All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Just another day? Not in a heart-beat!

It was a religious experience!  That’s the only way I can describe it.  And there were only five people in attendance. 

Let me explain.

As a full-time advocate for prisoners, I savor the opportunity to witness that rare occasion when an inmate steps into the free world.  My friend Joe Evans was due to be released from prison after 39 years behind bars. He has been serving a life sentence for a dastardly crime committed in his youth while high on drugs and alcohol.  Now, he’s a changed man.

Sensing that this might be a very special occasion, I invited videographer Dirk Wierenga to join with me.  Dirk is producing a professional documentary about the work and the mission of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  We were not disappointed.

The location for this little program was 3100 Cooper Street, Jackson, Michigan…right at the front door of the Cooper Street Correctional Facility. 

Joe is 61 now…his elderly mom and his cousin, who served as their driver, were on hand from the Detroit area to pick him up and take him home.

The prelude for this service is a discussion with a corrections officer at the front desk, who doesn’t have any idea what the inmate’s name is…he just knows his ID number.  And his main concern is that Dirk isn't carrying any telephone or photography equipment into the prison.  Other than that, he has little interest in the proceedings.

And then Part One of the ceremony:  Joe is warmly welcomed by his mother and his cousin.

Part Two (the one I particularly enjoy!):  Doug Tjapkes holds open the front door of the prison, as this dear man who spent two thirds of his life in prison, takes his first steps into freedom.

Part Three (which even tops Part Two!):  Joe puts down his footlocker containing all of his earthly possessions, and throws his arms around Doug, tears streaming down his face.  The bear hug seems to last forever.  There’s really no rush.  Words of thanks and gratitude and love.

Part Four:  When that hug is completed, Joe’s mother is next in line for a hugging session with Doug.

Part Five:  Joe is eloquent in this thanks to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS for our part in helping him to obtain this parole.  For the past five years we have been communicating, providing materials when necessary, holding his hand during health problems, speaking on his behalf in a Public Hearing, and finally welcoming him into society.  “HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is like the Red Cross for us in there,” says Joe.  “You are there to help when there’s no one else.”

Part Six:  Sweet departure, as Joe and his little family leave Jackson for home, a home-cooked meal, and a good-night’s sleep in a soft bed with lights out and sound turned off.

Said Dirk:  “It was a special day…one I will never forget!”

Back to my opening statement:  It was a religious experience!  No hymns were sung, there was no sermon, the only prayers uttered were silent ones, and the congregation totaled 5. 

Jesus was there.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Til death do us part

I played the organ for the memorial service of a good friend today.  While funeral services can be very sad and heartbreaking, that was not the case in this particular situation.

Jan, her husband, her kids and her grandchildren were all aware that her health was rapidly fading.  Her last days were beautiful because

            she had medical experts who kept her apprised as to what was happening
            she didn’t have to worry about excessive pain, thanks to hospice
            she was blessed to have compassionate professionals taking care of her needs
            she was residing in a warm, pleasant, comfortable atmosphere
            she was surrounded by family right down to her last living moments.

As I heard about this and thought about this during the service this morning, I must confess that my mind began to wander.  Because of my line of work---interacting with Michigan prisoners on a daily basis---my thoughts often drift to the plight of inmates.  Maybe you weren’t aware of this, but they are not much different from you and me and Jan.  They get sick in prison, too.  And while we try to obtain compassionate releases for the terminally ill so that they be afforded the same treatment that Jan received, we often fail.  In that case, they die in prison.  And the conditions just aren’t the same.

-Doctors may refuse to answer their questions, saying that’s not why they get paid.
-Healthcare may choose to deny pain meds if they’re not having a good day.          
-Compassionate professionals might be hard to find.
-The cold and impersonal infirmary isn’t remotely akin to “a comfortable atmosphere.
-It takes special permission to get a bedside visit for the terminally ill.  Ain’t no way that    the dying prisoner is going to be surrounded by family at the final moments of life.

One wife of a dying prisoner, with whom we worked, couldn’t even find her husband for two days just before his death…and no one would tell her!

For the past two years HFP has pressed for three things:  More compassionate releases for the terminally ill, more hospice-type care for those who are not released, and improved family visitation for the dying.

Our continued comments on these subjects, along with the repeated complaints of family members of dying inmates, seem to be falling on deaf ears.  That won’t happen if you get involved and place your suggestions before elected officials.  Do you know the names of your State Representative and your State Senator?  Contact them, as well as the Governor’s office.  

Then join us in a two-pronged prayer, for improvements in the system, and for peace for those who are dying behind bars.

Otto and Joe and Tricia and Fran deserve no less than Jan received.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Father's Day prayer

Father God,

On this special day honoring dads, we remember fathers and grandfathers whose hearts are heavy.

