All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I was in prison and you visited me

Interesting that Jesus used those specific words, as quoted in Matthew 25.  And it’s also interesting that so few prisoners actually receive visits.  Sad, really.  Former Michigan Prison Warden Mary Berghuis insists that only 12% of inmates in our state receive visits!  Yet, to our dismay, it seems that some prison staffers do their best to discourage visitation, and some treat visitors quite shabbily.

I bring up the subject after hearing from my friend Jo, who went to visit her husband last week.  Here are some of her comments:

Went to visit Lee on Black Friday because I figured everyone would be shopping. WRONG. There were so many visitors that they terminated about 10 visits (the first time). They named off those being terminated and gave them 2 minutes to say their goodbyes and throw away all the uneaten food. Then about a half hour later they terminated 4 or 5 more which was the group we were in. Gave us a 5 minute warning which really turned into about 3 minutes and more uneaten food thrown away. We had to stand at the door for 15 minutes before they let us out. Some of the food could have been eaten if we had known we were going to have to stand at the door for so long.  I cannot believe they couldn't have given each person 15 - 20 minutes so they could eat before the termination. There were some very nasty Corrections Officers.

I want to be quick to explain, here, that I have also had excellent treatment by staff at some facilities, and have seen some visitors treated very nicely. 

I can’t stress enough the importance of prison visits.  A study by the Minnesota DOC found that inmates visited in a prison do a better job of staying out once they are released.  The report concluded that, “based on both statistic and anecdotal evidence, visitation can be the difference between continuing a cycle of re-offending or finding hope to start a new life.”

I can tell you, from personal experience, that a prison visit is a morale booster.  I see smiles, I hear laughter, I’ve witnessed tears of joy.  I’m convinced that visitation experiences remind these people that there’s more to life than incarceration.

And yet, within many of our prisons, we find staff members who make it difficult for visitors, especially when there are little kids, old people, and handicapped visitors. One might get the feeling that these department employees resent seeing prisoners experiencing happy moments, perhaps thinking that prison punishment should also include isolation and loneliness. 

For what it’s worth, here’s where I am on the subject:  Prison visitation ought to be, 1, an issue of highest priority;  and, 2, a policy of making visitation as pleasant as possible should be department-wide and should be initiated immediately. This could even include workshops and in-service training, and such sessions should include not only prison staff, but also inmates and family members.  We might be amazed at the results!

It may never happen, but it oughtta!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What? Thankful for prisoners?

I know, I know.  It sounds terrible.  Actually, I guess it should be reworded.  I’m thankful for prisoners in my life, and for all the lessons I learn from them.

I am not thankful that our nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and that our own state keeps people in prison longer than most others.

I am not thankful that we still have over 41,000 people in the Michigan prison system, costing taxpayers $4-million a day…more than we spend on education!

I am not thankful for the numerous cases of over-charging and over-sentencing felons in Michigan, bringing about the Governor’s appointment of a committee to investigate and reform our woefully inadequate indigent defense.

I am not thankful for the lack of sentence alternatives, which could render such positive results in society if given the chance.

I am not thankful for the lack of uniformity in sentences, as seen in the wide range of sentences received by prisoners for the same crime, committed in different counties.

I am not thankful for a Parole Board that often refuses to release prisoners who have fulfilled all of their obligations by their early release date…especially sex offenders.

You get my point.

But as this 80-year-old man reflects on his daily interaction with incarcerated men and women, something that has been going on for more than 15 years, there is definitely cause for genuine Thanksgiving at this holiday time, 2016.

In the summer of 2004, after persuading the Governor to release Maurice Carter for health reasons, we never made it to Thanksgiving Day.  Maurice died in October, three months after he walked out of the prison hospital.  But I still remember giving thanks that year, because he not only touched Marcia and me, but he also touched the lives of our kids and grand-kids with his kindness, his love, his gentility, his faith, his ability to forgive…especially in not continuing to hold a grudge. 

