All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Patrina finally arrived

I don't know anything about Patrina Brown. All I know is that she was a prisoner in Michigan, and she got sick. Illness is just as ravaging, just as devastating, in prison as it is in open society. That's what happened to Patrina.

There's only one prison for women in Michigan, and one of our friends there sent me this short message this week: "I just thought I would let you know that Trina Brown passed away last night at the hospital (prison infirmary). She got pneumonia and her heart gave out. I don't think she has any family."

When I shared that message to friends, the wife of a prisoner said to me, "I don't even want to imagine what happened to that poor lady. Was she getting any decent amount of meds? Did she die of a broken heart? The MDOC makes me sick."

I pressed my friend in prison for more information, but didn't learn much more. "Patrina Brown was her name. She passed two nights ago. I think someone was working on it, but she didn't make it that far. She is way better off than spending 9 more years here."

I can only agree with that last statement.

I am confident that Trina was met with open arms by the Gentle Shepherd who shared these words: "I was in prison and you visited me."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How was your day?

You don't even have to ask that question to get the answer---from your spouse after work, from your kids after school, from the guy next to you at the bar or diner, from the woman ahead of you at the check-out. Stuff happens. We have tales to tell at the end of the day.

It's no different in prison, but the stories of prisoners are different, and we would do well to listen.

One of my friends in a southern Michigan prison emailed me yesterday to say that a young kid, 21 years of age and in prison on a non-violent charge, was nearly stomped to death in his cell by his roommate the night before. The assailant had jimmied the locks on the cell first, so the guards couldn't get in to stop him. He brutally beat the young man for about a half hour while corrections officers had to nearly tear down the door with sledge hammers and pry bars. They'll have to rebuild the whole front of the cell before it can be used again. Quite a scene. Blood everywhere.

Word is the young man may survive.

One of my friends in the women's facility sent me a very short email message: Trina passed away last night at the hospital. She got pneumonia and her heart gave out. I don't think she has any family.

How was your day?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Standing in a cold line

I'm the first to admit that as I grow older, the chilly temperatures seem to bother me more. But I seldom think of it because our home has a good furnace, our car has a good heater, and the thermostat is always turned up when I go into the office.

But then I heard from the girl friend of a prisoner the other day. He's in one of the several prisons in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I know enough about the UP to know that those folks really get a heavy dose of winter weather.

Well listen to this: Chow line is outside at this prison. So is the med line, and it's out in the wide open...not a bit of protection from the wind. They moved the med line to just about the farthest area from the housing units a couple years ago. The men have to stand back behind a line several yards on the pavement and wait until each person is served individually at the walk-up window. Who wants to stand out in the cold long enough to wait for nasty little portions of food? Who wants to stand in the line outdoors for a cold-only breakfast at 5:30? What about the elderly and those in poor health? And then go to health care call-outs for meds, just to stand in line outside many times a day?

The good thing is the state issues each prisoner a thin pair of brown gloves to keep their hands warm.

Meanwhile, I see notices on the TV to take care of your's too cold to leave them outside.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

New style, old tunes

I've got a fun evening planned for Thursday the 24th, and I'd like to invite you to join me.

I'm going to be jamming with some of my favorite musicians, playing some of my favorite gospel tunes. I've been plunking out familiar gospel melodies for about the past 69 years, but these guys are serious musicians and they're really good. John Mulder is leader of the pack, a recording artist whose vocal style and guitar work are an absolute delight. Lee Ingersoll, our son-in-law, is not only a fine singer but an excellent percussionist. Cal Olson is one of the most versatile musicians I've ever met. He not only sings, but he plays a wide variety of instruments. David Mulder, John's brother, is a gifted singer and horn player.

We don't bring a note of music with us...just titles of hymns, and simple information like words to the verses, what key we play the tune in, who plays the intro, who sings, etc. It's very informal, requests are accepted, and it's fun. Really fun!

The session will run from 7-9 PM in a coffee house called Mocha-n-Music on Cherry Avenue in Hudsonville, and it has been scheduled for an important reason: HFP is very low on funds. This is a fund-raiser. The musicians take no compensation...all money donated goes to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, and is tax deductible.

Come and be blessed. Bring others who like this kind of music. Coffee and taste treats are available.

If you live in our part of the world, I'll hope to see you Thursday evening.

