All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, April 30, 2018

Prison volunteers: lightening the burden!

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.

I discovered something very important back in the 70s, when I was leading a little rag-tag group of 13 singers in a new group called HIS MEN. It was important to stretch these white, middle-class businessmen, teachers and laborers. So I constantly pushed them into unfamiliar venues with their message of song: jails, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, and churches unlike theirs.

The results were predictable. Not only were listeners of these fine old gospel melodies blessed beyond compare, but the singers were touched even more! Their world was suddenly expanded. The ripple effect followed. They shared with others.

I’m reminded of all this while basking in warm feelings over a weekend experience at the Muskegon Correctional Facility. I attended the annual Volunteer Appreciation Celebration. I barely qualified to participate. Most volunteers are regulars, while I had merely gone into the prison to conduct a couple of workshops.

I was amazed at the number of people who go into Michigan prisons weekly to interact with inmates. Volunteers of many colors and persuasions. At the Muskegon CF event the warden thanked them, the chaplain thanked them, and prisoner after prisoner stood up representing his particular group to say thanks.

Over lunch, my friend John was quick to explain. The reason we are all so grateful is that this is our window to the outside. We can’t be out there, and so these wonderful people come in here. They’re busy people. They have their own families and their own churches. The reason you are hearing so many words of thanks is because these busy people GIVE OF THEMSELVES! Just to make a difference here!

The prison’s Activities Director presented a token gift to every volunteer. But HFP’s significant award came from two prisoners. John, who said to me: We can’t say enough about your work. For 17 years you’ve been helping us!  And an anonymous prisoner who made certain he shook my hand before he returned to his cell: You don’t know me, but when I heard your name I had to thank you. I’ve been in here over 30 years, and I’ve heard of the good things you do many times.

My dear friend and gospel singer par excellence Alma James Perry used to sing this old Mahalia Jackson song:

If I can help somebody, as I travel along
If I can help somebody, with a word or song
If I can help somebody, from doing wrong
My living shall not be in vain
No, my living shall not be in vain.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

John C. Carlyle, 1938-2018

Back in the days when the media in Grand Haven were locally owned, we paid genuine tribute to a pillar in the community when that person died. It’s not that way anymore.

An out-of-town implant came to Grand Haven in the 60s and quietly began moving mountains, playing a key role in the building of a new YMCA, the formation of North Ottawa Community Hospice and the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, just to name a few.

Front page stuff.

And yet, when John Carlyle died the other day, hardly a word in our media, now owned by people who don’t live here, don’t work here, and don’t seem to know much about our history.

Well, I no longer have the voice to thank him on behalf of our town, but I can and shall pay tribute to one of the finest people I’ve met in my lifetime.

I’m an implant here as well. When I came to Grand Haven as the new owner of WGHN, I was not only the General Manager but also the News Director. As a reporter, I remember being summoned to a news conference, conducted by this new attorney in town, who impressed me so much that I retained him as our company legal counsel.

Thus began a friendship that ended only a few days ago.

Long after I left radio, John Carlyle became keenly interested in my efforts to free Maurice Carter, an innocent man in prison.

Then I informed him that I was about to embark on a third career. After years of radio broadcasting, followed by years of church organ sales, I was heading into uncharted territory: prisoner advocacy. My attorney/friend was there with me. All the way! John personally undertook the effort to get our non-profit status. As a gift!

This was no simple task as there was no blueprint. No one had ever tried to form an agency like this before. It wasn’t like we were developing another program to save puppies and kittens. And so this savvy legal eagle, with degrees in both law and public accounting, personally worked with the IRS until all of the documents were satisfactorily prepared and submitted. To no one’s surprise, our application was approved!

Doug Tjapkes is who and where he is today, and HFP is the highly successful agency that it is today, in no small part due to the personal involvement of John C. Carlyle.

I know. Mention his name, and you’ll hear all kinds of descriptions: crabby, crusty, brusque, intense…but those of us who knew him also heard his laugh, spotted his tears, and sensed his love for family, his loyalty to friends, and his compassion for those less fortunate.

