Showing posts from May, 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

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.

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

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 pa

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 w

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

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 m

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 t

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&#

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 f

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 th