All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

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.


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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Kindness begets kindness evermore. Sophocles

HIS MEN, the male chorus that I founded in 1972, is no more. While the music has stopped, my memories continue. We liked little things!

While other Christian groups seemed to thrive on performing in prominent venues before large crowds, our most meaningful experiences were in circumstances exactly the opposite. We performed an entire concert for an ailing missionary on the Haitian Island of La Gonave. When we were traveling in the “hollers” of Kentucky, we sang for a little old lady who wasn’t well enough to come to the concert. We performed in the back of a pickup truck down her little two-track road. An audience of one.

I’m reminded of that today as we prepare for a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS Board of Directors meeting. For these quarterly sessions, key people in our team are asked to prepare activity reports.

Our kind and caring Medical Director, Dr. Bob Bulten, reported that in addition to answering more than a couple hundred email messages related to prisoner medical issues, he personally made some visits to inmates. Said Dr. Bob: “One of whom I have seen multiple times, as he is dying of tongue cancer at Duane Waters Medical facility.” Just doing it because he cares.

As with HIS MEN, we take pride in major successes---freeing Maurice Carter, freeing Jimmy Hicks! But there’s something really special about helping a musician-prisoner to finally get permission to play his keyboard behind bars, arranging transportation to prison for an elderly and disabled mom, or helping a young, imprisoned mother to see her little girl for a birthday visit.

I can tell you this: We may be responding to 1,000 calls a month, but small acts of kindness are common here, and we intend to keep it that way! It's part of our DNA.

My dear friend and gospel singer Alma Perry, who left this earth far too early, 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

Leo Buscaglia put it this way:

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.     

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Time to get your hands out of your pockets!

The late Tony Wolf, missionary to Haiti, was a guest on my radio talk show, telling about a young Haitian woman who gave birth to a child while riding in his Jeep. “I decided it was time for me to take my hands out of my pockets,” said Tony.

Still good advice today.

I’m reading Sister Helen Prejean’s life story in her new book: RIVER OF FIRE: MY SPIRITUAL JOURNEY.

I guess one might have predicted that this vivacious Roman Catholic nun, who appeared in Grand Haven as a guest of HFP last year, would go on to greatness. And that, at age 80, she hasn’t even begun to slow down. One might have guessed that just by watching her jump out of the family station wagon, as a teenager, ready to begin her new life in a convent. “I’m here,” she proclaimed. “I’m here to become a bride of Christ!”

As another active octogenarian, I’m constantly amazed at the number of my peers who are sitting around doing nothing. Many are in good physical and mental health for their age, yet they remain idle. That doesn’t seem healthy to me. Or wise. This may seem a bit judgmental, but I don’t think it’s even right, especially since there’s just so much to be done!

If you watched Lester Holt’s TV specials over the weekend, these numbers should have startled you: 2.2 million Americans behind bars; and, 2.7 million kids in American who have a parent behind bars!

Let me just add one more stat: 38,000 people in the Michigan prison system---much higher number than the averages of other Great Lakes states. And, at least 1,000 of them are innocent! Wrongly convicted! Shocking. Shameful.

Sister Prejean rather jokingly explains her naivete re social justice issues as a young nun: “I thought that all I had to do was to be charitable to those around me and maybe make a contribution to the missions. I thought that praying was enough.”

A sentiment not uncommon among the people with whom we circulate.

Regardless of your age, praying is not enough. A contribution to a mission is not enough. This is an American crisis.

It’s time for all of us to get our hands out of our pockets!

Friday, September 6, 2019

Good for Lester! Good for HFP!

I hope you’ll be watching upcoming TV specials when NBC’s Lester Holt focuses on mass incarceration. May God bless his efforts to bring public awareness to this terrible blight on our nation.

As I’m watching and listening, I’m excited and impressed all over again about the niche that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has found under this same umbrella. Because of the uniqueness of our work, I see a critical need for its expansion into all states.

