All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Michigan's shameful treatment of mentally ill inmates

It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s wrong with Michigan prisoner Mr. T.

You don’t have to spend hours trying to decipher the awkward hand-writing in a meandering 5-page letter, or the stack of poorly prepared grievances, or the attached medical and psychological reports.

Here’s what you’ll find:

           -two suicide attempts
          -personal attacks by inmates
          -verbal abuse by guards
          -various medical issues, some serious, some treated, some not
          -misconduct tickets, often for “insolence.”

Mr. T. is mentally ill.

This subject keeps rearing its ugly head as Matt and I try to address the problems of inmates.  A good share of our prisoners are mentally challenged, staff-members aren’t properly trained to handle them, and many fellow-prisoners don’t know how to deal with them.  As a result, tragic stories, hundreds of them very much like this…and nothing happening!

Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see how staff members say unkind things to this man, how doctors finally give up on trying to deal with his aches and pains, how the psychologist struggles with medication issues, how fellow-inmates treat him poorly, and ultimately how he feels alone and abandoned.  And, it would be easy to laugh this off as many staff members do, joking that it’s just another deranged person ranting and raving. 

But, here’s the problem:  Mr. T. is a child of God.  He’s also a son, possibly a brother, possibly a father, possibly an uncle.  Jesus loves him.  Through no fault of his own, he got sent to the wrong institution for care.  He’s now a ward of the state, and that means our tax dollars are being spent, or misspent. 

Another inmate complained this week that things are crawling around beneath her skin.  Different symptoms, same problem.  She thinks no one cares.  She insists no one is helping her. She's mentally ill.

And the Parole Board, also an arm of the MDOC, isn’t helping matters.  In a recent interview, a mentally challenged inmate was told that she couldn’t be considered for release to a psychiatric hospital until she started behaving!  Duh!

The state admits that about 25% of its prisoners have mental issues.  We think it’s closer to 50%!  Either way, it’s past time to do something about it.  You must talk to your state legislators.  Go the Governor.  Go to the Director of the Department of Corrections.  Your church should protest.  Mental health advocates should be up in arms.  It’s going to take a lot of pushing and shoving.  We’re going to have to cause a lot of commotion.  But there’s no alternative. 

Michigan prisons are not mental institutions, which means that 25-50% of their occupants are not being cared for properly.  And their problems are not simple issues that HFP can help solve. These people deserve real help.  Now!

What are you going to do about it? 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Holiday season: A time to pray for prisoners

Last minute Christmas shopping worries?

Wondering if you got the right gift for the right person?

Wondering if everyone will get along at the holiday family gathering?

Our Christmas week suggestion suggestion:  Give the gift of prayer...prayer for hurting, lonely, needy children of God huddling behind bars.

Right now, there’s a prisoner feeling lonely at Christmas time, because family and friends abandoned him/her years ago.  Fewer than 15% of Michigan inmates even receive visits!

Right now, there’s a prisoner wishing he could see his children, but his wife has obtained a court-order forbidding visits.

Right now, there’s a prisoner contemplating suicide because he feels friendless, or because he has been raped, or because he is being victimized by gang-bangers.

Right now, a prisoner is struggling with pain because of improper, inappropriate, or just plain lack of any medical care.

Right now, a mentally ill prisoner is so drugged that he/she has no idea whether Christmas is coming or has already gone by.

Right now, there’s a prisoner so worried about a Parole Board visiting coming up in 2015 that holiday joy is elusive.

Right now, a prisoner cannot locate family members, and is wondering whether they will even have a merry Christmas.

Right now, a prisoner who cannot read well, cannot write well, cannot spell well, is worried about how to fill out an application form for commutation.

Right now, a gifted musician wishes that he/she could participate in the annual Christmas Eve service at a home church, but will settle for accompanying prisoners in worship.

Right now, a senior citizen behind bars feels all alone.  Family and friends have long since passed away.

I hope you get the picture.  This is just the beginning of a very long list.

It’s our obligation to let prisoners know they are not forgotten by God, or by his people.

Let us pray.

Monday, December 15, 2014

There's more than one way to touch a life

I refuse to call this a defense of HFP philosophy.  I prefer to call it an explanation.

When telling of our work to church groups, I always explain that we do not teach Bible lessons in prison…other groups are already doing that.  We do not openly try to convert inmates to Christianity.  Other prison missionaries make that their goal.  Our efforts are Christian in nature, because we believe we are showing compassion to inmates in the name of Jesus, but in a very practical way.  I usually quote St. Francis of Assisi:  Preach the gospel every day.  Use words if necessary.

I go way back to the days when we started this organization in 2001.  The name of our agency was still INNOCENT at that time.  I had been asked by the Wisconsin Innocence Project to assist in helping a guy who was wrongly convicted.  During my two days in Madison, I didn’t help free the man from prison.  But I learned that he was completely estranged from his offspring due to his outrageous behavior in an earlier life.  The man was a Christian now, repentant for what he had done, and in prison for something he didn’t do.  To my huge satisfaction, I was able to convince his son to reluctantly re-establish a relationship with his dad.  He did, and his sibs followed.  Mr. V died a while back, surrounding by a loving family.  In my mind, that accomplishment was as huge as freeing him from prison!

Since then we have made similar strides with other prisoners. 

I’m especially mindful of Mac, who had lived a terrible life and in doing so had alienated his parents and his sister to the point that his family wouldn’t even let him get to know or visit his only child.  He was alone in the world and in poor health when he decided that Christianity was his only route to peace. 

