All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The good and the bad: You gotta love 'em all!

Dan Rooks and I had such a neat experience yesterday!

Dan is a clinical psychologist and former chairman of our Board of Directors.  He and I do a “dog and pony” show in Michigan prisons from time to time.  I speak first, telling about the history of HFP and the services that we offer.  He then follows with a serious chat about non-violent communication…an important topic for all of us, but especially for prisoners.  Yesterday we presented our program at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility, one of three state prisons in the city of Ionia.

On the way in

As we walked through the yard on our way to the prison auditorium, the Activities Director pointed out the unique facilities on this campus, including one special unit for physically handicapped and one special unit for mentally challenged inmates.  He explained that this particular facility offers more programs than any other single prison in the state, including college courses and even vocational training.

Once inside

As men filtered into the auditorium it felt like “old home week.”  I met a couple of inmates whom I have known for nearly 20 years.  There were many friends that we recognized, and many other names that we recognized from our correspondence.  It was an amazing experience.  Nearly 100 guys there, all copiously taking notes as I explained what we can do and how we can help.  One could hear a pin drop when Dan talked to seasoned prisoners on how to respond to insults and threats in a non-violent manner.  This delicious experience lasted for nearly two hours, with a lot of Q and A and open discussion.

On the way back

A different Corrections Officer led us back to the main building.  This time, as we walked through the yard, he pointed at a different unit, mentioning “the cream of the crop.”  Then he apologized, saying he was just joking.  That was the building where the toughest and most problematic young prisoners are housed.  “I confiscate drugs and weapons in that unit every day,” he explained.  My question:  “How does that stuff get in there?”  And he couldn’t give a good answer, because they keep coming up with new and innovative methods to sneak the stuff in, including both “visitors and dirty staff.”  “It’s like trying to plug too many holes with just ten fingers.”  He concluded by flatly stating, “I’ve given up any thoughts about rehabilitation for that bunch.  If one of the guys says ‘I’m really trying,” I just say, Yeah, whatever.’”

Richard A. Handlon CF:  A study in contrasts!

Sobering conclusions

The whole experience gave me at least two very important reminders.

Number one, it’s imperative that we pray not only for the good prisoners who have chosen a new and better way of life, but also for the tough and mean guys who think they know of a better way.  And on the other side of the coin, it’s important that we also pray for prison staff, as well as prison administration.  This business of incarceration and rehabilitation is complex and complicated.

And Number two, ALL of these men have been created in the image of God, and just because some are more challenging, it is the duty and the responsibility of HFP to be kind to them all, and respond to every request for assistance.  With divine intervention for sure, we’ve been known to touch some of those lives, as well.

God loves them all!  So must we.

Monday, January 23, 2017

No one is marching for prisoners. Yet.

Millions of women give me hope today!

I have been in such a funk, worrying about my country.  For those who do not know me, my roots are in journalism, my first career in this lengthy term on earth.  I think that, by their very nature, reporters are a cynical bunch, but the developments in recent months have pushed me beyond cynicism. 

Then, in the depths of my despair, came the marches by women…not only in western Michigan, not only in our state, not only in major cities, not only in our nation’s capitol, but around the world!  I should know better than to let myself sink into those emotional pits, because in my long lifetime I have clearly seen these two things:  God remains in control, and good people will not be put down.

And that has me thinking this morning.

The threat of losing rights and losing freedoms has people marching in the streets, which is great.

But there’s a huge segment of our society where many of these rights and freedoms have already been taken away.  In fact, the number is over 2-million here in the United States. These are the people locked up in our county jails, state prisons and federal penitentiaries.  Here in Michigan the population of our state prison system alone is over 40,000.  Just ask their family members and their loved ones.  They have not only been placed behind bars for alleged crimes committed…they have been deprived of many of the basic rights and freedoms that we cherish.

Granted, as punishment for what the government says they did, they are restricted from running free in the streets, and going on with their lives in their homes and at their jobs.  But their lives are not their own any more.  They are not only restricted from regular behavior, they are finding serious bans on free speech.  Many claim they are not even allowed to think on their own.  The system will do the thinking for them.  Our system is creating a world of zombies, who, unless there is some strong intervention, will struggle like crazy if and when they are ever released!

No one really seems to notice or to care, unless they have someone actually in prison. 

Nobody is marching for them! 

I pray that someone will.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

I, too, have a dream!

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the concept of restorative justice will take hold in every community, that offenders will be concerned about victims of crime, that victims will learn more about reasons for crime, and that supporting the rights of victims will not be mutually exclusive of ensuring humane treatment for prisoners.

I have a dream that one day the legal defense of indigent prisoners will not go to the lowest bidder, but will be sought out by the best legal minds so that every arrested person may get constitutionally guaranteed excellent representation in the courtroom.

