All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To that person in the back row with pursed lips

Frequently there’s a person who disagrees.

As President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I’m sometimes asked to explain our work to church and civic groups. While I appreciate the support and acceptance of those smiling and nodding individuals sitting in the front, I have more concern for the one or two frowning persons with pursed lips sitting in the rear.

I’m not only concerned, but I’m sad, because I can predict with some accuracy what these people are thinking. It goes something like this:

Why do prisoners deserve any compassion, decent meals, appropriate health care, and letters from caring individuals? If they hadn’t done the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time. This isn’t a country club. They deserve all the rudeness and mistreatment they get.

What about the victims of the crimes these people committed? Why aren’t you supporting them, instead of the criminals? That’s where the care and compassion should be directed.

What about the corrections officers? Why aren’t you raising funds for them, instead of the animals they are asked to guard? It’s a challenging job at the very least.

Before I send a message to that person in the back row, let me state for the record that we are not asking for a country club atmosphere for prisoners…we simply ask that they be provided the humane treatment that our constitution guarantees. There are agencies and organizations already in existence for victims of crimes, and HFP is a strong supporter of the concept of restorative justice. And we know there are fine corrections officers…we deal with them regularly. But there are bad ones, too.

Now to that person in the back row.

You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be the mother of a teenager who has tried to commit suicide in prison, because insensitive personnel have tampered with or discontinued all-important stabilizing medication. All this while rude guards laugh at him.

You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be the wife of an inmate who now suffers debilitating seizures, simply because the staff wouldn’t listen to his pleas to separate him from a mentally challenged bunkie. By the time he was bopped over the head with a lock it was too late. Closed head injuries. Permanent damage.

You obviously couldn’t identify with the mother of a mentally ill girl in prison, who was denied water for so long and overly medicated to the point that she’s now brain dead. Her distraught family can do nothing more than wait for her to die.

I’m sure you’d never believe that a poor black man didn’t actually commit the crime for which he served 29 years behind bars. An all-white jury surely didn’t believe him. They preferred the unsure and inconsistent testimony of shaky eye-witnesses, while the real criminal laughed all the way to the next drinking party.

And so, to that person in the back row, I suggest two prayers.

Number one, a prayer of thanks that you’ve never had to experience any of this, and that you never will have to in the future.

And number two, that God will reveal to you just what Jesus meant when he talked about showing compassion to a prisoner, as he discusses in Matthew 25.

Meanwhile, Matt and I feel secure in the knowledge that we are doing kingdom work, and we’ll keep searching for a few friendly faces in the audience.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Will the real heroes please stand?

A most amazing event took place this week behind bars. A group of inmates who are members of an organization called SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS presented a staged reading of the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. The program was presented in a classroom of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon. There have been previously staged readings of the drama or segments of it around the country, but never behind bars, and never with a cast consisting solely of prisoners.

The play is a compressed, poignant depiction of the unique relationship between an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, and a middle-class Dutch boy from western Michigan, and their 10-year battle to overturn a wrongful conviction.

It’s important however, to identify the real heroes of the two performances this week.

I don’t mean to minimize the divine plan that put me into the life of Maurice Carter, or vice versa. I certainly don’t mean to downplay the fact that Marcia and I, our daughter Sue and our son Matthew, are still basking in the afterglow of this powerful performance. And I pay only the highest tribute to the cast who worked tirelessly for nearly a year to fashion and craft this spell-binding performance.

I have a problem with the term “hero.”

Marcia and I will readily accept the fact that we tried to do what was right for this unfairly treated man who eventually became known as my brother. And Don Molnar, who wrote the play with his wife Alicia Payne, deserves all the credit in the world for beautifully condensing the highlights of a ten-year saga into a brilliant, two-hour stage production. But we aren’t the heroes.

Let me clearly and emphatically identify the two giants in the room.

HERO NUMBER ONE: CURT TOFTELAND. Curt is the founder of SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS…an amazing program that is changing the lives of incarcerated individuals all over the country. Without his vision and personal encouragement, no dramatic presentation would have occurred this week Tuesday and Thursday.

HERO NUMBER TWO: MARY BERGHUIS. Mary is the veteran warden of Brooks CF, whom I describe as a rare warden indeed, because she has a heart. It is my contention that no other warden in the State of Michigan would have permitted prisoners in her facility to participate in a drama that
-decries the poor medical care often found in our prison system
-ridicules Michigan Parole Board demands that an inmate must confess to wrong-doing and show remorse before considering parole
-depicts the former chairman of the Parole Board as being cruel and unreasonable
-suggests that the man for whom the prison hospital is named should be ashamed
-makes no secret of the fact that some prison guards are callous and heartless!

Warden Berghuis allowed this drama to be presented in its entirety, without any editing or censorship!

Actor Jamie Studivant, whose arresting performance in the role of Maurice Carter, said it well when he reflected in the talk-back following the play: Maurice Carter is still touching lives.

