All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Needing more than money

I had everything written.

It was a year-end blog telling how HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does stuff that no one else does, and that no one else wants to do.

At year’s end every charitable organization makes a final pitch for tax-exempt contributions before the December 31 deadline. Been there, done that.

Then, it’s time for us and all of these other organizations to gush about what’s ahead for the New Year! It’s going to be exciting! Right? We need more dollars, right?

And then I got to thinking.

Our pastor, Nate Visker, does something kind of neat each year. He quietly lines up a group of people among his parishioners and friends to pray for him each week. Let’s face it, the minister of every church has a daunting task.

The pace of growth for HFP was unsurpassed in 2017! There’s no question that we need dollars. There’s no option: We must add staff members, volunteers, working space, operating dollars. Not exactly sure where that’s going to come from, or how we’re going to accomplish it.

But, I know why it’s happening: because we’re on the right track. I know that we’re walking in the footsteps of Jesus, as we serve Michigan prisoners one-on-one, when they don’t know where to turn. There’s no one else doing it, no one else wants to do it, and the word is out among inmates. The floodgates are opening. We’re fastening our seat-belts!

So, here’s the old man who started all this, asking for prayer.

-For staff: Doug Tjapkes, Matt Tjapkes, Holly Honig-Josephson
-For volunteers: Jennifer Juhasz, Jane Curtis, Gail Winters
-For directors: Cindy Anderson, Judy Vander Ark, Karen Wolters, Mary Berghuis, Mike Scripps, Russ Bloem
-For Medical Consultant: Dr. Bob Bulten
-For advisory staff: We cannot publish names here, but there are now more than 20 compassionate doctors, lawyers, social workers and pastors who assist us daily (quietly and behind the scenes) as we deal with a multitude of in-house problems faced by our friends behind bars.

We’re placing 2018 in HIS hands!

Your dollars are welcome and important in the new year. Your prayers are necessary!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Why help?

I’m reading the year-end pitches for last-minute contributions by prisoner advocacy agencies and prison ministries. We can’t compete with that stuff!

We cannot boast of major new programs launched, major legislative accomplishments, numbers of souls won to Christ. The accomplishments of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS are small and insignificant to many. Except to those who’ve felt our touch.

Let’s face it, these are not headline stories that would have any success in a year-end pitch for last minute gifts---

-Helping an inmate get into a Christian college program
-Holding the hand of a frustrated Muslim woman
-Delivering hundreds of pounds of free yarn to prisons for crochet classes
-Persuading a major defense lawyer to take a wrongful conviction case pro bono
-Finding a sponsor for the immigrant/wife of a prisoner
-Speaking at Public Hearings for deserving inmates
-Getting traffic fines paid so a mother can again visit sons in prison
-Pressuring the state to properly treat a cancer patient
-Finding clothing for a new parolee
-Helping 150 inmates to properly file commutation applications.

In fact, some of the news in 2017 was even negative.

-An Assistant Attorney General chastised me in a Public Hearing for writing a critical blog
-A Prison Warden who despises HFP refused to allow me to speak in a prison assembly
-An MDOC employee “accidentally” tripped a switch cutting off all of our email correspondence to 1,500 prisoners.

Well, if you’re still reading, be assured that this is right where our team wants to be: down in the trenches, getting our hands dirty, doing everything we can to help Michigan prisoners on an individual basis when they don’t know where to turn. I call it “Jesus work.”

We have no sensational pitch. Yet, I can think of no other agency where your financial contribution touches a life so intimately, so dramatically.

Just one day left in 2017. Please consider a gift.

Be assured that hundreds of needy Michigan prisoners join us in thanking you.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Guess who I found behind bars!

A sad excuse for a human being was knocking on the door of a homeless shelter, probably hoping to find a place to sleep that night. Asked Father Greg Boyle of a fellow Jesuit priest who answered the door, “Who was it?” Answered the priest: Jesus in his least recognizable form.

It was a profound reminder to me: That’s exactly who I see behind bars!

Now don’t give me that “soft on crime,” “bleeding heart,” “no concern for the victims” stuff. I’m an old man and I’ve been in this for years. I know darn well who’s in prison and why.

But give me a little space to explain.

Yesterday, two stories crossed my desk. Some unpleasant prison staff members a couple weeks ago took every wheelchair from one medical unit in the women’s prison, leaving crippled people weeping and begging, some crawling on the floor. Another officer shouted, “Get that woman off the floor!” In a day or two the wheelchairs were back again, but why did that happen?

