All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Thursday, June 30, 2016

We must get off our butts! Now!

Things were getting under my skin this week.  It all came to a head as I watched a TV report on progress, or lack thereof, in the Flint dirty water case last night.  That was it.  “It’s time to throw out the Governor,” I thought.

Then I listened further.  Not only is the Governor and his administration taking their sweet time, but also the state legislature and the U.S. Congress are shirking their duties.

Let’s move on.  Here’s the background for my eruption today.

Earlier this week I joined hands with a small group of professional people to try to help a prisoner who is innocent of the crime for which he had been sentenced to life behind bars.  These people wanting to help aren’t just average citizens---two businessmen, a retired judge, and two of the finest criminal defense attorneys in their market.  This innocent man was put in prison 15 years ago by a County Prosecutor who used junk science not once, but twice, to get a conviction!  It is my belief that the Prosecutor knew this when he did it.  And if he didn’t, he should have!

Later in the week I received word that a prisoner who is a good friend, who has served 40 years for a crime he did commit, but who has turned his life around and is eligible for parole was denied that opportunity.  The Parole Board was willing, but a judge in the court where he had been originally been sentenced vetoed the idea, and that decision is binding.  The original judge is no longer in office, so this was a successor judge who prides herself on being tough on crime.  The prisoner is not only a model prisoner, but he has been working with us over the years to help other inmates in dealing with Parole Board issues.  He’s not only deserving of a parole, but he’s exactly the kind of productive person that would make an excellent citizen in the free world.  Until we can get that rule changed, successor judges hold lives in their hands.

Now here’s the kicker.

The unfeeling judge, the devious prosecutor, the state legislators, the people in congress, as well as the man who serves as our Governor…they’re all elected!  They’ve all been chosen by the people, and they can all be replaced.  They can also be influenced by voters.

The people in my business complain regularly about the need for sentencing reform, the need for Parole Board reform, the need for compensation for those who have been wrongly convicted.  All of these things are in the hands of people we have elected.

We may not just sit here and complain.  It’s time that we get off our collective and complacent asses and do something!  Say something!  Vote!  Or if necessary, register to vote.

And don’t give me this business of not liking anyone who is running, so you’re going to sit this one out.  That just makes you part of the problem!

Martin Luther King said:  "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." 

Right on, Brother!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Take time to smell the bacon!

We take so much for granted.

People who are visually impaired admit they never appreciated the beauty around them until they lost their eyesight, and couldn’t see it any more.  It’s the same with all the senses…it’s the same with all that we enjoy.

I’m thinking of this because a former prisoner explained to me some of the things she enjoyed the most upon her release.  She was able to eat with a real spoon, knife and fork again, instead of the plastic “spork” used in the prison system.  She was so grateful to be able to hold a baby, to pet a dog, and to grab a piece of fresh fruit whenever she felt the urge.

I stood with a newly released prisoner in his first living quarters, a small apartment in a nice neighborhood.  He turned off all the lights, and savored the darkness and the silence.  For years he had not been in the dark, nor had he been in a place free of noise.

None of us can really identify with the feelings of prisoners, but I can come close on one topic:  tasting, eating and swallowing food.  In the year 2010 I was attacked by a brutal staph infection that eventually resulted in the loss of my ability to swallow.  I remember lying in a hospital bed and fantasizing about chug-a-lugging a glass of ice water.  For six months I was kept alive by nourishment that was fed into my body, liquid style, through a feeding tube.  I was most grateful for life, but how I missed tasting food and drink!

We have a lot of complaints and gripes, but I’m here to make the case that most of us have a lot to be thankful for, regardless of our current circumstances.  You’ll especially think this is true after visiting kids in the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, old folks in a nursing home, patients in a cancer clinic, old-timers in a VA facility, and yes---residents of our county jails, and our state and federal prisons.

Today, take the time not only to smell the roses, but to smell and chew the bacon!

Then take the time to pray---for those who don’t have all the things we take for granted; and to give thanks for the simple blessings we enjoy each day.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Don't throw away the key!

Paul’s offense wasn’t one of those vicious, brutal crimes that we read about on the front page.  No.  Instead, it was the kind of crime that disgusts us, the kind that we detest to the nth degree.  We want these kind of people put away.

I’m reminded of that today, because Paul called our office from his new home in Grand Rapids.  He is enjoying transitional housing, provided by a fine ministry that works hard to keep prisoners from re-offending.  He simply wanted us to know that he’s doing great, and that, at the age of 41, he’s intent on making a new life for himself.

