All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, November 30, 2018

When prisoners pray

The prayers of oppressed people are especially precious in God's sight. As you have advocated for them, they will advocate for you. Rev. Celia Hastings, Ellsworth, Michigan

Prayer makes a difference. No one can shake my belief in that truism.

I look back at 2010, when a deadly staph infection attacked this old body. Loss of the ability to swallow, loss of 65 pounds, functioning on a feeding tube for 6 months, family gathering in a prayer that Dad will survive. It was a dark scene.

I wasn’t buried in discouragement, but I wondered if I would ever play the organ in church again, or go to Fricano’s for pizza and beer again.

Prayers of family, friends, and church were abundant, and I'm certain they played a significant role in pulling me through. But I was amazed by the intensity and frequency of prayers from prisoners, some whom I had never met or even helped.

Fast forward to the year 2018. On the day before Thanksgiving another sinister attack on this 82-year-old body. Sore arms in the middle of the night, heavy chest. What the…? Yep, heart attack. Open heart surgery to give me three bypasses. 

I have survived again. Physicians and medical attendants were not only pleased, but they were also amazed. I credit so much of this, once again, to prayer. 

Yes, prayers of my family and friends and my loving church. But also those of friends we have made around the world in this prisoner advocacy business. And then factor in the prayers of prisoners, their families and their loved ones. When the word got out our office was swamped with caring messages and assurances of prayer. 

I’ve been given a new lease on life, and I intend to continue helping those behind bars. My friends.

Says Lori Hadacek Chaplin in the Catholic Digest:

We don’t usually think of a prisoner’s prayers as being efficacious. Without thinking, we assume that God doesn’t hear them because of their terrible deeds. We forget about God’s mercy and the transformative power of sacraments of confession and the Eucharist. We also forget that God listens intently to the prayers of the suffering, and there’s no doubt that most prisoners suffer immensely. Their suffering is valuable when it’s united to Christ’s suffering.

So, I’m praying for prisoners today. It’s that mutuality, that reciprocity, that Sister Helen Prejean describes so well.

I owe them that.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A hospital essay on breaking the rules

I’m writing today from a hospital bed. Three guys in the next bed have been teaching me some lessons.

Funny how things go, but I suffered a heart attack early morning on the day before Thanksgiving. I’ll be undergoing open heart surgery on Monday. Between tests, procedures, injections, and a variety of other preparatory measures, I have time to write.

It goes without saying that prisoners and prisons are on my mind a lot. Even when I'm here. And I’m seeing some interesting parallels while lying in this bed: When you don’t abide by the rules, you’re going to pay the price!

In society, if you violate the rules, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up in prison. When you’re there, you’d do well to contemplate the wisdom and advice of counselors and reentry. Because if you make unwise decisions, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up right back there again.

The same holds true for those who chose to violate rules of caring for the body. There’s a good chance they’ll wind up in the hospital. When they’re there, they’d do well to listen to the experts in the field, and heed their advice. Because if they make unwise decisions, there’s a good chance they’ll wind up right back in here again.

Warren had bypass surgery a few years ago, but didn’t think he had to abide by the recovery rules, which involved such things as exercise and diet. That resulted in clogged arteries, and he wound up back here again. This time, stern lectures.

Greg was a diabetic with heart problems, but didn’t think the rules of diabetes applied to him. An emergency brought him to the bed next to me. I overheard the medical staff lecturing him before his release, reading a two-page list of rules that should not be challenged. “Otherwise,” he was told, “you’re going to be right back in here again.”

And then along came Dale, with diabetes problems that led to heart issues. There apparently was a misdiagnosis along the way somewhere, which prompted him to determine that all doctors and all rules of diet could be ignored. He’s got a physical mess on his hands, with a lot of pain and grief, and he still doesn’t think he has to follow the rules. He’ll be back.

Not all that different, is it?

Violating all the rules and guidelines of good health may not put you behind bars, but the results are still prison, with a different name.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Forgiveness is for me, not for others

What we love to hear:  Your sins are forgiven.

What? Do you really mean it? Even the worst, most secret sin in my life? The biggest skeleton hidden in my remotest closet?

What we don’t like to hear: For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Wait a minute. You don’t know the whole story! This person took the life of my loved one!

My friend Bill used to say to me, “Douger, there’s a little bit of larceny in all of us.”

I’ll go one step further. I think there’s a little bit of vindictiveness in all of us.

I use this week’s Public Hearing for a local businessman as an example. Ron Redick killed his business partner in 1991, and has spent the last 26 years in prison. At age 81, he has now requested that Governor Snyder commute his sentence, so that he can spend his remaining years in freedom.

