All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, May 25, 2012

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 swallow, losing 65 pounds, nearly losing my life several times, and getting my nourishment from a feeding tube for 6 months. But I must tell you that after sitting here day after day thinking I've never been so sick, thinking that I've never experienced such severe pain, and wondering if my mind would ever be clear again, I will NEVER take good health for granted. It's a gift, I love it, and it's up to me to make the very best of it. And so must you. Many individuals and groups in your facility are doing good things for others, and that's really what we gotta do. You are such a wonderful person, just offering your friendship and kindness to another person is huge.

Keep prisoners like Ms. D in your prayers.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are wrongful convictions real?

You bet they are!

A recent joint announcement from Northwestern University's Law School and the University of Michigan revealing a new and complete list of all persons who have been exonerated once again focused our attention on wrongful convictions. Here in the HFP office, it's in our face every day.

I can give you the names of three prisoners who, right now, are sitting in their cells asking the question, "How can this be? I'm innocent, but I'm sitting in prison!"

One of these inmates has just learned that his last legal recourse has been exhausted. There's nothing else to try. All doors have closed. So jump in my shoes for a minute. What do you tell this guy? "Just trust in the Lord, because he has other plans for you?" He's a man of faith, but don't think for a minute that he doesn't have questions.

One of these inmates just learned that the innocence project that claimed to be working on his case has dropped it. He's indigent, has no family, and now has no help. What do we tell this guy?

And one of these inmates is learning that he may not have the necessary evidence left in his files to prove his innocence. Attorneys are saying if something can be found, perhaps something can be done. If not, he may be stuck behind bars.

Just imagine the feelings of helplessness that must overwhelm these three individuals. They are not just statistics. They have names, they are relatively young and could have a life ahead of them, they have feelings and emotions and hopes and dreams. But the hopes and dreams are fading.

In short, the system isn't perfect.

In conclusion, here's a specific prayer request: please remember those behind bars who have been wrongly convicted. All of these stories will not have happy endings.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On entertaining angels unawares

I confess that I often focus on a verse in Hebrews that says, "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners." And I often overlook the verse just ahead of it: "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it."

I was reminded of that as I sat with my cup of coffee on this Monday morning, reflecting on the weekend.

Mark is a New York businessman, arguably wrongly convicted, who resides in a nearby prison. In his email message to me, he shared that his daughter, a college student in Oregon, was coming to Muskegon for a visit. It would be their first in 3 years.

That may not seem like a big deal, except that there are no prison visiting hours on Saturday. This means that Kelsey would be able to visit her dad late Friday after her arrival, all day Sunday, and on Monday before her departure. Saturday would be spent in a hotel room.

That seemed wrong, especially when one factors in perfect weather conditions and the spring beauty of our area of western Michigan.

I could think of no better people to contact than daughter Cindy and her husband Lee. After all, the Ingersolls provided the warm hospitality in their beautiful home for Maurice Carter on his first days of freedom. It was the bed in their guest room that prompted Maurice to describe his first night of rest "like sleeping on a cloud."

Well, I was able to provide some of the transportation for Kelsey. Having a friend take you from point A to point B is so much nicer than relying on a paid taxi driver. And Cindy and Lee responded in true Ingersoll fashion: hamburgers cooked on the grille, a stroll on Grand Haven's popular south pier, and dipping bare feet in the icy, clear waters of Lake Michigan.

Kelsey now has good friends in Michigan, we have a new friend in Portland, and Mark has a taste of Dutch hospitality.

Actual response to BOTH Hebrews passages.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On soldiers on the battlefield

I have such great respect for former prisoners who survive re-entry. That may sound extreme, but until you've gone through the experiences of re-entry, you have no idea what these people face. Michelle Alexander, author of the 2010 book THE NEW JIM CROW, says, "Those released from prison are trapped in a legal second-class status for life."

I had heard that my friend Michael was experiencing some problems. I had been personally involved in helping him to obtain a parole.

Like many ex-prisoners on tethers, he had probems with the system. These former prisoners carry a box and when their tether fails to dispatch an adequate signal to the state, they must get into a clearing where a satellite signal finally gives tham an OK. It is not uncommon for a prisoner to stand outside in all types of weather for up to an hour or more, hoping to get the box cleared. And there's nothing they can do about it. Failure to do so will mean no signal, which is a violation of parole, and the threat of being returned to prison.

