All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, March 30, 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 Combs saying, “Seriously, this man is given less than a year to live, and you inform him that his name will come up again in 2 years?”

But that was mild.

Shirley bombarded both of these men, but especially Combs, with email messages and telephone calls. Jim would call her with his latest condition and latest report of treatment or lack thereof...and she would be off and running again. And it didn't let up.

Finally, early this year, Combs conceded that perhaps Jim's situation should be re-examined.

Jim was granted a compassionate release in February, 2014. And even then, she constantly pressured him to make the release happen, and happen now!

Jim died today.

“Thank God he was home with you,” I said, upon hearing the news and extending my sympathy. And she agreed, but adds: “They killed my husband.”

She's going to court.

Some judge has no idea what's coming to him! Just ask Tom Combs.

Friday, March 28, 2014

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 public hearing, in my estimation, was a disaster. The Assistant Attorney General who did most of the questioning couldn't stop hammering on the more than 60 misconduct tickets she had received as an angry young inmate during her early years in prison.

No mention of the dramatic change in her life when she accepted Christ, went to church, went back to school, helped her fellow inmates as a hair-dresser, provided all kinds of legal assistance to prisoners as a para-legal, and received only 2 misconduct tickets since 2008...both of them questionable.

We testified on her behalf, as did the representative of another faith-based 501c3 agency. Many family members and friends were there, not only praising her new lifestyle, but promising to help her and be at her side when she is released.

The Assistant AG reported that the Wayne County Prosecutor's office opposed her release (as if someone there even remembers her or the case), and he opposed it, too.

But the letters and the testimony from us and many others must have made an impact, because against strong odds, Alfreda Drake has just been granted parole. There's no question that there was some strong divine intervention.

And that is typical of the rewards we receive.

Beautiful gifts that encourage us to keep on.

In the name of Jesus.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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 with no explanation...and none required; the lack of a right of the prisoner to appeal parole denials; and the resulting phenomenon of a large pool of parolable lifers that just keeps getting larger. These are people who are eligible for release.

Getting back to the doctor's point.

It costs the state roughly $35,000 a year to care for a prisoner. So extending that prisoner's stay for another two years means a $70,000 decision. Multiply it out for a lifer, and suddenly that's up to $175,000! And this is one person.

Now factor in the fact that many of these inmates are older, and require medical care. The cost per inmate doubles. So it's a $70,000 a year decision.

Now figure the cost of housing our geriatric category prisoners, who require constant care and medical attention, and the cost is estimated at $100,000 per year! The Parole Board can glibly state “no interest” but that simple 5-year flop may be costing you and me a half-million dollars.

Do you get the point, budget-minded State Legislator?

Decisions or lack of decisions by this Parole Board are throwing the corrections budget out of whack, and it doesn't have to be that way. What are you going to do about it?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

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? She has maintained that this did not happen for the past 30 years.”

The second report came in the form of a letter from a 52 year old inmate whose earliest release date was last year. “Last year I was denied parole because I maintained my innocence. My parole guideline score is high, I have completed all recommendations, I have no misconducts, and I have good job reviews. I cannot, as a Christian, lie to the Parole Board.”

Both should be free today. Both seek our advice. And frankly, we don't know the way around this one. It's a ridiculous position that the Parole Board takes, but it's been around forever and it shows no sign of weakening.

In the past 15 years, we know of three professional persons who tearfully admitted to us that they changed their stories...they lied, in an effort to obtain freedom. In two of the three cases, it worked! What a sad commentary on the system.

Is this what the Parole Board really wants? What twisted logic demands that a prisoner admit guilt, whether factually guilty or not, before a release can be considered? Is this a face-saving measure? Is it the position of the state that the judicial system never makes a mistake...that every prisoner is guilty?

These questions remain unanswered. And meanwhile, the stories continue to come in, and the Michigan prison population remains steady.

Friday, March 21, 2014

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 MDOC's healthcare provider CORIZON. And representing our point of view were HFP and Hospice of Michigan.

Sadly, the meeting went nowhere.

So now we're taking the opposite approach, and we're excited about the progress. On Monday, March 31, in a public setting at the St. Patrick Youth Center in Grand Haven, we're pulling together a prison warden, a CORIZON regional representative who is also a doctor, two local physicians who serve as hospice medical directors, two widows of men who died behind bars last year, and a local State Representative. The meeting begins at 7:15, and the discussion will conclude at 9, just in time to view the premiere showing of the HBO documentary PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HALL.

