All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Saturday, February 28, 2015

On prisoners, and saying "Thanks!"

My mother taught me a valuable lesson, and she did it by modeling.  She always took time to say “thank you.”  And she didn’t do it in some trite manner, as if it were an after-thought.  She took the time to send a note of thanks on pretty note paper.  She dropped off a freshly-baked coffee cake.  She made a personal visit.  Her expressions of gratitude were genuine.

In my devotions, I love reading the gospels…I like the Jesus stories.  I’m totally amazed that, even though crowds swarmed around him begging for healing, he never got sick of it.  Never sent them away saying he’d done enough healing that day.  And then there came the ten lepers.  Only one of them returned to say, “Thank you.”

HFP Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I got another “prison fix” this week, and it reminded me of some of those Bible stories.  150 men in the room, all of them with needs, all of them wanting help.  But here’s the thing that really touched me:  They first expressed thanks!

It was a meeting of the National Lifers Association chapter in Muskegon Correctional Facility.  I was to give an overview of HFP and the assistance that we attempt to offer, and Dan, a clinical psychologist, was to discuss anger management.  After our presentation, the floor microphones were turned on and the men were allowed to ask questions.

For me, there were all kinds of needs:  help for a prisoner who is dying, help getting medical care, help in filling out commutation application forms, help getting fresh air in a prison unit, help in pursuing an alleged wrongful conviction.  The list went on and on.  And for Dan, more assistance in working with anger management behind bars.  Insisted one inmate, hoping to persuade Dan to come back for a workshop:  "We need it here!"

But here’s the thing.  Every man, before seeking help, expressed thanks!  Thanks for helping brother Maurice Carter.  Thanks for writing your book. Your appearance tonight was a God-send!  Thanks just for caring.  Thanks for taking of your personal time to come here.  And the words and demonstrations of gratitude continued until the moment we walked out of the prison auditorium.  Frequent bursts of applause.  People waiting in line just to shake the hand of a caring individual.  Bear hugs from old friends.  Tears.  Laughter.  Promises for the future.

It was a prison fix that Dan and I desperately needed.  HFP is in serious financial trouble.  In my dark moments, it feels like we’re sinking.  It gets difficult to see the sun for all the dark clouds.

And then, in a single hour-and-a-half session, I realize that shutting down isn’t an option.  And for that message, it’s time for me to say to our hundreds and thousands of friends behind bars:  Thank you!

God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say 'thank you?'

Thursday, February 19, 2015

For Black History Month: A tribute to 3 blacks who colored my life!

Mattie Davis

In 1954, this little Dutch teenager began his first part-time radio job at station WMUS in Muskegon.  To this point in my life, I had attended an all-white Dutch church and an all-white private Dutch school.  Imagine the culture shock each Sunday morning when I expected to unlock the front door of the radio station to let in the singers of a black gospel quartet called the Heavenly Echoes.

The manager of this all-male ensemble was a dynamite little African American woman named Sister Mattie Davis.  One of my first lessons from her involved prayer.  I was used to all the Christian clichés that I had heard in my circles all of my life.  Not so when Sister Mattie Davis offered her prayer on the radio every Sunday morning.  Despite serious racist issues back in the 50s, she would earnestly plead for the safe-keeping of first responders:  “the policemens and the firemens!” 

Sister Mattie Davis, and her prayers, touched my life.

Cy Young

In the early 1970s someone contacted me at my radio station, WGHN in Grand Haven, and asked if I would like a guest on my talk show in observance of Black History Week (It was only a week back in the 70s).  I quickly agreed, and a towering, handsome black dude showed up driving a car that looked like an accident waiting to happen.  He introduced himself as Cy Young, former entertainer and emcee, now a pastor.  He claimed to have the gift of recitation, and had memorized all of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches!

It was a powerful, memorable radio broadcast, and it led to a friendship that lasted until Cy’s death.  He not only recited the words, he walked the talk.  He lived Dr. King’s message.  Our relationship led to multiple multi-racial experiences in my life.  I loved the man!

Cy Young made an incredible impact on this young broadcaster and musician.

