Showing posts from 2013

More compassion for the ailing in 2014?

As I sit enjoying my first cuppa on the last day of the year, I'm reflecting on the huge challenges ahead for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. And some of the biggest challenges we face involve sickness and death. Matt and I are reviewing the statistics for 2013, but a cursory glance at the daily log shows us that health issues are a dominant theme. In short, here's what we're aiming for in the new year: better health care for ailing and injured inmates; more compassionate releases for prisoners with terminal illnesses; and, some form of hospice care for those who are dying and who do not get released to their families and loved ones. Throughout the year we have heard terrifying stories of lack of proper care for prisoners who were afflicted with various illnesses, or who were injured either accidentally or intentionally. It is not uncommon, for example, to receive reports that medications have been taken away from prisoners...especially pain meds. We're the first to

On playing the race card

I'm not above playing the race card. I'm a kid who was brought up in a white, Dutch church in Muskegon, with all white friends and relatives. In addition to the N word, we also heard numerous other titles for people of color. And all this from Christian folk who thought that somehow they were more righteous than those with a different skin. Nothing wrong with using words like that. Perhaps these weren't children of God after all. It has taken me a long time to get here. But there's no turning back now, after people in my life like the Rev. Cy Young, who had memorized all of Martin Luther King's speeches (who my kids called “Uncle Cy”); Alma Perry, one of the finest and most devout gospel singers to make an appearance in my life (who sang a new song to me in her inner-city kitchen); and then Maurice Carter, my hero and my brother, who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. I easily place these names at the top of a list of people who made a huge

Holidays without a loved one

The joy of the holiday season is tarnished for those who lost someone dear to them in the past year. For those of us working with prisoners and the prison system, we know there will be stories involving deaths of loved ones...but HFP is going to try to make a difference in the new year! Our resolution to try to bring about change was strengthened last week when I spoke to James. We lost another prisoner this past week, man...another one of our guys passed. He had lung cancer. He had been coughing and choking. We knew he was in bad shape. The docs had recommended a compassionate release to the Parole Board last year and it was turned down. The Parole Board considered another request this year and turned it down. That's so sad. It didn't have to be that way, man. He had family that just wanted him home for his last days. That's the kind of stuff that just about sends me to the moon. Who are these people who decide that a dying inmate, regardless of how serio

Just the ticket!

I always cringe when I hear a member of the Michigan Parole Board question an inmate about tickets. A ticket is what happens when a prisoner gets written up for some kind of infraction. The Parole Board doesn't like to hear about tickets. And so, when an inmate appears before a board member for an interview, or during a public hearing, the issue of tickets invariably gets brought up. Board members love to refer to an inmate who has been in for 40 years and hasn't had one ticket. It's interesting to note that the ticket-free inmate, however, is still behind bars. I cringe because I hear so many stories about ridiculous tickets. It goes back to the days of my friend Maurice Carter. A friend owed him a debt, while in prison. The friend worked in the kitchen. So, he paid off his debt to Maurice with an onion. That seems harmless enough, but one isn't supposed to be walking around in prison with an onion. Could be dangerous. So Maurice was written up. One wou

What are you going to do about it?

So here's the deal. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS can keep right on bringing up important issues involved Michigan prisoners, but if we're standing alone in this fight, it's an uphill battle. For weeks and weeks we've been talking about the shameful toilet paper and sanitary napkin policies that affect all of the women incarcerated in Michigan. People who learn about this through HFP have been understandably outraged. They stop Matt and me on the street. They send us email messages. They click "like" on Facebook. They make strong comments of support. And that's where it stops. My guess is that you could count on one hand the number of people who actually did something about it...sent a message, or a letter, or made a telephone call to a state representative, a state senator, the Governor, or the MDOC itself. That ain't gonna cut it! We need help. The reason I bring this up today is that we have just received another complaint from prisoners i

Keeping it in perspective

The beauty and charm and magic of the holiday season is frequently just a myth. As a veteran newsman, I recall tragic stories year after year that tug on the heart-strings during this season. Fires, accidents, tragedies, unexpected deaths, serious illness. For many people around us, the holidays aren't magical...they're difficult. I don't mean to minimize this, but ask that you keep it in perspective. Those around us who experience serious illness or tragedy this time of the year are still surrounded by friends, family and loved ones who care and who show their compassion in many different ways. Those who are suffering pain due to injury or illness are able to get appropriate medication to relieve their misery. Those who need it can easily obtain the finest medical care. Those who are dying may receive hospice care and have the people closest to them at their side. We simply take all of this for granted, and it's a beautiful thing. But in this Christmas sea

