Showing posts from 2017

Needing more than money

I had everything written. It was a year-end blog telling how HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does stuff that no one else does, and that no one else wants to do. At year’s end every charitable organization makes a final pitch for tax-exempt contributions before the December 31 deadline. Been there, done that. Then, it’s time for us and all of these other organizations to gush about what’s ahead for the New Year! It’s going to be exciting! Right? We need more dollars, right? And then I got to thinking. Our pastor, Nate Visker, does something kind of neat each year. He quietly lines up a group of people among his parishioners and friends to pray for him each week. Let’s face it, the minister of every church has a daunting task. The pace of growth for HFP was unsurpassed in 2017! There’s no question that we need dollars. There’s no option: We must add staff members, volunteers, working space, operating dollars . Not exactly sure where that’s going to come from, or how we’r

Why help?

I’m reading the year-end pitches for last-minute contributions by prisoner advocacy agencies and prison ministries. We can’t compete with that stuff! We cannot boast of major new programs launched, major legislative accomplishments, numbers of souls won to Christ. The accomplishments of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS are small and insignificant to many. Except to those who’ve felt our touch. Let’s face it, these are not headline stories that would have any success in a year-end pitch for last minute gifts--- -Helping an inmate get into a Christian college program -Holding the hand of a frustrated Muslim woman -Delivering hundreds of pounds of free yarn to prisons for crochet classes -Persuading a major defense lawyer to take a wrongful conviction case pro bono -Finding a sponsor for the immigrant/wife of a prisoner -Speaking at Public Hearings for deserving inmates -Getting traffic fines paid so a mother can again visit sons in prison -Pressuring the state to properl

Guess who I found behind bars!

A sad excuse for a human being was knocking on the door of a homeless shelter, probably hoping to find a place to sleep that night. Asked Father Greg Boyle of a fellow Jesuit priest who answered the door, “Who was it?” Answered the priest: Jesus in his least recognizable form. It was a profound reminder to me: That’s exactly who I see behind bars! Now don’t give me that “soft on crime,” “bleeding heart,” “no concern for the victims” stuff. I’m an old man and I’ve been in this for years. I know darn well who’s in prison and why. But give me a little space to explain. Yesterday, two stories crossed my desk. Some unpleasant prison staff members a couple weeks ago took every wheelchair from one medical unit in the women’s prison, leaving crippled people weeping and begging, some crawling on the floor. Another officer shouted, “Get that woman off the floor!” In a day or two the wheelchairs were back again, but why did that happen? On the same day, I received a message f

Holiday rescue appeal: Not for a pet, but for a prisoner!

One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in this business occurred many years ago, when a group of inmates contacted me about “Old Bill.” They all felt that this elderly prisoner shouldn’t remain behind bars any longer, and actually, the Parole Board felt that way, too. But, he had nowhere to go. No friends. No family. It happens a lot with these old-timers. And so we do what HFP does best…started quietly pushing buttons and pulling strings behind the scenes. And sure enough, we found a beautiful hospice care facility willing to take him in. The state dropped him off in his wheelchair and prison blues…no clothes, no belongings, no nothing. Old Bill didn’t live much longer, but his final days were beautiful…not only for him, but for all around him---residents and staff alike. When I stopped in to check on him he jumped from his wheelchair to give me a tearful hug! Right now, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’m looking again…this time for a place for old Willie.

My 2017 Christmas gift to you

Louis Cassels was one of my favorite news writers. A Washington Correspondent for UPI for many years, he later came its national religion writer. In 1959 he wrote a parable for UPI that will last forever. I was News Director of WJBL in Holland when I first tore that copy off our newsroom teletype machine, and aired it. In 1964, when I became General Manager of WGHN in Grand Haven, I read this story to our listeners every year on Christmas Eve until I left the industry in 1983. Today, as President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I share this beautiful story on Christmas Eve as my gift to you.   Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a man, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. “I’m truly sorry to distress

