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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, December 2, 2019

NO MORE TALK ABOUT CO-PAY. IT’S TIME FOR ACTION!


Skyrocketing costs of healthcare and prescription drugs tend to bring sad stories to the surface. We hear and read heartbreaking stories about people in financial straits, who must make decisions regarding food or medicine, rent payments or medical bills.

Yet, we hear very little about the plight of prisoners. When it comes to healthcare for Michigan inmates, it stinks!

Here’s the picture in a nutshell.

If a Michigan inmate can get a job (many have been eliminated), he or she will likely earn between 75 cents and $3 a day. Not an hour…a day! Keep in mind that many of the 39,000 people in our state prison system are unemployed, or work only part-time.

What little money they have is often spent on personal hygiene items, such as soap and deodorant; or, on food. Food may sound like a luxury to you, but you should know that Michigan spends less than a dollar per meal for our prisoners. And, even though prisoner wages haven’t been increased in 25 years or so, prices keep going up at the prison store.

Now, here’s the kicker. The state charges a $5 co-pay for every healthcare visit in prison. That could be a week's wages. It’s time for our legislature to abolish this ridiculous practice. 

It’s happening in other states. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation eliminated medical co-pays, citing public health concerns. Says Eric Henderson, Policy Director with Initiate Justice: Co-pays are dangerous barriers to healthcare access that force incarcerated people into a risky waiting game and ultimately undermine public health throughout the state.

Kay Perry, MI-CURE Director, points out in her monthly newsletter that individuals often delay seeing a doctor and may wait until the condition escalates to an emergency, or until the cost of treatment exceeds the cost of early care.

Then there’s the ripple effect.

A prisoner chooses soap or snacks over medical co-pay, and as a result gets sicker…and as a result threatens the health of other prisoners with whom he or she come into contact.

There’s no good reason to charge medical co-pay in prison.

There’s every good reason to discontinue the practice.

As with Mark Twain’s observation about the weather, we keep complaining about it, and that’s all. We do nothing about it.

That’s gotta change. please go to the Michigan Legislature website, find the names of your State Representative and State Senator, jot down their email addresses, and forward the link to this blog site. Add your own comment. You’re the voter. They’ll listen.

Enough is enough.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Blessed Thanksgiving to you. And that's no baloney!


Maurice Carter once joked with me about Thanksgiving behind bars. “Take a look at our Thanksgiving Day menu,” he said. The public saw a prison menu boasting a turkey dinner for inmates. In actuality, the main meat of the day turned out to be turkey bologna!

Prisoners have a difficult time on holidays such as this. What’s to be thankful for?
I can tell you this: In 2019, many prisoners---hundreds, perhaps thousands---are thankful for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. I make this claim, not in a boasting manner at all, but in deep humility, because I’m thankful that we can be there for them!

They’re thankful that, even though we may not have had complete success, someone was there to try to help them get appropriate health care. You and I can “doctor shop,” or even run to a med center if necessary. The options behind bars are very limited. They’re thankful that we could help them track down a missing family member. They’re thankful that someone will assist them in seeking important legal documents, because the state refuses to allow them to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act. They’re thankful for the assistance we have provided, and will continue to provide, for all who wish to apply for a commutation of their sentence. They’re thankful for our Parole Board preparation packet, thus helping them get ready for an upcoming session with the Michigan Parole Board.

At Thanksgiving time, 2019, I’m not thankful for prisoners, but I am thankful for their friendship.

I’m thankful that this organization that I founded 18 years ago is now touching the lives of thousands of Michigan prisoners with loving assistance.

I’m thankful for a wonderful team of staff members and volunteers who compassionately make all of this happen, on a daily basis.

I’m thankful for the time and dedication of every member of our Board of Directors…for their commitment to our goals, vision and mission.

I’m thankful that we have a delightful, spacious environment in which to work.

And, I’m thankful to the many individuals, groups, families and foundations who make all of this work possible.

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." -Albert Schweitzer



Thursday, November 21, 2019

If Amazon can do it, so can the MDOC!


For this octogenarian, born and raised in a computer-less generation, technical advances are just incomprehensible. My mind can’t begin to understand it.

I saw some video clips from an Amazon warehouse recently, explaining how same-day and next-day delivery services are implemented for catalog customers all over the nation.