Mandela and Carter: heroes, models

The world is grieving the loss of one of its brightest shining stars today. A script-writer could not have improved on the story of Nelson Mandela, incarcerated for a third of his life and then ascending to the presidency of his country. As I listen to the various commentators the morning after, I am reminded time and again of my personal experience with a man, also of dark skin, who spent half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. I hear statements that tell how Mr. Mandela touched lives around the world. And I hear questions like: How could a man in prison for 27 years come out without being bitter? I've been blessed to meet two men who had similar experiences. Both were named Carter. And as in the Mandela case, racism was involved. Rubin Hurricane Carter, wrongly convicted not just once, but twice, told me that one day he looked in an old, cracked mirror in the prison and saw the reflection of a man he didn't even know. It was the portrait of a

Think of prisoners when lighting the HOPE candle

I love the season of Advent...a time of expectation and anticipation. Dennis Bratcher, of the Christian Resources Institute, in explaining the meaning of this season, said: There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, first expressed by Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out from their bitter oppression. It is the cry of those who have experienced the tyranny of injustice... And that made me think of Advent, 2013, where we still have hundreds of thousands of people behind bars, who right now cry out from their bitter oppression. Many are experiencing the tyranny of injustice. Some have been wrongly convicted, many have been over-charged and/or over-sentenced. Many are experiencing cruel treatment. Many are suffering the torture of solitary confinement. These aren't just empty words of speculation...these are words of truth right from the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. At the beginning of each week of Advent, many Christians light a candle on

HFP: Giving reason for thanks

HFP's accomplishments in our daily dealings with prisoners are not exciting, breath-taking and exceptional. For the most part, they are simple, small steps toward making life just a little better for hundreds of Michigan at a time. In this Thanksgiving week--- Joe is thankful that HFP could be at his side for a Parole Board interview. Dotty is thankful that HFP's pressure resulted in portable toilets for her unit during bathroom construction. Herman is thankful to be a free man after 34 years. We testified at his public hearing. Tony is thankful that someone is willing to take time to help him fill out his commutation application form. James is thankful that we were able to pair him up with a fine defense attorney. Dave is thankful that our efforts helped bring his case to the attention of an Innocence Project. Jack is thankful for his new pair of glasses that we ordered for him. Alfreda is thankful that we made the drive to speak at h

Two rays of sunshine on one cloudy day

It is totally and completely November today. My little glassed-in office is in the woods, one mile in-land from Lake Michigan, and the November weather can be wintry. Today a "sou-wester" is howling, snow squalls suddenly appear, and the sky remains dark. It's not pleasant. It would be the most unlikely day to expect a ray of sunshine, especially in this business. Word of another gang problem in another prison, word from the family of a dying prisoner that they seem to be making no headway, word that an inmate with irritable bowel syndrome can get no medication, word of new retaliation by prison's what we live with in the HFP office. And it contributes to a dark and gloomy day. But God has the most amazing way of brightening the day. Amid all of the complaints of the day comes a note of thanks from a group of women who have been struggling with lack of adequate toilet facilities in a construction zone. We fought for them, and our communicatio

The kangaroo public hearing

I'm discouraged. The public hearing concept of the Michigan Parole Board is flawed, and I just can't see how it's ever going to get revised. A public hearing isn't granted to a prisoner often, and a chosen inmate is immediately elated. It offers hope for freedom. Little does he or she know how traumatic this experience will be. I participate whenever asked. It's HFP's goal to offer hope, and we must never refuse these opportunities. A three-hour drive to speak for just 2 minutes means nothing. We do it without complaint. This week I agreed to testify at a public hearing for a woman who had served 26 years on a charge of second degree murder. She didn't really commit the murder...but her boyfriend and his buddies did. She didn't even know it happened until later, but she was implicated, and she was convicted. Life in prison at the age of 20. She was angry. As a child she had been abused and neglected. She had children outside of marria

Michigan's train wreck

So here's a sample of what Matt and I have on the HFP plate today. A guy writes from Chippewa that his meds for acid reflux have been stopped. When he wrote a grievance, they simply told him to stop eating the food that causes the reflux. Well,that's the food they serve him...albeit in small portions. So, his only alternative: stop eating. And that's what he's doing. A guy writes from Cotton that his friend has been slashed in the face by members of a Latino gang, which, he claims, has rule over the prison yard. As a result of the attack, they're in lock-down. A woman wrote from the only facility for women, located in Ypsilanti, that the MDOC Director came to check on the problem of no toilets in one unit, due to remodeling and repairing. As a result, five portable toilets were brought in. But, to date, no one is allowed to use them. They're just setting there. The wife of a prisoner in Newberry reports that she still has no response to her pleas

