All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Prison guards need non-violent communication training, too!

It’s a terrible thing to lose your mom.  It’s even worse for someone in prison to lose a mother, or any family member for that matter.  There’s no way to mourn.  No one to talk to.  There’s no quiet time for reflection.  Other family members can’t be there with you to share memories.  You may not even attend the memorial service.  It’s heart-wrenching!

So a young, 28-year-old Connor was hurting last week on the day of his mother’s funeral, and it’s no surprise that he got into an argument with a Corrections Officer.  From that point on, specific details aren’t available, but we’ve received enough reports that substantiate the final chapter of the story.  Connor told the officer his mother had died, and the aggravated officer replied, “F*** your mom!”

Connor’s response was a quick punch to the officer’s face.  And predictably, other guards raced to help and Connor became a punching bag.  He was hauled away to Level 4 in a cart, we’re told, bleeding and suffering from possible head injuries.  Connor has now been transferred to a prison where they have a Level 5, which is tantamount to solitary confinement.  His grandmother is worried, and we’re trying to find out more.

It's easy for me to use a broad brush when painting a picture of Michigan prison guards, and I want to avoid that.  I regularly meet very nice people behind bars who try hard, and do their best.  It’s not an easy job.  Many prisoners live up to their reputation and make life miserable for these officers.  And that leads me to my topic for today.

In recent years our former Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I have traveled to numerous prisons in the state to lead workshops.  I talk about the services that HFP can and does provide, and Dan, who is a practicing clinical psychologist, talks about non-violent communication.  In fact, Dan is so adamant in his determination to help prisoners with anger management that he teaches a course, twice a month, on that very topic in a state prison.

Every time he speaks, prisoners beg him to start a similar course in their facility.  They take notes.  In the noisy environment of the prison, you can hear a pin drop when Dan discusses alternatives to violent responses to provocation.  The inmates seem like sponges, absorbing every drop of precious information on the subject.

In addition, I have seen prisoners take the initiative on this topic.  In my two most recent visits to the Cotton CF in Jackson, I’ve witnessed hundreds of inmates taking a peace pledge…swearing to do their best to lower incidents of violence in their environment.         

BUT, I’ve never heard of such a thing among corrections officers.  And as I see it, this is a two-way street.  If their union is already making work of providing non-violent communication skills to their members, God bless them.  It’s the route to go.  If not, then such action is past due.

I’m not a violent person…dunno if I’ve ever hit anyone.  But I can tell you this:  You’d better watch out if you say to me, “F*** your mom!”

Friday, April 21, 2017

When we can't help, that's what breaks my heart!

“War is hell.”  A quote attributed to General William Tecumseh Sherman dating back to the Civil War.

“Prison is hell.”  A quote attributed to Doug Tjapkes at the turn of the 21st Century.

Articles appearing in our newspapers and on our television sets in recent years seem to show a dramatic improvement in prison life:  college and seminary courses, community college affiliations, new programs offering vocational training, new dog-training programs, new and improved arts and hobby-craft projects.  But the reality is:  Prison is still hell!  Pure and simple.  No if, and, or but about it.  And while the reformers and politicians are grabbing the headlines about our improvements, you can be assured that there are enough of the old guard, the hard line establishment, to make sure that prison remains hell.  Retribution and punishment are rife!  Rehabilitation and restoration are almost non-existent!

We are as guilty as others in painting a rosy picture.  If HFP hopes to raise enough money to fund a smooth operation, we must demonstrate success.  We must show not only how many prisoners are contacting us, but also how many we are helping.  And so we do our best to talk about results. 

But what breaks my heart is when we cannot help!


Robert is a 56 year old white man who has served 30 years.  He’s not only eligible for parole, but he should be paroled.  He minds his own business, stays out of trouble, helps other prisoners, plays his guitar for the church praise band, and stays in touch with his 80-year-old mother.

For some unexplained reason he got transferred to one of the state’s more unpleasant facilities in the Upper Peninsula this week, disrupting his life and placing him out-of-reach for his elderly mom.

That wasn’t all.  When he arrived at the new facility, all of his earthly goods were dumped on the floor, and officers started labeling things “contraband.”  One of his footlockers containing his precious legal documents was labeled “contraband.”  He was told that guitar amps are not allowed at that facility, and if he didn’t send it out within 30 days it would be destroyed.  When he tried to protest, the guard shouted that if he argued he would write him a “Class 1” ticket, and he would throw him in the hole for possessing “escape paraphernalia” because he owned a pair of leather gloves.  They forced him to sign some document that he couldn’t even read, because at that point they still had refused to give him his glasses. For the moment, all of his legal documents are being held hostage.

But Robert still had hope, because this could be the year for his release

Said he:  “Thinking that my chances are really good for parole, I didn’t want to rock the boat.”

And then, the very next day, the boat sank.  He received a 5-year flop.  He must remain behind bars for another 5 years.

“I just can’t believe God would put all this pressure on me like this.”

He’s begging for help, and we can’t give it. “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”  He’s not alone.  I’m not only at a loss to find the right actions, here.  I can’t even find the right words.  I’m praying.  That’s the extent of it for now.  It would be nice if you’d pray for him, too.

Robert feels all alone in a prison, in a world, that today seems like hell.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

And IF we're Easter People, it's time to show it!

In my Easter blog this year, I made reference to a delightful Avery and Marsh song that Marcia and I have loved ever since we attended their workshop eons ago.

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
the past is over and gone!

Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear, good riddance!
Hello Lord, Hello sun!
I am one of the Easter People!
My new life has begun!

I am so impressed that, on Ash Wednesday, so many people are not ashamed to wear the sign of the cross smeared on their foreheads.