The list of people who made a difference in my life is one name shorter today, and it saddens me. A lot.

RIP, my dear friend.

Monday, April 23, 2018

And Part Three, on the purpose of punishment

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought this much about punishment. Probably not since March, 2007, when I viewed the execution of my friend Anthony in Texas, where they love to punish killing by killing. Anthony was put to death right before my eyes, for something he didn’t do.

I’ve just returned from the funeral service for my friend David, a Michigan prisoner who took ill and died of pneumonia complications. He claimed he didn’t commit the crime, but still his sentence was life in prison without parole. I got the feeling, though, that friends and family of the victim felt that even a life sentence was not punishment enough. Their vitriolic comments could be heard in the courtroom and read in the media.

And to me, that raises questions about the reason for punishment, as well as its effectiveness.

I like this quote by Haim Gnott: 

When a child hits a child we call it aggression
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility
When an adult hits an adult, we call it a crime
When an adult hits a child we call it discipline.

That’s really what we think we’re doing with the death penalty and life without parole, isn’t it? Discipline! If they can’t learn it any other way, by God, this will teach them!

In John MacMurray’s soon to be released book, A Spiritual Evolution, he asks these powerful questions---

“Can punishment undo, offset, atone, or make up for sin in any way?
Can punishment, regardless of the amount or its severity, change or untwist the wrong into, right?
Can punishment change and heal the brokenness in me that wanted to do evil in the first place?
I’m suggesting punishment is powerless to do any of these things. And if I’m right, that punishment has no ability to amend, undo, or atone for evil, then why do we believe that punishment is required for justice to be called justice?”

God bless those who are clamoring for restorative justice in our state! Contrary to the position of the Michigan Attorney General, being an advocate for victims does not necessarily mean harsh punishment of the perpetrator. 

Author Paul Young, who discusses the fallacy of the death penalty in his blog THE KILLING HOUSE, says:

“Should we turn a blind eye to injustice, to betrayal, to murder, to abuse? No. That is exactly the point. There should be no blind eyes. And yet human justice stands with eyes covered, blind. With such blindness, we lose sight of our humanity. The restorative justice of God requires eyes that see, not only the victim, but also the human being who is the perpetrator.”

Back to David, again.

Even with his passing, those hateful folks won’t be happy. They'll feel no closure.

The only one smiling through all of this is David. Jesus is explaining to him how his own death settled this whole business. Once and for all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The system needs a heart, Part Two

It’s easy to point fingers, especially during a time of grief.

David, Michigan prisoner, is with his friend Jesus now. His parents were not permitted to be at his side as he passed from here to there.

Even though he was still in a coma and unresponsive, a doctor determined that there was some improvement. Based on that report, a prison warden had no alternative but to terminate the visitation rights of David’s parents in his final hours. They were sent home. Department policy. A top official in Lansing explained it this way: MDOC only allows visits at outside hospitals when the prisoner is deemed critical and unlikely to survive by the treating physician.

It is in that particular section of the Visitation Policy where we desire modification. In the wake of this sad story, seeking change seems more productive than placing blame.

We know, for example, that prison visits are a good thing. A study has found that inmates who were visited were 13 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony in the future and 25 percent less likely to return to prison for a technical violation.

Likewise, hospital visits can be beneficial. Daily Mail Reporter Angela Epstein writes: “Though it might seem like a chore to you, visiting a sick friend or relation in the hospital really could make a difference to their health. Recent research has shown it’s what your visit does to their brain that helps.

Says medical expert, Dr. John Mulder: Having been involved in the practice of hospice and palliative medicine for over 30 years, I am intimately familiar with the needs of both patients and families when death is imminent.  Peace, comfort, reconciliation, and healing can occur in those bedside moments when life is coming to a close.  I am concerned with any policy that stands in the way of this important moment of closure for families, whether intentional or inadvertent. 

