All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Some days it's not much fun in this office!

We promise to try to help any Michigan prisoner dealing with an in-prison problem.  If we can.  And that’s a big “if.”  Today Matt and I haven’t been much help.

A prisoner tells us by email that a car ran over him before he went to prison.  Says the inmate:  I haven't gotten any therapy or anything, they just gave me a booklet of things I should do. I got a limp, my ankles hurt, and swell up. They won't give me a shoe detail or anything. I've ask them to give me some shoes but they deny me for everything.  We checked with one of our doctors regarding the injury.  Nothing more that can or should be done.  We checked with a former MDOC official regarding the procedure:  Shoes aren’t all that great.  He should carefully read that booklet.

Another inmate tells us about the transfer of prisoners from an Upper Peninsula facility that was recently closed, to a recently re-opened unit just down the street.  There is fiberglass insulation shoved in the ventilation, the toilets are constantly flooding, there aren't any shelves in the lockers, they have household size washer n dryer for 160 people, they are violating fire codes in the chow hall in regards the maximum occupancy, there are carpets in the rooms with no vacuum cleaners, there was a unit that went 3 days without hot water, visiting room only holds 16 people, the vents in the bathroom leak on you when you are using the toilet.  Our best resource is a former MDOC official.  Her response:  “I know when they open a new place there are problems like these.  …The issues you get are the draining ones for everyone…if they care.”

A prisoner has an urgent legal matter and is willing to pay an attorney to help.  He claims that he and his family have spent $350,000 on lawyers and court costs so far, but he’s still behind bars.  He claims that he has one avenue of appeal left.  Turns out he doesn’t.  Says one of the state’s leading legal experts on appeals:  “Mr. Sanders wants a second bite of the 6.500 apple, but he only gets one.  The only exceptions are when ‘a retroactive change in law occurred after the first motion from relief from judgment or a claim of new evidence that was not discovered before the first such motion.’  Michigan Court Rule (MCR) 6.502(G)(2).  He can't meet that hurdle.  He is procedurally out of luck.”

And then the final sour blow of this day.  A distraught mother of a Michigan inmate called in tears.  Her son, who had served 18 years for his crime, was due to be released this morning.  He had served the minimum term of his sentence, he was a model prisoner and was in a Level One facility.  Yesterday he packed up his belongings, and he gave away all his personal hygiene products.  A friend was driving from Battle Creek way up to Marquette to pick him up.  At 5:30 PM yesterday a prison staff member apologized to him, saying he wasn’t going anywhere.  The Parole Board had miscalculated the time he should have served…he would have to stay for another 18 months!  The inmate’s driver was just about to Mackinaw City when she was called by the prison.  In tears, she turned her car around.  The elderly parents, in their 70s and in poor health, are devastated.  And we were unable to do any good.  We didn’t protest the miscalculation so much as the timing.  His mother asked Michigan Parole Board officials if they didn’t know about this before 5:30 yesterday afternoon.  She related this reply:  “They said they didn't, in fact they said they have released people before and went back and picked them up again!  Because they have people looking the records over for them.”  And people wonder why we’re clamoring for Parole Board reform!

On a day like today it feels like all we’re doing is spinning our wheels.  We don’t seem to be helping anyone.  The only answers we’re giving our friends behind bars are in the negative.  I’m sad when we just can’t give more encouragement.

But then there’s a little daylight.

From one inmate:  "I just talked to the counselor…he looked on his computer for me to see if I have a parole. Well, I do! I have a projected out date of December 8th.  Again, Doug, I thank you and Matt very much for all of your help, coming out for the Parole Board hearing, and especially your prayers. You are very much appreciated."

And from a little church in a small Michigan community where Matt and I recently made a presentation came this message today:  “I am connecting you with the Chair of our Church and Society Committee.  Her committee has decided to support Humanity for Prisoners with a donation.” God us good!

Another day in the HFP office. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On MAURICE HENRY CARTER DAY, the key word is “frustration!”

That single word perhaps best summarizes our battle to obtain Maurice’s freedom.

Here are some things that topped our frustration list.

His defense attorney
The prosecutor
The judge
The judicial system in general
The community
The public
The Parole Board
The Governor
The prison staff
Prison medical care, or lack thereof
The slowness of speed for the wheels of justice.  (Quoting Maurice:  When my case came along, the wheels of justice ground to a halt!).

My involvement began after he had already served nearly 20 years.  Convinced that I could make a difference, and in a hurry, I soon learned otherwise.  Here’s just a short list of additional things that frustrated me.

