All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, January 29, 2012

May the words of my mouth...

Dan Rooks and I are scheduled to speak at the Thumb Correctional Facility this Wednesday. Dan is a clinical psychologist and is chairman of the HFP Board of Directors. He has a genuine passion for prisoners. He conducts regular group sessions in one of the state prisons. He and I will make a good team Wednesday. We both have a heart for these guys. We've spoken to prisoners before, and the rapport is great.

There's only one problem.

The state can't handle the number of prisoners who want to hear us. I'm told by one of the guys that we'll be able to speak to about 50 prisoners from the youth division, and about 125 of the old-timers. The session, being arranged by the chaplain, will be held in the gymnasium. Inmates were asked to sign up, the lists are full, and more prisoners still want to attend. I don't know if he was joking or not, but our friend James said that some of the guys are offering to buy a seat in the meeting.

This is getting serious, and now might be the time for me to start getting nervous. Nobody ever stood in line to listen to me speak before. I sometimes joke about the time my voice couldn't be heard, and I shouted out to the people in the back of the room, "Can you hear me?" "No," they replied. And some grumpy guy in the front said, "I'll trade you...I can hear him!"

I told Dan that now I'm starting to feel like Moses when God asked him to be a leader. What if I get tongue-tied? What if I stutter? I told Dan that he could be my Aaron, and I'll just let him be the mouthpiece for both of us. I don't think he'll agree to that.

The point is that prisoners know who their friends are, and Dan and I are honored by that. Pray that both of us say good things, meaningful things, helpful things, inspirational things.

After all, we're there in the name of the King.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I have a dream

These famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., came from the mouth of Warden Mary Berghuis, as I sat in her office at the Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan. She opened her desk drawer and pulled out a set of blueprints. As she spread them out on her desk, one could see that these were plans for a beautiful chapel, to be located right on her prison campus. Seems that she had shared her dream with a prominent Muskegon architect, who not only picked up on the idea but made his own contribution to the prison system by designing the entire facility at no charge.

Warden Berghuis explained that there was plenty of room for the chapel. In fact, she had chosen the perfect spot so that it would be easily accessible for prisoners there.

The subject came up as we discussed previous programs presented at the prison by HIS MEN, a male chorus that I founded in 1972 and directed for 21 years. HIS MEN is still involved in presenting programs in prisons. But there's no chapel in Muskegon, and the programs must be presented in rooms with poor acoustics and awkward seating. The proposed 200-seat chapel would be a wonderful addition to the prison facilities. The big problem is cost. The state is not going to pay for a project like this, so private funds must be raised. The warden reported that so far $8,000 has been raised. $1 million is the goal.

It sounds like so much, and yet we hear of huge sums being spent these days on political campaigns. Compared to those expenses, a million dollars is peanuts. And for such a good cause. I promised to help...personally, and through HFP. We have good friends, and they have good friends. I think this goal is reachable.

I'm hoping and praying that the Mary K. Berghuis Chapel will be converted from dream to reality.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What does it take?

We're starting to wonder just what it takes to attract the attention of the Michigan Parole Board, after the board just blew off one of the strongest applications for commutation of sentence that we have seen.

James should be out of prison anyway. He has turned his life around, has been more than a model prisoner, and has served 28 years on a life sentence for assault with intent. Our sources say that's enough time for a prisoner who has not been a problem.

But there are other factors in this case.

This marks the first time I have ever seen the prosecutor who put the man away now lead the charge to free him. But that's what has happened. The Chief Trial Attorney for the Muskegon County Prosecutor's Office in 1986 who obtained the conviction against James now wants him freed. And that's because James has not only become a model prisoner. James has decided, despite severe and continued threats, to help the state. And so, time after time, in case after case, he has provided invaluable testimony, with no promise of any gifts or favors. He just helped because he thought that's what good people do. So here we have the prosecutor writing a three-page letter to the Parole Board asking for serious consideration of this application. The app is also supported by various former FBI and State Police Personnel, as well as the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office. And yet it slid right past the Parole Board, on its way to the Governor where it is sure to be rejected. UNLESS...UNLESS, we can catch someone's attention in the guv's office to take a look at it. He could then send it back to the Parole Board for further review. And that's what we're hoping for. That's what we're praying for, and asking prayers for.