A passerby damaged Michael's black box, right after he complained to his Parole Officer about its malfunction. Naturally he was blamed for the damage, and over this issue he was returned to prison. It was a violation of parole.

Well, he's out again...still good-natured, still happy to be free, and rather than spending time talking about his problems he wants to know how I'm doing. He knows that I had undergone a severe health crisis. On being informed that I'm feeling fine, Michael exclaimed, "God is good!"

I told him that I'm back on the job, working every day.

"A soldier on that battlefield," said Michael.

And so are you, Michael. So are you.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Advances in Criminology That May Prevent Wrongful Imprisonments By Angela Matson

For many years, prosecutors have relied on both physical evidence and eyewitness testimony to pursue their cases against accused criminals. Since the US Constitution guarantees that the accused is “innocent until proven guilty,” prosecutors must create a compelling chain of evidence to persuade jurors to convict defendants, especially those accused of violent crimes. However, as technology advances, a growing number of those incarcerated being incarcerated are being exonerated.

Numerous advances in technology and psychology have enabled prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and jurors to gain a clearer picture into the crime scene. These advances are also becoming important resources for criminology colleges who are looking to train the legal professionals of the future. These new techniques have allowed those wrongfully accused to be exonerated, and those mistakenly imprisoned to be set free.

DNA Evidence

The biggest source of forensic evidence that both reduces and overturns wrongful convictions is DNA evidence. Thousands of previous convictions have been overturned on the basis of DNA evidence. Further advances in DNA testing technology have reduced the time to return test results from as much as eight weeks to as little as forty-eight hours. As the understanding of the human genome grows each year, forensic scientists will also be able to detect specific genetic markers which can eliminate potential suspects and reduce the probability of a wrongful conviction.

One of the most notable overturned convictions came in the case of the beating and rape of a woman in 1989. Three young men were tried and convicted in the famous “Central Park Jogger” case. In 2002, a judge overturned the convictions of Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr. and Antron McCray after DNA evidence cleared them of the crime. The DNA evidence also pointed to the true attacker, Matias Reyes, who was later convicted in the attack.

Forensic Science Standards

According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit group that deals with the issue of wrongful convictions, about half of the convictions later overturned due to DNA evidence were the product improper forensic evidence procedures. Some of the previous forensic procedures, such as hair analysis, bite mark matching and ballistics testing, have not undergone the scientific rigor of DNA testing.

In order to standardize forensic practices, several states, including Texas, New York and Virginia, have developed forensic science commissions. These commissions also investigate cases where local forensic investigators have either mistakenly or maliciously manipulated potentially exculpatory evidence. The National Academy of Science has also recommended the formation of a similar committee to codify forensic evidence procedures on a federal level.

Wrongful Conviction Statistics

The Innocence Project has also compiled a series of statistics on wrongful convictions:

• Since 2000, 222 convictions have been overturned by DNA evidence.
• Of the 289 defendants exonerated by DNA evidence, 180 were African-Americans
• The most exonerations occurred in Texas (44), followed by Illinois (41) and New York (27).

Advances in technology in the criminology field, combined with higher public awareness, have shown that the potential for wrongful convictions appears to be on the decline. As the science of genetic testing continues to grow, the legal system must catch up to insure that innocent defendants remain free and that the true perpetrators are brought to justice.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Grammy loved prisoners

Early on Sunday morning, Mother's Day, as I think of my own mom, words to the old hymn OTHERS come to mind: Lord, help me live from day to day in such a self forgetful way, that even when I kneel to pray, my prayer shall be for others.

Friends, relatives and family members of Mary Tjapkes were never forgotten, especially at times for birthdays or special need. There were hand-written notes, greeting cards and even baked goods. At the time of her funeral, we heard from people we had never met who at one time or another had been touched by my mother's kndness.

And so it was only natural that she had a love for prisoners. After all, Jesus demanded it.

