All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Thursday, May 28, 2015


I first saw a poster bearing those words in the office of a woman employed by a Christian college.  I believe she either had a special needs child, or worked with special needs children.  The words were scrawled on a plain white sheet with crayon.  That was 45 years ago, but the message stuck with me…especially in this work with prisoners…especially this week.

Before I tell my story, however, let me quickly summarize a familiar one told by the apostle John.  A group of religious leaders brought a woman of ill repute to our Lord.  She had been caught in the act, and based on their opinion of Old Testament laws, she had to be stoned to death.  Jesus turned the matter around and advised her accusers that the guy who was free of sin should throw the first rock.  One by one, the trouble-makers walked away.  Then these beautiful words:  “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”  “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you.”

Now my story.

Mr. C, an elderly white male, died in a nearby Michigan prison this week.  We hadn’t known each other for long.  A fellow prisoner, who knows the heart of HFP, suggested that Mr. C ask us for help.  That was in early April.  He was serving time, a lot of it, on sex charges.

His story could have been written by hundreds and thousands of alleged sex offenders, especially those who are poor and cannot afford adequate defense.  Once the accusations had been made by someone close to the family, it was if he had contracted leprosy!

-Police allegedly violated his rights, searching his home without a warrant.
-The evidence taken, he said, was not what police described in the trial.
-His court-appointed attorney claimed to be prepared for trial, but met with him only 3 times in 3 months.  His heart obviously wasn’t in this low-paying job for an alleged sex criminal.
-He was convicted of not one, not two, not three, but eight sex charges by a jury!

His down-hill slide didn’t end there.  The stigma remained.

-He felt the scorn and disdain of prisoners, who embellished rumors of his crimes.
-Some prison staff members don’t hide their feelings about alleged sex offenders.
-The same held true for medical staff who were required to treat him when cancer was diagnosed.

Mr. C begged us for help to find the real evidence that would acquit him for something he didn’t do.

Prisoner A begged us to help this allegedly innocent man with his legal problems.

Prisoner B begged us to get appropriate medical care for him…he was struggling.

And we tried.  HIPAA would make it impossible to get hospital records that allegedly would clear this man’s record.  However, improving his current existence was another matter.  Working with the warden, an allergy-free mattress was provided to ease the coughing, and he was given a friendly bunkie.

But his health rapidly deteriorated.

Said our informant on May 19:  He didn’t look too good leaving for the hospital.

Said our informant yesterday:  Mr. C died.  He had returned from the hospital gasping for breath two nights later and they sent him back.  The next thing we heard was that he died.  He was 68.

Finally for Mr. C, no more physical and mental discomfort, no more lack of acceptance, no more looks of accusation and disgust.  Neither do I condemn you.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Trauma---all in a day's work

Preachers joke about the parishioner who points out that they work only one day a week.  When I was a newscaster, listeners would hear me on the noon news, then again at 5 PM, and wonder what I did in between time.  Here in the HFP office, you hear from us is when we need money…but what happens the rest of the time?

Well, let me give you a sample of items that demanded our attention in recent days.

I am a mother.  I am crying out to you for help for my son. He is being denied proper medical care and his rights as a human being. I have not seen him in two years.  The last time I saw my son I was told I could never see him again because his visitation rights have been stripped away from him because he had not taken his medication, even though he informed me that the medication renders him vulnerable and incapacitated. My son is not allowed phone calls and has been in the hole for over almost a year. The only contact I have with my son is by mail. He has requested to have his visitation rights restored only to be denied, stating he has drug charges. We are not talking about drug charges for selling drugs in prison; we are speaking of him being punished for not taking his medication. My son is now on suicide watch.

My brother was attacked by 4 inmates in the restroom. He was stabbed in the back of the head, beaten and suffered a severe concussion. He has two facial fractures, which may need reconstructive surgery. He was taken to the hospital for stapling his head wound and observation, then returned to "segregation", for his safety. 

