All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Convicted of a sex crime? Don't expect a good time in prison!

Persons accused of committing sex crimes have a difficult time behind bars.  That’s no surprise, because negative attitudes toward alleged sex offenders are prevalent.  People on the street don’t like these people, corrections officers don’t like them, prisoners don’t like them.  Let’s face it, our friends sitting right next to us in church don’t like them! 

Before I deal with the subject of this blog, however, it’s important to stress a few very important points.  Criminal sexual conduct charges cover an exceptionally wide variety of alleged offenses.  We know of actual cases in which a man was spotted urinating in a dark alley, arrested on a charge of indecent exposure and actually sentenced to prison!  We know of numerous cases of wrongful conviction, often stemming from marital or family disputes, when someone choses to get even by accusing a person of molesting a child.  We know of numerous cases involving consensual sex with someone below the legal age limit.  So while it’s true there are pedophiles and rapists and child molesters in prison, the sex offender title covers a lot.

I bring up this topic following a couple of recent reports to our office.

The wife of a prisoner who claims wrongful conviction on a CSC charge says her husband has been told he may not have a maintenance job, yet the inmate/head of the maintenance program in that prison is in on a CSC conviction.  A classifications officer similarly told him he couldn’t have the job of midnight porter because of his case.  Yet, she can find nothing in the MDOC policies that supports denial of jobs like these.  But it happens.

Even more common is the way fellow prisoners and Corrections Officers treat many alleged sex offenders.  Here’s a message we just received from Thomas:

An officer went down to search my cell. He sat in the room, reading my legal work, then dumping out my legal envelopes. He trashed my bed, crinkled up a whole slew of my paperwork and pulled all of my pictures out of my photo album, crinkling them too. He mixed my cellmates stuff all in with mine. I went to my counselor’s office and explained everything to him. Then, I immediately went to speak with the Sgt. He just threatened to take me to the hole. When he looked in my room he stated, “I don’t know what it looked like before." I asked him to take pictures and he refused. Then another came in and saw my cell and I'm sure the camera will show him just shaking his head. Later on in the evening the original officer called me to the desk and asked me for my ID. I asked him if he was writing me a ticket and he responded in the affirmative. We started to exchange words and he stated to me and a group of guys on the base that us "child molesters" complain about everything.

It is not uncommon to receive reports that officers have tipped off prisoners about alleged sex crimes of others, simply to stir up trouble and to scare the alleged offenders.

These are not isolated incidents.  That’s why we take the time to write about them.  In fairness, let me say the Department doesn’t condone this stuff either.  But some of the old-timers in the system still seem to prefer the old way.

Men and women serving time for alleged CSC infractions, rightly or wrongly, deserve fair treatment.  The incarceration is the punishment.  Nothing may be added.  Period.

The Department should insist on it.

So should we.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Death alone! No loved ones present.

The system failed Mr. and Mrs. Glen Anderson.  Not once.  Not twice.  But over and over again! 

Matt and I became very close to this story, because while Glen was writing letters to Matt, I was chatting by phone with Susan.

Here’s the situation. 

-Glen struggled with alcohol problems for years, and even went to prison for driving while intoxicated.
-He was diagnosed in 2013 with liver cancer, and a transplant could have saved his life.  But he says he started drinking again, and that erased his name from the waiting list.
-Then got arrested again.  He went back to prison again in 2015.

And that’s when the questions first arise. When a judge was fully aware that Glen had terminal cancer, why send him to prison for 3 to 7 and a half years?  That, in effect, was a death sentence!

Glen’s treatments continued on and off, but a prison doctor finally explained to him that there was no chance for recovery and his days were numbered.

He wouldn’t qualify for parole until next March, but as he told Matt in his letter, I just want to be with my wife and kids before my time comes.  Armed with medical evidence, he asked the Parole Board to recommend that the Governor commute his sentence.

On February 13 the Parole Board simply advised him that it had “no interest.”