We pray for Mr. E, whose lavish life-style came to an abrupt halt when two evil families plotted a way to get their hands on some of his wealth.  Their little girls would tell stories about his fictitious behavior.  Cops, a prosecutor and a jury all believed their story.  Mr. E doesn’t live in his mansion any more, doesn’t drive any of his fancy cars, and doesn’t eat gourmet meals.  His life behind bars is hell.  And he won’t get any visits today.  His wife of 20 years went looking for someone else who could give her the good life.  And his two daughters, now parents themselves, don’t really want their kids to know anything about “naughty” Grandpa. There are hundreds more like Mr E, nay thousands, and we place their broken hearts before you.

We pray for Mr. B, an angry and an embarrassed father, who’ll be making the long drive to visit his son in prison today…but he’s not happy about it.  He can’t identify with all those tattoos and with long hair in a pony-tail.  In his days kids smoked cigarettes, not pot, and went to the barber shop twice a month.  But deep in his heart, he’s upset with himself.  Did he really have to work so many hours that he didn’t have time to go fishing with the kid, to drive him to little league, to attend the school play when he was the star?  Is it too late to try to communicate with the boy, to tell him he really does love him, to tell him that he really meant no harm?  Would it be too awkward to give him a hug?  There are hundreds more like Mr B, nay thousands, and we place their troubled hearts before you.

We pray for Mr. T, an elderly African American grandfather, who is no longer able to drive and who is hoping he can get a ride to the women’s prison.  His ancestors were slaves, and he still wonders just how much life has improved for some people of color.  His little grand-daughter was born and raised in the ghetto.  She was selling her body for drugs almost before she was out of puberty.  She became a single mom while still in her teens, thinking that she then might have something and somebody to love.  It didn’t work.  But Grandpa T wants to get to prison today to tell her how proud he is about her accomplishments in prison…getting her GED, helping the prison chaplain, playing music and singing hymns in the Sunday services.  It took time, but the prayers of her grandparents were answered.  She has a second chance! There are hundreds more grand-dads like Mr. T, nay thousands, and we place their tender hearts before you.

We offer this prayer on behalf of all fathers and grandfathers in prison, and/or who are parents of kids in prison.  And we do so in the name of your son, whose short but profound life and ministry on this earth now offer hope for an eternal Father’s Day where the celebration will never end and where there’ll be no pain and sorrow.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

The world ain't supposed to be that way!

I’ve never forgotten the quote, although I have forgotten the circumstances.  A preacher was quoting these words, emitted by an African American man, at the scene of a tragic inner city incident…using them as a sermon illustration.  I remember those words, daily, as we hear one sad story after another in the HFP office.  Let me share.

I was on the phone for a lengthy conversation with the elderly mother of an inmate yesterday.  Her son was in good health when he entered prison, but two years ago an accident happened in the weight room.  Another inmate dropped a 45-pound weight on his foot.  X-rays showed no broken bones.  That was two years ago, but the foot kept swelling.  Later the swelling extended up to the knee.  Three surgeries later, the swelling now extends to the groin.  Doctors claim they don’t know what it is, and can do no more.  The inmate must wear what is called a pressure boot to keep his leg from swelling, and he’s on crutches.  The man is penniless.  The elderly parents are on Social Security and have no means to retain expensive lawyers or doctors.  Will the swelling go higher yet?  Everyone can do nothing more than wring hands and pray.  The world ain’t supposed to be that way!

An elderly dude sent a short letter to us:  “I’m an 83 year old man with a bone-crippling disease and they won’t give me any pain medication and they won’t send me to the hospital for help.  I’m in a wheelchair but healthcare won’t allow me to have the chair to go back and forth to the medical line. I am confined to my room because they won’t let me have the chair to move around.  Will you please help me to get to a prison that can help me?”  The world ain’t supposed to be that way!

A Detroit attorney tells how she tried to visit a mentally ill female inmate at the Huron Valley facility in Ypsilanti recently…a visit that had been previously arranged.  She arrived with the inmate’s mother at 4 PM.  At 5:15 they were called into the visiting room where they waited some more.  At 5:30 they were told the inmate refused to visit with them.  The attorney explained to prison officials that the woman didn't have the option to refuse a legal visit because her guardian, who has the power to make such a decision, had determined that she needed this visit.  By that time the word was that the inmate was back in acute care, and there could be no visit.  Said the attorney:  “It’s hard to know what portion of this is intentional and what portion is incompetence.  Regardless, the effect is a complete denial of access to counsel/the courts/family/legal guardian.”  The world ain’t supposed to be that way!

Makes me long for glory.

But for now, major prison reform cannot come soon enough!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A tale of two women

Two women, relatively unknown.  You’ve never heard their names before.  Their incarceration doesn’t make the news.  Their family members have been relatively silent.  To those of us who live in Michigan, Jane and Sally don’t really have names, they’re just a statistic.  They are among an estimated 10-20,000 state prison inmates who are mentally ill. 

