All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, September 28, 2018

We can learn from Maria and Anna Maria!

An interesting thing happened on the way to the hearing room.

The U.S. Senate was marching toward a confirmation vote for a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

I’ll not enter this fray with my opinions, (I have a lot of them!). What I want to focus on is what may have seemed an insignificant occurrence. This has to do with one of my favorite subjects: the little guy.

In this case, the little guy was a woman. Actually, two of them.

One of the senators who was about to vote on this motion got on the elevator and found himself facing Maria Gallagher and Anna Maria Achilla…two sexual assault survivors. They recognized Senator Jeff Flake, and wasted no time or words on him. They were in Washington to support a woman who claimed she had been abused by the nominee years ago, and they let him have it!

The senate hearing to determine whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh should be seated in the land’s highest court, as you probably know, was focusing on accusations of sexual abuse that had allegedly occurred during high school days. The hearing was a difficult and torturous experience for both the accuser and the nominee.

One of the major issues, however, was whether the accusation should be more thoroughly investigated. Democrats said the FBI should look into these matters. Republicans said it wasn’t necessary, as the senate was very capable of doing this, and the voting should proceed.

Then came that confrontation in the elevator, when Senator Jeff Flake met Maria and Anna Maria. With raised voices, he clearly heard “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter;” “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter;” “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me…that you’ll let people like that go into the highest court in the land and tell everyone what they can do with their bodies!”

Senator Flake won’t say that this experience made the difference. But the record shows that he went back and was able to encourage a delay until the FBI conducts an investigation into these matters.

Again, I’m going to restrict my opinions to the incident, not the subject.

There's a segment of our society here in Michigan that has been clamoring for prison reform, protesting mass incarceration, encouraging release of elderly and ailing prisoners, shouting that too many have been in prison for too long, and insisting that inhumane treatment of inmates is not acceptable.

Little guys (and by “little guys,” I mean people like you and me) can make things happen. Plopping our fat butts on the couch and yapping at the TV won’t do it. Shooting off our mouth to the guy on the next bar stool accomplishes nothing. It’s time to get on the elevator and get in the face of our elected officials and demand that they look at us! And listen to us!

Our opinions are important.

Our voices can make things happen.

Monday, September 24, 2018

One more on the subject, then we'll move on

I promise to let this go, because forgiveness and kindness are also key ingredients in the Christian walk. But honestly, I have a real problem when one of our area’s most popular and well-attended churches says, about (our) prison ministry, “…this is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in.”

That reply came to a simple inquiry whether we might be able to tell church leaders the story about HFP's work with Michigan prisoners.

What if we had given that response to the people who came to us when they didn’t know where to turn?

To those caring prisoners who begged us to find a place for Old Bill so that he could be paroled and die in freedom.

To the guy with sleep apnea who wasn’t allowed to have his CPap breathing device.

To those caring prisoners who begged us to intervene at Carol’s Public Hearing so she could spend her final weeks on earth at home with family.

To the prisoners’ mom who wasn’t allowed to see her sons because of unpaid traffic tickets.

To the mentally ill women being abused in the critical unit.

To a wife when the prison wouldn’t provide the location of her dying husband.

To the elderly inmate who found his long-lost son.

To the guy with bad eyes who finally got a pair of reading glasses.

Sorry Mary. Sorry Nathan. Sorry Willie. Sorry Johnny. Sorry Patricia. This is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in?

It’s not up to me to advise any church to dig into roots of Christianity, but I’d like to quote one of the early church fathers here. Saint Augustine of Hippo was an early Christian theologian whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity. He was viewed as one of the most important church fathers in Western Christianity.

Among his many profound quotes is this one:

“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”

And that, it seems to me, is exactly what a church might want to “invest its time and resources in.”

We can say for a certainty that it’s the rule of thumb here at HFP.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Christians, some hot, some cold

I love the people we work with! I mean it!

Some have been wrongly convicted. I hurt for them. Some of been wronged by our so-called justice system. I’m angry with them. Many know they’ve screwed up, and are genuinely sorry. I sense their longing for forgiveness. Regardless of the attitudes of these men and women behind bars, one thing is certain: The façade is gone. They know why they’re there, they’re resigned to it, and there’s not a darn thing they can do about it.

