional Facility. You may not have known this, but our

America: the greatest! ?

I love early-morning coffee time. I enjoy my first caffeine rush of the day in a glassed-in room surrounded by giant oak trees in the developed dune land a mile offshore from Lake Michigan. It's heavenly. On the morning of our nation's birthday I cannot help but reflect on this country and its amazing attributes. I'm not willing to give in to the opinion expressed this week on a new cable TV show that America is not the greatest country. I love this country. I'm grateful for the opportunities I had, and I love the opportunities that lie ahead for my kids and grandkids. But that doesn't mean I have to love everything about this great nation. You can't be pleased about our rate of incarceration...far higher than that recorded by any other country. You've gotta be alarmed when people involved in our Innocence Projects project that up to 10% of those persons in prison may have been wrongly convicted...especially if that person happened to be in you


Christians have a difficult time agreeing on many issues. While they are certain to agree that Christ is Lord, from that point on it gets pretty difficult. We not only disagree on the weightier subjects of theology, but we have a difficult time deciding which hymnal is the best or what kind of church music pleases God the most. And so it should come as no surprise that our opinions on the issues we deal with on a daily basis at HFP might differ sharply with those of others. There will be honest differences of opinion, for example, from victims of crime and their families, and from police officers. All may believe in the same Lord, but you can bet their opinions will vary. Well, that's what happened in our weekly Saturday gathering of Studebaker drivers and friends over burgers and suds. This is an unusually electric group...a cross-section of many facets of society. Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz was talking about the recent Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstit

On alternatives, or lack thereof

This is one of those times when I just don't know what to say. It's not fair to offer false hope. What do you suggest? Here's the situation. You can be convicted of first degree murder without actually committing the crime. If the court determines that you aided and abetted, you can go to prison for life with no chance for parole. And that's what happened to my friend Ms. D. She's been in prison for 28 years, has done a fine job of improving her situation and helping others. She's a good prisoner, minds her own business, and gets involved in programs. But, she's giving up hope, and I hate that. She doesn't want to go through another attempt at having her sentence commuted. We tried that once, and the Parole Board wouldn't hear of it. The emotional turmoil is very unpleasant, and she refuses to put herself through that wringer again. Besides, she says, no one believes her story anyway. And the other alternatives? Well, if she gets t

Happy Father's Day

My emotions are divided right down the middle today. On one hand, I feel like the Psalmist. I feel so blessed that I cannot stop praising and thanking God. I have four adult kids, four adult kids-in-law, nine grandkids, all in good health, all loving each other, and all loving their parents and grandparents. I am blessed beyond measure. On the other hand, I am hurting for many today. I am hurting for dads who are in prison today, and for whom the day will mean little more than perhaps a touch of extra heart-break. Many won't see their kids, or even hear from them. In some cases, they don't even know where their kids are. I am hurting for men and women in prison who would like to celebrate the day with their dads, but cannot. In some cases, their fathers have passed on while they were in prison. In some cases, their dads don't even want to see them. In some cases, they don't even know if they have a dad. I am hurting for dads who have kids in prison, me

Guest Commentary: On solitary confinement

A special edition of our blog with a guest writer. This is a copy of a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee by HFP friend, Joyce Gouwens, of St. Joseph: Dear Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Graham: I am extremely grateful that you are looking into the long-term affects of solitary confinement. I correspond regularly with 10 prisoners, two of whom are mentally ill and who are overwhelmed by the isolation of solitary confinement. My article on the subject was published by The Christian Century in its December 27, 2011 issue titled "Put Away." I served on Berrien County's Task Force on Juvenile Justice (Michigan) in 2001, and was involved in our county's study a year ago on how to head off imprisonment for the mentally ill. We were impressed by the successful pattern established by police and mental health advocates in Chicago and are working here now in trying to treat instead of imprison whenever possible. I have volunteered for the past ten years

Think it's hot?

It's the warm weather season, and certainly a season here in Michigan to be enjoyed. But sometimes we forget how it used to be. I'm old enough to remember the days before air conditioning, not only in homes but also in cars and commercial buildings. Traveling in our black, 1937 Dodge sedan was't pleasant on a hot, sunny, summer day. And I remember sweltering heat in my dad's little neighborhood grocery store in mid-summer. Air conditioning is a way of life for most of us these days...unless you happen to be in prison. And there, it can still be struggle just to get some fresh air. I suppose one can say this is for budgetary reasons, but one has to wonder why the Deputy Director of Correctional Facilities Administration in Michigan, a man by the name of Thomas Finco, decides to crack down on free electric fans for inmates. Thanks to Kay Perry, of the MI-CURE office in Kalamazoo, we learn in her quarterly newsletter that a policy directive states that fans be

Pain is, indeed, cruel

In this prisoner advocacy business, it seems like we're always on the defensive. A prisoner may make a claim that he/she has been wronged, but that's not going to be accepted at face value. Every claim by a prisoner is challenged. Always. it's what the prison system does. I find this especially frustrating when the prisoner is in pain. It's one thing to make a claim that a medical issue is being ignored, and that symptoms are not being treated...but it seems to me that the situation changes when the prisoner is in such pain that it affects his daily routine. We're working on two cases right now that seem to demand corrective surgery: One involves a torn ligament of the knee dating back to 2007, and the second involves a fractured shoulder dating back to 2009. According to the inmates, surgery was indicated at the time of the injury but still has not been performed. And the arguments seem to vary as to why the surgery is being delayed, although cost

I'm third

Ages ago, when I was a kid attending summer camp, the YMCA's popular Camp Pendalouan had a slogan that I never forgot: I'm third. The counselors used to explain it this way to us: God first, the other fella second, I'm third. Good theology, really: Summary of the law; Golden Rule. And just plain, common sense...good advice. The slogan came to mind this week when a prisoner resisted what I thought was rather gentle advice, and pretty much told me that with friends like me he didn't really need any enemies. I'm sad about that, because no camp counselor ever repeated the slogan "I'm third" to him as a kid, apparently. I say that because, to hear him talk, he's first. In all fairness, prisoners probably get a better rating than the people you and I meet on the street in our everyday lives. We meet many people who think that way. I can think of only three instances in the past 15 years, in dealing with prisoners, where I have had a real

Don't take good health for granted

A very nice woman sent me a sad letter from her prison cell recently. She's feeling alone, can see no light at the end of the tunnel, wonders whether she'll ever get out, sees no positive action, and finds that she no longer believes or trusts people. There's not much chance that she would ever be considered for release for medical reasons because, as she put it, she's healthy. Not having been incarcerated, I absolutely cannot identify with her feelings of despair. But here's what I had to offer, after reading her letter: Even though it was a letter of justified complaints, I felt compelled to respond to the shortest sentence of your letter: I'm healthy. As you may recall, an attack by a staph infection in the spring of 2010 prevented me from making that statement for the rest of that year. I'm not one to focus on my ailments and infirmities. I'm feeling amazingly good again, but I'll never fully recover...not after losing my ability to