I’m not about to use his real name, or describe his crime, because I suspect you’d get disgusted all over again and ask why he’s on the outside.

Actually, those are the thoughts we struggled with at first.  But Paul’s letters to HFP seemed genuine.  From what we could tell, he had a real conversion experience while in prison.  I know, I know.  The Parole Board hears this all the time.  “I’ve met the Lord, and now I’m not the same person I was when I entered prison.” 

Even if Paul’s letters were accurate, because of the nature of the crime and because of the psychological issues that led him into this kind of activity, he would have a long, uphill struggle.  Still, we believed him, and we stuck with him.

When it came time for his appearance before the Parole Board, he had no friends or family willing to be at his side, so Matt Tjapkes was his representative.  We were surprised to learn later that parole had been granted.

The State of Michigan wasn’t about to just let this man out on the street.  He was first paroled to, what the state calls, a community corrections center.  This type of program provided not just housing, but also much more structure than just regular probation.  Unlike many other prisoners whom we have helped, Paul stayed in touch with us.  Periodically I would receive a letter from the center.  No complaints about the strictly-enforced structure…only positive statements.  He was there for a year, before he was allowed to get his own lodging through a ministry in Grand Rapids.  That’s where the call came from this morning.  Still positive.  Still upbeat.

Kind of reminds us of another Paul.

This guy was persecuting Christians, and not just pestering them.  He was seeing to it that they were placed in jail or even put to death.  That is, until a most remarkable conversion experience, as reported in the book of Acts.  Christians weren’t quickly ready to accept the new convert.  Even Jesus’ disciples were skeptical.  The rest is history.  Just check your Bible to see how many of the New Testament books were written by this reformed criminal.

I’m not saying today’s modern-day Paul, our friend, is going to set the world on fire.  I’m reporting to you that he’s taking one day at a time, and doing a great job. 

Let’s not be quick to say, “Throw away the key!”

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The system ain't working the way it's supposed to!

I was in prison twice this week.  The two visits proved to me, once again, just how difficult the system makes it for someone to walk out of there.  My first visit was to participate in a Public Hearing, conducted by the Michigan Parole Board, to determine whether an inmate should be granted a parole.  The second visit was a strategy session to make some legal plans.’

The cases are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Case number one involves an indigent, Hispanic prisoner guilty of his crime.  Case number two involves a middle-class white man who is completely innocent. 

I was the only person to testify in the Public Hearing for Mr. A.  After being in prison for nearly 39 years, friends and family are gone.  His wife and mother died years ago.  I’ve participated in enough Public Hearings to know that this was going to be an uphill effort.  I felt that I should be there for him.

Here’s the thing I don’t understand.  The Parole Board members, but more specifically the Assistant Attorney General, spent one hour and 45 minutes trying to get this man to clearly and succinctly state why, at the young age of 18 and completely drunk, his hormones raged out of control and he committed a heinous crime.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t find the right words to please them.  And then, after battering him for nearly two hours, they spent less than five minutes to cover the fact this uneducated young Latino made it his business not only to get his GED but also to go on and take college courses.  He enrolled in all necessary programs, and his prison record is really quite good for 39 years behind bars.  In other words, the prison system’s goals seemed to have worked with Mr. A.  But I can feel it in my bones.  They’re not going to let this poor dude out for a second chance.  40 years isn’t enough!  Someday he'll learn his lesson.

Now let’s move on to case number two.  Mr. B’s attorney screwed up in the trial.  He didn’t sufficiently challenge the junk science used by the Prosecutor to obtain a conviction.  As a result, all appeals have been exhausted, and after 15 years this innocent man remains behind bars.  I was part of a team of four, including two businessmen and a retired judge, trying to figure out how we can help this well-educated, well-spoken white man get back into society where he belongs.  The frustrating thing is, it’s just not easy.  Never mind that the man had no priors, never mind that two polygraph tests couldn’t trip him up, never mind that shady junk science was used to put this man behind bars.  The truth be damned.  Nothing has worked so far!

My experiences this week provide just a little window into a system that badly needs repair and revision.

When all else failed, my friend Maurice Carter, who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, used to say, “We’ll have to leave it in God’s hands.”

And that’s exactly where I am today after these two experiences.

I have no faith that men are going to fix anything.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Innocent and in prison? Yep!

“When someone says he’s innocent, and he keeps on saying it for the whole time that he’s in prison, you’d better listen to him!”