I’d like to focus on the predicament the families of these two women are facing, just to give you an idea as to how cruel and inhumane our system is when it comes to handling mentally challenged prisoners.

Jane is 25, Sally is 40, and neither should have gone to prison in the first place.  A system with a heart and with adequate facilities would have admitted them to a psychiatric hospital.  But that’s not the nature of our system, so they’re in prison now, in what is called the acute unit.  And as of today, neither family has any idea as to how they are, or how they’re being treated

Jane’s mother has not been permitted a prison visit since the first of the year.  Can’t talk to her by phone, either.

Sally’s two sisters drove to Ypsilanti all the way from the Upper Peninsula the other day for a prison visit.  It never happened.  The stories were conflicting, but the visit was denied.  They returned to the UP with no idea how Sally is doing.  They’ve received only one letter from her in the past two years, and it was so confusing they learned nothing.

In both cases, families are in the dark and for obvious reasons, they are concerned.

Perhaps these questions are not valid (we have no way of knowing), but the sparse bit of information available certainly prompts them:

Why the secrecy?
Are the women being mistreated?
Is the state trying to keep something quiet?

It isn’t that the families haven’t tried.  They’re trying to make contact with these prisoners.  They’re trying to get medical records.  They’d love to get them out and place them in a psychiatric facility.  But they get no answers.  They continue to try, day after day, but to hear them tell it, they keep running into stone walls. 

If our little agency knows of these two incidents, how many more might there be in our state where more than 40,000 people are in prison, 25-50% of them mentally challenged?

And so a huge challenge to the new Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections focuses on one important word:  COMMUNICATIONS.

Perhaps the care is excellent.  Perhaps the prisoners are in great shape and are being treated with decency and respect.  Perhaps the incarceration is improving their mental state and healing is taking place.  But we have no way of knowing. 

The prisoners deserve better.

Their families deserve better.

Michigan taxpayers deserve better.

There's an old hymn that I love:  Does Jesus Care?  I love the melody, I love the words, and I love it that he really does care.

At least somebody does.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A letter to the Court of Appeals

This is an open letter to the Honorable Michael J. Riordan, the Honorable Pat M. Donofrio, and the Honorable Jane M. Beckering, judges in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Dear Judges Riordan, Donofrio and Beckering,

Did you see us all there last Wednesday?  Did you see all the people in the courtroom for your first one-hour case of the day?  I just wanted you to know that we were not there to support the man from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office…the one who argued that Michigan’s Civil Rights Act’s protection and prohibition of sexual harassment and abuse do not apply to prisoners.  Or, for that matter, to anyone detained in a county jail or on parole.  I heard him inform you that these were the “most dangerous” people in the State of Michigan.

I was the old, gray-haired man sitting in the front row, “over the hill,” some might claim, but feeling that my hundreds of friends behind bars deserved to be represented in that courtroom.  I don’t take my marching orders from someone in an official position like the Attorney General…mine come from an itinerant preacher whose brief ministry on this earth was cut short by a violation of his civil rights. And he didn’t call inmates “dangerous people,” but instead referred to them as “the least of these brothers of mine.”

If you looked out, you certainly would have noticed that I was surrounded by people of all ages, men and women, black and white…a true cross-section of society.  Some had driven rather long distances to Lansing, knowing they would not have an opportunity to speak, but feeling that their presence was important…important because the rights that you were discussing touched the lives of close friends and/or family members.

I am proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS was just one of many agencies and organizations serving and advocating for prisoners in the State of Michigan that were represented in that audience.   We wanted you to know that we were united behind attorney Deborah La Belle as she eloquently argued that the state’s Civil Rights Act and our constitution are for the protection of ALL persons in the state.

I happen to know there was an African American woman there who believes that the civil rights of her daughter, currently incarcerated by the State of Michigan, are being violated.

I happen to know that a mother was there whose mentally-challenged teenager was seriously abused by Michigan prison staff members who obviously believed that people in detention had no civil rights…that these “dangerous” people had forfeited any coverage by the Civil Rights Act and the constitution when they allegedly violated the law.  Her story made the newspapers.  One wonders how the Attorney General might have reacted at these rights been taken away from a member of his family.

We just want you to know our opinion on this matter, that if correctional staff and the Michigan Department of Corrections are free to discriminate people for whom they are responsible---regardless of race, religion, gender, handicap or age---we believe that’s just plain wrong.  We believe in fairness and human rights for ALL Michigan citizens.

From all that I could determine, both in the courtroom and in the animated conversation outside the doors following the session, this group of people was saying with one voice that the opinion of the Michigan Attorney General, Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of corrections, did NOT represent our thoughts.

We hope you noticed this quiet demonstration of solidarity.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

OK, your turn. Prayers, please!