Maurice Henry Carter

I first met Maurice in the mid-1990s, an indigent African American from Gary, Indiana, serving a life sentence in the State of Michigan for something he said he didn’t do.  I worked side-by-side with him for the next decade to free him and to prove that the state was wrong.  During that time we became brothers, and my family became his family. 

To my dismay, we never cleared his name.  Over the years a large team was amassed to help Maurice, but the best we could do was obtain a compassionate release for him in 2003 because he was suffering in the late stages of Hepatitis C.  He died three months after he walked out of prison.

In Black History Month, 2015, I would be remiss if I did not pay tribute to these three wonderful people of color.  I thank God that, in his plan for my life, he arranged these amazing acquaintances!  Now my life is filled with people of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.  How rich I am!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

It was a dirty trick! And it hurt!

The dirty trick was performed with a two-edged sword by the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

EDGE ONE cut off all email correspondence between HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS and nearly 500 inmates in the Michigan prison system.  In order for inmates to communicate with us, I must first open an account by sending an email message to an inmate.  Once the prisoner receives that message, he/she may begin conversing with me by email through an on-line service called JPay.  On or about February 5, my name was mysteriously removed from the email account lists of ALL our friends.  This effectively cut off all email communications between us!

EDGE TWO removed all previous email messages from the mailboxes of these prisoners.  ALL previous correspondence, dating back to the beginning of our conversations!  This includes important legal information, sometimes actual legal documents, medical information, personal information.  It’s all gone!

This action by the state came without warning or advance notice.  We first got wind of the embargo when confused inmates and their families starting calling the office.  The confusion soon turned to hurt and anger.  One dear man, 60 years of age, still hoping to get a parole on a 30-50 year sentence, thought I had shut him down.  He had just asked a simple question by email, and the next day my name was off his list.  His heart was broken.  He couldn’t sleep.  What had he done to hurt my feelings?  Others were angry, blaming wardens for shutting us down.  But it wasn’t the fault of local wardens.  The action was taken in Lansing.

How many prisoners does this affect?  Well, we have nearly 400 men on our email account list with JPay, and nearly 80 women. 

Will they still be able to communicate with HFP?  Yes, but it must be done through regular snail mail which is cumbersome and slow.  Due to problems with some prison mail rooms, snail mail delays for days and even weeks are not uncommon.  Email was cheap and it was fast.  10 cents a letter, and instant communication.

So yes, it was a dirty trick by the MDOC, an entity that apparently does not have to provide answers if it doesn’t feel like it.  And yes, it hurt.  It hurt those of us trying to extend compassion to inmates on a daily basis.  And it hurt prisoners like Clarence, who thought we just arbitrarily pulled the plug on him.  It hurts others like those who contacted our office just in the past week asking us to help in a case of abuse of a mentally ill inmate, asking us to check into the death of a prisoner who may not have received appropriate treatment, asking us to help fill out a commutation application form, asking us to help in getting a gluten-free diet, asking us to help find re-entry resources in a certain part of the state…and the list goes on and on.  It’s what we do.

Other prisoner advocacy agencies are watching.  If it can happen to us, it can happen to them.  Some are distancing themselves, and that hurts, too. 

We may be small, but the God we serve and in whose name we do this work, is mighty!  As Matt said, “Did they think we would just accept this and shut down?”  It ain’t gonna happen!

We need your support and your prayers as we begin serious talks with our legal counsel next week.

Romans 8:31.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The state may not like him, but Jesus does!

The Michigan Attorney General would be appalled!

Even many of my fellow Christians would shake their heads if they knew my intentions.

I’m going to fight for the release of Old Bert.

My attention was first drawn to his name by his warden, who informed me in no uncertain terms that she felt he should be out of prison.  He had actually died in her prison once, and they brought him back to life.  He’s in terrible health, and his old body is in terrible shape.  He hobbles along with two canes when he can walk, and he’s constantly in pain, whether standing or sitting.

He wept bitterly a couple times when I met with him in the prison.  We had a private room, thanks to the warden...a place where Old Bert could bare his soul.  His crime was so terrible, so heinous, that he lost all respect from family and friends…everyone who knew him disowned him.  And, he admitted, for good reason.  That was 47 years ago.