As it stands right now, the HFP team is on target to respond to 1,000 calls this month! The total in August was 949. While it’s terribly important for NBC and USA Today to focus on huge incarceration issues, it’s equally as important for someone to help the individual behind bars experiencing little, daily problems that he or she just cannot resolve without outside help. This is also true for family members and loved ones.

-A senior inmate is told not to worry when his heart keeps acting up. He contends health-care doesn’t want to spend money on old-timers.

-The wife of a prisoner complains that she’s not allowed to leave the visitor room for an emergency break, and there are no sanitary napkins in the adjoining rest room. She is told by prison staff to stay home when she has her period.

-The grandmother of a mentally challenged inmate doesn’t know where to turn when her grandson is being extorted by gang bangers. They tell him that money must be sent to these thugs behind bars, and she sends it!

-An inmate is fully aware of the fact that the Parole Board’s copy of his record has inaccuracies, but he doesn’t know how to get it corrected.

-A prisoner wants to obtain some legal records to help his appeal, but Michigan is the only state in the country that will not permit inmates to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

-Diabetics in one facility are simply asking that their meal times be coordinated to fit the times of insulin shots.

-An inmate with sleep apnea complains that the prison won’t provide distilled water for a CPAP breathing device.

Yesterday our staff and team of professional volunteers responded to 55 calls like these. EVERY prisoner, every representative of a prisoner, every prisoner’s family member gets immediate attention and response. We may not be able to solve the problem right away, but callers talk to real people who care.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS: an incredible agency. It’s growth over 18 years has been phenomenal! I see major excitement and development in its future!

…remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Hebrews 13:3

Monday, September 2, 2019

A soft answer vs a harsh word: Prov 15:1

Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.
 -Yehuda Berg

The church music staff was a bit short-handed Sunday morning…it was Labor Day weekend. I was the organist on duty. I love the “king of instruments” and do my best to use its capabilities to enhance the worship experience for those in attendance. But I wasn’t prepared for this compliment, warmly handed to me by a guest following the service: You filled the room with the grace of God!”

Nine little words, and they made my Sunday!

That simple act of kindness served to remind me of the role our HFP team members play every day. We’re interacting with prisoners at a record pace. And when we’re so rushed responding to email messages and phone calls, it’s easy to be curt with our answers and short with our responses. Yet, it’s important for us to remember that, for incarcerated men and women, kind and gentle words are foreign. Their world is filled with oral unpleasantries, coming from all directions---their bunkies, the general population, and yes, the staff. Their waking hours are filled with orders, threats, bitches and complaints.

This means that if we’re going to show an inmate that we care, we must keep the snarky comments to ourselves, we must resist the urge to correct, and we must remember that it’s not important for us to have the last word. Instead, we do our best to try to encourage inmates. It’s meaningful to thank them when they send kind words of gratitude to us. Even when they raise their voices in frustration, we try not to respond in kind.

How does this apply to your lives, those of you who are reading this and who are not communicating with prisoners? Well, I think this kindness is important not only in how we speak with prisoners, but also how we speak about them. It’s very easy to label them “the worst-of-the-worst, losers, animals, vicious criminals, predators, derelicts, etc.” Father Greg Boyle says: “It is certainly true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a book by its first chapter—even if that chapter is twenty years long.”

And so, we covet your prayers, as we do our best to extend compassion to those behind bars today, maybe with just a kind word. And we ask that you soften your thoughts and words about the incarcerated. As Fr. Boyle stresses: there’s no us and them, only us.

Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.
 -Mother Teresa

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


What a birthday! Staggering statistics! Promising progress! Amazing accomplishments!

It was August 29, 2001, when I placed my signature on the bylaws of a new organization called INNOCENT! My friend Maurice Carter, serving prison time for a crime he did not commit, had been leaning on me for months, insisting that we needed to start an organization that would help prisoners in situations similar to his. I rather reluctantly agreed. A one man show.

