Thursday, July 19, 2018

On judging the path if you haven't walked the journey

Father Greg Boyle was talking about gang members in Los Angeles. But he just as well could have been talking about prisoners in Michigan.

Every homie I know who has killed somebody---everyone---has carried a load one hundred times heavier than I have had to carry, weighed down by torture, violence, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or mental illness. Most of us have never borne that weight. We are free not to like that truth, but we are not free to deny it.

We’ve had a team working on commutation applications for persons in the Michigan prison system for the past year. As a part of this process, we ask them to prepare answers for the application form questions, which we then review. We do this not only to correct the errors of spelling and grammar, but to make certain that the answer is complete and appropriate.

Reading the words of these offenders is not for the faint of heart. First, there are the descriptions of the actual crimes, including the surroundings and the circumstances that led up to the offense. Even more telling, however, are the descriptions of, as Fr. Boyle puts it, “torture, violence, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or mental illness,” in the lives of those people who committed the crimes.

Fr. Greg’s observation: Most of us have never borne that weight.

Our staff and volunteers communicate with people behind bars on a daily basis, and we’re amazed over and over again as to the resiliency of the human spirit. The past cannot be erased, but the future can be different, it can even contain sunlight!

In his book BARKING TO THE CHOIR, Fr. Boyle says the fact that he never killed someone wasn’t because he knows the difference between right and wrong. It is because of three great fortunes that landed in his lap: His life was devoid of despair, there was no trauma in his upbringing that would lead to such rage, and he had never been plagued by mental illness.

These things aren’t excuses. We’re not trying to rationalize anything. It’s reality.

For those of us who have never walked down that path, may God give us the strength and courage and compassion to toss aside judgmentalism. Instead, may we embrace and support those who, having been there and having done that, now strive for a better future. They have courage. They have desire. The fact that God loves them isn’t enough. We must show them God’s love by holding their hands.

As Mahalia Jackson 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

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Questions for Michigan candidates

Are you getting sick of the campaign ads?

Tired about hearing all the dirt against the opponent, who’s getting endorsed by whom, who’s the most attached to former office holders, who's really a conservative and who's a fake, who’s to blame for bad water in Flint, why marijuana should not be legal but carrying guns into school should be, and why it’s time to “fix the damn roads?” It continues ad nauseum, and it’s only going to get worse.

The Michigan primary is approaching, yet there’s one item on the budget that seems to get no attention: corrections.

Wanna know just how much is being spent to run our state prison system? $5+ million per day! We think that qualifies this topic for some discussion.

Oh, if you push the candidates hard enough, you may hear praise for Michigan’s lowering recidivism rate, and our improved college and vocational programs for prisoners. To be fair, the department deserves these kudos.

But here are some of the things I’d like to hear about:

-What we’re going to do about adopting “presumptive parole,” because we have many prisoners eligible for parole, and deserving of parole, who are still in there at a cost of $36,000+ per person per year!
-What we’re going to do about those poor prisoners with long indeterminate sentences, such as 50-200 years, which prevent an inmate from even seeing the Parole Board for the first 50 years!
-What we’re going to do about a “good-time” bill that seems to be stuck in committee.
-Why our state approved a compensation fee for those who have been wrongly convicted, but then does everything in its power to avoid paying that fee.
-Why our state continues to drag its feet on re-sentencing juvenile lifers, despite the US Supreme Court decision.
-How we're going to improve medical care for our prisoners.
-What’s being done to improve the prison corrections officers situation, e.g. severe shortages, especially in the women’s prison; and lack of appropriate training, especially when caring for the mentally ill.

Granted, these are not the popular subjects. But, they involve 39,000 people in our state prison system (most of whom will be out some day), as well as their families and friends and loved ones. Believe me, these people could add many more items to our list.

These are among the important items for us, and if you hope to be a lawmaker in the State of Michigan, we’d like your views before we vote, please.

I’m Doug Tjapkes, and I approve this message.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Having trouble making ends meet? Try it behind bars!

Once again I’m reading anxious messages that cross my desk, and I’m feeling that it’s time to ask a few questions of my own. Here goes.

Three questions for the Michigan Department of Corrections:

Would you consider raising the wages of Michigan prisoners? No one can remember when the last wage increase took place. Prisoners still earn between $.84 and $3.34 PER DAY! Not per hour! It may take a woman two weeks’ wages to purchase a package of tampons. An ailing prisoner may have to work a couple weeks to buy a phone card.

Would you consider eliminating the medical co-pay for Michigan prisoners? All inmates in our state prison system must pay $5.00 every time they make a visit to the doctor’s office, even though they may just see a nurse or a P.A. Do the math. It could be two weeks’ worth of wages. As a result, healthcare visits get neglected or avoided, and health risks increase. Some states are doing away with the co-pay, and such action is past due in Michigan.

Would you consider more price regulation for items purchased by prisoners? Case in point: canned tuna, a coveted product for inmates because of the dismal food situation in state prisons, has gone from $2.25 to $2.81 to $3.74 in the past six months! That’s comparable to one day’s wages for the lucky inmate…one week’s pay for the less fortunate.

