Friday, October 19, 2018

Matt calling the game and Matt's mind games

Not everyone knows this, but Matt Tjapkes is not only the Executive Director of HFP…he’s the voice of the Grand Haven Buccaneers. Matt is a professional play-by-play sports broadcaster when he’s not running our office.

The final game of the year was between Grand Haven and Grand Rapids Union. The Buccaneers wasn’t a terrific high school football team this year, and the record hasn’t been very exciting (even though our two grandsons were on the roster). But the GR Union Red Hawks’ record is dismal. And it goes way back. The school is located in an older neighborhood, the football team hasn’t won a game in a long, long time, and nobody even bothers to come out to watch them anymore. A while back, at a high school contest in Muskegon County, there were 4 fans in the stands.

So tonight, Grand Haven finally had excitement in the stadium…the Bucs tromping the opposition. At half-time, 35-0. It was raining, and it was cold, but our local fans finally had something to cheer about. For Grand Rapids Union, on the other hand, it was same old, same old. A 59-0 loss.

“It gets tired,” says team captain Caleb Smith. “It gets old. But you can’t stop.”

“We don’t quit,” says Coach Rick Angstman, “no matter the score.”

One has to admire this rag-tag group of football players who, in these dismal conditions and in this unfavorable situation, keep on keepin’ on…some tears perhaps mixed with the raindrops in a game like that of tonight.

The emotional storm for Matt, while he excitedly calls the touchdowns for the Bucs, is that all day long he’s working for the societal counterpart to the Red Hawks, Michigan prisoners.

People cheer when they’re put behind bars, sneer when they trip and fall, seldom show up for visits, and nod knowingly when they fail time after time. Like the Red Hawks, these losers behind bars tolerate the sacks, the fumbles and the interceptions every day of the week.

Yet, on a regular basis, Matt hears prisoners echoing the words of Captain Caleb: “It gets tired, it gets old, but you can’t stop!”

And Matt, and I, and the HFP team echo Coach Angstman’s words every day, as we do our best while standing beside these Michigan prisoners: “We don’t quit, no matter the score!”

Matt is outstanding at promoting the Bucs. That’s one of his jobs. But as his dad, I can tell you this: At his other job he’s for the underdog.

He comes by it honestly.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Why prisoners identify with #MeToo

My friend Jerry has an interesting perspective on the #MeToo Movement. Jerry Metcalf resides in a Michigan prison, and he points out that it’s not just female prisoners who support this protest movement. The subject strikes home for guys.

“That's because,” he says, “many prisoners have experienced it, too. Everything the system does to us is designed to tear us down, to degrade us. I imagined a woman with a couple of kids. She has to keep a job to take care of her kids, to feed them and whatnot. So, when she’s at work and her boss sexually harasses her or grabs her, she just grins and bears it. That’s us, I thought.”

For example…

“A guard once made me eat off the floor (literally)! Others degrade us and don’t even know they’re doing it. I remember a guard who used to stand in the chow hall and constantly belittle our food. She’d scrunch up her face and say things like: ‘That looks disgusting,’ or ‘I wouldn’t feed that crap to my dogs.’ It wasn’t like we could go down the road to a different cafeteria. She made me feel less than human.”

Prisoners will tell you, says Jerry, that many times they have needed toilet paper to go to the bathroom, but when they asked for it the guard made them wait an hour or two! "Like getting up out of their chair in front of the fan was too taxing. Screw you, you’re just a scumbag prisoner."

“I thought of all of the stories over the years of guards and other staff sexually harassing inmates or pressuring them to have sex—I’ve even had to deal with those things myself. Like many of those from the #MeToo movement, we prisoners have for years remained quiet about such abuses. Some out of shame, others out of fear of retaliation, but most because that’s just the way it’s always been. The guards make it a point to label you a ‘rat’ and destroy your peace of mind and what little you may own in a thousand different ways if you tell on them or one of their coworkers. Yet, when they tell on you by writing you a ticket, they’re ‘just doing their job.’”

Jerry’s contention: “Just like with the #MeToo women, it’s a system-wide cover-up.”

American actress Alyssa Milano last year encouraged #MeToo victims to tweet about it so that people could get a sense of the “magnitude of the problem.”

