All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, February 21, 2014

HFP still salutes Corrections Officer of the Year

We frequently complain about corrections officers in the Michigan prison system...and for good reason. Some of these people are callous and abusive, some are rude to visitors, and some are involved in the smuggling in of contraband. But the key word here is “some.” As in many situations, the troublemakers get the attention.

Many others are very nice people, kind to inmates, helpful to visitors, and carry out their duties with pride, dignity and integrity.

I bring up all of this because I just read a disturbing little piece in the February MI-CURE newsletter.
The MCO (Michigan Corrections Organization---union for the guards) recently notified the MDOC that it is withdrawing from the process of selecting a corrections officer of the year and that it will not have an official presence at the annual Department of Corrections banquet. The announcement read, in part, “The consensus of MCO leaders across the state was that the union should discontinue official participation in the selection process and banquet because the department, in recent years, has not shown genuine concern for officers.”

Let me explain why I find this disturbing. It underscores what I believe is a part of the problem. Unpleasant behavior by guards, it seems to me, represents unpleasant attitudes higher up.

In all the years that I held management positions in private business, I was fussy about my employees. If, by chance, we found out that one of my people behaved in a nasty manner I relieved that person of his/her duties. It was my position that my employees should be a reflection of me and my business. I'm the first to admit that it was much easier with a dozen employees than having a staff of thousands. But you get my point.

The MDOC should be embarrassed by this action of the guards union, and should take immediate steps to mend some fences.

And though none will be nominated, we know of numerous fine COs who qualify for Corrections Officer of the Year.

We salute them.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Death, where is your sting?

It's the first death of 2014 among the list of inmates being served by HFP. We've just learned that Daniel Hnatiuk died on January 7. He was 58.

As is so often the case, Dan's plight was called to our attention by another prisoner. He suffered from Hepatitis C, and was in such bad shape that only a liver transplant would save his life. He remained confident that he would be released and get a new liver. Michigan prisoners are not allowed to have transplants. (From what we're told, it's not because they're's because the prison medical staff won't provide the necessary care for the patient after the surgery.)

When HFP was notified by a fellow prisoner that this inmate was not getting appropriate care, we pounced on the case. “I pray that you are the help I have been looking for,” he said to me in a short hand-written note. We prayed the same thing. He had been told the disease was so advanced that the usual medications could not be used. He said that he was in excruciating pain, which we found most irritating. You may not be able to treat the disease, but there are meds to ease the pain.

We learned that he had been denied a commutation in 2011. He was working on a new application when we began communicating with him last year. He and I did a lot of work on his application form to get it polished up. HFP encouraged him to seek a compassionate release because of the severity of his illness. That's what we were working on the last time we exchanged messages.

Then silence.

What a shame that a person who is terminally ill, and in terrible pain, cannot be released to die at home. Where is the compassion in all of this? Did anyone really think that Dan would be a threat to society?

He took his last breath alone, behind cold prison bars.

As Jesus did when his friend Lazarus died, I wept.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Roles reversed - we're doing the begginig

Words from the Apostle Paul:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

My son Matthew and I are very accustomed to hearing pleas for help. By the very nature of our business, we hear begging.

Just today, alone, we heard prisoners and/or their family members pleading for
-prescription shoes that were denied to a crippled inmate
-court documents that an inmate cannot retrieve on his own
-prayers for safety in a violent situation
-answers to questions about an obvious MDOC retaliation prison transfer
-assistance in getting a handi-craft program started again for women
-help in finding a family member
-assistance in filing an application for commutation.

It's not uncommon, anymore, for the HFP office to receive 10-15 requests for help A DAY!

But today, we're asking for help.

We're blaming much of our problem on the weather, but our February contributions took a steep dip. And we don't have any cushion for that kind of thing. Quite the opposite. There aren't enough of our regular partners to carry the weight. Each month we look for a few special gifts to help cover our bills.

This month, it feels like everything dried up.

We still believe we're right where God wants us to be.

We're still confident we're going to make it.

But I must admit, I'm getting a bit anxious.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Smile. You're on PB TV!

My friend David asked me to be at his side for a Parole Board interview. He's a lifer, but claims wrongful conviction. Unlike most PB interviews, this was a great experience. And here's a major reason why it was so good: The interviewer was sitting across the table from us.

I bring this up because nowadays, most PB interviews are done by interactive TV. It's a simple system really. One camera is set up in the Parole Board office in Lansing. Another is set up in the prison where the interviews are being conducted. These cameras are in a fixed position. Microphones, also in a single location, allow interviewer and interviewee to communicate.