Thanks to HFP and a lot of divine intervention, we were able to put relationships back together at least to a point where there were visits, people became civil with each other, and he was able to see his daughter before he died.  We also took steps to improve his poor medical care behind bars, and to stop abusive treatment by prison staff.  He died in peace.

We tried, to a lesser degree, to do some serious last-minute damage control in the case of Rocky before he died.

I continue to beat this tired old drum, because I know that many Christian prison ministries are doing very well financially, but ours continues to struggle, and I feel that it’s because many believers think that Bible study and overt evangelism is more important than our “action with compassion.”

I was reminded of all this today, when I saw that a Michigan prisoner who has personally watched us in action gets it, even if some of our friends may not.  I received this kind message from Eddie this morning:

I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for the many selfless and compassionate acts that you have rendered to so many of us who are incarcerated. In the name of Jesus I pray that the Good Lord will bless you and yours in the year to come, and that He will bestow a special blessing on you this Christmas Season. May the memory of Rocky and Mac, both whom the Lord saved for Himself in their last days, be a witness to the great things that God has done through your willingness to be His humble and obedient servant. God Bless you!

No argument with St. Francis!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Human Rights Day: Phhtttt!

Isn’t it ironic that today, December 10, is Human Rights Day?

Human Rights Day is a global observance, not a national holiday, and nothing that will give kids a day off, close banks or stop your daily mail.  It was developed by the UN way back in the 1940s, following the Second World War. 

Its observance is marred today.

ON THE NATIONAL LEVEL, The United States has been disgraced by newly released reports showing that our country used torture on detainees who, it was believed, may have been involved with or had contact with those who brought about the 9/11 attack in New York.  It’s a shameful day in U.S. history.

But torture isn’t limited to just the national and international arenas.

ON THE STATE LEVEL, our office is dealing with a first-hand report from inside the women’s prison located in Ypsilanti regarding a mentally ill inmate:  The last 18 months she has been locked in an Observation Cell without showering, reading material, or any form of human contact, for mail is not allowed.  Now she is locked in a room without a mattress, for they say she tore off a string.  The food the mentally ill are served is a joke:  peanut butter/jelly sandwiches, cookies, sliced bananas, graham crackers, for EVERY MEAL for a year!  That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

And just this week we received a report

ON THE LOCAL LEVEL:    Three local police officers show up at a downstate woman's home in the evening while her children were there. They tell her she's under arrest because she has not gotten her blinker repaired in the time frame her fix-it ticket specified. (She gets paid every two weeks and was waiting for a paycheck.) The amount needed was $285. Her parents wired the money via Western Union and it arrived at 9:30 p.m. She was not released until 1:30 a.m.

The mother tells me she called the police department to make sure her daughter was there and a male officer said, "Oh, the fat lady?" The mother told the officer her daughter was diabetic and had a heart condition and asked if her daughter had her meds with her. They said not. The mother said, "You can't do that to her." The officer said, "We can do anything we want."

In jail the woman was put in a holding cell with other men and women, some bloodied from domestic and other violence. She asked for something to eat. The officer told her, "You look like you should lose some weight." She never received anything to eat -- or meds

It’s past time to sit in our easy chairs and cluck our teeth over alleged human rights violations. It’s past time to say things like that only happen in other places.  On Human Rights Day, 2014, let’s get off our duffs and say, “No more!”  Support your favorite organization that deals with these issues, and express your immediate displeasure with any and all of your elected public officials who don’t represent what you feel and believe.  Your dollars and your voices count!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Not your traditional graduation ceremony

I thought back to last spring.

I was watching happy and excited crowds in New York City, on hand for a traditional Christmas season ceremony.  But I was reflecting on an experience of a few hours earlier, one that reminded me of happy and exciting times for many of our friends last spring.

As warm weather arrived, there were outdoor receptions for high school graduates, many people posted many pictures of graduates on Facebook, newspaper stories paid tribute to valedictorians and salutatorians, display ads recognized the accomplishments of high school grads from various local institutions.  It was an exciting time, and proud parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters attended ceremonies marking this milestone in the lives of local teenagers.  That isn’t the way it was yesterday at Brooks Correctional Facility, one of three state prisons located in Muskegon.

Nearly 50 students, ranging in age from the late teens to the late 60s, had been patiently tutored by fellow inmates and were finally going to receive their General Educational Development diplomas.  The GED graduates quietly took their seats in the prison gymnasium.  The Deputy Warden and the school principal praised their achievements.  The President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS encouraged them to keep on learning, and to make a difference.  But there was no audience.

Sons and daughters, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, weren’t there to witness the occasion.

After diplomas were received and the class was introduced, some of the students followed tradition and tossed their caps into the air.  Many didn’t.

There were no big receptions, no parties, no all-nighters to follow the ceremony.

The big treat was home-made cookies, prepared by the prison food tech class.  That was it.

Prison and school officials, Matt and I were then permitted to leave.  The graduates had no choice.  They returned to their cells.

I watched excited crowds at Rockefeller Center in New York last night, on hand to witness the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  Millions of colored lights came on, and the crowd cheered.  It was the place to be.

For me, the meaningful ceremony yesterday took place under a basketball hoop in a prison gym.  We were proud to be there!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why pay money just to get mad?

I know, just watching TV news or reading the newspaper is enough to make you angry.  You don’t need anything else to fuel the fire.  Or do you?

I’m suggesting that you take a bold step next weekend, and spend ten dollars on a ticket for a program that’ll not only make you mad, but also change the way you think.  I’ll bet on it.

JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER is a great stage play.  It’s going to be presented in the sanctuary of FERRYSBURG COMMUNITY CHURCH next Friday evening, December 5, at 7:30 PM.  And if you can’t get there then, there’ll be two repeat performances on Saturday the 6th at 2 PM and 7:30 PM.

On the surface, it might appear that playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne have simply used drama to paint a delightful love story about Maurice Carter and me.  If that’s all you get out of this, I’ll be terribly disappointed.

The playwrights, instead, have masterfully used music and the spoken word to convey a serious message of injustice.  It’s a story that has no beautiful ending.  And the overriding problem that is the theme of the play is just as real today as it was when I innocently jumped into the middle of this fray in the mid 1900s.

If you leave angry, if you leave frustrated, if you leave with a clearer picture as to the deeper causes of riots over injustice, if you leave with a better understanding of the strong role a defense attorney must play, if you leave thinking that perhaps the cops and the prosecutors aren’t always right, if you decide that perhaps our daily news reports are not always telling the whole story…then it will have been worth it all!

I hope to meet you at the church.  Order your tickets now.

Then, when the dust settles, let’s talk again.

Monday, November 24, 2014

On taking a life, and saving a life

Something beautiful happened in Muskegon.

A candle-light vigil was held on the campus of Muskegon High School over the weekend to discuss the way their friend Jessica Lynn Brewster has impacted their lives.  In case you haven’t read or heard, Jessica is the 17 year old girl now being held on an open murder charge, after the body of her newborn baby was found buried nearby.

Muskegon senior Elizabeth Kurdziel, who organized the event, was quoted as saying, “We’re here in remembrance of Jessica’s baby and to support her.”  And the phrase that was being used time and again, one which began on Facebook, was: We are Jessica.

This may not seem like a relevant topic for the guys who run HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  To the contrary, it’s one that Matt and I have been talking about, and one that deserves a lot of discussion.

Another life is at stake here.  If the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office goes ahead with a charge of first degree murder, and gets a conviction, this little girl will receive a life sentence without parole.  We often hear the argument, “The little baby didn’t get a second chance...why should the mother?”

Gregory T. Roberts, a Muskegon volleyball coach, is also a pastor, and he offered a prayer at the vigil.  The Muskegon Chronicle quoted him as saying, “You never know what a person is going through.  If maybe we had been a little more compassionate and understanding, this might have been avoided.”

The caring and loving students were not without their critics.  “People call us names and say we’re stupid for supporting her,” said senior Charity Ellis.  “Who are they to judge her?  Who knows what she is going through?”

Being tough on crime is an understandable position in Muskegon County, where they seem to get more than their share of criminal activity.  But there’s gotta be a better ending to this story than life behind bars for a troubled little girl.

That harsh response to this tragedy would simply make it worse.  A second life would be taken.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Speaking of death, #929754, 1987-2014

Is the headline a bit sarcastic?  Yes.

Word of another prison death came to our office again this week.  I use the inmate's number in our headline, not to offend the family, but instead to point out that prisoners are just a number.  Her name was Sabrie Lorain Alexander, she was a real human being, and in our opinion she didn't have to die.  I'm going to let one of our courageous whistle-blowers tell the story, in her own words.  But first, a quick explanation.  POA is a job for which some inmates are chosen and trained.  It's a successful program where inmate observers watch prisoners who may be contemplating suicide, or who have other issues.  Here's her story:

We had another incident here. We had a young women here in her twenties, black. She was a level II, out date in 2016. She was in the Infirmary on Observation. She had a seizure. The POA TOLD the officer that Alexander was having a seizure. The Officer said 'Oh, she'll be OK.' Well, she wasn't OK. She died. The Coroner was here, the State Police, a fire truck. At first they again tried to tell us that she was alive. BUT I heard straight from staff that she in fact died. She is not alive. They tried to revive her, but they were NOT successful. 

Sad thing is the POA told the officer on shift that she was having a seizure and she did not think she was breathing. Again the officer told her, 'she'll be OK' and did not go in. This is what I have been saying all along. Prisoners are sitting on these women and when we alert the officer that something is wrong they do nothing. This happening shows that the minute DOJ (US DEPT OF JUSTICE) is gone they go right back to how they used to be. There are cameras and mics ALL over the hallway in the infirmary to prove the POA told the officer. Right now they want us to believe that she died because of her seizure. However if the officer would have reacted when she was told what was going on that young women probably would be alive today
They NEED to investigate this Doug. I pray that you can get them to come here and investigate or send word to the papers that have been putting this information out there. Women are DYING and getting poor treatment because the staff REFUSE to do their job. POA's do what they are supposed to do but we cannot make the staff open the doors to help other inmates in their time of need. This POA was forced to watch this young women die. I did not realize that MDOC could implement the death penalty whenever they want. I did not think it was legal in the state of Michigan.  One officer could have made a difference showing one ounce of compassion, just one ounce.

So sad in here today, so so sad.

We need your help again Doug.

The bad news is that the beat goes on.  The good news is that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is not letting up, partnering with the ACLU and the US Department of Justice to improve conditions for women in the Michigan prison system.

But for now, there's an open bed at Women's Huron Valley Facility.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

When death just isn't the same

I sent condolences to two friends this week who lost elderly parents.  Even though we completely understand that our parents are getting old and that we cannot keep them forever, it’s still a loss.  In both of these cases, my friends were near their parent at the time of death, and were able to grieve in the midst of family and loved ones.

I was also reminded this week that experiencing the death of family members is not the same for people behind bars.

One of our board members reported that her friend behind bars had lost a loved one.  Her words:

I got a note from Karen today.  Her brother died.  That is her second loss this year.   She lost another brother earlier this year.  My heart is breaking for her.  And there she sits.  And will sit for probably the rest of her life.  I am so sad for the family that will grieve without her and for her to grieve alone.  She knows Christ.  She trusts in Christ.  She has a relationship with Christ.  But—she is so fragile in her humanness.  Just had to share with you. 

Our friend Joe watched in frustration last week as he sat helplessly in a prison van, while paramedics ministered to his elderly step-father who suffered a medical emergency right there in the prison parking lot.  He had driven to Ionia from Detroit just to be at his step-son’s Public Hearing.  Sadly, he not only missed the hearing, he died the next day.  Joe wasn’t able to hold him in his arms during his dying moments.  He wasn’t able to say good-bye.  He’s not able to grieve with family members.  But then, he’s just a prisoner.  He committed a terrible crime 38 years ago…must never forget that.

Kenny Wyniemko, whose rape conviction was overturned by DNA testing after he served 8 years behind bars, weeps every time he tells the story about his father’s death.  It happened while he was in prison for something he didn’t do, and the result was that he could not attend the funeral service.  He was forced to mourn alone.  Behind bars.

We may have found one answer to the question, “Oh death, where is your sting?”

I write this not to bring about some dramatic change in criminal justice, but simply to point out that prisoners are people, not statistics.  Their need for love is no different than yours or mine.

Remember them in your charitable giving, and in your prayers. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

No parole for the thief on the cross

The thief on the cross would never have survived the scrutiny of the Michigan Parole Board and the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  Jesus forgave.  We won’t.

The older I get, and the more I work in this prisoner advocacy business, the more I become convinced that we won’t really see forgiveness in our criminal justice system.  Ever. It ain’t gonna happen.

I testified in another public hearing today, held by the Michigan Parole Board.  I cannot prove this, but I sense that these hearings are grudgingly held in a spirit of skepticism.  In many of the hearings where I have testified, there is a snowball’s chance that the inmate will actually be granted a parole.  We’re a “tough on crime” state, and by God, if someone has committed a heinous crime in Michigan, he or she will pay!

I know that when I make my pitch, I’m perceived as a left-wing “do-gooder,” who wants to free all the prisoners.  I can see that in the eyes of the Parole Board chairman and the Assistant Attorney General.  They extend the courtesy, but I get the feeling that whatever I have to say doesn't really mean anything. 

Joe committed terrible crimes in his early 20s, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  He still wakes up thinking about it.  He cries when he talks about it.  There’s nothing he can do to erase that record.  The only thing he can do is take steps to change his life. And so, while in prison, he became a spiritual being, he completed high school, he completed college, he served as a tutor, he took improvement courses, he enrolled in abuse programs…he learned to behave himself.  In the next 38 years in prison, he brought about change in his life.

In preparation for a possible release if granted parole, he developed a plan including an in-depth relapse prevention outline.  He wasn’t going to take any chances on re-offending.  His simple goal was to get his Master’s Degree, and serve as a substance abuse counselor.  He didn’t want others to follow his early path of destruction.

But it’s not going to happen.  The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office showed up to oppose the parole.  Then the victim of the crime showed up to oppose the parole.  And finally the representative from the Michigan Attorney General’s office made a strong statement of opposition.  The crime was just too atrocious.

No one seemed to care what happened in the next 38 years.  That really wasn’t important.  The focus was on the crime, and this man was going to pay. Retribution is important. Rehabilitation is not.

I personally struggle with this whole “forgiveness” issue in Christianity.  I’m in my senior years, and I still continue to blame myself for terrible lapses in judgment in my earlier years.  I find it difficult to forgive myself.  And I find it hard to believe that I’m forgiven.  Then I fall back on a sermon that I heard from one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Richard Mouw.  He quoted a verse from a beautiful traditional hymn, and said this is what separates Christianity from all other religions:  My sin, Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!

At least Joe has that comfort.

Here in Michigan, it’s a different story.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It's your turn to speak

So here’s the deal.

If you agree that if kids are too young to drink, too young to smoke, too young to drive, they should also be too young to receive life sentences or to serve time with hardened criminals in adult prisons;

If you agree that it’s time for Michigan to release many of its older, medically fragile and incapacitated prisoners;

If you agree that successor judges should not have veto-power over Parole Board decisions;

If you agree that the Michigan Parole Board is taking over the sentencing role of judges in many cases, especially those involving CSC convictions;

If you agree that Michigan sentencing guidelines should be revised to better ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences;

If you agree with national and state research that shows that simply keeping people in prison longer does not keep the public safer;

If you agree that it’s time to change Michigan’s reputation of keeping people behind bars longer than most other states;

If you agree, after reading this list, that sentencing reform and Parole Board reform must happen in the State of Michigan;

Then you gotta go to the polls!  Pure and simple.

Every time I make a presentation I find people in the audience who are vocal about state government and the Michigan Department of Corrections, but then admit that they don’t know the names of their State Representatives and State Senators.  They’ll express themselves with a loud voice in a public meeting, but have never given their opinion to a state legislator.

Your vote can and will make a difference.  Together we can bring about change.  Your chance comes on Tuesday.

If you’re not going to vote, don’t even bother to speak up on all these issues.  Your actions are so loud your words cannot be heard!

Friday, October 31, 2014

What was really on my mind

There is a time for everything…a time to weep and a time to laugh
Ecclesiastes 3

It was a whiskey-tasting class, a fund-raiser for HFP, and people were having fun.  I was asked to say a few words.  I had to put on a smile and talk about the good things. 

I couldn’t really talk about Suzie, wife of a prisoner, who fears for his life.  A guy killed his bunkie in the prison where her husband resides a few nights ago.  The next day three more prisoners were stabbed.  She can’t be there with him, and she worries a lot.

It wouldn’t have been appropriate to tell about a prisoner named Donna, who wrote to say that healthcare workers ignored her pleas for treatment until she collapsed and had to be raced to a hospital by ambulance.  Surgery barely saved her life.  She was in the hospital for 5 weeks.  She will wear an ileostomy bag for the rest of her life.

I’m sure John’s story would have aroused undue skepticism.  This military veteran showed me the documents of admission to a VA hospital, where the intake notes clearly state that he was hearing voices ordering him to kill a man with his own gun in his own home.  Instead, he was discharged, the VA claiming he wasn’t sick enough to remain hospitalized.  He went right out and did just what the voices told him, and now he’s serving life.

And this was certainly not the time to hear Mark’s complaint about prison staff.  He was so pleased to have his mom and dad, plus two of his adult children come from out-of-state to attend his graduation ceremony.  The kids paid $3 each for four very neat photographs of the whole bunch.  But the guards confiscated the pictures as they left the facility, and now the photographs cannot be found.

No, last night wasn’t the time or the place, but those were among yesterday’s stories lingering in my mind.  The fund-raiser was simply a reason to keep this operation going, because there will be more stories today just like those from Susie, Donna, John and Mark.  Possibly worse.  And we must be there, if for no other reason than to hold hands in Christian love.

A time to laugh, and a time to weep.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

We need you!

One by one they gave their names, and then told of a family member now in prison.  One by one they shed tears of pain in making that admission.  One by one they listened to the stories of abuse and neglect behind bars, and nodded their heads in agreement.  They could tell similar stories.

Matt and I were involving in a workshop led by our friend Lois DeMott of Michigan’s Family Participation Program.  Two dozen people were there to get information and to share stories.

And it was at that moment that I realized, once again, why we are in this business.  I was affirmed in what we are doing!  This is exactly where we belong!

Just in recent days

-we extended our hand to two 74-year-old inmates who together have served 90 years behind bars
-we listened to the story of a prisoner who claims to have been sexually compromised by a prison therapist
-we resumed our work with the family of a mentally ill inmate nearly killed by prison abuse
-we continued our preparation to speak up for a deserving prisoner at his Parole Board Public Hearing
-we responded to a request to address graduates of a prison GED program
-we made corrections and additions to an inmate’s application form for commutation
-we took steps to help a seriously ill inmate get some proper medication
-we simply encouraged a confused inmate who suddenly finds himself in an unfriendly and unfamiliar environment after what most certainly was a wrongful conviction.

All of this in response to more than 150 messages to the HFP office from prisoners and/or their families and friends via email, snail mail, telephone and web site.

We do our best to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus, extending love and compassion to Michigan inmates one at a time.  The only thing is---we can’t do it alone.  We need you at our side.  All the way.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

10 years later, remembering Maurice

My soul brother Maurice Carter died 10 years ago today.  He had spent nearly half of his life in prison for something he didn’t do.

One of his favorite sayings was that when he got arrested, “The wheels of justice ground to a halt.” 

The injustice of it all wasn’t just the wrongful conviction.  Other ingredients included racism before, during and after the trial; incompetent legal assistance; shoddy police work;  face-saving prosecutors and judges;  inadequate prison medical care…the list goes on and on.

Yet, Maurice Carter made a conscious decision to reach past all of this suffering and indignity, so that he could touch others.  His goal was to help other prisoners upon his release.  Things didn’t go the way he had planned.  He experienced only three months of freedom, and during that time he was in poor health.

Instead, God saw to it that he began touching lives while still behind bars.  No one will ever know how many, but I saw it with my own eyes.  Not just my family, my friends, my church. And not just hundreds, either...I daresay thousands of people, all around the world, impacted by this indigent man from Gary, Indiana.  His kindness and love were contagious. 

Yes, Maurice died ten years ago today.  Yet, his thoughtfulness and compassion continue to touch lives.  Daily.  Through HFP’s action with compassion.  Through the moving drama written by Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne.  Through the book SWEET FREEDOM.

The spirit of Maurice is alive and well.  God is still at work

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Miracle in a dreary prison hospital

A prison hospital would seem like about the last place where one would see a miracle.  But as sure as I’m sitting here typing up this story, I believe a miracle has occurred.

Often we tell these stories to help raise money.  We want our supporters to know that their dollars actually touch lives behind bars, one at a time.  This is NOT a dollar story.  It’s God, pure and simple.  Nothing your dollars did.  Nothing we did.  But it’s important that we share our stories of celebration, also.

I’m getting way ahead of myself.  Let me start at the beginning.

This spring our office began receiving disturbing reports of cruelty, neglect and abuse in a particular unit of the women’s prison in Ypsilanti.  It was the place where they care for the worst of the mentally ill cases.  Some prisoners who were patients in that unit, we were told, were being hog-tied, and were being abused by taser weapons and pepper gas sprayers.

In one particularly upsetting case, a woman with parched tongue was denied a simple drink of water for several days.  Instead, the nurse reportedly kept administering injections of a psych-drug, even after the woman was unconscious.  Finally, Darlene was mercifully rushed to the hospital by ambulance in critical condition and placed on life support.  Rumors among prisoners were rampant, some claiming that she had died.

I personally spoke with a member of the family several weeks ago.  She said that life support equipment had been removed.  The woman appeared to be in a vegetative state…they were just waiting for her to die.

We were enraged.  Our directors were enraged.  Our attorney was enraged.  This could have been prevented!

Our extensive files of torture accounts were shared with legal experts and the US Department of Justice.  Perhaps we lost Darlene, but we weren’t going to lose the fight.

And then, at midnight last night, came this brief email message from one of our whistleblowers behind bars:  Great news for you and everyone who has prayed for Darlene. She woke up!  She is talking and moving around. The person who spoke to me on it said it was a miracle. And it still is. She is awaiting her medical commutation. I guess it still hasn't been signed.  They have her in the infirmary in a big room and are treating her really good. She is alive!  What a beautiful miracle.  Please tell everyone that has prayed for her.

Pastor Nate just reminded me last Sunday about the importance of prayers for healing.  The truth is that I had given up praying for Darlene.  She was a lost cause.  I moved on, praying, instead, for the survivors, and praying that stories like this would never happen again.

I stopped, but God didn’t.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Matthew 25

HFP President Doug Tjapkes made a prison visit yesterday.  That was not uncommon, but what was uncommon was the reason for the visit.  The Warden of the prison felt that this elderly individual, now in bad health and who had already served 46 years, deserved to be released.  She asked if HFP would help. 

Herb is 74, died three times while in prison due to a heart attack but was successfully revived, and then survived heart surgery.  5 bypasses later, he’s ready to step out and help others.

In his 46 years behind bars he has received only 5 tickets, none for violence…none in the past 25 years.

In his 46 years he obtained a high school diploma, a liberal arts communicate college certificate, a tool and die worker certificate, and a para-legal degree.  He’s now a library clerk, and loves his work.

A heavy-duty alcoholic, he never touched a drop in the past 46 years (and alcohol is available behind bars!).

He was granted a parole in 1982 by a unanimous Parole Board vote, but the decision was vetoed by a judge unfamiliar with the case who just wanted to be tough on crime.

Since that the, the Parole Board has simply shown “no interest” in his release.

Some reflections by Doug on the prison visit:

I wish you could have been there today.

I wish you could have seen the expression on his face when guards opened the prison gates, and I was allowed to meet with him in a private room.

I wish you could felt the incredible sense of gratitude when he learned that his warden asked me to just do what I could.

I wish you could have heard the agony in his voice as he tried to remember what happened 46 years ago during an alcoholic black-out.

I wish you could have seen the tears roll down his face as he insisted that, at the age of 74, he still had a debt that must be paid to the Lord who not only bailed him out, but also straightened him out. He intends to devote his remaining years to help inmates and former prisoners.

I wish you could have seen the expression of wonder and thanksgiving when I told him that ours is a ministry of compassion and caring…he would not be forgotten.  We couldn’t guarantee success, but we would definitely help.

I wish you could have sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit as I fumbled through a closing prayer that I felt was imperative to the entire experience.

Your partnership with HFP can bring about change. By clicking on our donation button, you can help in the fight to bring about long overdue sentencing reform and badly needed Parole Board reform.  Your dollars will keep us right there on the front line with continued expressions of compassion to the “least of these.”

HFP needs your support.  Today. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

on feelings of remorse

Originally posted on January 7, 2012

A friend of HFP sent in a copy of an editorial that I had written three years ago. It deserves a reprint.

"We hear this all the time!" Assistant Michigan Attorney General Thomas Kulick, with a smirk on his face, in the spotlight at a public hearing this week. "Prisoners are always trying to convince us that they are feeling remorse."

Kulick was responding to the whispered words of a dying inmate, cringing in a wheelchair before him, seeking permission to spend his final days outside of prison . The inmate merely had stated that he was sorry about his earlier life, and he wished he could do it all over again.

Do you know why you hear those words all the time, Mr. Kulick? It's because the Parole Board from your own state makes that demand!

I speak from experience. If prisoners, especially those accused of a sex offense, ever hope to get a parole, they must confess to the crime, and they must show remorse. This comes from the mouths of Parole Board members.

And so, Mr. Kulick, you should be able to predict the results, but I'll explain them anyway.

1. People, falsely accused, sometimes violate all the principles they have been taught, and tell lies to the Parole Board, just because they cannot stand the prison environment anymore and will do anything to get out.

2. Meanwhile, the "con artists" in prison, persons who should not be out on the street, know how to work the system. They weep, they grovel, they say all the words the Parole Board members want to hear. They know what they must do to catch a parole.

3. Yet many people with integrity refuse to compromise. I can still hear the words of the late Maurice Carter, weeks before he died, sitting on a hospital gurney after he was told by former Parole Board Chair John Rubitschun that he could walk free right then if he would merely confess to the crime. He stared at Mr. Rubitschun through his ill-fitting prison-issue glasses, with all the dignity he could muster: I will never admit to a crime that I did not commit! He was in prison 29 years.

So do you see how the system works in reverse, Mr. Kulick?

The prisoners who should remain behind bars find a way to wreak havoc once again in society, while those who maintain their honor are punished by receiving a flop: that is, they are refused parole for another period of time. Sadly, they remain behind bars.
It's no surprise that you hear words of remorse, Mr. Kulick. That's what is expected.

Now it's about time that the citizens of Michigan hear words of remorse from you, your office and the Michigan Parole Board, for missing the whole point!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sometimes they're really NOT sex offenses!

Is our disgust over sex crimes resulting in wrongful convictions? I can’t prove it, but I think so.