Third world jail? Nope, Michigan prison

I've had it! We may not treat women this way! You've been reading and hearing about the toilet and shower shortages during remodeling and repairs in one of the women's prison units. At one point, 74 women with no toilet...inmates forced to go to the unit next door. Now the HFP office is hearing complaints from women in that unit, who were told to drink less water so they wouldn't have to go to the bathroom as often. These comments came right from a Michigan prison, operated with your tax dollars and mine: People are dehydrated, with sick stomachs, from not being able to go #2 One girl went to the desk and asked for a bag, she couldn't hold her poo any longer. Officer gave her a paper towel Some girls had to pee in their trash can Some officers don't even announce bathroom loud, and if you don't hear it and miss it, too bad...another two hours They constantly yell at us telling us to hurry up, hurry have 3 minutes to use the bathroo

Why we do the PB interview

I love to participate in Parole Board interviews. As the President of HFP, my presence is requested from time to time by inmates who must appear before a representative of the Michigan Parole Board for an interview. Often this request comes because the prisoner has no family or friends nearby, and sometimes it comes because he or she has no more family or friends on the outside. Either way, I love it, and I say this not to make me look like some sort of hero. That I am not. But here's the deal. An appearance before a Parole Board member might be rather rare in the inmate's life, and he or she wants to make a good impression. The minute the date is set, the prisoner cannot stop thinking about it. There's hope. There's a possibility the Parole Board might vote to give that person a second chance. Then there are the worries that invariably crop up in their minds: they might say the wrong things, they might just “blow it” and give the wrong impression; there

Home is where the heart is

I've been doing some fretting about the subject of home lately. Marcia and I have decided to downsize in our sunset years, and took the giant leap of purchasing a condo. Working with the bank was very difficult...I'm still not sure why. Now the condo needs a new furnace and new appliances. More money that we don't have. Then will come the painstaking process of emptying our present home, where we have spent the past 45 years and where we reared all of our children. My fretting stopped yesterday when my friend David called. David is a wrongly convicted sex offender who served 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Naturally he was anxious to be released, but now he's finding that freedom isn't all that exciting for one who is on a sex offender list. In fact, he's homeless. He finds a low-priced place that might fit into his tiny budget (he lives on disability income), only to learn that the dwelling is near a school. He would be committin

Bladder full, and no place to go

The sad treatment of women in the Michigan prison system reached another peak this week. Actually, it's been building up for weeks, as crews have been working in the prison system to improve the bathrooms...toilets and showers. The problem is, they start a job, close down some units...then don't show up for a few days. Then they start a new job without finishing the old job. And soon you have an array of toilets and showers that are shut down. . We've been receiving steady complaints about this, but yesterday came the worst one. Our friend Dora said that two weeks ago the construction crew closed their bathroom, leaving the unit with one toilet and one shower for 74 women. This week, the crew came in and shut down the final facility. Now, if the women must go to the bathroom, provisions have been made for them to go next-door to what is called the "acute unit." It's the secure area where the mentally disturbed people are housed. These people don

Maurice would be pleased

That divine intervention has played a key role in the start-up, continued operation, and future of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is not even a question. It has now reached the point of being an amazing phenomenon. HFP started out based on the dream of the late Maurice Carter, a wrongly convicted prisoner who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. I wasn't entirely excited about launching the project, originally called INNOCENT! But Maurice was determined that his negative situation should be turned into something positive. And so doors opened---a generous donor gave us free office space and supplies, a supportive attorney did all the tricky legal work to obtain our IRS 501c3 status, and our efforts began touching the lives of prisoners within days. But how could it keep on going? -It was being operated by one person already at retirement age -Its goals were quite unpopular in most circles -It couldn't generate enough revenue to make any type of progress -Its boar

Preaching without words

I've been looking at the mailers from major prison ministries...those with international programs. The materials come in full color with beautiful photographs, touching testimonies, and strong appeals for funds to help support their multi-million dollar budgets. Compare that to the HFP monthly newsletter. On occasion it shows up in color, thanks to a generous donor...but for the most part it's black and white, just one sheet with printing on both sides. If we could provide photographs, they wouldn't be very pretty. A prisoner with a leaky ileostomy bag begging for assistance in getting a replacement. A prisoner dying of cancer in the infirmary, begging to be home with family and friends in her final hours. A sex offender scared to death by threats from gang members, who doesn't dare leave his cell. A woman begging for extra toilet tissue and sanitary pads because of a medical problem. An inmate doubling over in pain from a hernia that prison doctors refuse

On letting Him do the rest

Pastor Nate straightened out my thinking today. He was talking about Jesus feeding the 5,000. He pointed out that the disciples were not expected to perform a miracle. Jesus went about doing just that: blessing the 5 loaves and 2 little fishes, and turning them into a feast for the crowd. He merely expected the disciples to do what they knew how to do: distribute and serve the food to the people. "That's all he expects of us," explained Pastor Nate. Just do what you know how to do in your ministry. Jesus will do the rest." I needed to hear that. I get so frustrated as we work with prisoners. I want to change the hearts of cruel prison doctors who with-hold treatment or cancel prescriptions. I want to find a way to train guards better so they don't abuse the mentally ill. I want to persuade Parole Board members that dying prisoners are not a threat to society, and should be permitted to die at home surrounded by loved ones, rather than in t