On the same day, I received a message from an inmate who has every reason to be bitter. His application for commutation was denied. Honestly, I can think of no one more deserving of freedom. But instead of reflecting that anger, he told how he befriended a cynical old gang-banger who has been torturing and terrorizing inmates for years. He discovered that the man’s birthday is approaching, collected some little items from friends, actually gift-wrapped them, and is planning a little birthday observance. He’s hoping a little kindness will show the bad actor that there’s a better way.

Which sounds more like Jesus to you?

We hear stories of kindness, compassion and just plain goodness regularly from behind bars.

-A woman watching out for a dear old lady with dementia
-A man begging for us to help two geriatric patients who he thinks are dying
-Prisoners constantly asking us to help peers with special needs
-Musicians who do their best to enhance in-prison worship experiences
-Inmates who organize fund-raising efforts for charities on the outside
-Hobby craft participants knitting and crocheting goods for the homeless, poor and needy
-Horticulture experts growing vegetables and flowers for others.

Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me.

I note that he didn’t say, “You visited some very unpleasant or evil person in prison.” In my humble and "untheological" mind, I interpret that to mean that, when I enter those prison doors, hear the clanging of the gates behind me, and look out over the sea of faces (many of them of a different color), I see the faces of Jesus.

Perhaps the Jesuit priest would describe them as Jesus in his least recognizable form.

At year’s end, I thank God for this experience.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Holiday rescue appeal: Not for a pet, but for a prisoner!

One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in this business occurred many years ago, when a group of inmates contacted me about “Old Bill.” They all felt that this elderly prisoner shouldn’t remain behind bars any longer, and actually, the Parole Board felt that way, too. But, he had nowhere to go. No friends. No family. It happens a lot with these old-timers.

And so we do what HFP does best…started quietly pushing buttons and pulling strings behind the scenes. And sure enough, we found a beautiful hospice care facility willing to take him in. The state dropped him off in his wheelchair and prison blues…no clothes, no belongings, no nothing.

Old Bill didn’t live much longer, but his final days were beautiful…not only for him, but for all around him---residents and staff alike. When I stopped in to check on him he jumped from his wheelchair to give me a tearful hug!

Right now, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’m looking again…this time for a place for old Willie. He’s 82, suffering from cancer and a long list of other maladies. I’d like to seek a commutation of his sentence for medical reasons, but the Parole Board won’t even consider it until we find a place for him to live. His older brother lives in Chicago and is unable to take him in. He has some relatives in Tennessee, but no one willing to offer a place to stay.

We’ve put out feelers in western Michigan, and we’re striking out. Many are suggesting that we call here or call there, try this or try that. We’ve been doing that. What we really need is someone to step up to the plate and say, “I can make that happen. Here’s where he would be welcome.”

Getting a commutation is a long shot, but we’re willing to try if someone else can work with us on a place to live for old Willie.

In this most beautiful of all holiday seasons, I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have no friends or family on the outside, and no place to go. Our team has befriended him. Now we’d like to take the next step.

Willie’s praying.

So are we.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

My 2017 Christmas gift to you

Louis Cassels was one of my favorite news writers. A Washington Correspondent for UPI for many years, he later came its national religion writer. In 1959 he wrote a parable for UPI that will last forever. I was News Director of WJBL in Holland when I first tore that copy off our newsroom teletype machine, and aired it. In 1964, when I became General Manager of WGHN in Grand Haven, I read this story to our listeners every year on Christmas Eve until I left the industry in 1983. Today, as President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I share this beautiful story on Christmas Eve as my gift to you. 

Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a man, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.

“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite and that he would much rather just stay at home. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier. Then he went back to his fireside chair to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another and another — sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must have been throwing snowballs against his living room window.

But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.

Quickly he put on a coat and galoshes and then he tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them. So he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs and sprinkled them on the snow. He made a trail to the brightly lit, wide-open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the breadcrumbs and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow.

He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them and waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me — that I am not trying to hurt them but to help them. But how?

Any move he made tended to frighten and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed, because they feared him.

“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.

“Now I understand,” he whispered. “Now I see why you had to do it.

Friday, December 22, 2017

An angry Christmas

Some are angry at us. Some are just pissed. Some have been angry since they got there. That’s right. For some of the incarcerated, perhaps for many, it’s not going to be a very Merry Christmas.

Freddie is mad because someone in the prison system is messing with his mail, and he’s not even receiving important legal documents. He blames us for not doing more: “You’re just like the rest of them.”

Anthony is mad at me because I tried to persuade him to “cool his jets.” His angry response to things happening in his life was just making things worse for him, in an already unpleasant situation. He didn’t like my advice.

Ann Mary is just bitter. The Parole Board didn’t give her a parole, but granted paroles to her closest friends. It wasn’t fair. Not in the least. They’re celebrating Christmas in freedom. She’s not.  

