All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, December 31, 2018

What a year!

Breathtaking! That’s the only way I can describe 2018 here at the HFP office. The gate opened on January 1, and we were off and running!

Our goal is to serve prisoners, and we did that in record numbers, responding to more than 50 contacts in one day, more than 600 in one month, and more than 6,800 for the year. To better equip them for the job, we took the entire gang to Lansing to interact with the MDOC.

2018 was the year we put on a new face: new logo and new letterhead.

With professional services provided by Dr. David Schock, 3 new videos were produced featuring newly released inmates, and a fourth featuring Sister Helen Prejean.

We brought renowned guest speakers to the community: nationally known peace activist Kit Cummins to Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon; nationally known capital punishment foe Sister Helen Prejean to Grand Haven.

We were excited to add four prominent personalities to our Board of Directors: Rev. Rodney Gulley of Berrien Springs, Dr. Michelle Loyd-Paige of Muskegon Heights, Dr. Veena Kulkarni-Rankin of Ann Arbor, and Dr. K. Aaron Van Oosterhout of Holland. In addition, Susan Greenbauer became the newest member of our staff, and Grand Rapids attorney Brent Geers became the newest member of our team.

The year also had its downside. We lost two dear friends, inmate David Duyst, who was battling a wrongful conviction; and attorney John Carlyle, who helped us get our start in 2001.

For the Douger, it was an up and down year. Open heart surgery at Thanksgiving slowed things down, but there were highs as well. We were honored in August at the U.S. Coast Guard Festival Heroes and Legends dinner for “tenacious work on behalf of those forgotten and behind bars.” And, we’re proud to report that a new book, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS?, was published late in the year.

Matt and I have launched a new podcast series soon to be released.

And, we ended the year on a high note. After numerous trials and failures, our efforts to obtain a commutation of sentence for inmate James Hicks were successful just before Christmas! He’ll be freed, after serving more than 32 years in prison, probably early in 2019.

God has blessed HFP beyond measure. We enter 2019 with eager anticipation!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Thanks, Gov. Snyder! For shame, Gov Snyder!

Christmas Eve, a day when I love to tell warm stories. The problem is that reality keeps interfering.

I have two short stories today, one of gladness…one of sadness. Both created by decisions of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Last Friday, December 21, he granted clemency to 61 prisoners before leaving office: 35 pardons and 26 commutations.

Keep in mind that he received more than 4,000 requests for clemency from prisoners. No matter what he decided, there would be joy and sadness. And that was the case with two of our clients.

James Hicks has been in prison since 1986, but he’s a rare breed. He decided that during his time of incarceration it was time to make things right with society. So, he worked with authorities at both the state and federal levels on case of case, getting conviction after conviction. In one scandal, a deputy warden was sent to prison. Through it all, the State of Michigan saved millions of dollars.

HFP began actively assisting Jimmy in getting some relief from his 50-200 year sentence after the State of Michigan made a promise to get him re-sentenced for his stellar work on a case. But then, after the trial was won, they changed their mind. “Nah, I don’t think so.” We worked for the next decade to help get his release. An overdue victory came last Friday when Governor Snyder commuted his sentence.

We celebrate with Mr. Hicks today!

But the same can’t be said for Nancy Seaman, sentenced to life in prison in 2005 for killing her abusive husband…even though he was doing his best to kill her when the attack occurred.

We shared her story with local activist and freelance writer Kelle Lynn, who went on to found Justice Through Storytelling, an agency focusing on cases just like this. Kelle waged a massive campaign to free Nancy. The case garnered national attention, and the Governor received hundreds of letters of support for this award-winning school teacher.

When the list came out Friday, Nancy’s name was not on it.

One of her supporters, Pat Hardy of Bloomington Hills, said bitterly: “… forget about making phone calls or writing letters to the Governor’s office or to the Parole Board.  They couldn’t care less!

The heart of Nancy Seaman is broken. God long ago abandoned me. I know that now.”

That’s not true, of course. But on Christmas Eve, 2018, she’s not convinced.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

In this holiday season, look at the bright side!

As a radio newsman, I looked for good news.

I wrote radio news copy from 1954 until 1983, but I never agreed with the concept “If it bleeds it leads.” Those who worked in my newsrooms knew that we loved human interest stories, especially those on the lighter side. We were sensitive to complaints from listeners that only bad news gets aired.

That leads me to this short discussion in the holiday season of 2018. It seems that the only news we hear or read about prisoners is negative. We hear just how terrible these people have behaved, and we agree that they should be caged and forgotten.

Just as I and my reporters did back in the old newsroom days, you gotta look for the good stories behind bars. There are plenty of them.

We recently received an update on the Youth Detention Program, brainchild of a Michigan prisoner in 2008, and approved by the Governor. Prisoners took special training to counsel teenagers heading for trouble. Says our reporter from behind bars: “Over the past ten years the Youth Deterrent Program has helped hundreds, if not well over a thousand troubled at-risk teens avoid the pitfalls associated with indulging in criminal thinking and/or activities. We took on the motto of No Youth Left Behind and vigorously worked in saving the lives of so-called at-risk youth by providing them with viable alternatives rather than the indulgence in criminality.”

Earlier this month a group of students graduated from the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program sponsored by Grand Valley State University in the Michigan Reformatory of Ionia. This fine program has been going on now for 9 years and is now in 9 Michigan prisons!

I’m taking a moment to write about this stuff after receiving a message from David’s friend. “David just cut off all his hair this morning. He and some of his fellow students (Calvin Prison Initiative, Handlon CF) are donating their hair to an organization that provides hair replacements to kids with hair loss.”

HFP just delivered another shipment of yarn to a Michigan prison so inmates can knit and crochet caps, mittens and blankets for the homeless and needy.

Thousands of inmates are doing their best to brighten this holiday season, a real challenge in the dark and lonely cells of the Michigan prison system. God bless them, as they strive to turn a negative into a positive. 

In all of our gaiety, we must not forget them.