Jerry couldn’t tweet from his cell, but we can help pass along the word.

Getting “a sense of the magnitude” isn’t enough. Shabby treatment must come to a halt for women.

For prisoners, too.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

More than one reason why old-timers should be released!

Denials are arriving by the boatload in the Michigan prison system. Many inmates who deserve a second chance are not being considered for clemency by Governor Snyder. And that’s a shame.

Darnell Epps, student at Cornell University who served 17 years for a violent crime, wrote a great op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled: The Prison ‘Old-Timers’ Who Gave Me Life. “Aging inmates,” he said, “some serving life sentences, helped me turn my life around.” His next sentence is important: They could do even more good on the outside.”

We’re tough on crime in Michigan! We like to “throw away the key.” Right now more than 8% of Michigan prisoners are 60 and older…some 75 of them over the age of 80!

Our friend Doug, age 54, who has served 33 years, has had the door slam shut on every opportunity for reentry into society, and that saddens us. A teacher, mentor, and a person who has done so much good behind bars, he deserves a new crack at freedom. Besides that, he could do even more good on the outside!

In a rare rant this week, he said,

“When this place opened I worked around Ed Rozek. His comment about the MDOC erring by keeping people too long is something I'm only really appreciating now, 23 years later. He said most guys steadily improve, but rather than release at the peak, the State keeps people not only when they plateau out, but start sliding back downhill, having given up on all the rhetoric about second chances. With decades served and no end in sight, Ed's observation has finally sunk in. Now don't fret that I'm on some downward spiral of despair, but at the same time I'm not going to pretend this disillusionment with a system I've wanted to believe in despite the growing evidence to the contrary doesn't hurt. A large part of my joining the Marines was because I really believed in America being the best country of all time, that a person really could be whatever they want, and, yes, second chances even for screw-ups were available. Far too idealistic for my age and circumstance, I admit, but up to now it's gotten me through this sentence. Now, my idealism is gone, replaced with resignation. I still don't want to ever use the word "unfair!" given what I did to get myself here, but, well, damn, in a fair, objective review I can't help but think I'd finally get to go home before any more of my family passes away from old age.”

Says Darnell Epps: We must seriously consider whether society would benefit by letting reformed offenders re-enter their community, and whether it’s economical and humane to punish solely for the sake of retribution. When I hear of all the gun violence on Chicago’s South Side, for instance, I can’t help wondering what would happen if Illinois’s many reformed old-timers, who hail from those neighborhoods, were granted parole with a mission of working to reduce the violence. It’s not unreasonable to think they’d have a better chance of reaching the younger generation than the local police or federal law enforcement.

One shameful certainty: It won’t be happening in Michigan!

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Penny saved is a Penny earned: a nice story!

Here’s a neat story about Penny. Actually, it’s about Penny and HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. If you haven’t caught it by now, we’re the place prisoners go when they don’t know where to turn.

Penny got convicted of a non-violent charge in Detroit in 2008, and was given probation. In 2015, she apparently violated probation and was sent to prison for 3-10 years. But that was an error. The most she should have received was 3-5 years. Nobody caught it.

Nobody, that is, except Penny.

The state’s legal counsel helped her appeal, but the Michigan Court of Appeals said no.

Not one to just let things drop, Penny---a 63-year-old African American---spent her time in the prison’s law library, and all by herself went all the way to top. And wonder of wonders, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with her! The order came down that she must be sent back for re-sentencing.

That was in May, 2017. Since then, nothing happened. No word from anybody, the five years  served, and she’s still behind bars. Still awaiting resentencing.

Not knowing where to turn, she came to HFP.

Now it’s very true that our daily workers are just common, ordinary people doing extraordinary work. But behind the scenes, we have an amazing panel of doctors and lawyers in all kinds of specialties, boasting all kinds of backgrounds, who have an infinite number of contacts, sources and skills. These men and women, who love and believe in what we do, are movers and shakers!

I’m not going to betray confidences here---not names nor methods used---but I can tell you that the story sliced through red tape and got to the right people in a heartbeat. This week Matt was pleased to pass along a message to Penny from the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System: She would be assigned a lawyer to get this resolved, “right away!" 