He concludes with this important statement, which underscores our request:

Prognostication is an inexact science.  As physicians, we may not fully appreciate how close someone is to death, or if they might even possibly recover.  But we can identify how sick they are at any given moment.  It is in that moment that physicians strive to bring every available option to the patient to facilitate the best chance for improvement and recovery.  And in that circumstance, family can be the critical, positive factor.  

Our goal is simply to bring about change. We’ll be seeking 1), a slight modification in policy so that, even if death is not imminent, visitation by loved ones could still be permitted; and 2), if a decision by a medical practitioner eliminates visitation, there might be some avenue of appeal, not unlike seeking a second opinion.

May God’s grace rest on seriously ill prisoners and their loved ones, as well as medical caregivers, prison staffers, and those of us advocating on their behalf.

Nothing is simple.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

David needs prayers; the system needs a heart!

Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
Robert Burns

I’ll try to make this story very short.

David, a Michigan inmate and a dear friend, became ill in his prison cell at Kincheloe the other day. When it became apparent that he was really sick they rushed him to the nearest hospital at Sault Ste. Marie, in the Upper Peninsula. When it became apparent that he needed even more specialized care, he was given an emergency ride to Marquette, Michigan. That’s not next door. It’s a 165 mile ambulance trip for an unconscious and unresponsive patient!

Yet it must not have seemed all that serious to some prison officials, because David’s elderly parents weren’t notified for three more days!

Without hesitation, they made immediate plans to head north.

What a journey for this elderly couple---Grand Rapids to Marquette---400 miles one way! The past few days have been heart-breaking for mother and father. Little to no response from their 58-year-old son, kept alive in his hospital bed by a ventilator and the prayers of family and friends.

Then came even more devastating news on Friday. The parents’ visitation rights had been terminated. After pleading with prison officials, they were granted one more bedside visit Saturday morning, and that was it. David’s mom and dad tearfully returned to Grand Rapids.

Said their pastor: I found the emotional brutality hard to comprehend.  How can human beings behave this way?

Our team never gets hardened or calloused when it comes to matters like this. We experience the same pain and anger and frustration all over again. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
When asked by the onlookers when they had neglected him in those ways, Jesus answered:
I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

David is still in that hospital bed in Marquette, but now he’s alone. Except for the prison guard.

And he’s shackled.

We wouldn’t want him to escape, would we?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Will Gov. Snyder do the right thing? Nancy deserves clemency!

There’s more than one kind of wrongful conviction.  Let me explain.

Maurice Carter was wrongly convicted. A black man shot and injured a white, off-duty cop. Maurice was not on the scene when the crime occurred. Yet, a jury convicted him of assault with intent to commit murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. That was a wrongful conviction.

Now let me tell you about another dear friend, Nancy Seaman. The part of Nancy’s life that the public saw was her shining role as an award-winning school teacher. The part of her life that no one knew about was her role as a battered wife in an abusive marriage. Finally, as her husband tried to kill her, she retaliated. He wound up dead, instead of her. A jury convicted her of premeditated, first degree murder and she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. That, in my opinion, was also a wrongful conviction.

Nancy is 65 now. She’s been in prison for 13 years.

For a year I struggled to come up with ways to help this victim of the system. Then Kelle Lynn came along.

Upon hearing the story in 2016, this local activist formed her own organization, Justice Thru Storytelling, and made it her business to try to convert this negative into a positive.

One method for obtaining Nancy’s freedom was to seek a grant of clemency by Governor Rick Snyder. It was a long shot, but thanks to a strong team effort, an application for a commutation of Nancy’s sentence was filed with the State of Michigan. Overwhelming support came, not only from hundreds of petition signers, but also from the sentencing Judge and a former prison psychologist! Almost unheard of! And yet, the Michigan Parole Board refused to show any interest, and forwarded the application to Governor Snyder’s office.

Once again a discouraged Nancy Seaman lost hope. But those of us who believe in her, and who support the cause, are still hoping to persuade the Governor that considering clemency is the only decent thing to do.

