All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Riff raff in heaven?

I’d like to spend a few minutes today talking about “riff raff.” This is the perfect day for it. March 25, St. Dismas Day.

Never heard of it?

Our Roman Catholic friends tell us: St. Dismas is the man known as the "Good Thief" who was crucified with Christ alongside another criminal on Calvary. He is described in Luke's Gospel (29: 39-43) as repenting from his sins and asks Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replied to him, "I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Enemies of the state were often crucified by the ancient Romans. Another favorite target for this humiliating form of torture was “scum of the earth,” perhaps better known as “riff raff.” And that’s how these other two guys could best be described…the pair who flanked Jesus on the hill of Calvary.

“Riff raff” strikes a familiar chord with me, because from the very beginning, a common perception was that our agency was showing compassion to that same segment of society. Now, to be clear, those who know me and know about HFP, also realize that we don’t consider any human being to be “riff raff.” But, I know the question remains hidden in the minds of many: “Why spend time, money and resources helping that kind of person?”

Pastor Nate may have said it best, this morning, in his sermon about the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Those who worked for only one hour received the same pay as those who had labored all day, even though that was the agreed-upon salary. And it didn’t set well with the all-day workers.

Nate’s response: Compassion is greater than fairness!

On this St. Dismas Day, a legitimate question for the theologians might be why this low-life criminal, who didn’t study the scriptures and didn’t spend his life being nice to people, receives the same kind of eternal reward that we do? And a legitimate question for those of us in prisoner advocacy might be why those persons behind bars deserve the same kindness and compassion as needy people on the outside?

If our staff and volunteers are followers of that itinerant preacher on the cross who welcomed St. Dismas into Paradise, the answer is the same: Compassion is greater than fairness.

In conclusion, this message from a Roman Catholic publication:

On this St. Dismas Day – March 25 – special blessings to all inmates, families, staff, volunteers – everyone involved in prison life and ministry one way or the other. Read & reflect on Luke 23: 39-43, the story of our patron the good thief.

From now on, let's not ignore St. Dismas Day.

Or the beautiful message that it generates.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The heartbreak of helplessness

There’s nothing more frustrating, more heartbreaking, than knowing that someone is innocent and striking out with every attempt to do something about it. We do a lot of good things for prisoners in this office. But, our record with the wrongly convicted isn’t so great.

It’s on my mind again today as my friend Gary Weingarten takes another shot at freeing Ray Gray. Dear Ray has now served over 45 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He was one of our first clients. I started trying to help him back in the 90s. I’ve still done nothing that was effective. Frustrating.

It’s on my mind again today after chatting with my friend David, another old client, who served his full sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. He may have been released 8 years ago, but it would be a stretch to say that “he’s free.” He’s unemployed, he’s listed as a sex offender, he’s in terrible health, he’s indigent, and he lives in shameful conditions without even the luxury of running water. Is it any surprise that he’s so angry? I couldn’t help him then. I can’t help him now. Frustrating.

It’s on my mind again today as we put away the case file of another man named David. This David died of complications from pneumonia while in the hospital. But if the pneumonia hadn’t done the job, a broken heart might have. We were just about to inform him that we could find no more legal avenues to pursue in his quest for freedom. An innocent man who served 18 years, spending every day trying to find justice. He failed . I tried to help, and I failed. Frustrating.

It’s on my mind again today as I read the latest posting on Facebook from Jeff’s wife Lena. I believe in his innocence, but he’s already served 6 years for someone else’s crime. I stood by this couple in their prison wedding ceremony. I’ve tried to guide them in the right direction. Bottom line: I’ve not been able to help. Frustrating.

I’ve said it so many times: It is so easy to get in; so difficult to get out!

Prayers, today, for the wrongly convicted. It’s estimated that there are more than 1,000 of them right here in the Michigan prison system! Prayers that wrongful convictions will get more attention. Prayers for an improved justice system where the number of wrongful convictions can and will be reduced.

Imagine being charged with a crime for something you didn’t do.  Imagine being thrown into jail, alone and scared and seemingly defenseless. Imagine the injustice of being one of the wrongfully convicted.  This isn’t a movie plot based on a Kafka novel.  This is the fate of some people at the hands of some other people. 
Honey Novick, Poet

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Paul gets 7 years; Joe gets life! Fair?

