All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Thursday, September 28, 2017

HFP, with a more-than-casual focus on innocent people behind bars

I cannot imagine anything more terrible, more heart-wrenching, more devastating, than sitting behind bars for something you didn’t do! Matt and I got talking about the topic today, because International Wrongful Conviction Day arrives next week.

I’ll be posting a blog with some outrageous facts and figures on Monday, but I just want to talk it through a little bit today.

Those who know me realize that my personal efforts on behalf of a wrongly convicted Michigan prisoner, the late Maurice Carter, led to a new career for me and the formation of this organization. And, Matt got an early taste of it as well, not only because, as a member of my family, he was a personal friend of Maurice. As a young reporter, Matt had an opportunity to cover some major portions of the Carter story, including a personal interview with Rubin Hurricane Carter.

I guess that’s why HFP never lets the focus on wrongful convictions wander too far, even though we’re not lawyers, and even thought HFP is not an Innocence Project.

Our first board of directors contained the names of Keith Findley, co-founder and co-director of the University of Wisconsin Innocence Project; and, Rob Warden, former Executive Director of NWU Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Later, Ken Wyniemko---the second person in Michigan history to be exonerated by DNA testing---served a brief stint on our board.

The Maurice Carter story developed into a book, and then a stage play.

Meanwhile, HFP has collaborated with various lawyers specializing in wrongful conviction cases and continues to support the on-going efforts to free some Michigan prisoners whom we feel are innocent.

In addition, hoping to keep the topic in front of the public, HFP was pleased to bring authors of a best seller, PICKING COTTON, to our community for a public appearance. People are still talking about the powerful message delivered by wrongly convicted inmate Ronald Cotton, and the person who wrongly identified him, Jennifer Thompson.

Our message has been, and continues to be, that it doesn’t just happen to others, it doesn’t just happen to poor people or minorities…it can happen to you! I can give examples of people in business, professional people like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and yes, even cops, who went to prison, and some who even died in prison.

It’s a real problem. A serious problem. And it deserves your attention.

Watch for my blog next Monday.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

It's time to listen!

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
― Bernard M. Baruch

I wish our President could grasp this common-sense approach.

In another of his infamous adlibs, while speaking in a political campaign rally in Alabama yesterday, he asked the audience if they’d “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired?’”

We all know what he’s talking about. It all began when a well-known player took a knee during the national anthem before games last year to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

I’m not going to get in the middle of the argument about the national anthem…I’m getting on the case of people who refuse to listen.

We struggle with this every day. A Michigan prison warden was so upset that I brought in the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate multiple claims of abuse of mentally deranged prisoners that he chose to ban me from giving a speech at his facility. Sorry, but the man didn’t get the point. By calling in the DOJ I wasn’t questioning his personal integrity…I was begging for change in the shameful way we treat our mentally ill inmates. He wasn’t listening.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has chosen to punish all kinds of guys who have been involved in demonstrations. These inmates weren’t trying to get deeper into trouble…they’ve got enough already. They were trying to point out serious problems like bad food. They didn’t get the changes they sought. Instead, they got transfers, tickets, changes in housing levels…retaliation was strong and prompt. The department wasn’t listening.

People are protesting national issues more than ever before, especially issues involving health care. Yet, our leaders continue to propose plans that have the endorsement of NO major medical organization in the nation. They aren’t listening.

It’s time to be quiet. Time to take a deep breath. Time to smell flowers. Time to meditate. Time to pray. Time, especially, to consider the needs and problems of others.

All noise is waste.  So cultivate quietness in your speech, in your thoughts, in your emotions. Speak habitually low.  Wait for attention and then your low words will be charged with dynamite.  ~Elbert Hubbard

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On dominoes, ripples and divine intervention

Go ahead, be clinical about it and call it the domino effect or the ripple effect. Or, be a skeptic and deny that there’s any supernatural influence. I’m here in the middle of it, day after day---have been for the past 16 years---and I know darn well what it is. It’s divine intervention. Pure and simple.

Case in point.

In a telephone conversation with Joyce Davis last May, I discover that this African American mother, battling cancer and living on fixed income in the City of Detroit, is banned from visiting two of her sons serving time in state prisons because of old unpaid traffic tickets.

HFP’s job is first to verify that information. Yep, Lansing says, once a bench warrant is issued for the arrest of someone with unpaid traffic fines, that person may no longer visit persons in the state prison system…not until those fines are paid.

