All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, November 30, 2018

When prisoners pray

The prayers of oppressed people are especially precious in God's sight. As you have advocated for them, they will advocate for you. Rev. Celia Hastings, Ellsworth, Michigan

Prayer makes a difference. No one can shake my belief in that truism.

I look back at 2010, when a deadly staph infection attacked this old body. Loss of the ability to swallow, loss of 65 pounds, functioning on a feeding tube for 6 months, family gathering in a prayer that Dad will survive. It was a dark scene.

I wasn’t buried in discouragement, but I wondered if I would ever play the organ in church again, or go to Fricano’s for pizza and beer again.

Prayers of family, friends, and church were abundant, and I'm certain they played a significant role in pulling me through. But I was amazed by the intensity and frequency of prayers from prisoners, some whom I had never met or even helped.

Fast forward to the year 2018. On the day before Thanksgiving another sinister attack on this 82-year-old body. Sore arms in the middle of the night, heavy chest. What the…? Yep, heart attack. Open heart surgery to give me three bypasses. 

I have survived again. Physicians and medical attendants were not only pleased, but they were also amazed. I credit so much of this, once again, to prayer. 

Yes, prayers of my family and friends and my loving church. But also those of friends we have made around the world in this prisoner advocacy business. And then factor in the prayers of prisoners, their families and their loved ones. When the word got out our office was swamped with caring messages and assurances of prayer. 

I’ve been given a new lease on life, and I intend to continue helping those behind bars. My friends.

Says Lori Hadacek Chaplin in the Catholic Digest:

We don’t usually think of a prisoner’s prayers as being efficacious. Without thinking, we assume that God doesn’t hear them because of their terrible deeds. We forget about God’s mercy and the transformative power of sacraments of confession and the Eucharist. We also forget that God listens intently to the prayers of the suffering, and there’s no doubt that most prisoners suffer immensely. Their suffering is valuable when it’s united to Christ’s suffering.

So, I’m praying for prisoners today. It’s that mutuality, that reciprocity, that Sister Helen Prejean describes so well.

I owe them that.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A hospital essay on breaking the rules

I’m writing today from a hospital bed. Three guys in the next bed have been teaching me some lessons.

Funny how things go, but I suffered a heart attack early morning on the day before Thanksgiving. I’ll be undergoing open heart surgery on Monday. Between tests, procedures, injections, and a variety of other preparatory measures, I have time to write.

It goes without saying that prisoners and prisons are on my mind a lot. Even when I'm here. And I’m seeing some interesting parallels while lying in this bed: When you don’t abide by the rules, you’re going to pay the price!

In society, if you violate the rules, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up in prison. When you’re there, you’d do well to contemplate the wisdom and advice of counselors and reentry. Because if you make unwise decisions, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up right back there again.

The same holds true for those who chose to violate rules of caring for the body. There’s a good chance they’ll wind up in the hospital. When they’re there, they’d do well to listen to the experts in the field, and heed their advice. Because if they make unwise decisions, there’s a good chance they’ll wind up right back in here again.

Warren had bypass surgery a few years ago, but didn’t think he had to abide by the recovery rules, which involved such things as exercise and diet. That resulted in clogged arteries, and he wound up back here again. This time, stern lectures.

Greg was a diabetic with heart problems, but didn’t think the rules of diabetes applied to him. An emergency brought him to the bed next to me. I overheard the medical staff lecturing him before his release, reading a two-page list of rules that should not be challenged. “Otherwise,” he was told, “you’re going to be right back in here again.”

And then along came Dale, with diabetes problems that led to heart issues. There apparently was a misdiagnosis along the way somewhere, which prompted him to determine that all doctors and all rules of diet could be ignored. He’s got a physical mess on his hands, with a lot of pain and grief, and he still doesn’t think he has to follow the rules. He’ll be back.

Not all that different, is it?

Violating all the rules and guidelines of good health may not put you behind bars, but the results are still prison, with a different name.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Forgiveness is for me, not for others

What we love to hear:  Your sins are forgiven.

What? Do you really mean it? Even the worst, most secret sin in my life? The biggest skeleton hidden in my remotest closet?

What we don’t like to hear: For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Wait a minute. You don’t know the whole story! This person took the life of my loved one!