Conclusion: The question of wages paid for prison labor is important, when you consider the relative costs of fees charges and things sold to our inmates. The value of a dollar is different when you earn pennies per hour!

Says Prison Policy Initiative: Making it hard for incarcerated people to earn real money hurts their chances of success when they are released, too. With little to no savings, how can they possibly afford the immediate costs of food, housing, healthcare, transportation, child support, and supervision fees?

The Michigan Department of Corrections is making commendable strides in fields such as vocational training and college education. We cannot, in good conscience, continue to ignore prisoner finance problems.

Also, in this election year, make sure you know where your state candidates stand on these issues. There’s a lot of campaign talk about Michigan roads and infrastructure, public schools, jobs and the economy. Yet, the biggest item in the budget is prisons, and we hear nothing!

We have 39,000 people in the Michigan prison system, (a shameful number, by the way) and 90% of them are going to get out someday. It’s time to think about them and their very practical needs right now. Make your voices heard. No more waiting. No more procrastination.

“…remember those in prison as if you were together with them.” Hebrews 13:13

Thursday, July 5, 2018

On BIG visual experiences for former prisoners

It was the summer of 1964. As a young radio station owner/manager, I had attended a meeting in the City of Grand Haven, but had left my car downtown. Mayor Bill Creason offered to give me a ride. As we turned west on the main street, the sun was setting and the Musical Fountain was performing. The view was stunning! “I am so bullish on Grand Haven,” said the Mayor. I’ve never forgotten that visual experience, or that statement.

When pulling our camper to Little Glen Lake each summer, my little buddy Matthew, riding in the front seat with me, would watch for that first view of the lake’s heavenly blue water as we crested a hill on northbound M-22.

When heading to the Upper Peninsula, I never tired of looking north as I drove over the last bridge on US 31 before it joins I-75. I savored that first glimpse of the “Mighty Mac.”

These experiences are coming back to me after a telephone chat this afternoon with my friend Deno, recently released from prison after serving 48 years. A few weeks ago he came to Grand Haven, at my request, to do some video work. Upon completion of our recording session, I put him in the front seat of my car, and headed west. There’s a spot where the road makes a sweeping turn at the top of a hill…and at that moment one gets a perfect view of Lake Michigan, including the Grand Haven State Park and our iconic lighthouse.

Deno is still talking about it! He can’t forget it! My conversations with prisoners, in preparing these video presentations, have given me a new appreciation for the “little things.” Two guys who spent more than 40 years in prison, for example, became emotional when explaining that, for the first time in more than four decades they were able to take a ride unshackled. “And,” added Deno, “the chance to ride in the front seat!”

So, in this day and age of major problems and issues, I encourage you to give thanks for the little things, especially the delightful visual experiences that we take for granted each day. Savor the little things…the little things that 39,000 people in Michigan would give almost anything to experience.

“If we lose sight of pleasures and luxuries that intoxicate the senses in the most sensuous and beautiful and simplest of ways, then we`ve lost a lot.”
― Savannah Page

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

4th of July: Mixed Emotions

Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Abraham Lincoln

I’m convinced Ol’ Honest Abe was right, but I’ll bet he’d have some second thoughts if he saw what was going on today: People in high office flirting with autocracy, serious threats to freedom of speech, dangerous talk against a free press, making a mockery of the Statue of Liberty’s words of welcome.

But on this Fourth of July, I’m still going to celebrate.

“To every thing there is a season,” says the teacher in Ecclesiastes: “…A time to weep, and a time to laugh…”

That’s especially true on our country’s birthday. I’m thinking we should do both.

On this Independence Day, let’s once again take a moment to celebrate and give thanks for the document that bears these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But, July 4 is also a somber time for the U.S. of A. Sometimes I get concerned that our political unrest, our Supreme Court vacancy and our shameful mishandling of migrant families seem to get all the attention. Meanwhile, it feels like we’re just getting hardened and calloused about our terrible incarceration numbers…the worst in the world!

The UCLA says the “land of the free” is the world’s leading jailer. And it’s true! While the United States boasts about 5% of the world’s population, the number behind bars jumps to 25%! Largely because of our “tough on crime” policies of the 80s and 90s, we have well over 2 million people in cages. It breaks down in rounded figures this way: 1.2 million in state prisons, 750,000 in local jails, and 217,000 in federal facilities.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have fun with family and friends on this holiday. I’m going to. I’m just saying that a lot of others wish they could do the same, and it won’t be happening.

Keep this in mind: While Americans spend over $7 billion on food for 4th of July cookouts and picnics, our nation continues to spend over $80 billion on incarceration each year! To bring it closer to home, Michigan spends $36,000 a year to keep one person behind bars. Pure Michigan keeps people in prison longer than most states. Pure Michigan’s rate of incarceration is far higher per crime and per capita than any of the other Great Lakes states. 

Says Mark Twain: Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.

On this Independence Day, while seeing the importance of taking a stand as well as the disastrous effects of complacency, let's not only give thanks for our country. Let's vow to be involved.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, USA! God shed his grace on thee.