All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why pay money just to get mad?

I know, just watching TV news or reading the newspaper is enough to make you angry.  You don’t need anything else to fuel the fire.  Or do you?

I’m suggesting that you take a bold step next weekend, and spend ten dollars on a ticket for a program that’ll not only make you mad, but also change the way you think.  I’ll bet on it.

JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER is a great stage play.  It’s going to be presented in the sanctuary of FERRYSBURG COMMUNITY CHURCH next Friday evening, December 5, at 7:30 PM.  And if you can’t get there then, there’ll be two repeat performances on Saturday the 6th at 2 PM and 7:30 PM.

On the surface, it might appear that playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne have simply used drama to paint a delightful love story about Maurice Carter and me.  If that’s all you get out of this, I’ll be terribly disappointed.

The playwrights, instead, have masterfully used music and the spoken word to convey a serious message of injustice.  It’s a story that has no beautiful ending.  And the overriding problem that is the theme of the play is just as real today as it was when I innocently jumped into the middle of this fray in the mid 1900s.

If you leave angry, if you leave frustrated, if you leave with a clearer picture as to the deeper causes of riots over injustice, if you leave with a better understanding of the strong role a defense attorney must play, if you leave thinking that perhaps the cops and the prosecutors aren’t always right, if you decide that perhaps our daily news reports are not always telling the whole story…then it will have been worth it all!

I hope to meet you at the church.  Order your tickets now.

Then, when the dust settles, let’s talk again.

Monday, November 24, 2014

On taking a life, and saving a life

Something beautiful happened in Muskegon.

A candle-light vigil was held on the campus of Muskegon High School over the weekend to discuss the way their friend Jessica Lynn Brewster has impacted their lives.  In case you haven’t read or heard, Jessica is the 17 year old girl now being held on an open murder charge, after the body of her newborn baby was found buried nearby.

Muskegon senior Elizabeth Kurdziel, who organized the event, was quoted as saying, “We’re here in remembrance of Jessica’s baby and to support her.”  And the phrase that was being used time and again, one which began on Facebook, was: We are Jessica.

This may not seem like a relevant topic for the guys who run HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  To the contrary, it’s one that Matt and I have been talking about, and one that deserves a lot of discussion.

Another life is at stake here.  If the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office goes ahead with a charge of first degree murder, and gets a conviction, this little girl will receive a life sentence without parole.  We often hear the argument, “The little baby didn’t get a second chance...why should the mother?”

Gregory T. Roberts, a Muskegon volleyball coach, is also a pastor, and he offered a prayer at the vigil.  The Muskegon Chronicle quoted him as saying, “You never know what a person is going through.  If maybe we had been a little more compassionate and understanding, this might have been avoided.”

The caring and loving students were not without their critics.  “People call us names and say we’re stupid for supporting her,” said senior Charity Ellis.  “Who are they to judge her?  Who knows what she is going through?”

Being tough on crime is an understandable position in Muskegon County, where they seem to get more than their share of criminal activity.  But there’s gotta be a better ending to this story than life behind bars for a troubled little girl.

That harsh response to this tragedy would simply make it worse.  A second life would be taken.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Speaking of death, #929754, 1987-2014

Is the headline a bit sarcastic?  Yes.

Word of another prison death came to our office again this week.  I use the inmate's number in our headline, not to offend the family, but instead to point out that prisoners are just a number.  Her name was Sabrie Lorain Alexander, she was a real human being, and in our opinion she didn't have to die.  I'm going to let one of our courageous whistle-blowers tell the story, in her own words.  But first, a quick explanation.  POA is a job for which some inmates are chosen and trained.  It's a successful program where inmate observers watch prisoners who may be contemplating suicide, or who have other issues.  Here's her story:

We had another incident here. We had a young women here in her twenties, black. She was a level II, out date in 2016. She was in the Infirmary on Observation. She had a seizure. The POA TOLD the officer that Alexander was having a seizure. The Officer said 'Oh, she'll be OK.' Well, she wasn't OK. She died. The Coroner was here, the State Police, a fire truck. At first they again tried to tell us that she was alive. BUT I heard straight from staff that she in fact died. She is not alive. They tried to revive her, but they were NOT successful. 

Sad thing is the POA told the officer on shift that she was having a seizure and she did not think she was breathing. Again the officer told her, 'she'll be OK' and did not go in. This is what I have been saying all along. Prisoners are sitting on these women and when we alert the officer that something is wrong they do nothing. This happening shows that the minute DOJ (US DEPT OF JUSTICE) is gone they go right back to how they used to be. There are cameras and mics ALL over the hallway in the infirmary to prove the POA told the officer. Right now they want us to believe that she died because of her seizure. However if the officer would have reacted when she was told what was going on that young women probably would be alive today
They NEED to investigate this Doug. I pray that you can get them to come here and investigate or send word to the papers that have been putting this information out there. Women are DYING and getting poor treatment because the staff REFUSE to do their job. POA's do what they are supposed to do but we cannot make the staff open the doors to help other inmates in their time of need. This POA was forced to watch this young women die. I did not realize that MDOC could implement the death penalty whenever they want. I did not think it was legal in the state of Michigan.  One officer could have made a difference showing one ounce of compassion, just one ounce.

So sad in here today, so so sad.

We need your help again Doug.

The bad news is that the beat goes on.  The good news is that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is not letting up, partnering with the ACLU and the US Department of Justice to improve conditions for women in the Michigan prison system.

But for now, there's an open bed at Women's Huron Valley Facility.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

When death just isn't the same

I sent condolences to two friends this week who lost elderly parents.  Even though we completely understand that our parents are getting old and that we cannot keep them forever, it’s still a loss.  In both of these cases, my friends were near their parent at the time of death, and were able to grieve in the midst of family and loved ones.