HFP: Quietly making things happen!

I use this story to explain the unique work that HFP does on a daily basis. There are many fine prisoner advocacy agencies in this state. We love all of them, we support them, and we work with them when and where possible. But no one except HFP is down in the trenches 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, helping “the little guy” with things that may seem like little cases, little problems, or insignificant issues.


Just ask Penny.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Wrongful Conviction Day. Don't make light of it!

It was a wrongful conviction case that got me started on this journey. My friend Maurice Carter, whom I came to call my brother, served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. Not a week goes by that we don’t encounter another claim of innocence.

October 2 is International Wrongful Conviction Day, and once again the general public will take a look at the title, grumble that they hope it never happens to them, perhaps mutter that all prisoners say they are innocent, and go about their daily tasks.

Well, I think it’s worth breaking down a few statistics to give this some meaning. Take a look at these numbers and see how this information hits you:
3-5% of all prisoners are innocent.
Which means that
We have more than 1,000 wrongly convicted inmates right here in
Which breaks down to
Approximately 40 in every  state prison.
            So we can conclude that
Possibly 80 or more innocent people reside in the two Muskegon prisons just 10 miles from our office!

In a country which claims its system of justice is superior to all others in the world, here are the leading causes of wrongful conviction:
  • Eyewitness Misidentification. 
  • Junk Science.
  • False Confessions.
  • Government (Prosecutorial) Misconduct.
  • Informants or Snitches.
  • Bad Lawyering. 
While preparing a podcast on the topic recently, I compiled a list of some wrongful conviction cases that have touched our office in the past 16 years. Surprise! The list included a police officer, a lawyer, a doctor, two teachers, two businessmen and a single mother. All in middle to upper income brackets, all white, and none with even a hint of a police record! May this dispel any thoughts that such a thing cannot happen to you. Or me.

Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, keeps official track of all those people in the United States whose wrongful convictions have been reversed.

I conclude with his conclusions:

“We can do better, of course — for misdemeanors, for death penalty cases and for everything in between — if we’re willing to foot the bill. It’ll cost money to achieve the quality of justice we claim to provide: to do more careful investigations, to take fewer quick guilty pleas and conduct more trials, and to make sure those trials are well done. But first we have to recognize that what we do now is not good enough.”

Amen and Amen!

Friday, September 28, 2018

We can learn from Maria and Anna Maria!

An interesting thing happened on the way to the hearing room.

The U.S. Senate was marching toward a confirmation vote for a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

I’ll not enter this fray with my opinions, (I have a lot of them!). What I want to focus on is what may have seemed an insignificant occurrence. This has to do with one of my favorite subjects: the little guy.

In this case, the little guy was a woman. Actually, two of them.

One of the senators who was about to vote on this motion got on the elevator and found himself facing Maria Gallagher and Anna Maria Achilla…two sexual assault survivors. They recognized Senator Jeff Flake, and wasted no time or words on him. They were in Washington to support a woman who claimed she had been abused by the nominee years ago, and they let him have it!

The senate hearing to determine whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh should be seated in the land’s highest court, as you probably know, was focusing on accusations of sexual abuse that had allegedly occurred during high school days. The hearing was a difficult and torturous experience for both the accuser and the nominee.

One of the major issues, however, was whether the accusation should be more thoroughly investigated. Democrats said the FBI should look into these matters. Republicans said it wasn’t necessary, as the senate was very capable of doing this, and the voting should proceed.

Then came that confrontation in the elevator, when Senator Jeff Flake met Maria and Anna Maria. With raised voices, he clearly heard “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter;” “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter;” “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me…that you’ll let people like that go into the highest court in the land and tell everyone what they can do with their bodies!”

Senator Flake won’t say that this experience made the difference. But the record shows that he went back and was able to encourage a delay until the FBI conducts an investigation into these matters.

Again, I’m going to restrict my opinions to the incident, not the subject.

There's a segment of our society here in Michigan that has been clamoring for prison reform, protesting mass incarceration, encouraging release of elderly and ailing prisoners, shouting that too many have been in prison for too long, and insisting that inhumane treatment of inmates is not acceptable.