Keeping it in perspective

The mood was somber as son Matt and I discussed the annual HFP auction/fundraiser held this week. "If we were raising money for puppies and kitties we'd have packed the place," grumbled Matthew. Indeed. Fact of the matter is that we drew about 50 people at best. Fortunately for us they were generous friends, and we still raised about $5,000.00. We had hoped to raise at least double that. We deal with these serious prisoner issues on a daily basis, and somehow we think that everyone else is on the same page. We forget that we reside in an all-white, affluent society, and prisoners are not at the top of the popularity list. We're doing our best to educate and inform, but this simply pointed out that we have a long way to go. But back to the title of this little entry. When Matt and I opened the mail, our grumbling turned to gratitude. In two separate envelopes there were two checks from the State of Michigan. The first was a check from a female inmate wh

The highs and lows

When it comes to working with prisoners, I must confess that the lows usually win. It has certainly been that way for the past few months. First Otto ailing inmate who should have been home with his wife. Then Joey died, after a harrowing few days when the prison system refused to keep his wife apprised of daily issues at the end of his life. Then Linda died, a cancer patient who had no business dying in a prison infirmary, when she could have been surrounded by family and loved ones. These are the sucker-punches in this business, and they hurt. But the God of the valley is also the God of the mountains! This morning came the brief message from Herman: I'm going home! Herman is a parolable lifer, 54 years of age. He has served 34 years. A Parole Board agreed to give him parole once before, but then administrations changed in our state, and the new administration vetoed the decision. Can you imagine the heart-break? Prisoners contacted HFP and asked us

When thanks isn't deserved

I received such a kind note today from the wife of a prisoner, and I honestly felt guilty. Some background. I have worked to help Ray, an African American, for years. He's wrongly convicted, and he has now been in prison for 40 years. Ray is a fine, fine artist. He has painted beautiful murals in some of Michigan's prisons, and has gained the appreciation and respect of many of the prison staffers. He's a kind, gentle man who has many friends inside and outside of prison. I have sent letters on behalf of HFP to the Parole Board. I have featured many of his pieces of art in a prison art show. I have a treasured piece of his, painted just for me, hanging in the office. I drove to Detroit to attend an all-day symposium with participants from the US and Canada---attorneys, innocence people, journalists, investigators. Everyone was convinced of his innocence, and everyone pledged to work hard. But eventually everyone found other things to do, as it became appa

Jesus wept

The only time we read in the Bible about Jesus breaking down and weeping is over a death. Somehow, I think he's still weeping over deaths...especially deaths of prisoners. My heart breaks when we receive word of deaths behind bars. Our recent blog entries have discussed the deaths of Otto and Joey. We discussed those deaths in our recent newsletter. The sadness of those deaths didn't sweep over just family and swept right into the HFP office. And we were just recovering when two women in the Huron Valley facility---the only facility in the State of Michigan to house women---reported this weekend that Linda had died. She was in the infirmary with cancer, and for some reason, no one could persuade the Parole Board to let her go home to die. I just don't understand this stuff. I don't mean to digress, but I keep thinking of pieces I read in the newspaper about parolees who got out only to re-offend. They agree to release these people, but refuse

A special kind of doctor

I was in a meeting with officials from the Michigan Department of Corrections, Hospice of Michigan, and Corizon...the health care provider for Michigan prisons. A hospice official asked Mason Gill, VP of Michigan operations for Corizon, about prison doctors. Gill responded that it takes a very special kind of doctor to serve in the prisons. I'll second that motion. Let me tell you about a special kind of doctor. Mr. D. had been complaining about severe pain from a hernia for weeks. Finally, the large lump in his abdomen started turning color and the pain became unbearable. Mr. D. doubled over in pain and started vomiting. He was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital, and then transferred to one of the major hospitals in Lansing. There a surgeon discovered there was not only one, but two hernias...and that the major hernia was causing problems with the colon. He was very upset with the prison healthcare people for letting the situation get to this stage. The surgeon

No strings attached

We turned down a financial gift this week, and that hurt. But the strings attached to the gift hurt even more. Here's the background. HFP seeks funds from foundations simply because the gifts of our supporters can't quite cover the budget. Many of our partners are lower income people. The foundation considered a gift, but suggested these conditions: the foundation's name would have to be attached to every effort on our part to seek compassionate release for dying prisoners; the foundation's name must be used in a public announcement; and the foundation's name must be shared with the prisoner as well as the inmate's family in each individual case. In other words, HFP would become a publicity tool for the foundation. It's important to stress here that this is a fine foundation with a great reputation. Under different circumstances we would have no problem promoting its cause. But this proposal flies in the face of our entire philosophy. Ann

How best to tell the story?

