All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Michigan's shameful treatment of mentally ill inmates

It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s wrong with Michigan prisoner Mr. T.

You don’t have to spend hours trying to decipher the awkward hand-writing in a meandering 5-page letter, or the stack of poorly prepared grievances, or the attached medical and psychological reports.

Here’s what you’ll find:

           -two suicide attempts
          -personal attacks by inmates
          -verbal abuse by guards
          -various medical issues, some serious, some treated, some not
          -misconduct tickets, often for “insolence.”

Mr. T. is mentally ill.

This subject keeps rearing its ugly head as Matt and I try to address the problems of inmates.  A good share of our prisoners are mentally challenged, staff-members aren’t properly trained to handle them, and many fellow-prisoners don’t know how to deal with them.  As a result, tragic stories, hundreds of them very much like this…and nothing happening!

Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see how staff members say unkind things to this man, how doctors finally give up on trying to deal with his aches and pains, how the psychologist struggles with medication issues, how fellow-inmates treat him poorly, and ultimately how he feels alone and abandoned.  And, it would be easy to laugh this off as many staff members do, joking that it’s just another deranged person ranting and raving. 

But, here’s the problem:  Mr. T. is a child of God.  He’s also a son, possibly a brother, possibly a father, possibly an uncle.  Jesus loves him.  Through no fault of his own, he got sent to the wrong institution for care.  He’s now a ward of the state, and that means our tax dollars are being spent, or misspent. 

Another inmate complained this week that things are crawling around beneath her skin.  Different symptoms, same problem.  She thinks no one cares.  She insists no one is helping her. She's mentally ill.

And the Parole Board, also an arm of the MDOC, isn’t helping matters.  In a recent interview, a mentally challenged inmate was told that she couldn’t be considered for release to a psychiatric hospital until she started behaving!  Duh!

The state admits that about 25% of its prisoners have mental issues.  We think it’s closer to 50%!  Either way, it’s past time to do something about it.  You must talk to your state legislators.  Go the Governor.  Go to the Director of the Department of Corrections.  Your church should protest.  Mental health advocates should be up in arms.  It’s going to take a lot of pushing and shoving.  We’re going to have to cause a lot of commotion.  But there’s no alternative. 

Michigan prisons are not mental institutions, which means that 25-50% of their occupants are not being cared for properly.  And their problems are not simple issues that HFP can help solve. These people deserve real help.  Now!

What are you going to do about it? 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Holiday season: A time to pray for prisoners

Last minute Christmas shopping worries?

Wondering if you got the right gift for the right person?

Wondering if everyone will get along at the holiday family gathering?

Our Christmas week suggestion suggestion:  Give the gift of prayer...prayer for hurting, lonely, needy children of God huddling behind bars.

Right now, there’s a prisoner feeling lonely at Christmas time, because family and friends abandoned him/her years ago.  Fewer than 15% of Michigan inmates even receive visits!

Right now, there’s a prisoner wishing he could see his children, but his wife has obtained a court-order forbidding visits.

Right now, there’s a prisoner contemplating suicide because he feels friendless, or because he has been raped, or because he is being victimized by gang-bangers.

Right now, a prisoner is struggling with pain because of improper, inappropriate, or just plain lack of any medical care.

Right now, a mentally ill prisoner is so drugged that he/she has no idea whether Christmas is coming or has already gone by.

Right now, there’s a prisoner so worried about a Parole Board visiting coming up in 2015 that holiday joy is elusive.

Right now, a prisoner cannot locate family members, and is wondering whether they will even have a merry Christmas.

Right now, a prisoner who cannot read well, cannot write well, cannot spell well, is worried about how to fill out an application form for commutation.

Right now, a gifted musician wishes that he/she could participate in the annual Christmas Eve service at a home church, but will settle for accompanying prisoners in worship.

Right now, a senior citizen behind bars feels all alone.  Family and friends have long since passed away.

I hope you get the picture.  This is just the beginning of a very long list.

It’s our obligation to let prisoners know they are not forgotten by God, or by his people.

Let us pray.

Monday, December 15, 2014

There's more than one way to touch a life

I refuse to call this a defense of HFP philosophy.  I prefer to call it an explanation.

When telling of our work to church groups, I always explain that we do not teach Bible lessons in prison…other groups are already doing that.  We do not openly try to convert inmates to Christianity.  Other prison missionaries make that their goal.  Our efforts are Christian in nature, because we believe we are showing compassion to inmates in the name of Jesus, but in a very practical way.  I usually quote St. Francis of Assisi:  Preach the gospel every day.  Use words if necessary.

I go way back to the days when we started this organization in 2001.  The name of our agency was still INNOCENT at that time.  I had been asked by the Wisconsin Innocence Project to assist in helping a guy who was wrongly convicted.  During my two days in Madison, I didn’t help free the man from prison.  But I learned that he was completely estranged from his offspring due to his outrageous behavior in an earlier life.  The man was a Christian now, repentant for what he had done, and in prison for something he didn’t do.  To my huge satisfaction, I was able to convince his son to reluctantly re-establish a relationship with his dad.  He did, and his sibs followed.  Mr. V died a while back, surrounding by a loving family.  In my mind, that accomplishment was as huge as freeing him from prison!

Since then we have made similar strides with other prisoners. 