But Maurice Carter would not have touched the lives of every individual in that room this week, were it not for the incredible vision of heroes Tofteland and Berghuis, who demonstrate by their very actions an absolute belief that prisoners are created in the image of God. Redemption can even occur among those who our director of corrections once labeled “the worst of the worst.”


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A still small voice for prisoners

In his fine sermon series on prayer, Pastor Nate Sunday challenged us to find God in our simple, every day experiences. He used the example from I Kings 19, when God told Elijah that the Lord was about to pass by. There were strong winds, there was an earthquake, and there was fire…but God wasn’t there. After all of these sensational phenomena came a gentle whisper, and God was in that still small voice.

That challenge has prompted me and fellow church members this week to wake up to the fact that we can see God in something as simple as the first sip of a steaming hot cup of coffee in the morning, or a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset, or a favorite piece of music.

But it also prompted me to take this whole thing one step farther. Perhaps if we run across people who have a hard time seeing God anywhere, our challenge should be to help them reach this experience. As I reflected on that while waking up this morning, it dawned on me that this has been a specific goal of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

I’ll use some of our experiences with women in prison as an example.

Is it even possible for women to see God in a prison complex where something as simple as daily survival has turned to hell, because of
-serious overcrowding that results in shamefully limited numbers of toilets and showers
-cruel policies that limit the numbers of toilet paper rolls and sanitary pads
-unspeakable atrocities that are witnessed in the treatment of mentally ill inmates?

The answer is in the still small voice that God provided through a simple little agency like HFP:
-driving all the way to Ypsilanti just to hold the door open for a grateful prisoner stepping into freedom after catching a parole
-shedding tears with a weeping inmate during a brutal Parole Board interview
-providing testimony that prodded a parole board to grant a compassionate release so that a cancer patient could spend her final days at home with family and friends
-persuading a reluctant State of Michigan to take a chance on a woman with a checkered past who proved she is now ready to be a productive citizen
-convincing the US Department of Justice that brutal treatment of mental patients is cruel and unusual punishment
-providing yarn worth thousands and thousands of dollars so that women could find some purpose in life by knitting garments for persons in homeless shelters.

The list goes on and on, and obviously it extends to the men in prison as well. It’s what we do on a daily basis.

May we accept Nate’s challenge and find God in the most interesting places today.

And beyond that, may we help others to see him who never dreamed they could or would.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Goldfish vs. prisoners

A story making the news this week: Surgery on a goldfish was successful, giving the little swimmer another 20 years! Animal rights activists were elated, and I’m sure the coffers of animal rights organizations began filling up with dollars.

My companion in this venture, Matt, sometimes grumbles that if we were saving the lives of puppies and kittens we would have no money problems. But the simple fact is that we’re dealing with the lives of prisoners. And we have serious money problems. For some unknown reasons gifts dropped off dramatically, and we are left with bills to pay and no money to cover them.

Quitting at this stage of the game is no option. Just in recent days our office heard from

-a distraught mother of a mentally ill inmate who had been told by the head of the acute unit that prison officials had the right to deprive her daughter of food for a day, or water for up to three days;

-a group of angry prisoners in one Michigan unit where a disgruntled plumber had turned up the water temperature to the point that showers were impossible and one risked scalding with a procedure so simple as washing hands (prisoners don’t have the luxury of blending hot and cold water like we do)

-and a desperate mentally challenged prisoner whose psych meds had been discontinued by the prison psychiatrist for no apparent reason.

For the sake of the record, 1), the US Department of Justice is now investigating the water and food issue; 2), the water temperature has now been properly adjusted; and 3), the proper medication routine has now been restored.

One of our board members pointed out that if everyone who believes in and claims to support HFP would throw in a $20 bill a month, we’d meet budget. But as of today, we’re $20,000 behind.

In my public addresses, I often tell the true story of a touching little episode that occurred years ago in the Special Olympics. A small team of youngsters participating in a foot race became disturbed when one of their runners tripped, fell and hurt himself. Instead of continuing the race, they all went back to the weeping little lad, got him on his feet, joined hands, and decided it was more important to cross the finish line together.

That’s all we’re asking for today. We need you to join hands and cross the finish line with us.

The Matthew 25 Finish Line.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The shame of wrongful convictions

The words “wrongful conviction” were an unfamiliar phrase to me until 1995. That seems strange when one considers that I spent nearly 30 years in and out of broadcast newsrooms. But events that began in 1995 dramatically changed my life. And that is why, when contacted by my dear friend Win Wahrer from AIDWYC, I immediately responded with HFP support for what is being called WRONGFUL CONVICTION DAY. This informal day will be observed on October 2, and it prompts me to make a few comments about this sad subject.

My life was never the same after I developed a friendship with the late Maurice Carter, a dear soul who claimed wrongful conviction. For the next 9 years I joined him in a battle for freedom. The story is now told in a book called SWEET FREEDOM, and in a stage play called JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

Here are some staggering statistics that you should be aware of.

