All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Another sad tale of life's final hours behind bars

This is the story of a prisoner who experienced a taste of hell on earth. And it didn’t have to happen that way.

We never got to meet Terry.

The first we heard about her, and her plight, was late last year. The mother of her special friend contacted us, saying the 69-year-old woman was suffering from cancer. She had had at least two surgical procedures. The reason for the call to HFP was the shameful treatment Terry was receiving. A corrections officer was not only abusive and demeaning, but had also refused to undo her shackles and allow her to go to the bathroom.

We heard nothing further until a few days ago.

Terry is in a lot of pain because they ran out of morphine. The family can’t find out anything.”

Then her brother reached out to us.

I believe she is gravely ill, maybe terminal (not sure). As I am Terry’s Patient Advocate, I'm wondering why no one from the prison is keeping in touch with me regarding her condition. Do you know what the prison's responsibility is in regard to prisoners in her condition?

The next day.

An officer let an inmate see Terry today. Terry is in a lot of pain and wants to die. Don't know the exact facts but heard they ran out of morphine to alleviate her pain. How inhumane. The inmate who saw Terry called Terry's brother with this extremely disturbing news.

The next day.

As we were talking to our daughter tonight someone came to tell her that Terry had passed away. Another inmate did get to see her today thanks to some compassionate officers and she had a morphine drip and was a little more comfortable but still wanted to die. So I'm thinking that none of her family got to visit her. That is so sad. It's so comforting to know that HFP is there ready to jump on this case. Thank you ever so much for caring.

It grieves me to report that we did nothing. Breathed a prayer for her. That was it. We were tripping over ourselves trying to get better care, but sadly, it was too little too late.  

Thank God there’s no more cruelty, no more pain, no more suffering for Terry.

There’ll be another unfortunate prisoner in line for similar experiences tomorrow. We’ll be here. We’ll try harder.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

It's Memorial Day behind bars, too

I love Memorial Day.

When I was a kid, back in the 30s and 40s, it was often referred to as Decoration Day. I did some checking on that, and found this:

Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

The parades on Memorial Day were somber events back then. People didn’t clap, and bands didn’t play. Soldiers and sailors marched. I remember seeing quiet weeping among bystanders as military units passed by.

Many years later, as a radio station owner and manager, I did my best to make this a special day for our listeners. No up-tempo music and fun lingo. Instead, meaningful commentaries and appropriate music.

Two careers later, I’m working with prisoners on a daily basis, but my Memorial Day focus is still the same. Nationwide, about 8% of the prison population is made up of military veterans. Here in Michigan, the percentage is slightly lower. We have about 1,900 vets in Michigan’s 32 prisons. About 5%. I’m thinking of them today.

Researchers have listed three major factors that send returning veterans to our prisons: alcohol and drugs, difficulty adjusting to civilian life, and economic disadvantages.

The purpose of my piece today is not to delve into the problems. Those who are veterans, or who personally know veterans, will not be surprised that these issues sometimes result in problems. And those problems sometimes result in incarceration.

I just want to say that while enjoying picnics, boating, swimming, fireworks and family holiday fun, take time to remember the importance, and yes, the solemnity of the day. Give thanks not only for those who paid the ultimate price, but also to all veterans, all still serving, and then offer a special prayer for those veterans now residing behind bars.

Many are feeling lonely, unloved, un-thanked, unappreciated, and unwanted today. May God be near them. Their present circumstances do nothing to diminish the value of their contributions to our nation and the freedoms we enjoy.

How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!
Maya Angelou

Never was so much owed by so many to so few
–Winston Churchill

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

It's true: We are family!

Ev'ryone can see we're together
As we walk on by
(Hey) and we fly just like birds of a feather
I won't tell no lie
(ALL!) all of the people around us they say
Can they be that close?

That was a good old song we used to hear on the radio in the 70s and 80s: We are family. The phrase was sung and shouted over and over again. Loved it!

I was thinking of that this morning as I checked my calendar. We’re rejoicing, we’re celebrating with Bryan today. He walked out of prison this morning…his first day of freedom in 30 years! We helped him get to this point, and attended his Public Hearing to testify before the Michigan Parole Board that we felt this man was ready to reenter society. Family.

Yesterday was Mark’s birthday. Nobody but other prisoners to celebrate with him. His mother died last year. His grown kids are out of state. Mark has been in prison for nine years for a crime he did not commit. We’ve been at his side, and we’re hoping he’ll be working with us upon his release. We sent him birthday greetings yesterday. Family.

