Showing posts from March, 2014

The persistent prisoner's wife---and this is no parable

I liken Shirley Lawrence to the persistent widow in Jesus' parable, as told in Luke 18. The widow kept coming to a judge with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” As Jesus tells it, “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming.'” That's exactly what Shirley did to Dan Heyns, Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, and more specifically Tom Combs, Chairman of the Michigan Parole Board. Shirley's husband Jim was dying of cancer, and to hear Shirley tell it, he wasn't getting proper care. An effort was made to get a compassionate release based on the seriousness of his condition, but last year the Parole Board gave Jim a flop...told him they would see him again in 2 years. I thought I was being pushy when I sent an email to

A sliver of light in our office!

A nice young lady was interviewing me by telephone. She's majoring in criminal justice at Wayne State University and wanted some information about the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS for paper that she is writing. Then came this that we hear from time to time: “With all the negative stuff that you are dealing with, are there also positive things?” Yes there are, and the gifts may not sound big or exciting, but they're huge. Here's a good example...good news that we just received today. Last November I testified at the Parole Board public hearing for an African American woman who has spent more than half of her life in prison. She was abused as a child, got into all kinds of trouble growing up, and was hanging around with the wrong crowd...a crowd that wound up killing someone. She didn't commit the murder...didn't even know it happened...but she got arrested with the rest of them. She was 20 years old at the time. She's 46 now. The

Parole Board flops cost money...and it's yours and mine

My son Matt and I were chatting with a prison doctor the other day about the shameful way that the Michigan Parole Board is flopping prisoners. A “flop” means that freedom was denied and the length of imprisonment was extended. Usually the flop is for two years, but for lifers the inmate's name comes up once every five years. And the Parole Board has the authority to tell a lifer that it has no interest when his or her name comes up, which means that there will not even be an interview. Any hope for freedom is suddenly 5 years away. But the doctor made a good point that the Parole Board seems to be ignoring, and that the legislators certainly haven't seemed to grasp: The flops cost money! One would think that Michigan legislators would get on their “high horse” about some of these Parole Board issues involving lifers---relying on just file information, rather than a personal interview before giving a five-year flop; throwing out the words “no interest” in a form letter

Does the Parole Board prefer liars?

I will not forget the moment. “Mr. Carter,” said Michigan Parole Board Chairman John Rubitschun, “if I told you that I have a slip of paper in my pocket that will allow you to walk out of here right now with Mr. Tjapkes, will you confess to the crime?” My innocent friend Maurice, with all the dignity he could muster while dying of Hepatitis C, said, “I will never admit to something I didn't do.” The incident is fresh in my mind right now, because in recent days our office received two reports of a disturbing but familiar message: Unless the prisoner admits guilt, the Parole Board apparently refuses to consider release. The first report came from the friend of a woman, age 60, who has already served 27 years. Her earliest release date is this year, so she could be released. But her Parole Board interview last week did not go well. Her friend told us this: “...what happened was that if she would not say that she did it, she is not going anywhere! What should she say? S

Hospice care in prison? We're trying!

The way we saw it, if we wanted to get something changed in Michigan's prison system, we should start at the top. But that didn't work. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has long been troubled by the impersonal prison setting that surrounds dying inmates. If we had our druthers, we'd prefer a compassionate release by the Parole Board so that the terminally ill prisoner could spend his or her final days and hours in the presence of family and loved ones. But compassionate releases are not at the top of the PB agenda. So, we thought that providing hospice care to dying inmates might be an alternative. We went to the top: the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, and the top officials of Hospice of Michigan. It took almost a year to bring about a meeting, but last September it finally happened at the MDOC headquarters in Lansing. We didn't have the director of the MDOC, but we did have the administrator of MDOC Health Care, along with top officials from the

Is this why the Parole Board doesn't like our idea?