How to help this woman. HFP reaches out to Equal Justice Under Law, fine civil rights organization based in Washington DC that loves to attack states where poor people are punished because they can’t post bond or pay fines. When EJUC gets no response from a prison warden, after explaining that this visitation ban is actually not even in compliance with prison policy, let alone the U.S. constitution, these crack lawyers decide to go to the media.

Enter the Marshall Project--- excellent non-profit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system---where a kind writer not only takes the ball and runs with it…he helps Mrs. Davis to write her own story, in the first person. Immediate response from readers, who ask how they can help!

EJUL quickly sets up a GoFundMe account. In five hours, kind and generous people around the country---many of them doing so anonymously---pony up the $1,500 needed to pay off the fines. For the first time in three years, Mrs. Davis will be able to visit her sons again!

Doug Tjapkes working miracles?

HFP experience and expertise?

Domino effect?

Ripple effect?

Nah, Divine Intervention, without question. It’s a God thing.

We see it daily.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Two Fs that are NOT obscene: FOIA and First Amendment!

Something very significant occurred recently in the City of Grand Rapids. The city was forced to release a series of audio recordings from the police department…recordings that were seriously damaging because they showed an obvious intent to give favorable treatment to an obviously drunk driver. The reason: the guy was an assistant prosecutor.

The significance, here, is not that they tried to go easy on somebody from the prosecutor’s office, although that, too, is not to be disregarded. One can be sure that if you or I got stopped by the same cops, for the same infraction, nobody would be on some secret phone line trying to save our butts. No, the real significance here is that the information was obtained through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

MLive, publisher of the Grand Rapids Press, refused to take no for an answer, contending that “the people have a right to know how government is acting on its behalf, how taxpayer dollars are being spent, and that good judgment is being exercised in a fair and transparent manner.”  MLive took this challenge all the way to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the public was served.

I raise this issue to point out the fact that journalists are not the only ones making good use of the Freedom of Information Act. I don’t think a week goes by that HFP doesn’t file a FOIA request on behalf of someone in prison. We have a lawyer who counsels and advises us on these issues, and Matt has become adept at using this system, thus providing valuable assistance to many Michigan inmates.

But, and here’s the rub, you cannot imagine the resistance to transparency. I have a friend who’s an elected county official , and who boasts that the FOIA coordinator in his county---a retired lawyer---makes certain that the absolute minimum bit of information is released under provisions of the act. Witness how the City of Grand Rapids battled the Press, perhaps thinking that the extensive fights and legal costs would prod the newspaper into just dropping the issue. Matt constantly meets resistance and encounters delays, making one wonder just how much stuff is hidden in those records that officials don’t want prisoners---or the public---to know!

As taxpayers and followers of HFP activities, I write this piece to remind you just how important this procedure is, but also to stress that it must be safeguarded against those who seem to like official secrets and believe the public does not have a right to know. Prosecutorial misconduct and the hiding of evidence can and do result in wrongful convictions. 

A tip of the HFP hat to those courageous journalists who effectively pursue the truth through FOIA requests.

We’re finding it a useful tool, also. And we’re not going to back down, either!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

That does it. Now we're mad!

It’s no secret that we’re declaring war on bad medical treatment and care in Michigan prisons. We’ll do it in a calm, reasonable, and legal manner.

But sometimes, especially this week, when reading

-That a guy gave specific symptoms of a torn retina last February, when the physician says there was a 90% chance of saving his vision, but because they waited so long they think he’ll go blind…

-That a guy claimed he was having a heart attack, so they gave him Tums and sent him to his room, where he died of heart failure…

-That a woman with colon cancer who desperately needs surgery keeps getting postponements…

-That a prisoner with Crohn’s Disease is unable to get an appropriate diet…

-That a prisoner with sleep apnea was ordered to ship his CPap home when he was booked in, and now cannot get another…

-That a woman in the infirmary is complaining that her sheets are “awful…almost gray and black…”

That an inmate who suffered a torn ligament in his leg still cannot get treatment four years later…

…I feel like the guy in the 1970s film NETWORK. He was the guy who got so fed up with particular issues until he exploded: I want you to get up right now. Sit up. Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!

I promise to listen to our wonderful doctor, whose email messages continue to bear the beautiful, calm and insightful words from the founder of World Vision International:  May my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.

But---and I’m not a theologian---I call it “righteous indignation,” and we’re not gonna take this anymore! Things have got to change.

No question about it: We’re mad!

So are our doctors and lawyers.