47 years behind bars, and Old Bert became a new man.  Like Saul of Tarsus, known for his involvement in the brutal killing of Christians, he met a man named Jesus along the way.

Old Bert spent hours and days and weeks in the law library, and has now became a very effective jailhouse lawyer.  Now he uses his skills daily to help others who can’t afford attorneys.  He still doesn’t get to church much…still feels pretty uncomfortable among those he considers probably more righteous.

I always suspect he gets a real thrill when he reads the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23, where our Lord looks on a man convicted of such a terrible crime that he was also nailed to a cross.  In a love so great it could only be divine in nature, Jesus granted forgiveness and said, “…today you will be with me in paradise.”

I already know what I’m going to hear when I sit next to Old Bert this year in his Parole Board session.  They’re going to tear him into little pieces for the crime he committed.  If and when he gets to a Public Hearing, the Assistant Attorney General is going to recommend no parole.  In some minds, this broken old man with a healed new spirit still poses a threat to society.  In all fairness to the victims of the crime, he should remain behind bars.  That will be the general consensus.

I was in prison this week with my little group of musicians, playing and singing the old gospel songs for inmates.  After the service, Old Bert took painful steps with both canes so that he could get to me.  But he couldn’t speak.  He face was wet with tears. 

I knew what he was thinking:  Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When the real reason for singing in prison finally appears

I was back behind bars…right where I like to be!

Thanks to the wonderful cooperation of the warden and program coordinator at Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, HFP was able to arrange a gospel concert for inmates featuring our musical group SWEET FREEDOM. 

The moment inmates began filing into the gymnasium, where we to perform, I knew why God had sent me there last night.

-I was surrounded by guys who were incensed that the Michigan Department of Corrections had illegally removed my name from their email capabilities, but had ALSO removed all of their prior email correspondence with me, including critical legal documents.

-An inmate who has been unfairly treated by the Michigan Parole Board asked if we could intervene on his behalf.  The board has demanded that he take a sex offender course before he can be released.  BUT, because he claims he was wrongly convicted, the prison won’t let him take the sex offender course.

-An inmate who spent almost all of his life in a mental institution was finally released, and for the next 20 years this mentally ill man spent time in prison…a place where he obviously should not be.  He stumblingly asked if we could help.

-Inmates proudly reported they had made some items in hobby-craft for HFP so we could sell them as fund-raisers.

Yep, God knew what he was doing all right…putting me right there among these guys who needed our love and compassion.

Then something even more touching…

Our group of fine musicians had done what we do best---presenting fine old gospel tunes in a fresh and delightful way that pleased many inmates.

As we received hand-shakes and accolades after the service, a young man shyly approached me with tears streaming down his cheeks.  I had been hurrying through these thank you gestures, but it was obvious that I shouldn’t rush this one.  The lad grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go.  “You helped bring me back,” he said.  I started to thank him, just as I had the others, and he kept my hand. “No, I mean it,” he said.  “I have had some serious struggles with my faith.  I have it for a while, and then I lose it.  It has been coming and going.  Tonight, you helped to bring me back.”

Then I got the message.  This was the real reason for our presence behind bars.  Doug and HFP were not at work…God was doing his thing.  He just used us to help make stuff happen.  And it did!  I don’t even know this young man’s name, but he’s in my prayers.  Keep him in yours, too.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Do prisoners have rights?

That’s a good question.  It was asked by our attorney, as we discussed a decision by the Michigan Department of Corrections to stop all email communications between prisoners and me.  My big concern at the moment was rather selfish:  I was worrying about MY rights.

Truth be told, prisoners don’t have many rights.  The constitution says that they do, but just ask any inmate.  He/she will have a different story.

First I should explain how this email program works with prisoners.  Inmates are not allowed to just send out email messages at random.  They may only respond to people who have first sent an email message to them through a national program called JPay.  In other words, once I send an email message to a particular inmate, an account has then been established between the two of us.  That inmate may send an email message to me, and vice versa.  In either case, there is a fee involved.  It costs me 10 cents for every message.  Well worth it when you consider that it costs 5 times that much to send a letter by US Mail, and this is much faster.