I’m especially mindful of Mac, who had lived a terrible life and in doing so had alienated his parents and his sister to the point that his family wouldn’t even let him get to know or visit his only child.  He was alone in the world and in poor health when he decided that Christianity was his only route to peace. 

Thanks to HFP and a lot of divine intervention, we were able to put relationships back together at least to a point where there were visits, people became civil with each other, and he was able to see his daughter before he died.  We also took steps to improve his poor medical care behind bars, and to stop abusive treatment by prison staff.  He died in peace.

We tried, to a lesser degree, to do some serious last-minute damage control in the case of Rocky before he died.

I continue to beat this tired old drum, because I know that many Christian prison ministries are doing very well financially, but ours continues to struggle, and I feel that it’s because many believers think that Bible study and overt evangelism is more important than our “action with compassion.”

I was reminded of all this today, when I saw that a Michigan prisoner who has personally watched us in action gets it, even if some of our friends may not.  I received this kind message from Eddie this morning:

I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for the many selfless and compassionate acts that you have rendered to so many of us who are incarcerated. In the name of Jesus I pray that the Good Lord will bless you and yours in the year to come, and that He will bestow a special blessing on you this Christmas Season. May the memory of Rocky and Mac, both whom the Lord saved for Himself in their last days, be a witness to the great things that God has done through your willingness to be His humble and obedient servant. God Bless you!

No argument with St. Francis!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Human Rights Day: Phhtttt!

Isn’t it ironic that today, December 10, is Human Rights Day?

Human Rights Day is a global observance, not a national holiday, and nothing that will give kids a day off, close banks or stop your daily mail.  It was developed by the UN way back in the 1940s, following the Second World War. 

Its observance is marred today.

ON THE NATIONAL LEVEL, The United States has been disgraced by newly released reports showing that our country used torture on detainees who, it was believed, may have been involved with or had contact with those who brought about the 9/11 attack in New York.  It’s a shameful day in U.S. history.

But torture isn’t limited to just the national and international arenas.

ON THE STATE LEVEL, our office is dealing with a first-hand report from inside the women’s prison located in Ypsilanti regarding a mentally ill inmate:  The last 18 months she has been locked in an Observation Cell without showering, reading material, or any form of human contact, for mail is not allowed.  Now she is locked in a room without a mattress, for they say she tore off a string.  The food the mentally ill are served is a joke:  peanut butter/jelly sandwiches, cookies, sliced bananas, graham crackers, for EVERY MEAL for a year!  That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

And just this week we received a report

ON THE LOCAL LEVEL:    Three local police officers show up at a downstate woman's home in the evening while her children were there. They tell her she's under arrest because she has not gotten her blinker repaired in the time frame her fix-it ticket specified. (She gets paid every two weeks and was waiting for a paycheck.) The amount needed was $285. Her parents wired the money via Western Union and it arrived at 9:30 p.m. She was not released until 1:30 a.m.

The mother tells me she called the police department to make sure her daughter was there and a male officer said, "Oh, the fat lady?" The mother told the officer her daughter was diabetic and had a heart condition and asked if her daughter had her meds with her. They said not. The mother said, "You can't do that to her." The officer said, "We can do anything we want."

In jail the woman was put in a holding cell with other men and women, some bloodied from domestic and other violence. She asked for something to eat. The officer told her, "You look like you should lose some weight." She never received anything to eat -- or meds

It’s past time to sit in our easy chairs and cluck our teeth over alleged human rights violations. It’s past time to say things like that only happen in other places.  On Human Rights Day, 2014, let’s get off our duffs and say, “No more!”  Support your favorite organization that deals with these issues, and express your immediate displeasure with any and all of your elected public officials who don’t represent what you feel and believe.  Your dollars and your voices count!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Not your traditional graduation ceremony

I thought back to last spring.

I was watching happy and excited crowds in New York City, on hand for a traditional Christmas season ceremony.  But I was reflecting on an experience of a few hours earlier, one that reminded me of happy and exciting times for many of our friends last spring.

As warm weather arrived, there were outdoor receptions for high school graduates, many people posted many pictures of graduates on Facebook, newspaper stories paid tribute to valedictorians and salutatorians, display ads recognized the accomplishments of high school grads from various local institutions.  It was an exciting time, and proud parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters attended ceremonies marking this milestone in the lives of local teenagers.  That isn’t the way it was yesterday at Brooks Correctional Facility, one of three state prisons located in Muskegon.

Nearly 50 students, ranging in age from the late teens to the late 60s, had been patiently tutored by fellow inmates and were finally going to receive their General Educational Development diplomas.  The GED graduates quietly took their seats in the prison gymnasium.  The Deputy Warden and the school principal praised their achievements.  The President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS encouraged them to keep on learning, and to make a difference.  But there was no audience.

Sons and daughters, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, weren’t there to witness the occasion.

After diplomas were received and the class was introduced, some of the students followed tradition and tossed their caps into the air.  Many didn’t.

There were no big receptions, no parties, no all-nighters to follow the ceremony.

The big treat was home-made cookies, prepared by the prison food tech class.  That was it.

Prison and school officials, Matt and I were then permitted to leave.  The graduates had no choice.  They returned to their cells.

I watched excited crowds at Rockefeller Center in New York last night, on hand to witness the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  Millions of colored lights came on, and the crowd cheered.  It was the place to be.

For me, the meaningful ceremony yesterday took place under a basketball hoop in a prison gym.  We were proud to be there!