The Michigan Parole Board holds these Public Hearings allegedly for the sole purpose of determining whether the inmate is fit to reenter society, and whether he/she might be a threat to society.

But the reality of the situation is that an Assistant Attorney General re-tries the case, hoping to confuse and debunk the testimony of the inmate and to prove that the inmate is still a criminal, will always be one, and should never get out.

Friends and family members testify: Our father’s life has been taken…why should the killer be freed? The former sheriff, the successor judge, the prosecutor, all agree that he should stay in prison. Why? Because he took a life. Keep the bastard locked up!

I struggle, then, with the title MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS. Does “corrections” mean improvement, rehabilitation, restoration? And if that is accomplished, and a person can be released as a productive member of society, isn’t that a goal, a victory?

While behind bars, Ron has stayed out of trouble. To the contrary, he has improved himself, helped others by mentoring and tutoring, and has written several books. His closest friends and family members say he’s remorseful, and just wants to return to his family. Does it sound like he might re-offend? 

I so appreciate the way Norway handles incarceration. For example, it does not even have a sentence of life without parole. As criminologist Bob Cameron puts it. “In general, prison should have five goals---retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation."  In his words though, "Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second."

In Norway, the life of every criminal is considered redeemable. What a concept! In contrast, I contend that the only goal of our system is retribution. Restoration and rehabilitation be damned.

Back to my original point.

We cherish and embrace forgiveness for ourselves.

We loathe it for those who have wronged us.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Going for the two-pointer

A friend posted the cutest video on FB the other day.

A little boy and a little girl, probably age 3 or 4, were shooting baskets at a hoop probably designed for 5-year-olds.

The little girl’s shot and missed, and it broke her heart. She stood there crying. The heroic little boy not only hugged and consoled her, but handed her the basketball again. This time, he hoisted her to a level where she could make the basket. The resulting smiles were precious!

This poignant video, which lasted only 30 seconds, was shared by the sister of a prisoner whom I loved…now deceased. It arrived the day before my 82nd birthday, and it prompted some somber thoughts.

I encourage you to take a minute to watch it. It’ll make your day. Perhaps you’ve seen it already. Over 5 million hits, I’m told!

Maybe this is a stretch, but here’s the parallel I see.

The little girl represents many men and women behind bars in Michigan, as well as their families and loved ones. Life isn’t easy for them. They keep trying to make a basket. Some are still trying. Others have given up and stand weeping, much like the sad little girl after missing her shot.

Then along comes HFP. We try to do exactly the same thing that little guy modeled for us: Give the poor child some hope for the next time. He held her hand. He hugged her. He gave her encouraging words. Then, God bless him, he placed the basketball in her hands, and lifted her up so she could make the basket. That is our goal. That is our hope…our wish.

I’m not saying that we always accomplish the last step. I’m afraid the “two-pointer” is much more elusive for us than it was for the little kids.

But we try to lift them up, and I’ve gotta tellya…we get a lot of the same smiles!

And we’re rewarded with the same good feeling that you’ll experience when you view that little scene.

My dear friend and fine gospel singer, the late Alma Perry, 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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Too many prisoners being held for too long!

“What does a model prisoners look like?” That’s the question from my friend Ricardo. Ricardo has been in the Michigan prison system for 36 years, and is a prolific writer.

He was pointing out, in this particular essay, that over-incarceration is costing Michigan tax-payers a ton of money. We’ve been hammering on that for years.

He gave as an example the case of his friend Charlie. Charlie is 75, and what we call a “parolable lifer.” He’s serving a life sentence, but is eligible for parole. Charlie has served nearly 44 years with an impeccable blemish-free prison record. “He has never incurred a misconduct report in his entire period of incarceration, quite a rarity given the amount of years he's been in prison. His accomplishments are far too many to mention. Nevertheless, the Michigan Parole Board chose to ignore arguably the most excellent of candidates to grant parole. Like countless others who have long been eligible, the board simply rejects moving good candidates forward by giving their standard denial of ‘The majority of the Parole Board has no interest in your case.’” Asks Ricardo: “If Charlie isn't the ideal candidate, then who is? His health is not so good. He's undergone surgery on both legs and is also a chronic care patient. Why continue to hold someone like Charlie who the state's own risk assessment mechanism indicates as being ‘a low risk?’”

That is a burning question as a new administration takes over top state offices in January.

