All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, February 27, 2017

Hoping to keep kids from going to prison!

So here’s the thing.

I can be pretty quick to criticize wardens and prison staffers here in Michigan when I think that what they’re doing is wrong.


Then I darn well better be up front with praise when I think something is good.  And that’s where I am today.

Several Michigan prisons have undertaken a project called the Juvenile Deterrent Program.  It’s a mentoring program, designed to keep troubled teens from winding up in the state prison system.

Among those prisons embarking on this project is the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility, right next door in Muskegon. 

Here’s how it works.  Prisoners are used to mentor juvenile delinquents who are on probation in that hope that they will deter and dissuade them from continuing in this negative behavior pattern.  They’re quick to point out to these kids that if they stay on that path, it leads to a room behind bars.

And to her credit, prisoners are telling us that Warden Shirlee Harry has announced that she will now include or permit single mothers who are having difficulty with their teenage sons to be eligible for this program. 

The first batch of kids came in this month…they were from Muskegon’s alternative high school. And, if the report to us from a prisoner is any indication, it was a huge success…on both sides of the fence!

Quoting this inmate:  “There were 9 teenagers who came up today, ranging in age from 16-18.  To me they just seemed so young, small and fragile.  It gave me another vantage point of how I must have appeared when I came to prison at the age of 17, only 5’6” and weighing only 135 pounds.  This event provided me insight from a different perspective.  Mentoring to these wayward youths today was truly a blessing and an honor!  It gave me a direct sense of purpose, impact and import.  I noticed that as I was striving to help these kids discover their value and self-worth, that my own sense of value was being reinforced.  We were able to reach most of them, according to their own accounts.”

He explained that, “one kid has already caught a weapons charge for illegal possession.  After the event he thanked us and by his account he was indeed affected by the mentoring he had received and has learned his lesson.”

Word from Brooks is that each month they’ll receive a new batch of kids.  As of now, there are ten inmate-mentors, and four of the ten are “juvenile lifers.”  The program is still in its fledgling state, but already we’re told that it is in the process of expanding and evolving.

So today, a tip of the HFP hat to Warden Shirlee Harry, every member of her staff who is taking part in this project, and to the inmates who are serving as mentors.  And this thanks extends all the way to Lansing, and Director Heidi Washington.

The sooner this exciting program goes to all Michigan prisons, the better!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yes, Tammy, he cares...and so do we!

Not much more could have gone wrong in Tammy’s life.

She came into the Michigan prison system with a fistful of charges four years ago, and did well until a few months ago when she claims she was set up on a misconduct charge of smuggling.  But until the state could conduct a hearing on her non guilty plea, she was placed in segregation…or as the prisoners call it, in the hole.

And while there, last month, things went south.

Her mother was brutally murdered in her Detroit home on January 6th…it was all over the TV news on the 7th.

Tammy’s sister Judith, who is on her visitor list and who serves as her emergency contact, immediately called the prison to relay the bad news.  That was on the 7th.  But the system resisted.  Who knows, could be a fake call.  Her sister tried again every day until January 13th.  Finally, one week after the slaying, Judith was advised to fax proof of their mother’s death to the Warden’s office.  The following Tuesday, January 17th, Tammy was officially notified of her mother’s passing and was allowed to make a phone call.

But, this was 11 days later.  And while there are no TV sets in the hole, Tammy’s friends had television sets, and that’s how she got the news.

She was so distraught that she was placed on suicide precaution.  Then, of course, she missed the memorial service.  A therapist gave her a book on how to deal with grief, suggesting that she create a scrap book and develop a strong support system among her friends.  None of which could really work very well since she was locked up in isolation.

But that’s not the whole story.

In addition to these problems, Tammy hasn’t been able to have visits since last August when somehow, the state claimed, there was a “system error.”  Between August of 2016 and January 31st of this year, her family continued to call about the visitation problem, and continued to receive the same answer:  The matter “had been forwarded to the Warden’s office.”

A friend suggested that she write to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  “It is my hope,” she said, “that someone will reach out to me concerning these issues.”

We promptly responded, and within 24 hours we received the reassuring words from the Warden’s office:  “Issue resolved. It appears that her list was deactivated in error.  I have reactivated her list so the family may now visit.”

I love the words of this old gospel song:

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth or song,
  As the burdens press,
  And the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?

O yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
  When the days are weary,
  The long night dreary,
  I know my Savior cares.

Yes, Tammy, Jesus cares.

So does HFP.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seems cruel and unusual to me!

As I review complaints about medical care, or lack thereof, in the Michigan prison system, I contend that the state is violating the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Let me explain.

Mr. A is a new prisoner.  He suffers from cerebral palsy.  He reports to HFP, “I need to get back on my prescribed medication ASAP.”  The prison system simply explains:  “You were not approved for this medication by the regional medical director in Lansing.  Will forward your request.”  He asks:  “So I’m wondering what I shall do in the meantime.  I’ve been waiting since I arrived on December 27!”  He's in pain.

Mr. B is a chemist, biologist and geologist who, while working as a civilian contractor, was accidentally exposed to nerve agents.  As a result, he has severe COPD.  Prior to his arrest, he was told by doctors to sleep in a chair to reduce lung problems.  At most prison units he was allowed to do this…until February 5, when without warning the prison refused to allow him to sleep in a chair, and officials refuse to discuss it.  Rumor is that this is retaliation because of some grievances he filed.

Mr. C had surgery that was apparently successful, but since then the scrotum swelled to 12 inches around.  As it turns out, this probably was normal, and the swelling will go down, according to our experts, but there was no one there to explain this to him and avoid this unnecessary angst.

Mr. D has Irritable Bowel Syndrome with diarrhea…he’s getting no help from the prison health people nor his family.  He’s going to the bathroom 12-20 times a day, and still goes in his pants and in his bed.  His roommate complains, and he hates living this way.

The lawyers who specialize in this kind of thing won’t touch cases like these…at least not until grievances are filed, and not without lots of printed documents and substantial proof that the neglect and abuse is willful.

The 8th Amendment says that cruel and unusual punishments may not be inflicted. The amendment is meant to safeguard Americans against excessive punishments.  In other words, for Messrs. A, B, C and D, the incarceration is their punishment.  Inadequate medical care may not be dumped on them as additional punishment.

This shoddy medical practice may not meet the criteria for attorneys, but I contend that it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Just sayin’.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

BLACK HISTORY MONTH, more meaningful than ever!

I’m 80.

When I was a child, we didn’t think it was black discrimination.

As a tiny tot, my mom read a book to me about Little Black Sambo.

When kids didn’t know how to make a decision, or how to choose, we said “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, catch a ni**er by his toe!”  Sorry, I just can’t make myself say that word, or even type it.

When we bought a package of mixed nuts to serve our company in the holiday season, the Brazil nuts were called, “ni**er toes.”

My cousins went to Alabama to visit with their aunt and uncle and cousins, and returned to joke about separate drinking fountains down south for whites and blacks.

And things didn’t improve when I grew up.

One of my first bosses, at a Christian radio station that featured predominately religious programming, urged me to persuade an elderly man on the staff to polish my car for me.  He said he could make it shine “like a ni**er’s heel!”

As late as the 1990s, a devout co-worker was referring to African Americans with the derogatory phrase “jungle bunnies.”

As a church organ salesman, trying to persuade the chairman of an ultra conservative church's music committee to drive to a certain neighborhood where he could hear one of our recent installations, he demurred, saying that there were a lot of “coons” in that area.

All of that garbage was quickly erased when my life was changed, in years to follow, in such a profound way by these African Americans who, I swear, walked on holy ground:  gospel singer Alma James Perry; the Rev. Cy Young; Maurice Carter; The Rev. Rodney Gulley; the James Family Singers;  and many, many more.

Black History Month is precious to me.  So are the names of every African American whose life has intersected with mine.  Especially the very long list of my black friends behind bars.

In February, 2017, please join me in this prayer, created by the Diocesan Commission to end racism:

“ One God, in Three Persons, creator of one human species, in many hues: all who pray to you are descendants of Adam and Eve, all members of one race called “human.” Forgive the blindness that causes our eyes to notice and magnify those things we regard as different from ourselves in others. Teach us to see clearly, that we, your children, are far more alike than we are different. Help us to put aside the racial prejudices embedded within us, and to see within every person the Child of God you created, our sister or brother, destined for Glory. In the name of One who died for all persons, of all colors, Jesus Christ.”


Friday, February 3, 2017

Disappointment. A way of life in this business!

Matt had a bad day yesterday.

It’s getting more and more difficult to accept invitations to be a prisoner’s representative at a Parole Board hearing.  With a case file now exceeding 1,000, we can’t be at the side of a every prisoner who asks.  But Rick’s case was exceptional.  He’s facing a serious diagnosis of cancer, and the aggressive treatment that he needs probably won’t come in the prison system.  So Matt, Executive Director of HFP, agreed to be in Jackson yesterday to sit at his side during for the important interview with a member of the Parole Board.

Matt never got in.

He and I have done numerous Parole Board interviews in the past without problems, and without LEIN clearance.  But this time the officer at the desk insisted that, because Matt’s name had not been cleared by the Law Enforcement Information Network, he would not be allowed to participate in the meeting.

Keep in mind that Jackson isn’t next door.  Our office is in Grand Haven, which makes it a two-and-a-half hour drive.   If we had known, even hours ahead of time, we might have been able to work through this problem by making some calls with the department hierarchy.  But the system is large and cumbersome, and it wasn’t going to happen yesterday.

Rejection at the gates of the prison is not an uncommon thing.

I was at a facility once where an old, black preacher came to visit his son.  He was no longer in good health, so someone else drove him on the long trip to prison.  When he got to the desk, he realized that he had left his driver’s license home, so he had no official picture ID.  Never mind that he had all kinds of other identification, and that the officers knew him because he was a regular there.  Rules are rules, and the old man was sent home.

A contentious Corrections Officer may decide that the jeans of a female visitor are too tight, so she may not enter.  Never mind that another girl got in with slacks so tight they looked like they were painted on.  Rules are rules, and she is sent home.

What we’re forgetting in this entire discussion, as usual, is the prisoner.  We’re complaining about all the visitation problems, but we’re ignoring the heartbreak of the inmate.  Rick was planning to have Matt at his side, and for all he knew, Matt either forgot or just decided that Rick’s case wasn’t important enough to merit the mileage and time spent.  The African American inmate undoubtedly wondered why his elderly father didn’t pay him his regular visit, and worried about his health and welfare.  One of the bright spots for a young prisoner was his visit by a girlfriend.  She didn’t show up.

Personal contact means a lot!  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, according to experts and research. 

Yes, studies have shown that prison visits are important.

Story after story about disastrous visits show that the prisoner is not.