I manned the telephone and worked the cases on a part-time basis as I continued my occupation as a seller of church organs. By 2004, my enthusiasm was on a roll. That was the year that Maurice was freed, the year that Maurice died, and the year that I moved into our first office and began this work on a full-time basis.

Time and experience helped us fine-tune the organization, narrowing the scope to state prisons in Michigan alone and widening our services to assist more than the wrongly convicted. By 2008, it became apparent to our directors that a name change was necessary. Humanity for Prisoners much more accurately reflected our mission.

The word quickly spread among prisoners: Someone cares! Records broken, year after year: 100 calls a month, then 200, 400, early this year 700, and right now---August, 2019, our birthday month---nearly 900! Response now provided by a team of 5, several dedicated volunteers and a panel of professional advisers, with all action originating right here in our very own quarters!

On this, our 18th birthday, I can think of no higher tribute than the words and gifts of prisoners. We sent a thank you note this week to an inmate who donated $12.00. That’s probably half of his monthly salary. A check came from another guy last week: $15.00.

We’ve been trying for ages to get a Public Hearing for Joe, who has served nearly 40 years:

HFP has been a really big part of my life over the past 4 years and I am so very grateful for all that you've done for me. Now I have an opportunity to put this prison life behind me and begin to rebuild my life on the other side.

Bob has terminal cancer…we sent our compassionate physician to see him a few days ago:

I once again thank all of you at Humanity for Prisoners. You all have lifted my spirits at a time that they were really low.

Finally, a prisoner description of the HFP team:

In our world of loneliness and despair there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred.

Says the old hymn writer: Little is much when God is in it.

Amen and Amen!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Some thoughts on those who have no one to pray for them

The venue was First Congregational Church in Muskegon, Michigan.

The date was Sunday, August 25, 2019.

The occasion was the final public performance of HIS MEN, fine musical ensemble that I helped put together in 1972. After a run of 47 years, the sunset finally arrived.

I’ll never forget the date, nor the experience of actually directing the singers in their very last piece of music. Bittersweet, to say the least. It hurts.

But that’s not what’s sticking in my craw today. Instead, I’m reviewing and rethinking one little sentence recited in a prayer. Dave Wikman, well-known Muskegon musician, was offering the morning prayer. With all that was going on, I must confess that my thoughts were drifting. Then came this little petition: We pray for those who have no one to pray for them. Whoa!

The writer of the prayer couldn’t have known this, but that was the hidden message behind the entire mission of HIS MEN! For 47 years these guys went into jails and prisons, hospital rooms, nursing homes, orphanages, tiny venues and obscure mission stations, bringing sunlight into the darkened lives of the forgotten and disenfranchised.

And, the writer could not have known that the “crooked stick” who founded HIS MEN, was also the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. And that petition is also the hidden message behind our mission statement. As we daily seek to provide personal assistance to Michigan prisoners who don’t know where to turn, in actuality we are remembering those who have no one to pray for them.

I’m feeling sad today. There’s a part of me that says the echoes of the music I heard yesterday should never die away. But, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to learn that one should never try to convert a period at the end of a sentence into a comma. On the positive side, no one will ever know the impact of that ministry of music.

Perhaps HFP won’t last any longer than 47 years, either. This frail human being couldn’t control the destiny of HIS MEN, and the same holds true for our prison work.

But I can tell you this: With the exciting combination of determined directors, dedicated volunteers and committed staff members, today we are going to remember and serve those who have no one to pray for them.

There can be no higher calling.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The melody lingers on

Just a bunch of guys who loved to sing. That’s the way we described HIS MEN, tiny male chorus of 13 singers that formed in 1972.

No major goals. No lofty dreams. Out to impress no one on how well we could read notes or sing difficult anthems. Instead, we wanted to deliver a simple message, using simple and melodic songs of faith…songs people loved and wanted to hear. No expensive sound equipment and a traveling bus. From day one the group never charged a fee. If groups wanted us for fund-raising, they got all the money. We were not looking for glory in the major concert halls, but instead made a concerted effort to get into small churches and tiny venues, where good music could or would seldom be heard.