That’s only the beginning of the examples I can give.

I have a friend who has been wrongly convicted, whose life has been totally ruined by an imperfect judicial system and who has served 15 years…and yet, my faith cannot hold a candle to his!

I sometimes become impatient over little things like bad drivers, but I have another friend who has served over 40 years on a wrongful conviction, but whose patience never wavers…he’s optimistic that his day will come!

There are numerous friends---both men and women---who have such physical disabilities and ailments, who suffer so much, who receive such imperfect and inadequate care…and yet these people teach me how to smile in a time of adversity.

I think of a woman serving life who had made it her goal to care for a physically and mentally ailing companion who can no longer function properly on her own.  Her servant-spirit reminds me how important it is to serve others under the worst of circumstances.

So, at Thanksgiving time, 2016, I thank God for the lessons I learn each day from these beautiful people---each one of them created in his image!

No wonder Jesus loved them so much!  So do I.

Monday, November 21, 2016


We may claim the title “Christian,” but even with our strong beliefs, it can be pretty difficult to reach agreement on redemption.

We love to look back at heroes in the Bible to show how mightily God can and has worked to change lives:  Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer, Rahab was a prostitute, etc. 

We readily agree that in Christ there is total forgiveness, as we point to the convicted felon on the cross next to our Lord.  We affirm our belief that God can change lives, as we point to St. Paul, who, before preaching and writing New Testament books, spent his days persecuting Christians and condemning them to death.

But that was back in those days.  Today, it’s a difficult proposition. 

I bring all of this up as I mourn the loss of a friend, T.J. Spytma.  TJ was involved in a heinous crime, influenced in part by drugs, back in the 70s when he was 15 years of age.

As he spent the next 40 years in prison, he never once forgot his terrible misdeed.  After some rough-and-tumble early years behind bars, he made important decisions to change his life.  And change it, he did!  I had opportunity to visit him in prison shortly after getting into this business, and friendship was immediate.  He was a neat guy, doing neat things for others, making his life worthwhile, and choosing a better path for the future.

Yet, when it came time for parole consideration in 2014, many just couldn’t see it.  John Hausman’s  M-Live articles, bearing headlines labeling TJ a “Notorious Murderer,” resulted in pages upon pages of comments from readers who, emboldened by the cloak of anonymity, dared to make all kinds of nasty comments and predictions.

In his public hearing Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel held to his position of never recommending parole where crimes of an assaultive nature occurred. Muskegon’s Chief Trial Attorney Raymond Kostrzewa (now a District Judge), flashing letters from families of the victim, insisted that the crime was too brutal to allow for any kind of redemption.  Nope, no hope for this guy.  Keep him behind bars.

But thanks to the courage of presiding Circuit Court Judge Tim Hicks, who had even met with members of the victim’s family, the Parole Board made a favorable decision.  Judge Hicks was the successor judge for the case, and his veto could have stopped everything.  But after a careful review of all the facts, and explaining that this was one of his most difficult decisions ever, he agreed to give TJ a chance.  The Parole Board approved TJ’s release, and he was welcomed by longtime friend Penny Ryder, who helped to give him a new home and a new life in the Ann Arbor area.  The nay-sayers were wrong.  TJ immediately became a happy and productive citizen.  For two precious years!

The story came to a tragic end last week when our friend TJ died of natural causes at the young age of 56.

We tip our hat to those who paved the way for TJ’s second chance.  We show honor and respect for the person he became.  We extend sincere condolences to those in mourning.  And we express sadness for those who just can’t come to grips with the fact that redemption of human lives is, indeed, still possible.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Post-election nausea? Not in prison!

It may surprise you to know that some prisoners aren’t really all that anxious about the state of national affairs. 

The appointment of a white supremacist to a key position in the White House may seem like a national disaster to you.  But frankly, David is more concerned about his bowel movements.  He’s a paraplegic, and the only way he can go is with the assistance of personal medical care…something he doesn’t always get in the prison hospital.  Then he has accidents.