Son Matt and I will be traveling out of town today. I have been invited to speak at a meeting of one of the popular service clubs...Matt will be there to set up and man the display. We're well aware of what to expect. The make-up of the audience is sure to be all-white, professional and semi-professional people, middle to upper income. It's early in the morning, and once again as I try to organize my comments, I'm struggling with how to connect with these people. Matt and I have both found that, unless we make a very compelling case, there will be yawns, blank stares, and glances at wrist watches. These aren't evil people. They're pillars of the community, and certainly many are responsible for major accomplishments in their town. They're nice. They're friendly. But they can't seem to relate. How do Matt and I make our case? How do we convince them that we're not just a couple of do-gooders showing kindness to people behind bars? We&

This little light of mine

I was listening to some country gospel music while driving the other day. Some good ol' boy came on to sing a song that wasn't terribly impressive musically, but I found the words arresting: For some folks, you're the only Bible they're gonna read! It is so easy to forget that when a driver refuses to pull over to the right lane, or we see another driving in an erratic manner while texting, or when someone cuts in line as we're standing in the supermarket. And while this old country gospel song is true for you and me, it is especially true for those persons who wear Christianity on their sleeve, like preachers, missionaries, chaplains, and leaders of Christian organizations and agencies. I bring this up because I found the actions, or I should say lack of action, most disappointing in two recent incidents involving prisoners. In the first, an inmate shared with me how much he loved church as a child, and how he revered the pastor of his church at that tim

MDOC violates it's own policy!

To establish my case, let me first give you direct quotes from MDOC Policy Directive 03.04.125: The appropriate facility head or designee shall be notified when an offender is seriously or critically injured or becomes seriously or critically ill. In such cases, the facility head shall ensure that attempts are made to immediately notify the offender's emergency contact person by telephone or certified mail. Whenever an emergency contact person is notified...staff shall ensure that the emergency contact person is kept informed of the offender's treatment and progress... Joey James Mercer 1960-2013 8/26 Joe's wife Sarah goes to his prison in Coldwater to visit him, only to be informed that he isn't there. He's being transported. She knows that he is seriously ill with liver disease, so she is worried. She is unable to learn anything more. 8/27 HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS learns of Sarah's plight and joins forces to try to find her husband. 8/28 Prisone

The impersonal MDOC

Two separate cases that kept us busy in the HFP office last week underscored, once again, the callousness of the Michigan Department of Corrections. In the first instance, the wife of a prisoner was trying to find her husband. She went to visit him, and was told that he was not there...he was being transported. She knows that he is seriously ill with a liver disease, so she feared the worst. But no one would tell her. For a couple days she could not find her husband! MDOC policy clearly states that if someone is critically ill, the person closest to that prisoner must be notified right away. Not only that, but his wife should have been apprised of everything happening after that. When we questioned someone at the state level about that policy, we were informed that it is interpreted differently at different institutions. Hard to imagine how else it can be interpreted, but that's what happened. The man was being rushed to a hospital in an ambulance with liver disease/end

Sequel, The Pathetic Parole Board

Robert Otto Bryan: 1937-2013 I penned the entry seen below last March, after the Michigan Parole Board gave my friend Otto a flop. I had sent a letter to the board on behalf of HFP outlining all of his medical issues. In typical fashion, the board looked at the seriousness of the crime 40 years ago, but apparently failed to take a good look at an ailing patient, and a changed man. I was saddened to hear from Otto's widow this past week that his failing body just couldn't take it any more. With typical indifference, prisoners learned about his death sooner than his wife. With typical insensitivity, he had been denied a canister of oxygen for his COPD, according to prisoners, because that was considered not unlike carrying a bomb around. With typical inefficiency, his belongings will not be returned to his wife for about 28 days. The good news is that Otto can breathe just fine now, and he's without pain. The bad news is that thousands of God's children are

More reflections on MLK's dream

On this weekend observing the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I love to hear Dr. King's speech one more time. He was not only one of America's great heroes, he was certainly one of our finest orators. All of this talk about King's dream has me thinking about how my life has been touched by African Americans. Things took a big step forward in the 1970s when I met an itinerant black preacher named Cy Young. He was a guest on my radio talk show and his shtick was MLK speeches. He had memorized almost all of them, and his recitation was amazing. He was a big black man with a big deep voice and his delivery was mesmerizing. That was really the first time I had actually listened to the I HAVE A DREAM speech. And it touched me forever. Cy and I became very close friends. We did programs together. I got him involved in ministry with HIS MEN, both in churches and in prisons. Cy died from injuries suffered when he was struck by a car. But his impact on my l

