All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

It's time to replace the seats!

It sort of reminds you of that woman running for Governor in Michigan, who wants to “fix the damn roads.”

It’s seats that I want to fix. Actually, I want them replaced. They’re located in the visiting area of the Duane L. Waters Health Clinic in Jackson, Michigan. Waters is the health center for the Michigan Department of Corrections. Prisoners dread going there. They beg medical people not to send them there, because the perception is that they’ll go there to die.

But, sick prisoners and dying prisoners go there.

The building looks nice on the outside. Inside, it’s a different picture. I think Dr. Waters, of Manistique, Michigan, for whom the building was named, would be disappointed.

My major complaint today is about the seats in the visiting area. This section bears no resemblance to the visitation rooms in state prisons. It’s a glassed-in area in the middle of an open space, and there’s only one thing in this enclosure: metal benches. That’s where you go to meet your loved one.

My first experience in this room occurred in 2003 when I visited Maurice Carter, who was in terrible shape with Hep C. You could awkwardly sit on the benches, some distance apart, to face each other and try to talk. Or you could sit next to the patient, and try to talk turning your heads toward each other. But the biggest complaint: There are no backs on the benches! How’s that for treating the ailing and the dying?

15 years later, I get an email message from Diane, whose son is dying:

Today, my son, whom I did not recognize due to his nearly 90-pound weight loss in 7 months, was forced to sit on a narrow, backless cold metal bench to visit with me for 45 minutes. He needed to leave because it was causing him such pain. I asked for a chair or wheelchair for him. It was denied as it is against rules and requires a doctor’s order.

Let’s forget how stupid it is not to be able to quietly slip the guy a wheelchair.

Instead, let’s try to imagine the reasoning behind these seats. Metal benches with no backs and no armrests? For hospital patients and their visitors? Come on!

To the state’s credit, positive steps have been taken in hospice and palliative care. Progress is slow, but at least it’s progress. But improving the visitation area, especially with seating that is suitable for patients, would be easy to change and is long overdue.

It should be a budgeted item now, with top priority. It's time to make that happen!

Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.
Mother Teresa

Saturday, August 25, 2018

No concern, no compassion, no problem

The year was 1976.

As a semi-truck passed through Grand Haven on US 31, a distraught woman jumped from the tractor, and ran down the street screaming that she had been raped. City police stopped the truck a few blocks later and took the driver into custody.

It took days to sort out the story, but the Grand Haven Tribune chose to publish the name of the man right away, even though he had not been charged.

As the newsman for my radio station, holding up on the man's ID, I pressed then-Prosecutor Wes Nykamp about charges against that driver. He cautioned me to wait…there was more to the story. And indeed there was! The woman was arrested and charged with filing a false report. The driver was released.

But the damage was done. The man’s name should not have appeared in our newspaper, and my critical editorial on the topic captured first prize in the State Bar of Michigan Advancement of Justice competition. That prestigious award remains here in my office.

Fast forward to 2018. A mentally ill old white man is accused of urinating on a little black girl and uttering racial slurs. Channel 8 immediately releases his name. The NAACP demands that the poor old sucker be charged with a hate crime. His picture is shown on newscast after newscast.

The Kent County Prosecutor, however, did not rush to charge the man. Instead, once again, turns out there was more to the story. The naughty little kids made up the story. The old man was released.

But the damage was done, and nobody even bothers to apologize.

Back in the 70s, it was a poor, hard-working black man from Alabama, with a wife and kids, whose name got smeared. This month, it was an elderly white man struggling with mental issues whose name got unnecessarily smeared.

The rush to get a scoop topped being fair or even, Lord help us, compassionate.

I bring all of this to your attention not to boast about a good decision that I made, but to stress, once again, the importance of showing fairness and kindness to the “little guy,” the one less fortunate, the one who probably cannot speak for himself.

That’s exactly why we’re in this prisoner advocacy business. Inmates feel this type of rejection and unconcern regularly. For them, it's part of life.

A framed verse from Proverbs is on our office wall: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

I've said it before. It’s “Jesus work.”

Friday, August 17, 2018

What are we going to do about mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners?

Are we getting better at treating the mentally ill in prison? I don’t think so!

Years ago, with overwhelming evidence about mistreatment of mental patients in the Women’s Huron Valley Facility, we filed a complaint with the U. S. Department of Justice. It led to a lengthy investigation.

Evidence included numerous signed affidavits smuggled to us by trained prisoner observers whose job it was to keep an eye on the mentally challenged. They scribbled their signed statements on scraps of paper, courageously revealing shameful details of food deprivation, water deprivation and even hog-tying.

With our evidence, the ACLU prepared a pages-long letter to the Michigan Department of Corrections and specifically to that facility, demanding that the practices be stopped and the procedures be changed.

There may have been some improvement in care of acutely ill. But then a few days ago we received this message from another of our trustworthy informants, about one of the same patients from years ago:

“It is now going into years that she has been locked in a room with nothing. She no longer even sings, raps or talks. She just makes noise. Four days ago an officer withheld her food because she would not get up. He yelled down the hallway (which is on camera), ‘You’re not getting your food unless you get up.’ The observer on duty said that in her time there, the food was never delivered. Years of being locked in a cell with nothing has made her worse.”

For the record, this young woman is only 28 and should have been released years ago. But, because of continued issues, the Parole Board refused. Then she assaulted a prison employee, got charged again, and now is not eligible for parole until 2024. Can’t anyone see the real problem here? Besides not giving this woman proper care and treatment, guess what it’s costing to keep her there!

Half of the people in Michigan prisons are mentally challenged. Because many of our mental institutions have been closed, many of the mentally ill now wind up behind bars. And corrections officers are the wrong people to care for mental patients.

