All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Not ashamed. Not in the least!

I am not ashamed of the gospel...Romans 1:16.

I was reminded of those powerful words from the Apostle Paul, who made such a bold statement after an earlier life of persecuting Christians, following a recent meeting with the founder of a generous philanthropic foundation. Our board chairman Dan Rooks, my son Matt and I were being interviewed because we were hoping to obtain a small grant for HFP operating funds.

The man was so kind and so understanding. We're not certain whether we'll receive a grant, but we know for sure that the man caught the flavor of our operation. And that, in itself, was impressive to all of us. Because often it seems we are on the defensive.

For some reason, even though Jesus insisted that we give special attention to prisoners, many people cannot understand the work of HFP, and find it difficult to support. We may get a dismissive statement: “We need people like you.” We don't get dollars very easily.

But we are not ashamed of the daily work of HFP. To the contrary, we're very proud of it!

The compassion of this agency can be shown in small, and what same may think, insignificant ways. Just recently

-We helped a prisoner locate his estranged step-father, so he could patch things up before the elderly man died.
-We helped an inmate find a private investigator to dig up some critical evidence in his wrongful conviction case.
-We agreed to help an inmate deserving of parole, who has been ignored by the Parole Board far too long.
-We agreed to write a letter of support to the Governor for a lifer who deserves release.
-We promised to try to get some treatment for a prisoner experiencing serious health problems and apparently is not getting proper treatment.
-We communicated a message to the pastor of a family whose adopted son recently committed suicide behind bars, after guards laughingly told him to go ahead and do so.
-We filed a complaint with the Department of Justice regarding cruel punishment of a mentally challenged woman in prison.
-We found the phone number of an inmate's mother.
-We agreed to help a prisoner in preparing his commutation application form.

Yes, these may seem trivial and insignificant. Just ask prisoners how they feel. Notes of thanks and gratitude arrive here daily.

I started out with St. Paul's statement about not being ashamed of the gospel.

Is this activity by HFP the gospel?

It certainly is in our mind! We believe that we're demonstrating the gospel of Jesus Christ in a most meaningful way...the method of St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel every day. Use words if necessary.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Whistle blowers behind bars: Heroes!

Thanks to behind-the-bars whistle blowers, HFP is providing an exceptional service. But I'm not sure it's having the desired effect.

We are so proud of those inmates who leak the truth to us on a regular basis by email and letter. We have learned which ones are exaggerating, are telling self-serving stories, and are determined to smear the system. We have reputable people behind bars who are regularly disclosing serious problems in Michigan prisons, and we are sharing that information.

In recent months we have told about a mentally ill woman being hog-tied in the nude for hours, and being forced to sleep on a slab with no padding.

We are now receiving reports of another mentally ill woman who was denied food and water, and who was administered drugs even while still unconscious from the previous injection. Only then was she rushed to a hospital by ambulance on a ventilator.

From Michigan's Woodland Facility, which houses mentally ill men, come new reports of abuse and lack of appropriate care, and then cover-up moves by staff members.

The daily messages on the HFP network are not there to titillate the reader.

We don't put them out there to replicate the super-sensational tabloids.

We do this to inform an uninformed public. But more than that, we also expect results.

In almost every session where I make a presentation, people ask what they can do about these intolerable situations. Certainly we can pray for improvement, but we must do more than that. We must demand change.

If nothing else, as a state tax payer, here's why you should care. Michigan prisons take a bigger bite out of the general fund budget than any other state. Michigan keeps people in prison longer than any other state. You and I are paying for it!

And there are problems in the Michigan prisons which we are revealing daily on our email network, thanks to whistle blowers who know that they can expect retaliation. Much of it we also share in our monthly newsletter.

Do you know the name of your State Representative? How about your State Senator? Have you ever contacted either of them? They are not appointed...they are elected to office. If you're a registered voter in the state, they'll listen to you. And if they don't, you should vote for someone else and you should tell them that.