I am so impressed that, on Easter morning, so many people who aren’t all that interested in church during the year, feel that it is important to get to the Easter service.

That tells me that many people are not ashamed of what this Jesus stood for.  And if that is the case, and if every day is “resurrection day” from now on, then those of us who call ourselves “Easter People” must not be ashamed to

-stand with the victims of war;
-stand with homeless refugees;
-stand with immigrants;
-stand with battered women;
-stand with the mentally and physically challenged
-stand with victims of all types of discrimination
-stand with victims of religious persecution (all religions!);
-stand with victims of racial hatred;
-stand with the poor and homeless, without condemnation;
-stand against the death penalty;
-stand against mass incarceration;

And this one is especially important to me---

Stand with men, women and children behind bars, regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of the severity of the alleged offense.

Then we can sing the last two verses of the song!

Daily news is so bad it seems the
Good News seldom gets heard.
Get it straight from the Easter People:
God's in charge! Spread the word!

Yesterday I was bored and lonely;
but today look and see!
I belong to the Easter People!
Life's exciting to me!


Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
the past is over and gone!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why the Risen Lord relates so well to prisoners?

I have an idea why Jesus relates so much to prisoners and their various plights.  Hear me out.

It’s Easter time, 2017.  On Maundy Thursday Pope Francis, one of my heroes, entered a prison in Italy and washed the feet of more than a dozen former mafia figures, now incarcerated.  On Good Friday, around the world, people attended services observing the death of our Savior.  On Easter morning, church attendance records will break as people attend services celebrating the resurrection of the Christ.

Then comes Monday.  I love the whimsical Avery and Marsh Easter song that goes like this:

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
the past is over and gone!

I always hope it will be that way.  But the reality of the situation is that, once Easter is gone, it will be forgotten by many until this time in 2018.  We went to church.  We thought of Jesus.  Our dues have been paid.  Now it’s back to the real world.

No wonder Jesus identifies with prisoners.

Let me use the Maurice Carter story as a perfect example, and prisoners around the world will be able to relate to this.

Maurice served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.  Less than 10 years after his arrest he appeared live on a TV show on a new and exciting network called CNN.  He was given a lie detector test on camera.  The test was repeated two more times.  He passed.  People all over the country shook their heads in disgust at a system that would convict an innocent man.  At least one attorney vowed to help him.  Action was needed.  Months later, all was forgotten, and Maurice remained in jail.

We put up billboards.  We held rallies.  We brought in former welterweight champ Rubin Hurricane Carter for personal appearances.  Time after time the story made front page news.  Promises and commitments were made.  This man had to be freed.  Nothing happened.

We found the real criminal, the person who committed the crime that put Maurice in prison.  We still hold the evidence.  It made news for a minute, but the next day it was back to normal.  The system would not budge.

Maurice didn’t get out until the system reluctantly released him because he was dying.  He was never exonerated.

The good news is that one day he will be freed, thanks to the Christ whose resurrection we celebrate tomorrow.

When it comes to the risen Lord, when it comes to the people behind bars whom he loved and loves so much, this year let’s determine that every morning will be Easter morning from now on!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Innocent until proven guilty? Don't you believe it for a second!

You’re guilty until proven innocent.  It’s not something we proclaim out in the open here in the home of the brave and the land of the free.  But it’s a fact.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys know it.  Cops know it.  Judges know it.  And if other factors are involved, such as race and poverty, the situation gets even worse.

Why am I thinking about this, or, it seems, ranting?

Well, I’m reviewing the Maurice Carter story.  The publisher of my book SWEET FREEDOM has asked me to write and voice personal intros to each chapter of the book, for an “enhanced” e-book version that will be coming out.  And so, during my brief vacation when I enjoy taking a little time to do some writing, I’m reliving the Maurice Carter story.  Now the enjoyment is turning to renewed disgust.

Maurice Carter’s story demonstrates, once again, just how difficult it is to prove you are innocent once you get sucked into the so-called justice system.  Not only that, it proves just how easy it is to get into prison, and just how difficult it is to get out.  For those not familiar with the story, and my involvement in it, the late Maurice Carter served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.  In the last decade of his life, I tried to help him.

Regardless of your innocence---

If cops with tunnel vision decide that you’re the perpetrator of a crime, facts are going to make little difference.

If Prosecutors with a win-at-any-cost mentality decide that you’re going to prison, they’ll find just enough alleged “facts,” just the right witnesses willing to shade the truth for a price, and just the right junk science to help their cause.  You won’t have a prayer.

If you’re poor and must rely on court-appointed counsel, God help you!  Back in the olden days in Berrien County, where Maurice was charged, tried and convicted, those lawyers hired by the county to defend alleged felons were low-bidders for the job.  The man didn’t even meet with Maurice prior to his trial, and failed to cross examine the only witness to the crime, who swore that Maurice was not the perp!

If you are non-white, don’t expect to get a ruling from a jury of your peers.  Maurice Carter’s jury was all-white, even though there were a few blacks in the jury pool.  He was arrested by the Benton Harbor Police Department representing a populace that is almost entirely black, but that made little difference.  White people decided his fate.

And once you’re in, it will take heaven and earth (plus a strong measure of divine intervention) to get you out again.  Innocence has nothing to do with it.

I really don’t know how to put a positive spin on this blog, except that we are hearing more and more about wrongful convictions, Innocence Projects are working hard to get more and more exonerations, and some elements in the US judicial system seem to be moving toward genuine fairness.

Meanwhile, depending on whose figures you believe, between 3 and 15 percent of prisoners in our overcrowded institutions did not commit the crimes for which they are serving time.