In desperation, his wife Sue appealed to the Governor’s office.  Glen received a letter from the Governor’s legal counsel dated April 12, denying the request.  Obviously no one had even looked at his medical records.  Here the man was at death’s door step, and the attorney reminded him that he could apply again in two years!

Sue and Glen appealed to HFP.  When we receive calls like this, our first task is to verify the medical situation.  A fine oncologist on the HFP advisory team quickly responded, saying he wasn’t going to last long.

And he didn’t.  Prison healthcare officials in Adrian transferred him to a hospital in Jackson last weekend.  Meanwhile, HFP decided to attempt a Hail Mary pass and go straight to the front office of the MDOC the very first thing Monday morning.

Too late.

While his wife, his 95 year old mother and his sister were sitting in the hospital waiting room, hoping to make one last bedside visit, they were informed of Glenn’s death.

It’s our position the system failed.  A 60-year-old man, serving a sentence for a non-violent crime, who is dying of cancer, and he cannot get a compassionate release?  He’s considered a threat to society?  Come on.

A department spokesman would only tell me:  Medical commutations are rare, regardless of the offense type.

You think?

Sue tried, Glen tried, HFP tried.  I’m so sorry. 

Our condolences to the family.  The State of Michigan can do better than this.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

One more diatribe about the notorious Public Hearing

I hate Public Hearings.  They may be an essential part of gaining freedom for old-timers in the Michigan prison system, but I hate them.  I testified at a Public Hearing yesterday, and as usual, left in disgust.  Let me explain.

Before a certain population of the Michigan Department of Corrections can attain a parole, they must first be grilled by one or two members of the Michigan Parole Board, and especially by an Assistant from the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  Department officials will quote state law when explaining the reason for these hearings: 

"A prisoner shall not be given liberty on parole until the board has reasonable assurance, after consideration of all of the facts and circumstances, including the prisoner's mental and social attitude, that the prisoner will not become a menace to society or to the public safety."

The agenda at a Public Hearing is rather simple.  The Assistant Attorney General and the Parole Board members spend a lot of time discussing the crime.  A few minutes are then spent on the prisoner’s accomplishments over the decades spent behind bars.  A Parole officer is then asked to report on possible housing arrangements if the inmate is released.  And then the public is invited to speak; first those who oppose the parole, usually friends or relatives of the victim(s) of the crime, and then those who support the inmate.

HFP sometimes sends a delegate when one of our friends comes up for parole, especially if he or she has little outside support.  The longer they remain in prison, it seems, the fewer friends and family members either care or are still alive and are able to testify.  On occasion I’ve been the only person to speak on behalf of a man being considered for parole.  I’m proud to do it.

Here’s the thing I find so completely distasteful:  the stark difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots!”

The men and women from the Parole Board and the Attorney General’s Office drive up to the stark little Public Hearing facility at the prison in their expensive sports cars or Cadillac Escalades.  They stride into the meeting room dressed to the max.  Any and all could be on the cover of a fashion magazine.  All are well-paid individuals, feeding from the trough of the State of Michigan.

Then comes the lowly inmate, in chains, escorted by a burly guard, dressed in sloppy prison blues.

And the difference doesn’t stop there.  From the moment the hearing begins, the prisoner is never allowed to forget what a privilege it is to appear before these pillars of society.  You can be sure that, after intense questioning, sometime badgering, and sometimes outright abuse, the inmate will be reduced to shaking and weeping before the hearing mercifully ends.  Perhaps “breaking” the prisoner is an unspoken goal or requirement.  I am reminded over and over again of accounts about how slaves were treated in our country.  I almost expect the prisoner to reply, “Yes, Masta…yes, Masta.”

I keep wishing that these public officials would stop to consider, There but for the Grace of God go I.

But it ain’t gonna happen, and it ain’t gonna change.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Blessed are they who mourn

It may sound like my life, my words, my heart, are always kind and full of compassion.  While that is my prayer and my goal, realistically it is just not so.