I think it's a terrible situation.

When I sat by David for his interview, the Parole Board member was able to see and feel the sincerity and conviction in his voice. Instead of lasting the usual 10-20 minutes, the discussion continued for nearly an hour. At the conclusion of the interview, the Parole Board member insisted that I assist David in getting his case before the U of M Innocence Clinic. “If what you tell me is true,” he said, “then it's a crime that you're in prison!”

I'm convinced this would not have happened in a cold, impersonal TV interview situation.

A friend of HFP said that years ago, when he was director of Community Mental Health Services in a nearby county, he dismissed a psychiatrist because he refused to look into the eyes of clients---he merely looked out the window during therapy interviews. He quoted famed preacher John Wesley's sermon about how to visit the sick and imprisoned: The word which we render visit, in its literal acceptation, means to look upon. And this, you well know, cannot be done unless you are present with them.

Interactive TV in the courtroom for arraignments of prisoners as a cost-cutting measure makes some sense. But this system for PB interviews is counterproductive. We're not talking about a simple plea before a judge, here. We're talking about an inmate's future, and we think it demands the presence of a live interviewer.

MDOC budget cuts are important, but not when these cuts can result in an unfair flop of a real, live, human being... perhaps placing that person in prison for up to five more years when it's not deserved.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

TV News. Always fair, always accurate?

I got in a little shoving match with a news editor at Channel 8 earlier this month.

It was the day after an escape from one of the prisons in Ionia. I became frustrated with the way the TV reporters were describing the escapee. In some informal chatter, one reporter gushed, “How does a mass murderer escape from prison?” Then, in a related story, another reporter on the same channel said, “We talked with family members of the people he killed.”

My blood was boiling as I emailed the newsroom. We knew that Michael Elliot was an escapee. We knew that he was a carjacker. But we DID NOT KNOW that he was a mass murderer. I knew that Mr. Elliot had claimed that he was wrongly convicted of a quadruple homicide in 1993, and has claimed his innocence ever since his arrest.

Granted, this doesn't make him innocent, but the famous Rubin Hurricane Carter once told me that if a prisoner refused to budge on a claim of innocence over the years, “You better listen to him.”

My position as a broadcast journalist was simply that the TV station should at least use the word “alleged” when talking about the escapee, and I told them so. Having worked on the Maurice Carter case for nearly 10 years, I've had a little experience with wrongful convictions.

Here is the reply from Ch 8's Brandon Lacic, word for word: “I disagree. He was convicted of killing 4 people. His appeals were denied as baseless and credible. Our policy is when someone is convicted of a crime, they are guilty and no longer alleged to have committed a crime.”

I'm pleased to report, however, that from that day on Ch 8 referred to Mr. Elliot as a “convicted” murderer, which is just fine. That's the way it should be.

And guess what? Last night on Ch 8 news, a major breaking story: Co-defendant: Elliot is not guilty of 4 murders. A man who was sent to prison for the same four murders as escapee Michael Elliot says Elliot is innocent.

Granted, this doesn't mean he's innocent, either. But it does underscore a solid newsroom policy of using words like "alleged."

Wonder how that crow tastes, Mr. Lacic.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

After an escape comes the blame game

There's a lot of finger-pointing in the Michigan prison system these days, as details of a daring escape from an Ionia prison begin to leak out. The more we learn, the more we discover that the real criminals were not among the inmate population. They were in various levels of our complicated, complex and confusing corrections program.

First among the finger pointers is the corrections officers union. The escapee was able to get white clothing like that worn in the prison kitchens, and the kitchen administration these days has been out-sourced to Aramark...a national company that doesn't have a great reputation. “If we had been running the kitchen, this guy wouldn't have been able to sneak out with white clothes,” some union members contend. That's quite interesting, because we've heard for years that inmates with the right connections in the kitchen can easily pilfer fruit juice, yeast, and other ingredients to help make their own booze.

While it is true that there are many fine and honorable corrections officers, the union is going to have to bite its tongue a bit in this case. The escape happened during the Super Bowl game, when someone didn't notice unusual activity on the surveillance screen. I wonder what screen they were watching? And a guard walked right past the guy, as he hid in the snow with his all-white apparel. Did he not notice, or did he not care?

And even though administration officials are pointing to employees at lower levels, the buck stops at the top. We regularly hear reports of contraband getting into the prisons, often by being thrown over fences around the yard. If we hear these reports on a regular basis, administrators must be deaf if they claim to hear nothing. It's plain to see that all the junk getting into our prisons isn't being brought in by the visitors.

