All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Maurice Carter's birthday has anything changed?

Maurice Carter would be 72 years of age today.  Thanks to the State of Michigan, his life was cut short.  We lost him in the autumn of 2004, after only 3 months of freedom.  Maurice had served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, almost one half of his entire life here on earth.

Yesterday, one day before Maurice’s birthday, I spoke to a group of high school seniors in Grand Haven.  As we neared the end of the hour, one beautiful young woman who was completely getting the picture asked me, “After 15 years of working with the system, do you see any improvement?”  The question caught me a bit off guard.  That’s not one that I’m used to hearing.  And my answer reflected that…I stumbled and bumbled.  As I recall, I think that I answered that I haven’t seen much improvement, but that I was cautiously optimistic.

I’m wondering what change Maurice would see if he were sitting beside me this morning.

I don’t think the number of wrongful convictions has changed.  It’s still happening.  What has changed is our awareness of them, and our concentration on reversing them.  But, having said that, here are the things that unfairly put Maurice away and unfairly kept him behind bars.

Tunnel vision.  Once police decided that Maurice Carter was the perpetrator of a crime in Benton Harbor during the Christmas season of 1973, they didn’t look any further.  It took two years to make the arrest, but that, in their mind, closed the case.  Never mind the facts. Police and prosecutors are still afflicted with this disease today. 

Jailhouse snitch.  An actual acquaintance of Maurice was the person who brought about the arrest.  Wilbur Gillespie, in jail and facing serious drug charges, was promised a deal if he fabricated a story and signed a statement implicating his buddy Maurice.  Even though he recanted later, the damage was done.  Prosecutors seem to be more careful in the use of jailhouse snitches now, but it’s still happening.

Faulty eyewitness identification.  Testimony by eyewitnesses at one time was seen as the most effective way to convict a defendant.  Finally, that is changing, thanks to the efforts of some nationally-known experts on the subject, and public programs by people like our dear friends Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, authors of the book PICKING COTTON.

Ineffective counsel.  The court-appointed attorney for Maurice had a terrible reputation.  The court was well aware of that when James Jesse was appointed to represent this indigent black man from Gary, Indiana.  Who cared?  I was told last week that this is changing.  A member of the Governor’s Commission on Indigent Defense tells me that new recommendations for improvement are imminent.  Thank God!

Parole Board power.  Michigan’s Parole Board effectively kept Maurice in prison far beyond the number of years he should have served on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder.  At that time, the Chairman of the Board was a former sheriff of Berrien County.  And, the victim of the crime for which Maurice had been charged, had become the chief investigator for the Berrien County Prosecutor.  The Prosecutor’s Office can and did strongly protest any possible parole.  Michigan’s current 10-member board still has far too much power, and controls the destiny of far too many prisoners.  The system is crying for Parole Board reform.

Inadequate prison health care.  Maurice had contracted Hepatitis C while not taking sanitary precautions as he worked with ailing geriatric patients in prison.  He was diagnosed with Hep C back in 1995, but nobody bothered to tell him…presumably because then they’d had to treat him.  He didn’t learn that he had the disease until he collapsed in his cell in 2003.  By then, it his Hepatitis C/end stage, and only a liver transplant could save his life.  Our office continues to hear prison healthcare horror stories.

To answer the student’s question, I think change is coming.  It’s going to happen very slowly, because we’re dealing with a huge system.  But thanks, in part, to this organization---formed and based on the dream of Maurice Carter---there is increased public awareness, and the more people know, the more we can expect eventual change.

On that bright note, I wish you Happy Birthday, my brother Maurice!


We’ll meet again.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter---a special day for prisoners!

Criminals and criminal activity make us angry!

Even those of us with strong views against capital punishment entertain second thoughts on the subject when we hear or read of heinous crimes.  Just when you think you’ve heard it all, mankind seems to devise new and more dreadful ways to torture, maim and kill fellow human beings.  Some days revenge sounds pretty good to us, even those of us who claim to follow the risen Christ.

