All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, October 29, 2012

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 count on a non-visitation day, they choose to have it on a visiting day. All movement stops. Families waste gas driving here for nothing...they make them all leave, and if they bought food from the vending machine they make our visitors throw the food away. Some waited to get in and were only there 5 minutes and had to leave and throw the food away. And if too many people are there, they will start terminating your visits so others can get in."

"Visitors do not get treated any better than prisoners do, except they are not strip-searched and they get to go out the front door when the visit is over," said Inmate C. "The extremely undersized visiting rooms make visiting a real frustrating experience for both prisoners and their visitors. Many grievances have been filed. I'll get copies for you."

Penny wise and pound foolish?

Kay Perry, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, said the department should have found ways to save money without keeping prisoners from their families. "Those people that have a social support network are going to do better when they're released."

Barb Levine, Executive Director of Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending said people look at these visits as perks for prisoners, somehow. "This is not just about the prisoner. It is about kids separated from parent, and spouses living apart from their mates."


Thursday, October 25, 2012

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 jangled nerves relax.

But that was not to be. There was absolutely no one in the waiting room, and there would not be. The guard at the desk politely but firmly informed him that he would have to leave. The rules stated that he could enter the building only 15 minutes prior to the scheduled release of the prisoner.

Where to go? What to do? He didn't know the area, had no idea where to find a coffee shop, and the weather was still unpleasant. Those factors were not of consideration. he had to leave.

Perhaps he could just go sit in his car, turn on the heater and listen to the radio.

Nope, the rules say one must not be on the premises. That includes the parking lot, and a roaming guard in a prison pickup truck would enforce the rule.

Not one person would have known of a minor variance to this harsh prison rule, but it didn't happen.

The old man was banned from the property until they said he could come back.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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. She left, purchased a new knit-button-up long-sleeved cardigan top, and came back to be checked in. The officer decided this was also a coat, and allowed that she would have to call in someone higher up. By then Ms. B was in tears, precious time was being wasted, and she was waiting. Two officers said to let her in, but the Sgt. said that he still believed this was a coat. So, she had to go back to the store one more time. This time she purchased a button-up sweater with no snaps, no pockets, and she was finally admitted.

The nice prison moms, who meant no ill will, are able to provide pictures and receipts.

Are we having fun yet?


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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 that did nothing to soothe the disturbed mind of the senior citizen.

Mr. B was hoping to visit his son. An African American clergyman, he had visited the prison many times, and was well known to the desk staff. He had to rely on a friend to drive him for the two-hour trip to prison. But alas, when they arrived, he discovered he did not have his picture ID with him. He had all kinds of legitimate identification, and the people at the desk knew him, but rules are rules. One can never take chances with a well-known elderly black pastor. The visit was denied.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

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 as well as a statement from the spouse of the prisoner, I think this could more accurately be labeled a kangaroo court.

It was a genuine mickey-mouse charge over a minor incident, and it mushroomed into a situation where the wife of a prisoner has been permanently banned from visiting her husband. Can you believe that? He's 49 years old, and he's in for life. And now he's been told that his wife may never visit him again. Gimme some kind of a break, here.

The temporary restriction is just that. There has been no hearing, and the mother of a prisoner has no idea whether she'll be able to see her son again. Let me just tell you this much about the case: the young man in prison suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and finds it very difficult to behave. It's the nature of the problem. But somehow in the twisted logic of the MDOC, the mother caught some blame also, and was ordered not to see her son any more. Now please try to come up with one good reason why an elderly mother, nearly my age, cannot visit her mentally ill son, whom she loves and adopted many years ago to care for him. She's all he has.

I have a statement from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction:
Visits give inmates something to look forward to, an incentive to participate in rehabilitative programs, and a mechanism with which to cope with prison life.

That being the case, what do you suppose the prohibition of visits does?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

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-raising efforts, and to reach out to others. That's all. We didn't want to compete in the church hit parade with other music groups. We were not interested in buying a bus, wearing fancy suits, using elaborate sound systems, and making a big impression. God took the rest.

The ministry of this group over the past 40 years has been astounding, and the group still focuses on raising money for others, like HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, and still makes an effort to reach out to the disenfranchised, especially prisoners.

But now back to the subject of humility.

After the concert Sunday night, one lady insisted on giving me the credit. And she wouldn't be sidetracked. "But look what you did," she insisted. "You get the credit. Think of it. You started all this."

I'm sorry, Mrs. S. That's where I have to bow out.

God blessed me by allowing me to be the director of this simple little group of dedicated singers. That's it. My successor, John Mattson, feels the same way.

From that point on, it was not my path, but His.

And still today, it's His path, for HIS MEN.

Still Livin' Humble.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

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 imagine what it's like, listening to a mother describe situations like this:

-a son who is so mentally disturbed he keeps cutting himself, breaking light bulbs or whatever is necessary to find something sharp

-having guards hog-tie a lad so that he cannot stand up or sit, and cannot reach the toilet so he must use the floor

-having guards open the window in January to make the cell colder, as your son remains hog-tied wearing only his underwear

-learning that the prison staff had to revive your son after finding him hanging in the cell, after you made a point of warning them about uncertain messages

-having your son transferred more than 200 miles away, to make it more difficult to arrange visits

-or worse yet, having your visits terminated for several months as a means of treating your son's mental illness.

There's nothing like the truth to touch the hearts of an audience, and that's exactly what Lois did. No props necessary, thank you.

And for those who are wondering...there's good news. There are reliable reports that Kevin is finally going to be released to get the care he so desperately needs.

He was arrested on a goofy charge at the age of 13. He's 19 now.

Please remember, especially, those prisoners who are mentally ill in your prayers. Their families, too.

Friday, October 5, 2012


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 still behind bars. No one seems to remember the deal.

Cops, retired State Police personnel, former FBI personnel, and even the Assistant Prosecutor who put John away have taken his side. But no one is listening.

The Prosecutor's office now refuses to budge. The Judge expresses no interest. The Parole Board has ignored a plea for commutation.

Meanwhile, behind bars, the prisoners have learned that John was a snitch. Their activity involves things like tossing human feces at him and on his bed. He faces death threats.

But that doesn't seem to matter. The State got what it wanted from John.

Said Harold Geneen: It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises but only performance is reality.