All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What a day!

I wish you could have been there.

It was an unforgettable day! Visits with two ex-offenders, just released from prison.

The reason our friends should have been there with me is because so many people have had a part in this. The words of thanks that I received from Anthony “Bear” Johnson and Roger Church were not expressions directed specifically at me, or at Matt. This was a thank you to HFP, and especially to everyone who sees to it that HFP stays right out there on the front line.

Anthony was placed on a bus by MDOC guards this morning, en route to Maryland for a new life. He’s in his 60s now. He was 19 when he went to prison. I was at the East Lansing bus station this afternoon for a “Bear” hug!

From “Bear:”

When you’re in prison, it can feel like there’s no one there for you anymore. After 42 years, you don’t hear from many of your friends. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS was there. They care!

My family could not attend my Public Hearing (the Parole Board session held to determine whether an inmate should be freed). I cannot explain my feelings when Matt showed up, and when I heard what he had to say! (He breaks down in tears.) 

The Parole Board approved his release.

Roger Church walked out of prison a couple weeks ago, after serving 11 years. I chatted with him in a Grand Rapids Veteran’s Facility later this afternoon.

Roger’s comments:

The MDOC refused to treat my rare kidney disease for 7 years. The pain was so intense I couldn’t get out of bed. I don’t know what HFP did, but a specialist got involved, and I received proper treatment and pain control.

As an American war veteran, I headed up a vet’s group that took care of the flags in our facility. They were in terrible shape. I contacted HFP, and through them a donor sent us new American and POW/MIA flags.

We wanted to do something to contribute to society, so as veterans we decided to crochet blankets for a homeless veterans’ facility. When HFP learned of our plight, they shipped hundreds of pounds of yarn. And we donated hundreds of blankets to the homeless!

I humbly accept these tributes, but they honestly belong to every person who supports HFP with a dollar and/or a prayer.

This is what we do, and this is why we do it.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Marching for a cause. A great idea!

There’s a Chinese proverb, says Father Greg Boyle, that says, The beginning of wisdom is to call things by the right name. 

I’m thinking about Fr. Boyle’s explanation this morning, as I’m reading and hearing accounts of kids responding to the school massacre in Florida. In his book, BARKING TO THE CHOIR, Fr. Boyle says, “We want to find the right name for what was done to us, for what turned us around, for what is happening to us now. We all want to find our maximum capacity. And when that desire is strong enough, we find the legs to walk us through the hallway, down the path, on the Good Journey.”

He was referring, or course, to former gang members. But the words also seem to apply to the thousands and thousands of demonstrators who are grabbing headlines today.

God bless these kids, who---unlike many state and federal legislators---have found the right name for what was done to them. They’re now “finding the legs” to keep walking on what is certainly a good journey!

I love to see people marching for good.

I love to see old film clips of the civil rights marches! I loved it when women marched on Washington! I love to see teenagers holding public office holders accountable for their shameful inaction…marching to their state houses, marching to the nation’s capitol, marching to the white house.

My hope, my prayer, is that someday we’ll see this kind of support right here in Michigan, when it comes to issues involving prisoners. Like the topic of guns, prisons and prisoners are not popular, either.

I’m hearing about wrongly convicted persons who served years of prison time for a crime they did not commit, yet cannot collect the money the state promised them.

I’m hearing about prisoners deserving clemency for a variety of very justifiable reasons, yet so far, no hint of a heart by this Governor.

I’m hearing rumbles about parole reform that would include “presumptive parole,” meaning that deserving inmates would get out at their earliest release date. Yet, no action.

May the determination and optimism of these courageous teenagers be contagious!

May God give us the wisdom and the insight to “call things by the right name.” And then to find our legs to walk the good journey!

Unlike the kids, I’m 81, and in, what we politely call, the “sunset years.” But in my mind I’m marching!

Critical issues affecting prisoners, like those touching teenagers, deserve our attention. Now.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

They're not numbers; they're people!

My friend Troy argues that, according to the State of Michigan, he’s not a person.

As he researched Freedom of Information Act requests, he learned that “persons” could be entitled to such information. Said the state: 'Person' means an individual, corporation, limited liability company, partnership, firm, organization, association, governmental entity or other legal entity. Then it went on to say: Person’ does NOT include an individual serving a sentence of imprisonment in a state or country correctional facility in this state or any other state or any federal correctional facility.

Troy’s conclusion: He is a prisoner of the State of Michigan, therefore he is not a person.

I use this simple illustration to highlight an issue that troubles me.

We talk about 39,000 people in the Michigan prison system, numbers of blacks, numbers of whites, numbers of reoffenders, numbers of women, numbers of seniors…heck, each prisoner has his/her own ID number, and that’s how they’re known. No names, just numbers.