I’m struggling with how to be kind to a prisoner who has been untruthful to his supporter.  I’m upset with a guy who refuses to go to the people we suggest with his medical issues.  Instead, he keeps bombarding me with medical records which I don’t want, which I don’t know how to read, and with which I don’t know what to do.  I’m trying to be kind to a little girl who wants us to help file an application for commutation of her sentence, but she just keeps insisting that she is simple-minded and that we must do all the work for her.  I’ve got to watch myself, because I can have a quick tongue.  I must put myself in their shoes and take a deep breath, then try to respond in a kind and compassionate manner.

But then, in the midst of these and many more, I get hit with the simplest of requests, and I melt.

Says Richard:

I am writing to ask a favor if at all possible. The girl that I was pretty close to was killed in a hit and run accident.  She was not very computer literate, so I have no pictures of our memories or her on my JPay.  Can I send you 3 photos of her, and some of our personal memories and hang out spots, then have you put them on the computer and send them back to me on JPay so that I have them on my tablet?

Gulp.  Then he goes on:

I would not ask but I have no one else to ask or turn to.  One of the pictures is a put-together that I did myself to try to make it look like it was taken of us together, in one of our favorite places. I would be very grateful and appreciative. Also there is a website through the funeral parlor that is handling her remains, that allows loved ones to post comments for the deceased, and their family. Can you please go to the website and type a message for me and put my name at the bottom?

Yes, we can and we will, Richard.  We’re honored to be asked.  We’re happy that we can help. Consider it done.

I may be short tempered, ill mannered, fidgety and fussy sometimes, but HFP’s work is “Jesus work,” and we do our best to model his methods and practices during his short time on earth.

May Richard feel these words of the Master today:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

You can't visit your kids in prison, Susan, but Happy Mother's Day, anyway.

Each year at Mother’s day I write about moms of prisoners, or moms who are in prison.

This year, for a change, I’m going to write about only one mom.  Her name is Susan, she’s black, and she lives in Detroit on fixed income.  Susan had five children:  four boys and a girl.  Life hasn’t been a bowl of cherries. Two of her sons are in prison, and one was killed.  As we chatted, she expressed concern over one of her incarcerated sons who has been in segregation now for 6 months, which means he’s in a cell 23 hours a day. He's dealing with severe depression.

In the course of our conversation I asked if she had visited him recently.  That’s when she dropped this little bombshell:  She hasn’t visited either son in prison for two years.  Visitation has been denied by the State of Michigan because she has unpaid traffic fines!

You may have read about a class action suit filed against Michigan’s Secretary of State, claiming that traffic fine laws discriminate against the poor.  The suit claims that over the last three years more than 100,000 Michiganders have lost their driver’s licenses simply because they are too poor to pay these fines and costs.

That, in itself, is a huge issue.  But if we’re also denying prison visits to those who owe traffic fines, it becomes even more complicated…more severe.  We went to the top to ask, and even on a Saturday were granted the courtesy of a response.

Owing some traffic fines isn't necessarily an issue, but if those unpaid fines have resulted in a bench warrant being issued, we won't allow admittance. The reason for this is if someone comes to an MDOC property with outstanding warrants, we'd be obligated to contact law enforcement to see if they want to arrest them. That wouldn't be a good situation for anyone.  So while those warrants are outstanding, we simply deny entrance to our property…we ask that the person resolve any pending police or court matters.

I suspect Susan is not the only passenger in this boat.  Because her budget leaves no room to pay up old traffic tickets, visitation of family members in prison is not possible.  Sorry.

Kind of lends itself to a growing philosophy, it seems to me, that if the poor would just get off their collective butts they could pay their bills like the rest of us, and then they wouldn’t have these problems.  Life should be so simple.

Said the writer of Proverbs:  Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker…

Happy Mother’s Day, Susan.

Prayers for all moms wearing shoes like hers.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Marc Janness, 1953 - 2017

Ever since Maurice Carter days I’ve had negative feelings about prison health care.  Maurice had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C 7 years earlier, but no one bothered to tell him until the day he collapsed in his cell.  I know I’m painting with a broad brush here.  I’m sure there are some caring health care people in the prison system. But based on our experience, I contend there’s an unfeeling and uncaring mood that is pervasive among prison health care professionals.

