All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, April 27, 2015

That rare moment when a parole is granted!

It kinda reminds you of the sheep farmer that Jesus talked about!

The guy was caring for 100 sheep, in the parable as related by Dr. Luke in Chapter 15, when one of them got lost.  He left the 99 out in the open country and went looking for the lost sheep.  When he found it, he put the frightened animal on his shoulders and carried it home.  He then called his friends and neighbors, asking them to rejoice with him, because he had found the one lost sheep.

Well, that seems to be about the percentage of paroles granted in Michigan.  But today we learned of one, and we’re rejoicing!

I had written a piece on this site last November, after a discouraging day.  I had promised my friend Joe that I would speak on his behalf at a Public Hearing, where the Michigan Parole Board would collect information pertaining to his possible release.  The hearing hadn’t gone well, in my opinion.  In fact, the day got off to a bad start before the hearing even began.  Joe’s elderly step-father suffered a medical crisis right in the prison parking lot and had to be rushed to the hospital.  He later died, and Joe never made it to the funeral.  I sat beside his shaken mother as we waited for the hearing to begin.

The record clearly showed that Joe participated in a heinous crime while drinking liquor and smoking weed.  He was in his early 20s at the time.  But this was 38 years later…38 years that he spent regretting that he had ever done such a terrible thing, and 38 years spent doing his best to improve himself and make something of his life.  A spiritual being, he was assured of God’s forgiveness, but no such luck with the State of Michigan.

There was opposition in the public hearing from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, although the young assistant Prosecutor who spoke hadn’t even been born yet when the crime occurred. There was opposition from the victim of the crime.  And there was strong opposition, as usual, from the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  No one wanted to focus on Joe’s record of accomplishment and improvement.  Everyone wanted to focus on his state of mind as a young man, and the crime that brought him to prison nearly 40 years ago.

I didn’t give Joe a snowball’s chance, but in addition to testifying at his Public Hearing, I did communicate my feelings to the Parole Board and the Attorney General’s Office. I grumbled loudly in my blog entry of November 6.

Then, no word of any decision.  Silence.

Now, 5 months later, Joe receives positive news:  A parole has been granted!

Like the sheep farmer in the parable, we’re inviting our friends and neighbors to rejoice with us.  To us it seems like we hear of 99 rejections to 1 approval for parole.  But we’ll take it.  We don’t get many victories in this office, and when we do, we savor the experience!

We think there’s rejoicing in heaven as well!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A penny for your thoughts

I wonder what you’re thinking.  I’m the guest speaker at your weekly men’s prayer breakfast, but you don’t appear to be very interested.  Looking at the church you attend, the car you drive, the way you dress, I’d guess that you’re in my income range (moderate).  Judging by your appearance, I’d say that you’re in my age range (70-80). I know that we’re the same color (white). Yet I find it interesting that you choose not to look me in the eye while I’m speaking.  Not once.  And I also find it interesting that you refuse to smile.  Not once.  There’s certainly no rule that you must look at me when I speak, or nod, or smile…but it’s hard for me to know your feelings when you won’t even look up.

When I talk about the plight of prisoners, something is obviously bothering you.  What is it?

Just because I believe that all prisoners deserve humane treatment, appropriate medical care and decent food---regardless of their crime---does that make me some sort of left-wing do-gooder? 

Or when I speak of people behind bars who claim they didn’t commit the crime, do you grumble in your mind that “all prisoners say they are innocent.”

When I speak about the racial disparity in our prisons and the overabundance of minorities, are you secretly saying that you’re not surprised based on the ghetto problems in your own community?

When I tell about the beautiful relationship my family and I had with the late Maurice Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, did it secretly make you shudder?  You and I are both of the age that we remember very well how the pillars of our church agreed that we had to be friendly with minorities, but then asked how you might feel if your son or daughter married someone of color.

Does it take you out of your comfort zone when I speak about delightful personal experiences with so many friends behind bars---men and women?  Is it just easier to deal with numbers rather than names and faces?

When I tell of terrible abuse of mentally ill women in the psych unit are you secretly happy that you don’t know anyone who lives under those conditions?

It’s difficult for me to know why you don’t seem to like what you are hearing.  In open dialog you could perhaps express your reservations about granting humane treatment for prisoners, or about claims of wrongful conviction, or about whether rough treatment of the mentally ill is really abuse.  But you ask no questions following my remarks.  Silence. 


What I hope is that my comments are disturbing to you, that you’re honestly troubled by what you hear, and that you’re considering doing something about it.  Supporting a prison ministry.  Speaking to a state legislator.  Thinking about volunteer opportunities. Offering to pray for people behind bars.  Anything.

What I hope is that you’re not angry at my message, but that you’re feeling pain because you know someone behind bars.  Maybe it’s a relative or a family member.  I’m hoping you’re not ashamed.  I’m hoping you are more determined than ever to reach out to this individual.

What I hope is that my brief remarks remind you just how often the Bible prompts us to show compassion to prisoners, going right back to the words of Jesus.

What I hope is that God took just one thing that I said and planted it in your mind for further prayer.

After all, it was a prayer breakfast.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A lot of talk, not much else

It was probably the wrong day for me to attend a meeting.  I suppose the case could be made that I dislike attending most meetings most of the time.  But yesterday was different.