She had a dream

It was in August, 2013, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's famous I HAVE A DREAM speech. The doorbell rang, and I was annoyed. The Detroit Tigers were playing in the 9th inning, and I didn't appreciate the disruption. A very nice looking young lady was at the door with a pad of paper. Was I concerned about pollutants being dumped into the Great Lakes? Frankly, at the moment, I was not. I was hoping that Miguel Cabrera would hit a ball over the fence. I tried to be polite. The woman, probably in her 20s, was well dressed and obviously on a mission. She knew her subject backward and forward. I didn't have to donate money, although it would be appreciated. Would I at least sign the sheet showing my neighbors that I cared? Would I consider sending a letter about this issue to others? A template would be provided. I hurriedly signed my name to the sheet so that I could get back to the ball game. The more I thought about it after she left, the more

Give me your tired, your poor...

As an advocate for prisoners---many of whom are lonely and forgotten---I am always saddened by news accounts of people whose lives haven't gone right. A disturbing story is coming from Grand Rapids this week. The body of a woman was found along a nature trail. She had been murdered somewhere else, and dumped there. The story goes on to give the identity of the woman, aged 47, and then to explain that she had a history of prostitution and was known to frequent an area of Grand Rapids where hookers often plied their trade. It makes me wonder how much effort police will put into solving this crime in comparison to a similar situation in which a prominent socialite might have been brutally assaulted and killed. In this case, is it just another hooker? Will anyone really miss her, or pressure authorities to find the killer? How tragic it is that a woman at the age of 47 is still on the streets, all feelings of self worth obviously long gone. Had she ever been married? Did

The story lives on

Great news from Winston-Salem North Carolina: The Maurice Carter play has been accepted for a staged reading today. JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER is a powerful drama written by Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne of Toronto. For years these two fine playwrights have been tweaking the script and trying to pry open doors for public exposure. Today, success! The play will be read on a stage at the National Black Theatre Festival, which is usually attended by more than 50,000 people. Playing the role of Maurice Carter will be veteran Kalamazoo actor Von Washington, who is also an internationally known playwright. The story line has two important messages: Injustice is unacceptable, and friendship crosses all boundaries. How amazing is it that the story of an indigent African American from Gary, Indiana, who was wrongly convicted in the 1970s, is still making an impact today? Who would have ever suspected that the bond between Maurice Carter and me would be so strong that it woul

Enjoy the little things

I'm thinking a lot about Maurice Carter these days. He was released from prison this week,in the year 2004. I've never experienced anything quite like it. I'm not sure you can even imagine what it must be like to have been out of touch with the world for 29 years. The video camera had not been invented yet. No one knew what a cell phone was. The internet wasn't even part of the English language. I had to teach him how to shop in a convenience store. He would pick out one item and take it to the counter, and the clerk thought he planned to check out. Not so, he was just setting it there while he went and looked for another item. I was forced to intervene before the frustrated clerk exploded. Maurice Carter's presence in my life taught me many lessons, but there was this huge one: Enjoy the little things. I still remember the day that I rented an apartment for another prisoner just released. He stood in his apartment late at night, and marveled at t

Tragic story of wrongful conviction

Because of national news stories, much attention is being focused these days on the plight of young black men in America. An exceptionally high percentage of them end up behind bars. I'd like to share a story with you that didn't make the national news. I'm afraid it's more common than we want to believe. I'm so aware of it because I was with Andre' in prison this week, trying to get him some badly needed legal assistance. Andre' was 21, living with his girl friend and a 1 year old baby, when things came crashing down. An acquaintance was shot and killed on the other side of town. Andre' was home at the time. But somehow, a friend of a friend dropped his name to police, and he became a suspect. He was picked up and questioned and questioned and questioned. He was told to confess to the crime because witnesses already tied him to the crime. It's very important to insert two facts here: number one, he was learning disabled and could not

Hot enough for you?