Not everyone can attend a postcard-writing effort in Grand Haven tomorrow, but everyone can send a personal letter to Governor Snyder. Your personal involvement is essential right now!

Governor Snyder’s favorable action will not only give Nancy a new lease on life, but will also send a strong message of support to thousands of women, victims of abuse, now serving time as a result of, what I call, wrongful convictions!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Is a prisoner worth as much as a parrot?

I was watching a show on a cable TV channel. A state conservation officer had been called to help find the owner of a tiny, beautiful, frightened pet parrot that had escaped.

Granted it was part of the whole TV plot, but I was amazed to see how much effort was expended not only to save the life of this little bird, but to find its owner. First there was a kind person who spotted the bird in her yard, made a choice to catch it, and then get outside help. In the next phase, the conservation officer contacted a bird sanctuary and persuaded them to hold it. Finally, a successful effort on social media to locate the owner. A lot of work, a lot of effort, all for a little bird.

In the end, a happy reunion!

It reminded me of the parable Jesus told grumbling Pharisees.

 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

I love that story. And I love the old gospel song that Elizabeth Clephane and Ira Sankey created to remember it. But that’s the topic for another blog.

The point of this little tidbit is to focus on the stuff that my team works on 7 days a week.  We’re helping prisoners, and in that work I identify so much with these anecdotes! We go the extra mile, day after day, believing that every person behind bars---regardless of the alleged crime---deserves humane treatment. In another of his stories, Jesus said our Heavenly Father takes care of little birds, then pointing out, “Are you not much more valuable than they?”

He’s obviously referring not just to you and me, but to the prisoner as well…much more valuable than they!

I can tell you this with certainty: Prisoners are getting glimpses of daylight, because HFP’s untiring efforts are prying open their Venetian blinds one slat at a time!

With that, the HFP gang is calling friends and neighbors together to rejoice.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Not your run-of-the-mill prison "do gooder" agency!

A typical day in the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS?

HFP Executive Director Matt Tjapkes was in Ionia, to testify at a Michigan Parole Board Public Hearing on behalf of an inmate who has served nearly 20 years, and who, in our opinion, has demonstrated that he is worthy of a parole. We don’t do this on a routine basis, but we try do it when we feel a prisoner needs someone at his/her side. In some public hearings, a deserving inmate may have no one. Not even family. Way to go, Matt!

HFP Vice President Holly Honig-Josephson was in Ann Arbor, to participate in a panel discussion at the Arts for Justice Conference on the Campus of the University of Michigan. She was speaking on the critical need for reform in Michigan’s parole system. HFP was honored to have been invited to participate by co-sponsor Shakespeare Behind Bars. When it comes to parole issues, to quote the bald guy on television, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Way to go, Holly!

HFP Medical Director Dr. Bob Bulten was preparing a letter to a Michigan prison warden, encouraging him to initiate medical tests for an inmate who appears to be experiencing seizures, and who apparently is not attracting the attention of prison healthcare personnel. Our office is contacted regularly by conscientious prisoners who are worried about the condition of fellow inmates. They turn to HFP. Way to go, Bob!

HFP President Doug Tjapkes was soliciting the assistance of a supportive immigration attorney in the complicated case of a Mexican native, in a Michigan prison for parole violation, who is desperately trying to reconnect with parents in his native land. HFP has a panel of lawyers, in a wide range of specialties, who serve us daily in many specific categories. We can’t promise positive results, but we can demonstrate that we care. Way to go, Douger?

Does this sound busy? Does it sound complicated? Does it sound intriguing? Does it sound overwhelming? Does it sound challenging?

To those of us now responding to up to 20 calls a day, 7 days a week, the answer is “yes” to all of the above.

Truth be told, we love it!

These examples, from just one day of activity in the HFP office, may help to explain our expanded definition of what it means to abide by a Matthew 25 mandate.

It’s where we are. It’s where we belong. It’s what we do.