Mark was also one of 15 of our friends who graduated this week with college degrees. They got their Associate’s Degrees as part of a program started some years ago by Calvin College of Grand Rapids. The Calvin Prison Initiative project is conducted at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. It’s a rigorous program of actual college credit classes, taught by college professors. The guys will be the first to tell you that it’s a real challenge. Yet, these 15 inmates---some of them lifers---are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees. HFP paid tribute to them this morning. Family.

On a sadder note, Rick died a few days ago. He was still being pursued by his demons when released from prison the first time, and before he new it, he was right back in the slammer. Then cancer intervened.  He was finally granted a compassionate release just in time for him to be placed in a private facility on the outside, where he spent his final moments. It was sad. Bridges had been burned, so no family around. Yet one of our volunteers stuck with him through it all, and Rick remained in touch with our office by telephone until the very end. He’s finally free from pain and distress. But those left behind are hurting. Family.

The HFP team and Michigan prisoners are family. No question about it.

A family is a place where principles are hammered and honed on the anvil of everyday living. ~ Chuck Swindoll, Pastor

We are family
Get up ev'rybody and sing!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Kudos to two local TV journalists!

Doug complimenting local TV news coverage! Will wonders never cease?

OK, OK, I agree that I do my share of complaining. That’s what "old-timer" reporters do when they listen to the radio, read the newspaper and watch the boob-tube. Marcia will tell you that on some days, such coverage or lack thereof can result in a loss for me---loss of temper, loss of appetite, etc.

But fair is fair, and two local TV journalists this week did outstanding work!

On Channel 8, WOOD TV’s Ken Kolker created a great piece entitled “Miscarriage of Justice:” State fights wrongful conviction payments. It’s a shameful account of how state legislators passed a law that would enable persons who had been wrongly convicted to receive a payment of $50,000 per year for every year that they had spent behind bars. It was the honorable thing to do. But the dishonorable result, Ken points out in his insightful piece, is that the Michigan Attorney General, William Schuette, seems hell-bent to prevent these poor people from ever collecting what’s due them. Wrong, immoral, unconscionable, from so many perspectives!

On Fox 17, Dana Chicklas did her homework, and put together a fine piece entitled Backlog of rehabilitation programs keepssome prisoners in past their early release dates. It’s a serious problem which our office deals with regularly. Simply put, the Parole Board demands completion of certain programs by prisoners before they are released into society. But the programs aren’t always available in the right facility or at the right time. And so you get prisoners who should be free, and who deserve to be free, having their release dates delayed by the Parole Board because they didn’t take all the necessary programs. There are more than 250 inmates, she reports, who are past their earliest release dates, but who are still locked up. If you think that doesn’t affect you and me, consider that it costs $36,000 of state money to care for one prisoner for one year. Multiply that times 250 to see how your tax dollars are being spent.

I’m writing this to encourage two things: viewing and response.

Go to the TV web sites, watch the reports, but don’t stop there. Contact your state legislators, the people elected to serve you in the Michigan House and Senate. Voice your disapproval promptly and forcefully.

And finally, give serious thought to your choice for the next Governor of Michigan.

A tip of the HFP hat to Ken Kolker and Dana Chicklas! Well done!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Prison is especially tough for transgender inmates!

I read something from Reuters over the weekend that shouldn’t have surprised me. But I found it upsetting.

The Trump administration has rolled back protections for transgender prison inmates introduced under former President Barack Obama after some prisoners challenged the policies in court. An inmate’s “biological sex” will now be used to make the initial decision as to where transgender prisoners are housed, instead of the gender to which they identify, according to a change in guidelines announced on Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The word “transgender” gained popularity in the 1990s as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and expression did not necessarily match the gender they were assigned at birth, according to Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Arizona.

I’m not going to use a blog to examine this complex issue. What I want to address is this matter of treating all people with respect. Our staff has positioned itself at the side of several transgender inmates in the Michigan prison system, and I want to tell you that for those people, it’s a rough road! We’re here for them, and that’s where we’ll stay.

It may be the real “he-man” thing to do to ban transgender personnel from our military, and to roll back advances made by the U.S. Bureau of prisons. It may appeal to certain political factions, but it’s dumb. Not only that, it’s inhumane, and it’s setting a terrible example that must not be followed.

I read an overly-simplified explanation the other day, showing a can of sliced carrots, but the outside label showed green beans. The writer pointed out that this incorrect information had nothing to do with the quality of the contents. The beans weren’t rotten or spoiled. They just didn’t match the product on the label.