Is there anyone besides me who fails to see fairness in our courts when it comes to treating the rich vs. the poor?

Is there anyone besides me feeling outrage at the light sentences handed to Paul Manafort?

Let’s put politics aside for the moment. It makes no difference whether Mr. Manafort managed a campaign for the President or not. His political affiliation means nothing right now. The man got arrested on charges of conspiring against the United States, and conspiring to obstruct justice. And it must not have been the result of a “witch hunt,” because he entered pleas of guilty. He admitted in court that he did these things.

In appearances before two federal judges, Mr. Manafort has now received two sentences. It appears that he’ll serve a total of about 7 ½ years in prison.

Does something not seem quite right about that?

Before we move on, let me point out that Mr. Manafort is white and rich.

OK, now let me give you a comparison right here in the State of Michigan. We could cite numerous examples, but I’m going to focus on just one. Some 38 years ago, when he was just a kid, Joe Johnson and a buddy decided to hold up the operator of an ice cream cart. Nothing violent was going on. In fact, they paused to let a little boy buy some ice cream and even made sure he got the correct change. But, they stole money…some 40-dollars if I remember correctly.

Just like Mr. Manafort, Joe pleaded guilty…he knew he had done wrong. He was sentenced to life in prison. As of today, he has spent more than 37 years behind bars!

Mr. Johnson may have needed some pocket change, but at least he didn’t try to sell out his country in order to get it!

Only now, after a member of the HFP team took a personal interest in this particular case, has the Parole Board even shown any consideration of a possible release.

The other factor here that deserves to be mentioned: Mr. Johnson is black and poor.

The prophet Isaiah said: Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.

Somehow, I think we missed that message.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Parole Board, you done stomped on my heart!

Let my heart be broken by the things that break God’s heart.
 Prayer by Bob Pierce, often quoted by HFP’s physician/consultant.

I’ve written time and again about changes in Michigan’s parole system that we feel would be beneficial. It has been our position for years that Parole Board reform is long overdue. But if we’re not careful, we wind up talking about practices, procedures and decisions, and we forget all about the human factor.

It’s like when we talk about mass incarceration. We toss around numbers and statistics, and forget that these are real people! There’s a face attached to every one of those numbers.

My friend Fred had a delicious sense of humor. He delighted in reviewing country and western songs, chuckling about the lyrics, and referring to unusual titles. The one that especially hit his funny bone was this one, as recorded by John Denver in 1977:  You Done Stomped on my Heart and You Mashed that Sucker Flat!

I often think of that title when we receive another message of disappointment from persons behind bars who’ve been rejected, not by a lover, but by the Michigan Parole Board. And then I don’t laugh any more.

Yes, our team has a lot of ideas for Parole Board reform, but even reform wouldn’t eliminate all of the heart-breaking decisions being handed down.

-At the time of his 5-year review, the PB coldly informs a lifer that it has “no interest”
-Compassionate release is denied to a terminally ill woman
-A wrongly convicted inmate is informed that without an admission of guilt, parole cannot and will not be considered
-Recommendation for commutation is denied to a battered woman who has spent years behind bars for taking things into her own hands when her husband tried to kill her
Late-in-life release is denied to a geriatric lifer who simply wants to die at home with family.

Perhaps Alexander Pope is right when he says: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” 

But I can tell you this: When these stories cross our desk, our heart is broken all over again. There’s never been a callous tough enough to shield or protect our hearts. We love these people, and we care. When they hurt, we hurt.

Thank God for this message from the Psalmist:

"He heals the broken-hearted, and bandages their wounds."

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

No bad guys? Really?

I have a bad habit. I tend to refer to some of my favorite people as “good guys.” When introducing my son Matt, for example, I love to point out that “he’s one of the good guys!” And he is.

My point, however, is that my statement gives the implication that the opposite also exists. If there are good guys, there must be bad guys. And that’s just not accurate.

Often when I speak at church or civic groups, someone will be quietly thinking that I’m one of those bleeding-heart liberals who want to free all criminals. So, they ask, “But don’t you agree that there are some really bad people?”

We constantly encounter negative terms for prisoners: animals, predators, savages, beasts, the “worst of the worst.”

Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang members, tackles negative descriptions like these head-on. He says we stand with those people until their behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.” 

