All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, July 31, 2017

No callouses on the heart for some prisoners

No matter how long I work in this business, there are some things that I just cannot get used to.

I don’t know what to say to the old-timer who just got flopped by the Michigan Parole Board: The inmate in his or her 70s and 80s who, you can bet on a stack of Bibles, would never commit a crime again and certainly would not be a threat to society, but to whom the Parole Board refuses to grant a second chance. Some of these people are struggling with illness, some have family members who desperately need them back home, and some were even wrongly convicted. Makes no difference.

I don’t know what to say to prisoners with serious ailments who contact us, supported by all the necessary medical documents and records. I don’t know how to respond to these inmates, their families and their loved ones, who ask this simple question: Why can’t they get appropriate care and treatment?

I don’t have the right Bible verse to quote to the wrongly convicted prisoner who has served decades, whose attorneys and legal advisers obviously made some missteps along the way, and who now have exhausted all avenues in the path toward exoneration. They’re innocent. Someone else committed the crime. But they’re behind bars, and they can’t get out.

I don’t know what to suggest to the mother of a mentally ill child who is still in prison, way past her suggested release date. The girl is so mentally ill that she can’t stay out of trouble, so the system refuses to release her. The mother isn’t saying her daughter should not be institutionalized…she’s simply saying that this is the wrong institution.

Please don’t get me wrong. We receive many positive strokes in our business. We hear our share of good stories. A number of our friends are granted paroles. The compliments and kind words that flow into our office bless us beyond measure.

But, I can’t just quote Romans 8:28 and assure these hurting individuals that things are going to be OK if they trust in the Lord. The reality is that, for many of them, things are not OK, and they’re not going to be OK. And I hurt right along with them.

I had a dear friend who rebounded from a serious disaster, reached a peak of happiness in her life, only to have it cruelly destroyed by two deaths…first her spouse, then their only child. I was speechless at the funeral home. The best I could do was hold her hand and weep.

I feel confident quoting this Psalm to the distressed, because I believe it: The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.

Other than that, sometimes it feels like all I can do is hold their hands and weep.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

This was one of the best-known American songs of the Great Depression, written in 1930. It was considered by Republicans to be anti-capitalist propaganda, according to Wikipedia, and attempts were made to ban it from the radio. 

I’m thinking of that song as I open an envelope from a prisoner this week. Henry has been granted a parole, and I figure he’s sending me a short note of elation. Instead, it’s a check to HFP for $15.00! I know this is money he can’t afford to give away, and I know he’s not looking for any favors because he’s about to leave prison. Instead, it’s a vote of confidence, pure and simple. He knows what we did for him. He knows what we’re doing for others.

Last week it was a check for $10.00 from another prisoner. This inmate probably makes between $1 and $3 a day in his job. Just imagine the sacrifice. Talk about a “widow’s mite!”

A very nice, well-meaning person said to us a while back: “I appreciate your monthly newsletter, but do you have to keep on begging for money?” The short answer is yes.

Last year HFP responded to an average of 7 contacts a day from prisoners or prison representatives…7 contacts a day, 7 days a week. So far this year, it’s double that number! We need more staff, more space, more volunteers…and that means more dollars.

Here’s what I know…

When two Muslim women behind bars complained about abusive treatment and conditions during Ramadan 2017, involving both staff and fellow-inmates, nobody wanted to touch it. We were there for them.

When two transgender prisoners reached out from two different facilities, begging---at the very least--- for just some understanding and humane treatment, nobody wanted to touch it. We were there for them.

So far this year, more than 70 prisoners hoping to persuade Governor Snyder to commute their sentences, needed help in preparing their application forms. While agencies and attorneys were charging anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 to provide this assistance, we were there for them. AT NO CHARGE!

To date, HFP has worked with more than 600 prisoners this year!

I have no problem with trying to save puppies, kittens, whales, seals and elephants, but I do have a problem with not trying to provide, preserve and protect humanity for prisoners. Back to that title song, Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?, that dime would be worth $14.00 today.

Buddy, can you spare $14.00? Gifts and contributions have dried up in the summer sun, and we really need it!

I thank you.

So does a Michigan prisoner.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Civility? Parole Board. Really!

The Parole Board review has been a touchy subject for me. Michigan prisoners serving life sentences come up for review every 5 years, and for parolable lifers it offers a glimmer of hope. It’s an opportunity to face a member of the Parole Board, one on one. For many inmates it has not been a pleasant experience.

We can tell you about some doozies!