We are severely overcrowded in the women’s prison.  I counted the chairs to sit in this morning, we have 55 chairs for 180 women in our community place. If we cannot find a place to sit we have to go back to our rooms. In our rooms we have one chair, so one of us ALWAYS has to be on our bunks. I eat, sleep, type, write, read, paint, crochet, watch TV, on my bunk. The one chair is in front of a steel slab they call a desk that was meant for the men, so it is REALLY high. I cannot sit at it and type, it is too high and the chair too low.

An early morning phone call from a Muskegon prison:  Hey Doug, sorry to be so early...the guys wanted me to call you.  They want you on top of this!  A guy named Ernie died in our unit during the night. He was in bad shape, man. They took him to the hospital yesterday, but then they sent him back here.  His legs were so swollen he couldn’t even walk!  We just don’t get the medical care we need!  He was only 60 years old and he was scheduled to go home in October.

We receive 10-20 similar calls, letters and emails each day, 7 days a week, from prisoners, or their friends or their family members. 

My message is a simple one:  The dollars we ask for are not to pay the rent and the electric bill.  The dollars you share with HFP are needed so that we may continue to respond to the daily pleas for help just like those above.  As I've told you before, this is Jesus work!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What I wish I had said

For me, hindsight is always 20/20.  Always!

I was up early in the morning yesterday to make the two-hour drive to Jackson, Michigan.  The Michigan Parole Board had scheduled a Public Hearing for one of our friends on the campus of the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility…one of several prisons in Jackson.  I would be there to speak up on her behalf.  The hearing would be held to determine if this woman deserved parole.

The Small room in what is called the Training Center is difficult to find on the prison grounds, and the signage is terrible.  The room is drafty, with a single noisy restroom right on the edge of the main space.  The hand-cuffed prisoner faces a panel of two Parole Board members, a court reporter, and an assistant from the Michigan Attorney General’s office. His/her back is to the audience, and it's difficult to hear the answer to questions. Public hearings are granted only in rare circumstances, and there’s a window of hope that the inmate might actually be released.  Under normal circumstances, the prisoner is grilled for about three hours, after which the AG’’s man invariably points out how terrible the crime was and recommends no parole.  The Parole Board member chairing the meeting tries to be more civil than that, but is careful not to offer too much hope. 

The public is granted an opportunity to speak at the conclusion of these sessions, and this usually consists of a few members of family and a friend or two.  I always attend for our friends behind bars, making the one-way, two-hour drive just to speak for two minutes.  Even if my few words mean nothing, it’s important to convey a message to the prisoner that HFP cares.

My remarks are prepared in advance, but here’s what I wish I had said:

My heart was broken this morning when I heard the details of Ms. G’s earlier life, before prison---
            A troubled child-hood
            Raised by an aunt until the age of 12
            Then moved in with her mother and her mom’s boyfriend
            Hooking on the streets by age 15 for spending money
            Mother of two children by the age of 18
            After that, in an abusive relationship with a man who had fathered neither child
            Being degraded by men three times her age.

It certainly was no surprise that she killed one of them.  It was certainly no surprise that she ended up in prison.  It was certainly no surprise that as she struggled to come to her senses and make something of herself, Ms. G received more than 50 misconduct tickets while in prison.

But here’s the surprise; here’s what should make us proud; here’s the reason for hope:

This young woman, who didn’t even have a high school education when she entered prison, went on to
            Get her GED diploma
            Continue her studies in order to get an Associate’s Degree
            Get a Bachelor’s Degree
            Take important courses in areas such as substance abuse and domestic violence
            Work hard in any prison job she could get
            Mentor troubled inmates
            Represent her peers when elected to the Warden’s Forum!

Mr. Parole Board Chairman, you made a point of staying that you had conducted the initial PB Interview with Ms. G last January, and it was on your recommendation that this next step was scheduled.  I believe your instincts were right on target!  After 26 years, this woman deserves another chance!