In an important murder case in the Flint area, James was promised an effort to get him released with credit for time served for his testimony. The testimony resulted in a conviction, but James never got his credit for time served.

Now it's time for justice behind bars. James deserves a fair shake. Your prayers and any other means of support will be very much appreciated.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Are women treated worse in prison?

I can't prove it, but I think so.

Gail, a resident of the Michigan prison system, this week called our attention to three different situations where it appears that appropriate health care is NOT being provided. Said she: There are so many women who are suffering with health care problems here that are so inhumane it just tears at my heart. Incarcerated women live under very harsh, uncomfortable, humiliating and demeaning conditions with rules of NO TOUCHING.

She went on to tell me about Donna, who suffered a bowel obstruction due to inappropriate treatment of symptoms, that leaves her now with an ileoscopy bag not properly cared for, and so she has a continuing problem of bleeding around the opening. A request for corrective surgery is ignored.

She told about Rita, who is totally disabled due to hip deterioration.

And she told about Mary, who continues to have serious issues as a result of cancer and the removal of both breasts, but who is refused treatment for continued pain and swelling of her hands and arms.

Lack of treatment is one problem.

Lack of interest by the Parole Board is still another problem. Many women could be out and receiving private treatment.

A third problem is that the women's facility in Ypsilanti keeps getting expanded even though already overcrowded, and the ladies report that the utilities systems cannot keep up with the expansion...especially water and septic. Nice.


And we respond with a thanks to all of you who support us.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

An internal investigation brings...RETALIATION

It was down to the final hours of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

I spotted a piece of unopened mail.

I have been corresponding with 25 guys who had the courage to sign statements incriminating a prison guard who has been coming to work with liquor on his breath, and who has been mistreating inmates. These 25 men dared to sign their names to documents demanding that something be done about this officer. They approached HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS for assistance. I readily agreed to help, but stressed that we could not protect them from retaliation. In a situation like this, the guards get the last word. Always.

Well, we charged in and brought about an Internal Affairs investigation, and it wasn't pretty.

Word is that the officer didn't get fired, but he got transferred, and that was enough for the men in the unit. But it didn't come without a price.

One of the men told me that some in the group were denied their food. Some were denied health care kites (messages). Some were denied free time in the yard. In some cases, the food cards were changed on the guys' doors. Lies were told to nurses, we were informed, to keep them from looking in on the guys. Lies were told to affect misconduct reports. Lies were told resulting in at least one prisoner getting gassed (pepper spray). In one situation, it got so bad that a prisoner allegedly tried to kill himself because of the way he was treated while in segregation. It's all hearsay, of course. But what motive would these men have to lie to me? They were writing to thank us for bringing about the investigation and bringing about the transfer of an officer.

Said the ringleader of this group: A representative of Internal Affairs came and interviewed me yesterday. I can tell you that the MDOC has a lot of respect for you. I'm black-listed here, but thank you so much for helping us. You're a power house. Nothing would have been done without you. I was transferred to the prison across the street to punish me. When they took our phones it frightened a lot of the people (not being able to call home, especially during the holidays). I want to get a job. I fit the requirements for barber but was told the administration said they didn't want me. The administration is trying to cover it up. Thank you for your courage.

Your support of HFP makes all of this happen, and that is why we need your continued and consistent assistance. Each month. Every month. It's a new year and our donations are down.

Back to Dr. King. He would be so proud of this gang! We are, too.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


It will give an added dimension to this story, because on Monday the 9th, I received a call from Dan Armijo's mother. I was in a bad cell, and could hardly understand the crackly and distorted message: My son has been granted a new trial!

Dan was convicted on a CSC charge in Macomb County and sentenced to 2-15 years on November 30, 2010. He came up for parole, but he refused to show remorse and admit that he had committed the crime, so no parole. The Parole Board insisted that he was in denial. And so he served one year beyond his minimum sentence before the state begrudgingly released him. He was still on a tether the last we heard.

But now, in answer to many prayers, Dan's conviction HAS BEEN SET ASIDE, AND A NEW TRIAL HAS BEEN GRANTED.

Proof positive that it does sometimes happen. Once in a while there is wrongful conviction. The Parole Board is going to have to get off this kick that EVERYONE must show remorse and admit guilt, because everyone is simply not guilty.

Our congratulations to Dan and his family, who support HFP and thank us for all of our support.