I've been watching the various ways people are dealing with the nation's heat wave on Facebook. Some have swimming pools in their yard or in the neighborhood, some live along or near Lake Michigan or an inland lake, some are blessed to have central air conditioning in their homes. While I, too, enjoy air conditioning in our home, in my car and in our office, I am living in a slightly different world: the world of prisoners. Prisoners, for the most part, have no escape from this heat. A friend in a Nevada prison contacted me during the last heat wave to say just how terrible it was. I wonder how he's doing now. One of our supporters in Las Vegas said it was 117 there yesterday. Many of the activities in Michigan prisons are canceled when it is this hot. The heat is brutal in the prisons. One inmate told me that he went out into the yard in the evening, where it was still 85 degrees. But he said that was still cooler than the air in his cell. Another reports tha

More thoughts on wrongful convictions

Almost every day, after hearing what I do for a living, someone will say, "Well, all prisoners claim to be innocent." Not true. The truth is that most prisoners know those who are innocent. When I worked to free Maurice Carter, some admitted that they belonged in prison, but they thanked me for helping Maurice because they knew he was innocent. I just received a letter this morning from a guy who claims wrongful conviction, and it sets my mind to thinking about situations like that again. Do you ever wonder what it would be like, what your state of mind would be like, if you found yourself behind bars for something you didn't do? I'm not sure I could stand it. I know that I could not have remained the gentleman that Maurice Carter was. When my friend Kenny Wyniemko was in prison, wrongly convicted, his father died. He was unable to attend the funeral, and it broke his heart. In the letter received this morning, Leo tells me that his two grandmothers die

Thumbs up, Rep. Haveman; Thumbs down, Sen. Jones

Advocates for Michigan prisoners were encouraged by an AP story today showing that Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers are considering changes to prison sentencing guidelines. It's about time. 15 years ago the guidelines were made tougher, and they stuck. But the times, they are a-changin' and the state now has a corrections budget that exceeds $2-billion. Everything is Republican controlled right now in Michigan, but the Guv is a bit of a maverick, and at his side he has Representative Joe Haveman from Holland, who heads up the House Appropriations Committee. Representative Haveman is a conservative, but we happen to know that he has taken an interest in prisoners, and more than just a passing interest. Says Representative Haveman: “Being tough on crime above all other concerns simply hasn't created a safer society.” His statement is backed up by actual statistics. Then comes along Senator Rick Jones, from Grand Ledge, a former sheriff who heads up the Senate

500 too many

Do you suppose government officials in Texas are proud today? Their state has just completed its 500th execution. Kimberly McCarthy, a woman of color, was 52. I caught myself wondering why I was feeling so somber yesterday, and then it dawned on me that Dr. David Schuringa of Crossroad Bible Institute had sent out a press release that one of their graduates was being executed. Why, you may ask, does that hit me so hard? Well, a little background is in order here. In 2006 a prisoner with whom I had established correspondence on death row in Texas asked me if I would be his spiritual adviser at the time of his execution. It wasn't high on my list of priorities, but I agreed to do it. Until you go to death row, hear the horror stories, watch the way the inmates are treated, see the indifference among staff, feel the pain of family and friends, and experience the feeling of total helplessness...not until then should you express strong opinions about the death penalty. To t

Blood sugar blues

Statistics show that about 8% of Americans suffer from diabetes. My guess is that the number also holds true in prison. Michigan usually has around 45,000 people in prison, so do the math. We have many diabetics in prison, and from the increasing number of reports we are getting, many claim inadequate treatment. Many diabetes suffer from a condition called neuropathy, a painful foot problem that requires special shoes. Michigan's prison system decided on doing away with the the line of doctor-ordered shoes, and use prison labor to make their own. From all reports, it's not working. One inmate reports he has gone through 7 pairs of these inferior shoes in six months. The sizes aren't right, and they rip apart at the seams. Because of these problems he's had numerous sores on his feet. Another report indicates that the medical care system has been switching to different and less costly types of insulin. It's something that we cannot confirm, and our medic

Wrongly convicted? You'd better listen!

I'm especially reminded of those words this week. That's what Rubin Hurricane Carter told me back when he and I were working to free the late Maurice Carter. The myth seems to be that all prisoners claim innocence, which is not true. But some protest their innocence the rest of their lives, and those are the ones that we must listen to, according to Rubin. HFP is not an Innocence Project, but we do try to find help for those inmates who seem to have compelling evidence of a wrongful conviction. We were heartened in two cases this week. David, who has claimed innocence from day one and who has now exhausted all court avenues, remains in prison for life. BUT, he and I found a glimmer of hope when a retired state police officer, now on the Parole Board, believed him and recommended that I help in attracting the attention of an innocence project. A retired judge visited him this week, as a volunteer assisting two innocence organizations. After a two hour discussion, he

F is for father; F is for forgiveness

I heard a television commentator discussing fatherhood this week, as he wished all of the fathers in his audience a Happy Father's Day. He said that, as a father, he liked a quote from Henry Ford: Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. He was right on the money. I love being a father, but I'm the first to admit that I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I hope that I kept correcting them, when I started over again...with more intelligence. I'm blessed to have a wonderful relationship with my kids and our grandchildren, which means that they all are forgiving people. They don't have a perfect dad or grandpa. I'm especially mindful of that this year, because in recent days I had to be the message carrier between an elderly prisoner and his adult son. The father is a friend. I do not know the son. Sadly, it didn't turn out well. The two were reportedly very close at one time, but some demons in the father