I still remember the day that a Calvin College official took me into a large, temperature and humidity-controlled room back in the 70s, to show off that institution’s new state-of-the-art computer system. The room was filled with giant pieces of electronic equipment, many of them with what appeared to be tape recorders herking and jerking, clicking and popping.

Now I’m told that the computer in my cell phone can do more than that room full of stuff!

All this leads me to a discussion of an area that concerns many families. The Michigan Department of Corrections spends $30-million a year to transfer inmates from one facility to another. There are many reasons for transfers. Some facilities offer specific programs that an inmate must complete. Others have certain vocational programs. Some are offering college courses. Unusual healthcare needs can only be met in certain facilities. Then there are court dates and public hearings. Besides that, prisoners die and prisoners are released. Beds must be filled. And so inmates are transferred from prison to prison, some 30 different locations.

We’d like the department to add one more factor to the transfer process: geographic location of friends and loved ones.

Corrections officials recognize the importance of family visits:

          -keeping the family intact
          -improving chances for reentry into society
          -reducing chances of re-offending
          -improving prisoner morale.

And yet, it is very apparent that family accessibility plays little or no role in where prisoners are transferred.

David, who was ticket-free for 18 years---a model prisoner known for his skills in tutoring and dog-training---was ordered to pack up early one morning, and was shipped off to the Upper Peninsula. His elderly parents in Grand Rapids found it difficult to make that 6-hour drive. Joyce, elderly black woman in Detroit battling cancer, learned that her son had been transferred to a prison even farther away in the U.P. There was no way she could make that trip in her old car. We hear complaints like this regularly.

There’s gotta be a better way!

If we want to do more than just provide programs, just keep these people behind bars until their release date…if we want to help them stay sane, keep their families intact, prepare for re-entry and stay out of trouble, then we must do better.

If Amazon’s computer can find the right pair of socks for me in another state, and arrange to have them delivered to my door the next morning, our state computers can include family locations among all the other deciding factors for prison transfers.

Visitation by family and loved ones deserves higher consideration.

Now. Not someday.








Wednesday, November 13, 2019

"If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice." Sister Helen Prejean


An overnight vigil was held this week in Washington DC. Protesters are urging the US Supreme Court to stop a Texas execution. 51-year-old Rodney Reed is scheduled to be executed on November 20. He’s been on death row for more than 20 years. Reed and many of his supporters claim he is innocent.

Reading this stuff brings back one of the darkest chapters of my life. I went to Texas, and I witnessed an execution.

In September, 2006, I received a letter from my friend Charles Anthony Nealy, a 42-year-old black man on death row. He asked if I would be his “spiritual adviser” at the time of his execution. How does one respond to a request like that? “No, I really don’t feel like it?” “I’m not qualified, go find someone else?

Marcia and I flew to Texas in March, 2007.

I cannot begin to describe the ugly memories---

The indifference and “business as usual” attitude on death row
The braying bloodhounds in kennels just outside the prison
The refusal to allow contact visits (We’d press our hands together on both sides of the glass partition as I prayed with him)
The laughing and flirting of guards with reporters in the “death house”
Armed guards on the roof as we were led to the death chamber.

In his final statement, while strapped to the gurney, Anthony thanked me for being there. Then, as his sister Debra and I watched, the State of Texas murdered my friend. Chemical one put the prisoner to sleep. Chemical two stopped his breathing. Chemical three stopped his heart. Right in front of our eyes. The silence was deafening.

Where were my profound words of sympathy to Deb and my expressions of faith in this traumatic time? Seems like I could have found some powerful piece of scripture, like Death, where is your sting? Instead, I mumbled, “Have you ever seen such horse-shit?”

I couldn’t wait to take a shower. I couldn’t wait to get out of Texas.

Sister Helen Prejean, among those fighting for a stay of Rodney Reed’s execution, says:

If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.

It’s time to pray not only for a stay of execution for Rodney, but for a halt to this nonsense.



Saturday, November 9, 2019

Prison: Bumpy road for gay and transgender inmates

A front-page Associated Press story caught my eye this week. Only 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

I think about the difficult road for gay and transgender persons a lot these days.