The lack of interest
The lack of support
The generally negative feeling toward prisoners, even, and perhaps especially, among Christians
The reaction of many of my own friends (I wish Doug would quit saying the man is innocent!)
The common perception that all prisoners say they’re not guilty
The common perception that “if they hadn’t done the crime they wouldn’t be doing the time.”

Through all of this, however, we formed the organization now known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, with a full-time staff of two and a list of volunteers in a variety of professions that now numbers 50.  Together Matt and I respond to 150 to 200 contacts a month from Michigan prisoners, hoping to show some concern, some humanity, some compassion, to those behind bars…and averaging one new prisoner a day!

And guest what!  We have exactly the same frustrations!  The list remains unchanged.

Despite all of the frustrations, Maurice Carter remained upbeat, optimistic, and forever kind and forgiving.  He’s our model.  So we continue our work in that same upbeat tempo, forever optimistic, and doing our best to be kind and compassionate to the “least of these” in the name of Jesus.

I love the story of the little girl on the seashore who was tossing stranded starfish back into the water as the tide was going out.  An older man watched for a few minutes, and then said:  “Little girl, don’t you know that this beach goes on for miles?  Millions of starfish are stuck on this sand.  You can’t possibly make a difference.”

The child was silent for a moment.  She walked over to a starfish, tossed it back into the ocean and said quietly, “Made a difference for that one!”

That’s the HFP story.

Touching lives.  One at a time.  Thanks to the vision of Maurice Carter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

This is why I shed tears

I was sitting in the front row. 

Some 100 people had gathered in the meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing.  Michigan State University Drama Professor Lisa Biggs had put together a group of actors from the university, the church and the community, in order to present a stage reading of some excerpts from JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.  This is the powerful and moving drama, written by award-winning Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne, which tells the story of my friendship with Maurice.  For those few who may still not be aware of his plight, Maurice served 29 years in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit. 

This was not the first time I had heard parts of the play.  Marcia and I were privileged to hear the first reading in a small room on the second floor of a Toronto theatre in 2008.  Since that time we have heard actors telling the Maurice Carter story in many venues.  Perhaps the most meaningful was a stage reading inside the prison walls of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon.  A group of thespians in an organization called Shakespeare Behind Bars worked for a year on the production before presenting it to a small audience, including Marcia, me, some of our Board members and some special friends.

Sorry I’m getting so wordy here, but I just wanted to explain that the East Lansing experience last Sunday wasn’t my first rodeo.

It was near the conclusion when something most unexpected occurred:  I started weeping.  I was listening to the lines about Maurice Carter eventually being freed on a compassionate release because he was terminally ill.  He was enjoying his freedom.  He met his mother outside of prison for the first time in nearly 30 years.  He was savoring the taste of a real hamburger, prepared on an open grille.  I didn’t realize the tears were flowing until I touched my face.  My cheeks were wet.  What the…!!!  I’d heard these lines many times before.  What was the big deal?

And I’ve been thinking about it since then.

I’m deciding that it wasn’t just the memory of that glorious day, that wondrous event.  It wasn’t just the fine presentation by this group of non-professional actors.  It was the bigger picture that was getting to me.  You see, since that day I’ve been working with prisoners around the clock, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  I’ve discovered that my previous two occupations were merely preparation by God for this calling. 

These are the things that make me weep:

Wrongful convictions are still a ho-hum way of life in our country, unless you happen to be the victim, or the family member of the victim, or the loved one of the victim.

It is still no easier to overturn a wrongful conviction!  Witness the huge case backlogs of every Innocence Project in the United States.

The factors that placed Maurice Carter behind bars are still high on the list of WC causes:  jail-house snitches, faulty eye-witness testimony, tunnel-vision police work and prosecutorial misconduct.

There is no let-up in the inhumane treatment of prisoners!  The lack of appropriate medical care that led to the death of Maurice is still evident in every prison system. 

It is still far too easy to get in, and far too difficult to get out!  Prosecutors continue to refuse re-opening old cases.  Judges continue to reject legitimate appeals.  Parole Boards continue to demand confessions and demonstrations of remorse, and inmates refuse to meet those demands because they’re not guilty.

The list goes on and on.

It makes me weep, and I think it makes Jesus weep.

It should make you weep, also.

Friday, October 16, 2015

No quick explanation

“I need some specifics as to just what you do.”

The words of an employee of the Michigan Department of Corrections.  He attended a public performance in East Lansing last night.  A nice cast made of up Michigan State University students, members of the nearby Unitarian Church and some other local residents were on stage and had presented some excerpts from the powerful play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.  I went on the stage following the performance to answer questions.