The short-lived escape is going to do nothing but severe damage to that inmate's claim of wrongful conviction. But he will have done a huge favor to the MDOC if we finally get long-overdue house-cleaning and reform. Only time will tell.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Not only immoral, but costly!

We can boast about “throwing away the key,” about “an eye for an eye,” about “life means life in Michigan,” about tough sentences in the war on drugs. My contention is that Michigan's record of keeping people in prison longer than any other state is immoral. But whether you agree or not, you cannot dispute the fact that it's costly. It's costly to each one of us who resides in Pure Michigan.

Fact: Michigan has the longest average incarceration rate, with an average time served of 4.3 years.

Fact: That's 3 years more than a stay in South Dakota prisons.

Fact: Michigan imposes especially long sentences for drug crimes...2nd highest in the nation.

Fact: Change of length of stay in Michigan prisons has jumped 79% since 1990.

Fact: Cost to Michigan of keeping prisoners longer is about $472 million.

Fact: This extra cost per prisoner is greater than any other state in the nation.

Here's the thing: the above information is not just a series of statistics, and shame on us if we look at it that way. We're talking about people here: people who have families, people whose emotions and feelings don't differ much from yours and mine, people who someday will be back in our society.

It's time to communicate this to your state legislator.

It's past time to start making changes.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The US prison system is doing it wrong

I've been doing some reading about prison systems and sentences in Europe, more specifically The Netherlands and Germany. It helps us to identify an elephant that's been sitting in the middle of our room for years: What do we really hope to accomplish with our present system of incarceration?

If we're looking for retribution, if punishment is our goal, and if we're thinking that it's biblical to seek an eye for an eye, we're doing things exactly right. Prison in the U.S. is hell. There's little attempt at rehabilitation. Because they're “just prisoners,” we don't worry about quality or quantity of food. Meals very often are very terrible. Medical care in most prisons is marginal, as private healthcare services worry about the bottom line. Solitary confinement, though proven to be psychologically damaging, is rampant. Parole Boards often assume the role of sentencing judge and keep inmates behind bars far longer than early release dates. Punishment, you bet. And then we wonder why the recitivism rate is so high.

I started looking into the Dutch prison sentences after a native of the old country recently told me that the sentence there for first degree murder was 7 years, compared to life without parole here.

I was astounded at not only the difference in philosophy between these European countries and ours, but by the incredible difference in statistics. The ratio of incarcerated per 100,000 people is far lower than ours...far, far lower! And yet crime is not rampant in these countries.

I found that prisoners there are treated like human beings. Specially trained staff do their best to try to help these inmates to get their lives back together again. Prisoners are given private time. Many are allowed to prepare their own meals. There are programs in place to get them back on track, and for good reason. These people are going to re-enter society. The purpose of imprisonment is to separate these people from society, not to punish. The goal is to make them productive citizens.

One person was quoted as saying, “If we want these people to act like humans, we must treat them like humans.”

My first reaction was to claim that this is the Christian approach, because I do this work in the name of Jesus.

But regardless of what you believe, it's the humane approach.

And if statistics and track records are worth anything, they demonstrate that we're doing it all wrong.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Every little bit counts

One thing you learn in this business: Never give up...never let up!

As we review the January activity log for HFP, we are pleased to report three paroles. In each case, we did our little part. Maybe it was just a letter to the Parole Board. But through experience we have found that every avenue must be pursued.

We have no idea whether we can claim any credit at all for these three, but thank God they happened.

Jeff received a parole after serving 5 years of a 4-10 sentence. He's a free man today.

Jim finally was granted a compassionate release. He's been in only two years, but he's dying of cancer and the Parole Board had been stubbornly resisting a request to let him live out his remaining days with loved ones.

And Norman was granted a parole in New York state. True, HFP focuses only on Michigan cases, but this one dates back to the time when we were known as INNOCENT and we were considering wrongful conviction cases all over the country. We learned of Norman's plight after another New York inmate wrote to us to say Norman was innocent, and the reason he knew that was because this inmate had actually committed the crime! We have done our little part to this day to get his story before the people, with no big effect. To the disgrace of the system, Norman is getting a parole, but he still has not been exonerated.

And that's the way it is here. It's like climbing the Sleeping Bear sand dune...two steps ahead, and then one step backward.

But it's what we do. Thanks be to God for these glimpses of sunlight in January.