In the battle of David vs. Goliath, I can assure you, David is selecting his stones!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Mrs. Jones, Fr. Boyle and HFP: touching broken spirits!

There are a lot of brilliant people in our prisons, but their hearts are not healthy. Their spirits have been broken.

The words of Grand Rapids public school principal Ruth Jones, who received the Hattie Beverly Education Award some years ago for turning around a failing inner city school. In trying to explain her formula, she said, “Everybody wants me to pass out a handbook and say, ‘Here’s the model you should use.’ But the bottom line under it all is love.”

Her words were sticking with me as I listened to Fr. Greg Boyle’s Ted Talk on YouTube. If you haven’t heard it yet, pry 20 minutes out of your schedule and make that happen. The author of TATTOOS OF THE HEART and founder of Homeboy Industries made the same point.

All of this so strongly underscores the importance of our interaction with prisoners.

But first let me address that first point by Mrs. Jones. As a pianist, organist and choir director, I am meeting and chatting with prison musicians who are far more skilled and far more talented than I could ever hope to be. As I writer, I am blown away by the penned words of some inmates. As an experienced public speaker, I couldn’t touch the abilities of some of the orators whom I heard in the SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS program! Our prisons are full of talented, gifted people who have their own personal struggles.

As HFP continues to experience record-breaking growth, some reorganization must come with our anticipated expansion. Perhaps we won’t be writing a handbook, but we must try to set out specific guidelines for handling the huge variety of in-house issues that we face daily in such categories as physical health, mental health, and injustice.  Our advisory panel of nearly 50 professional people play an important role. But I go back to our slogan which explains our work better than anything: Action with Compassion!

Jesus said he was giving a new commandment: “Love one another…”

There’s no handbook to show how Mrs. Jones turned around that inner city school, or to show how Fr. Boyle turns around the lives of gang members, or to show how HFP touches lives. It’s simply caring, simply trying. It’s love. 

A prisoner roundly chastised me the other day, rejecting my advice and doing his best to get rid of me. I had to patiently explain to him that he could drop me, but I’m not a fair-weather friend. He’s stuck with me.

St. Paul had it right: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love wins.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When prisoners deflected my end-of-summer blues

Jean, Michael, Scott, Shirlee. I’m sure those names mean nothing to you. But to me, they made the difference between darkness and light last week. To explain, I hate when summer comes to an end, and it’s almost like I’m in mourning in those final days of August. Four prisoners were among many who wouldn’t let me sing the end-of-summer blues this year.

From Huron Valley, Michigan’s only prison for women, a place from which we’ve received a ton of complaints about staff problems, came a surprising and refreshing request from Jean. She observed that too many of the officers at WHV are working too many hours, and she asked if we could do something about it. These officers are working sixteen plus hours daily on a regular basis and they are getting burned out. This affects us prisoners because the officers are short tempered, are too tired to proper manage the housing units they are assigned to, and occasionally they are falling asleep on the job. I don't blame them; they are completely exhausted and wiped out. My concern is not only for their safety (driving while exhausted, etc.) but for our safety as well. How well can we be protected when their response time to a crisis is diminished? How can the drug abuse be monitored properly when officers are too tired to care?  What a turn of events! Prisoners advocating for staff.

A slip in our post office box indicated that we had an oversize package waiting for us from Ionia. Prisoners sometimes ask if they can help us raise funds, and that’s the last we hear about it. Michael was among them, but he did something. A gifted artist, he used our photos of Grand Haven’s iconic lighthouse to create a series of original lighthouse paintings that are award winning. When I opened the package it felt like Christmas morning! No note. No invoice. Just something he wanted to do for HFP. They’ll sell, and those dollars will go to work for us.

Speaking of dollars, a check arrived in the mail, sadly one of only a few that crossed my desk last week. It came from Scott, a prisoner in Jackson. The amount:  7 dollars. That may not seem like a lot to you, but I happen to know that his take home wage is $19 a month! We’re one of three agencies to receive his donations quarterly. I feel called of God to do it, says Scott!

Then came this nice note from Shirlee: I woke up today thinking about all you do for the women here at Huron Valley. HFP has made its impact on our little society here in the most wonderful way! From our clothes, to cleaning supplies, to medication, to health care, food, segregation, one-on-one, the list just continues. But when you put it all together you really can see just how much we mean to HFP. We love you!

Beauty, sunshine, love, kindness, from the place where you might least expect it. God’s little way of pointing out that, in my daily work with inmates, there’s really no room for end-of-summer blues.