Sign up for our email network. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter. Then, when you get this disturbing information, dare to do something about it!

For those of us who consider ourselves Christians and responsible American citizens, we have no option.

Complacency is a sin.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

And prisoners are smart!

I heard something new about prisoners last night.

I was invited to be the guest of a book club. The readers had just finished my book that tells the Maurice Carter story, SWEET FREEDOM. And the discussion inevitably led to prisons and prisoners in general.

Then one of the book club members, who is a teacher, said that while attending a teachers conference the participants were told that prisoners had a higher IQ average than the general public. Wow!

Upon reflection, that did not really surprise me.

I have heard prisoners in the Muskegon SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS Circle recite lengthy passages from Shakespeare works, flawlessly quoting the Bard of Avon with expression and gestures.

I have seen legal documents prepared by so-called jailhouse lawyers because many inmates cannot afford real-life attorneys...documents that would amaze you, and some of which have been effective in the courts. I think they amazed judges as well.

I hear of conscientious inmates who serve as teachers and mentors, helping others to become better and more educated citizens during their time of incarceration.

I have read countless letters from inmates carefully prepared, flawlessly written, and typed without a single error.

It reminded me of the time when I was in school, back in the 40s and 50s, when we labeled some kids “dumb” just because they couldn't seem to read or write or spell up to the level of the rest of us. In those days no one ever heard of or gave consideration to such a thing as learning disabilities. Little did we know that those kids were probably smarter than we were, but struggling with something as simple as dyslexia.

So, in addition to being children of God, or as Jesus called them, “the least of these brothers of mine,” prisoners are also smart. Their IQ is probably higher than yours or mine.

All the more reason for us to dig in and find better ways to recycle these damaged individuals and make them productive members of society.

Punishment, retribution, an “eye-for-an-eye” isn't working.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Father's Day promise---found in the last chapter

In my early morning reflections on Father's Day, I think back on a sermon preached by a friend years ago in our church. I don't remember all the details, but I remember the title: The world ain't supposed to be this way! The minister explained that the words were those of an elderly black man, after witnessing an ugly racial incident.

Those words ring true, especially on a day like today, especially when thinking of the true-life stories that cross our desk on a regular basis.

A heart-broken mom contacted us very recently to inform us that her son, still in his 20s and in prison, had taken his own life. And now it is up to her to care for his child...a little boy with no dad today.

I have a friend on the sex registry after serving time for a crime he didn't even commit. His children, all adults now, never forgave him for the alleged offense and refuse to even let him contact them. A father and grandfather who is not celebrating today.

The visiting rooms in Michigan's prisons will be overflowing today, and the scenes would touch you. Elderly fathers with pain in their eyes, visiting sons who made some mistakes along the way. Young moms, some of them pregnant, bringing little kids to see their daddy on Father's Day. They must painfully separate after the visit. Alone once again on this special day.

Other children and fathers must be satisfied with a very expensive phone call from prison, thanks to the immoral and exorbitant rates they are forced to pay.

I had the wonderful privilege of performing music and speaking with a number of female prisoners a few days ago, and I very briefly shared with them a story I heard early one Sunday morning on TV's Hour of Power. The guest minister was one of my favorite preachers, Richard Mouw.

He said that in his busy life he occasionally liked to take a break and read a good detective novel. But he also admitted that by about page 146 he became anxious, because the hero was in serious trouble and the heroine was in the hands of captors. And Rev. Mouw then made a confession: “I go to the last chapter.” He advised the audience that he still went back and read all of the book...he just wanted to be assured of the outcome.

And I chose to take his application of that story to prison with me. I reminded these women, many of them hurting and in a dark time of their lives, that they're still on page 146. And I said that I could offer them hope with assurance, as I held up my Bible, because I had read the last chapter!

The stories of my many prisoner friends, whom I deeply love, make me a bit melancholy early on this Father's Day.

But I thank and praise God that we're promised a happy ending in the last chapter!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A way to remember Andrew

Almost mid-month, and HFP contributions coming in slowly.