Mr. Assistant Attorney General, you made a point of saying that you represent your client:  the people of the State of Michigan.  Then you spent 0 minutes dealing with Ms. G’s accomplishments, and more than 2 hours reviewing the details of the crime of a troubled teenager back in the 1980s.  At the end of the session you concluded that the crime was just too heinous, and that this 46 year old woman had not spent enough time behind bars. 

I’m asking that you remove my name from your client list.  You don’t represent me.  This prisoner’s accomplishments under the circumstances make me very proud.

I’m putting my money on Ms. G, believing that if given the chance, you’ll never see her behind bars again!

There’s an old gospel hymn that I love, quoting Jesus at Heaven’s gate saying:  “Well done, my child!  Well done!”

I’m singing that about Ms. G today.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Remembering prison moms today

Mothers of prisoners

There are 43,000 people housed in the Michigan prison system this morning.  All of them had a mom at one time…many of them still have a mother today.  To these precious and hurting souls, we pay tribute on Mother’s Day.

Many of the mothers will not see their offspring today, for various reasons (fewer than 15% of prisoners get any visits at all!). 

-The state has placed many of the prisoners in facilities too far away to make visits possible.
-Many of the mothers are elderly and/or incapacitated, preventing travel and visits.
-Some are estranged---the kids have no desire to see them, or they now have no use for their kids.
-Some have gone home to glory, not living long enough to see their child in a free society again.

And among those who are fortunate and able to make a visit today---

-Many are struggling with guilt:  “If only I had been a better mother,” or “If only I had paid attention to the early signs of mental illness,” or “If only I had worked harder to keep a father in the family.”  I know this for certain, because I speak with you, I see the feelings of guilt in your eyes.
-Many are just struggling with shame and sadness.  I see it in the visitor’s lounge when you fail to make eye contact with me, a stranger in your midst.

Moms in prison

There are 2,000 women in the Michigan prison system.  Many are mothers.  Many of these mothers won’t see their offspring today, either.  Statistics say that fewer than 300 will probably receive visitors.

-Their families are too far away…the drive to Ypsilanti is just too long.
-Some of the kids are too young.
-Some are not only mother-less, but fatherless, and are being cared for by grandparents or friends.
-Some have grown kids who are ashamed of their mom, and don’t ever want to see her again.
-Some have burned bridges, and are hurting with this loss of a relationship.
-Some have no idea where their husbands and kids have gone.

The above lists are just samples…just the beginning.  Each mother can add another reason to these lists or another variety on the same theme.

So when offering prayers for moms today, I simply ask that you remember mothers of prisoners and moms in prison.  Many of them will not be remembered.  Many feel forgotten.  All are hurting.

To all of them we offer this Mother’s Day gift:  God’s amazing grace.  Our prayer is that each one feels God’s peace and love today, regardless of all other circumstances.  And we offer this prayer in the name of Jesus, who not only loved his own mom, but loves every mother!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

One little starfish at a time

Really?  Support still another prison ministry?  Naw, can’t do it.  Already helping Forgotten Man Ministries, Crossroad Bible Institute, Prison Fellowship.  Enough is enough.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS?  Do we really need another prison ministry?  What are they doing that the others aren’t?

Another prisoner advocacy agency?  There’s a bunch of them in Michigan already.  Aren’t they all doing pretty much the same thing?

Be assured:  The last thing we would ever do is bad-mouth another prison ministry or another prisoner advocacy organization.  God bless EVERYONE and EVERY PROGRAM doing things to help people behind bars.  But also be assured:  The first thing we will do in a discussion like this is demonstrate not only our usefulness but our importance!

Let me give you two examples of pleas for help that crossed my desk in the past few days.

Anna is a 77 year old grandmother who shouldn’t be in prison any longer.  She has already served 27 years.  But now she’s in a wheelchair with a lot of pain.  She can’t take most pain meds because they conflict with a serious kidney condition.  Her pain only worsens when she must make the long trip to the chow hall for meals, over cracked sidewalks and bumpy roads outdoors.  Her simple request for help:  She would like meals brought to her, a service that is provided for some inmates.  But the system feels she can go get her own food and so far has denied her request.  In her letter to me, she said:  “So, I have to find a way to feed myself or go without.”