There’s a downside to this business of advocating for the least of these.  A hurting heart.  My heart breaks daily as the stories pour in across our desk.

Just this week---

Mr. M (wrongfully convicted) wrote:   I found out Saturday afternoon that my Mom, who was supposedly coming here to visit last weekend (for my birthday & Memorial Day weekend), was taken via ambulance to a hospital in NY, and then admitted. early last Friday morning. Preliminary blood work shows her tumor-markers to be high for the presence of some form of cancer, but we won't know for sure until test results are revealed.  Would you PLEASE keep my Mom in your prayers, and ask others at HFP and the Christian community to please do the same? I'd so appreciate it. I never really thought, or believed it probable, that I might not see my Mom again on the outside. I'm so close to this being over, and although I still have a ways to go on-paper, for a 72-year old woman, that can seem like an eternity! 

Ms. J (mother of a mentally ill daughter in prison), informed me that even though she has not been allowed to visit or even talk to her daughter for the past 6 months, her pleas for help have been placed on hold once again.

Matt begged us to help.  In order to meet qualifications for parole, the Parole Board has demanded that he take a certain course before release.  But, because he claims innocence, the teacher of the course refuses to keep him in the class.  No course.  No parole! 

Ms. D, wrongly convicted, thanks us and places her trust in the Lord.  How do we tell her that the judicial system and the attorneys who represented her botched things to the point where there no more legal avenues for her to pursue?  Innocent, but still in prison with little hope of ever getting out!

A prisoner pleaded with us to help Mr. I, a 70 year old lifer who has served 49 years, and who is in tears today after hearing that the Parole Board still refused to grant him a parole.  They’ll look at his file again in 5 years!  On that very same day he was informed that his sister had died.

The wife of a prisoner, empathizing with us and our chronic financial woes, asked for our prayers:  …that God will continue to provide for me, so I can give something (however small) to you.  Since 2011 I have lost my job and had to begin again four different times.  I’m trying to keep body healthy enough and pain-free to bear the strain of full-time work, travel, and taking care of house, home and car…no husband to help, either physically or financially.

I’m saddened when I hear that some churches are reluctant to support HFP because of what appears to be a lack of evangelism in our work.  Offering to teach Bible lessons to these people in their time of pain and sorrow is not where we are.  Sometimes all we can do is hold their hands and weep with them.  And ask you to include these children of God in your prayers.

Ours is the method of St. Francis of Assisi:  Preach the gospel every day.  Use words if necessary. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Sorry, no hugs in prison

Last year I and few of my musician friends paid a visit to the campus of the Women's Huron Valley facility, where all female prisoners in Michigan are housed.  We were there to present a gospel concert.  As we walked through the yard I spotted one of my many friends in this facility, ran up to her and started to give her a hug  She jumped back, saying, "You're going to get my ass in trouble!"  No hugs allowed.  I was so pleased, as a follow-up to that experience, to receive this brief essay in the mail.

The following guest column was written by Ms. S.M., a Michigan prisoner and a dear friend: 

I was sentenced to LIFE and 54-81 years in prison.  Did the courts know what they were doing?  I am sentenced now to a lifetime without a hug.  Any physical touching of ANY kid, including a hug, is prohibited by policy. 

When I go to church, the volunteers cannot hug me.  If my mother or father were to die, my friend could not hug me.  If I am having a breakdown of any sort, nobody can reach out and embrace me or comfort me.  How is this good?

I didn’t think so much about it a decade ago when my children were young and my mother brought them to see me every week.  I hurt inside when a volunteer reaches out to embrace me, and I have to say “No hugs…we cannot hug in here.” 

I cannot make a stuffed bear to hug, it is against policy.  I cannot hug my room-mate, it is against policy.  Hugging in the MDOC’s eyes is a form of sexual contact.  I’d like to do research to find out just what happens to a human being who goes through 54 years of no physical contact.  One of my friends just went to her Public Hearing.  She has been down 28 years.  I haven’t seen her go on many visits throughout the years.  I wonder how she will react after so many years of not feeling a human touch?

Oh, what I wouldn’t do to have a hug every day!  A HUG.  What could possibly be wrong with a hug?

So much has been taken from us because of the crimes we committed.  Our families, our homes, our freedom.  We know we did wrong to get here, but is it really helping society to make it worse? 

Recently I witnessed a volunteer not able to come back into this facility because she hugged us.  She didn’t know that doing something that comes naturally to human beings is not allowed to prisoners.  It’s so sad to me that for the next 39 years I cannot have a hug unless I get a visit.  (Fewer than 15% of Michigan prisoners even receive a visit!) But wait, our hugs on our visits are monitored, too.  One time my goodbye took 42 seconds.  I was told that was too long, and if I did it again my visits would be restricted.

What is this doing to us?  Creating robo-prisoners? 

Life and 54 to 81 years without a hug…