Then, a heart-breaking letter arrived yesterday. Here is the message, in part:

Dear Mr. Tjapkes:

A few months ago I wrote to you regarding my son Andrew, and the difficult time he was having at Pugsley receiving medical attention. Today is his birthday. My son had back problems and suffered from depression. I have wanted to write to you many times, but was unable to do so because it was too painful. My son took his own life on January 30 of this year. I am inconsolable. Those are the only words I know when someone asks me how I am. I am raising my grandson, who will now never have a relationship with his father. My son was 28 years old and spent the last 10 years struggling with so many demons, and trying so hard to hold on. I ask myself over and over "what will I do without him? What will I do without him?" I am destroyed daily thinking about his last moments and that I could not be with him.

There is no one to be angry with because there are so many to be angry with. The system that failed him for so many years. The way we run our mental health and drug rehab in this country. My son's inability to reach out for real help. Our justice and prison system which is so seriously flawed that prison is somewhere where we just throw our citizens away instead of rehabilitating them, taking away their basic human rights. The fact that unless you have money in this country you are basically just thrown to the wolves.

The day my son died a man from the prison called me, and he didn't even get my son's first name right. Then they literally threw all of his belongings in a box, taped it up and sent it to me---loose salt shakers spilling all over photographs. I called the deputy warden and told him they should be ashamed of themselves to do this to me. I told him that Andrew was someone's child, and they had no right to disrespect him or me in this way.

Every day I receive the emails from you with news from the prisons and prayers, and I read every one. But I am so angry and feel so powerless that with each one I tell myself I will unsubscribe because I can't take anymore of the pain and humiliation these people are being subjected to. I pray every day and I ask for guidance. I ask for strength. I am writing this letter because I know you are someone who understands, and who fights so hard for prisoners rights. I have no money, sir. But I know that I need to do something to help change things. I need to do something in my son's name, to change anything that I can. But I don't know what to do.

I thank you for the advice you tried to give us. I thank you for what you do each day to help people who can't help themselves. I have no more words. God Bless,


Well, I know what to do, Kim. It won't bring Andrew back, but it will help us to assist more mothers and more sons facing similar problems. We'll invite HFP supporters to make a one-time donation in memory of Andrew to keep this ministry alive. It founders every month, almost never meeting budget.

In June, 2014, perhaps we can hit our goal, in the name of your son.

Matt will post a separate figure each day showing Andrew Memorial Contributions.

May God be near this hurting mother, and all the other prison moms.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pickin' & Grinnin' behind bars?

What happens when you put a doctor, a preacher, a social worker, a broadcaster and a weathered old prisoner advocate in the same room? Well, they make some of the neatest gospel music one could ever imagine.

It all started at a funeral service, where John Mulder and I were asked by the widow to play and sing some tunes that were favorites of the deceased...a very nice man who was big into prison ministry. We did our thing.

One of the persons in attendance said, “That music must be heard by others.” So John and I decided that we would continue pickin' and grinnin' by staging a fund-raiser for HFP. And along the way we added some more musicians: John's brother David, a preacher on the other side of the state; our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll, who is a social worker with the Spring Lake School system; and Cal Olson, veteran broadcaster in Grand Rapids.

The gig is officially called Pickin' & Grinnin' now, and we get together a couple times a year to raise urgently needed funds for HFP.

This fine team of singers and instrumentalists also made an album of gospel favorites, hoping that sales of the CD would also benefit our organization.

But the story gets even more interesting this week.

A woman in prison heard about our music, and wondered if we would come to share it. On Friday, June 13, the five of us will be appearing in the auditorium of the prison for women in Ypsilanti for four consecutive concerts! They can be only one hour in length. We must work around tight schedules, because the inmates must be counted a couple times a day, and all 2,000 women must be fed lunch. But thanks to the fine work of Deputy Karri Osterhout, who is in charge of special events like this, and the cooperation of Warden Millicent Warren, the gig is still on.