Sometime that anger even rears its ugly head against those of us who work with criminals…again, even among those of the Christian faith.  It is not uncommon for us to hear that prisoners do not deserve humane treatment.  Those opinions will be expressed with the question, “How humanely did the criminal treat his/her victims?”  The rationale seems to be that the person who commits an inhumane crime deserves inhumane treatment while incarcerated.

I was invited to discuss my book SWEET FREEDOM with members of a Christian book club that included some distinguished members, including a seminary professor.  For those who are unfamiliar with my story, I joined hands with a wrongly convicted prisoner in a 9-year battle for his freedom.  Even though the system wouldn’t budge, we knew---and we even proved---that Maurice Carter was innocent.  He served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, and was never exonerated.  He was granted a compassionate release due to a terminal illness.  He enjoyed only three months of freedom.  The book tells our story.

I felt like I was in enemy territory among this group of fellow believers, who challenged our belief in his innocence at every turn.  One woman was so angry about the book or me or the story that she refused to speak, and stared straight ahead through the entire session!  Crime, even when it’s wrongly perceived, can make us very angry.

When HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS lost its office space in downtown Muskegon many years ago, my immediate thought was to try to persuade one of the major downtown churches to give us a small room.  We didn’t need much space, and we considered our work to be a ministry.  The work of the church and our work with prisoners seemed like a good fit to me, as I made my presentation to the church’s Board of Trustees.  But that wasn’t the feeling of one board member, who viewed our entire philosophy as being soft on crime and supportive of people who were behind bars for a reason and who deserved every bit of punishment they were getting.  Our work, as he perceived it, made him angry.  I left with my tail between my legs.

Contrast these thoughts of some of Jesus’ followers with his final words and deeds on the cross.

It boggles the mind to think that this young man, in the throes of pain and anguish that we cannot begin to imagine, took a moment to be kind to a thug… and not a wrongly convicted criminal like our Lord.  This guy admitted to his crime, and admitted that he deserved crucifixion.  Dr. Luke tells us that the man, one of two criminals flanking our savior on crosses, turned to Jesus and in his final moments quietly asked him to remember him when he came into his kingdom.  And I can only imagine that Jesus was grimacing in the physical pain of this most cruel type of execution, the emotional pain of abandonment by family, friends and religious leaders, and that his voice was weak from exhaustion.  Yet, he managed to issue these words of kindness, gentleness and compassion:  I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

What a message to the people with whom I work and chat on a daily basis…people who one corrections official referred to as “the worst of the worst.” 

I like the words to the old Gaither hymn, “The cross made the difference for me.”

It made the difference for weeping and hurting parents and grandparents and spouses and children and siblings of prisoners.  It made the difference to those who are angry, wounded, lonely and abandoned, yea, to ALL people behind bars.  It made the difference to the mentally ill who landed in cells instead of proper institutions of care.  It made the difference for those like Maurice who became terminally ill in prison, including many who never got out.

The author of Revelation promises that, because of today, God will wipe away every tear.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Score one for religious freedom!

It happens so often.  A problem is perceived, and as a result, a new rule is created.  We have a feeling that’s what happened in Michigan’s prison for women, located in Ypsilanti.

According to our sources in the Michigan Department of Corrections, the prison warden wanted to make sure that the dayrooms, where prisoners gather during down times, weren’t used for religious services which, under a specific corrections policy, are to be held in specific areas in the prison.  And so a rule was created, and this is the exact wording:

6.  All religious studies must be done in your cell or at specified times in programs.

Armed with that new rule, Corrections Officers began immediate enforcement.  One of our friends immediately contacted the HFP office:  “We can no longer do Bible studies outside our cell.  We cannot bring our Bibles into the dayroom and read them, discussing with our fellow believers.  We can only wait for church services once a week, or read them in our rooms.  For example, if I do not understand something while reading the Bible and I want to talk to my friend about it, it is against the rules, and I will get a ticket if I do so.”