I knew very little about this kind of thing when I was a child. Back in the 40s and 50s we gave gay people terrible labels, and it was not uncommon for bullies to beat up gays just because they were different. I was silent and did nothing about it.

That has changed.

I’m in the sunset years of my life now, and in my third career I’m closely aligned with prisoners. Just as in the outside world, there are sexual identity issues in prison. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I can tell you this about gay people in prison. Many gay inmates, even those who may have been openly gay while on the street, stay in the closet while behind bars. That’s because any man or woman in prison who is known or perceived to be gay faces a high risk of sexual abuse. And this can come from guards as well as from fellow inmates.

Transgender prisoners have an awful time of it. They are especially vulnerable due to a general policy of housing them according to their birth-assigned gender or genital configuration, regardless of their current appearance or gender identity.

I’m no longer silent.

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does its very best to treat these people in a kind, humane and dignified manner. We stand beside those who are gay, we find clergy who will visit them, we go to bat for them when no one else steps up to the plate. The same for transgender inmates. We politely call them by their new transgender name, and refer to their sex as that with which they identify, regardless of genital configuration.

I so appreciate the position of the Episcopal Church:

“Homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the church.”

I spotted a paraphrase of a familiar hymn while putting together this piece: In Christ there is no gay or straight.

And that’s the way we operate, that’s our philosophy. The business card of every HFP team member proudly bears these words:

“…all prisoners and their loved ones deserve to be treated with humanity, kindness, and dignity---without exception.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

On quietly doing the work of the deacons


The work of the deacons seldom attracts attention.

The work of the pastor and the elders are often the main focus in a church. After all, what can be more important than the preaching and the teaching?

And so, when the Executive Director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (my denomination) decides to comment on Hebrews 13:3, his article in the denominational magazine focuses on a program conducted by Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in one of the Ionia Prisons offering undergraduate courses to inmates. He draws attention to the wonderful work of our friends at Crossroads Prison Ministries. He praises a worship team that goes into one of the Muskegon prisons to lead services each month.

The agencies and the people mentioned deserve that spotlight.

But once again, the work of the deaconate didn’t draw any attention. I’m not a theologian, and I know better than to pretend that I’m knowledgeable on these matters. But Calvin Seminary prof Dr. John Rottman, who serves on our Board of Directors, knows what he’s talking about. And he insists that the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is the work of deacons.

If you stopped in our office today, you’d likely find the team

Helping a guy straighten out a Social Security number mix-up
Helping a brain cancer victim in his final days
Sending a photo behind bars for an artist to paint
Finding a long-lost relative
Helping a dyslexic inmate prepare a commutation application
Helping a transgender inmate with multiple in-prison issues
Helping a wrongly convicted inmate obtain legal documents.

I’m not complaining about Steven Timmermans’ piece in the Banner. Not at all. We thank God for every person, every agency, that is willing to do something for prisoners.

But his conclusion asks members of our denomination to consider gifts and opportunities to those agencies remembering prisoners, as challenged in Hebrews 13. And when it comes to “gifts and opportunities,” I’m suggesting that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS should be high on everyone’s year-end list. We’re the ones down in the trenches, quietly doing the work of the deaconate.

"Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated…”

Thursday, October 31, 2019

I'm telling you: It CAN happen to you!


Our conversation centered on the plight of prisoners, as it often does. Marcia asked me, “Have you ever added up the number of people you know who were wrongly convicted?”

I had not, but as I thought about it, names popped into my mind. I’ve been working on wrongful convictions since the mid-1990s, so there were certainly a few. Riiiiight. So far, I’m up to 11 here in Michigan, and 11 more from other states. 22 people, some of whom served decades, and some who died behind bars! God knows how many years they served, collectively, and the sad thing is that many of them were never exonerated.

I never get tired of talking about this, even though you may be getting tired of reading my tirades. The reason I keep beating this old drum is because it can happen to you!

Of the 11 people I know here in Michigan who were wrongly convicted, nine were white, middle-income folks, and none had any kind of police record. They were not criminals.

As I look through the list, here’s why enterprising cops and prosecutors decided to go for it:

To get even, Dan’s ex-wife accused him of molesting their daughters
To get even, Roger’s daughter-in-law accused him of molesting a grand-daughter
To get some of his wealth, parents of his daughter’s friends spread a lie about Gary
A suicidal son got even with his mom one last time
Someone killed Judy’s husband, and with a rocky marriage, all arrows pointed to her.