Women in the prison are praying for success.

We are, too.

And we'd like your prayers.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Suicides behind bars. Does anyone care?

The more information we hear about suicides behind bars, the more we become convinced that the number could be reduced.

Little attention was paid to a recent suicide at the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, one of the Michigan prison facilities in Jackson. That was because the young inmate who took his own life had shot and killed a state cop. Somehow, shooting a police officer is a worse crime than shooting any other citizen...and the offender is viewed as a worse criminal.

Police and prison officials are investigating, but we'll bet money that you'll hear no more of this. Some of the cops in the joint are thinking “good riddance,” and we suspect that sentiment is shared by quite a few. The thing is, the man was obviously a suicide risk. It would be hard to prove that it was by intention that he was not closely watched, but it does make one wonder. Why wasn't he on suicide watch?

We know of two suicides at the Pugsley Correctional Facility in Kingsley that some will argue could have been prevented. The stories came to us from reliable sources and were very much alike.

In the first situation, a young man had been gang-raped and asked for protection. Unfortunately there is no segregation unit (normally referred to as “the hole”) in that prison, so the staff merely sent him to a different location with no additional protection. He hanged himself.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Another young man, in the same facility in almost identical circumstances just a short time later ended his life in the same manner!

One of the witnesses to the early investigation said that when prison authorities learned the name of the person in charge at the time, the response was simply, “that figures.”

My reason for bringing up the topic is because of the most recent report of a suicide to our office. It comes from an inmate in the Richard A. Handlon prison in Ionia. Here is the report, verbatim, from our contact behind bars:

There were 2 CO's that were sitting at the officer's desk when Kevin came down from his room. He was freaking out about something. I sat and watched the 2 CO's tell him to go back to his room. What drew my attention was when he raised his arms and said he was going to "kill himself.” they responded with, "Then go kill yourself.” So he went to his room and that was the last time I ever saw him. 20 minutes later I was in my room and I heard the CO's telling us to get in our rooms over the intercom. By that time he was dead. Another inmate near his room seen them drag his body out of his room trying to work on him. Then another CO stated, "One down...many to go.”

There were 12 suicides in Michigan prisons last year, according to MDOC spokesman Russ Marlan.

I wonder how many of them could have been avoided.

I wonder if anyone cares.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Another beggar along the road

I was driving in Holland, Michigan, the other day and spotted an unkempt individual begging for money.

It is not uncommon these days to see panhandlers along the road. The signs often explain that the beggar is homeless or jobless or a military vet, and sometimes there's an offer to work for food. Usually these individuals are at major intersections in larger cities, and the appearance of one in the rather upscale community of Holland surprised me.

Reaction to this phenomenon has been varied, but many communities are now outlawing the practice. There's no question about it, however: The appearance of people claiming to be homeless and begging for money and/or jobs makes us uncomfortable.

I'm using this rather long introduction to point out that it may not be so comfortable for the person doing the begging, either. I realize that some are involved in scams, and some are using the money for beer. But the truth of the matter is that begging is not fun. And that's what we must continually do at HFP.

I really dislike it.

Matt and I attack the problems of prisoners with vigor each day. Each request for help is important to us. Every prisoner is important. We love what we do!

The part of this job that we hate is begging.

Yet, in the month of May just ended, our fund-raising efforts fell $4,000 short of the money we needed to pay bills. The shortfall will not magically disappear. We must quickly come up with plans and ideas.

I wonder what kind of signs we could make regarding the plight of prisoners. Lonely? Feeling helpless? No family or friends remaining? Abused? Forgotten? Ailing without treatment? Dying alone? Guilty 'til proven innocent? Those signs would be no more popular than the ones we see along the road daily.

Matt and I aren't frivolously spending money on beer. While our cause may not be as exciting as raising funds for victims of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis, our work has strong biblical grounds. We are on a mission. This is a ministry!

And so we're begging again this month.

Every gift, no matter how small, enables us to continue on our path of compassion among the least of these.