In just one day, our office dealt with a record number of communications from Michigan prisoners and/or their family members.  Among the 28 with whom we communicated, several needed help with seeking a commutation of their sentences, one claimed wrongful conviction, one is suing the system, one was having trouble with a bunkie (room-mate), one wants a letter written to a judge, one was just denied parole, one hoped for some re-entry information, one reported a bullying problem of older women behind bars.  And the list went on and on.  We couldn’t keep up with the requests, and by the end of the day Matt and I were catching our breath, still trying to find answers.

By evening it was time to head to Grand Rapids, where Crossroads Bible Institute was presenting a seminar on the effects of solitary confinement in our prisons.  An important topic.

As I rethink the whole meeting one day later, I am reminded of the saying that often is attributed to Mark Twain:  Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.  Substitute the word “weather” for “prisons,” and you’d have my thoughts exactly.

Lois DeMott of Michigan’s Family Participation Program gave first-hand accounts of the horrors of solitary confinement when mixed with mental illness. 

Natalie Holbrook of American Friends Service Committee gave alarming statistics about the Michigan prison system, the shameful number of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) beds, and the always-present issue of racial disparity.

Pete Martel of AFSC gave a first-hand account of a typical day in solitary.

A psychologist and former prison warden agreed that solitary confinement drives people crazy.

And after more than an hour of this, Rich Rienstra of Citizens for Prison Reform finally said:  “We’re hearing all the stories.  What is anybody doing about it?” 

No good answers.

A person in the audience asked, “Can you give me the name of one Michigan legislator who gets it, and wants to make change?”

They could not.

Finally, former Calvin Seminary President James DeJong, now a Crossroad volunteer, pointed out that the gospel of Jesus Christ can and does change lives.  At last, something that all these people could hang their hats on.  This was more in their comfort zone. 

So at the end of the day, participants in CBI’s international Bible study program felt good, I’m sure, and returned to their important work with prisoners.  But the rest of us continue to struggle:  Lois DeMott trying to help prison families to negotiate through our prison system one at a time;  Natalie and Pete struggling to change the system;  Rich and Carol Rienstra banging their heads against a stubborn State of Michigan wall;  and HFP down in the trenches holding hands with needy inmates.

James, the brother of Jesus, said in frustration:  Faith without works is dead.

Yet, the Bible study programs thrive.  And the rest of us keep trying to remind the faithful that this is the other half of prison ministry, and we’re not thriving.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

My Easter thoughts for prisoners

This is one of my favorite parts of the Easter story in the Bible, as told by Dr. Luke:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:  “Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Here was Jesus practicing what he had preached, in Matthew 25:  showing compassion to a prisoner. 

And that’s what he offers to prisoners today.  Doesn’t make any difference whether they are guilty or not.  Doesn’t make any difference if their past is checkered.  Doesn’t make any difference if they never darkened the door of a church. 

I’d especially like to pass along this Easter message to

-the prisoner whose heart was broken when he received divorce papers
-the prisoner whose wife fled with his kids, and he can’t find any of them
-the prisoner stabbed yesterday by a group of gang-bangers
-the mentally ill prisoner who was hog-tied for punishment
-the prisoner on dialysis who is still considered a threat to society by the Parole Board
-the prisoner who took it on herself to end years of domestic abuse, and is now serving life for trying to save her own life
-the prisoner who committed shameful acts while high on drugs and now cannot forgive himself
-the elderly prisoner who keeps getting robbed by predators
-the wrongly-convicted prisoner who now cannot find it in himself to forgive cops, prosecutor and judge
(add the name of a prisoner here, and his/her plight).

Songwriters Avery and Marsh put these powerful words to a delightful tune:  EVERY MORNING IS EASTER MORNING FROM NOW ON! 

Thank you, Jesus!

May all of us who are in one prison or another claim the message of the resurrection today.

Friday, April 3, 2015

From God's unending bag of surprises

Things like this continue to surprise me, even though, by now, I should be getting used to the most unusual ways God works.

This is the story of two wrongly convicted prisoners, from two different worlds.

Ed is 70, black, and not highly educated.

Mark is 20 years younger, white, and highly educated.

I met them both in the year 2009.  Edward was in a remote location in the Upper Peninsula.  Mark was in a Muskegon prison, right near our home.  Both had compelling stories, and neither belonged behind bars.

Ed was blessed to have the assistance of Toronto-based AIDWYC, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.  (Yes, that’s the way they spell defense in Canada.)  But, due to alleged insurance issues, the AIDWYC trustees decided that the organization would no longer handle cases outside of that country.  Ed was devastated.  He had been clinging to that hope for eventual freedom.  I am not an attorney, and HFP does not take on cases of wrongful conviction.  The best I could do was to console him, pray for him, and try to find someone else to help.

Eventually, he got transferred.  You guessed it:  to Muskegon.  That was in the fall of 2012.  Now the two were in the same facility.

I put a bug in Mark’s ear:  See if you can do something to help this guy.

Mark, a recent graduate from Prison Fellowship’s fine TUMI seminary program, did more than that.  He virtually adopted the man!  He helped organize all of his legal papers.  He wrote briefs for him.  He helped Ed apply to Innocence Projects.  And now, God be praised, it appears that a fine IP is keenly interested!  There’s new hope for Ed!

Ed can wonder why he ever got transferred to Muskegon, Mark can wonder why God allowed him to go to prison in the first place, both can wonder why I ever introduced them to each other, and I can go on wondering just how many times God is going to use this 78-year-old crooked stick to make things happen in the lives of prisoners.

Isn’t this just like God?

Especially during Holy Week, we shouldn’t be all that surprised.