A national election that is decided by the Electoral College, rather than a popular vote, may be spoiling your appetite these days, but Cary has spent more than $100,000 on attorneys to prove his innocence, and all he has to show for it is receipts.  They didn’t give him what he paid for.  No more money.  No freedom.

Words of hatred and bigotry not only dominate our TV shows, but are even showing up in our social and religious circles.  But I must tell you that all of this disgusting behavior is not what’s on Nathan’s mind.  He has been diagnosed with cancer, he’s in the Michigan prison system and gets no indication at all that doctors plan to do anything about it.

As a spouse and a parent, you may find shameful talk and descriptions of women by public officials to be totally unacceptable.  But Cindy, who was an award-winning professional before she was arrested for killing her habitually abusive husband as he tried to kill her, couldn’t care less.  She has already served 12 years of a life sentence for what an aggressive Prosecutor called First Degree Murder.  Says Cindy:  “The judicial system that I believed to be fair and just has betrayed me.”  She questions whether she’ll ever be free again.

The fact that a national candidate who advocated for free college education lost the race for the Presidency may bother you, but it’s of no concern to Tony.  He just appeared before a member of the Michigan Parole Board, hoping to get a positive review…and when he shared with her his dream that, if released, he wanted to go to college…she laughed at him!

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about the topsy-turvy national picture right now.  There’d be something wrong with us if we weren’t.  But it’s important to keep things in balance.  The world is different in prison, and our issues aren’t necessarily theirs.  One prisoner wrote:  Being in prison is worse than death.  At least when you’re dead the pain stops.  The life you once knew is no more.  You can see it, but you can no longer interact with it.  You’re trapped in a monotonous limbo watching time march on for your loved ones.  But for you, it does not.

These are the people with whom Matt and I are holding hands on a daily basis, following strict orders from Jesus to just show a little compassion and kindness.  Their problems, perhaps small by comparison to some in our minds, are huge to them.

In all of the controversy of the moment, please do not forget us or them.

More than ever before, HFP and our prisoners need you:  your prayers and your support.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Birthday is no excuse! It's time to get to work!

I’ve never been 80 before.

November 11 is perhaps best known for the historic signing of documents bringing World War One fighting to an end.  This all happened on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  When I was a little boy, the nation would still pause for a moment of silence at 11 AM on my birthday, and factory whistles would blow.  Now called Veteran’s Day to widen the tribute, it’s still a very important holiday.  Let us not forget.

November 11, 1936, is the date John and Mary Tjapkes welcomed Douglas into the world.  Not significant at all, but it’s a matter of public record.

What to write as year 81 begins?  It’s a given that I am blessed beyond measure with loving wife, beautiful kids, delightful grandchildren, and yes, even good health after a scary year in 2010. Prior to that I was blessed with a good upbringing, by loving parents.

I could reflect on my careers, my musical involvement, my church, my hobbies.  But looking backwards is simply that.  In dealing with “now” and in hoping for the future, I’d rather discuss the things that touch me today…things that I wish would touch the world around me, as well.

I’ve had great years in radio broadcasting and in church organ sales.  That 50-year period was simply preparation for my work of right now…a daily interaction with Michigan prisoners.

On my 80th birthday, I wish I could wave a magic wand and

-reverse Bill’s wrongful conviction, so he could try to resume a normal life
-send Megan home to be with her new-born baby, so she could try again
-find a lawyer to handle Bob’s well-deserved appeal, as he is indigent
-send Fred home to die surrounded by family and friends
-free old Tony, who has served 40 and wouldn’t hurt a flea
-place Michelle in a cancer treatment center instead of the cold prison infirmary
-prove Jon’s innocence amid riot incitement accusations
-force the state to honor its agreement to free Jimmy
-stop guards and inmates from bullying mentally-ill Gail.

