Showing posts from January, 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 cas

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

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.” Th

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

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 w

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, et

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 sta