We’ve dealt with a lack of humanity in prison statistics forever. But look at the rest of the news.

No one talks about gymnast Rachel Den Hollander. Instead, we lump together the incredibly large number of athletes who were sexually molested by Dr. Larry Nassar.

No one talks about geography teacher Scott Beigel, or his 14 year old student Gina Montalto. They are just among the sad number of casualties in the latest of many school shootings in this country.

In church, in the coffee shop, in our city council, in our state legislature, with our congressman and senators, and yes, with our president, we talk numbers. When we do that, we don’t really have to dig below the surface to discover that these are, or were, tender, fragile human beings just like you and me.

Says St. Paul, in describing the body of Christ: …its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

So when x-number of Michigan prisoners aren’t getting adequate health care and inferior food, that includes Troy, but we all suffer. When x-number of athletes are abused by a physician/molester, that includes Rachel, but we all suffer. When families are torn apart as students like Gina and teachers like Scott get gunned down, we all suffer.

I was reading of a rape victim who used adversity to bring about change. “Mama Masika” committed her entire life to protecting and raising awareness of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It’s past time to react and respond.

On that day when all citizens join families and friends of inmates to support humane prison care, when men and women who are not affected by molesters stand with victims to demand change, when all US citizens join hands with Florida teenagers to hold our government accountable for mass shootings, we all win! 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Helpers of prisoners: All part of the body!

The Apostle Paul says it better than I can.

HFP team members sometimes hear questions about overlap of agencies and ministries.

We’ll be the first to admit that there are wonderful organizations in Michigan working on judicial reform through new legislation. They work, they discuss, they lobby. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t help Anthony, who right now is trying to find and connect with a son who was born just after he entered prison, and who is now 21 years of age.

There are wonderful groups, many of them in church settings, who study mass incarceration, criminal justice issues, judicial reform, restorative justice and other similar matters. They meet, they discuss, they hold retreats, they pray. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t have anyone to sit at Bobby’s side as he meets with a Parole Board member. After 40+ years behind bars, Bobby doesn’t have family or friends anymore.

There are outstanding Bible study programs, local and national, that strive to convince prisoners that Jesus not only loves them, but wants them as followers. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t have anyone to help Annalise, who can’t read or write, in filling out her application form as she appeals to the Governor to commute her sentence.

There are amazing reentry resources doing their best to help inmates through the trauma of leaving prison and entering a free society. God bless them. We need them.

But they don’t have anyone to advocate for appropriate medical treatment for David, who is struggling with a terminal illness. He’s frightened, in pain, fears dying, and feels alone.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Each has a niche, but somebody's gotta be down in the trenches. That's who we are. That's where we are.

Says St Paul:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…But God has so composed the body…that there may be no division…but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Weaker? Possibly. Indispensable? Definitely!

May we all work together, suffer together, rejoice together!

Friday, February 9, 2018

OK, I'm jumping into the prisoner mail fray!

Decades ago, when I was young, it was not uncommon, when kids questioned a parental judgment, to receive this blunt reply: “Because I said so.”

I must admit that, as a parent, it took me a long time to recognize that listening to the input of kids, with a willingness to modify decisions and guidelines, worked best.

That’s where we are now on the highly controversial mail decision being enforced by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

True, like the position of our parents, the MDOC had every right to make such a decision without any input from the kids, and without answering any questions. Now it’s time to rethink.

No one questions the seriousness of the drug problem behind bars. Neither does anyone argue that those who want to deal in drugs, as well as those who want to receive drugs, will keep right on being innovative in finding new ways to continue this illicit activity.

But we (and by “we” I mean prisoners, as well as friends, family, and the general public) deserve answers.

For example, how many illegal drugs entered the prison system via U.S. mail in 2016? In 2017? How many arrests were made? If the issue was dealt with in-house, how many tickets were issued? Of those who received tickets, how many were found guilty? What percentage of the total drug picture has involved prisoner mail?

Similarly, since the new policy was implemented, how dramatically has the influx of drugs decreased? What statistical proof do we have that this is working?

Beyond that, prisoners, their families and friends, deserve more answers, based on recent messages to our office:

How do these particular examples establish a means to funnel drugs into the prison system:
-A hand-written note on a yellow legal pad
-A hand-written note on white paper with red ink
-A Christian devotional printed with colored ink
-An HFP newsletter containing a colored photograph?

I’ve stated previously that the MDOC would have been wise to seek input from some responsible inmates, who are well aware of the drug problems, before developing this unusually strict and restrictive policy. That would have automatically and dramatically reduced the number of complaints.

That day has passed.