This has been a valuable service provided by HFP, because we help prisoners with so many needs.  Can we get a legal opinion for them in a hurry?  No problem.  We cut and paste the attorney’s decision and email it to the inmate.  Can we find a long lost son or daughter, now married and living in another city?  No problem.  Matt conducts an on-line people search, and we forward the updated address to a grateful parent.  Will we review a commutation application before it gets sent to the Michigan Parole Board?  No problem.  The inmate sends a first draft to us in the mail…I quickly reply by email as to suggested corrections and additions.  Should a prisoner be getting medication of some sort for a given malady?  No problem.  We forward the symptoms to one of our consulting physicians, and then cut and paste the medical opinion for a quick response.  The list goes on and on. 

The prisoner, as we have said, also pays for this service.  So when this information is received by the inmate, it remains in that person’s mailbox for future reference.  He/she paid for the message.  It belongs to him/her.

Well, when the MDOC in its perceived almighty authority discontinued this service between HFP and Michigan inmates last week, it ALSO DELETED ALL PREVIOUS CORRESPONDENCE IN THEIR MAILBOXES!  In many cases this was important information.  In all cases it was data that had been paid for by the inmate and belonged to that prisoner.

As of this morning, HFP has nearly 500 inmates in the JPay account list.  As of this morning we are unable to communicate with any of them via email.  As of this morning, all prior messages from HFP in the mailboxes of inmates are gone. 

What a shameful disregard of the rights of prisoners.  A prisoner doesn’t have the right to receive assistance from a legitimate agency on the outside?  A prisoner is allowed to keep legal documents and personal correspondence in a locker, but is NOT allowed to retain email correspondence from HFP? 

Does all of this sound a little like the biblical story of David and Goliath?  The giant MDOC vs a little old 78-year-old man just trying to extend kindness to the “least of these?”  As I recall, David emerged the winner.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

It's your turn to get hot under the collar

I woke up hot this morning.  On a cold day!

Have no idea why my thoughts went back to a sermon I heard by a crusty old preacher back when I was in high school, serving as the church organist.  He was preaching from the book of Revelation, and hammering on his own congregation with the words from the letter to the church at Laodicea:  I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other.

And that set me to thinking about all the issues we deal with on a daily basis.

I know, for example, that the state of Michigan is cold when it comes to these subjects.  That was apparent just the other day when the director of the state’s corrections department said:  I serve at the pleasure of the governor.  I think he’s happy with the things I’m doing.

There’s no question that Dr. Martin Luther King was hot when he said, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

EJI founder Bryan Stevenson was obviously hot when he said, We have a system of justice that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.

All of this leads me to the heat under my collar before I even got dressed this morning.

I get hot when an elderly, handicapped inmate doesn’t even feel safe enough to go to the prison store, because he knows he’ll just be robbed by the gang bangers.

I get hot when thousands of women who lived in an environment of domestic violence took things into their own hands, only to wind up behind bars for the rest of their lives.

I get hot when our state’s Attorney General says he’s thinking of the victims, when he refuses to give a person who made a terrible mistake in his early teens another chance.

I get hot when our untouchable Parole Board feels the judge didn’t get it right, and extends the sentence of a sex offender.

I get hot when our mentally ill prisoners are routinely abused, especially considering that an estimated 25% of inmates are experiencing mental issues.

I get hot when hundreds of parolable lifers remain behind bars twiddling their thumbs, as we continue to pay the bill.

I get hot when I see the geriatric numbers, knowing that these old folks on feeding tubes and in wheelchairs are not a threat to society, and should no longer be in prison.

I get hot when I hear of terminally ill prisoners dying alone in the infirmary, without even permission for a family bedside visit, let alone hospice care.

It’s no wonder I hardly needed the hot water for my shower this morning!  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Well, my quote won’t be as profound as those of Dr. King and Bryan Stevenson, but here it is, for what it’s worth:  Complacency is a sin.

And this message is not just for state lawmakers, prison officials, parole board members, lawyers, prosecutors and judges…it’s also directed at you.  We can and will join other advocacy agencies to work on these problems.  But YOU can make the difference.

I wish you were hot!