Father Boyle was once asked by a Prosecutor to testify as a gang expert in a death penalty hearing. “What would you say, Father Boyle, about a man who …” At that point, the Prosecutor described an unspeakable act in gruesome detail. Well gosh, says Father Greg, imagine how bleak and dark one’s despair would have to be do such a thing.

Here at HFP, we’ve come to the realization that Fr. Boyle is correct:

There are no monsters, villains, or bad guys. There are only folks who carry unspeakable pain. There are among us the profoundly traumatized who deal in the currency of damage. And there are those whose minds are ill, whose sickness chases them every day. But there are no bad guys. Jesus seems to suggest that there are no exceptions to this.
From Barking to the Choir

At her sentencing for life without parole, a woman was heard to say: “I did what they say I did, but I’m not who they say I am.”

Father Boyle says about violent gang members, Every homie I know who has killed somebody…has carried a load one hundred times heavier than I have had to carry, weighed down by torture, violence, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or mental illness. Most of us have never borne that weight.

Desmond Tutu once stated: There are no evil people, just evil acts; no monsters, just monstrous acts.

And that’s where I am today with this posting. I love prisoners. Our team loves prisoners. We may not like all of them, and we certainly don’t like what they did. We may argue with some, and some of them may speak to us in loud voices. But, it’s important for them to know that our care and compassion comes to them in love. We don’t see them as “bad guys.”

Fr. Greg sums up this topic: We are free not to like that truth, but we are not free to deny it.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Should Prosecutors have a say in Public Hearings? PPI says NO!

Last November Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz drove to Ionia to testify in a Public Hearing staged by the Michigan Parole Board. Spring Lake industrialist Ronald Redick had been convicted of killing his business partner in 1991, and the Prosecutor let it be known that, in his opinion, parole was not a good idea.

Now comes an expert from Prison Policy Initiative who says Prosecutors shouldn’t even have a say in the parole process! PPI is a national organization, a think-tank that uses research, advocacy, and organizing which it claims show “how over-criminalization harms individuals, our communities, and the national well-being.”

Jorge Renaud is a Senior Policy Analyst at Prison Policy Initiative, and holds a Masters in Social Work. Prior to his schooling, he spent decades in prison. His report, released by PPI just days ago---Failure should not be an option: Grading the parole release systems of all 50 states.

Michigan received a grade of C-minus. Frankly, we think that’s generous!

Now back to this Prosecutor business, here’s what PPI contends: Prosecutors should not be permitted to weigh in on the parole process. Says their report: “Their (the Prosecutor’s) voices belong in the courtroom when the original offense is litigated. Decisions based on someone’s transformation or current goals should not be contaminated by outdated information that was the basis for the underlying conviction or plea bargain.”

And it doesn’t stop there. The report goes on to state that the victim(s) of the crime shouldn’t have a say in the decision, either! “The parole process should be about judging transformation, but survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed, having not seen them for years. A truly restorative collaboration would ask survivors of crime for their help in crafting transformative, in-prison programming for individuals convicted of violent crimes, but would not allow their testimony to influence parole decisions.”

We can already hear the cries of protest from Prosecutors and the State Attorney General!

Yet, this conclusion makes a lot of sense:

The decision to release someone should be based on a number of factors — participation in educational and vocational programs, in-prison disciplinary history, and other verifiable metrics that indicate personal transformation. All too often, denials for subjective reasons like the “gravity of the offense” or whether the release will “lessen the seriousness of the offense” serve only to diminish the motivation necessary for change.

I’ll be surprised if we ever get such dramatic change in Michigan, but it is our hope that the new administration will take a look at overhauling the entire parole process.

It’s time.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Holding Hands: Successful on the human level; unsuccessful in raising dollars!

It’s not easy raising money to underwrite the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. As a professional fund-raiser recently explained to the chairman of our Board of Directors, “Potential donors want success stories!”

While we do have an occasional success story---we helped a sleep apnea patient get his CPAP device, we paved the way for a grant of commutation by the Governor, we found housing in a lovely facility for a dying inmate---more often than not, we fail. It’s kinda like climbing Sleeping Bear Dune: one step forward, three steps backward.