We lost Marc Janness a few days ago…a name I had never heard of until very recently.  And the death of this prisoner is still troubling me.

For Marc, it started with a sore mouth…and now I’m wondering just how much and how long he had to pester health professionals before he even got a diagnosis, let alone treatment.  Anyway, turns out it was gum cancer.  Fast forward to April 25. That’s when one of his buddies emailed our office:

…in the past 20 days (the cancer) has grown from his gum into his lip and is now the size of a tennis ball on his face.  The state is dragging their feet and are blocking what doctors are recommending.  Can you please do something for this fellow Christian who can’t even eat food?  He needs immediate attention.

I wonder if Marc even got my email saying that we were frantically trying, and that we were praying for him.

I wonder if he was aware of the fact that HFP promptly forwarded a letter from our kind and helpful oncologist/adviser directly to his warden: This man should be evaluated by an oncologist as soon as possible.  A tissue biopsy is critical.  His life may be at stake.  And that two days later we sent still another message to the warden from a second oncologist:  If he were not in prison I’d suggest he go directly to a hospital emergency room.

As I thought about it over the weekend, I felt Marc might be comforted just to know that somebody cared.  So I printed out everything we had done, including the oncologist messages, in hopes of sending all to him with a note of compassion.  I looked up his mailing address, and that’s when I discovered this notice: 

Discharged (meaning he died)
Discharge Date:  5/4/2017

I know. We should be used to it by now. Too little, too late. Wasn’t the first time.  Won’t be the last.   I had simply wanted Marc to know that, despite a cold and uncaring system, there was a little cluster of people, inside and outside, who cared and who wanted to help.  It wouldn’t cure the cancer, but it might soothe the mind. 

Thank God, he’s where there’s no more pain, no more suffering, no more tears.

Not so back here.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

And the prisoners take another hit

Something wonderful happened in Muskegon 6 years ago!

Something terrible happened in Muskegon last week!

In 2011, Founder and Director Curt Tofteland was given permission by then Warden Mary Berghuis to start an innovative program in the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility called Shakespeare Behind Bars.  Hardened criminals reciting Shakespeare?  Who woulda thunk it?

Curt’s explanation of the program:  Shakespeare Behind Bars offers theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.  

I’ve had the privilege of attending some of these sessions behind bars.  What a remarkable experience it was to join with these men, sitting in a large circle, and listening to one of their members in the center reciting lengthy passages of Shakespeare…and doing it with drama and with fire, walking around, pointing a finger, shaking a fist!  One after another took the stage. There was so much more to the program than I can describe here.  Inmates had to meet requirements to get in, and then there was a program of advancement for participants.  Prisoners not only met the demands, but thrived on it!  It involved a huge commitment, but it changed lives!

In 2015, the program expanded across the street to the West Shoreline Correctional Facility.

Over the past six years, more than 400 inmates in these two Michigan prisons participated in Shakespeare Behind Bars.  Curt doesn’t have exact statistics, but about 100 of those prisoners are now in the free world.  And while the state’s recidivism numbers hover around 30%---that is, about one in free wind up back behind bars---the SBB rate was around 5%! 

One of the exciting things about this positive program is that it didn’t cost the state anything.  There was no expense.  No cost, only profit.

And that’s what makes last week’s experience even more puzzling.

Director Curt Tofteland was summoned to a brief meeting with the Deputy Wardens of those two prisons, and informed that Shakespeare Behind Bars no longer “fit into the current programming of those two facilities.”  A stunned Tofteland was informed that this was his last day. He left, never to return.

What must those prisoners who participated in that impactful program be thinking?

Just when we thought we were making progress in Michigan.

One only hopes that, even though the program is dead, the prisoners whose lives were changed by SBB will at least remember the words of Shakespeare that live on:  Love all, trust few, do wrong to none.