If you're too far away to make the drive, find out how you can hear this music on our album SWEET FREEDOM.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

YOU can do something

I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Cokie Roberts of National Public Radio this week. I took away something from her overview of things happening in Washington that can apply to you and me and our work with prisoners.

It's no secret that our elected officials in Washington have done a terrible job. But the important reminder that I picked up is that these people are elected to office. By us! We can put pressure on them to demand change. We can elect replacements if we're not satisfied. Which then switches the attention from them to us. If we don't tell them how we feel, and if we don't go to the polls, WE'RE TO BLAME!

Why am I talking about that from the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS desk?

Well, I'm just putting together the February HFP newsletter, and the front page is about Michigan prison violence, particularly in two facilities.

I've had my belly full. I'm sick of these stories. I worry for our friends in these two facilities, as well as some others where violence is prevalent. But I'm contacting the same people in the same agency about problems every day; problems of abuse, health care, visitation, you name it. My voice is weak.

But the point is, YOUR tax dollars are being used to run these prisons. The State of Michigan owns and operates them, and YOU elect the people who run the state. So now it's your turn. Don't do it to help us. Do it out of compassion for these poor people who are scared out of their wits, who don't dare leave their rooms, who don't dare look their neighbor in the eye for fear of injury or death. The names of your state representatives and state senators are listed on the internet. It's time for action.

Incarceration is the punishment for prison inmates. Terror must not be included in that punishment.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Superman don't live here!

The appeals for help from behind bars seemed more than we could deal with this week.

What can you do about the gang violence here? Nearly ever day there are fights, stabbings, assaults and even rapes. The powers-that-be don't seem to care as long as it's not the guards who are injured.

What can you do to help a woman in the infirmary? She suffered a heart attack, and she suffered loss of memory from her dialysis. She has no one on the outside. Another prisoner is trying to help her with a medical commutation.

I'm not a criminal. I'm an alcoholic suffering from mental illness. I was transferred up north because of my many grievances and complaints regarding inadequate health care. My wife is in a hospice facility in Grand Rapids, and can travel only a short distance. She asks for me every day. All I want is a transfer down below. All I can think of is my precious wife suffering without me at her side. It's more than I can bear.

I need a transfer. The gangs seem to run this prison. There are stabbings every day. Every day there is fresh blood on the walkways. The gang situation is out of control.

My son doesn't want to get baptized now. His medical commutation was denied, even though the doctor said he could have as little as six months to live. He is blaming God, and is really sour on religion right now. I don't know what to say to him any more. He has lost all hope. Frankly, so have I.

I jokingly stated that Superman doesn't live here. But I conclude this piece with faith and hope, because we take our marching orders from Jesus, who says that we visit him every time we visit our friends in prison.

Even though you and I know that God can move mountains, I hope you can feel the pain and the anguish in these very real pleas for help.

We're already running out of new year money...we're going to need more to continue. That, and lots and lots of prayers. For us and for them.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Let me repeat the question

So here's the latest chapter from Lois.

Her son Kevin, now home and on parole---thank God---was mistakenly arrested! Can you believe that?

A week ago, on a Sunday night, someone is at the door and says Kevin violated his parole. No paper work to prove it. His Parole Agent was not involved, and didn't even know this was going on.

Now you gotta remember that this is not a normal situation. Kevin was incarcerated as a little kid, a juvenile, on a mickey mouse charge...mainly because he was and is mentally challenged. Thus began a long, rocky road in the prison system which doesn't know how to deal with the mentally ill. His mother deserves a badge of honor for her fight all of these years to keep him alive and well, and to get him outta there. It was a living hell...serious injury, serious abuse, suicide attempts. But Kevin is free, and he's doing well.

But then someone says he violated parole and must go to jail. Lois is beside herself, because she remembers that day years ago when Kevin went to jail and had a meltdown which resulted in a trip back to the Michigan prison system.

Well fortunately, that didn't happen this time. Kevin's medications kicked in and he handled it well. Lois was able to contact the parole officer and persuade her that there had been a mistake. She knew Kevin had not violated parole. And within four hours, he was released from jail.

No one is explaining the error. No one is apologizing for this terrible episode.

If family is important to the MDOC, and if we really do want to take measures to make sure the mentally ill get appropriate care, there MUST be some safeguards against situations like this.

Shameful. Unacceptable.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Is family really important?