The story of my ten year fight at the side of the late Maurice Carter, hoping to seek his release from prison, usually generates questions on police work and the judicial system.  People are justifiably alarmed when they hear that a man served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.  And that leads to the assumption that if it happened to one, it probably happened to many more.

But back to the question.

I had been asked by Professor Lisa Biggs, who produced the performance, to briefly explain the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, which emerged from that experience. I love to tell our story, because I’m so proud of the things that Matt and I try to accomplish each day, I’m so proud of our active and aware board members, and I’m so proud of the 50 professionals who daily serve as advisers in our action with compassion.  But it’s very difficult to be specific. For example, how do I explain exactly what we do in cases like these:

-a prisoner with no teeth has been told he must wait two years for dentures
-there aren’t enough disinfectants and cleaning supplies for showers in the women’s facility and they’re really getting nasty
-a woman with a leaky colostomy bag was refused a replacement and told to just use some Scotch tape
-a guy in one facility has been threatened by gang members, and is so afraid he doesn’t dare leave his cell
-an inmate with a broken tooth cannot get it pulled…in fact, can’t even get something for pain
-a male prison guard decides he must remain in the hospital delivery room as a female prisoner changes clothes and receives pre-birth procedures
-the family of a prisoner with a growing brain tumor seeks his early release just to get appropriate surgery
-due to overcrowding, some women are not able to get their necessary meds in a timely manner?

I know that I didn’t answer the question to his satisfaction.  I’m not a quick thinker on my feet, and didn’t list all of these types of issues.  Not only that.  I sensed a defensive feeling on behalf of this MDOC rep, who very obviously felt that he and his people were trying to do the right thing, but also a bit of annoyance with us...with me.

I can only point out that we’re not the adversary here.  His side and our side want the same thing, don’t we?  Appropriate and humane care for our inmates must be our goal.

We’re not pointing fingers, but we're not the ones to blame, either.

After hearing these and the hundreds of stories that flood our office, one could respond by saying, “If the shoe fits…”.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

I think she caught the drift

I was standing before a group of high school seniors, doing my best in trying to explain how we treat prisoners, and why.  I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to a young girl sitting in the front row.  Our eyes would connect for a minute.  Then she’d drift off.  Was I so boring she was falling asleep?  One never knows when trying to communicate with teens.

But then it was time for questions and answers.

From that young lady in the front row, as she thought back on my account of the Maurice Carter story which led me into this business:  “What was the connecting factor?  Why did you keep on going?  When you thought you had done everything you could for Maurice, why not just quit?”  My answer:  “Because something happened that I had not planned on…we became dear friends, and that changes everything.  You can’t just explain to a very close friend that you’re sorry, and you’re going to stop helping now.”

She seemed to understand.

And moments later, two related questions.  Number one:  “Do you believe that some people belong in prison?”  A quick response:  “Yes, of course.”  And then the heavy punch:  “For those people who really belong in prison, the persons who committed bad crimes, do you just tell them, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to help you?”  And my response was just as quick:  “No.  What we must remember is that incarceration is the punishment.  We have no right to inflict additional punishment.  If, for example, a prison doctor were to say to the inmate, ‘I’m not going to give you medication for your pain because of the nature of your crime…you’ll just have to suffer,’ we would go to bat for him or her.  If a prisoner, no matter how vile the misdeed, is being treated cruelly, we’ll extend compassion.”

This was a public school setting, so I couldn’t expound as I might when speaking to a church group.  The answers that I gave her were not only the philosophy of HFP.  They’re the heart of the gospel.  This is what Jesus did for Matt and me.  This is why we do what we do!

She smiled.

I think she got it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An open letter to women in Michigan prisons

There are about 43,000 people in Michigan’s state prison system.  This does not include people who are incarcerated in county jails, nor does it include those persons in federal prison facilities.  Of this 43,000, approximately 2,200 are women.  They are all housed in several buildings on one campus called Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in the city of Ypsilanti.  HFP has received and is still receiving a constant flow of complaints related to overflowing problems.  In response to these letters, telephone calls and email messages from both inmates and their loved ones, President Doug Tjapkes asked for and was granted a private audience with the new Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington.  Following the meeting, he penned this letter to the women at Huron Valley.  If you have a friend, relative or loved one at WHV, you are welcome to share this letter.