Singing for church services took second place, so that, instead, we could bring our songs to the downtrodden and disenfranchised, the elderly, the sick and injured. We went into hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, jails, prisons. Where others chose not to go, we opted to share Christ in music as HIS MEN!

We proudly embraced that name. We were singing HIS praises, doing HIS work.

Remember in the Bible when God said he’d give Solomon whatever he wanted? Solomon asked for wisdom, and God was so touched by that that he gave him riches, as well. I think in our case, God honored our lofty goals by blessing us with good sound as an added bonus. The sound of HIS MEN, from day one in the autumn of 1972, has been outstanding.

Now those sounds are coming to an end. After hundreds of performances, thousands of miles traveled, millions of dollars raised for charity, the ministry of HIS MEN is going silent. The exit will quietly take place Sunday morning, August 25, at John Mattson’s church, First Congregational in Muskegon. And I’ll admit, I’m feeling a bit emotional about this. I was the director for the first 21 years. Mattson, well-known church musician in the Greater Muskegon area, took the baton from that day on. Just two directors, both unpaid, in 47 years!

I’ve never done this on the blog site, and I hope it works. I’d like to proudly share my last performance with HIS MEN in 1993. (They sound even better today!)

Only God knows how many lives have been touched by the musical ministry of HIS MEN, especially prisoners. But not just the lives of those who heard them. That also includes the lives of the 46 men who, over the years, sang in the group. And six accompanists.

And especially two directors.

The melody lingers on.


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Michigan's juvenile lifers: Getting the short end of the stick?

Offending teenagers ain’t gonna get off easy in Michigan! No siree!

Over the past 15 years or so, progressive-minded people in our nation’s judicial system have been taking a second look at severe sentencing practices involving kids. Getting tough on crime meant getting tough on youthful offenders back in the 80s and 90s, but finally that concept is getting some reassessment. Even so, as the Detroit Free Press points out, it’s slow going in Pure Michigan.

Already in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that we can’t execute kids anymore, but that didn’t affect Michigan because we don’t have the death penalty.

Then, in 2012, the high court ruled that life without parole for juveniles amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. It was no longer allowed. Michigan, which has the second highest number of juvenile lifers in the country, pushed back, saying this ruling should not be retroactive. The court disagreed, and in 2016 made it official.

BUT, they left the decisions on how to get the job done up to each state. And predictably, Michigan is dragging its feet. Says the Freep: Three and a half years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile lifers should have the opportunity to be re-sentenced and come home, more than half in Michigan are still waiting to go before a judge to learn their fate.
That means nearly 200 inmates are still waiting for a judicial review! 

Since I started working on judicial issues back in the mid-90s, I have some personal feelings about almost all persons I have met who are prosecutors, or were prosecutors, or who want to be a prosecutor. They seem to possess something I call the “prosecutor mindset.” I can’t quite put it into words, but be assured that it sides heavily with victims of crime, leans heavily on punishment, and gives little consideration to such matters as development differences in the teenage brain and rehabilitation.

That’s why I have little hope for immediate improvement in the juvenile lifers situation in Michigan.

Michigan prosecutors are quoted as defending this slow pace, saying they are “thoughtfully weighing each case.” Riiiiiight.

Says Eli Savit, an Ann Arbor-based lawyer: "I think we’re on the far end of the spectrum in terms of not being very forgiving."

Oh, really?

According to Savit, who hopes to be a prosecutor someday, the job of prosecutor is first about keeping the community safe — but in that equation comes the responsibility to assess what is best for the community. 

Let’s hope that a new crop of prosecutors and judges taking office in years to come will take a fresh look at this important topic. It’s dragging on far too long.

Let’s support those agencies clamoring for a speed-up.

