Friday, June 29, 2018

Stuff getting you down? Elijah's story will help!


I love the Old Testament stories!

Just the other day I was reading about feisty old Elijah, who got fed up with prophets of a false god named Baal. It was time to put up or shut up. Each side would prepare a slaughtered bull for sacrifice. But they wouldn’t actually light the wood on fire. They’d ask their god to do that.

Problem is, old Baal didn’t come down and help, as the prophets had hoped. No matter all the dancing, praying, screaming and self-mutilation, no response. “Perhaps he’s taking a crap,” Elijah taunted. Maybe he was, but he certainly wasn't striking a match.

Then, to better prove his point, before calling on God to set fire to his sacrifice, Elijah did one more thing to prove his point. He had his servants pour water over everything on the altar. Time and again, barrel after barrel. After 12 large kegs full, the water was even overflowing into a trench around the altar.

Then he called on God to show his stuff. Scripture tells us that “the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”

So where am I going with all this?

Well, in my quiet moments, I’m reflecting on all the discouragement around me. I’m talking to people who have never been so discouraged about the news of the day, especially involving our country and its multitude of problems. Serious problems, and seemingly getting worse.

In our business of prisoner advocacy, we constantly encounter discouragement from inmates, many claiming unfair treatment, and many wondering if they’ll ever see the light of day. Friends, family and loved ones of prisoners finally shrug their shoulders in defeat as they try to battle the system. Overwhelmed by discouragement, they seem ready to give up.

To those despairing citizens, wondering where God is in our country right now…to those prisoners and their families who wonder why God isn’t listening, or doesn’t seem to be paying attention, I say: Be heartened by this Elijah story!

We’re not up to 12 barrels of water yet!

But let there be no doubt. God---not boastful, arrogant leaders or cold and uncaring systems---God is still the one in charge.

He’s there. He’s watching. He’s listening.

He’s got our back.

Fear not, for I am with you. Isaiah 41:10

Monday, June 25, 2018

Civility: Is it gone for good?


A restaurant refuses to serve the Trump Administration’s Press Secretary.

President Trump, unwilling to let the situation go, says the restaurant is probably “unsanitary.”

Diners shout unpleasant remarks as Governor Snyder and his wife try to enjoy a meal together.

A bakery refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh labels a Georgetown University law student with whom he disagrees a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

Has Martin Luther King's idea of peaceful protest vanished? In TV newscasts we see people of differing opinions screaming, sometimes fighting, sometimes even shooting. In places where we least expect it, such as in church or family circles, we find people saying rude things to each other. Sometimes we use scripture to justify it. “Righteous indignation,” we claim.

The Lord knows I’m in favor of protest. I was a known protestor as a broadcast journalist. The organization that I founded nearly 18 years ago systematically protests man’s inhumanity to man in the Michigan prison system. But you’ll not hear shouting or see shoving. It ain’t gonna happen!

I hosted a daily morning radio talk show for some 15 years. I wouldn’t think of roughing up a guest with a differing opinion, and I wouldn’t allow our listeners to do so, either.

Is it idealistic for me to think we can change all of this?

The President can say he’d like to “punch him in the face,” when referring to a protestor, but that doesn’t give us the license to mimic our leader. There’s a quiet and polite way to disagree and express opposing opinions. There’s an orderly way to protest. There are proper channels in which to share our ideas with elected officials. 

It's important to stand up for what we believe. It's also important to be courteous.

Tiffany, wife of a Michigan prisoner, is the perfect example. She travels a long distance with little kids to visit her husband, only to get in the visiting room and discover that the vending machines are all empty. Instead of screaming, ranting and raving, or carrying a sign outside the facility, she writes a letter to the warden asking how she can help remedy the situation. 

I say that it's time to reverse the trend, and you and I can join Tiffany in helping to make this happen.

Says the Apostle Peter:  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

Friday, June 22, 2018

Man's inhumanity to man: Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse!

From Wikipedia:

The phrase "Man's inhumanity to man" is first documented in the Robert Burns poem called Man was made to mourn: A Dirge in 1784. It is possible that Burns reworded a similar quote from Samuel von Pufendorf who in 1673 wrote, "More inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature's causes."

It’s all I can think about these days, as our beloved nation swirls in the shameless cesspool of immigration issues that include mistreatment, tearing families apart, and locking up little kids.

I’m old enough to remember the holocaust, and I’m old enough to remember the Japanese internment camps of World War Two.

Besides that, I deal with man’s inhumanity to man every day. Our team sees it regularly as we work with Michigan inmates in the state prison system. Stories come to our office daily from prisoners who are sick or injured, who are mentally ill, who struggle with gender identity, who are gay, or who have been convicted of unusually brutal or heinous crimes. And our prisons are not the exception. It happens in every state’s prison system. It happens in the federal prisons. It happens in our county jails. It’s inseparable: Where there is incarceration, there is man’s inhumanity to man.

