All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, October 31, 2014

What was really on my mind

There is a time for everything…a time to weep and a time to laugh
Ecclesiastes 3

It was a whiskey-tasting class, a fund-raiser for HFP, and people were having fun.  I was asked to say a few words.  I had to put on a smile and talk about the good things. 

I couldn’t really talk about Suzie, wife of a prisoner, who fears for his life.  A guy killed his bunkie in the prison where her husband resides a few nights ago.  The next day three more prisoners were stabbed.  She can’t be there with him, and she worries a lot.

It wouldn’t have been appropriate to tell about a prisoner named Donna, who wrote to say that healthcare workers ignored her pleas for treatment until she collapsed and had to be raced to a hospital by ambulance.  Surgery barely saved her life.  She was in the hospital for 5 weeks.  She will wear an ileostomy bag for the rest of her life.

I’m sure John’s story would have aroused undue skepticism.  This military veteran showed me the documents of admission to a VA hospital, where the intake notes clearly state that he was hearing voices ordering him to kill a man with his own gun in his own home.  Instead, he was discharged, the VA claiming he wasn’t sick enough to remain hospitalized.  He went right out and did just what the voices told him, and now he’s serving life.

And this was certainly not the time to hear Mark’s complaint about prison staff.  He was so pleased to have his mom and dad, plus two of his adult children come from out-of-state to attend his graduation ceremony.  The kids paid $3 each for four very neat photographs of the whole bunch.  But the guards confiscated the pictures as they left the facility, and now the photographs cannot be found.

No, last night wasn’t the time or the place, but those were among yesterday’s stories lingering in my mind.  The fund-raiser was simply a reason to keep this operation going, because there will be more stories today just like those from Susie, Donna, John and Mark.  Possibly worse.  And we must be there, if for no other reason than to hold hands in Christian love.

A time to laugh, and a time to weep.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

We need you!

One by one they gave their names, and then told of a family member now in prison.  One by one they shed tears of pain in making that admission.  One by one they listened to the stories of abuse and neglect behind bars, and nodded their heads in agreement.  They could tell similar stories.

Matt and I were involving in a workshop led by our friend Lois DeMott of Michigan’s Family Participation Program.  Two dozen people were there to get information and to share stories.

And it was at that moment that I realized, once again, why we are in this business.  I was affirmed in what we are doing!  This is exactly where we belong!

Just in recent days

-we extended our hand to two 74-year-old inmates who together have served 90 years behind bars
-we listened to the story of a prisoner who claims to have been sexually compromised by a prison therapist
-we resumed our work with the family of a mentally ill inmate nearly killed by prison abuse
-we continued our preparation to speak up for a deserving prisoner at his Parole Board Public Hearing
-we responded to a request to address graduates of a prison GED program
-we made corrections and additions to an inmate’s application form for commutation
-we took steps to help a seriously ill inmate get some proper medication
-we simply encouraged a confused inmate who suddenly finds himself in an unfriendly and unfamiliar environment after what most certainly was a wrongful conviction.

All of this in response to more than 150 messages to the HFP office from prisoners and/or their families and friends via email, snail mail, telephone and web site.

We do our best to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus, extending love and compassion to Michigan inmates one at a time.  The only thing is---we can’t do it alone.  We need you at our side.  All the way.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

10 years later, remembering Maurice

My soul brother Maurice Carter died 10 years ago today.  He had spent nearly half of his life in prison for something he didn’t do.

One of his favorite sayings was that when he got arrested, “The wheels of justice ground to a halt.” 

The injustice of it all wasn’t just the wrongful conviction.  Other ingredients included racism before, during and after the trial; incompetent legal assistance; shoddy police work;  face-saving prosecutors and judges;  inadequate prison medical care…the list goes on and on.

Yet, Maurice Carter made a conscious decision to reach past all of this suffering and indignity, so that he could touch others.  His goal was to help other prisoners upon his release.  Things didn’t go the way he had planned.  He experienced only three months of freedom, and during that time he was in poor health.

Instead, God saw to it that he began touching lives while still behind bars.  No one will ever know how many, but I saw it with my own eyes.  Not just my family, my friends, my church. And not just hundreds, either...I daresay thousands of people, all around the world, impacted by this indigent man from Gary, Indiana.  His kindness and love were contagious. 

Yes, Maurice died ten years ago today.  Yet, his thoughtfulness and compassion continue to touch lives.  Daily.  Through HFP’s action with compassion.  Through the moving drama written by Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne.  Through the book SWEET FREEDOM.

The spirit of Maurice is alive and well.  God is still at work

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Miracle in a dreary prison hospital

A prison hospital would seem like about the last place where one would see a miracle.  But as sure as I’m sitting here typing up this story, I believe a miracle has occurred.

Often we tell these stories to help raise money.  We want our supporters to know that their dollars actually touch lives behind bars, one at a time.  This is NOT a dollar story.  It’s God, pure and simple.  Nothing your dollars did.  Nothing we did.  But it’s important that we share our stories of celebration, also.

I’m getting way ahead of myself.  Let me start at the beginning.