In these circumstances, many, predictably, are shunned. Only 12% of them even get a prison visit! The more years behind bars, the more family members and friends start flaking off.

And so, when Michigan prisoners discover that someone cares, our love and compassion are unconditional, and we’ll do our level best to help in any way that we can, the response is amazing! It’s exactly what can be expected when a straggly team of caring people try to model an itinerant preacher who stated, in these exact words, “I was in prison and you visited me.”

Needing the dollars to carry out this work, we make a strong appeal to the Christian community. Over the years some churches and many devoted individuals have faithfully responded. I know better, and yet, I’m deeply saddened when some responses don’t match my zeal and enthusiasm.

An evangelical church: We have decided to support only those missions where Jesus is taught.

A former donor: We prefer to support programs where Bibles are handed out and Christian principles are discussed.

And most recently this message from one of the area’s thriving mega churches: …this is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in. This is the same church that boldly states in its literature: Everything we do is about lifting high the name of Jesus Christ.

I like the words of gay theologian Dr. Rembert Truluck when discussing Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist:

…what the baptism of Jesus really means is in the fact that Jesus identified with the people, not with the prophet or with the ritual.  Jesus joined with and identified with the multitudes of people from every walk of life who were strangers, sick people, unclean people, rejected and outcast people, feeble and confused people, and with the people who were hurting and wounded by the false abusive religion that John came to challenge.

HFP: down in the trenches, touching hundreds of lives like these, and loving it!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Elephant in the room: Rothermel

Some say that Scott Rothermel is not such a bad guy, and that his marred reputation is not entirely his fault.

Well, let me start from the beginning.

Mr. Rothermel is an Assistant Attorney General, and one of his assignments is to participate in Public Hearings conducted by the Michigan Parole Board. The board holds these hearings for prisoners convicted of serious of crimes who are being considered for release.

The Board stresses that the purpose of these hearings is to determine whether the prisoner might still be a threat to the public. If it is determined that he/she is not fit to reenter society, they’ll be sent back to the slammer. The PB wants to take no chances, and no one can fault them for that.

The Public Hearing is conducted by at least one member of the Michigan Parole Board. A major part of the hearing, however, is led by Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, who explains, at the onset, that he represents “the people of the State of Michigan.”

As readers of this column know, I find Mr. Rothermel’s tactics distasteful.

But why do I label him “the elephant in the room?”

-Many spectators have been appalled by his heavy-handed methods of seemingly “re-trying” the case for which the inmate has been convicted;
-Many inmates have been traumatized by his tactics;
-He always recommends no parole for any prisoner convicted of a violent crime, regardless of the testimony in the hearing, regardless of the number of years that have passed, and regardless of the progress and changes in the inmate’s life;
-And because Parole Board members themselves quietly agree that they don’t like his tactics and often ignore his recommendations.

And yet, his role continues. Nobody openly talks about it. Nobody does anything about it.

Now, finally, some tough talk from a major player! It’s included in a piece written by one of the state’s leading prisoner advocates. Natalie Holbrook, who represents the Quaker organization AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE, has authored an outstanding document called Ending perpetual punishment: The case forcommutations for people in Michigan prisons.

In her proposals for change, Natalie says that the Governor of the State of Michigan should
“…Instruct the parole board member/s conducting public hearings to take back the hearing process from the Attorney General’s representative (AAG). The board member is in charge of the hearing, not the AAG. The AAG is given way too much latitude to essentially “re-try” people instead of letting them express their past wrongs and how they have worked on themselves amidst difficult obstacles to set things as ‘right’ as possible.”

Right on!

Our thanks to Natalie Holbrook. It’s time to corral the elephant.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Finally! Somebody fighting for the women!

"We all grumble about the weather, but nothing is done about it."

Mark Twain is often credited with making that statement. Historians, however, believe that it probably originated with Charles Dudley Warner.

