All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let's re-locate the key for lifers

The plight of lifers in the Michigan prison system troubles me a lot.

I was discussing the issue with a retired assistant prison warden a while back, who allowed that the nicest group of prisoners in the state---without question---is that group of inmates serving life sentences. They rarely cause problems, and if they ever do get released, they seldom re-offend.

And that begs the question: Why are they still in prison?

My recently departed theologian friend, Rev. Al Hoksbergen, always contended that the life sentence without parole was “un-Christian.”

But aside from that, there is clear evidence that many of these people would make productive citizens, and that their continued incarceration is a serious waste of taxpayer dollars.

Three cases in point: 1), Dorothy is 50, has been in prison 34 years, has a beautiful record of accomplishment and service to others. She was a teenager when she went to prison. The Parole Board has indicated that it has no interest in her case. 2), Michael is 60, and was also a teenager when he was arrested. He has served 43 years, and the Parole Board not only indicates no interest but says it will review the case in another 5 years. He's not involved in misconduct, and has been on his best behavior. And 3), Steven is 64, and has been locked up for 40 years. He's resigned to the fact that God must want him to work for him behind bars, but there's no earthly reason to keep him there. He has a brilliant mind and a kind spirit.

I'll concede that there are cases where troubled inmates must remain behind bars. But if we are serious about wanting to reduce our prison population, and wanting to rehabilitate well-behaved inmates, we're going to have to re-think the idea of throwing away the key on lifers.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Making music with my friends

72 years ago my mom and dad found a deal on a used Everett full-size upright piano, a giant of an instrument that required groaning and grunting to get it shoehorned into our upstairs apartment. Little did they know that starting me on music lessons at age 4 would brighten the rest of my life with the amazing miracle of music.

Theologians speak highly of music, saying it's the one thing that we enjoy here on earth that we'll still enjoy in eternity. Martin Luther stated that "Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world."

Starting at a very early age, some of my neatest experiences have been with groups of singers or instrumentalists gathered around a piano, and it's still that way.

This evening I'll be joined by John Mulder and his brother David, our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll, and Cal Olson---wonderful musicians, all---for another jam session. We call it Pickin' & Grinnin' in jest, but it's our simple way to praise God with delightful arrangements of favorite gospel tunes. These guys do this at their own expense to raise funds for HFP, true...but they also do it because it's just plain fun!

If you're in the area, I hope you'll join us at Sunshine Community Church in GR, 6 to 8 PM. No charge, bur generous gifts hoped for. Delicious cheese cake and Dutch banket for your dessert treats. A small silent auction.

Bill Gaither said it best:

Loving God, loving each other
Making music with my friends.
Loving God, loving each other
And the story never ends.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Al's words live on

More than a decade ago, as I was struggling with the difficult questions prisoners raise, I asked my preacher friend Al Hoksbergen if he would share some words of wisdom. Hence we published the little devotional booklet called WHY?

Since that time our office has mailed out hundreds of copies to inmates around the country.

Two things revived my interest in the booklet this week: We said “goodbye” to Al in a memorial service yesterday; and we received another question “Why?” from a defeated and depressed inmate yesterday.

Dodie doen't belong in prison. She's been there for nearly 30 years, doing her best to survive. She worships regularly, directs the choir, gets involved wherever possible, and would make a wonderfully productive citizen if returned to the free world. But this week, instead of having an opportunity to meet with a member of the Michigan Parole Board, she was abruptly informed by a counselor that her file had been closed. “The PB had no interest.” The news was heart-breaking.

I looked into our devotions booklet for some words to offer her.

I must paraphrase using a different name, but here's what Al has to say:

Dodie may not be a good candidate for the Parole Board, but that doesn't mean that God has no use for her. And who knows, one day she may yet be free. But in the meantime, she has an opportunity to do wonderful things in an environment and in a community that is too often forgotten.

Jesus said the world often gropes around like a bunch of blind folks trying to find their way out of the darkness. Therefore, Jesus calls his followers to be like lights in the world. What a privilege to be one who bears the light of God in a world where darkness often settles in. Sometimes I am grateful to know that God called me to be a light in the world. But there are also times when I am an embarrassment to others and myself by walking around as though I have no idea where the light switch is.

I bet it can be very dark in prison at times---maybe even most of the time. But Dodie knows where the light switch is. There will be times when she may need to hunt for it. But she has friends on the outside who are remembering to pray for her and to ask God that she will be a light from God shining in a dark place.

Amen, Pastor Al. Amen.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On missing Al Hoksbergen

I know just how it will be, and I know I'd better not be late.

He'll be waiting for me in the lobby of Freedom Village, pretending to read mail or the newspaper, but really just watching the front door. And he jumps up as I enter.

The usual greetings, shaking hands, and we head for the elevator. Along the way he chats with other seniors and with food service workers, also going up.

We exit at the fourth floor. By now I can almost find the apartment blindfolded.

Two large rocks glasses are already filled with ice. We chat with Shirley for a moment, then head for the sunroom for our once-a-week session. I pour.

We cover family first, move on to church subjects---the service he attends in Holland and the one I attend in Ferrysburg. This takes time, because the worship service is dear to both of us. We touch on world affairs, sometimes laughing because our opinions would not be popular in all circles. And without fail, we get to some biblical matters. Chances are it's a new sermon he's working on. When and if he'll ever preach it is anybody's guess. His words make so much sense. It's like a mini-Bible-lesson for me.

In a heart-beat it's time for me to leave. We already mark it in our calendar for the next week.

This is next week, but it never happened.

Al Hoksbergen held his weekly session with Jesus.

My schedule is empty.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Let's hold Parole Board members accountable

When it became apparent that false confessions were one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, Innocence Projects around the country began clamoring for improvements in the police interview process. They wanted all police interrogation, from the time of arrest, recorded...if not video, at least audio. And wise prosecutors around the country agreed. It actually strengthened good cases...but it also made cops very aware that they couldn't browbeat and bully and even torture suspects into confessing something that they really didn't do.

HFP is now making the same recommendation for the Parole Board interview. While it is true that some of the interviews seem to be improving, the history of the Michigan Parole Board interview is dismal. I have sat in on interviews that were shamefully conducted by Parole Board members who acted very much like bullies. Very recently we heard of a PB interviewer who bluntly informed a very nice young woman in her interview that she was a threat to society, and he actually penciled that in on her PB documents. We received a report from a sex offender who was being interviewed by one of the women on the board...she rudely suggested that instead of committing his alleged crime, he should have just gone and had sex with his dog. Only the language was much more crude. We know of an inmate who was being interviewed with his mother at his side. The PB member told her that if he had his way, her son would never see the light of day again.

This is just a sample...the horror stories are legion. I'm especially sensitive to this because HFP is often asked to help prisoners prepare for the interview, and sometimes we are there with them for the interview. It's the inmate's hope for a little light at the end of the tunnel...the possibility of freedom. They are nervous for the interview, and fragile. When their hopes are dashed by these unkind interviewers, these men and women are devastated. They are hurt more than you can possibly imagine, and they must then wait a year or two or five before they can appear before the board again.

HFP contends that these interviews should be recorded...if not on video, at least the audio portion. That way, if the prisoner or his family or his representative has a complaint about the interview it can be quickly investigated.

We made the suggestion to MDOC Director Dan Heyns, and he responded simply that there would be too many problems. He did not elaborate, but we think those problems would be far less than the number of examples of shameful interview techniques by Parole Board members. They must be held accountable...they are our employees.

It's time for improvements in this process that would show a more humane treatment of Michigan prisoners.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Modeling Jesus behind bars

My friend Big Ben often speaks in the prison worship services. His testimony is a powerful one, in that he has been in prison 40 years, serving a life sentence on a first degree murder charge. But, he's no longer a fierce criminal. He's a kind, gentle spokesman for Christianity.

Instead of complaining about being sent to prison, Big Ben claims that incarceration was a life-changing event for him. It was behind bars that he found God.

In a recent letter to me, he described how he has been able to model the life of Jesus while in prison.

For example, he said, Jesus healed the blind. “I learned to transcribe English text into braille for the visually impaired...I have helped the blind to see a world with the use of braille wording.

“I have labored to feed the hungry, working as the head cook for five years in Marquette Branch Prison.

“I have clothed the naked, working in the prison industrial sector at a textile factory in Jackson, making T-shirts, shorts, socks, etc.

“I use my testimony to bear witness to God's glory, and how his presence in my life continues to strengthen me spiritually.”

A fine message, Big Ben. A sermon that could not be matched by that of an outside preacher.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

On holiday loneliness

How were your holidays?

There are many, many stories like this. But let me tell you about my buddy Jim.

He finally called me on New Years Day. Until that time, he had spoken with no friends or family through the entire holiday period. He had had no visits. Besides all of that, he didn't share any holiday time with any of the guys behind bars. You see, Jim is a marked man. He's a Christian man who followed his conscience, and when he heard another inmate boasting about how he had committed a murder, he did something about it. Until that time, the murder had been unsolved.

It's understandable that prisoners do not like snitches. But in Jim's case it has gone to the extreme. Word is that there's a $1,000 contract out on him. Someone has already tried to poison him, which required a race to a nearby hospital emergency room. Now, he pretty much sticks to his cell. He's afraid.

Jim should have been out years ago, because in an earlier case the state promised him that if he would testify in an important case, they would see that he would return to court for re-sentencing. He lived up to his half of the deal. The state just sort of forget their half.

So, Christmas came and went. The New Years holiday came and went.

Jim sat alone in his cell, accompanied only by fear.

No visits by relatives or loved ones.

No holiday cheer or best wishes.

Just fear. And loneliness.

It's a good thing he has Jesus.