Famed welterweight prize fighter Rubin Hurricane Carter was sitting in the front seat of my car, as we drove from a visit with the late Maurice Carter (no relation).  The Hurricane had come to Benton Harbor twice at my request to assist in raising public awareness about the injustice of the Maurice Carter case.  His words carried weight (no pun intended).  Rubin had been wrongly convicted for a crime he did not commit.  Not once, but twice! 

I’m thinking of that today as Matt and I discuss the assistance we are trying to provide to hundreds of prisoners in the Michigan prison system.  I was reporting to him about a meeting I had with a prominent criminal defense attorney last week.  This high profile lawyer is one of more than 50 professionals who freely and generously give of their time to help us with a multitude of problems and issues.  The lawyer gave me two hours of his valuable time, to discuss the cases of five different prisoners.  Four of the five involve wrongful convictions!  And the terribly frustrating truth of the matter:  I’m just not sure how much, if anything, anyone can and/or will do about it!  See if those comforting thoughts help you get to sleep at night.

I hasten to point out two things.  Number one, that Matt and I are not legal experts, and HFP is not an Innocence Project.  And Number two, contrary what you may think and what many law enforcement people like to joke about, all prisoners do not claim they are innocent!

I know that I hammer away at the subject of wrongful convictions rather frequently, but this stuff bothers me a lot, and it should bother you, too.

I just ran through our case list.  We have about 800 files right now.  I came up with the names of 20 men and women behind bars who, I am convinced, are wrongly convicted!  Just add up the number of years that each has spent in prison…one of them has been in over 40!  Then think of the injustice of it all: years from their lives that cannot be replaced.  Then think about the unnecessary cost of it all:  $35-40,000 per prisoner per year, provided they are in good health.  Then think about the flip-side of this coin:  For every wrongly convicted person behind bars, there’s probably a criminal still out there on the street!

I can hear the hard liners calling me a “do-gooder,” trying to put criminals back on the street.  Just the opposite:  I want the right people in jail, and the wrong people out!

Doesn’t it bother you to know that there are Innocence Projects in almost every state, and because of the heavy caseloads they are years behind?  These aren’t just frivolous claims.  They are legitimate pleas for help that deserve careful scrutiny. What a shameful indictment of our system!  Here in Michigan the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic takes only non-DNA cases, and Western Michigan University’s Cooley Innocence Project takes only DNA cases.  I’ll wager money that if you call their main offices today, each one of them is at least two years behind.

Awareness is only the start.

Then must come action.

God help us!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Gorilla worth more than prisoners?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not an animal hater.  I’m completely in favor of being kind to all creatures, great and small.  The problem I have is with the high international interest in the story about taking the life of a gorilla allegedly to save the life of a child.  And meanwhile, topics of abuse of human beings, many of them behind bars, hardly cause us to raise our eyebrows. 

Where is the hue and cry on behalf of the mentally ill, for example?  We’ve closed many of our mental institutions, and now our prisons are loaded with mentally challenged inmates, who are being cared for by personnel who have had little or no training in this field.  Cruelty and abuse are rampant.

Why do those of us in prisoner advocacy have such a difficult time focusing any attention on the terminally ill?  For decades people have been dying in our prisons alone, without the benefit of bedside visits by family members, and without any type of hospice care.  Many of these men and women should have been granted compassionate releases, enabling them to spend final days and hours surrounding by loved ones.

When will start focusing more attention on battered women, many of them behind bars for killing a spouse or boyfriend before he killed or maimed them?  National statistics show that women who kill men receive significantly higher sentences than men who kill women.  They also show that 90% of women who kill men are victims of abuse. 

Why has it taken so long for us to show any concern for pregnant women behind bars?  Shameful shackling of women giving birth is still prevalent.  Provisions for these women to see and care for their babies are often lacking.  Compassionate sentences that enable new moms to do their parenting at home are few and far between.

Juveniles behind bars are finally getting some attention, after years of horrible treatment such as solitary confinement, life sentences without parole, and incarceration in adult facilities. 

This is just a sampling of in-prison irregularities and mistreatment that should shock and concern all of us.

It’s true:  I’m in the business of showing kindness and compassion to prisoners, so these issues are in my face every day.  What will it take to draw the kind of concern that people are showing when the life of a gorilla is taken?  Just as an aside, you can be sure that such attention does wonders for the coffers of animal rights organizations.  Meanwhile, those wonderful agencies doing their best to show kindness to people behind bars consistently face financial struggles.

St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying:  If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men.