Little guys (and by “little guys,” I mean people like you and me) can make things happen. Plopping our fat butts on the couch and yapping at the TV won’t do it. Shooting off our mouth to the guy on the next bar stool accomplishes nothing. It’s time to get on the elevator and get in the face of our elected officials and demand that they look at us! And listen to us!

Our opinions are important.

Our voices can make things happen.

Monday, September 24, 2018

One more on the subject, then we'll move on

I promise to let this go, because forgiveness and kindness are also key ingredients in the Christian walk. But honestly, I have a real problem when one of our area’s most popular and well-attended churches says, about (our) prison ministry, “…this is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in.”

That reply came to a simple inquiry whether we might be able to tell church leaders the story about HFP's work with Michigan prisoners.

What if we had given that response to the people who came to us when they didn’t know where to turn?

To those caring prisoners who begged us to find a place for Old Bill so that he could be paroled and die in freedom.

To the guy with sleep apnea who wasn’t allowed to have his CPap breathing device.

To those caring prisoners who begged us to intervene at Carol’s Public Hearing so she could spend her final weeks on earth at home with family.

To the prisoners’ mom who wasn’t allowed to see her sons because of unpaid traffic tickets.

To the mentally ill women being abused in the critical unit.

To a wife when the prison wouldn’t provide the location of her dying husband.

To the elderly inmate who found his long-lost son.

To the guy with bad eyes who finally got a pair of reading glasses.

Sorry Mary. Sorry Nathan. Sorry Willie. Sorry Johnny. Sorry Patricia. This is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in?

It’s not up to me to advise any church to dig into roots of Christianity, but I’d like to quote one of the early church fathers here. Saint Augustine of Hippo was an early Christian theologian whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity. He was viewed as one of the most important church fathers in Western Christianity.

Among his many profound quotes is this one:

“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”

And that, it seems to me, is exactly what a church might want to “invest its time and resources in.”

We can say for a certainty that it’s the rule of thumb here at HFP.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Christians, some hot, some cold

I love the people we work with! I mean it!

Some have been wrongly convicted. I hurt for them. Some of been wronged by our so-called justice system. I’m angry with them. Many know they’ve screwed up, and are genuinely sorry. I sense their longing for forgiveness. Regardless of the attitudes of these men and women behind bars, one thing is certain: The façade is gone. They know why they’re there, they’re resigned to it, and there’s not a darn thing they can do about it.

In these circumstances, many, predictably, are shunned. Only 12% of them even get a prison visit! The more years behind bars, the more family members and friends start flaking off.

And so, when Michigan prisoners discover that someone cares, our love and compassion are unconditional, and we’ll do our level best to help in any way that we can, the response is amazing! It’s exactly what can be expected when a straggly team of caring people try to model an itinerant preacher who stated, in these exact words, “I was in prison and you visited me.”

Needing the dollars to carry out this work, we make a strong appeal to the Christian community. Over the years some churches and many devoted individuals have faithfully responded. I know better, and yet, I’m deeply saddened when some responses don’t match my zeal and enthusiasm.

An evangelical church: We have decided to support only those missions where Jesus is taught.

A former donor: We prefer to support programs where Bibles are handed out and Christian principles are discussed.

And most recently this message from one of the area’s thriving mega churches: …this is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in. This is the same church that boldly states in its literature: Everything we do is about lifting high the name of Jesus Christ.

I like the words of gay theologian Dr. Rembert Truluck when discussing Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist:

…what the baptism of Jesus really means is in the fact that Jesus identified with the people, not with the prophet or with the ritual.  Jesus joined with and identified with the multitudes of people from every walk of life who were strangers, sick people, unclean people, rejected and outcast people, feeble and confused people, and with the people who were hurting and wounded by the false abusive religion that John came to challenge.

HFP: down in the trenches, touching hundreds of lives like these, and loving it!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Elephant in the room: Rothermel

Some say that Scott Rothermel is not such a bad guy, and that his marred reputation is not entirely his fault.

Well, let me start from the beginning.

Mr. Rothermel is an Assistant Attorney General, and one of his assignments is to participate in Public Hearings conducted by the Michigan Parole Board. The board holds these hearings for prisoners convicted of serious of crimes who are being considered for release.