I've told you about Lois DeMott, the founder of Citizens for Prison Reform, and her untiring efforts on behalf of her son when he was in prison. Kevin was in his teens and struggled with some mental health issues. His mother was relentless in fighting for his care and eventual release.

So it was no surprise this month when Lois took up the cause of Ron. Ron is not a criminal, he's an alcoholic. Whether he belongs in prison is a moot point...he's there. His addiction led to a traffic accident that the state ruled was criminal, and thus came incarceration. He doesn't have much longer to serve, but now his days are torture.

Six months before he went to prison Ron suffered serious injuries from a 28 foot fall, and was placed on permanent disability. You're heard enough of our reports to know that getting appropriate medical care behind bars is a real challenge. Perceived inadequate treatment leads to complaints, and when prisoners complain they're a problem. One solution to that problem is to send the inmate to another facility. I must add here that Ron is from the Grand Rapids area. He claims that his persistence in seeking proper treatment resulted in his transfer to Newberry, which is not next door.

Now let me tell you about Ron's immediate support group: his family. His mother is 84, and in the hospital with a leg infection. His wife of 32 years is in hospice care with terminal cancer. His daughter says she asks for her husband regularly, and a visit would be incredibly therapeutic. Ron told me that all he can think of is his wife suffering without him at her side. His words to me: “It's more than I can bear.”

So Lois simply asked the MDOC if Ron could be transferred to a facility close to home. Mrs. Ron can travel no longer than an hour...but she could make a visit to a facility nearby. This husband and wife need each other. His elderly mom can't travel that far, either. And after all, Director Dan Heyns has said that families of prisoners are important.

Not this time. In a very short message, Communications Director Russ Marlan pointed out that the state gets requests like this all the time. Said Marlan: “I know it's probably not the answer his family was looking for.”

No kidding.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On loaves and fishes

People who show strength in times of adversity are so amazing!

The late Maurice Carter was perhaps the best example of that. My relationship with this kind and gentle man was life-changing for me. I could not imagine serving 29 years in prison on a wrongful conviction. Beyond that, I could not imagine his attitude after spending all that time behind bars. I would have been a raging bull, I'm afraid.

My reason for bringing up the subject is a short note that I received at the HFP office this week. We had received a kind donation from my friend Brenda, who doesn't really have the means to be giving money to HFP. What she does have is a big heart, and that's the amazing thing about this beautiful woman. If you had all the facts before you, you'd see that she has serious physical issues that affect her mobility and even her eye sight. She has dealt with more pain than you and I will ever have to endure. And yet her faith is rock solid, her optimism remains high, and she takes on the role of encouraging me in this work with prisoners. How special is that?

With her gift to HFP, which she considered to be a small contribution, she enclosed this note: I pray the Lord to bless you and HFP. He takes the five loaves and fishes and makes them WAY more than enough. That's our God!

Yes he does.

Thank you, Lord, for the loaves and fishes.

Thank you, Lord, for Bren.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Happy new year?

Major issues in Michigan prisons took no holiday vacation.

Minutes after the new year arrived, word of problems also arrived at the HFP office.

From one facility in the UP, one of our good friends was assaulted in a prison bathroom. Later he contacted his family and asked that they try to persuade his warden to place him in protective custody. He was fearing for his life. Happy New Year!

From another facility in the UP came word that violence at that prison continued in full force. An inmate was stabbed in the eye. We are told that when he was rushed to the hospital, they also discovered that he had a broken neck from being stomped on. The story doesn't end there. Word to our office was that by the time guards returned to the man's cell to take care of the victim's property, they discovered that it had all been stolen. Happy New Year!

Speaking of stolen property, an incarcerated pastor reported to us that he and his comrades were locked in the gym of an Ionia prison for four hours during a shake down. That wasn't the major problem. When he returned to his cell, he discovered that his legal work for the past 6 months on a federal appeal was gone. When he complained, guards informed him that he's a prisoner and his property can be searched at any time. Search is one thing, he argued, but theft is another. That's when they transferred him to another prison. Happy New Year!

And those women who are complaining about the heat? Some guy came in the other day to check on the problem, and turned up the fans on the cold air return! No one is certain whether he was just having a bad day or whether this is retaliation for the girls griping about the frigid temperatures. They're hunkering down and adding more layers of clothing. Happy New Year!

FYI, thanks to your support and gifts, we're at the side of all of these people trying to help when and where we can.