Today’s question is: What are we going to do about all of this?

Certainly, we can and will and must pray.

But that’s not enough. We must speak up! We’re going to have to muster the courage to contact elected officials and express our opinions in voices that are loud and clear. And we must not stop there. We must go to the polls at election time, and we must cast ballots for those people of integrity whom we believe can and will bring about change, regardless of political party.

Members of the HFP team preach this all the time when it comes to prison reform, sentence reform, and mass incarceration.

Now it’s time to speak up against all inhumane treatment.

Many and sharp the num'rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
Robert Burns

Which prompts me to conclude with one more quote:

“There is only one way in which one can endure man's inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one's own life, to exemplify man's humanity to man.”
― Alan Paton

May God help us to do just that, one person at a time, starting now!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The AAG's recommendation: worthless!


The Public Hearing is a big deal for those Michigan prisoners fortunate enough to get one. It often leads to freedom.

The Public Hearing, as we have explained many times in the past, is conducted by the Michigan Parole Board. Its purpose is to determine if a prisoner is fit and ready to reenter society. It is held on the campus of a Michigan prison and chaired by a member of the Parole Board. Another participant is an Assistant Attorney General, who does the lion’s share of the questioning. For more than a decade, AAG Scott Rothermel has participated in hundreds of such hearings.

I’m not going to focus on differences of opinion with him. Today I want to focus on his recommendation to the Parole Board.

At the conclusion of each session, Mr. Rothermel explains to the inmate that the final decision regarding the outcome is completely up to the Parole Board. He does not have a vote, he says, and can only make a recommendation. Then he goes on to recommend against the prisoner’s release. Every time!

He once explained that if the crime was of a serious nature, especially if it involved injury or death, the recommendation is no parole. Automatic. Rehabilitation, renewal, rediscovery, rejuvenation, and yes, conversion, may seem important when considering a prisoner’s reentry to society. But not to the Attorney General’s Office. The decision is made in advance.

I honestly expected a different recommendation this week, because a Public Hearing was conducted for my friend Jimmy. Two years after he was locked up, James decided he was going to make a difference. For the next 30 years he worked with state and federal officials to help solve crime. Up to 8 cases. Numerous arrests, all the way to the federal level. A two-year investigation into an MDOC fraud case saved the state millions of dollars.

Despite all of this, despite the fact that Jimmy had letters of support from important state and federal agencies with whom he had worked, despite the fact that he had actually assisted the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, and despite the fact that the Assistant Prosecutor who put Jimmy away submitted a letter supporting his release…despite all of this, a recommendation against commutation! Can you believe it?

True, the PB often ignores Mr. Rothermel’s recommendation and approves the release of inmates who have satisfactorily contended that they can and will be productive citizens.

Which then begs the question: Where’s the integrity in a line of questioning that ends with a recommendation already cut and dried? That recommendation means nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Why does the AG’s office persist with this policy? Perhaps it has appeal to the Attorney General’s “law and order” support group. One thing is certain: If, perchance, that prisoner screws up, the AG can always say, “See, I told you.”

Improvements in this procedure are long overdue. The State of Michigan can do better.



Sunday, June 10, 2018

It's time to raise the age, and you can help!


I love teenagers! And we’re doing them a real disservice here in our state.

If you’re a Michigander and the parent of a 17-year-old, you probably know most of this already. But here’s a reminder…important information for all of us.

Your 17-year-old cannot vote.

Your 17-year-old cannot serve in the military.

Your 17-year-old cannot buy a pack of cigarettes.

Your 17-year-old cannot purchase a six-pack of beer.

BUT, your 17-year-old can be arrested as an adult, tried as an adult, and placed in an adult prison!

An article in the Grand Rapids Business Journal points out that between 2003 and 2013, nearly 20,300 youth were convicted as adults in Michigan. 95% were 17 at the time of the offense. Some were even younger. This has to stop!

HFP has been remiss in not focusing more attention on this earlier and more often. It recently came to our attention again when we noticed that the State of Missouri has adopted legislation raising the age. That means that Michigan will soon be one of only four states that automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults.

There are so many arguments against this practice, from so many different directions.

We give them a criminal record at a very young age, affecting their future.
It increases in-prison problems of violence and sexual assault.
It leads to higher rates of mental problems and suicide.
There are SIGNIFICANT racial disparities in rates of youth incarceration.
Youths prosecuted as adults are 34% more likely to reoffend than those in the juvenile system.
From a cost standpoint alone, it’s dumb!