The Board stresses that the purpose of these hearings is to determine whether the prisoner might still be a threat to the public. If it is determined that he/she is not fit to reenter society, they’ll be sent back to the slammer. The PB wants to take no chances, and no one can fault them for that.

The Public Hearing is conducted by at least one member of the Michigan Parole Board. A major part of the hearing, however, is led by Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, who explains, at the onset, that he represents “the people of the State of Michigan.”

As readers of this column know, I find Mr. Rothermel’s tactics distasteful.

But why do I label him “the elephant in the room?”

-Many spectators have been appalled by his heavy-handed methods of seemingly “re-trying” the case for which the inmate has been convicted;
-Many inmates have been traumatized by his tactics;
-He always recommends no parole for any prisoner convicted of a violent crime, regardless of the testimony in the hearing, regardless of the number of years that have passed, and regardless of the progress and changes in the inmate’s life;
-And because Parole Board members themselves quietly agree that they don’t like his tactics and often ignore his recommendations.

And yet, his role continues. Nobody openly talks about it. Nobody does anything about it.

Now, finally, some tough talk from a major player! It’s included in a piece written by one of the state’s leading prisoner advocates. Natalie Holbrook, who represents the Quaker organization AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE, has authored an outstanding document called Ending perpetual punishment: The case forcommutations for people in Michigan prisons.

In her proposals for change, Natalie says that the Governor of the State of Michigan should
“…Instruct the parole board member/s conducting public hearings to take back the hearing process from the Attorney General’s representative (AAG). The board member is in charge of the hearing, not the AAG. The AAG is given way too much latitude to essentially “re-try” people instead of letting them express their past wrongs and how they have worked on themselves amidst difficult obstacles to set things as ‘right’ as possible.”

Right on!

Our thanks to Natalie Holbrook. It’s time to corral the elephant.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Finally! Somebody fighting for the women!

"We all grumble about the weather, but nothing is done about it."

Mark Twain is often credited with making that statement. Historians, however, believe that it probably originated with Charles Dudley Warner.

I’m reminded of that cynical comment today as I review Paul Egan’s fine story, published last week in the Detroit Free Press, about possible class action on behalf of inmates housed in Michigan’s only prison for women.

I’m checking through our daily email dispatches, speeches I have given, messages posted on our blog site…we’ve been complaining about these things for years! A lot of agreement with what we said, but nothing ever happened.

From the moment I got into this business, I’ve been yipping about the way we treat women in prison. It’s shameful!

Granted, for a while the US Department of Justice responded to our complaint about abuse of mentally ill inmates in the acute unit. An investigation continued, on and off again, for a few years. But we saw no strong action and no major change.

The ACLU loved all the smuggled affidavits we had from whistleblowers regarding those abuses of mentally ill women, and wrote a lengthy letter of protest to the prison and the Michigan Department of Corrections. After that, silence.

A former employee even spoke out…but then nothing more.

But now, finally, something is happening! It’s long overdue.

Claiming that getting locked up at Women’s Huron Valley is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the US Constitution, Birmingham attorney Lynn Shecter has gone to court!

She lists the things that we hear regularly from our friends in that facility. We’ve been hearing reports for years about severe overcrowding, lack of proper and adequate ventilation, and inadequate space for recreation and exercise.

There are more than 2,200 women in the state prison system, all housed in one facility in Ypsilanti. The department contends that the capacity of that facility is 2,400, and that there is no overcrowding. The women will tell you otherwise.

In addition to poor ventilation and inadequate activity space, these existing conditions “deprive WHV inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” contends prison designer and architect Randy Atlas. And clinical psychologist Ellen Koch insists that these conditions are "aggravating mental health problems such as depression and a surge in suicide attempts."

Now it’s up to a US District Judge whether to dismiss the lawsuit or certify it as a class action.

While the Michigan Attorney General’s Office is resisting this action, friends and loved ones of the more than 2,200 women are cheering on attorney Shecter from the sidelines.

And so are we!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Time to open a fresh can of COMMON SENSE!

Marcia’s advice to our kids when they were growing up: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!