This spring our office began receiving disturbing reports of cruelty, neglect and abuse in a particular unit of the women’s prison in Ypsilanti.  It was the place where they care for the worst of the mentally ill cases.  Some prisoners who were patients in that unit, we were told, were being hog-tied, and were being abused by taser weapons and pepper gas sprayers.

In one particularly upsetting case, a woman with parched tongue was denied a simple drink of water for several days.  Instead, the nurse reportedly kept administering injections of a psych-drug, even after the woman was unconscious.  Finally, Darlene was mercifully rushed to the hospital by ambulance in critical condition and placed on life support.  Rumors among prisoners were rampant, some claiming that she had died.

I personally spoke with a member of the family several weeks ago.  She said that life support equipment had been removed.  The woman appeared to be in a vegetative state…they were just waiting for her to die.

We were enraged.  Our directors were enraged.  Our attorney was enraged.  This could have been prevented!

Our extensive files of torture accounts were shared with legal experts and the US Department of Justice.  Perhaps we lost Darlene, but we weren’t going to lose the fight.

And then, at midnight last night, came this brief email message from one of our whistleblowers behind bars:  Great news for you and everyone who has prayed for Darlene. She woke up!  She is talking and moving around. The person who spoke to me on it said it was a miracle. And it still is. She is awaiting her medical commutation. I guess it still hasn't been signed.  They have her in the infirmary in a big room and are treating her really good. She is alive!  What a beautiful miracle.  Please tell everyone that has prayed for her.

Pastor Nate just reminded me last Sunday about the importance of prayers for healing.  The truth is that I had given up praying for Darlene.  She was a lost cause.  I moved on, praying, instead, for the survivors, and praying that stories like this would never happen again.

I stopped, but God didn’t.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Matthew 25

HFP President Doug Tjapkes made a prison visit yesterday.  That was not uncommon, but what was uncommon was the reason for the visit.  The Warden of the prison felt that this elderly individual, now in bad health and who had already served 46 years, deserved to be released.  She asked if HFP would help. 

Herb is 74, died three times while in prison due to a heart attack but was successfully revived, and then survived heart surgery.  5 bypasses later, he’s ready to step out and help others.

In his 46 years behind bars he has received only 5 tickets, none for violence…none in the past 25 years.

In his 46 years he obtained a high school diploma, a liberal arts communicate college certificate, a tool and die worker certificate, and a para-legal degree.  He’s now a library clerk, and loves his work.

A heavy-duty alcoholic, he never touched a drop in the past 46 years (and alcohol is available behind bars!).

He was granted a parole in 1982 by a unanimous Parole Board vote, but the decision was vetoed by a judge unfamiliar with the case who just wanted to be tough on crime.

Since that the, the Parole Board has simply shown “no interest” in his release.

Some reflections by Doug on the prison visit:

I wish you could have been there today.

I wish you could have seen the expression on his face when guards opened the prison gates, and I was allowed to meet with him in a private room.

I wish you could felt the incredible sense of gratitude when he learned that his warden asked me to just do what I could.

I wish you could have heard the agony in his voice as he tried to remember what happened 46 years ago during an alcoholic black-out.

I wish you could have seen the tears roll down his face as he insisted that, at the age of 74, he still had a debt that must be paid to the Lord who not only bailed him out, but also straightened him out. He intends to devote his remaining years to help inmates and former prisoners.

I wish you could have seen the expression of wonder and thanksgiving when I told him that ours is a ministry of compassion and caring…he would not be forgotten.  We couldn’t guarantee success, but we would definitely help.

I wish you could have sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit as I fumbled through a closing prayer that I felt was imperative to the entire experience.

Your partnership with HFP can bring about change. By clicking on our donation button, you can help in the fight to bring about long overdue sentencing reform and badly needed Parole Board reform.  Your dollars will keep us right there on the front line with continued expressions of compassion to the “least of these.”

HFP needs your support.  Today. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

on feelings of remorse

Originally posted on January 7, 2012

A friend of HFP sent in a copy of an editorial that I had written three years ago. It deserves a reprint.

"We hear this all the time!" Assistant Michigan Attorney General Thomas Kulick, with a smirk on his face, in the spotlight at a public hearing this week. "Prisoners are always trying to convince us that they are feeling remorse."

Kulick was responding to the whispered words of a dying inmate, cringing in a wheelchair before him, seeking permission to spend his final days outside of prison . The inmate merely had stated that he was sorry about his earlier life, and he wished he could do it all over again.

Do you know why you hear those words all the time, Mr. Kulick? It's because the Parole Board from your own state makes that demand!

I speak from experience. If prisoners, especially those accused of a sex offense, ever hope to get a parole, they must confess to the crime, and they must show remorse. This comes from the mouths of Parole Board members.

And so, Mr. Kulick, you should be able to predict the results, but I'll explain them anyway.

1. People, falsely accused, sometimes violate all the principles they have been taught, and tell lies to the Parole Board, just because they cannot stand the prison environment anymore and will do anything to get out.