I’ve personally witnessed a Parole Board member first verbally abuse a woman accused of killing her husband, then refuse to hear her side of the story, and finally send her back to prison weeping.

The mother of a convicted sex offer, at her son’s side for his Parole Board review, was horrified when the woman representing the Parole Board---in discussing his alleged crime---bluntly asked the inmate why he didn’t just --- (have sex with) the family dog instead!

Prison staff members specifically asked me to represent a lifer in his 70s whose critical health issues nearly resulted in his death, whose medical costs were skyrocketing, and who had experienced a life-changing conversion near the end of his 40 years behind bars. A stubborn Parole Board member refused to give him the time of day because his crime had occurred during an alcoholic black-out, and he couldn’t give specific details. He readily confessed, he just couldn’t come up with the specifics. She shut him down and flopped him, refusing to consider the rest of the issues. He left in tears.

But today, Michigan Parole Board member Brian Shipman proved something: The lifer review can be effectively conducted with civility! I witnessed it first-hand.

In this session, Mr. Shipman actually put the prisoner, an African American who has served over 40 years behind bars, at ease. “Please interrupt me and correct me if I make a mistake in reviewing your case.” What? “You don’t have to use a lot of words in showing remorse…I can see it with your tears.” What? “I’m not going to get hung up on just one misconduct ticket 5 years ago.” What? “If you are granted a Public Hearing, be sure to keep your cool when being interviewed by the Assistant Attorney General. He always recommends ‘no parole,’ but we grant many of them, anyway!” What? “Our time is limited. Before you leave, I want to make sure I have answered all of your questions.” What?

I was impressed by

            -the lack of demeaning or derogatory comments
            -the presence of actual eye contact
            -the absence of even a hint of hostility        
            -a smile.

My friend James may not get the highly desired Public Hearing…the next step in this process. But he already received a gift from the Michigan Parole Board: civility. This experience proved to me that calm interaction can be effective, arguably more so than the combative manner used by some of the “old schoolers.”

Civility is elusive these days. Way back in Bible times the Apostle Peter encouraged those participating in serious discussions, to “…do this with gentleness and respect.” I’m not always very good at that, but a Parole Board member excelled at it today!

A tip of the HFP hat to the MDOC’s Brian Shipman.

July 24 - A reason to celebrate!

Doubly blessed! That’s what I think of on July 24.

In 1978, the newest member of our family arrived. Marcia and I were both 41 when Matthew Douglas was born. More than a decade had passed from the time we were heating baby bottles and changing diapers, and the other three kids were well along in life. Then came this dude.

As I’ve learned so many times in four-score years, there’s a divine plan.

In an era when some unsettling business and personal matters could have been disastrous, the possibility of troublesome and harmful thoughts was completely offset by issues and events such as baseball cards, Tigers games and Saturday hot dog runs. Our other kids may have been growing up, but there was still a little guy waiting for his dad at suppertime, no matter how disturbing the day’s events may have been at the office.

We’ve found that parents don’t love one child more than another, but Matt did make his mark as the one who not only followed me into the radio broadcasting business, but later into the field of prisoner advocacy.

26 years after Matthew arrived on the scene, the next big July 24 event took place: Maurice Carter walked out of prison! He had served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. Ironically, Matt covered that very story as a newspaper reporter. It was this prisoner, and our mutual efforts to obtain his freedom, that steered me into a third career. Thanks to the late Maurice H. Carter there’s an organization called HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS which is now touching the lives of hundreds of Michigan prisoners.

And so, on this July 24, I celebrate. A little white kid and an old black man, both of whom gave me some of my gray hairs; and both of whom---without a doubt---made an incredible impact on my life.

Happy Birthday, Matthew!

We’ll meet again, Maurice!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Willie Lyles-Bey deserves better!

It was Willie Lyles-Bey’s big day.

Mr. Lyles-Bey was 19 years old when he participated in a crime that went sour and people were killed. He’s 62 now, and he’s still in prison. But this week there was hope. A Public Hearing was scheduled, which could lead to a parole. He was excited. This is a rare occasion for lifers, as the Michigan Attorney General’s Office likes to point out. It can lead to freedom!

The hearing, conducted in a specially-designated room in one of the Ionia prisons, was led by Michigan Parole Board member Ed Heap. His soft-spoken manner obviously put the inmate at ease, and the hearing was one of the better ones that I have witnessed.

Then it was my turn to speak.

Upon completing my short presentation of support, Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel---who leads the bulk of the questioning regarding the inmate’s criminal past---asked if I would remain seated.

From that point on, Mr. Lyles-Bey’s big day suddenly turned south.