An angry Christmas

Some are angry at us. Some are just pissed. Some have been angry since they got there. That’s right. For some of the incarcerated, perhaps for many, it’s not going to be a very Merry Christmas. Freddie is mad because someone in the prison system is messing with his mail, and he’s not even receiving important legal documents. He blames us for not doing more: “You’re just like the rest of them.” Anthony is mad at me because I tried to persuade him to “cool his jets.” His angry response to things happening in his life was just making things worse for him, in an already unpleasant situation. He didn’t like my advice. Ann Mary is just bitter. The Parole Board didn’t give her a parole, but granted paroles to her closest friends. It wasn’t fair. Not in the least. They’re celebrating Christmas in freedom. She’s not.   David is angry at us and the entire system. He’s convinced that doctors have implanted a chip in his body, against his wishes, as part of a sinister internationa

Prison visit: The gift that keeps on giving!

Bob got some bad news this week. His family won’t be coming to visit him in prison. Family members are in Texas, and they claimed that some snow prevented their travel. The visit will have to be by phone for this Christmas. He’s taking it in stride. It’s a way of life for prisoners. Some years ago the Minnesota Department of Corrections conducted a major study on the impact of visitation. Said the experts: Based on both statistic and anecdotal evidence, visitation can be the difference between continuing a cycle of reoffending or finding hope to start a new life , according to experts and research. And yet they don’t get visits--- -Retired Warden Mary Berghuis contends that only 12% of Michigan prisoners get visits! -HFP Prison Doctor Bob Bulten recently called on a long-time inmate. It marked the first time he had ever had a visit! -My friend Jimmy has been in prison 18 years. He’s never had a visit! A dear friend of ours, wife of a wrongly-convicted lifer, r

On sweating the small stuff

It is a self-help maxim of the privileged to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But the folks at the bottom have to. (Fr Greg Boyle) The HFP team won’t be seen ringing a bell in front of your favorite supermarket or department store in this Christmas season. But I want to get the word out that this charitable organization is doing its best to help the folks at the bottom to “sweat the small stuff.” It was late afternoon , the day before Thanksgiving , when Wayne called us. He had just been granted a parole, had just landed in a half-way house only to discover that he had no wardrobe. He had no family or friends to fall back on, but he remembered that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS had been at his side in the past. He wasn’t next door…he was in the City of Benton Harbor. Yet, within an hour-and-a-half, Wayne had shirts, pants and shoes!  In June we discovered that Joyce was unable to visit her two sons in prison due to unpaid traffic tickets. Thanks to heroic assistance by Equa

Yes, Virginia, there ARE people who care!

I love the season of Advent! Somehow, this year, the message and the longing seem stronger. At first I blamed, or credited, this feeling on age. But the more I think about it, I’m convinced that it’s the headlines of the day. Some of the nicest, kindest, most generous people I know are behind bars. Some of the people whose words and ways I detest the most are not only in the free world, but in high places! And so the Advent Service by the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys was more refreshing and healing than ever. It was, in part, an escape from the madness of the world. An appreciative audience filled the pews of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven Friday evening. In that the offering was to be taken for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I was granted the privilege of making a short presentation. I told the story of how HFP helped a prisoner, suffering from sleep apnea, to finally get his CPAP breathing device…something the prison system had denied him for the past thre

Corrections Officers, It's time to step up to the plate!

Two short stories. Donald’s wife gives me a call. He’s been in prison 42 years, he’s 76 years of age, and he’s been a model prisoner. A quiet, gentle black man, Donald never got tickets, never challenged authority, and was liked by peers and staff alike. He finally got an opportunity for parole…he was granted a Public Hearing before the Michigan Parole Board. We attended, and spoke up in his support. That was some months ago. The reason for the call from Donald’s wife: He was granted a parole! Good news! God be praised! Then came the negative part of the story . Following the Public Hearing the prisoner is housed in a holding area until a van can arrive, pick him up, and take him back to the facility where he resides. While in that holding area, a few nasty Corrections Officers choose to harass him, telling him he’s never going to get out. “You’ll die in here.” Donald could hardly talk when he related that story to his wife that night…he broke down weeping. Story N

HFP: Not down for the 10 count!