I’ve never forgotten a Canadian case we heard about as I was trying to help Maurice Carter. A prominent individual was arrested for the murder of his wife. She died of injuries from a fall down a basement stairway. Authorities claimed her husband gave her a shove. I think he spent 8 years in prison before the truth emerged.

It’s a blight. It’s a curse. It’s a national scandal. What an indictment on our so-called justice system when we must have Innocence Projects in every state, and that these teams of lawyers and students are swamped with business…year’s behind in their requests! How terrible that we just blithely accept the fact that about 3% of the people occupying our prisons are innocent! More than 1,000 men and women right here in Michigan!

Since 1989 about 2500 people have been exonerated. May that spur defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges to take a closer look at the reasons for wrongful convictions, and take steps to avoid them.

Meanwhile, remember that it doesn’t always happen to the other guy!



Thursday, October 24, 2019

Honoring a hero! Remembering a hero!


Our nation pays tribute to one of its black heroes today.

Our office pays tribute to its black hero today.

Here in the United States, citizens mourn the loss of Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died on October 17. The Washington Post relays this interesting information:

Born to a family of Southern sharecroppers and Baptist preachers, Mr. Cummings grew up in the racially fractured Baltimore of the 1950s and 1960s. At 11, he helped integrate a local swimming pool while being attacked with bottles and rocks.

Here in the HFP office, we’re remembering the loss of our hero, Maurice Carter, who died on October 25, 2004. Born and raised in poverty in Gary, Indiana, Maurice wandered into the Benton Harbor area in the 1970s to visit a friend and look for work. Instead, he caught a wrongful conviction that placed him in prison for 29 years.

I learned of his case in the mid-1990s, and for the next decade he and I battled that injustice. And while we may not have attracted the attention of presidents, we quietly created a well-oiled machine that eventually focused international attention on a shameful case of wrongful conviction. Among our outspoken supporters were such prominent names as Keith Findley, Co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project; Chicago freedom fighters David Protess and Rob Warden; Dr. Rubin Hurricane Carter; and author Alex Kotlowitz.

The entire story is told in the book SWEET FREEDOM and the stage play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

Hepatis C claimed his life just 3 months after his compassionate release. He was never exonerated.

The overwhelming support and interest that helped form a defense “dream team” for Maurice served to inspire him to help other prisoners. And that led to the formation of our parent organization, INNOCENT, in 2001. Several years later our company name was changed to better reflect our mission.

Today, thanks to the vision and tenacity of my brother Maurice, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is now a leading state prisoner advocacy agency. We respond to a thousand calls a month, and boast a client list of nearly 10% of the entire population of Michigan prisoners!

Author Alex Kotlowitz said about HFP, in a recent visit, “It is so commonsensical…I don’t know why we don’t have a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS in every state in this country.

Someday that will happen.

Quite a legacy for an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana!

RIP, my brother.






Sunday, October 20, 2019

Second chances on Sunday. None on Monday!


When it comes to redemption, we love to hear Bible stories from the pulpit on Sunday morning. On Monday morning, however, we’re not so sure about true-life stories on TV.

Reporter Ken Kolker refuses to let up on this story: The Michigan Parole Board has granted parole to 47-year-old Catherine Wood. Channel 8’s latest report once again quotes dire warnings by family members that this woman may kill again.

Well, it’s time to take a deep breath.

Catherine Wood has been in prison for 30 years for her alleged involvement in 5 nursing home deaths back in the 80s. News people call her the Nursing Home Killer.

Parole for her didn’t come quickly. In fact, 8 times in a row the Parole Board turned her down, claiming she didn’t show remorse. Last year, however, following a Public Hearing, the board approved her release. That got delayed when the Attorney General’s Office protested. But last week Kent County Circuit Judge J. Joseph Rossi determined that the Parole Board did not abuse its discretion. He said the decision came after hearing that she had done well in prison, was rehabilitated and no longer posed a threat.