Three very good friends of mine were wrongly convicted of sex crimes. In each case, the alleged crimes involved molestation of little girls. In each case, the stories were prompted by adults. In each case, there was another emotion driving the accusations, such as jealousy or vindictiveness. Jealousy over the lifestyle of someone with more wealth, anger as the result of a family fight, or anger over a broken relationship. Accusing a man of molesting a little girl was a way to ease those emotions, perhaps a way to get a financial settlement, perhaps a way to just plain get even.

As a result, these three guys were convicted by juries. Prosecutors are well aware of the fact that average citizens hate the thought of adults molesting kids. They want to put them away.

As a result, these three guys collectively spent decades behind bars. Members of the Michigan Parole Board make no secret of the fact that they dislike sex offenders. They demand that these prisoners show a lot of remorse and regret, and they often decide that the judge’s sentence wasn’t stiff enough. They keep these people in longer than their early release date.

Two of my friends finally got out before serving the maximum sentence by lying. In tears they informed me that they decided to confess to wrongdoing, just so they could get out of prison. They were professional people who couldn’t stand it in there any longer. The third refused to change his story and refused to show remorse for something he didn’t do, so he actually maxed out. They had to let him go because he served every day of his sentence. He’s still a very angry man.

I bring all of this up because the pastor of an area church recently came to me with a fresh case, and it smacks of the same thing. An angry person prompting a trumped-up story by a youngster. And now, another man with no criminal history who has never seen the inside of a prison, destined to spend decades behind bars.

There’s no question that we want stern action taken against those who molest children, and we want those individuals taken out of society and put into cages.

The challenge here is to not play on the emotions of jurors, but to demand thorough investigation that results in solid evidence. Not hearsay and conflicting stories. Let's put the offenders away, but let's be darned sure they're actually offenders.

I’m sad about this new case. I find it very troubling. You’ll be reading and hearing more as the friends and supporters of this obviously innocent man become more vocal in days to come. But the simple conclusion is that another life has been ruined by this hell-bent desire to convict everyone accused of a sex offense, the facts be damned.

Methinks it’s time to get tough on those who fabricate these stories. If the accusations are found to be false, those who started it all should face equally strong charges and equally stiff sentences. And if cops and prosecutors and lawyers are a party to these wrongful convictions, they should not be exempt.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Peace behind bars: an impossible goal?

Can there really be peace behind bars? Probably not, but give Warden Mary Berghuis credit for making huge strides toward that goal.

Ms. Berghuis, whom I describe as a warden with a heart, runs both Brooks and West Shoreline facilities in Muskegon. During my last visit, she handed me a little plastic card with the label: THE POWER OF PEACE PROJECT. I was intrigued, and asked for more information.

Turns out Warden Berghuis, always thinking outside the box for her prisons, met Power of Peace Project founder Kit Cummings at a conference a few years ago. During their conversation, the nationally known motivational speaker offered to go to the Muskegon prisons to introduce his program. And since that time, he has made several return visits.

Cummings’ principles make strong demands of prisoners:

1. I WILL do my very best to live I peace with everyone I meet.
2. I WILL NOT provoke or disrespect anyone.
3. When provoked, I WILL NOT retaliate.
4. When cursed, I WILL NOT curse back.
5. I WILL NOT lie, cheat or steal.
6. When I am wrong, I WILL promptly admit it and quickly make amends.
7. I WILL treat ALL people with the respect with which I wish to be treated.

The warden says that Cummings gets leaders (good and bad) to join together to commit to 40 days of peace, believing that once they’ve had peace for that period of time they will not return to violence. She estimates that over 800 Muskegon prisoners have now participated in this project, and feels it has made a huge impact!

And Cummings isn’t letting up. Warden Berghuis says that he is now trying to connect Muskegon area schools, churches AND prisons in an effort to eliminate violence.

Don’t you wish every prison had this program?

Don’t you wish every prison had a leader like Warden Berghuis?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To that person in the back row with pursed lips

Frequently there’s a person who disagrees.

As President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I’m sometimes asked to explain our work to church and civic groups. While I appreciate the support and acceptance of those smiling and nodding individuals sitting in the front, I have more concern for the one or two frowning persons with pursed lips sitting in the rear.

I’m not only concerned, but I’m sad, because I can predict with some accuracy what these people are thinking. It goes something like this:

Why do prisoners deserve any compassion, decent meals, appropriate health care, and letters from caring individuals? If they hadn’t done the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time. This isn’t a country club. They deserve all the rudeness and mistreatment they get.

What about the victims of the crimes these people committed? Why aren’t you supporting them, instead of the criminals? That’s where the care and compassion should be directed.

What about the corrections officers? Why aren’t you raising funds for them, instead of the animals they are asked to guard? It’s a challenging job at the very least.

Before I send a message to that person in the back row, let me state for the record that we are not asking for a country club atmosphere for prisoners…we simply ask that they be provided the humane treatment that our constitution guarantees. There are agencies and organizations already in existence for victims of crimes, and HFP is a strong supporter of the concept of restorative justice. And we know there are fine corrections officers…we deal with them regularly. But there are bad ones, too.

Now to that person in the back row.

You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be the mother of a teenager who has tried to commit suicide in prison, because insensitive personnel have tampered with or discontinued all-important stabilizing medication. All this while rude guards laugh at him.

You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be the wife of an inmate who now suffers debilitating seizures, simply because the staff wouldn’t listen to his pleas to separate him from a mentally challenged bunkie. By the time he was bopped over the head with a lock it was too late. Closed head injuries. Permanent damage.