To quote MLK Jr. on his birthday: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I'll hammer it out: Shakespeare

I have bin studying, how to compare
This Prison where I live, unto the World;
And for because the world is populous,
And heere is not a Creature, but my selfe,
I cannot do it: yet Ile hammer't out.

I was listening to a riveting performance of this monologue from The Life and Death of Richard the Second. I was not in a major Shakespeare venue in Canada, nor in a small theatre off Broadway. I was in a classroom at Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan. And the performer was not a kingpin in the thespian world, but may have been---for all I know---a kingpin in the world of crime at one time. I know him only by a prison nicknam, Latorius, and though not a professional critic of the theatre, I can tell you that this was no simple, amateur performer. He was good.

It's a product of a program called SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS, the brainchild of Curt Tofteland, of Holland, Michigan. A select group of prisoners participate, and after completing the course in a prescribed period of time they may invite a friend to join the next time around.

I was there as the guest of Warden Mary Berghuis, although I had received a standing invitation earlier from Mr. Tofteland.

The prisoners---9 of them---came to share, to discuss Shakespeare, to compare the writings of Shakespeare to their own lives, and to memorize and perform. The discussion was intimate, feelings were placed on the table, there was laughter, there were tears. It was a magical moment.

Bless those prisoners for allowing me to sit in.

Bless Curt Tofteland for bringing this amazing program behind bars.

Bless Warden Berghuis for allowing this to happen right there in her own facility.

The playwright would have been proud!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

do you hear anything about the poor?

As a reporter, although retired from day-t0-day journalism, I remain facinated by politics and continue to watch political skirmishes on the local, state and national levels. As we head toward another national election, I am puzzled by the lack of discussion on one particular topic: the poor.

Recent statistics show that more people are legally poor in the United States than ever before. Poverty is on the increase.

As Christians, we are constantly advised in scripture to be aware of thee poor. The book of Proverbs is full of zesty little nuggets about the poor. A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor. (22:9) The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (29:7)

Even the Old Testament prophets warned the government about lack of concern for the poor. I will be quick to testify against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice....(Malachi 3:5)

All I am hearing in political debates is one shameful attack after another against the individuals who have chosen to run for public office. Millions of dollars are spent on this media sewage spill. Occasionally, as if almost by accident, an actual national issue is brought up for consideration, but I can guarantee that concern for the poor is not among the list of issues.

Perhaps it's because one must be so wealthy to consider running for office. Many rich people seem to have little concern for the poor. I find it interesting in the Bible story about the rich man and the poor man, that the author finds it important to mention the name of the poor man, but the rich man remains anonymous.

All of this to say, before you go to the polls in your elections---local, state and national---find out where your candidates stand on the important issue of justice and mercy for the poor.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

God don't make no junk

I was first drawn to that slogan more than 40 years ago when I spotted the words on a poster, obviously designed by a child with crayons, on the wall of a social worker who specialized in helping mentally challenged children. I don't know where the saying began. Ethel Waters is among those credited with first making the statement. But, I woke in the middle of the night full of HFP ideas---as so often happens---just last week, and I thought of this statement. It's the message that HFP must confey to its supporters at the beginning of a new year. It's the message that HFP must convey to its friends behind bars. Many people on the outside believe that prisoners are somehow in a different category of humanity. But God don't make no junk. Many prisoners feel that because they've failed, time and again, there's no hope for them. But God don't make no junk.

I've been trying to figure out who can be a help to one of our prisoners in recent days. He's so sick. He needs an organ transplant to live, but prisoners may not have transplants. He's so lonely. He was an only child, his mother died, his father suffered a stroke, he has burned bridges with what little family is left and with friends. If he were to be released he has no place to go. He's so discouraged. He would like to turn his life around, and I really believe he's doing it. But it's so late. There's no one to turn it around for except himself...and I'm not minimizing that. It's just that, he has no place to turn, no one to turn to, and he's finally becoming aware of that fact.

But then, he's got to hear my message of today. God don't make no junk.

Since I started a Bible-reading program that covers the whole Bible in a year, I have discovered such rich verses in the old testament. And one goes right along with this junk statement. Jeremiah 1:5: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart...

Thanks for being in our corner through thick and thin, dear HFP supporter...God don't make no junk.

Take heart, dear HFP prisoner/friend, there's hope...even for you. Because, you see, God don't make no junk! Never did. Never will.