Parole experts have a couple words of advice for our office, as well as for newsman Kolker. While comments of crime victims make for great news clips, Prison Policy Initiative contends: Survivors of violent crimes should not be allowed to be a part of the parole-decision process. The parole process should be about judging transformation, and survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed.

And point number two: The “nature of the crime” or “seriousness of the offense” should NOT be the reason for parole denial. This from Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). Both of these agencies review parole policies and decisions on a national level.

Two very good friends of mine, in younger days and influenced by drugs, committed absolutely terrible and brutal crimes. Both got their acts together while in prison. And, even though people raised hell about their parole, neither reoffended. Instead, both became outstanding citizens. In their cases, the Parole Board got it right.

I don’t know Catherine Wood, and can’t predict her future. But I do know she’s not getting a fair shake.

Judge Rossi’s opinion underscores our position that the nature of the crime is not a factor here, neither is one-sided news coverage, and neither is victim-opinion.

There’s a reason Norway has no sentences over 20 years. Rehabilitation can work.

Ms. Wood may surprise us.

Redemption is possible, and it is the measure of a civilized society.
Fr. Greg Boyle




Friday, October 18, 2019

It was delightful...for a few minutes!


It was a wonderful evening! Against all odds!

Renowned author and lecturer Alex Kotlowitz was in Grand Haven for a community event, sponsored by HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. He was to speak in a local school auditorium. The key word here is “was,” because that is not where the event ended up.

Just one day earlier, the school system advised us that the auditorium had been double-booked. Sorry, we’d have to find another place. ONE DAY BEFORE OUR PROGRAM!

So, we had to punt. But thankfully, we have a team including our staff, board members and committee members, that can roll with anything. And they did!

A pre-program dinner and reception were planned to be held at St. Patrick’s Family Center in Grand Haven, so why not just keep people there, and hold the event in the same spot? It took a lot of scrambling, a lot of last-minute publicity, and a bit of finagling, but it all worked out.

More than 100 people gathered in a beautiful, intimate setting to listen to and interact with the author of some delicious books that everyone should read.

Board Chairman Russ Bloem introduced a new legacy program that is designed to keep our agency running for years to come.

Long-time board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete were honored guests, receiving the Maurice H. Carter Humanitarian award for their many services over the years.

Alex answered questions and signed books.

It was a wonderful evening.

This morning, however, it was a different story. There was no time to bask in the warm fuzzies, the good feelings, the kind words, the warm compliments. In the echo of Alex’s praise of HfP work, insisting that there should be similar chapters in every state, reality rushed in as we walked through our front door. There were between 30-50 unopened letters from prisoners, all asking for help. There were 50 unopened email messages from Michigan inmates, all wanting attention and needing answers now.

The phone rang…a collect call from a prisoner. A prison dentist was quick to pull out the inmate’s teeth, because they were all bad. But now he’s invoking some silly rule, and the guy has to wait two years for his dentures. Look, Ma. No teeth! No way to eat!

A sigh.

On the plus side, also in the mail was a generous $5 donation from a prisoner. It represented one week’s wages!

A tear.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

AG Nessel, where are you?


For a while, there, I really believed we had a kinder, gentler State of Michigan. Memories of former Attorney General William Schuette and angry Parole Board members faded into the past.

The occasion was a Public Hearing, conducted in Ionia by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Readers of this column know just how much criticism these public hearings have prompted from me in the past. Some members of the Parole Board have been cold and rude, some hearings have been poorly run, and there were times when the Assistant District Attorney was brutal.

Today, it was a different story. Presiding Parole Board member Sonia Amos-Warchock, whose anger and brusque manner I’ve personally witnessed, was on her best behavior. She quietly and patiently explained what was happening to the prisoner. Not once did she raise her voice. Her kind manner set the tone for the entire hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, whose sometimes raw prosecutorial-style questioning has driven many prisoners to tears, actually seemed sensitive to the prisoner’s personal story and emotions. He remained calm, and he actually demonstrated patience. Was the fact that he answers to a new boss with a radically different philosophy actually making a difference?

I should take a moment, here, to tell you about the prisoner. Joe is one of our clients, and Matt, Holly and I were all in the hearing room to support him. His story is a shameful indictment of the judicial system in Michigan. At the age of 18, this young black teenager and his buddy needed some pocket change, so, from their car, they aimed their pellet rifle at two kids operating an ice cream cart on the sidewalk and demanded money. While all this was going on, a little child came up to buy some ice cream. They gave the lad his ice cream, as well as his change…then continued with their robbery operation. They stole 27 dollars and 50 cents! That was 38 years go!