Years ago, a study in Ohio determined already back then, that some 10,000 innocent people were convicted every year in the United States!

A recent study estimates that about 4% of the people on death row in the U.S. are innocent!

Our attorney friend Jim Samuels, who helped free a guy thanks to DNA testing, reports that 320 prisoners have been freed by these scientific tests which proved their innocence!

Here’s the thing we’re forgetting: These are not numbers; they are people…real live human beings very much like you and me.

I’m among a small group who can attest to this first-hand.

My friend, who later became my brother, served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. There was no biological evidence for DNA testing to clear him. There wasn’t any evidence to convict him, either…but that made no difference. I was a personal witness to some of the shortcomings of our judicial system.

Another friend, for whom I later served as spiritual advisor, was not only wrongly convicted in the State of Texas, but also wrongly executed. My essay, describing the murder by the state that I witnessed, made the front page of a special section of the Grand Rapids Press.

These two experiences were life-changing. I share them, not to boast. I am just ashamed that the system in this wonderful country cannot do any better than that.

So here’s the strong reminder. When reading statistics, remember that we’re talking about sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

As we observe WRONGFUL CONVICTION DAY on October 2, please join me in asking God forgive us for our shortcomings, and seeking God’s blessing and guidance in helping to bring about change.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Water torture is real

We’d like to shed a little more light on the subject of water, and how it is sometimes used to torment and abuse mentally challenged Michigan prisoners…and not just women.

I hope you read the MLive story, written by a reporter for the Ann Arbor News, outlining alleged abuse of two female inmates at the women’s prison in Ypsilanti. One of the claims was water deprivation.

First you should know what the American Bar Association has to say about food and water deprivation: Correctional authorities should not withhold food or water from any prisoner.

I guess the staff at the women’s prison doesn’t feel these guidelines apply, because here’s what the mother of one of those inmates told me today: “Chief Christine Wilson (head of the acute unit) said they can keep food away for 24 hours and water for 3 or 4 days. She said that they can do that when a person is in segregation.” 3 or 4 days?!

But stuff like this has been going on for years.

Some ten years ago my friend Mary Ann reported that her mentally challenged brother was placed in segregation on a hot summer day by prison guards. And then, just to enhance the punishment, they turned off the cold water. All he had in his cell was hot water.

Shutting off water in a prisoner’s cell falls within state policy, but the policy goes on to say that inmates must be given water from time to time. Lois DeMott, mother of a young man who had been struggling with mental issues while in prison, says, “The problem is, water is not provided then according to policy.” She cites stories about her son as proof.

Who can forget the tragic account of Timmy Souders who died, chained to the prison floor, on a sweltering summer day in a Michigan prison? That was back in 2007. The feature on 60 Minutes can still be seen on-line.

DeMott, now coordinator of the Family Participation Program for Michigan prisons, flatly states that these detestable practices continue to occur in all segregation units in Michigan facilities. She contends that it is “normal practice” by some officers who, she says, “think their walls are so high they can get away with it.” And one of the reasons is that, so far, they have gotten away with it.

That’s precisely why we fed the ACLU these shocking details from Ypsilanti, and that’s precisely why the letter was written. It was time for us to stand up and be counted.

ACLU attorneys will be meeting with the Director of the MDOC on the 15th.

Think we’ll see any change?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Where have the media been?

Numerous articles have been written about the humorous epitaphs found on gravestones in cemeteries around the country. One of my all-time favorites is: I told you I was sick!

That’s the way it has been with this troubling issue of abuse of mentally ill inmates at Michigan’s prison for women in Ypsilanti.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has been aware of it for months. We have media people who read our dispatches, watch our blog and receive our newsletter. Yet, no one saw the news value of this outrage.

As early as May of this year we started dispatching troubling reports on our daily email network. We were getting these reports directly from inmates who had witnessed the abuse. Reporters wouldn’t bite.

For the month of June we dedicated the front page of our newsletter to these abuses, and encouraged our supporters to spread the word. Nobody in the media picked up on it.

On July 29, armed with ammunition provided by HFP, the ACLU sent a scathing 5-page letter to the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and the prison warden. HFP immediately issued a news release to that effect. No news in our papers or on the TV.

Finally, Kyle Feldscher of the Ann Arbor News, obtained a copy of the ACLU letter (more than a month after it was written), and the story made front page news yesterday. Screamed the headline: WATER DEPRIVATION, HOG-TYING OF MENTALLY ILL INMATE, AMONG COMPLAINTS AT PRISON NEAR ANN ARBOR.

Yep, we’ve been telling you the system is sick, boys and girls in the media. This is a news story. A big one. Finally someone listened.

Exposure of these alleged atrocities could very well make a huge impact.

We’re praying for positive results.

We’re praying for the victims of this abuse, also.