Here’s my point. If we’re going to wait for the US government, like the DOJ, to do something, we can forget it. We saw what happened there. Same thing for going to the ACLU. They do a lot of good things, but other than a strong letter, we got no additional help from them and I don’t see any more coming. So, it’s back to my previous blog. It’s up to you and me. It’s election time, and if those persons in office aren’t willing to help the mentally ill, it’s time to throw the bums out! And before we choose replacements, it’s time to find out where they stand.

Please don’t ignore this just because it doesn’t affect you personally. The next time it could be your mother, or sister, or daughter.

It’s time to do something. Silence and inaction are not options.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

We don't need Doug, we need you!

Keep up the good work, Doug. We need people like you!

As a young broadcast journalist, my radio editorials used to bring in a lot of comments like that. But that’s about as far is it went.

In the City of Holland, for example, back in the days before Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, I badgered the city council mercilessly for holding regular secret meetings. The people loved it, but nobody ever did anything about it.

Fast forward to today.

I’m not writing radio editorials anymore, but the pieces that I post on this blog site are just as direct. But I’m going to tell you something. If mass incarceration is going to get serious attention, if sinfully lengthy sentences are going to get reduced, if prison overcrowding is going to be dealt with, if the number of wrongful convictions is going to be reduced, if prison conditions are going to be improved, if spiritual communities are going to change their attitudes about those behind bars, it’s not going to happen because of something I wrote. It’s because somebody who reads what I write decides that enough is enough!

No, we don’t need another Doug Tjapkes. Society is stuck with him for now.

We need you!

We need people who will go to the polls and vote out of office those politicians who want to be tough on crime by imposing long sentences and building more prisons.

We need people who don’t just nod their heads when they read our blogs, but who, instead, email or call their state legislators regarding prison reform, prison conditions and mass incarceration.

We need people, regardless of age, who will get off their butts and work in soup kitchens, carry picket signs for refugees, crusade for better senior citizen care, and assist with prisoner re-entry.

We need people who will insist to their church fathers that the only mission fields aren’t overseas, that teaching Bible lessons isn’t the only way to help prisoners, and that if ex-offenders aren’t appreciated in their pews, the EVERYONE WELCOME sign should be taken down.

I conclude with this quote from a church newsletter: 

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference….
The opposite of life is not death, it’s complacency.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Prison visits: Important, stressful, heartbreaking!

Dr. James Woodall, a researcher in the United Kingdom, writes important blogs on issues facing prisoners and their families. He lists ten reasons why prison visits are so important:

  1. Humanitarian reasons. A prison sentence means the loss of liberty, not the desolation of family ties.
  2. Prisoner well-being. Visits are important markers for prisoners, often providing a much needed ‘boost’.
  3. Visits from family and friends mitigates against prisoners becoming institutionalised.
  4. Visiting helps family (children especially) to understand what prison is like for their loved one.
  5. Prison visits make it more likely that the family remains intact this means that when the prisoner is released he/she is better able to integrate into society.
  6. Better integration means lower likelihood of re-offending.
  7. Visits allow prisoners, albeit temporarily, to maintain their role as husband/wife/father/mother/son/daughter. It is an important reminder that they are more than ‘a prisoner’.
  8. Maintaining family ties through visits is a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism.
  9. Visits keep families together and potentially prevents family-breakdown.
  10. Visits and the maintenance of family ties can help prevent intergenerational offending. 
Considering the fact that only about 12% of Michigan prisoners receive any visit at all, one would think that the department would do everything in its power to make visits easy and simple. But it doesn’t go that way.

Tiffany must drive hours with her two little kids to visit her husband. Long waits can be an issue, but food and dollars are really important. She writes:

Newberry Correctional Facility is hours away from mostly anything. Having adequate food in the visiting room is an issue now more than ever. With visitors expected to forfeit one of their two weekend visits a month if they leave and come back, many choose to stay and be hungry. The reason? Empty vending machines. NCF's most recent solution: Raising the price of meal options by $1. Hamburgers and boxed items are now $5 while small burritos are $4. Last time I visited, the one vending machine offering meals is now well-stocked -- and I can understand why when I spend $10 just to feed my 7-year-old two small trays of mac and cheese!

She added:

...This last time I felt very sick thinking about whether to feed my kids or my husband. I don't question going without myself because that has been happening for a while now. The kids will get fed, of course, but why should it come to this?

No wonder Jesus praised those willing to make a visit behind bars: I was in prison and you visited me.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

We get a failing mark on treating prisoners, especially the mentally challenged!

Persons doing hard labor may develop callouses on their hands, but I can assure you that persons doing prisoner advocacy never get callouses on their souls!

I’ve shared this Bob Pierce quote before, as our Medical Director Bob Bulten has it posted on every email that he sends: "May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God."

That happened again yesterday in a message which I received from my friend Lois. Her son Kevin, who has struggled with mental issues all of his life, has been in and out of prisons since he was a little kid. Sometimes it would appear that we choose not to handle mental illness in appropriate ways, when it’s so much easier to just put someone behind bars.

Lois and Kevin and I go back a long way. Back in the early days of this organization, when I was making a lot of prison visits, I went to see this young kid, chatted, drank root beer and ate candy bars with him. And I worked with his mom when and where I could.

Life has been a struggle for this young man, and Lois gives updates and seeks prayers from time to time. Meanwhile, she has devoted her life to prisoner advocacy and prison reform.

Anyway, getting back to that message of yesterday, she mentioned that Kevin is now serving some time in an Indiana prison. And here’s the part that really hit me. Here are the meal times in that facility's unit for the mentally challenged:  Breakfast 2 AM, Lunch 9 AM, and Dinner at 2 PM!  What the????

I’m reminded of Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s famous quote: The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

We’re failing.