All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, January 14, 2019

Will 2019 bring more compassion to WHV?

With a woman at the top, can we expect more and better response to women at the bottom? Let’s hope so.

Some 2,000 women behind bars in Michigan, all residents of the Huron Valley facility, have been less than pleased with the woman who heads the Michigan Department of Corrections. One of our friends listed a few of the major complaints when she heard that incoming Governor Gretchen Whitmer had reappointed Heidi Washington to run the MDOC.

-Those restrictive mail regulations happened on her (Director Washington’s) watch.
-They have done nothing to stop the flow of drugs into this prison. There are more drugs here than ever.  Obviously, they didn’t come through the mail.
-Director Washington has been unresponsive to the outbreak of a serious rash that has infected many women in here.  People have not been properly quarantined, putting everyone at risk.  They don’t know what has caused it and nothing they have done has cured the rash.  Women are suffering in here. (Recent reports are that progress is finally being made, but HFP has a long list of women afflicted with the problem!)
-We get apples and bananas to eat, but no citrus.  We have begged to get our oranges back.  Lack of vitamin C is a serious problem.
-Our dental floss was taken away and replaced with plastic rubber band type floss.  It’s expensive and awful.
-We’ve begged the Director to let us continue to purchase typewriters for our Law Library through the PBS fund. Deaf ears so far.

I was privileged to have a private meeting with Director Washington shortly after she was named to that position in 2015. I relayed complaints to her from WHV at that time. She was new on the job, but assured me that women were high on her list of priorities and that she would eventually visit there.

To her credit, a new WHV warden was appointed and that was a positive step, but more positive steps are needed.

Grumbles a friend of HFP: As far as Ms. Washington goes, her credibility was tarnished when she made statements to the newspapers that this place is not overcrowded.  I live in a housing unit with 200 women and a day-room with capacity for only 42.  That means most women must stay in their rooms…not mentally or physically healthy.  Overcrowding has meant thinner portions of food, less clothing, inadequate healthcare and diseases. 

Director Washington has a new boss now, a woman. Hopefully she will get support from the top in moving forward toward more humanitarian care of our women behind bars.



Sunday, January 6, 2019

Changed life? Maybe for the Apostle Paul, but what about today!

At about the time that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced the names of 61 prisoners who were granted pardon or commutation, I began reading Mitch Albom’s delightful book Have a Little Faith. As an unashamed advocate for prisoners, I was particularly touched by the true story of Pastor Henry Covington, whose earlier life was infected with crime in the drug culture. His conversion experience wasn’t all that much different than Saul of Tarsus, and he went on to form I AM MY BROTHER’S KEEPER CHURCH in Detroit. He spent the rest of his life feeding the poor and housing the homeless…at no charge, under any and all conditions, with no questions asked. Christianity in its rawest form.

And that reminded me of how little forgiveness we find in society today, and perhaps in our own lives.

Each time the Parole Board announces the name of a prisoner who is being released, we see a media frenzy, it seems. Details of the heinous crime of 40 years ago are regurgitated, and family members of the victim are interviewed. I do not mean to minimize the painful memories here. That wouldn’t be fair to the victims and their loved ones. But I wonder about their statements that they are still afraid, worry that the newly-released prisoner might harm them or someone, and that they can only feel closure if the inmate remains behind bars forever.

Parole Board members are not known for recklessly returning dangerous people into society.

What we’re seeing, time and again, is the denial that lives can be and are being changed.

We agree that Saul had a genuine conversion experience on the road to Damascus, as we recall that delightful Bible Story. But we must not ignore the fact that he was responsible for taking lives, and murder is murder. Yet, after this remarkable change in his life, he became a missionary, theologian, and author of numerous books of the Bible! Proof positive that God can and does change lives. That didn’t stop in 36 A.D.

Suggesting that a prisoner who committed a horrible crime 30-40 years ago has had a genuine change of life and a change of heart, and can be a productive citizen in 2019, is not a slap in the face to victims of crime and their families. It simply underscores the fact that if the life of Saul could be changed in the olden days, the life of Pastor Covington could be changed in modern times, it can still happen. These miraculous changes are what we pray for!

May God open our hearts and minds to the concept of forgiveness and acceptance.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Many deserve clemency. Few get it!

What’s it going to take to improve chances of clemency in Michigan?

Just before Christmas, then Governor Rick Snyder announced the names of 61 prisoners to be freed. To many observers, this number was far too low.

James Hicks, good friend of ours, was among the 61. But here’s the deal: If the bar stays that high for clemency consideration, very few will ever get out!

James was sentenced to 50-200 years for alleged involvement in an armed robbery in 1986.

Then the story gets interesting.

Just 3 years after going to prison, he made a conscious decision to turn his life around. He was hearing and seeing too many things that were pricking his conscience. So, he began working with authorities to help solve cases. I personally know of at least 8 cases where he helped state and federal agencies in making numerous arrests for bribery, auto theft, stolen property, telephone fraud, narcotics and murder.

Prisoners don’t like snitches, and James didn’t get adequate protection. He was stabbed on at least 4 different occasions. A corrections officer shoved him down a flight of stairs, he was beaten, and he was poisoned. In addition, someone firebombed the home of his mother in Detroit. Still her persisted in doing what was right.

In an earlier attempt to free him, we put together a strongly persuasive application for clemency. We even included a 4-page letter from Les Bowen, Chief Trial Attorney for the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office in 1986. Bowen, now retired, stated that for the first time in his career he was recommending commutation! There were additional letters of support from federal and state officers.

A quick review of this application, and one might think that Mr. Hicks should get an award, let alone having his sentence commuted! But nope. A routine rejection. We were flabbergasted. By all appearances, our documents weren’t even read by the Parole Board and the Governor’s Office.

In a last-ditch effort, Hicks’ frustrated legal counsel made a Hail Mary pass, going directly to a personal friend on the Governor’s legal staff. Finally, someone in authority got to see all of this evidence and the rest is history.

But back to my original question, if that’s what it takes, is that fair? There won’t be many cases as extreme as that of Jimmy Hicks. But there are hundreds of Michigan prisoners deserving of clemency whose applications never got to see the light of day. Too many didn’t get the review they deserved. And that’s not right.

We beg our new Governor to adjust the system.

It can’t come down to who you know.