All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy Week, not all that nice for many prisoners

I live in a broken world.  Many of my friends are behind bars, and for many of them life isn’t all that great. 

While visiting in a Muskegon prison last night, one guy came to me to thank me for trying to help, even though I had done absolutely no good.  He has torn something in his leg, and so he hobbles along in pain.  Not only can he not get adequate pain medication, he can’t persuade anyone to approve the necessary surgery to repair this injury.  God knows we tried, all the way to the regional prison doctor and the warden of the facility.  I don’t know what else to do for the guy but to pray.

During the prison service last night I sat next to a man I’ve been trying to help for years.  Other than finding him an attorney who cares and who is now working on his case, I have done very little for him.  His conscience has dictated some activity in prison that has been very beneficial to law enforcement.  In fact, he was promised that if he testified in a court case, efforts would be made to have him re-sentenced so that he would be able to see freedom.  Well, he provided the necessary testimony and the state got a conviction.  But, the state then reneged on its promise.  Years later, he’s still wondering when he’ll get that hope for freedom.  I don’t know what else to do for the guy but to pray.

This morning I received an email message from a man I know in another Michigan facility.  He just received divorce papers.  Needless to say, relationships are more than difficult to maintain when one partner is in prison.  I love the man.  I love his wife.  I don’t know what else to do for the guy but to pray.

All of this is on my mind on the Monday morning of Holy Week…a time when we remember that our Lord experienced the worst injustice of all, and eventually was wrongly convicted and executed.

It’s in his name that I’ll be praying for these friends and many more this week.

I know he’ll understand.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The judicial system still has flaws, Maurice!

71 years ago a child was born to a poor, African American family in Gary, Indiana, who was destined to change my life.

Things didn’t go all that well for Maurice Henry Carter.  As a young man he made the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, right here in Michigan.  Two years later he was arrested for a crime that had occurred while he was in Benton Harbor, based on the testimony of a lying jail-house snitch.  It was a crime he knew nothing about, certainly had not committed.  And from there, things continued to go downhill. 

-An eyewitness who later was hired to be a secretary in the Prosecutor’s office testified that she saw him running from the scene of the crime.

-The victim of the crime, who couldn’t identify his picture for two years, suddenly remembered that Maurice was the perp  after seeing his arrest picture in the newspaper.

-The Berrien County Prosecutor was hell-bent to put a black man in prison, because a white cop and been shot and injured.  A white cop who, later, would also come to work for the Prosecutor’s office.

Maurice never gave up, and during his 29 years behind bars he ran full-speed ahead trying to prove his innocence.  For the last decade of his years on earth, I joined that fight, and though my background was in radio broadcasting and church music, my focus changed and I’m still battling for prisoners.

Our friendship blossomed after our first encounter in 1994, and because of it he had renewed faith and optimism.  Because of it my family became his family.  Because of it this little-known indigent man from Gary became overwhelmed by support from all around the world.  He was never exonerated.  But all who met him and loved him knew that he was innocent.

It’s Maurice’s birthday tomorrow.  He died in 2004.  And I guess the simple message is that our organization, founded as his dream-child, still encounters the same kind of unfairness that he dealt with on a daily basis.

Just in the past two months, the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS was seriously crippled by not one, but TWO, two-week-long blockages of all email communication with all 500 of our Michigan inmate friends!  No warning.  No explanation.  Sorry.

Just in recent days, prison inspectors are picking all kinds of unreasonable excuses to censor HFP email messages to inmates:

Can’t use the phrase ASAP.  You’re writing in code!
Can’t check on the well-being of a prisoner on behalf of a worried relative.  Violation of some policy!
Can’t offer to send a prayer shawl to the dying mother of an inmate.  Danger to emotional health!

Besides all of that our coffers are empty.  Helping “the least of these” isn’t the most popular cause among the long list of charities.

But the promise that God is faithful is just as strong now as it was on that day 11 years ago when we whispered our final “I love you” messages to each other.

Maurice Carter---quiet, gentle black man from Gary, Indiana---is still touching lives.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When our prisoner emails get blocked, do we turn the other cheek?