My friend Bill used to say to me, “Douger, there’s a little bit of larceny in all of us.”

I’ll go one step further. I think there’s a little bit of vindictiveness in all of us.

I use this week’s Public Hearing for a local businessman as an example. Ron Redick killed his business partner in 1991, and has spent the last 26 years in prison. At age 81, he has now requested that Governor Snyder commute his sentence, so that he can spend his remaining years in freedom.

The Michigan Parole Board holds these Public Hearings allegedly for the sole purpose of determining whether the inmate is fit to reenter society, and whether he/she might be a threat to society.

But the reality of the situation is that an Assistant Attorney General re-tries the case, hoping to confuse and debunk the testimony of the inmate and to prove that the inmate is still a criminal, will always be one, and should never get out.

Friends and family members testify: Our father’s life has been taken…why should the killer be freed? The former sheriff, the successor judge, the prosecutor, all agree that he should stay in prison. Why? Because he took a life. Keep the bastard locked up!

I struggle, then, with the title MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS. Does “corrections” mean improvement, rehabilitation, restoration? And if that is accomplished, and a person can be released as a productive member of society, isn’t that a goal, a victory?

While behind bars, Ron has stayed out of trouble. To the contrary, he has improved himself, helped others by mentoring and tutoring, and has written several books. His closest friends and family members say he’s remorseful, and just wants to return to his family. Does it sound like he might re-offend? 

I so appreciate the way Norway handles incarceration. For example, it does not even have a sentence of life without parole. As criminologist Bob Cameron puts it. “In general, prison should have five goals---retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation."  In his words though, "Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second."

In Norway, the life of every criminal is considered redeemable. What a concept! In contrast, I contend that the only goal of our system is retribution. Restoration and rehabilitation be damned.

Back to my original point.

We cherish and embrace forgiveness for ourselves.

We loathe it for those who have wronged us.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Going for the two-pointer

A friend posted the cutest video on FB the other day.

A little boy and a little girl, probably age 3 or 4, were shooting baskets at a hoop probably designed for 5-year-olds.

The little girl’s shot and missed, and it broke her heart. She stood there crying. The heroic little boy not only hugged and consoled her, but handed her the basketball again. This time, he hoisted her to a level where she could make the basket. The resulting smiles were precious!

This poignant video, which lasted only 30 seconds, was shared by the sister of a prisoner whom I loved…now deceased. It arrived the day before my 82nd birthday, and it prompted some somber thoughts.

I encourage you to take a minute to watch it. It’ll make your day. Perhaps you’ve seen it already. Over 5 million hits, I’m told!

Maybe this is a stretch, but here’s the parallel I see.

The little girl represents many men and women behind bars in Michigan, as well as their families and loved ones. Life isn’t easy for them. They keep trying to make a basket. Some are still trying. Others have given up and stand weeping, much like the sad little girl after missing her shot.

Then along comes HFP. We try to do exactly the same thing that little guy modeled for us: Give the poor child some hope for the next time. He held her hand. He hugged her. He gave her encouraging words. Then, God bless him, he placed the basketball in her hands, and lifted her up so she could make the basket. That is our goal. That is our hope…our wish.

I’m not saying that we always accomplish the last step. I’m afraid the “two-pointer” is much more elusive for us than it was for the little kids.

But we try to lift them up, and I’ve gotta tellya…we get a lot of the same smiles!

And we’re rewarded with the same good feeling that you’ll experience when you view that little scene.

My dear friend and fine gospel singer, the late Alma Perry, used to sing:

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he's traveling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Too many prisoners being held for too long!

“What does a model prisoners look like?” That’s the question from my friend Ricardo. Ricardo has been in the Michigan prison system for 36 years, and is a prolific writer.

He was pointing out, in this particular essay, that over-incarceration is costing Michigan tax-payers a ton of money. We’ve been hammering on that for years.

He gave as an example the case of his friend Charlie. Charlie is 75, and what we call a “parolable lifer.” He’s serving a life sentence, but is eligible for parole. Charlie has served nearly 44 years with an impeccable blemish-free prison record. “He has never incurred a misconduct report in his entire period of incarceration, quite a rarity given the amount of years he's been in prison. His accomplishments are far too many to mention. Nevertheless, the Michigan Parole Board chose to ignore arguably the most excellent of candidates to grant parole. Like countless others who have long been eligible, the board simply rejects moving good candidates forward by giving their standard denial of ‘The majority of the Parole Board has no interest in your case.’” Asks Ricardo: “If Charlie isn't the ideal candidate, then who is? His health is not so good. He's undergone surgery on both legs and is also a chronic care patient. Why continue to hold someone like Charlie who the state's own risk assessment mechanism indicates as being ‘a low risk?’”