Joe received a life sentence for that crime! Without the persistence of our Holly, I don’t think that, even now, he’d be getting this Public Hearing.

I must say that today’s hearing was by far the most calm and sedate of any I have attended. 

Then, at the very end, it got spoiled.

That’s when Assistant AG Scott Rothermel stated that the Michigan Attorney General’s Office objected to the proposed parole. It was an assaultive crime. No mercy recommended.

Aaaargh!

Shades of Bill Schuette!

Michigan is better than that.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

YOUR story deserves applause!


I’m humbled by that applause. Johnny Carson

To my delight, reruns of the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson are still available on cable TV. At the end of each performance, the producer inserts the above quote. I’m sure Johnny made it “tongue-in-cheek,” because performers thrive on applause.

But here in the quiet of my office, I must admit: I am humbled by applause.

I’m basking in the afterglow, after viewing another staged reading of the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. It was presented over the weekend at the prestigious Atlanta Black Theatre Festival. This powerful stage presentation, capsulizing the story of my ten-year battle with Maurice Carter to seek his freedom, was written ten years ago by award-winning Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne.

Several factors, not the least of which is my age, make it very difficult for me to leave home for any period of time. But, thanks to the love and generosity of HfP board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete, I got to Atlanta and back in 24-hours, and in one piece! What an amazing experience!

I counted nearly 100 people in the compact theatre of the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, near Atlanta. At the conclusion of the presentation, the cast of 10 received a warm and well-deserved standing ovation. As the applause died down, a festival spokesperson introduced each member of the cast. Then, said the emcee, “We feel very fortunate to have with us the real Doug Tjapkes! Gasps, and then enthusiastic applause. And that leads me to my opening premise: I am, indeed, humbled by such applause.

Taking advantage of the moment, I rushed on stage to give Greg Daniels and Carle Atwater, the guys who played Doug and Maurice, bear hugs. One by one, I grasped the hand of each member of the cast. A lot of emotion. And yes, a lot of tears.

The reason for my humility on the applause issue is very simple, and very real. Granted, it’s a great story! I’m proud of that. BUT, it’s one of just thousands and thousands of similar stories that never get told. I’m well aware of this because I and my team see them and hear them every day!

Today I applaud all the unsung heroes of similar, and even better stories!  Yes, our story happened to catch the attention of playwrights, and happened to get publicity. But, yours/theirs is equally as important.

We have a system of justice in [the US] that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes
Bryan Stevenson


Monday, September 30, 2019

A famous athlete takes on injustice!


Boy, does that sound a lot like the Maurice Carter story!

National basketball star Maya Moore, of WNBA fame, is in the news these days. She shocked the basketball world earlier this year when she quit basketball, saying she wanted some time to pursue “criminal justice reform.” But it’s more personal than that. The real reason is making headlines right now, just in time for the observance of International Wrongful Conviction Day. She’s doing her best to free a prisoner who has served nearly 23 years for a crime he did not commit.

The man was arrested for a non-fatal shooting. After meeting him, hearing his story, and digging into his case, this basketball superstar is flabbergasted. “No physical evidence. No DNA, footprint, fingerprint,” she exclaims! Yep.

Sound familiar?

Granted, Doug Tjapkes was no superstar, but at the turn of the century, he did almost the same thing. Starting in about 1995, I became aware of this black dude who claimed he was innocent, and had already served 15 years for a non-fatal shooting. No physical evidence, no DNA, no fingerprints, no weapon, no motive. Let me add a few more “nos.” No blacks on the jury. No legitimacy to eye-witness accounts. No qualified legal assistance. No integrity in the Benton Harbor Police Department, or in that Berrien County courtroom.

Maurice Carter served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. He was released on a compassionate release, and he died just three months later, in October, 2004. He was never exonerated.

Wednesday, October 2, is wrongful conviction day. Basketball superstar Maya Moore points out that more than 10,000 people are sitting in prisons for something they didn’t do.

What a terrible blight on our alleged system of justice!