Jesus was such a radical!  In my devotions this week he was saying, Love your enemies…pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.         

I’m really struggling with that today.

As the leader of an agency trying to follow the Matthew 25 admonition to show compassion to prisoners, I honestly believe that some officials on the state payroll are doing what they can to thwart our efforts.  Witness this:

On February 5, our email service to some 500 prisoners gets blocked without warning or explanation for 12 days.

On March 13, it happens all over again…no email communications allowed between 500 prisoners in the State of Michigan and me.  As of today, still not fixed!

Since the first of February, almost all email communications between Michigan’s prison for women in Ypsilanti grinds to a halt. Messages started resuming in recent days, but they had been sent nearly a month ago.

And that prompts me to ask:  Should we respond with a sledge hammer, or should we turn the other cheek?

I’m still not sure.  Trying to model Jesus doesn’t always mean being a softie.  We saw him lovingly holding little kids on his lap.  We saw his deep compassion toward a woman accused of infidelity.  On the other hand, we saw his temper when he kicked the money changers out of the temple and we heard it in his voice when he called Pharisees “sons of hell.”

We’ve tried responding in a calm and respectable manner.  We are working quietly and patiently with a representative of the MDOC who has been helpful, and our conversations have been business-like.  In addition we have filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act, hoping to find out how this email disruption occurred, and why.

Here’s where I’m coming from (today at least):  I can and will pray for people who operate and work in the Michigan Department of Corrections.  But I feel that we cannot stand idly by, with our hands in our pockets, when certain forces seem to be intent on hampering our work.  As long as I’m running this outfit, I’m going to insist that our goal never change or be compromised!  And that goal, simply stated, is to extend compassion to prisoners in the name of Jesus. It’s what we’ve always done.  We have no intention of giving up.

Pastor Nate reminds me that little David had more than just a few stones with which to attack Goliath.  He had an extra weapon in his arsenal that the enemy just didn’t have. 

If what we do is “Jesus work,” as I label it, standing in its way might not be such a good idea, or all that successful.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On saving animals, caring for prisoners

This is Albert Schweitzer’s premise, and I agree with it:

Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.

And I have no problem with wanting to rescue dogs, or to save whales and elephants.  There appears to be a huge majority of people who not only care about our wildlife, but who are willing to put their money where their mouth is.  Click on these worthy causes, and you’ll find big agencies with wide appeal and fat checkbooks.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, on the other hand, focuses on disenfranchised people, and that subject isn’t nearly as popular.

Witness the discussion at our Board of Directors meeting yesterday.  “Maybe we’ll have to just level with our supporters and explain that a lack of funds will mean a severe reduction in our services to inmates.”  “Our appeals are getting stale.”  “How can we put a new spin on our work, to touch the heartstrings of the public?”  The problem is staring us in the face:  We’re broke!

I don’t know how to put a new spin on trying to help a prisoner with Parkinson’s Disease to get an appointment with a neurologist;  or trying to help a mentally retarded senior citizen who is being terrorized by young prisoners;  or trying to help a mentally ill woman who has been cruelly abused by prison staff;  or trying to help an inmate with limited writing and spelling skills in filling out his commutation application form;  or trying to assist a mother behind bars in finding her long lost daughter.

I have a hard time figuring out how goals like this can sound appealing to generous donors and foundations:  Seeking improved hospice-type care and bedside visits for prisoners dying alone in cold and lonely infirmaries;  seeking compassionate releases for terminally ill inmates thus allowing them final, dying moments with family and friends;  working toward changes in our judicial system that puts women away for life after they finally take action to end years of domestic abuse;  begging for reforms that would obtain release for deserving paroleable lifers;  and seeking parole reforms that would let other agencies care for seriously ill geriatric prisoners.

Perhaps Matt and I could take a course or attend a seminar to figure out how to put a Madison Avenue “spin” on these unpopular efforts.  Perhaps.  But that would take us away from the work that we feel is so very important.