But, there’s still time for the Department to take the high road (one that it took this parent years to travel!), and that is to lay out the cold facts about the drug war, and then, together, work out an effective policy that will not only make an impact, but have strong support from all sides.

It may come as a surprise to the top brass, but the majority of Michigan prisoners don’t like the drug problem either. They can also provide a lot of input as to how the drugs are coming in.

What they don’t understand is how banning a child’s homemade greeting card, bearing a crayon drawing, will stop it. Or even slow it down.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Don't kid yourself. It's NOT safe in prison!

“I will not stop pressing for prison reform until it is safe to be in prison.” The words of my friend Carol as we discussed the general topic of incarceration.

I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but she has something there.

Recent high-profile cases can help us to focus on that issue today. How safe is Dr. Larry Nassar going to be in prison? Especially when upright citizens like you and me, who could never imagine ourselves behind bars, quietly assure each other that additional justice will be done when “the prisoners take care of him.” How safe will that couple be that starved and tortured a house full of kids? Especially when our thoughts concede that, “If anything happens to them in prison, they had it coming!” How safe will that guy be who just got sentenced for torturing and killing his girlfriend’s 5-year-old boy? Especially when our thoughts drift to, “Someone ought to beat and torture him the very same way!”

And it’s not just the high profile cases.

Robert (Roberta) is a transgender inmate. It’s not safe for him in prison.

Gary is gay. It’s not safe for him in prison.

Cindy is mentally ill, doesn’t know right from wrong, and gives the officers trouble at every turn of the way. She’s not safe in prison.

Tony is an old man, accused of inappropriate behavior with little boys. It wasn’t safe for him in prison. He no sooner got there and someone slashed his face!

Michael was only 15 when sentenced to prison years ago as an adult. It wasn’t safe for him at all…he was fresh meat. He was raped in no time!

Carol is accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with her own kids. It’s not safe for her in prison.

Kasim is an Iraqi. It hasn’t been safe for him in prison since day one.

Conrad ratted on a crooked corrections official who was convicted and sent to a federal prison. Connie is still in prison, but he has a target on his back! He lives in fear every day.

Agreed, prison is and can be safe for some. Slugger was a boxer, weight-lifter and body builder before he was incarcerated. In no time he established his credentials, abilities and territory. He’s safe in prison. But for how long?

Carol is exactly right: People are not safe in prison, and the onus is on the system. We need more and better training in handling those with mental and physical disabilities, those with sexual orientation issues, those convicted of exceptionally brutal or heinous crimes…well, let’s just leave it there. Our training and orientation of corrections officers needs refining.

And it’s not only the system. We need an attitude adjustment, as well.

Jesus said that what we do to the “least of these,” we actually do to him.

After what he did for me, the old “eye-for-an-eye” concept doesn’t work anymore.

Friday, February 2, 2018

A Black History Month tribute to my friends of color

How does it happen that a white guy with roots in the conservative Christian Reformed Church has over a thousand black friends?

“That’s easy,” is your response. “You have something they want.”

Your assumption is that these people are likely “fair weather friends,” right?  The black men and women in Michigan’s prison system with whom I have this relationship just say they like me because of the services we offer. Stop offering the services, and the friendship disappears, right? Not quite accurate. In fact, totally inaccurate!

After nearly 20 years in this business I’m finally figuring this out:  The assistance which HFP offers is not the magnet. The big draw is caring! Those behind bars are accustomed to labels like “misfits,” “trash,” “outcasts.” Many have lost close relationships and perhaps even personal contact with friends, relatives and loved ones.

HFP is pretty special this way. We don’t bother to look up the nature of the crime, or check the person's background. We’re not even sure if we can help, but we know that we can hold a hand, offer a cup of cool water. A friend told me a story the other day about how the various churches in her community developed a split over a home mission project. A fundamentalist group insisted that, if the cool water was offered, it had to be publicly stated this was “in the name of Jesus.” The more progressive group insisted that just offering the water was the message…the rest would take care of itself.

Well, if anyone asks, we do this in the name of Jesus. But we don’t post that tag on the gift we offer. We silently ask Jesus to bless what we’re doing.

Willie, who was denied parole, still calls me his friend, simply because I took the time to advocate for him in a Public Hearing. We didn’t win. He’s still in prison. But someone cared!

The list of similar stories out of this office is endless. And so is my list of names of black friends.

That’s the way it is with more than 1,500 women and men who sign their personal letters and email messages with the words, “your friend.” The interpretation, of course, is just the opposite: You are my friend!

I pay tribute to them all this month. Granted, there may be one or two “fair weather friends” in the bunch. But for the most part, they know I don’t have money or material goods. All I can give them is my friendship. They expect nothing in return.

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… just be my friend”
― Albert Camus