We have learned to check out reports like this. We don’t want to respond to the prisoner’s complaint until we know it is valid, and we don’t want to spread unfounded rumors.  Sometimes prisoners are mistaken, or Corrections Officers exaggerate.  Not so this time.

HFP went right to the top, checking in with one of our excellent and reasonable contacts in the front office of the MDOC in Lansing.  An administrative aide confirmed the new rule, but added, “…the intent was never to prevent prisoners from carrying their Bible to the dayroom or discussing religious matters with a fellow prisoner.”  Then came the important final words:  “To avoid confusion, the rule will be rescinded.”

Score one for religious freedom!  This affects not only Christians, but adherents of all faiths---Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Native Americans.  And if this policy is firm in Lansing, it means that similar rules will not crop up in other Michigan prisons.

HFP---just doing its job!

Friday, March 11, 2016

On prayers for prisoners, old and new

How people loved to hear Old George pray!

The church was different in those days.  Prayer language was a lot like the King James Version of the Bible, with lots of “thees” and “thous.”  We didn’t have praise bands and happy music.  Smiling and laughing were not appropriate.  The sanctuary was quiet as one entered.  Organ prelude music was funereal.  Frowning elders and deacons occupied the two front rows to make sure the sermon was in keeping with our doctrine.  I’m not arguing that this was good or bad.  I’m simply saying that things aren’t that way in many churches today.

Old George was a perfect fit for that type of church.  Whether in a consistory meeting, a congregational meeting, or some other type of church meeting, it was always a good idea to call on him to offer the prayer.  It would be just the right length, it would cover all necessary topics, the cadence and tonal fluctuation of his voice was not unlike the musical offering of a competent and intense church organist, and the spiritual language would certainly rank high in a listing of history’s most famous and most popular religious clichés.  People loved those prayers.

I must point out that I’m not ridiculing the prayers of Old George.  This topic entered my mind yesterday as Matt and I prepared for the quarterly meeting of the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS Board of Directors.  I’m an old man now…much older than Old George was when he was offering those colorful masterpieces to the almighty, and since getting involved in this prison business, prayer has taken on a whole new meaning for me.  Flowery clichés don’t work.  In fact, sometimes I can’t even think of the right words.  Sometimes God just has to interpret my painful silence as a message on behalf of a struggling man or woman behind bars.  One thing I know:  God listens, whether it’s me or Old George, whether there are words or just sighs.

Our practice is to open each business meeting with a prayer, and we’re blessed to have Fr. Jared Cramer, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, as a board member.  As the directors gathered to discuss our work with prisoners I was reminded that this was the very week of World Day of Prayer.  I saw Fr. Jared open the Book of Common Prayer, not something we ever had or used in the Dutch church:  37. For Prisons and Correctional Institutions, Rite Two.  Can a prayer already written out and used for centuries possibly match the petitions of Old George?  Can something that old deal with something this new and fresh and demanding in today’s HFP agenda?

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen. 
Amen and Amen!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Jimmy has a target on his back! Does anybody care?

My friend Jimmy has a bulls-eye on his back.  And it’s his own fault!

Jimmy is one of the most unusual prisoners I’ve met.  He sees it as his Christian duty to help the government, even though he’s been in prison for the past 30 years.  His sentence, one of those amazingly unfair determinations by a judge:  50 to 200 years!

I’ve written about this before, but let me review this story with you again.

In 1989 he cooperated with law enforcement officials in a bribery investigation within the prison system actually involving a deputy warden.  As a result of this daring activity, both state and federal convictions were obtained!  As you can well imagine, his life wasn’t worth much after that.  He was an enemy to both prisoners and corrections officers.

But that didn’t stop him.

In years following that, he continued to provide law enforcement with information leading to many arrests, on charges like auto theft, stolen property, and a multi-million dollar phone fraud scheme with the MDOC.  Thanks to Jimmy’s work, I’m told there was recovery of a substantial amount of narcotics.  Besides that, several Detroit area fugitives were nabbed and a Detroit homicide was solved!