I was sitting in the lobby of a prison on the other side of the state when an elderly black man walked in…must have been in his 80s, dressed in his Sunday best. He had been driven to the prison all the way from Detroit for his regular visit with his son. But there was a problem. While being checked in at the desk, he discovered that he had left his picture ID back home on the dresser. You can’t get in without legal identification.

It was a sad situation, because staff members knew him…he was a regular visitor. He had credit cards and other things that bore his name. But, no legal ID. And the officer at the desk wouldn’t budge. His heart broken, the old man was sent home. At his age, and in his state of health, who knew if he would even get another chance to see his son?

As mentioned in our last blog, Diane went to the Michigan Prison health clinic in Jackson to visit her son, terminally ill with cancer. You’d have to see it to believe it, but the glassed-in visiting area in this hospital setting, mind you, consists of metal benches---yes benches---without backs. Her son is seriously ill, and soon his back was aching after a short stint on this seat with no backs and no arm-rests. Diane had a simple request. Could the officer please just bring a wheelchair, or a simple chair with arm-rests? Nope. That, she was told, would take an order from a doctor. In less than an hour, the patient had to return to his room. The visit cut short. Who knew if she would even get another chance to see her son?

While these scenes are typical, and maddening, I do not quickly blame the Michigan Department of Corrections’ top officials.

Retired Warden Mary Berghuis says that former MDOC Director Pat Caruso “…always admonished us that we all got paid enough to use good judgment.” I’m convinced that Director Heidi Washington feels the same way.

But that’s not enough. The Department needs to clearly establish a policy of using good judgment, because there’s a percentage of corrections officers who believe that prisoners are there to be punished and are not to be coddled and deserve no special consideration.

There’s statistical proof that visits are beneficial. In that only about 12% of Michigan prisoners even receive visits, that percentage deserves to be protected. Visitation enhances rehabilitation. Visitation lowers the rate of reoffending.

If rehabilitation and lowering the prison popular are among the goals of our state prison system, common sense and compassion must be factored in to the equation.

Sooner, rather than later.

“Compassion is the basis of morality.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

It's time to replace the seats!

It sort of reminds you of that woman running for Governor in Michigan, who wants to “fix the damn roads.”

It’s seats that I want to fix. Actually, I want them replaced. They’re located in the visiting area of the Duane L. Waters Health Clinic in Jackson, Michigan. Waters is the health center for the Michigan Department of Corrections. Prisoners dread going there. They beg medical people not to send them there, because the perception is that they’ll go there to die.

But, sick prisoners and dying prisoners go there.

The building looks nice on the outside. Inside, it’s a different picture. I think Dr. Waters, of Manistique, Michigan, for whom the building was named, would be disappointed.

My major complaint today is about the seats in the visiting area. This section bears no resemblance to the visitation rooms in state prisons. It’s a glassed-in area in the middle of an open space, and there’s only one thing in this enclosure: metal benches. That’s where you go to meet your loved one.

My first experience in this room occurred in 2003 when I visited Maurice Carter, who was in terrible shape with Hep C. You could awkwardly sit on the benches, some distance apart, to face each other and try to talk. Or you could sit next to the patient, and try to talk turning your heads toward each other. But the biggest complaint: There are no backs on the benches! How’s that for treating the ailing and the dying?

15 years later, I get an email message from Diane, whose son is dying:

Today, my son, whom I did not recognize due to his nearly 90-pound weight loss in 7 months, was forced to sit on a narrow, backless cold metal bench to visit with me for 45 minutes. He needed to leave because it was causing him such pain. I asked for a chair or wheelchair for him. It was denied as it is against rules and requires a doctor’s order.

Let’s forget how stupid it is not to be able to quietly slip the guy a wheelchair.

Instead, let’s try to imagine the reasoning behind these seats. Metal benches with no backs and no armrests? For hospital patients and their visitors? Come on!

To the state’s credit, positive steps have been taken in hospice and palliative care. Progress is slow, but at least it’s progress. But improving the visitation area, especially with seating that is suitable for patients, would be easy to change and is long overdue.

It should be a budgeted item now, with top priority. It's time to make that happen!

Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.
Mother Teresa

Saturday, August 25, 2018

No concern, no compassion, no problem

The year was 1976.