A few rotten apples

Every once in a while, I need a reality check in this business of working with prisoners. Today I am reminded, again, that there is a reason for prisons, and there are reasons why some people belong there. When my nephew showed interest in hiring a former prisoner in his company, I hesitantly encouraged him to go ahead. At first, it appeared the business decision was a good one. Sales were up. Things were looking good. Then came the bad news: A telephone caller asked for a personal meeting, and it turns out the former inmate's dark past is also part of his present life. Things are not good, he's been behaving inappropriately, and there's every reason to believe he's going to go right back where he came from. That makes me so sad. The man had a chance to do things right. It reminds me of our efforts to help Ronny some years ago. We got him out, got him a place to live, got him going in a business of his own. He would be at my side to speak in churches...

Medical un-care

Years ago my friend David called me from prison just to chat. He told me that before this telephone call he had been reading to a prisoner. I asked him what that was all about. He explained that the man had recently had eye surgery. because one of his eyes was bad. Problem was the surgery was done on the wrong eye, and now the guy couldn't see. "And they call us the criminals," David said. For some time I thought that was an isolated incident, but now I'm not so sure. The HFP office is receiving atrocious reports daily. A woman reported that a friend of hers in Huron Valley had cancer surgery and a very devastating bout of chemo therapy, only to be informed later that she never had cancer. My informant said the state had been getting her friend and another prisoner with the same last name mixed up. A prisoner reported to me today that personnel in health-care in his facility have been taking away meds from prisoners who have been on that particular regimen

A kinder, gentler DOC

I had forgotten the words of former President George H.W. Bush, who back in 1988 called for a "kinder, gentler nation." Last week I had an opportunity to hear the Director of the MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Daniel Heyns, talk about his hopes and goals for the MDOC. I heard about lower recidivism rates, and improved training for corrections officers. But I heard nothing about a kinder, gentler DOC. And that's one of the things we really need. My thoughts turned to that today because the office of HFP is dealing with several issues, once again, in the women's facility. All of Michigan's female inmates are housed in a large complex at Ypsilanti, Michigan. First and foremost on our plate, as many of you know, is the toilet paper issue. New restrictions give the women only two small rolls of single-ply tissue per week...tissue that must also take the place of facial tissue and paper towels, because the inmates don't get anything like that. We h

Honk if you love a reporter

I'm going to digress this morning. For just once, I'm going to get away from prisoner issues. While it's true that I am a prisoner advocate, and a life-long church musician, what I really am is a reporter. I'm not in the broadcasting business anymore, but it's kinda like a cop...once a cop, always a cop. Same with being a journalist. I'm coming to the defense of journalists this morning in the wake of the Oklahoma disaster. One cannot have been watching all of this coverage without gaining new appreciation for the street reporter...the journalist out there in the thick of things. I'm so tired of hearing the phrase "liberal media." I could identify with those Oklahoma reporters. As a very young newsman I have spent all night in severe weather headquarters on occasion, broadcasting updates to the people in my community. My personal politics had nothing to do with my desire to make sure our listeners were informed. Thanks to the liber

Thanks, for what?

A friend came up to me after church this morning to thank me for all that we are doing. While I very much appreciated this man's kindness, I had to explain that some days we really aren't doing all that much. A woman behind bars was told by police ten years ago that she failed a lie detector test. She was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. She claims innocence. All she wants is a copy of that polygraph exam. I'm striking out trying to find it. A man in the UP claims he is bleeding, and doctors say he is dying. The warden says he's being treated. It's too far away for me to go, and too far away for his support system. So here we sit in the middle. What is really going on? I was encouraged by a Parole Board member to enlist the aid of an Innocence Project for an inmate whose story seemed very credible. We seem to be getting nowhere fast. The women in Ypsilanti are bombarding this office with complaints about the new toilet tissue re

Happy Mother's Day?

I'm thinking of a little four-year-old girl early on this Mother's Day morning, as I sip my first cuppa. Our board member Judy VanderArk was making a prison visit at the women's facility in Ypsilanti Friday. She saw this little girl all dressed up, sitting with her grandmother in the waiting room. Judy complimented her on her pretty outfit. The child explained that she was going to visit her was her mom's birthday. We see so many experiences like this in prison, and each one can quickly move a person to tears. I'm thinking of that little girl today, because her mother will not be with her on Mother's Day. I'd like to ask, today, that we take a moment to remember mothers behind bars. Out of curiosity, I contacted our local Sheriff, Gary Rosema, to find out how many mothers might be in the Ottawa County Jail. Well, right here in our lily white county that we think is such an exemplary place to live, there are 41 women in jail. 26 of the