Mr. Rothermel chose that moment, while I was under oath and while a court reporter was still recording, to launch into a personal discussion regarding previous comments I had made in a blog regarding Public Hearings. It was an embarrassment. While I tried, briefly, to present my side of the discussion, it was very apparent this was not the appropriate venue for such a debate. The chairman tried to bring a stop to it, for that very reason, but Mr. Rothermel refused, insisting that he had a couple more points to make.

Call it a tirade, a tantrum, a personal attack on me. That’s not what is important.

What is important is that a Public Hearing for a deserving prisoner in the Michigan prison system got derailed, in front of two Parole Board members, a court reporter, two Corrections Officers, and six guests.

Do I deserve an apology? I think so, but again, that’s not what is important.

What is important here is that two apologies from Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel are in order: the first to inmate Willie Lyles-Bey; and the second to the Michigan Parole Board.

How will the state respond? We’ll wait and see.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Surprise. The Attorney General represents ALL of us!

I was trying to explain my frustration with the Michigan Attorney General to one of the newest members of our team.

We were talking about the Public Hearing, an essential step for a lifer before he/she can be granted parole or a commutation of sentence. The hearing is conducted by the Michigan Parole Board, but the activity is dominated by an Assistant Attorney General who mercilessly grills the inmate, who is under oath, not only about every minute detail of the crime, but also about what he/she was thinking at the time. The Assistant AG defends his actions, saying he is representing the “People of the State of Michigan.”  The meaning is clear: He represents the victims of the crime, and their families.

My complaint is that the family and friends of the prisoner are also members of the Michigan populace. He represents us, too, and while he may not realize it, sometimes the prisoner is actually the most damaged victim in this situation. I’ve had criticism of our work as prisoner advocates from people who ask, “What about the victim?” The assumption is that we are on different sides. It’s “we” vs. “they.”

And then my friend Holly, to whom I was venting, wisely put her finger on it: That’s one of our major problems today.

So true.

-Our President thinks America can go it alone.

-Votes on major issues in congress are strictly on party lines, the people be damned.

-It’s important to get a majority of conservatives or liberals on the Supreme Court, because the other side is evil.

-It gets right down to the personal level. If you don’t agree with me, you must not like me. Families are split, churches are split, communities are split.

It begs the simple question: Aren’t we all in this together?

OK, off my soap box and back to prisoners. It should be incumbent on all of us to not only seek healing for victims of crime, but also to seek restorative justice, and healing and rehabilitation for the perpetrators of crime. Punishment, retribution and mass incarceration are getting us nowhere and costing us a fortune.

Said American historian Aberjhani: There is no envy, jealousy, or hatred between the different colors of the rainbow. And no fear either. Because each one exists to make the others’ love more beautiful.

Said St. Paul in the book of Romans: Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

May it start with me. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

The bad ones are in jail, and the good ones are not, right?

I have three questions for you. They’ll come at the end of this blog.

The court appoints a defense attorney for an indigent black man, charged with assault with intent to commit murder. The first time he meets with the defendant is the morning of the trial.  He fails to thoroughly cross-examine the single witness who insists the defendant is the wrong person. The jury buys the story of the Prosecutor, and the poor African American is sentenced to life in prison.  Wrongly convicted.

A County Prosecutor knowingly uses junk science to convict a woman who has no prior offenses, is known to be a devout and upright person, whom witnesses claim could not have committed the crime of murder…but his boasts for continued re-election are that he has never lost a case. The victory was obviously more important to him. The woman is in for life.  Wrongly convicted.

A Circuit Court Judge refuses to listen to the testimony of professionals in the field of psychiatry, and decides that a 13-year-old boy should be tried as an adult, and when convicted, sentences him to the state prison system. His mental illness has never been properly treated. He’s been raped and abused. He’s now in his 20s.

An aggressive attorney reads about a criminal conviction, and convinces a wrongly convicted inmate that with a down-stroke of $60,000, he can sue the pants off the lawyer who lost the case for him.  The minute he gets the down payment, he cannot be found or contacted again. The money is gone. The man remains behind bars.

An innovative attorney sees and hears that prisoners are grasping for straws as Governor Snyder reaches his last year in office.  They’re hoping he’ll grant some commutations of sentences, so this lawyer promises that, for a fee, he can file such an application better than anyone else.  The record shows that the Governor has never granted one so far, except for medical reasons. The lawyer takes the money. The prisoner remains in his cell.

A crooked lawyer has been promising everything but the moon to men behind bars, but after he receives the down payment he fails to show up for meetings, claiming illness, and doesn’t bother to answer his telephone. He won’t even return critical legal documents. The money has vanished, and so has the attorney.