That is a burning question as a new administration takes over top state offices in January.

We have a long list of similar names…names of men and women who are eligible for parole, and who should have been freed long ago. In fact, a new letter just landed on our desk from Albert. Albert is 63, has served 43 years, has received the “no interest” message from the Parole Board 9 times, and has two applications for commutation denied. He’s taken the right programs, and done his best to improve himself. “What more can I do,” he asks. What more, indeed!

In addition to the parolable lifers, we haven’t even touched the topic of those serving long indeterminate sentences, the LDI inmates. They don’t even get the opportunity for parole until they’ve served shamefully long minimum sentences. Something’s gotta give.

The new Objective Parole Bill, recently signed by the Governor, will make a dent. But we have so much farther to go.

Those campaigning for Governor and Attorney General promised change and improvement.

It cannot come soon enough!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Do we really forgive! Do we even want to?

Edna’s husband was a millionaire industrialist. He was wrongly convicted due to a sinister extortion plot. He went to prison, and appeals filed by the best attorneys were denied. Even though their marriage for the past 18 years was solid, Edna decided that her life had to move on. She filed for divorce. Danny lost his freedom. Then he lost the love of his life. He never fully recovered.

Divorce is not uncommon. When Daisy went to prison a corrections officer inquired as to when she was getting a divorce. She laughed, and asked what the heck that was all about. Her marriage was fine. One year later, sure enough, Bill filed for divorce. Life may be standing still for her, but it was going to move on for him.

Forgiveness is difficult.

Robin Sharma, one of the world’s top leadership experts, claims “Forgiveness isn’t approving what happened. It’s choosing to rise above it.”

I’ll not forget the day that I contacted the adult son of an elderly prisoner for help with some of his father’s business dealings. Old Eddie had been sent to prison after authorities found some disturbing images on his personal computer. “I don’t want my dad anymore,” his son Evan bitterly informed me. “Do you want him?”

I was chatting with Diana this week. She’s in her 80s now, and her son has been in prison for 18 years. Her heart is breaking, not because Lloyd is in prison, but because his two sibs won’t forgive. “One sister lives in the same town as the prison,” she lamented, “but she has never forgiven him, and never once visited him.”

I share these glimpses into the dark side of a prisoner’s life for a couple reasons.

First, it quickly explains why only 12% of Michigan prisoners get visits. Forgiveness is elusive.

And the second reason is to simply explain why HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is so popular among inmates. It’s because we don’t judge. We don’t care what they’re in for…we don’t even ask. If they have a need, a problem, we’re here for them.

It’s unconditional.

Jesus demands forgiveness of his followers, giving the prime example by asking his Father to forgive those who were putting him to death. In his model prayer for our use, he included the phrase, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

It’s easy to mouth that phrase every time we recite the prayer. Not that easy when it comes time to forgive commission of an offense that is intensely personal and painful.

And yet…  

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and realize the prisoner was you.”
Lewis Smedes

Thursday, November 1, 2018

What you don't hear in the political ads

No question about it: Most people are getting sick of the political ads. Your television set isn’t on for five minutes before you are bombarded with messages as to why you should vote for one person, and why his or her opponent is a danger to society.

On the national level, we hear about immigration and about the economy. Healthcare is a major topic of discussion, and so is our nation’s leadership. But you don’t hear any discussion about

-mass incarceration---2.2 million people behind bars, the highest percentage per capita in the world;
-wrongful convictions---staggering numbers that have Innocence Projects in every state struggling with serious backlogs; and
-the death penalty---only 20 states have abolished this shameful practice!

Here in Michigan, there’s a lot of political discussion on who’s toughest on crime, bad water, right to life, and fixing the roads. But you don’t hear any discussion about

-39,000 people occupying 30 prisons in Pure Michigan, a far higher percentage than that of any other Great Lakes state;
-serious overcrowding issues at Michigan’s only prison for women;
-how to make it easier for the wrongly convicted to collect money owed them by the state;
-why Prosecutors still oppose raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18 (Michigan is one of only four states left clinging to this archaic plan); or
-the slow progress in resentencing juveniles who were condemned to life without parole.