You obviously couldn’t identify with the mother of a mentally ill girl in prison, who was denied water for so long and overly medicated to the point that she’s now brain dead. Her distraught family can do nothing more than wait for her to die.

I’m sure you’d never believe that a poor black man didn’t actually commit the crime for which he served 29 years behind bars. An all-white jury surely didn’t believe him. They preferred the unsure and inconsistent testimony of shaky eye-witnesses, while the real criminal laughed all the way to the next drinking party.

And so, to that person in the back row, I suggest two prayers.

Number one, a prayer of thanks that you’ve never had to experience any of this, and that you never will have to in the future.

And number two, that God will reveal to you just what Jesus meant when he talked about showing compassion to a prisoner, as he discusses in Matthew 25.

Meanwhile, Matt and I feel secure in the knowledge that we are doing kingdom work, and we’ll keep searching for a few friendly faces in the audience.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Will the real heroes please stand?

A most amazing event took place this week behind bars. A group of inmates who are members of an organization called SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS presented a staged reading of the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. The program was presented in a classroom of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon. There have been previously staged readings of the drama or segments of it around the country, but never behind bars, and never with a cast consisting solely of prisoners.

The play is a compressed, poignant depiction of the unique relationship between an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, and a middle-class Dutch boy from western Michigan, and their 10-year battle to overturn a wrongful conviction.

It’s important however, to identify the real heroes of the two performances this week.

I don’t mean to minimize the divine plan that put me into the life of Maurice Carter, or vice versa. I certainly don’t mean to downplay the fact that Marcia and I, our daughter Sue and our son Matthew, are still basking in the afterglow of this powerful performance. And I pay only the highest tribute to the cast who worked tirelessly for nearly a year to fashion and craft this spell-binding performance.

I have a problem with the term “hero.”

Marcia and I will readily accept the fact that we tried to do what was right for this unfairly treated man who eventually became known as my brother. And Don Molnar, who wrote the play with his wife Alicia Payne, deserves all the credit in the world for beautifully condensing the highlights of a ten-year saga into a brilliant, two-hour stage production. But we aren’t the heroes.

Let me clearly and emphatically identify the two giants in the room.

HERO NUMBER ONE: CURT TOFTELAND. Curt is the founder of SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS…an amazing program that is changing the lives of incarcerated individuals all over the country. Without his vision and personal encouragement, no dramatic presentation would have occurred this week Tuesday and Thursday.

HERO NUMBER TWO: MARY BERGHUIS. Mary is the veteran warden of Brooks CF, whom I describe as a rare warden indeed, because she has a heart. It is my contention that no other warden in the State of Michigan would have permitted prisoners in her facility to participate in a drama that
-decries the poor medical care often found in our prison system
-ridicules Michigan Parole Board demands that an inmate must confess to wrong-doing and show remorse before considering parole
-depicts the former chairman of the Parole Board as being cruel and unreasonable
-suggests that the man for whom the prison hospital is named should be ashamed
-makes no secret of the fact that some prison guards are callous and heartless!

Warden Berghuis allowed this drama to be presented in its entirety, without any editing or censorship!

Actor Jamie Studivant, whose arresting performance in the role of Maurice Carter, said it well when he reflected in the talk-back following the play: Maurice Carter is still touching lives.

But Maurice Carter would not have touched the lives of every individual in that room this week, were it not for the incredible vision of heroes Tofteland and Berghuis, who demonstrate by their very actions an absolute belief that prisoners are created in the image of God. Redemption can even occur among those who our director of corrections once labeled “the worst of the worst.”


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A still small voice for prisoners

In his fine sermon series on prayer, Pastor Nate Sunday challenged us to find God in our simple, every day experiences. He used the example from I Kings 19, when God told Elijah that the Lord was about to pass by. There were strong winds, there was an earthquake, and there was fire…but God wasn’t there. After all of these sensational phenomena came a gentle whisper, and God was in that still small voice.

That challenge has prompted me and fellow church members this week to wake up to the fact that we can see God in something as simple as the first sip of a steaming hot cup of coffee in the morning, or a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset, or a favorite piece of music.

But it also prompted me to take this whole thing one step farther. Perhaps if we run across people who have a hard time seeing God anywhere, our challenge should be to help them reach this experience. As I reflected on that while waking up this morning, it dawned on me that this has been a specific goal of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

I’ll use some of our experiences with women in prison as an example.

Is it even possible for women to see God in a prison complex where something as simple as daily survival has turned to hell, because of
-serious overcrowding that results in shamefully limited numbers of toilets and showers
-cruel policies that limit the numbers of toilet paper rolls and sanitary pads
-unspeakable atrocities that are witnessed in the treatment of mentally ill inmates?

The answer is in the still small voice that God provided through a simple little agency like HFP:
-driving all the way to Ypsilanti just to hold the door open for a grateful prisoner stepping into freedom after catching a parole
-shedding tears with a weeping inmate during a brutal Parole Board interview
-providing testimony that prodded a parole board to grant a compassionate release so that a cancer patient could spend her final days at home with family and friends
-persuading a reluctant State of Michigan to take a chance on a woman with a checkered past who proved she is now ready to be a productive citizen
-convincing the US Department of Justice that brutal treatment of mental patients is cruel and unusual punishment
-providing yarn worth thousands and thousands of dollars so that women could find some purpose in life by knitting garments for persons in homeless shelters.

The list goes on and on, and obviously it extends to the men in prison as well. It’s what we do on a daily basis.

May we accept Nate’s challenge and find God in the most interesting places today.

And beyond that, may we help others to see him who never dreamed they could or would.