She established a relationship with a prisoner by mail that lasted for some time. Naturally he was grateful for her kindness and generosity, and he reciprocated as best he could. Even back then, she told me of terrible conditions in the Michigan prison system, and the shameful manner in which prisoners were treated. But then came the major heart-break of getting emotionally involved with the least of these. One day, the letters stopped. After a period of time, Mom decided to get to the bottom of the story. She called the facility, only to be bluntly informed that the inmate had died. No details, no nothing. She said the man had no family, so she had no idea what happened after his death. She could find out nothing about his passing. She knew he had been frightened, so perhaps he lost his life in a violent manner. She never found out.

Maybe my mother's concern for and interest in prisoners started me on this journey. It certainly helped.

I pay tribute today to a very special mom, and grandmother, and great grandmother.

She touched many people.

Come to think of it, she still is.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Surrogate son

I don't remember exactly when I began visiting Maurice Carter's mother for Mother's Day.

I began working on his case in about 1995, and it was a nine year battle to free him from prison. Over the years, as our relationship developed and we began calling each other "brother," it dawned on me that he couldn't visit his mom on Mother's Day. I promised him that I would visit her, in his place.

Elizabeth Fowler lived in a ramshackle dwelling in one of Gary, Indiana's, less pleasant neighborhoods. After my first visit it became apparent that she needed more than a visit. So in subsequent years, I would load up the car with groceries in addition to flowers and a greeting card. And even though it was up to me to purchase the flowers and the cards, I assured her that they came from Maurice, to which she always replied, "That Maurice, he's such a good boy."

As my retired pastor friend Al Hoksbergen became more friendly with Maurice and more versed about the case, I asked him to share this experience with me. We would go to see Mrs. Fowler not only on Mother's Day, but also at Christmas time. Each time we would bring flowers and gifts and greeting cards, but especially groceries. She was always pleased that I brought a pastor along, and loved to discuss spiritual matters.

When Maurice was alive and still in prison, he would call from the prison while we were there. What a delightful time that would be for his elderly mom, whose mind for the most part was able to stay relatively focused.

Al and I continued the practice after Maurice died in 2004, driving to Gary faithfully every Mother's Day and Christmas. We would not only stock up her kitchen, but we would remind her of the many wonderful memories of her son, talk about her faith, and say a prayer with her.

One day Mrs. Fowler was gone, and no one seems to know where. Maurice had a half-brother from another state who apparently decided his mother should come home with him. He came unannounced, told no one where he was taking her, and departed. We never saw her again, but because of her age we are assuming that she and Maurice are finally together again now.

But on Mother's Day, those memories will not fade. I used to tell Mrs. Fowler that if Maurice was my brother, she was then my adopted mother, and how she would laugh. And when I left her, the mandatory hug.

Precious memories.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cells are not mental wards

Not in a county jail...not in a state prison.

Fine Detroit Free Press writer Jeff Gerritt has a great piece in today's newspaper entitled: When jails must be mental clinics. It's a must read. Mr. Gerritt has written a series of articles re care of the mentally ill behind bars. It's dismal. And something must be done. Sadly, a decision was made years ago to close mental institutions in Michigan. The alternative didn't work, and soon the mentally ill were on the streets. Then they wound up in our jails and prisons. Today's Freep story says an estimated 10,000 mentally ill people are in Michigan county jails. Some people believe there are that many mentally challenged in the state prison system as well.

It's a lose-lose situation for both prisoner and care giver. Corrections staffers, at the county and state level, are not trained to handle the mentally challenged. Their efforts are often crude, cruel and misdirected. The state's lax approach to providing appropriate meds makes things much worse for the mentally ill. And, when the mentally ill inmate misbehaves, he/she can be punished in a couple of unproductive ways: segregation, and/or further delays in getting released.

The whole issue of mentally ill behind bars was already on my mind today after receiving an email message from my friend Lois, whose teenaged son---struggling with mental issues---is having a difficult time in prison. She reports that last week he cut himself, something he is prone to do when distraught, but this time he hit an artery. He was transferred to a critical care unit in another prison, but there he attempted to hang himself in the shower. And you think you have family problems?

Kevin doesn't belong in prison. He belongs in a mental clinic. After all this has happened, I suspect there will be more and more delays in getting him the help that he really needs.

How many Kevins will it take before we wake up?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Even among prison chaplains

you'll find an occasional bad apple.