I’m pleased to report that there’s an excellent Raise the Age campaign in Michigan. It’s time to get involved, and not just those of you who have teens at home. This campaign deserves widespread support of individuals, as well as organizations. The movement actually has a package before the Michigan legislature, and it’s a good one. These bills would not only raise the age but also establish other important reforms. For more information, please go to raisetheage.org. Then, be sure to let your lawmakers know that we want action.

The time is now.

As writer Jenny Kinne says in the GRBJ article:

This is not only an unethical system, it is an unintelligent investment. We can be a whole lot more effective in how we spend our tax dollars.

Our precious teens deserve better.



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Prisoner medical co-pay: A terrible idea!


If your doctor charged a $500 co-pay for every visit, how bad would your health have to get before you made an appointment? 

That’s the question Wendy Sawyer asked last year, in a Prison Policy Initiative blog. She was talking about the shameful co-pay policy for prisoners. 42 states have co-pay policies, ranging from $3.50 to $8 per visit. Here in the State of Michigan, prisoners are charged $5 for every visit to the health center. BUT, keep in mind the prisoner pay scale. Michigan inmates can earn as little as 75 cents a day, or at the peak, up to about $3.35 per day.  So, according to the estimates calculated by PPI, the average Michigan prisoner would have to work 35 hours a week to make one co-payment. That’s just unacceptable!

I bring all of this up because I just learned that Illinois lawmakers have eliminated the medical co-pay plan for prisoners. Illinois prisoners make 5 cents an hour, so the $5 co-pay was roughly equivalent to a month’s wages.

The main argument for medical co-pay for prisoners is to discourage frivolous visits. Now, just as in the free world, I’m sure you might find a few hypochondriacs behind bars. But really, how many people do you know who just love to go to the doctor, and who cannot wait for the next visit? And if we’re talking expense, these tiny co-payments certainly cannot make much of a dent in the cost of medical care for prisoners.

In an office where we respond to 20 messages from prisoners per day, 7 days a week, you can bet that we hear complaints about medical co-pay. Especially when a prisoner finally breaks down and agrees to give up a week’s wages, and the PA tells him to take two aspirins and get out of there! Sometimes they charge for doing absolutely nothing. Not even any medical advice!

Our congratulations to the State of Illinois. It’s way past time for Michigan lawmakers to consider the same action.

Back to Wendy Sawyer again:

Out-of-reach co-pays in prisons and jails have two unintended but inevitable consequences which make them counterproductive and even dangerous. First, when sick people avoid the doctor, disease is more likely to spread to others in the facility – and into the community, when people are released before being treated. Second, illnesses are likely to worsen as long as people avoid the doctor, which means more aggressive (and expensive) treatment when they can no longer go without it. Correctional agencies may be willing to take that risk and hope that by the time people seek care, their treatment will be someone else’s problem. But medical co-pays encourage a dangerous waiting game for incarcerated people, correctional agencies, and the public – which none of us can afford.

Amen and Amen!

Friday, June 1, 2018

OK, it's time NOW for a change in bedside visits!


First it was David’s parents (See blog post dated “The system needs a heart” dated April 18).

Now it’s Terry’s brother.

His message to me:

My question is, why wasn’t the family notified that my sister was in such poor health and on her deathbed? When I called the prison to see when I could visit, I was informed that if a prisoner was that sick, they would have been transferred to a hospital and no longer be in the prison infirmary. Also, was told I could not visit until Friday, June 1. Unfortunately, my sister passed away on Tuesday, May 29, the day I called. I had wanted to visit her that day. I’m sure the medical personnel were aware of her condition. I can’t believe the prison system would not want family to visit a dying inmate. That is just so inhumane. Can you tell me if this is normal protocol for prisons? I’m just heartbroken that I was not allowed to see her before she passed.

The sad story of Terry’s death is related in our previous blog, posted just prior to this one. Take a moment to go back and read it.

In our June newsletter, the HFP COMMUNICATOR, a front-page article explains how we are asking the Michigan Department of Corrections to modify its position on visits for prisoners in private hospitals. We cited the case where David’s parents traveled all the way to the U.P. to visit their son, in a coma and on a ventilator. Their visits were terminated a couple days later when a physician detected some movement, and made the determination that death was no longer imminent. Three days later David died. Alone.

It appears we’re going to have to modify our request. It was our belief that the department was already working on improving its policy for bedside visits for dying inmates still in prison. Over the years we’ve received complaints from family members who said they were not permitted to have a final visit with a loved one before he or she died in prison. Terry’s brother will testify that such change hasn’t happened yet.

What kind of person does the state have answering a phone who can simplistically conclude that “if she were that sick she’d be in a hospital,” and then deny a family visit for that day?

Change must happen, and the time is now. Gotta quit behaving like Congress with “thoughts and prayers,” but no action.

The department can and must do better.