If you live in western Michigan, you'll want to attend this session, which is doubling as a fund-raiser for HFP. Refreshments will be served, and hopefully, by starting at the grass roots level, we'll make some progress.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

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 duplicating efforts already undertaken by the American Friends Service Committee. The AFSC is doing in-prison programs on this topic, and knowing the people involved, I have to believe that they are terrific. But these sessions do not deal with the issues I just explained.

Here's what I think, and it's merely speculation. I think Mr. Combs and the Parole Board members don't really want to know what it's like in prison. And I think they really don't want to see the human side of prisoners. As it stands, prisoners are getting what they deserve, and they are simply an identification number. The name is not important, and neither are the inmate's personal problems and situations.

Mr. Combs, all involved in the MDOC, all judges and all prosecutors should read ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. The federal prison conditions as described in author Kerman's book are worse in the state prisons, based on what we hear each day. The shameful treatment of inmates by many prison staffers seems to be the norm everywhere.

There's gotta be a better way.

Just sayin'

Sunday, March 16, 2014

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 Colorado State Prison in Canon City. He spent the next 20 hours there...undoubtedly the longest 20 hour period in his life.

Now he's very publicly telling his story, and it's time that we all listen. There's gotta be a better way!

And so our challenge is to Michigan's executive director, Daniel Heyns, who also comes into this position without corrections experience...who also has a background in law enforcement.

Our challenge is actually more expansive.

Spend a day and a night in solitary, Mr. Heyns.

Surprise a prison facility, and eat one of the Aramark meals with the inmates, Mr. Heyns.

Put on prison garb and pay a visit incognito to a prison healthcare facility, Mr. Heyns.

And let this just be the beginning. Use your imagination to find out just what Michigan prisoners are experiencing, and how their families and friends are being treated.

Michigan prisons will never be the same.

Monday, March 10, 2014

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 was in that document that he signed.

It reminded me of another dear friend, a likable African American, who was wrongly convicted in Texas. Because of our friendship, Anthony asked if I would be his spiritual adviser at the time of his execution. There was no team of legal warriors to get to the bottom of this man's story. Instead, I had the privilege of praying with him in Huntsville just before the state put him to death. I hope I never have to go through an experience like that again.

It reminded me of another dear friend, a likable African American named Maurice Carter. My nine year battle to help this wrongly convicted Michigan prisoner led to this career in inmate advocacy. Despite all the efforts of a huge team of dedicated legal eagles, the state refused to admit its wrongdoings. Maurice was granted a compassionate release because he was dying. And even though we knew the identity of the real shooter in the crime, Maurice died 10 years ago as a convicted felon.

By the end of last night's show I was a wreck. Too many memories. Too many tears shed over injustice and our callous indifference to the plight of the wrongly convicted. There are times when I find it difficult to believe just how inhumanely we can treat fellow human beings.

The new CNN series on Sunday night is a show that you must not miss.

It's a show that I will miss.

May God grant us the wisdom to learn from these powerful presentations.

Friday, March 7, 2014

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 used, is still being romanticized. “Old Sparky,” it was called in many states. Texas has Old Sparky on display in its prison museum in Huntsville, right near the spot where the state continues to punish people with execution. As viewers watched in horror, the hair of an inmate being electrocuted actually caught on fire.

Now we use a more “civilized” means of taking the lives of prisoners...the lethal injection. I personally viewed one of those killings, and refuse to call it civilized.

Perhaps the season of Lent would be the perfect time to listen once again to the teachings of the risen Savior.

As I recall, he said the way we treat prisoners is actually to be considered the way we treat him.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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 develop jobs for some of those DI prisoners who were physically able to do light work. One unexpected side effect of our meetings was the realization that others had it much worse and, in come cases, certain prisoners thanked God that they were so much better off. The institutions are always short of jobs for prisoners and perhaps this could be explored. It may help alleviate a few issues.

What a great idea! And this could be implemented so easily.

Where have all the idea people gone?

The handicapped in prison need an extra dose of compassion and affection.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

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 Bible study

The guy who knows he's in prison for a reason, but dares to say that his co-defendant was railroaded and is not guilty

The girl who begs for someone to befriend a senior citizen who the courts claim was responsible for the death of a grandchild, because she now feels alone and abandoned behind bars

The girl who chooses to make a monthly donation to HFP, even though she earns less than 90 cents a day

The girl who refuses to waste her time moping, and leads a committee in the National Lifers Association to seek legislation for judicial reform

The guy who listens to the stories of inmates returning from public hearings, and publishes a guideline for others to better prepare for these hearings

The guys and the girls who are concerned about the attitudes of young inmates just arriving, and use their spare time for mentoring

And this is the tip of the iceberg. Matt and I encounter these heroes every day.

An HFP salute to these unsung heroes. May God continue to bless them and raise up more.