My dear friends at WHV,

For months we have been hearing your cries for help, your pleas for understanding, your simple requests for relief due to overcrowding issues.  As a result of this deluge of messages that arrived by mail, email and telephone, I requested a meeting with the new director of the MDOC, Heidi Washington.  I know that many of you had hoped that she would have been granted the Warden position at WHV.  I know that many of you had hoped to see miracles at WHV the moment she took office as Director.  In my opinion, she’ll be far more effective in this position.  And my simple advice is to give her a little time.

In preparation for the meeting, I felt totally inadequate to be raising your complaints. I would be voicing the issue as a man, totally unfamiliar with your environment, your issues, and your uniquely feminine needs and problems.  And so I decided that Ms. Washington should hear your voices.  I searched through the many pieces of communication, captured your words on print, and gave them to the Director as well as reading them to her.

On overcrowded conditions, she heard you say, In this 4-man unit there is no window, no desk, no chair, no trash can, no door-mirror or bulletin board.  It’s infested with ants.  Water runs down the wall when it rains, over an electrical outlet.

On inmate activities, she heard you say, I counted the chairs to sit in…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.

On delayed meals, she heard you say, 4 PM count, and still have not been down to lunch.  We’ll be having dinner at midnight!

On long visitation delays, she heard you say, Last Thursday in the visiting room 2 inmates were refused to use the restroom, resulting in them urinating on themselves.  There is several hours in between the inmates’ visitors leaving and the inmates being searched before they can return to their housing units.

On lack of programming availability, she heard you say, I am unable to get my recommended programming on time so that I can get out on my early release date, due to overcrowding.

My time was limited, so I couldn’t cover every problem, every issue.  But I want you to know that she heard you, not me!

And then came the reassuring words that I know you long to hear from the person at the top.

Re WHV:  That facility, and the women at WHV, have a very special place in my heart!

Re these complaints:  If they are legitimate, this is outrageous!

Re future action:  I’m overdue for a visit there.  It’s time that I get over there!

I’m writing this letter because I don’t want you to feel alone or unnoticed.

Matt and I, and our host of professional volunteers, are not magicians and we have no magic wand that will instantly solve your problems.  But we’re trying, and this was a huge step forward!

The Director is new on the job.  She’s savvy.  She has grit.  We think you’re going to see and feel change, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

Meanwhile, I’m convinced you are in her thoughts.

I know that you are in my prayers.

Even though hugs are not allowed on your property, here’s one by mail!

In Christ’s love,

Doug Tjapkes, President

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wrongful Conviction----It can happen to you!

It was a wrongful conviction case that got me into this business.  Radio broadcasting, my first and greatest love, was luring me back after a 20-year hiatus.  But then I met Maurice Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, sitting in a Michigan prison and claiming innocence.  That was in 1995.  The rest is history.

Until that time, naïve newsman that I was, I felt that prosecutors just wouldn’t get a warrant, an arrest and seek a conviction if they didn’t really have a case.  Little did I know. 

Today is Wrongful Conviction Day, being observed on an international basis.  The event was first organized by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (that’s the Canadian way to spell defense), based in Toronto and founded by former welterweight champ Rubin Hurricane Carter.  I frequently hear people say that all prisoners claim they are innocent.  Rubin Hurricane, on the other hand, told me when he was in Michigan drawing attention to the Maurice Carter case:  “When you hear a prisoner say he’s innocent, and he sticks with that story the whole time he’s in prison, you’d better listen!” 

Since that time, I have listened.  And I want to tell you something, as we observe this special day.  We hear the stories like those of Maurice Carter, and somehow we get the impression that it’s usually the poor, black people who usually wind up wrongly convicted…they have no funds for proper legal representation and they encounter racial bias among jurists and jurors.  While some of that is definitely true, the bigger truth is IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

I can tell you horror stories of wrongful convictions of a doctor, a lawyer, a cop, a banker, a businessman, a teacher…all of them white, and all of them with the means to hire good legal representation.  Yet, each of these people found themselves behind bars for a decade before adequate proof was established that they had done nothing wrong!  In a couple of cases, the innocent inmate died without exoneration.

There’s a special way that you can observe this day in Michigan.  Your state legislature is currently considering a bill that would compensate people who have been wrongly convicted.  You can make sure that your legislator votes for this bill, and you can keep an eye on Pure Michigan to ensure that these victims of wrongful conviction are promptly compensated without years and years of red tape wrangling.

Aside from that, join me in a prayer today for justice in our system, especially for those wrongly incarcerated.

Quoting the writer of Proverbs:  It is not good…to deprive the innocent of justice.