David is angry at us and the entire system. He’s convinced that doctors have implanted a chip in his body, against his wishes, as part of a sinister international plot. No one will listen.

Georgia is a Muslim, and hates it that the guards stand and watch her everyday while she prays, often making fun of her, and wonders why she can’t have some personal time and personal dignity.  She’s darn mad!

These stories are not uncommon. Prison ministries love to publish touching, heart-warming stories in the season of Christmas. This, on the other hand, is the realistic part of working in the trenches.

It’s my job, it’s our job, to convince these needy souls behind bars, that they can’t get rid us. Our friendship is permanent. Its genuineness is sealed by the story we celebrate in this season of Advent. That humble radical, in his short period on earth, insisted that the marginalized were the special people, the poor would inherit the earth, the Good Samaritan was actually the hero, and the adulteress would be welcome in heaven. Now it’s our turn to offer unconditional love, in his name.

So at holiday time, when many around us are celebrating with family and friends, offering toasts to present and future happiness, we do our best to hold the hands of the hurting, trying to walk in the footsteps of the Christ some say must be reinserted into Christmas...the one who flatly stated that prisoners should be visited.

Father Greg Boyle gets it! “You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.” 

One can only pray that our faltering efforts provide, for those hurting people, a glimpse of the real meaning of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Prison visit: The gift that keeps on giving!

Bob got some bad news this week. His family won’t be coming to visit him in prison. Family members are in Texas, and they claimed that some snow prevented their travel. The visit will have to be by phone for this Christmas.

He’s taking it in stride. It’s a way of life for prisoners.

Some years ago the Minnesota Department of Corrections conducted a major study on the impact of visitation. Said the experts: Based on both statistic and anecdotal evidence, visitation can be the difference between continuing a cycle of reoffending or finding hope to start a new life, according to experts and research.

And yet they don’t get visits---

-Retired Warden Mary Berghuis contends that only 12% of Michigan prisoners get visits!
-HFP Prison Doctor Bob Bulten recently called on a long-time inmate. It marked the first time he had ever had a visit!
-My friend Jimmy has been in prison 18 years. He’s never had a visit!

A dear friend of ours, wife of a wrongly-convicted lifer, recently put out an appeal to friends and relatives of Michigan inmates: Make a prison visit! She told how bad weather forced cancellation of just one of her regular visits with her husband, and how much they both missed it.

Looking at from a selfish perspective, it can, indeed, be an annoyance. For one thing, it’ll probably involve a long drive. Then there’ll be the long time spent in the waiting room. You may have an unpleasant experience with a Corrections Officer.

But you couldn’t make a better investment of time! Even though you can’t bring in food, you can’t bring in gifts, you CAN bring in yourself. Plan to buy him or her some food from the vending machines, take advantage of the photo op. Allow time. And don’t think you have to do all the talking. These people have no one with whom they can just sit and share thoughts and experiences. They just want someone to listen.

I apologized to an inmate, once, because in a prison speaking engagement I didn’t answer all of their questions very adequately. “Heck,” he said, “most of the guys already knew the answers. They just wanted to be with you!” It was the visit that was important.

It’s probably too late to do it before Christmas, but it’s never too late.

Make it a part of your Advent/Christmas/holiday/New Year commitment.

I was in prison and you visited me!  Jesus knew then, and knows now, the importance of the prison visit.

In this season of Advent, I long for his return.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

On sweating the small stuff

It is a self-help maxim of the privileged to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But the folks at the bottom have to. (Fr Greg Boyle)

The HFP team won’t be seen ringing a bell in front of your favorite supermarket or department store in this Christmas season. But I want to get the word out that this charitable organization is doing its best to help the folks at the bottom to “sweat the small stuff.”

It was late afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, when Wayne called us. He had just been granted a parole, had just landed in a half-way house only to discover that he had no wardrobe. He had no family or friends to fall back on, but he remembered that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS had been at his side in the past. He wasn’t next door…he was in the City of Benton Harbor. Yet, within an hour-and-a-half, Wayne had shirts, pants and shoes! 

In June we discovered that Joyce was unable to visit her two sons in prison due to unpaid traffic tickets. Thanks to heroic assistance by Equal Justice Under Law and The Marshall Project, more than $2,000 was raised to help this elderly woman, who is also battling cancer. The last fine was just paid, and Joyce is now working to get her name on the visiting lists for her two sons. When that is accomplished, she will be visiting her sons for the first time in three years!