We have a long list of similar names…names of men and women who are eligible for parole, and who should have been freed long ago. In fact, a new letter just landed on our desk from Albert. Albert is 63, has served 43 years, has received the “no interest” message from the Parole Board 9 times, and has two applications for commutation denied. He’s taken the right programs, and done his best to improve himself. “What more can I do,” he asks. What more, indeed!

In addition to the parolable lifers, we haven’t even touched the topic of those serving long indeterminate sentences, the LDI inmates. They don’t even get the opportunity for parole until they’ve served shamefully long minimum sentences. Something’s gotta give.

The new Objective Parole Bill, recently signed by the Governor, will make a dent. But we have so much farther to go.

Those campaigning for Governor and Attorney General promised change and improvement.

It cannot come soon enough!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Do we really forgive! Do we even want to?

Edna’s husband was a millionaire industrialist. He was wrongly convicted due to a sinister extortion plot. He went to prison, and appeals filed by the best attorneys were denied. Even though their marriage for the past 18 years was solid, Edna decided that her life had to move on. She filed for divorce. Danny lost his freedom. Then he lost the love of his life. He never fully recovered.

Divorce is not uncommon. When Daisy went to prison a corrections officer inquired as to when she was getting a divorce. She laughed, and asked what the heck that was all about. Her marriage was fine. One year later, sure enough, Bill filed for divorce. Life may be standing still for her, but it was going to move on for him.

Forgiveness is difficult.

Robin Sharma, one of the world’s top leadership experts, claims “Forgiveness isn’t approving what happened. It’s choosing to rise above it.”

I’ll not forget the day that I contacted the adult son of an elderly prisoner for help with some of his father’s business dealings. Old Eddie had been sent to prison after authorities found some disturbing images on his personal computer. “I don’t want my dad anymore,” his son Evan bitterly informed me. “Do you want him?”

I was chatting with Diana this week. She’s in her 80s now, and her son has been in prison for 18 years. Her heart is breaking, not because Lloyd is in prison, but because his two sibs won’t forgive. “One sister lives in the same town as the prison,” she lamented, “but she has never forgiven him, and never once visited him.”

I share these glimpses into the dark side of a prisoner’s life for a couple reasons.

First, it quickly explains why only 12% of Michigan prisoners get visits. Forgiveness is elusive.

And the second reason is to simply explain why HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is so popular among inmates. It’s because we don’t judge. We don’t care what they’re in for…we don’t even ask. If they have a need, a problem, we’re here for them.

It’s unconditional.

Jesus demands forgiveness of his followers, giving the prime example by asking his Father to forgive those who were putting him to death. In his model prayer for our use, he included the phrase, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

It’s easy to mouth that phrase every time we recite the prayer. Not that easy when it comes time to forgive commission of an offense that is intensely personal and painful.

And yet…  

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and realize the prisoner was you.”
Lewis Smedes

Thursday, November 1, 2018

What you don't hear in the political ads

No question about it: Most people are getting sick of the political ads. Your television set isn’t on for five minutes before you are bombarded with messages as to why you should vote for one person, and why his or her opponent is a danger to society.

On the national level, we hear about immigration and about the economy. Healthcare is a major topic of discussion, and so is our nation’s leadership. But you don’t hear any discussion about

-mass incarceration---2.2 million people behind bars, the highest percentage per capita in the world;
-wrongful convictions---staggering numbers that have Innocence Projects in every state struggling with serious backlogs; and
-the death penalty---only 20 states have abolished this shameful practice!

Here in Michigan, there’s a lot of political discussion on who’s toughest on crime, bad water, right to life, and fixing the roads. But you don’t hear any discussion about

-39,000 people occupying 30 prisons in Pure Michigan, a far higher percentage than that of any other Great Lakes state;
-serious overcrowding issues at Michigan’s only prison for women;
-how to make it easier for the wrongly convicted to collect money owed them by the state;
-why Prosecutors still oppose raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18 (Michigan is one of only four states left clinging to this archaic plan); or
-the slow progress in resentencing juveniles who were condemned to life without parole.

Do you know how your favorite candidate for Congress or for the US Senate feels about mass incarceration, wrongful convictions and the death penalty?

What about your choices for state public office. Where do they stand on these important issues? One would think they might have some opinions on a budget item that involves 14,000 state employees and costs taxpayers 5-million dollars a day! Yet we hear nothing.

Election Day is approaching, and it’s time to get out the measuring stick, time to look past the “hot-button” issues and dig into the less popular but very humanitarian matters. Know where your candidates stand on all issues.

Then, on November 6, follow this advice in Proverbs 31: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.