HFP is still here, but not for lack of trying by the forces of evil. Founded in 2001 under the name INNOCENT and based on the dream of Maurice Carter, our organization not only quickly proved its worth, but gained in popularity among prisoners. So, the first attempts to quash our efforts were rather mild. Maurice died in 2004. His dream lived on. Free office space ended in 2009 when our building was sold. We moved from Muskegon to Grand Haven, found a low-rent room, and continued. Then came the major artillery. I was attacked by a brutal staph infection in 2010. My kids flew home, I lost 65 pounds, was on a feeding tube for 6 months, but survived! And HFP’s work continued unhindered, thanks to my wife, my son and a dynamite intern! All prisoner emails were shut down in 2015. HFP had been unknowingly violating two MDOC policies. Productive discussions in Lansing; apologies, compromise, and email service was restored. Black Friday gained new meaning in 2017!

Doing little things for little people is big!

I don’t wish for hurricanes, earthquakes, or any kind of natural disaster. But there are days when I wish we had some kind of a spectacular accomplishment that might help major donors and wealthy foundations to recognize our value in our unique role. No, we haven’t been sending material goods, food or dollars to stricken victims around the world. Instead, we’ve been Trying to get a rescue inhaler to a prisoner who’s struggling with asthma attacks Putting the finishing touches on a 9-month project where we got traffic fines paid for an indigent mother in Detroit, thus enabling her to resume visits with her two sons in prison…visits that got banned 3 years ago by unpaid traffic tickets Doing our best to get a new typewriter ribbon for a wrongly-convicted inmate in the U.P. who needs his typewriter to prepare his own legal documents Rushing to get clothing and shoes for an indigent ex-offender who found, upon his release, that the half-way house to which he had been a

What's in the brown paper bag?

On this Thanksgiving Day, 2017, I’d like to share a beautiful story...a story not written by me. I feel certain that Luis Ramirez would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him. He's dead. This message came to me from Death Row in Texas a few years after our organization was formed. We hear a lot of stories about prisoners. As President of HFP, though, I think it's important for all of us to be reminded that prisoners are people, they have feelings and emotions, and as I understand it, all are created in the image of God. Anyway, here’s my Thanksgiving gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez:  (In all caps, just the way he sent it) I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.  I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET.  I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST. THE FIRST PERSO

Standing with the powerless and the voiceless: HFP at Public Hearings!

We chose to stand by two guys today. Perhaps some would call them losers.  Why, you might ask. Why speak up for someone who committed a terrible crime against humanity 30, 40 or 50 years ago? Human life seemed to mean very little to that person back then. Why suggest freedom for that kind of criminal? I’m referring to Public Hearings, sessions conducted by the Michigan Parole Board to determine if serious offenders should be paroled. I first became aware of the Public Hearing in 2004, when the Board tried to determine whether to release my friend Maurice Carter. Since that time, our office has made it a priority to speak up, when possible, for our friends. There’s something you gotta know about Public Hearings. They’re not fun. -The prisoner is nervous and, more often than not, unprepared. -The Parole Board members are concerned about freeing a dangerous person. -The Assistant Attorney General, who claims to represent all the people of the State of Michigan, tends

Feeding a prisoner for under four bucks a day!

As a teenager in the 1950s, I was a grocery bagger in my father’s supermarket. Of all the people who came for their weekly food supplies, I remember one woman who paid over $20 consistently for her grocery order. She was obviously very poor, but was the parent of a large flock of kids. I would carry her bags to the car, while her husband sat in the vehicle reading the newspaper. Usually 4-5 bags, filled to the brim. Not many people spent that kind of money on groceries. Today, in 2017, I did the grocery shopping for Marcia and me. I paid $104 and some odd cents! Two octogenarians do not consume a lot of food, and I don’t purchase filet mignon and caviar. I’m fully aware of the fact that those entities that purchase large amounts of food can save plenty. I did some checking on school meals. The latest statistics I could find showed the average cost of lunch for an elementary school student was $2.34. That’s a deal! I bring up all of this stuff because my mind is still reeli