I was also reminded this week that experiencing the death of family members is not the same for people behind bars.

One of our board members reported that her friend behind bars had lost a loved one.  Her words:

I got a note from Karen today.  Her brother died.  That is her second loss this year.   She lost another brother earlier this year.  My heart is breaking for her.  And there she sits.  And will sit for probably the rest of her life.  I am so sad for the family that will grieve without her and for her to grieve alone.  She knows Christ.  She trusts in Christ.  She has a relationship with Christ.  But—she is so fragile in her humanness.  Just had to share with you. 

Our friend Joe watched in frustration last week as he sat helplessly in a prison van, while paramedics ministered to his elderly step-father who suffered a medical emergency right there in the prison parking lot.  He had driven to Ionia from Detroit just to be at his step-son’s Public Hearing.  Sadly, he not only missed the hearing, he died the next day.  Joe wasn’t able to hold him in his arms during his dying moments.  He wasn’t able to say good-bye.  He’s not able to grieve with family members.  But then, he’s just a prisoner.  He committed a terrible crime 38 years ago…must never forget that.

Kenny Wyniemko, whose rape conviction was overturned by DNA testing after he served 8 years behind bars, weeps every time he tells the story about his father’s death.  It happened while he was in prison for something he didn’t do, and the result was that he could not attend the funeral service.  He was forced to mourn alone.  Behind bars.

We may have found one answer to the question, “Oh death, where is your sting?”

I write this not to bring about some dramatic change in criminal justice, but simply to point out that prisoners are people, not statistics.  Their need for love is no different than yours or mine.

Remember them in your charitable giving, and in your prayers. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

No parole for the thief on the cross

The thief on the cross would never have survived the scrutiny of the Michigan Parole Board and the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  Jesus forgave.  We won’t.

The older I get, and the more I work in this prisoner advocacy business, the more I become convinced that we won’t really see forgiveness in our criminal justice system.  Ever. It ain’t gonna happen.

I testified in another public hearing today, held by the Michigan Parole Board.  I cannot prove this, but I sense that these hearings are grudgingly held in a spirit of skepticism.  In many of the hearings where I have testified, there is a snowball’s chance that the inmate will actually be granted a parole.  We’re a “tough on crime” state, and by God, if someone has committed a heinous crime in Michigan, he or she will pay!

I know that when I make my pitch, I’m perceived as a left-wing “do-gooder,” who wants to free all the prisoners.  I can see that in the eyes of the Parole Board chairman and the Assistant Attorney General.  They extend the courtesy, but I get the feeling that whatever I have to say doesn't really mean anything. 

Joe committed terrible crimes in his early 20s, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  He still wakes up thinking about it.  He cries when he talks about it.  There’s nothing he can do to erase that record.  The only thing he can do is take steps to change his life. And so, while in prison, he became a spiritual being, he completed high school, he completed college, he served as a tutor, he took improvement courses, he enrolled in abuse programs…he learned to behave himself.  In the next 38 years in prison, he brought about change in his life.

In preparation for a possible release if granted parole, he developed a plan including an in-depth relapse prevention outline.  He wasn’t going to take any chances on re-offending.  His simple goal was to get his Master’s Degree, and serve as a substance abuse counselor.  He didn’t want others to follow his early path of destruction.

But it’s not going to happen.  The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office showed up to oppose the parole.  Then the victim of the crime showed up to oppose the parole.  And finally the representative from the Michigan Attorney General’s office made a strong statement of opposition.  The crime was just too atrocious.

No one seemed to care what happened in the next 38 years.  That really wasn’t important.  The focus was on the crime, and this man was going to pay. Retribution is important. Rehabilitation is not.

I personally struggle with this whole “forgiveness” issue in Christianity.  I’m in my senior years, and I still continue to blame myself for terrible lapses in judgment in my earlier years.  I find it difficult to forgive myself.  And I find it hard to believe that I’m forgiven.  Then I fall back on a sermon that I heard from one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Richard Mouw.  He quoted a verse from a beautiful traditional hymn, and said this is what separates Christianity from all other religions:  My sin, Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!

At least Joe has that comfort.

Here in Michigan, it’s a different story.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It's your turn to speak

So here’s the deal.

If you agree that if kids are too young to drink, too young to smoke, too young to drive, they should also be too young to receive life sentences or to serve time with hardened criminals in adult prisons;

If you agree that it’s time for Michigan to release many of its older, medically fragile and incapacitated prisoners;

If you agree that successor judges should not have veto-power over Parole Board decisions;

If you agree that the Michigan Parole Board is taking over the sentencing role of judges in many cases, especially those involving CSC convictions;

If you agree that Michigan sentencing guidelines should be revised to better ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences;

If you agree with national and state research that shows that simply keeping people in prison longer does not keep the public safer;

If you agree that it’s time to change Michigan’s reputation of keeping people behind bars longer than most other states;

If you agree, after reading this list, that sentencing reform and Parole Board reform must happen in the State of Michigan;

Then you gotta go to the polls!  Pure and simple.

Every time I make a presentation I find people in the audience who are vocal about state government and the Michigan Department of Corrections, but then admit that they don’t know the names of their State Representatives and State Senators.  They’ll express themselves with a loud voice in a public meeting, but have never given their opinion to a state legislator.

Your vote can and will make a difference.  Together we can bring about change.  Your chance comes on Tuesday.

If you’re not going to vote, don’t even bother to speak up on all these issues.  Your actions are so loud your words cannot be heard!