And the sad part of all this: The real criminal, quite often, is still out on the street. In Maurice Carter’s case, the drunken bully is not only still alive, but he’s still boasting about how he “shot that white cop!”

As we approach International Wrongful Conviction Day, we pay tribute to Michigan’s two fine Innocence Projects: the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project, and the Innocence Clinic of the University of Michigan Law School.

And we pray for success not only for Maya Moore, but also for all the other advocates with lesser credentials and lower profiles, but with similar stories, hoping for similar outcomes.

As author John Grisham puts it:

“Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in this country, and the reasons are all varied and all the same—bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, arrogant prosecutors.”





Thursday, September 26, 2019

You'd better listen to a whistle-blower!


Some readers are going to accuse me of being very political with this piece. That’s your call.

The topic of “whistle-blowing” is big news today, because it involves the President of the United States. Regardless of your political affiliation, I have something to say to you: You’d better listen to a whistle-blower!

I go back to the year 2014, when MDOC personnel at our only prison for women, Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, were accused of mistreating and abusing mentally ill inmates in the acute care section. There were charges of hog-tying, tasing, excessive use of pepper spray, and food and water deprivation. We’re talking about the treatment of human beings here, not animals in the dog pound.

We could do nothing about this without the help of whistle-blowers. And yes, they came through! I had in my possession a stack of affidavits scribbled out on scrap pieces of paper. Prisoners don’t have access to legal pads, and all the other paraphernalia that we might use to put together a proper legal statement. They used what they could find. These affidavits from prisoners who witnessed cruelty and abuse were smuggled to me by a gutsy inmate who later won a legal battle with the State of Michigan. But that’s another story.

My tribute, today, is to whistle-blowers.

It’s very easy, especially in today’s story, to claim that there’s political motive, or interest in personal gain. But that’s pure and unadulterated baloney! It’s no fun being a whistle-blower. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Unless, that is, you’re hoping to expose the truth. Unless, that is, you’re hoping to bring about change.

I’m proud to say that thanks to some daring whistle-blowers at Huron Valley, subsequent action by our office led to involvement not only by the American Civil Liberties Union, but also the U. S. Department of Justice! The courageous women who dared sign their names will be proud to learn that those little scraps of paper made their way into the files of the ACLU, and led to a lengthy letter of demands to the prison warden and the Department of Corrections.

The acute unit for the mentally ill in Huron Valley isn’t perfect these days. But there is improvement.

I salute, today, every whistle-blower, from the bottom to the top.

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.
Albert Einstein


Monday, September 23, 2019

Parking at the four-way stop isn't very smart!


As I headed into town this morning, a well-meaning driver about ruined my day. As he approached a four-way stop, he made the decision that this was BE KIND TO DRIVERS DAY, and so he just sat there. He let all other cars go first! Of course, that didn’t work. The result was not a "kind" thing at all. It gummed up the works! People stopping, starting, pointing, gesturing. The four-way stop can be a well-oiled machine, but it involves heads-up participation by every driver. Each has a responsibility.

On Facebook one day some contributor allowed that a very Christian thing to do, that day, would be to let the other guy go first at a four-way stop. No! No! No! That has the opposite effect. Very un-Christian words get uttered in cars approaching that intersection!

I see that as quite symbolic of all of life.

You can’t go to your church and just sit there, letting all the others go first to sing in the choir, serve on the council, volunteer to be an usher, teach Sunday School or work in the food pantry.

You can’t join the Rotary Club hoping that the membership will make you look good, then just sit there, refusing to serve on committees, run for office, or volunteer for projects.

You can’t send your kids to the best school, but then refuse to serve on the PTA, run for school board, car-pool kids to the special events, or assist the coaches.

It doesn’t make much sense to complain about your government in the coffee shop or bar, but then refuse to run for office, or at least communicate with elected officials, or even get off your duff and go to the polls.

Fred Rogers, famous kid’s show TV host, said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say ‘It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

As a prisoner advocate, I’m not suggesting that you must help prisoners, and your job is to do it now. Although that would be nice.

I am saying that you’re doing the world no favor by staying put at the four-way stop, leaving others to the task of negotiating that intersection.

“We have to do the best we can.  This is our sacred human responsibility”
Albert Einstein