2. Meanwhile, the "con artists" in prison, persons who should not be out on the street, know how to work the system. They weep, they grovel, they say all the words the Parole Board members want to hear. They know what they must do to catch a parole.

3. Yet many people with integrity refuse to compromise. I can still hear the words of the late Maurice Carter, weeks before he died, sitting on a hospital gurney after he was told by former Parole Board Chair John Rubitschun that he could walk free right then if he would merely confess to the crime. He stared at Mr. Rubitschun through his ill-fitting prison-issue glasses, with all the dignity he could muster: I will never admit to a crime that I did not commit! He was in prison 29 years.

So do you see how the system works in reverse, Mr. Kulick?

The prisoners who should remain behind bars find a way to wreak havoc once again in society, while those who maintain their honor are punished by receiving a flop: that is, they are refused parole for another period of time. Sadly, they remain behind bars.
It's no surprise that you hear words of remorse, Mr. Kulick. That's what is expected.

Now it's about time that the citizens of Michigan hear words of remorse from you, your office and the Michigan Parole Board, for missing the whole point!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sometimes they're really NOT sex offenses!

Is our disgust over sex crimes resulting in wrongful convictions? I can’t prove it, but I think so.

Three very good friends of mine were wrongly convicted of sex crimes. In each case, the alleged crimes involved molestation of little girls. In each case, the stories were prompted by adults. In each case, there was another emotion driving the accusations, such as jealousy or vindictiveness. Jealousy over the lifestyle of someone with more wealth, anger as the result of a family fight, or anger over a broken relationship. Accusing a man of molesting a little girl was a way to ease those emotions, perhaps a way to get a financial settlement, perhaps a way to just plain get even.

As a result, these three guys were convicted by juries. Prosecutors are well aware of the fact that average citizens hate the thought of adults molesting kids. They want to put them away.

As a result, these three guys collectively spent decades behind bars. Members of the Michigan Parole Board make no secret of the fact that they dislike sex offenders. They demand that these prisoners show a lot of remorse and regret, and they often decide that the judge’s sentence wasn’t stiff enough. They keep these people in longer than their early release date.

Two of my friends finally got out before serving the maximum sentence by lying. In tears they informed me that they decided to confess to wrongdoing, just so they could get out of prison. They were professional people who couldn’t stand it in there any longer. The third refused to change his story and refused to show remorse for something he didn’t do, so he actually maxed out. They had to let him go because he served every day of his sentence. He’s still a very angry man.

I bring all of this up because the pastor of an area church recently came to me with a fresh case, and it smacks of the same thing. An angry person prompting a trumped-up story by a youngster. And now, another man with no criminal history who has never seen the inside of a prison, destined to spend decades behind bars.

There’s no question that we want stern action taken against those who molest children, and we want those individuals taken out of society and put into cages.

The challenge here is to not play on the emotions of jurors, but to demand thorough investigation that results in solid evidence. Not hearsay and conflicting stories. Let's put the offenders away, but let's be darned sure they're actually offenders.

I’m sad about this new case. I find it very troubling. You’ll be reading and hearing more as the friends and supporters of this obviously innocent man become more vocal in days to come. But the simple conclusion is that another life has been ruined by this hell-bent desire to convict everyone accused of a sex offense, the facts be damned.

Methinks it’s time to get tough on those who fabricate these stories. If the accusations are found to be false, those who started it all should face equally strong charges and equally stiff sentences. And if cops and prosecutors and lawyers are a party to these wrongful convictions, they should not be exempt.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Peace behind bars: an impossible goal?

Can there really be peace behind bars? Probably not, but give Warden Mary Berghuis credit for making huge strides toward that goal.

Ms. Berghuis, whom I describe as a warden with a heart, runs both Brooks and West Shoreline facilities in Muskegon. During my last visit, she handed me a little plastic card with the label: THE POWER OF PEACE PROJECT. I was intrigued, and asked for more information.

Turns out Warden Berghuis, always thinking outside the box for her prisons, met Power of Peace Project founder Kit Cummings at a conference a few years ago. During their conversation, the nationally known motivational speaker offered to go to the Muskegon prisons to introduce his program. And since that time, he has made several return visits.

Cummings’ principles make strong demands of prisoners:

1. I WILL do my very best to live I peace with everyone I meet.
2. I WILL NOT provoke or disrespect anyone.
3. When provoked, I WILL NOT retaliate.
4. When cursed, I WILL NOT curse back.
5. I WILL NOT lie, cheat or steal.
6. When I am wrong, I WILL promptly admit it and quickly make amends.
7. I WILL treat ALL people with the respect with which I wish to be treated.

The warden says that Cummings gets leaders (good and bad) to join together to commit to 40 days of peace, believing that once they’ve had peace for that period of time they will not return to violence. She estimates that over 800 Muskegon prisoners have now participated in this project, and feels it has made a huge impact!

And Cummings isn’t letting up. Warden Berghuis says that he is now trying to connect Muskegon area schools, churches AND prisons in an effort to eliminate violence.

Don’t you wish every prison had this program?

Don’t you wish every prison had a leader like Warden Berghuis?