HFP is adding one new Michigan prisoner per day to the list of inmates we are helping!  Our assistance is sometimes limited, but our presence is so appreciated by those behind bars!  I call it “Jesus work.”  It’s lonely down here in the trenches, working one-on-one with these deserving and needy people.  And if we can’t figure out some way to unlock pocketbooks it’ll be even more lonely. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On the importance of humble pie

I don’t eat it very often.  Perhaps I should word that differently:  I don’t eat humble pie often enough!

I was giving a speech to a group of senior citizens at Aquinas College, telling of some of the horrors that go on behind bars in the Michigan prison system.  When she got the opportunity, a very pleasant woman raised her hand and explained that she has a son who is a corrections officer.  She went on to say that he has a college degree, is a beautiful Christian person, takes his job seriously, and does his very best to take care of prisoners in a proper and appropriate fashion. 

It was a message I needed to hear.  In our work, we deal with numerous inmates who have suffered from cruel and abusive treatment.  There’s no excuse for it, and those state employees engaged in such behavior deserve strong reprimand.  But they do not represent all Michigan prison staffers, many of whom are doing their very best every day in a very thankless position. I must strive to make this clear in my presentations.

The same holds true for prison wardens.  We have had some unpleasant experiences at Michigan prisons that I feel can be traced right up to the top official in the building:  the warden.  But we must be careful not to paint a picture of all wardens with that brush.

I have had personal dealings with the two prison wardens that serve the three facilities in Muskegon.  Warden Mary Berghuis is in charge of both Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility and West Shoreline CF.  Warden Sherry Burt is in charge of Muskegon Correctional Facility.  I think they’re tops!  In my opinion, with wardens like this at every facility we’d have drastically fewer problems.

An upstanding Christian inmate who shares thoughts with me on a rather regular basis and who has worked personally with both wardens agrees with me:  These women have heart!

I bring this up under the topic of humble pie, because I recently let a misunderstanding between staff members at Muskegon Correctional Facility and me escalate into something that turned out to be a non-issue.  Said Warden Burt to the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS:  “Why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?”

One more slice of humble pie, please.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Looking for answers

Since we began offering assistance to prisoners in 2001, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has made remarkable strides right here in the State of Michigan!

Now with two full-time staffers and an advisory panel of 50 attorneys, doctors, ministers and other professionals, HFP is providing services such as these at a rate of 150-200 times a month---

          Obtaining legal and medical opinions
          Finding long-lost relatives and loved ones
          Assisting in preparation for Parole Board visits or Public Hearings
          Helping to properly fill out commutation application forms
          Vetting names of attorneys under consideration
          Placing inmates in touch with the correct agency for further assistance.

In recent years we have expanded on these unique services by

          Conducting in-prison seminars on the above subjects plus anger management
          Offering gospel concerts by our SWEET FREEDOM music team.

Our work, extending ACTION WITH COMPASSION, couldn’t be more vibrant at the moment!  I often refer to it as “Jesus work,” as rooted in Matthew 25.

And that raises the question:  Why is the Michigan Department of Corrections obviously trying to slow down or hinder our ministry?

Witness these unusual developments in the past 6 weeks---

-Email service through JPay was disconnected from February 5-18.  The MDOC explained that the blockage was “inadvertent,” and apologized for any inconvenience.

-Since the first of February, there has been NO email service to some 100 women in the Michigan facility at Ypsilanti.  So far, no explanation from JPay or the Prison Warden.

-Periodically email messages are still being mysteriously censored with no explanation other than that a department policy or law has been violated, and if no violation was found the reason is simply listed as “other.”

-Yesterday I was informed that, as the President of HFP, I can either continue to  provide programs and concerts at Muskegon Correctional Facility or I can continue to email MCF inmates, BUT NOT BOTH!  The prison Inspector has determined that this would be a violation of policy.  Yet, right next door, at Brooks Correctional Facility, I am quietly encouraged by the Warden to do all of the above!

One would think that any agency trying to make life a little brighter for inmates would be welcomed by the department.

One would think that with the multiple problems of housing more than 40,000 prisoners, the advocacy on behalf of inmates by HFP would be the least of their concerns.

Are we missing something?

In the New Testament book of James I’m advised to “count it all joy” when faced with trials and tribulations.

I’m having a hard time seeing it that way.