I love prison chaplains, and have absolutely the highest regard for them. For 21 years, when I was the director of HIS MEN, we worked with prison chaplains to prepare Christian concerts for prisoners. I could count the problem chaplains on two fingers.

I guess that's why it is so disappointing when one fails to live up to the prison chaplain reputation.

HFP has been working with a prisoner who wants to get married. This seems strange to us on the outside, but it happens with some frequency, even though the bride and groom may never have an opportunity to live together. Marriage ceremonies must be arranged through the prison chaplain.

I'll be the first to admit that this prisoner is no stranger to controversy, and often finds himself in the middle of issues. So when the chaplain insisted that all wedding ceremony participants submit their Social Security numbers for prison clearance, our inmate friend filed a grievance. It's not necessary, he contended, to give up your SS# just to get clearance. Well, the state considered the grievance, and ruled in favor of the prisoner. While he won that little battle, he's now in danger of losing the war, because the chaplain is not pleased.

The chaplain reviewed the prisoner's pre-sentence investigation of 1990, which showed that he was still married at that time. Well, that's certainly true, but that's over 20 years ago. Since that time, the inmate has not only been divorced, but married and divorced again. No matter. The chaplain has ruled that this old report shows the inmate married, and until he can prove otherwise, the wedding ceremony---with date and time already set---is called off. Come on!

I spoke with my friend Maurice Carter about chaplains, when he was still alive, and he was very candid with me. He explained that the reason some prisoners have problems with chaplains is that they are actually employed by the state...the same boss as that of the prison guards and wardens. He said some prisoners don't trust chaplains, and in some cases, for good reason...some have not honored confidential information. He then told me about a chaplain in one facility who was applying for the job of prison warden. He asked me: Who would trust that chaplain with private, confidentail information? Who,indeed.

Not a simple issue, but one that makes each day interesting in the HFP office.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On disappointments

While I am the first to admit that I love this job, I must confess that the daily dose of disappointments is...well, disappointing.

In a typical day in the HFP office, we must break the news to a prisoner that a bona fide innocence agency has done nothing to help him, and it appears that nothing more will be done. We are frustrated as the prison system finds more roadblocks as we fight delays in medical treatment...urgently needed treatment. We continue the struggle to find some way to persuade prison officials to make some transfers that seem so logical (a prisoner in the UP with an ailing 90 year old mother in Detroit?). And there is the heartbreak of a faltering friendship or romance for a prisoner. You and I face some disappointments each day, but as you can well imagine, these issues are magnified when you are behind bars and have very little means of communication.

I am particularly annoyed today, however, because a prisoner was dealt a heavy-duty dose of disappointment from outside the judicial system. He had placed his trust and his future in the hands of an unscrupulous attorney. The lawyer, who promised big things, delivered nothing. He failed to meet deadlines, he failed to deliver, the one document that he filed in court was tossed out on a technicality. And now, as the prisoner demands answers and responses, the attorney has taken the unusual step of blocking telephone calls from the inmate. All this after taking $67,000 in payments from the prisoner and his family!

We're doing what we can to try to help, but there seems to be little recourse. Now it's up to our friend to pick up the pieces, and start over again. We'll help with that, too.

And they call the inmate the criminal!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thoughts on a plan for our lives

As I mentioned in the previous entry, Marcia and I took a brief vacation...hence the lower number of blog entries.

We were in South Carolina visiting family. I have a simple observation about family. Even though our kids have their own occupations and their own lives, they are, indeed, more aware of the plight of prisoners because of their dad's involvement in HFP.

Case in point.

I was sitting in church with our daugher Sue, her husband Jon, and 11 year old twin grandsons Brenden and Zachary.

Pastor Todd Cullen, of Hilton Head Island Community Church, was embarking on a series of sermons about Moses.

His key point in this sermon, based on the life of Moses: God is fully aware of all the circumstances surrounding our birth into this world, the way we were raised as children, and all the mistakes we've made along the way. We can believe that he will use the circumstances of our past to accomplish his plan and purpose for our lives.

As he repeated this point to the congregation, Sue leaned over to me and said, "Dad, this would be perfect for you to give to prisoners."

She was right, of course.

And it's perfect to pass along to you.