In March we learned that Tony, a Michigan prisoner suffering from sleep apnea, was struggling through the night without his CPAP breathing device. He had been diagnosed in 2013, one year before his incarceration, and had been using the machine for a year. Then, when he was admitted to the Michigan Prison System, a doctor for the MDOC refused to let him have the CPAP. It took our team of specialists 9 months to work through all of this, present the medical proof to the warden and prison doctor, and make the case. A few days ago came the message from Tony: The CPAP has arrived!

Small stuff?  Ask Wayne. Ask Joyce. Ask Tony.

Some might say people like this are at the bottom. In our office, as followers of Jesus, we put their names at the top.

It’s who we are. It’s what we do. And we can’t do it alone.

Yes, you may count this as ringing our bell for holiday support. Thanks to your year-end gift, we’ll be here, standing by the marginalized, helping them sweat “the small stuff.”

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Yes, Virginia, there ARE people who care!

I love the season of Advent! Somehow, this year, the message and the longing seem stronger. At first I blamed, or credited, this feeling on age. But the more I think about it, I’m convinced that it’s the headlines of the day.

Some of the nicest, kindest, most generous people I know are behind bars.

Some of the people whose words and ways I detest the most are not only in the free world, but in high places!

And so the Advent Service by the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys was more refreshing and healing than ever. It was, in part, an escape from the madness of the world. An appreciative audience filled the pews of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven Friday evening.

In that the offering was to be taken for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I was granted the privilege of making a short presentation. I told the story of how HFP helped a prisoner, suffering from sleep apnea, to finally get his CPAP breathing device…something the prison system had denied him for the past three years. It took our team 9 months, but we succeeded! Tony will sleep better, and even behind bars, his Christmas will be merrier.

After hearing my story, and hearing about HFP’s compassion for those behind bars, some people sought me after the service. A few of their comments are the reason for this short piece.

The first man: I’m the owner of a structural steel manufacturing company, and I’m doing my part. I have employed six ex-felons!

The second: I don’t care how serious the crime, we have no right to treat any prisoner in an inhumane manner!

The third: No matter how short the sentence, when the inmate gets out, life is never the same. Until we change our way of treating ex-offenders, every sentence is a life sentence!

These messages were almost as heartening to me as the Advent message! Despite all the negative things going on in our country, some people really are getting it, and are daring to speak up about it. The next step, hopefully: Doing something about it!

I love the season of Advent, and I cling to the prophecy of Isaiah as I long for the second coming of Christ, that he might…open eyes that are blind, free captives from prison and release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Corrections Officers, It's time to step up to the plate!

Two short stories.

Donald’s wife gives me a call. He’s been in prison 42 years, he’s 76 years of age, and he’s been a model prisoner. A quiet, gentle black man, Donald never got tickets, never challenged authority, and was liked by peers and staff alike. He finally got an opportunity for parole…he was granted a Public Hearing before the Michigan Parole Board. We attended, and spoke up in his support. That was some months ago.

The reason for the call from Donald’s wife: He was granted a parole! Good news! God be praised!

Then came the negative part of the story. Following the Public Hearing the prisoner is housed in a holding area until a van can arrive, pick him up, and take him back to the facility where he resides. While in that holding area, a few nasty Corrections Officers choose to harass him, telling him he’s never going to get out. “You’ll die in here.”

Donald could hardly talk when he related that story to his wife that night…he broke down weeping.

Story Number Two.

Lisa is a 55 year old white woman, living in Michigan’s only prison for women in Ypsilanti. Her words:

My two daughters came to visit this past weekend. The officer threatened one of them, saying that she could not wear altered clothing and told her she had to do a strip search to prove it, and if she was lying she'd never visit again. She took her, along with her 4-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old son into the visitors’ bathroom and made my daughter strip in front of the kids, all of whom were crying.  Then, at the end, when they were leaving, the officer pointed at my younger daughter and her little boy, asking who she was to my older daughter. She responded, "My sister and nephew."  The officer said, " Mmm, she likes her some black men…got her a black baby," about my 5-year-old grandson. My grandchildren never want to come see me again "where the bad people work."

I have to admit, many years ago when I got started in this business, I had a problem with all corrections officers. But, I’ve changed my mind! I have met many fine officers, men and women who do their very best under trying circumstances, who manage to stay kind and fair, and who gain the respect of prisoners and visitors. It’s not an easy job under the best of circumstances.

However, this stuff is unacceptable. We can go on blaming the Warden, the MDOC and all the people at the top, but I’m thinking that it's time to start lower than that. I’m calling on all decent officers, and I’m calling on the Michigan Corrections Organization---the union that represents some 6,500 corrections workers---to take a stand.

The Union’s web site says the organization is “leading a nationwide campaign to raise the professional profile of corrections officers.”

It’s time to deal with your own...time to intensify that campaign! Stories like this don’t smell very good.