All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, May 23, 2016

A tribute to three caring Corrections Officers

I was speaking to a group of senior citizens on a college campus, and I was not very complimentary in my comments about some corrections officers.  I was telling stories about some officers employed by the Michigan Department of Corrections who seem to feel that their position entitles them to be rude and demeaning to inmates…sometimes even cruel and abusive.

I told of an officer who knew one of the old guys had a huge, terribly sensitive bulge below his belly because of a hernia.  As he passed the old boy in chow line he stopped, and asked him if it was true that he had a hernia.  Mac agreed that it was, indeed, the truth.  “I don’t believe it,” the guard responded.  “Drop your pants and show me.”  The prisoner had no choice than to be humiliated in front of all the guys in line.  The officer allowed that he certainly did have a hernia, then gave the tender bulge a jab with his finger, and walked away laughing. 

I shared a few other similar horror stories.

At the conclusion of my presentation, I left time for comments. A very polite, well-dressed, well-spoken woman in the audience raised her hand.  In the kindest of words this matronly spokesperson cautioned me about painting with a broad brush when describing corrections officers.  “My son is a CO in the Michigan prison system,” she explained.  “He has a college degree, he has a conscience, and he took on this job as his mission in life.  He's a good officer!”

I’m reminded of that experience that occurred a year go right now, as I’m opening an email message from a prisoner, a friend of ours, who is experiencing serious physical problems that I shall not describe in this column…they are far too complicated, too personal, too private.  Anyway, here is his message to Matt and me:

First I want to let you know that 3 of the officers here at Parnall Correctional Facility saved my life on 5-15-16 at 2 AM.  I was bleeding really bad and I was semi –unconscious.  An officer did her round and saw the excessive blood on my sheets and contacted the other correctional staff.  I was then sent to the prison ER.  I would like for you to acknowledge them directly so I can present it to them. It was these correctional officers:  CO Mr. Wilt,  CO Mr. Slicker, and the one who found me was  CO Ms. Thouin.  No disrespect, but most officers don’t even care to look to see if we are alive. I’m in a single man room so nobody would have known. PLEASE write me back and acknowledge them (all 3). It means a great deal. 

So we’re doing that right now, publicly, on behalf of our friend Kevin.  And in doing so, we pay tribute to many fine officers in the system who have a conscience, who recognize that inmates are also created in the image of God, and who do their best to treat them in a humane manner. Theirs is not an easy job, and many times not very pleasant, either.

A copy of this blog will not only be sent to Kevin, but also to the Warden at his facility, and to the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

I conclude with this sentence from a historic prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Will Michigan ever treat the poor fairly in court?

I was so naïve!  I had been a reporter for nearly 30 years. In that time I covered the police beat, and I covered court activities.  How the poor were being treated never entered my mind.  Then, in 1995 I headed up an effort to help an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana who had been wrongly convicted and was incarcerated in Michigan.  It was an eye-opener!

I was appalled at the lack of legal assistance granted to Maurice Carter.  His court-appointed attorney did nothing to help, failed to properly question the key witness in the case, and had a reputation for falling asleep in the courtroom.  When Maurice attempted to appeal, based on ineffective work by his attorney, the court gave him THE SAME LAWYER to file the appeal!  He filed it late, missing the deadline.  Later, I learned that these conditions were not just evident in Berrien County.

Many years later, it is no surprise for me to learn that Michigan has been ranked as one of the worst states in the U.S. on spending to help defend the poor in court.  That’s why I’m suggesting, today, that you keep an eye on the Michigan Supreme Court, because, this afternoon, the court will hold a public hearing on indigent defense standards. The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission’s first standards for indigent defense delivery systems will be part of the Court’s agenda. 

To help you understand what’s at stake here, I quote here from a March editorial in the Detroit Free Press:

The U.S. Constitution says that all defendants in court are entitled to adequate legal representation.

But in Michigan, that right is routinely violated because many poor defendants can't afford to hire an attorney or get adequate representation, according to a new survey released by a state commission.

The report by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission is the first comprehensive statewide survey on the defense of poor people, said the commission. It found wide variations in how indigent people are represented across the state, with only 6% of district courts requiring an attorney at both the bail hearing and at arraignment. And only 15% have guidelines for continuing legal education standards for attorneys appointed to represent the needy.