Jimmy has never asked for anything in return.  He believed this was his duty, as a Christian and as a concerned citizen.  He had messed up once in his life.  Now he was going to pay back to society, even though he might never get out.

Things changed, however, in 2006, when he again helped authorities in a murder case.  This time, even though he didn’t ask for it, the state assured him that they would do their best to get him resentenced, so that he could look forward to eventual freedom.  He did his part.  Thanks to him, the state got a conviction on first degree murder.  But then, Pure Michigan reneged.  “Nah, I don’t think so.”  Hicks could just remain behind bars.  They got what they wanted.

There are a couple of obvious problems here.  The most serious one is that Hicks has a target on his back.  He is disliked by inmates and staff.  Several years ago someone tried to poison him by dropping poison into his cappuccino.  Earlier this year, two thugs entered his cell and slashed him up pretty good.  He required a lot of stitches, and he injured his back when he fell to the floor.  By this time we had paired up Jimmy with a great criminal defense attorney, who has been working his hardest to get more protection, and better yet, to obtain a commutation of his sentence so he can live in safer environment.  All to no avail.

The other problem is apparent lack of protection.  For all he’s done, the state should be watching out for him.  It ain’t happening.  This week Jimmy was assaulted again!  Not seriously injured this time, but fearing for his life, and obviously not being very well protected.

We have been in communication with the very Prosecutor who put Jimmy away (now retired), and, if you can believe this, he wrote a three-page letter to the Michigan Parole Board seeking Jimmy’s freedom!

No soap.

What’s it going to take to get the state’s attention?


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Wish we had Solomon!

Solomon doesn’t work in our office.  We don’t have his expertise to fall back on.  The author of First Kings tells us that “all Israel” held King Solomon in awe, because he had the “wisdom of God” to make decisions. 

We don’t have two women fighting over a baby, but we do have a prisoner wanting to say goodbye to her dying father.  We have an elderly mother who saw the system work against people of her race, and is convinced that her son has most of his life behind bars for a crime that someone else committed.  We have an old duffer who died in prison and who was brought back to life, and who now should be out, but who remains behind bars because our Parole Board thinks he might be a threat to society!

That’s why we not only ask for dollars, we ask for prayers.  We’re not asking for general prayers for sentencing reform, or Parole Board reform, or justice for the wrongly convicted (although those prayers are important also).  We’re asking for guidance as we deal with specific issues involving individual prisoners.  Lots of them.  Every day!

Ms. N. is serving 3-15, and her earliest release date is a year away yet.  But her elderly father is dying.  Details of the crime are not important here, but suffice it to say that family ties are strong, and both father and daughter are hurting.  Doctors give the man a week to live, but Hospice personnel think that he’s holding on so that he can see his daughter one more time.  Some kind of interactive computer program like skype could be wonderful in a situation like this, but the prison system isn’t equipped for that.  Her family can request a bedside visit, but that requires the hiring of off-duty corrections officers who would be willing to make this trip, and that’s doubtful for two reasons:  the women’s prison is very short-handed; and, the cost would be prohibitive for this family.  Simple words like “I love you” and “Goodbye” are so important at a time like this.  How to help?

Mrs. H. is an elderly African American mother who watched as a wealthy young, white college student who was a serious suspect in a high-profile murder case, was spirited out of the state by his attorney-father.  She’s convinced that her son, who has served 33 years, was a scapegoat and is innocent.  These poor people have had no funds for proper representation.  I realize that many people believe that all prisoners claim they are innocent.  But in this case I’m getting a feeling similar to that which I had when working on the Maurice Carter case.  People who work in wrongful convictions often make the claim that you get the justice you can afford.  How to help?