I’m reminded of that cynical comment today as I review Paul Egan’s fine story, published last week in the Detroit Free Press, about possible class action on behalf of inmates housed in Michigan’s only prison for women.

I’m checking through our daily email dispatches, speeches I have given, messages posted on our blog site…we’ve been complaining about these things for years! A lot of agreement with what we said, but nothing ever happened.

From the moment I got into this business, I’ve been yipping about the way we treat women in prison. It’s shameful!

Granted, for a while the US Department of Justice responded to our complaint about abuse of mentally ill inmates in the acute unit. An investigation continued, on and off again, for a few years. But we saw no strong action and no major change.

The ACLU loved all the smuggled affidavits we had from whistleblowers regarding those abuses of mentally ill women, and wrote a lengthy letter of protest to the prison and the Michigan Department of Corrections. After that, silence.

A former employee even spoke out…but then nothing more.

But now, finally, something is happening! It’s long overdue.

Claiming that getting locked up at Women’s Huron Valley is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the US Constitution, Birmingham attorney Lynn Shecter has gone to court!

She lists the things that we hear regularly from our friends in that facility. We’ve been hearing reports for years about severe overcrowding, lack of proper and adequate ventilation, and inadequate space for recreation and exercise.

There are more than 2,200 women in the state prison system, all housed in one facility in Ypsilanti. The department contends that the capacity of that facility is 2,400, and that there is no overcrowding. The women will tell you otherwise.

In addition to poor ventilation and inadequate activity space, these existing conditions “deprive WHV inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” contends prison designer and architect Randy Atlas. And clinical psychologist Ellen Koch insists that these conditions are "aggravating mental health problems such as depression and a surge in suicide attempts."

Now it’s up to a US District Judge whether to dismiss the lawsuit or certify it as a class action.

While the Michigan Attorney General’s Office is resisting this action, friends and loved ones of the more than 2,200 women are cheering on attorney Shecter from the sidelines.

And so are we!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Time to open a fresh can of COMMON SENSE!

Marcia’s advice to our kids when they were growing up: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!

I was sitting in the lobby of a prison on the other side of the state when an elderly black man walked in…must have been in his 80s, dressed in his Sunday best. He had been driven to the prison all the way from Detroit for his regular visit with his son. But there was a problem. While being checked in at the desk, he discovered that he had left his picture ID back home on the dresser. You can’t get in without legal identification.

It was a sad situation, because staff members knew him…he was a regular visitor. He had credit cards and other things that bore his name. But, no legal ID. And the officer at the desk wouldn’t budge. His heart broken, the old man was sent home. At his age, and in his state of health, who knew if he would even get another chance to see his son?

As mentioned in our last blog, Diane went to the Michigan Prison health clinic in Jackson to visit her son, terminally ill with cancer. You’d have to see it to believe it, but the glassed-in visiting area in this hospital setting, mind you, consists of metal benches---yes benches---without backs. Her son is seriously ill, and soon his back was aching after a short stint on this seat with no backs and no arm-rests. Diane had a simple request. Could the officer please just bring a wheelchair, or a simple chair with arm-rests? Nope. That, she was told, would take an order from a doctor. In less than an hour, the patient had to return to his room. The visit cut short. Who knew if she would even get another chance to see her son?

While these scenes are typical, and maddening, I do not quickly blame the Michigan Department of Corrections’ top officials.

Retired Warden Mary Berghuis says that former MDOC Director Pat Caruso “…always admonished us that we all got paid enough to use good judgment.” I’m convinced that Director Heidi Washington feels the same way.

But that’s not enough. The Department needs to clearly establish a policy of using good judgment, because there’s a percentage of corrections officers who believe that prisoners are there to be punished and are not to be coddled and deserve no special consideration.

There’s statistical proof that visits are beneficial. In that only about 12% of Michigan prisoners even receive visits, that percentage deserves to be protected. Visitation enhances rehabilitation. Visitation lowers the rate of reoffending.

If rehabilitation and lowering the prison popular are among the goals of our state prison system, common sense and compassion must be factored in to the equation.

Sooner, rather than later.

“Compassion is the basis of morality.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer