All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, January 29, 2016

Stories from Flint and Ypsilanti make me angry!

There’s a definite parallel between the residents of Flint and the residents of the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.  In a nutshell, here’s my view:  Both groups of people are getting crapped on, and the State of Michigan really doesn’t care!  I don’t see how you can reach any other conclusion.

I’m watching report after report from Flint Michigan, where the population of 100,000---mostly poor and mostly black---have been drinking water poisoned with lead for who knows how long.  Turns out the state new about it, did nothing about it, provided clean water for state workers while they assured residents the dirty water was OK for them, until they couldn’t hide it anymore.  Now it’s a national emergency drawing international attention.  Tests this week said corrective efforts aren’t working, and lead content in the water is still at a dangerous level.  Not one furrow has been dug to replace a pipe yet.  But mind you, they're still being billed for water they can't drink!

I can guarandamntee it that if water containing lead was flowing into the Governor’s mansion, crews would be working through the night to replace water mains and pipes!  Right now!  But action like that ain’t gonna happen for poor people of color, many of whom cannot even get transportation to a nearby fire station where they may pick up water or a faucet-filter that might possibly work for low-lead content water.  Only the Lord knows how much permanent damage has been done to 6,000 little kids of the community.  Meanwhile, these people are told that within the next several months things will get better.  Next several months!  In a country where you’d think everyone should be assured of clean drinking water.

Now here’s the parallel.

Those of us working with prisoners have been complaining for the same amount of time about conditions at the only prison for women in the State of Michigan, located in Ypsilanti. 

Natalie Holbrook, gutsy Program Director for the Michigan Chapter of the American Friends Service Committee wrote a detailed letter complaining of overcrowded conditions as early as August, 2013.  That was the year that she also strongly protested the senseless rationing of toilet tissue and sanitary pads, allegedly for budget purposes.

In June, 2014, Humanity for Prisoners and the American Civil Liberties Union were instrumental in bringing the US Department of Justice to Ypsilanti to investigate documented reports of cruelty and abuse to women in the unit housing mentally ill patients.

In 2015, the pressure increased from many of us working with prisoners.  In August we again protested the treatment of the mentally ill.  I personally visited with the new Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections in the autumn to discuss overcrowding.  The headline on our October newsletter screamed:  WOMEN STACKED LIKE CORDWOOD!  In our November newsletter we told the horror story of a young woman who gave birth while incarcerated.  In November and December, Paul Egan of the Detroit Free Press wrote stories about overcrowding.

And now, in January of 2016, HFP joined with 14 other agencies and individuals---all people who really care---to protest the overcrowded conditions.

Overcrowding at WHV isn’t just simply a matter of not quite enough space.  It has gotten so bad that there aren’t sufficient toilets and showers, the use of the dayrooms has been limited to 3 hours a day, some rooms converted into cells don’t have adequate supplies and furnishings, the scheduling for food lines and medicine lines is messed up, visitation is seriously affected, access to phones and programs are a problem.  The list goes on and on.  That’s where these women live.  They have no options.

And you wanna know something?  I see no evidence that anyone is listening!  It looks just like Flint to me.  The only difference is these aren’t poor, low-income people who are living in their homes with bad water; they’re just prisoners.  Neither group has a voice.

And again, if it were the Governor’s daughter in WHV, you can bet something would change.  In a hurry! 

Meanwhile, our Governor, our state administrators, our state legislators, can go home to their nice homes, enjoy clean water, and plenty of space for study and recreation. 

Granted, the Flint problem is a bigger one, and a more dangerous one, and it involves 100,000 people instead of 2,000.  But the similarities are there:  Both issues are being ignored.  And in this beautiful state, where most of us are so blessed, this just is not acceptable!

What are we going to do about it?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Little is much when God is in it

A staff member of a local church was asking about the work of HFP.  Then she asked about the results of our work.  I must confess, I struggle to come up with meaningful answers.  Some days what we do just doesn’t sound like very much.

We like to boast about the big things.

It makes us proud to say that, thanks to our many whistle-blower friends behind bars, we were able to bring the U.S. Department of Justice into Michigan’s prison for women to investigate numerous cases of cruelty and abuse of mentally ill inmates.

We like to point out that we invited then Warden Heidi Washington to participate in an HFP-sponsored seminar on bringing in some type of hospice care for those inmates dying in our state prisons in 2014.  And then, when Ms. Washington was appointed Director of the MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS in 2015, she implemented plans to bring in hospice care for the terminally ill. 

We’re proud to sign our names to documents and projects seeking Parole Board reform, sentencing reform, solving the overcrowding crisis at Huron Valley, preventing juveniles from going into adult prisons, etc., etc. 

But it’s the little things that keep Matt and me busy.  While other agencies quietly grumble about our claim that we’re the only one that helps inmates with many of their in-prison issues, I can assure you that this kind of assistance is uniquely ours.

A guy got assaulted in his prison cell in Muskegon nearly 3 weeks ago, and was transferred to the prison hospital in Jackson.  He arrived there two days after the assault, but his property still isn’t there…and that includes his glasses.  He can’t see!  We’re on it.

A woman struggling with dementia who uses a colostomy bag as a result of botched prison surgery now struggles to get supplies that she desperately needs…instead of giving her new bags, they give her Scotch tape.  We think we got that resolved.

A man with a frightening, rare and serious malady involving his genitalia is suffering from severe persecution by staff, ridicule by peers, and incredible personal embarrassment.  It would be a prisoner’s worst nightmare, and we’re working hard to help him.

A lifer who has already served 28 years is trying to make something of his life, even though he will never get out.  At age 47, he’s attending community college through a special program offered in Jackson.  The source that was covering his tuition for him suddenly dried up, and he has no money.  We’re hooking him up with a caring church, and it looks like this student who boasts a 4.0 grade average will be able to stay in class!

We did our best to get better care for an inmate who died of cancer this month.  His only survivors are two elderly aunts in the Detroit area.  Matt and I are sending out prayer shawls to both women…shawls that were made by women behind bars for this very purpose.  A hand-written Bible verse is attached to each shawl.

A prisoner planning to get married next month needed a copy of his birth certificate, something his bride-to-be cannot help with, because she lives in Australia.  Matt made it happen!

A woman complains that she tries to download music to her player…she gets charged for the music, but her player doesn’t work.  Our solver of electronic problems, Matt, is working with her and she’ll eventually get her music again.

A mentally challenged little boy whom I tried to help when he was 16 and in the adult prison system is now about to face the Parole Board.  He should be freed so that he can get proper care and supervision.  We’re writing a letter of support to the Parole Board.

A prisoner asked his mother to contact us…one of his friends appears to be seriously ill and is withering away before his very eyes.  And he’s obviously not getting proper treatment.  We’re on it.

Speaking of medical problems, the family member of another inmate called Matt so say something is wrong---he has now lost 50 pounds!  He needs medical care.  We’re trying.

A mom called us to say that her son, a young man, is being threatened by gang bangers who want money to protect him.  He’s scared, and has now been placed in segregation for protection.  She doesn’t know who to talk to.

The floodgates opened on these seemingly little issues this month, and the first month of 2016 may be a record-breaker for HFP.

That famous author Anon. once wrote:  Never stop doing things for others.  Sometimes those little things occupy the biggest part of their hearts.

A writer of Proverbs says:  Giving to the poor is like loaning money to the Lord.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Anatomy of a prison obit


December 15, 2015---Message to HFP from the wife of an inmate:

Hi Doug;   I am writing on behalf of someone my husband knows, who is desperately ill.  He has no one on the outside to help him.   Apparently masses have been recently seen on imaging of his liver, kidney and pancreas.  He is getting a biopsy today.   The pain is already so great that my husband had to help him walk. Would you please investigate and be in touch with whomever needs to be contacted to make sure he gets comfort care at least? You know "they" won't even give an aspirin, and with an enlarged liver ibuprofen should be contraindicated I would think; not that any of that is worth a pinhead against liver and pancreatic cancer.  He would appreciate any efforts that bring him the least relief.  I doubt he has much longer - a few months at best.  I had a friend die of pancreatic cancer and it was a tortuous and cruel death, even on the outside. The inmate's name is Adophe Crisp #169329, and he is at Saginaw CF.  Thank you in advance for anything you can do to relieve this man's suffering.

HFP reaches out to the inmate the same day:

Dear Mr. Crisp, I'm sure you do not know me. My name is Doug Tjapkes, and I'm the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. A friend of yours has asked that we try to assist you with some medical issues. We were not able to get a clear picture of your health problems and issues, so I'm wondering if you could please get back to me.  I'm not promising that we can help, but we certainly would like to try. Peace and love, Doug

Inmate replies on the 18th:

Dear Doug:  Thank you for your recent email and interest in my medical problems.  A recent CT scan revealed that there are two tumors on my liver, one tumor on my right kidney and one on my pancreas.  I have been told that the results of a liver biopsy will determine the next course of action in my case.  All help and support you may be able to give me at this will be greatly appreciated.  Sincerely, AC

HFP Response on December 21, 2015:

We’ll do everything we possibly can…just keep us informed.  Warm Christmas wishes!  D

Medical update from the prisoner on 12/23:

Dear Doug:  The biopsy results came back today and was positive for cancer.  But the good news is that I will be seeing a cancer specialist at a Cancer Center in Lansing.  Thus far I’m receiving excellent care and I believe I will get very good treatment at the Cancer Center.  The medical people have been moving very fast on my case.  Thank you very much for anything you may do on my behalf.  Sincerely, AC

Doug quickly responds:
I’m so sorry to hear about the biopsy results but so encouraged to hear that you are getting proper treatment.  Amazing strides have been made in treating cancer.  I’m praying that these newer methods and medicines work in your case!  Peace and love in the new year, D

No news until today---this from the inmate’s wife who first notified us:

Adolphe Crisp passed away.   Thank you for what you did to give him courage and comfort.  God was merciful to end his suffering.

An open bed at Saginaw Correctional Facility.  Broken hearts in the HFP office.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

If Jimmy is a friend, just imagine how Michigan treats its enemies!

My friend Jimmy is a Michigan prisoner.  Ironically, among prisoners, he’s probably one of the state’s best friends.

In 1989 he cooperated with law enforcement officials in the investigation of a bribery with the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Charges were filed, and there were convictions on the state and federal levels, including corrections officials.

Since that time he has continued to provide law enforcement with information leading to numerous arrests for offenses such as auto theft, stolen property, and a multi-million dollar phone fraud scheme with the MDOC.  The information that he has provided has also resulted in the recovery of substantial quantities of narcotics, the arrest of several Detroit area fugitives, and the resolution of a Detroit homicide.

10 years ago he played a key role in the arrest and conviction of a murderer.

One would think that, with all of this wonderful cooperation with the good guys, the State of Michigan would do its best to take care of Jimmy. 

Well, in all fairness, the state did offer to get him re-sentenced so that he might receive credit for time served (now 29 years!), as a thank you for his help in a major criminal case.  But, after they got the conviction they wanted, they backed off on the offer.  Now they can’t seem to remember that they ever made such a promise. 

Worse than that, the state has failed to provide the necessary protection for their witness and informant who is still living in the general prison population.  With all of this baggage, Jimmy has a target on his back.  Over the years we have tried to help.  We were able to pair him up with a fine attorney with a known reputation as a fighter, and he hasn’t disappointed.  But the state wouldn’t budge.

Just a couple years ago, someone tried to poison him.  He became very sick, but he survived. We intensified our efforts.

Recently we assisted in seeking a commutation of his sentence, with a high-powered application.  Attached to the form was a three-page letter from the Assistant Prosecutor who originally tried his case!  He said that he’s never done this before, and he’ll never do it again, but he asked for the Governor’s commutation of Jimmy’s sentence.  Quoting from his letter:  …when one considers all the facts and circumstances of this particular case, i.e.: 

          …the actual circumstances of the sentence offense
          …Mr. J’s age and attitude (he’s now 62)
          …the lengthy period of incarceration already served
          …the ends of justice being served through his cooperation and testimony…
          …the price that he has paid for such cooperation,

that the public good in this extraordinary case would be well served by commutation of Mr. J’s sentence.

No soap.  Our Governor denied the request.  And guess what?  Now he’s in the hospital again.  10 days ago two thugs entered his cell while he was alone, intent on inflicting serious pain.  Before it was all over, Jimmy was slashed above the eye, and as he tried to fend off the attacker, he received cuts of the hand and arm.  He fell during the assault, his back slammed against a bunk, and he suffered possible back injuries.

Once again Jimmy survived…until the next time.

A devout believer, he feels that God is protecting him.

That’s certainly more than the state is doing.  Not a very nice way to treat a special friend!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Flint and Huron Valley offer proof: Michigan just won't listen!

I wrote my first local news story for a radio station in 1954.  I continued to actively cover stories and write news copy here in western Michigan until 1983.  Since then, my writing has been of a freelance nature, but my heart and mind are still in the newsroom.  And I must say this:  Never in my lifetime have I seen a Michigan story as devastating as the ongoing problem in the City of Flint!  I find it utterly shameful, and I believe that it has the capability of bringing down our current Michigan government administrators at the top level, including our Governor. 

Aside from the whole issue of whether Governor Snyder should have gotten into the field of taking over local management of cities and school systems, there’s one thing that is beyond debate:  A REFUSAL TO LISTEN.

In a January 6 editorial, the Detroit News said the public, local politicians, academics and the news media had been reporting on the problem of unfit drinking water in Flint for months!  Said the News:  Flint’s water, drawn from its nearby river on orders from the state, is an unambiguous danger to public health. The fact that it took months — months after Flint was reconnected to the Detroit Water System — for the state to begin taking accountability for missteps engineered on its orders is an indictment that stands on its own.

Now let us get to the problem of Michigan’s only prison for women, located in Ypsilanti.  WHV (Women’s Huron Valley) Correctional Facility is seriously overcrowded. 

A very fine prisoner advocacy agency, the Michigan chapter of the AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE, after compiling pages and pages of hard evidence and personal complaints, drafted a stinging 4-page letter to then Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections Dan Heyns and then WHV Warden Millicent Warren (with copies to the Governor and state legislators) protesting the overcrowding conditions and the plethora of resulting problems.  That was in August, 2014!

Last fall I was granted a private audience with the new MDOC Director, Heidi Washington.  In a one-hour session I again conveyed messages from our women friends behind bars regarding the multitude of problems as a result of overcrowding.

Said the headline on the front page of the HFP newsletter in October, 2015:  WOMEN STACKED LIKE CORDWOOD!  We asked our supporters to forward copies to the Governor’s office and to their state legislators.

In November, Detroit Free Press writer Paul Egan dealt with the issue in depth, in a story with this headline:  State's women inmates housed in offices, TV rooms.

In December, complaints to the HFP office from women behind bars reached a crescendo---45 appeals for help dealing with overcrowding issues!  We put out excerpts of their messages via email and Facebook, again urging our supporters to contact the state.

Also in December, Freep writer Egan revisited the overcrowding problem with another piece: MDOC restricts access to day rooms at women's prison.

No noticeable response.

It appears that the Governor and Michigan’s top dogs hear only what they want to hear, whether the issue is lead-poisoning or overcrowding.  The Detroit News calls it “official callous disregard for delivering basic governmental responsibilities to the people who pay the bills.”  Call it what you wish, but we call it totally unacceptable!

The children in Flint deserve better.

Our women behind bars deserve better.

You and I, as Michigan tax payers, deserve better.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A plumber just didn't like to see women treated this way!

It’s no secret that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has been going to bat for incarcerated women in Michigan for years.  There are approximately 2,300 women in prison, all housed on one campus.  In June, 2014, HFP’s file on alleged cruelty to mentally ill women became so full that we filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.   Last fall, complaints to our office from women regarding overcrowding issues reached such a crescendo that our October monthly newsletter headline shouted:  WOMEN STACKED LIKE CORDWOOD!  This week, we learned of a plumber who had worked at Huron Valley for the past four years who transferred out of there because he couldn’t take it anymore.  I caught up with him by telephone yesterday, and here’s his story.

I’m a taxpayer.  This has to stop!

“I saw the story in the Detroit Free Press where the Director said Huron Valley wasn’t overcrowded, and laughed like hell!”  So says Charley Johnson, of Taylor, Michigan, who until December 9 was working as a maintenance man in Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.  He said that he and his co-workers saw the problems with overcrowding on a daily basis.

For the past several years inmates have been complaining about overcrowded conditions, which, they claim, led to the state’s new policy on restricting day room use to 3 hours a day.  Officials from the Michigan Department of Corrections denied this, however, telling HFP:  The purpose of the schedule is to address a growing problem with certain prisoners and groups of prisoners seeking to control the dayrooms and limiting access to other prisoners based on capacity. … we had begun hearing complaints from prisoners that certain prisoners or groups of prisoners were essentially controlling the kiosks and only allowing their use in exchange for favors or payment.  We are seeking to break that form of intimidation/extortion to protect the population. 

Johnson left his plumbing job at WHV last month, but is still employed by the State of Michigan. He told HFP’s Doug Tjapkes that he found conditions intolerable there.  His description of how the women are being treated:  “Absolutely terrible.” 

“The Director came to visit the facility right after the Detroit Free Press story,” said Johnson.  But she didn’t get to see the real problem areas, the rooms that formerly serviced as offices now converted to cells.  “As she toured the facility, officers called ahead so that they could close the doors to those rooms so she wouldn’t see them.”  Asked if he knew this as absolute fact, Johnson stated he actually witnessed this happening. 

Johnson, a master plumber, has legitimate credentials.  He owned his own business for 20 years, and he currently serves on the Taylor City Council.  He’s a man who dares to speak his piece, at one time even initiating a recall effort against the Mayor of his city.

He said that he witnessed mistreatment of prisoners first hand, because he was assigned to supervise some inmates who would assist in maintenance.  “I wouldn’t talk to my worst enemy the way they talk to these women.  I’m a tax payer,” said Johnson, “and what I saw was sickening.  75% of these female officers treat the inmates just terrible.  It’s got to stop!”

From the mouth of a state worker who sat in the front row at the WHV stage for four years.