All of the people listed in bold print are home with friends and families this summer, enjoying outdoor barbecues, driving to work each day in nice cars, and telling society that our judicial system works. It’s the best.

The people who were sold down the river never got out. They’re hoping for visits from friends and family, dreaming that someday they might be lucky enough to attend an outdoor barbecue. When we hear from them, they’re just wondering if anyone even cares.

OK, here are my questions:

-Who, among the above, do you think belongs in prison?

 -Do you care?

-What are you going to do about it?

The writer of Proverbs, with advice for prison visitors and staff

Dan Rooks shares great ideas with Michigan prisoners on the topic of nonviolent communication. Sometimes I think he should hold similar workshops for their families and friends.

Dan is a clinical psychologist, who formerly chaired our Board of Directors.  He and I have made numerous presentations in Michigan prisons. In this program he gives practical suggestions on ways to avoid conflict in communications. The prisoners love it.

I bring up the topic because I just received a nice note from the wife of an inmate.  She travels some distance to see her husband, taking along tiny tykes. It’s challenging.  She and the warden of this facility have established a very civil dialog on visitation issues, especially those that involve families with small children, and this friendly discussion has actually resulted in improvement.

After her last visit, she sent a message to the warden thanking the prison staff for their prompt and courteous manner of handling bathroom breaks for a 4-year-old, thanking the prison for providing additional plastic trays for use with food vending machines, and thanking the facility for providing some new games and toys in the visiting room to help keep the kids occupied.

She wisely copied the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections with her email message, and she promptly received a personal note of thanks from the Director!

Now let’s be real, here. I can assure you that all of Tiffany’s visits with her husband, accompanied by little munchkins, won’t be perfect. There’s a good chance she’ll be treated kindly and with respect.  BUT, if she is not, there’s a good chance that the Warden will listen when she files a complaint. All of this simply because of her attitude.

We receive a lot of visitation complaints.  I suspect there's blame on both sides. Regardless of who launches the attack, when one side snaps at the other you can bet that the opposing side will snap back. Things don’t improve from that point on, and they don’t get forgotten when it comes to future visits.

I can give you the names of lifers who’ve been in prison for 40 years and have not had one ticket.  I can give you the names of young smart-asses who showed up in prison shooting off their mouths from the very beginning, and who file grievances and complaints on a regular basis, because they’re “not treated fairly.” They can’t seem to get along with peers or staff, and they’re getting tickets one after the other. Any wonder why?

There’s no magic solution to cover all situations, but prisoners, their visitors, and prison staffers would do well to heed these words from Proverbs:

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
    but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Peace and harmony behind bars?

It was a breath of fresh air.

The prison gates clanked behind me.  A Corrections Officer frisked me.  Into another room…more gates noisily opening and closing.  A remote control unit with an emergency button for me to carry in the event I felt endangered or threatened.  Still one more gate, and then an escort through the prison yard to another building.

And in that moment, I escaped from some insanity never experienced before in my eight decades---

Entire families hardly verbally communicating with each other anymore---simply texting!

Two factions claiming that scripture is on their side, and that between contemporary music and traditional church music, only one is acceptable!

People of alleged integrity claiming that it’s OK to discontinue healthcare for some segments of our society.

An abrupt reversal in our nation’s care and concern about immigrants, racism and the environment.

A tacit approval from our nation’s leaders to denigrate and bad-mouth those with whom we disagree.

30 men welcomed me into their prison classroom last week, for a book club meeting. There was hugging and hand-shaking, as old and new friends greeted me. The tone of the meeting was set when an inmate suggested that he offer an opening prayer.

And then, behind bars, I had the most amazing experience.  Yes, there was some discussion of my book, the actual reason for the get-together. But the two-hour session was much bigger than that.  Here were 30 men who, according to some segments of our society, make up the “worst of the worst,” showing dignity and kindness and respect and consideration to those with varying opinions and ideas.  Here were men who not only wanted to discuss the lessons and ramifications of the SWEET FREEDOM story, they wanted to discuss what to do about these concerns and problems.  These men behind bars wanted to explore how to make this a better world!

Can you even imagine it?

Believe me, I didn’t need a portable alarm system in my pocket.  I needed a magic sponge to absorb the love, concern, compassion and respect that filled that room.  I wanted to take it home with me.  I wanted it in my soul to ward off what I knew I could anticipate when I left the prison grounds and returned to the real world.

May God keep the afterglow alive.