The survey also turned up this information:

  •  Courts in Michigan have "loose and varied guidelines" to determine whether a defendant should get appointed counsel.
  •  Defendants denied an attorney have "no resource to further pursue assistance."
  •  There are only six public defender offices in the state.
  •  There is little consistency in the compensation for public defenders, with hourly rates ranging from $33 to more than $100. 
  • There's a conflict of interest in many cases involving appointed counsel, since only about a quarter of the courts have assigned counsel independent of the court.
  • It's often difficult for defendants to meet privately with attorneys because of a lack of assigned meeting space.


I conclude this blog with three quotes.

Said Phil Locke, in The Wrongful Convictions Blog:

How much justice can you afford?” There’s no secret – the more you can pay for an attorney, the more effective your defense will be; and – if you’re actually innocent – the better your chances of a just outcome.

Said Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative:

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” 

Said Dr. H. David Schuringa, Christian Reformed pastor who represents the public on the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, in prepared testimony for the Supreme Court:

Michigan’s current state of affairs in indigent public defense is an affront to any reasonable person’s moral compass.

That’s it.  In plain English.  And it’s gotta change!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

An open letter to Governor Snyder

Dear Governor Snyder:

You probably never gave this a thought, but thousands of prisoners in your state can identify with your predicament.  I’m talking about the Flint water situation.  The reality of the situation is that you cannot undo the past.  As you’ve discovered, it’s where you go from here that counts.  Now it’s up to you to prove to the people of Flint, and to the citizens of Michigan, that you really do care for all of us, rich and poor, black and white.  That will come not from talk, but with action.

It’s the same for many, many of the 43,000 people locked up in your state prisons.  There’s not a thing they can do about the chapter in their life that sent them behind bars.  All they do is pick up the pieces.  Now it’s up to them to prove that they shouldn’t spend the rest of their lives being judged for the worst thing they ever did.  They can’t just talk about it.  It’s up to them to prove it.

Among the things you can do, Mr. Governor, to show that you do have care and compassion in your heart, is to pay some attention to prisoners.  The people in Flint aren’t the only needy ones in your state.  There’s a long list of items that deserve and, yes, demand your attention before you leave office:  sentence reform, indigent defense reform, Parole Board reform, justice for juveniles, compensation for the wrongly convicted.  In addition, there’s a long list of problems within the prisons that deserve your attention:  inadequate medical care, inadequate provisions for the terminally ill, overcrowding, drugs, extortion, gangs, for starters.  Besides that, we would like to see a demonstration of your care and compassion through such things as pardoning some deserving inmates, granting commutations to deserving prisoners who have proven their worth, releasing geriatric inmates to outside institutions, and enlarging your narrow window for compassionate releases of critically ill inmates.

You can’t undo Flint, Mr. Governor, but you can take major steps to improve your legacy.

Prisoners can’t undo the act that got them in trouble, either…but many, many of them are working hard to change not only their reputation but their direction in life.

There are many wonderful advocacy agencies in this state doing their best to help prisoners.  Please show us you care by showing interest in what we do.

If you deserve a second chance, so do they.  Let us help.

I’m praying for you, just as I’m praying for prisoners.  We’ve all fallen short.


Doug Tjapkes, President

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother's Day prayers for battered moms

Mother’s Day isn’t a day of gladness and reunion for everyone.

For example, it’s a day of sadness for those who have recently lost mothers, a sad day for those women who want to be mothers but cannot bear children, a day of regret for those mothers who mistreated their kids and wish they could live their lives over again, a day of painful memories for those who chose abortion and now wish they hadn’t.

But today, I want to focus on an even smaller group of women.  Some of them are mothers.  Some perhaps would have been mothers under different circumstances.  They’re in prison for killing or seriously injuring their spouse or significant other, a deadly climax to years of violence and abuse.

I’m especially mindful of that, in the quiet of my office on this Mother’s Day morning, because I have two friends who the state has determined should spend the rest of their lives behind bars.  These women are not hardened criminals.  They don’t have a history of violence and illegal activity.  To the contrary, they are well-educated and could be considered professional in their fields.