I received the letter from Michigan Parole Board Chairman Thomas Combs, rejecting my proposal to hold in-prison seminars, at about the same time a friend recommended a book to me. I devoured the book ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: MY YEAR IN A WOMEN'S PRISON in just two days. The blunt depiction of the shameful way women are treated in the federal prison system by author Piper Kerman, I think, shed some light on Chairman Combs' decision. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS had proposed that Mr. Combs and I go into the prisons and do a series of seminars for the inmates on how to prepare for Parole Board interviews. I cannot think of a more effective public relations campaign to improve the sorry image of he Parole Board in prisons. I cannot think of a better way for the Parole Board members to discover that inmates are real people, people with real emotions and feelings, people who can and do ask intelligent questions and make astute comments. Mr. Combs says we would simply be duplicat

A challenge to MDOC Director Heyns

I have a challenge for the head of the Michigan prison system. The idea isn't mine, but it's a good one: I'd like Dan Heyns to spend a day and a night in solitary confinement. The idea comes from Colorado's new Executive Director of the state's corrections system, Rick Raemisch. He took over the prison system at a tumultuous time...the former director had been shot to death by a former inmate. A guy, as it turns out, who had spent time in solitary confinement. Just 7 months into the job, Raemisch decided to spend a night in solitary confinement. The Colorado cells are similar to those in most states: 7 by 13 foot boxes. Prisoners spend 22 or more hours a day in these terrible containers, for months, sometimes years, sometimes decades. A shameful practice by corrections officials that is certain to do psychological damage. In January of this year---unbeknownst to the prisoners---Raemisch was led wearing handcuffs and leg shackles into his tiny cell at C

New CNN Series---I can't watch, but you must!

CNN has launched an excellent new series of documentaries: DEATH ROW STORIES. I won't be watching it. A friend called just before the first show aired last night to make certain that I would tune in. I did, and it was a heart-wrenching story...a story that brought back too many unpleasant memories. Edward Lee Elmore's story was the subject of the first episode. The likable African American with a low IQ had been wrongly convicted under shameful circumstances, and it was decades before a dedicated team secured his freedom...just days before he would have been executed. It reminded me of a dear friend, another likable African American with a low IQ, who has also been wrongly convicted. He's here in Michigan so fortunately he's not on death row. But he's in for life. Andre's story includes police officers who demanded that he sign a document of confession when, as a young man, he could not read or write. I don't think he knows, to this day, what

Lent: A season to reflect on our treatment of prisoners

The season of Lent is certainly the most meaningful of all seasons in the Christian year. I hate what they did to Jesus. I love what he did for me. How barbaric the people were back in Bible times! The guards teased and taunted and abused Jesus. He suffered through a brief kangaroo court session. He was sentenced to death in a wrongful conviction. And the method of execution was especially designed to punish the condemned with more than just death. Crucifixion was just plain cruel. Times have certainly changed, right? No more ridicule and abuse by guards. No more kangaroo court sessions. No more wrongful convictions. True, we don't have crucifixions in this country. We don't even have hangings or firing squads. But until 1999 we were still using gas chambers. In 1983 the State of Mississippi decided to clear people out of the viewing room when a gasping prisoner refused to die after 8 minutes of torture in the chamber. The electric chair, no longer being

Have the idea people faded away?

We need more idea people in the MDOC, and fewer people who accept the status quo. Years ago people joked that the 7 last words of the church were: We never did it that way before . I'm afraid that disease has spread to our department of prisons as well. Last week Matt and I received a letter from a handicapped inmate who reported that he was shamefully neglected and abused at a northern Michigan facility. I shared that letter with Eric, a good friend who is a retired deputy warden from the MDOC. As a man of God, Eric took his job seriously. After he read the letter, he gave me this reply: He is obviously sick and in a very negative place, and I wish at least part of his focus could be shifted to something more positive. I developed a program that cost the MDOC almost nothing to help deal with some of the issues he expressed concern with. I developed jobs for select prisoners to assist our physically-impaired prisoners with daily living chores. I was also able to deve

Heroes behind bars? You bet!

The whole concept of heroes sometimes bothers me. The people who are referred to as heroes in the media today often aren't my heroes. When I was an active newsman, I liked to pay tribute to the most unlikely of heroes: the caregivers in nursing homes, the cops and firemen, ambulance personnel, school bus drivers. Today, in my third and final career, I see many real heroes. And they're in prison. Let me list a few: The guy who decides to run interference for a dying inmate who is being harassed by guards because of the large hernia lump in his abdomen The guy who agrees to let a handicapped inmate who must walk in a crouching position cling to his belt, despite the teasing and taunting from staff The guys who keep their faith, even though being wrongly convicted on sex charges due to false testimony by ex-wives, former girlfriends, and naughty school kids The guy who should have been released by the Parole Board long ago, but instead of pouting leads a daily Bi