Do you know how your favorite candidate for Congress or for the US Senate feels about mass incarceration, wrongful convictions and the death penalty?

What about your choices for state public office. Where do they stand on these important issues? One would think they might have some opinions on a budget item that involves 14,000 state employees and costs taxpayers 5-million dollars a day! Yet we hear nothing.

Election Day is approaching, and it’s time to get out the measuring stick, time to look past the “hot-button” issues and dig into the less popular but very humanitarian matters. Know where your candidates stand on all issues.

Then, on November 6, follow this advice in Proverbs 31: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

On Christians and punishment

In this pre-election period we’re hearing a lot of political mumbo-jumbo.

My friend was telling me of a politician who, in a town hall meeting, vowed that he was staying with what he described as “core values,” saying he was OK with some voters not liking him because he is “too Christian.” The problem is, those of us with hearts for the downtrodden don’t think his voting record is all that Christian sometimes.

Readers of this column know that I’m especially sensitive on this topic.

Sister Helen Prejean, whom I describe as a national treasure and a national hero, is renowned for her battle against the death penalty. While discussing that topic with a person of faith recently, however, my friend stated, “I generally can oppose the death penalty, until I think of someone who might have raped and murdered a member of my family. Then I think I could pull the switch.”

And that’s the dilemma, isn’t it? There are segments of the Christian community who favor the death penalty, and who also think that prisoners get what they deserve.

That’s where I struggle.

Says Sister Helen: “If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.”

To help make her case to believers, she adds: “The movement to abolish the death penalty needs the religious community because the heart of religion is about compassion, human rights, and the indivisible dignity of each human person made in the image of God.”

It seems that no amount of talking by those of us showing care and compassion for those behind bars can convince some religious folks that what we are trying to do is model Jesus, “preaching the gospel every day, using words when necessary.”

The politician that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, and others of his ilk, can claim to be “too Christian” for some voters, but their thoughts and actions toward the marginalized in our society tell a different story.

I like Father Greg Boyle’s position:

“Compassion isn't just about feeling the pain of others; it's about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. 'Be compassionate as God is compassionate,' means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.” 

I could vote for a politician with that platform!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Carter death sentence: Some thoughts on Maurice Carter Day

October 25 is Maurice Carter Day. Here in our office, we observe this day every year, remembering the date that Maurice Carter breathed his last on this earth. He died in 2004.

On this Maurice Carter Day, the death penalty is on my mind, probably because I’ve spent time this week with Sister Helen Prejean, prominent death penalty foe. As I introduced her to the audience at a public lecture Tuesday night, I explained that Michigan does not have the death penalty. Then I asked the question, “Or does it?”

I used the Maurice Carter story as a typical example.

Maurice was wrongly convicted on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder in 1975, and he was given a life sentence. I contend it was a death sentence, based on the following facts:

-He was eligible for parole in 15 years, but because of dirty politics, he never even had the opportunity to be paroled.

-20 years after his prison doctors diagnosed Hepatitis C, but failed to tell him. One can only assume that this was done on purpose, because then he might require costly treatment.

-8 years later, in 2003, Maurice was rushed from the prison by ambulance to a private hospital. That’s the first he knew he had the disease but then he was also informed that now it was Hep C/End Stage.

-The only thing that could save his life was a liver transplant, but Michigan prisoners may not have organ transplants. Which means, the only thing that could save his life would be a compassionate release by the Governor. Then he could get the new liver.

-One year later, in 2004, Governor Granholm finally granted the request for a commutation of his sentence for medical reasons, but it was too late.

-Maurice lived for 3 months upon his release. He died on October 25, 2004.

I blame the State of Michigan. I contend that Maurice Carter received a death sentence.

On Maurice Carter Day, 2018, I’d like to state my strong opposition, once again, to life without parole. That is a death sentence.

Says the Guardian, a British daily newspaper:  Article three of the European convention on human rights prohibits "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Most European countries have judged that telling prisoners they will die in jail is just that.

Yep. Just that. 

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 54-0 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.