Mr. C. is a 72-year-old prisoner who died more than once in prison, and was resuscitated.  He’s like a cat with nine lives.  In 2005 he had heart bypass surgery (five bypasses!).  He’s got serious osteoarthritis problems that force him to go short distances by cane or long distances by wheelchair.  He also has prostate cancer.  In his 47 years behind bars, he became a Christian, got his paralegal credentials and spends his time helping other inmates who cannot afford lawyers.  But his physical condition is poor, and thus his time on this earth is limited.  We became aware of his plight when the warden of his prison asked if we might be able to help him spend his remaining days as a free man.  We tried, with personal intervention with a member of the Parole Board.  The angry board member would hear nothing of it, and decided he should spend a little more time thinking about his crime before he gets released.  How to help?

We have 50 professional men and women who are helping us as volunteers.  But they cannot take the place of Solomon, either. 

My point is simple.  Your dollars are critical for our survival.  But what we really need is your prayer support.  Now.  Because there’ll be more cases like this tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Think it can't happen to you? Think again!

Wrongful convictions happen every week in every state in this country.  And they happen for all the same reasons.  So says renowned author John Grisham, who is also a lawyer, and whose book The Innocent Man is a must read.

My mind is back on wrongful convictions today since watching the 11 o’clock news last night, which featured a mini-documentary produced by Ken Kolker, one of local TV’s few real reporters who formerly wrote for the Grand Rapids Press.  Channel 8 chose to use this feature in place of most of its local news and sports last night, and if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to retrieve it online.  It’s just one more story about police and prosecutor tunnel-vision, where they focused on the wrong man in a murder case, and finally put him away.  Later, another scum bag confessed to the crime.

As I watched, I felt as if bile might start coming up in a minute.  It brought back all the memories of my 9 year battle to free the late Maurice Carter, a kind and gentle human being who served 29 years for a crime that someone else committed.  And even though we found the real perpetrator in the crime, that man is still on the streets.  The system wouldn’t budge.

I cannot begin to stress to you how often this happens.

Wrongful convictions is a terrible blight on the U.S. judicial system.  In 2012 the University of Michigan Law School undertook a project to form what is now called the National Registry of Exonerations.  Students and lawyers researched to determine how many convictions had been reversed since 1989.  As of the writing of this blog, there have been 1,744 exonerations, and the number goes up daily.

Says retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan:  Anybody who understands the justice system knows innocent people are convicted every day. 

As you watch the Ken Kolker video clips from actual interrogation, you begin to realize just how seriously the cards are stacked against someone who is arrested.  The state has all kinds of resources available.  If you’re poor, you may be stuck with a court-appointed lawyer who got stuck with the job of defending you, and who really doesn’t care.  The state is permitted to lie through its teeth to get a confession (you failed your lie detector test, we have actual evidence that puts you at the scene, we have hair samples, there’s dna proof, etc., etc.), yet you’ll get arrested if you lie.

This is serious stuff, boys and girls, and it can happen to you or me.  It’s not just the poor people or those from ethnic minorities.  I have tell you about wrongful convictions of middle to upper income white people, like a cop, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a banker, and a businessman.  Many of those who heard the powerful story of authors Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton here in Grand Haven could hardly believe their ears.  And the other half of the problem is this: When the wrong person goes to prison, a criminal is still on the loose!

Anybody who thinks our allegedly perfect judicial system takes the position that you are innocent until proven guilty is sadly mistaken.  It’s a pipe dream.

Listen to those people running for office, on the state level and for the presidency of our country.  Pay particular attention to those who are demanding a reform of our judicial system.  Regardless of political affiliation, I encourage you to support those people who get it and want to improve this situation.

There are 43,000 people in the Michigan prison system.  There are 2.2 million people behind bars in this nation.  A percentage of these people are innocent, and that is not acceptable.  Yes, we must be concerned about and have compassion for victims of crime.  But those innocent people behind bars are also victims.  They're clamoring for our attention.

Quoting Sir William Gladstone:  It is better than 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.