Here’s a typical scenario that puts a woman like this in a prison cell and leaves her there.  She lives with a husband who, to the public, may look like a pillar of the community, but in private abuses his wife, both physically and emotionally.  She is shamed by this, hides it from her friends, takes much of the blame for this fearing that she is the problem in this relationship, and she even comes to his defense if authorities step in, because she might not have place to go and perhaps has no means of support if he were to be arrested.  And so the situation continues and ferments until there’s a breaking point…when she cannot take it anymore, and cares not about the consequences.  She takes things into her own hands and brings an end to this abuse.

Prosecutors can be quick to call this first degree murder, claiming it was premeditated.  In many cases, jurors haven’t been allowed to hear about the years of domestic violence that preceded this heinous act.  And if there’s a conviction on first degree, there’s an automatic sentence of life without parole.  

I should point out a couple of things.

Number one, statistics show that women who kill men receive significantly higher sentences than men who kill women.  And number two, approximately 90% of women who kill men are victims of abuse.

There’s no quick answer here.  HFP is partnering with some other professionals on a project that will shed more light on the subject, and offer alternatives, especially to prison sentences.

But for now, on this Mother’s Day, 2016, I simply want to suggest that we keep all victims of domestic abuse, both inside and outside of prison, in our prayers.  On a personal level,  to my friends, Ms. L and Ms. N, I want you to know that you are in my prayers.  This all began last night, as I listened to Lynda Randle remind me, in song, that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley.  May you experience his peace today.

I’m offering my prayer in the name of Jesus, who not only showed love and tenderness toward his own mother, but who loves them all…especially those in prison.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A prison guard who cares, and no one listens!

Skip Barnett is a Michigan Corrections Officer who cares…and no one is listening!

This story gets its roots in a recent staff meeting that was held at the Alger Correctional Facility in Munising, where Barnett serves as a CO.  He was not at the meeting, but the word came down at the Deputy Warden had advised staff that he wanted the facility to go backward in time, where it would be a “fun” place to work…and he didn’t want issues coming across his desk.

A word of clarification here.  By “fun,” he didn’t mean that this would be an exemplary place to work.  He meant that, in the olden days, it was fun to mistreat prisoners.  He was allowing it again...he just didn't want to hear anything about it.  Judging by response from the staff, according to Barnett, they were digging it.

Here’s how Officer Barnett put it, in his message to our office:  …there certainly is an unsavory aspect to a Deputy Warden in a small prison upstate, with almost exclusively white staff, being told to come into work and “have fun” with the primarily African American prison population, and to tell the staff to 'NOT let me know what is going on.'

We’re not just talking about some disgruntled prison guard here who has a grudge against his superiors.  Barnett is a 15-year veteran of the department, is a graduate of West Point, and has a law degree.

Explaining why he is trying to blow the whistle, he said, “I worked at a prison downstate where inmate Souders died…and the state wrote out a huge check after getting a big, black eye. I’d like to avoid going down that same road.  We have a high percentage of new hires on second shift.  They need to be trained to follow policy and procedure, and deserve leaders with open door policies.”

In my further discussion with him, he said, “I’m tired of it.  They ‘bully’ everyone. I’m not going to be a part of it!”

He explained that he had raised other issues about how the shift command and inspectors are failing to properly hold officers to an acceptable performance standard.  But when he complained, he said, his superiors laughed.  “I’d like to stop this train from going in the direction it is heading before something happens that causes Michigan to break out their check book…”

With our exposure of this story, we’re hoping it reaches the right people, and we’re hoping for positive results.  It would be a shame to lose a quality CO like Officer Barnett, while we keep scoundrels in positions of authority.

He’s not trying to be soft on crime.  He’s not even saying that he’s “pro-inmate.”  What he is saying is that there are correct policies and procedures, and the exemplary wardens in this state are those who exude integrity, treat prisoners in a humane manner, and maintain an “open door” policy.

Is that too much to expect from our tax dollars?  Too much to expect re the proper treatment of human beings of all races and creeds in our state prison system?  He has written to higher authorities.  He has written to the Michigan Attorney General.  He has contacted the media.  No response.  No response!

Having fun with the black inmates is simply unacceptable.

Said Barnett:  This is the Alger Correctional Facility.  It is not the Alger Amusement  Park!