I have a dream that one day the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” will become a reality instead of a meaningless cliché, that investigating officers will avoid the curse of “tunnel vision” and seek all facts before making arrests, and that states’ attorneys will pursue conviction of proven criminals but also admit mistakes and wrongdoing and release those persons where accusations are unfounded.  I look forward to that day when arrests are equally made with no regard to race, religion and gender.

I have a dream that a better system of choosing prosecutors can be established, in which prosecutors do not campaign for re-election on a platform of conviction totals, but instead seek public support based on their pursuit of justice.  I look forward to that day when prosecutorial misconduct will not only be readily exposed, but pursued and punished with an equal vigor.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that those robed justices on the bench may not only find fairness and equality in sentencing from county to county, state to state, but that their fine legal minds can creatively develop alternatives to incarceration, especially in cases of non-violent crimes…alternatives that not only benefit the public and reduce the costs of prison systems, but also seek to positively impact lives of the accused.  May that day come when rehabilitation supersedes retribution.  

I have a dream that parole boards will no longer insist that prisoners show remorse before giving them consideration, but recognize that the system has its flaws, that there really are people behind bars who have been wrongly convicted, and that it is criminal to insist that these people lie in order to achieve freedom.

I have a dream that prison wardens and prison staff members will no longer become jaded by those who commit heinous crimes, but instead will recognize that all men and women have been created in the image of God.  Even though many prisoners seem rebellious, insensitive and uncaring, I have a dream that leaders of prison systems will make efforts to give their occupants more education, more vocational training, more counseling, adequate medical care, and that prison staffers will receive improved professional training to better care for the large population of mentally challenged inmates.

My dream goes beyond those behind bars, those who put them there, and those who keep them there.

I have a dream that one day the general public will not only hear but accept our message that all prisoners, regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of the nature of the crime, deserve humane treatment.

That will be the day when HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is no longer an agency with services limited to the State of Michigan, but has active chapters in every state!

That will be the day when we no longer have to worry about how to pay the electric bill, but will have dollars to improve and expand our essential ministry.

And that will be the day when we’ll have hundreds of volunteers gladly holding open doors for re-entering citizens as they exclaim, “Free at last…free at last.  Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”

On January 15, a tribute to three African American giants

On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, I pray tribute to three African Americans who made a profound and lasting impact on my life.

The first was Sister Mattie Davis, a wisp of a little black lady who was Business Manager for a black gospel singing group based in Muskegon known as the Heavenly Echoes. The year was 1954.  I was a young man 17 years of age when I landed my first job in radio broadcasting, and part of my assignment was to sign on the radio station WMUS at 8:15 AM on Sundays.  Each Sunday the Heavenly Echoes provided a live broadcast, and the host and announcer was Mattie Davis.  This white, Christian Reformed boy was amazed at the difference in prayers.  At my home, in my school and in my church, our prayers included lofty phrases of “thees” and “thous” in words of praise and supplication.  In the Heavenly Echoes broadcast, Sister Mattie Davis remembered to include those first responders and people on the street protecting our safety, as she prayed for “policemens” and “firemens!”

The second was the Rev. Cy Young, a black itinerant preacher with a background in professional black entertainment.  Cy had the unusual gift of recitation, and had memorized all of the major Martin Luther King speeches.  A towering black man with a striking slash of white in his otherwise black head of hair, had a booming voice to match, and his version of “I Have a Dream” brought tears to my eyes every time I heard it.  We worked together for years until he was hit and killed by a car.  His dream was to form chapters of a MARTIN LUTHER KING ASSOCIATION in every community to promote racial harmony.  “Douglas,” he would say, “When I meet Jesus and he asks me how many white people I know, I don’t want to get there empty-handed!”

The third was Maurice Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, who found himself serving a life sentence in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit.  I spent the next 9 years fighting for his freedom, after we met in 1995.  He was finally released in the summer of 2004, not because he was exonerated, but because he was dying.  He lived for three months following his release, with experiences that he and I and my family treasured.

I’m convinced that it was by divine intervention that these three relatively unknown African Americans not only touched my life, but prepared the way for a vibrant and effective ministry today known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS!

As we prepare for MLK Day, may my dear friends Mattie, Cy and Maurice RIP!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

We don't talk about failure: Not good for business!

Final copy for the February HFP newsletter just went to the printer.  This will be a “happy” edition, in contrast to some where we tell stories of sad prisoner plights.  But I can tell you this:  We made no mention of our failures.  That kind of news certainly would not please those who support us with their dollars.  Instead, we tuck them away, quoting the old cliché:  Grin and bear it!

We made no mention of the fact that women in one prison unit at Huron Valley have been without heat for 6 weeks now, temps haven’t gotten above 55 degrees, many are getting sick, there are no extra blankets or clothes.  So far, nothing we’ve tried is working.