As a semi-truck passed through Grand Haven on US 31, a distraught woman jumped from the tractor, and ran down the street screaming that she had been raped. City police stopped the truck a few blocks later and took the driver into custody.

It took days to sort out the story, but the Grand Haven Tribune chose to publish the name of the man right away, even though he had not been charged.

As the newsman for my radio station, holding up on the man's ID, I pressed then-Prosecutor Wes Nykamp about charges against that driver. He cautioned me to wait…there was more to the story. And indeed there was! The woman was arrested and charged with filing a false report. The driver was released.

But the damage was done. The man’s name should not have appeared in our newspaper, and my critical editorial on the topic captured first prize in the State Bar of Michigan Advancement of Justice competition. That prestigious award remains here in my office.

Fast forward to 2018. A mentally ill old white man is accused of urinating on a little black girl and uttering racial slurs. Channel 8 immediately releases his name. The NAACP demands that the poor old sucker be charged with a hate crime. His picture is shown on newscast after newscast.

The Kent County Prosecutor, however, did not rush to charge the man. Instead, once again, turns out there was more to the story. The naughty little kids made up the story. The old man was released.

But the damage was done, and nobody even bothers to apologize.

Back in the 70s, it was a poor, hard-working black man from Alabama, with a wife and kids, whose name got smeared. This month, it was an elderly white man struggling with mental issues whose name got unnecessarily smeared.

The rush to get a scoop topped being fair or even, Lord help us, compassionate.

I bring all of this to your attention not to boast about a good decision that I made, but to stress, once again, the importance of showing fairness and kindness to the “little guy,” the one less fortunate, the one who probably cannot speak for himself.

That’s exactly why we’re in this prisoner advocacy business. Inmates feel this type of rejection and unconcern regularly. For them, it's part of life.

A framed verse from Proverbs is on our office wall: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

I've said it before. It’s “Jesus work.”

Friday, August 17, 2018

What are we going to do about mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners?

Are we getting better at treating the mentally ill in prison? I don’t think so!

Years ago, with overwhelming evidence about mistreatment of mental patients in the Women’s Huron Valley Facility, we filed a complaint with the U. S. Department of Justice. It led to a lengthy investigation.

Evidence included numerous signed affidavits smuggled to us by trained prisoner observers whose job it was to keep an eye on the mentally challenged. They scribbled their signed statements on scraps of paper, courageously revealing shameful details of food deprivation, water deprivation and even hog-tying.

With our evidence, the ACLU prepared a pages-long letter to the Michigan Department of Corrections and specifically to that facility, demanding that the practices be stopped and the procedures be changed.

There may have been some improvement in care of acutely ill. But then a few days ago we received this message from another of our trustworthy informants, about one of the same patients from years ago:

“It is now going into years that she has been locked in a room with nothing. She no longer even sings, raps or talks. She just makes noise. Four days ago an officer withheld her food because she would not get up. He yelled down the hallway (which is on camera), ‘You’re not getting your food unless you get up.’ The observer on duty said that in her time there, the food was never delivered. Years of being locked in a cell with nothing has made her worse.”

For the record, this young woman is only 28 and should have been released years ago. But, because of continued issues, the Parole Board refused. Then she assaulted a prison employee, got charged again, and now is not eligible for parole until 2024. Can’t anyone see the real problem here? Besides not giving this woman proper care and treatment, guess what it’s costing to keep her there!

Half of the people in Michigan prisons are mentally challenged. Because many of our mental institutions have been closed, many of the mentally ill now wind up behind bars. And corrections officers are the wrong people to care for mental patients.

Here’s my point. If we’re going to wait for the US government, like the DOJ, to do something, we can forget it. We saw what happened there. Same thing for going to the ACLU. They do a lot of good things, but other than a strong letter, we got no additional help from them and I don’t see any more coming. So, it’s back to my previous blog. It’s up to you and me. It’s election time, and if those persons in office aren’t willing to help the mentally ill, it’s time to throw the bums out! And before we choose replacements, it’s time to find out where they stand.

Please don’t ignore this just because it doesn’t affect you personally. The next time it could be your mother, or sister, or daughter.

It’s time to do something. Silence and inaction are not options.