Judy is the mother of a mentally challenged inmate in the women’s prison.  Her daughter has been treated cruelly by prison staff and has been sadly abused.  I checked in with her this week just to see how she’s doing, and how her daughter is doing.  Here are her brief comments:

  The warden is refusing me visits, as she is one-on-one.  So, I haven’t been in to see her since January 26.

  The therapist was on vacation for a couple weeks and has been back for a couple weeks.  She has not responded to my email or phone calls.

  The chief of the acute unit has not responded in the last month.

  I am in the dark.  Other than the phone call from another inmate who is nowhere near my daughter.

Two simple requests:  to have meals delivered to an elderly, crippled grandmother;  and to allow a mother to visit her mentally ill daughter.  You wanna know which prison ministry and which prisoner advocacy agency will handle these little matters?  HFP.  To you and me, these may seem like little issues in the overall scheme of things, but think again.  Just ask Anna.  Just ask Judy.

I love to tell the story of the little girl on an ocean shore as the tide was going out, leaving behind lots of starfish struggling on the sand.  The child was picking them up and placing them back in the water so they could survive.  An elderly man, also walking the beach, came up to her and said, “Little girl, do you know how long this coastline is, and do you know how many thousands and thousands of starfish are stranded on the sand?  You can’t possibly make a difference.”  The child looked down for a second, picked up a tiny starfish and threw it back out into the ocean.  “I made a difference for that one,” she said!

That’s our work.  One little starfish at a time.  We’re in the trenches, holding the hands of “the least of these.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  This is Jesus work.  And we can’t do it alone.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Does it matter where the cry for help comes from?

This message to HFP was urgent!

A request for help from a prisoner…help for a friend of his, a 68-year-old Viet Nam vet whose lungs had been damaged by Agent Orange.  Here’s what he had to say about Mr. A:

          His skin reacting adversely to his mattress, cannot sleep
          Bunkies not treating him well for two reasons:
                   Convicted of a sex crime
                   Can’t stop coughing
          Situation so bad he believes he might not last the week.
HFP did what it does best, pushing buttons and pulling strings behind the scenes.

Six hours later:
            Prisoner A is doing OK and not complaining

           He has a new air mattress
                   Will get an allergy-free pad if any further skin problems
          He has a new Bunkie, and apparently he likes him.

          He seemed pleased for the assistance.

          He is in fairly good condition for his diagnosis.

Let me be clear, here.  We didn’t save a baby from the earthquake ruins in Nepal, we didn’t enlist the aid of volunteer pilots to fly rescue dogs to new adoption centers across the country, and we didn’t save any whales or owls.  There are already wonderful organizations and people doing those things.  But we did touch the life of a prisoner, in the name of Jesus.  And there’s no other organization like this in our state.  A cry for help, regardless of whether from the rubble of Nepal or the cell of a Michigan prison, is still a cry for help! 

At the very same time this was going on, Matt and I were scratching our heads, wondering how to meet HFP expenses.  As it turns out, we didn’t meet them.  And now we’re wondering about our future.

HFP began in 2001, the brain child of a wrongly convicted prisoner named Maurice Carter who, after all else failed in his 29 years behind bars, simple felt that he had no other alternative than to “leave it in God’s hands.”

Is that our last gasp today?

We know there are individuals, foundations, churches, religious and civic organizations, who claim to care about issues of prisoner compassion and injustice, and who could fund our tiny budget for one year and not even feel the pain.  But so far, we haven’t struck the right chord.  We can’t find the right combination.  There’s no glamour in this work, but behind the scenes there’s a father/son team aided by an amazing variety of 50 dedicated professionals, extending a cup of cool water to hundreds and hundreds of needy, lonely, hurting inmates.  Every day!  7 days a week!  All year long!

We need your help, your thoughts, your ideas, your prayers.