We didn’t talk about old man John.  Prisoners say, “…they took his wheelchair, cane, C-Pap machine and a number of other health care items, all out of retaliation.  He does have a walker right now but still they torture him.”   So far, we’ve been ineffective.

We didn’t run any story about the court’s mistakes in Joe’s case, even though the publicity might get him a new trial.  That’s because we’re not attorneys, we’re not an Innocence Project, and we don’t take on legal cases.  But it feels like we’re saying, “Sorry, not interested.”

Many prisoners are asking us to help them prepare applications for a commutation of their sentence…something we offer at no charge.  We don’t tell about the guy who didn’t hear about us until too late, and spent $9,500 of his poor mother’s money on a “professional” who put together a slick document.  It was rejected.  His hope for freedom is gone, and so is his money.

We were asked by an inmate to help Bill, a senior citizen diagnosed with cancer.  We tried to reach out by email in a timely manner, but we were told, “He was so happy to hear from you, but then he had a terrible stomach ache and they rushed him to the hospital.”  For all we know, we were too late.

These stories don’t make good copy, and they don’t raise money.  But they reflect a very real part of what goes on in this office.  And the emotions that accompany failure.

Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as saying:  "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

Mebbe so, but I like this quote better, the one that our friend Bob Bulten puts in his emails…a statement by Bob Pierce.

"May my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God"

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The necessary ingredient in helping prisoners: YOU!

President Obama was giving his farewell speech.  He urged those who love this country to do more than just sit around and discuss our problems.  “We must all accept the responsibilities of citizenship,” he contended.  Right on!

That brought to mind a discussion I had had earlier in the day, as I shared a cup of coffee with Joe Whalen, Executive Director of 70X7 MUSKEGON, certainly one of the finest re-entry programs available for Michigan prisoners.  Joe and I have a lot in common.  HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does its best to help prisoners while they’re still behind bars.  His organization does its best to help them when they get out.
Joe said that he explains his work to a businessman, explaining all the complexities in helping prepare a former prisoner on how to be a productive member of society (a prisoner created in the image of God!). The company finally agrees to make a donation to get the job done. 

I have a similar situation when I explain, to church groups, how important it is to help an inmate who was convicted of a violent crime, but who is now dying behind bars, cannot get appropriate medical care, and may be denied hospice care (a prisoner created in the image of God!).  The religious group finally agrees to pray for our work. 

It isn’t that 70X7 Muskegon and HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS don’t need the money, or don’t need the prayers.  God knows we need both!  But we need more, and it goes back to what the President said.

Item---the USA has a huge problem:  mass incarceration.

Item---treatment of people behind bars, and reentry programs for those planning to leave, are woefully inadequate, in all of our states.

Take a moment to Google the prison system in Norway, where the recidivism rate is almost non-existent, where they don’t have such a thing as life sentences without parole, and where they believe that the person who committed the most vile and despicable crime is still salvageable.  There would be no need for Joe’s agency, or ours, in Norway!

Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky said this:  “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.”

Yes, 70X7 Muskegon and HFP covet your prayers, and your dollars.  Our work is more than important…it is necessary.  It is vital.

But 42,000 people behind bars in Michigan need more than that.  Concern and compassion must come from more than a few struggling agencies.  “We must all accept the responsibilities of citizenship!”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sure there are lows. But the highs win!

The questions invariably come after we tell of an unpleasant experience:  Don’t you get discouraged; why keep on trying to help prisoners?

Let me ask you something.

If you’re a parent, you don’t stop loving or stop helping when your kid messes up, do you?

If you’re a teacher, you don’t stop loving your work because of a disruptive student or contrary parents, do you?

If you’re a doctor, you don’t stop doing your best, even though some patients refuse your treatment, think you’re a quack, and make unwise decisions, do you?

Do you see my point?

Sure, I stood in the window of an execution chamber and watched in horror as the State of Texas put my friend to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

I took a call in the middle of the night.  A parolee for whom I had held the prison door as he stepped into freedom, had ignored my pleas to avoid substance abuse.  He went on a drunken spree, and was found frozen to death in the middle of a field.

Turns out a guy I believed in and was trying to help, continued his life of crime upon his release, behind my back, and finally took his own life when police closed in on him.

I hate that kind of stuff.  And yes, it is discouraging.

But I gotta tell you something:  These are the exceptions.  We receive thanks from prisoners and their families, kind words of gratitude, 7 days a week!  And sometimes we don’t feel all that worthy, because we really didn’t help that much.  But that made little difference, because, you see…it was the fact that somebody cared.  These people deal with sadness, loneliness and rejection daily, around the clock, all year long.  

Just as with the parent, the teacher, the doctor that I mentioned above, this is a calling.  We not only love the work.  I can say without any reservation that we love the people with whom we are working!  And we care.  We're going to keep on keepin' on!

2017 is going to be a remarkable year!