So if we take our mission seriously at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, we’d have to say that the prisoner who stutters, who is autistic, who is gay, who worships Buddha, who can speak only Vietnamese, or who struggles with gender issues…these inmates are all created in the image of God, and they all deserve equal and fair treatment.

I’ll tell you what we’re doing in the HFP office. We’re working on developing a list of resources for transgender inmates…resources that can perhaps help them while in prison, and for sure help them as they prepare for reentry into society. It’s no less or no more than we’re trying to do for all prisoners facing all kinds of problems, and don’t know where to turn.

It’s our job.

Our name says it all.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Cold temp/Hot topic

Maurice Carter was freezing!

I was granted special permission to visit him in his hospital room at the Duane L. Waters medical facility, a part of the Michigan prison system. He was in the final stages of Hepatitis C, and eventually would have his sentence commuted for medical reasons. But right now, he was fully clothed in a hospital bed, locked up in tiny, grey room.

“Can’t you get another blanket, Maurice?”

“Well, I asked for one.”

An unconcerned corrections officer, assigned to guard Maurice so he wouldn’t try to escape, paid no attention. I don’t know if Maurice ever got his blanket. That was back in 2004.

I’d forgotten about that incident until I chatted with a guy who recently had visited a Michigan prison psych unit while on special assignment. He explained that it was exceptionally cold in there.  As he left the facility, he tried making conversation with an officer who was bundled up in his own coat. My friend kidded him about staying warm. The guard saw no reason for discussion, and had a curt response. “These guys are prisoners,” he said. “You think we’re going to do anything to make them comfortable?”

Under different circumstances, I could hear Jesus saying, “I was cold in prison and you gave me a blanket,” or, “you turned up the heat.”

This summer, it’ll be a different story. There’ll be reports during the warm weather months of extreme heat in prisons, also resulting in serious discomfort.

The issue isn’t hot or cold temps. It’s defining what we hope to accomplish. Are we here to punish, or are we here to rehabilitate?

I’m reading impressive numbers about a reduction of the recidivism rate here in Michigan, due to some positive program improvements. Director Heidi Washington and her administration are to be commended for this.

But attitude trickle-down is equally important. If Director Washington’s goal is rehabilitation, the wardens whom she appoints will also reflect that attitude. And with common-sense wardens in place, officers under them will soon get a clear picture as to the attitude and atmosphere that are expected. It’s not going to happen overnight. But if we can improve the recidivism rate, we can also improve the departmental attitude. And that could and should improve the comfort rate.

Encouraging, or even simply allowing, discomfort because “these are just prisoners” is not acceptable.

I tell you the truth. Whatever you did for the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.

Cold temperatures, cold attitudes, cold comments…they all hit my hot button.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Little things/big point: You’re just a number!

Little things.

Often, it’s the little things that touch me. I’ve written several blogs about that.

But then, it can be little things that set me off, too!

Rudy recently sent this message to me by email:

My mother came to see me on Sunday and was refused to be let in because she cannot go through the metal detectors because she has a heart pace maker because she is battling cancer. I believe that was kinda harsh to reject the visit, when they could have pat her down or scan her with the wand.

His elderly and ailing mom comes all the way from Detroit to Jackson to visit her son, and the CO can’t take a moment to use the metal detection wand? Harsh? Are you kidding me? One will never prove whether race might be involved, or whether the officer was just having a bad day. Guess whether this is the first time something like this has ever happened.

Second example.

Carl sent me this message by email:
Dear Doug:
My wife died this Easter Sunday. She thought the world about you and the support you have been providing me with.

The message arrived in my in-box exactly one month after he sent it. One month! We realize that HFP messages, in and out, are under high scrutiny. Delays are inevitable. But for someone in the department to delay this meaningful and highly personal, intimate message for four weeks is inexcusable. No one can prove whether the specific charge that sent Carl to prison might have played a part in this, or whether the screening officer was just having a bad day. The spin-off, of course, is that there was no prompt heartfelt response from me. For all Carl knew, I didn't care.

These are people, Ladies and Gentlemen. They're behind bars. You and I are not. We all have feelings. We all count, based on my interpretation of the Holy Writ. 

In my column, published in the May, 2018, HFP newsletter, I point out that once you enter the prison system you’re no longer a person. These two small examples underscore the point:  In there you’re still just a number.

I truly believe the current Michigan prison administration is making progress, but I’m also convinced that it will take a miracle to warm up a cold, heartless system.

That’s why our name and our mission are so important. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is our name, and that describes our philosophy.

Every inmate deserves to be treated in a humane manner.

No exceptions.