Let’s seek out future candidates for office who don’t seem to identify with the “prosecutor mindset” of the old guard.

Our juvenile lifers deserve better.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

More can be done to stop prisoner deaths

I’m not going to let it go. The story is still on the TV news tonight. My latest rant is here tonight. I’m not ready to abandon this whole topic of deaths behind bars. Maybe the Jeff Epstein story will finally heighten awareness of this problem, one that our team faces on a regular basis.

Let’s be honest. Most of us have little interest in the deaths of prisoners. We read about it in the newspaper, we see it on the TV news: another suicide in a county jail, another murder in a state prison, or a mysterious death in a federal facility, like the one making headlines these days. Yawn.

Major newspapers are carrying a quote that I want to underscore. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s prison project: “Tragically, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about what happened to Mr. Epstein... . This is just the…baseline dysfunction of prisons and jails and how suicide prevention in most prisons and jails is a joke.”

The New York Times reported that the two overworked staffers assigned to Epstein’s unit ― one of whom wasn’t working as a corrections officer but was forced to take on that role due to staffing shortages ― fell asleep and falsified records saying they had performed checks as required. From what we are able to determine, fake cell checks are extremely common at all levels, federal, state and county.

We are outraged when people are gunned down in the national plague of mass shootings. We are brokenhearted when traffic accidents claim the lives of friends and loved ones. Citizens mourn when US military personnel die serving their nation. But prisoners? That’s another story.

It comes down to this simple statement by Father Greg Boyle, as he discusses our disinterest in the senseless killing of gang members: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.” 

The work in our office focuses on the occupants of state prisons in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Corrections records more than 100 deaths per year among our population of more than 38,000 prisoners. Because of our state’s shameful record of keeping people in prison far too long, many of these are deaths due to natural causes among the aging population.

But the others are not, and I think it’s safe to say that many of these are preventable.

It’s time for Michigan’s new administration to insist on more corrections officers, better-trained officers (especially in the field of mental illness), and improved procedures.

It's true: Even prisoners are created in the image of God.

Their lives matter, too.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Will the Epstein death raise awareness of a big problem?

Amazing how a high-profile death behind bars suddenly raises interest.

A lot of people in an uproar these days over the alleged jail cell suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. Sadly, that kind of stuff goes on all the time. For most of us, however, it’s out of sight, which means out of mind. This is NOT a new problem.

Recently, closer to home, television reporters helped narrow the focus on a Muskegon County jail situation. The coroner ruled it a natural death when a guy died in his cell. That is, until Channel 8 found that the jail had deprived the inmate of a critical medication prescribed by his doctor. The inmate suffered 15 seizures over more than three hours, all allegedly unnoticed by guards, while in a close-observation cell. Then he died. Just another prisoner. No big deal…until an investigative reporter started sniffing.

Death in prison is something we deal with on a regular basis, and you wouldn’t like what we hear and what we know.

The other day a very good friend, recovering from surgery in the infirmary of Michigan’s prison for women said, in a personal letter to me: “We lost a gal here 3 days ago. She took her oxygen off during the night, and left us by morning. There was no hope left in her.”  Routine. Family notified. Another bed available. Was anybody paying attention?

My hope is that the Epstein case helps focus on the bigger picture. Many prison deaths are unnecessary and preventable! Let me tell you something, and this comes from an office that handles 600-700 calls a month from prisoners, that responds to 100 complaints a month about inadequate medical care, and that has a difficult time meeting budget because caring for and about prisoners doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as rescuing puppies or kittens or whales. Unless we are working with a family who has someone critically ill behind bars, or who has had a serious accident while in prison, or who has someone struggling with unacceptable prison medical care, we cannot attract interest. Period.

I’m so tired of people who like to expound on the contention that we are a Christian nation, and then, in another breath, are totally OK with the concept that prisoners can be treated like animals. After all, “if they hadn’t committed the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time.”

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Genesis 1:27