What I can do, as long as God gives me strength, is share these stories and reports with you.  I can join with Matt and our many volunteers, supported by our gutsy and involved directors, to respond to these daily pleas for assistance and guidance.  I can figuratively hold the hands of hundreds of needy inmates to assure them that someone cares, that God loves them, that they are not forgotten.  In some cases, perhaps that’s all I can do.  And while doing that, I must continue to stress the incredible impact that is made by simple expressions of love and compassion. 

So, as we mark another milestone, be assured that I am extremely grateful for the many, many kind birthday wishes…cards, calls, greetings, messages. 

But again, the birthday wishes that touch me the most come from prisoners.  I have on my desk a home-made card signed by 30 women at Huron Valley…each with a personal note.  That’s a huge birthday gift!

I can still hear my dear friend, gospel singer Alma James Perry, who left this earth far too soon, her rich soprano voice conveying these words as we shared a prison worship service:

If I can plant a rose where thorns have been,
Dispel the gloom and let the sunshine in.
If I can help some broken life to rise again,
I shall not live in vain.

If I can sing a song of love and cheer,
Some song that lifts a soul from doubt and fear,
And bring them back to know that God is always near,
I shall not live in vain.


Back to work.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

When some get out, they enter a "second prison!"

“You think it’s all over.  You think that after they’ve been released from prison, after they’ve served their time, after they’ve paid their debt to society, it’s over.  I tell you, it’s not!  It’s not!”  The words of a mother, as we chatted this week about her son's former incarceration.

To underscore her position, when I arrived in the office following our meeting, Matt was on the phone with an ex-offender who was begging for our help.  He explained that he had been released three years ago, and his brother graciously offered to let him sleep on the couch until he found a place to live.  Sadly, he’s still sleeping on the couch.  He’s on Michigan’s sex offender registry and, even though he has the means and can afford the rent, he cannot find a place to live.

That was exactly the point of the prisoner’s mom.  “They can’t find a place to live, they can’t get a job…it just keeps right on following them.”

In recent weeks I have chatted with two delightful elderly black guys, for whom I held prison doors open when they stepped into freedom last year.  Both had served nearly 40 years behind bars, but made the best of their lives while there.  Both were determined to become productive citizens upon their release.

Mr. J, who had been a geriatric care giver for years while in prison, wanted to continue that kind of work on the outside and got a nice job in an adult assisted living facility.  That is, until a routine background check revealed his prison record.  He was instantly fired.  State regulations do not allow convicted felons to care for seniors in licensed facilities.

Mr. B, who continued his education at every opportunity behind bars, stayed on that path after he was released.  While gaining further accreditation, he became a substance abuse counselor for a reputable agency.  That is, until one of the clients recognized him, and quickly explained to the others around him, “He and I served time together.”  That kind of reputation was too much for the agency.  He was instantly fired.

It’s easy to point fingers.  Blame the heartless Department of Corrections, blame the stupid and terribly unfair Michigan Sex Offender Registry, blame biased and opinionated managers who insist that ex-offenders are a risk, and, of course, blame the ex-offender.  If he/she hadn’t committed the crime in the first place, he/she wouldn’t be facing this dilemma. 

Those who have read my book SWEET FREEDOM are aware of the challenges we faced finding a place to live for Maurice Carter.  He was in the final stages of Hepatitis C, he was black, and he was a newly-freed prisoner.  It was almost impossible to find a bed for him in this lily white area, even or especially among those claiming religious affiliation.  Sorry.  No room in the inn.

While some of our churches are finally coming to the realization that a position on immigration is important, we still find little interest in helping former prisoners.  Yes, we’re glad to give them Bible lessons during their incarceration, but we’re really not all that excited about having ex-offenders in our churches, our homes or heaven forbid, our businesses..

I call it THE SECOND PRISON.  These men and women are released from a locked facility behind barbed wire, into a society where their chances are marginal.  It’s simply another prison, this one much more subtle.  No visible bars or wire fences.

I’m sorry. The buck stops here. The blame goes back to you and me.

May God give us the compassion and the courage to do something about it.