Here at HFP, it’s not like at the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or Pacific Garden Mission. We can’t just spew out spell-binding success stories that touch heart strings and loosen purse strings. Daily we encounter almost insurmountable problems faced by struggling prisoners. Ergo, one of the most frequent methods of helping is, as I describe it, simply “holding hands.” Our Medical Director and I will discuss, for example, a situation where an inmate needs and deserves better medical care, but it just ain’t gonna happen. There’s no way the State of Michigan is going to grab that responsibility and pay the often-exorbitant cost. As a result, we wind up just “holding the prisoner’s hand,” assuring him/her that we care, that we’re trying, that we’re praying. That may be all we can do.

And yet, even when we met complete failure trying to help one of the women at Huron Valley, she sent me this short note: Thank you for continuing to advocate on our behalf. Without you, we would have no voice.

When I did my best to help a guy catch a parole, even speaking at his Public Hearing, but completely failed, he still said: Thank you for believing in me, where there are those that don't ... and want to see my corpse buried among the ashes of the many thousands that has been FORGOTTEN.

My HFP team and I see that as a success! To our professional fund-raiser, however, it falls short.

Father Greg Boyle encountered similar issues in his ministry of working with gangs: “Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I'm not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.”

He concluded by quoting Mother Teresa:

“We are not called to be successful, but faithful.”

That IS success, in my book! 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Without blacks, my life would have been colorless! Some Black History Month musings

I propose that those of us who are white make Black History Month a time for reflection, showing gratitude to God for placing people of color along our pathway. I can tell you this: African Americans helped shape the life, the personality and the mission of Doug Tjapkes.

My life was never the same

-after, at the age of 17 in my very first radio job, hearing Sister Mattie Davis of the Heavenly Echoes broadcast praying for the ‘policemens and firemens’ who were on duty through the night in racially insensitive Muskegon in the 50s

-after meeting and hearing the Spiritualaires, a black singing group that taught me just how little white people know about a cappella gospel music

-after granting the Rev. Cy Young a guest appearance on my radio show in Grand Haven in the 70s, as I listened spell-bound to his recitation of ‘I Have a Dream’

-after weeping and praying at the bedside of gospel singer Alma James Perry, whose glorious soprano voice was silenced far too early by cancer

-after adding Asonja James’ soprano descant to the anthem ‘Majesty,’ so majestically performed by this dear woman and HIS MEN in the Crystal Cathedral

-after spending 9 years trying to free a wrongly convicted black man named Maurice Carter, one of the most decent, kind and gentle individuals I’ve ever met

-after having one of my favorite people and favorite vocalists, Ben Reynolds, sing the old gospel song to me during a very difficult time: ‘I’ll be all right!’

-after my friend Pastor Rodney Gulley stood tall against blatant racism in so many forms, some of which took the lives of his son, father, grandfather and great-grandfather

-after kindling relationships with hundreds of black men and women behind bars in my pleasurable, gratifying and ordained role as an advocate for ‘the least of these!’

My life would have been colorless without the influx and influence of people of color. To those listed above, and many others, I owe a debt of gratitude. I feel pity for those who haven’t experienced this richness. I feel sadness for those who embrace ideas of white supremacy. “Hating skin color is contempt for God's divine creative imagination. Honoring it is appreciation for conscious, beautiful-love-inspired diversity.” 
― T.F. Hodge

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
—Desmond Tutu

Monday, February 11, 2019

Forget the damn roads! This needs fixing now!

I realize that our new Governor has pledged to get the roads fixed. And the Lord knows that Michigan’s infrastructure is long overdue for some serious attention.

But at the moment, I’m concerned about people like Nathaniel Hatchett.

The Detroit News reports today that Hatchett, age 39, of Detroit, is unable to collect $500,000 from the State of Michigan. He’s unemployed, broke, and he needs that money.

Hatchett, as it turns out, spent 10 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. He was arrested at age 17 in Sterling Heights, and spent 10 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2008 and he was released from the Michigan prison system.

As you may recall, many of us who advocate for prisoners were able to persuade state legislators to adopt the Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act which says that wrongly convicted people are to receive $50,000 for each year spent in prison.

That was easier said than done, however, as our former Attorney General did what he could to drag the state’s heels in order to keep these poor people from getting their money. Hatchett had to go to court for his dollars, and in December he won his petition. Michigan Court of Claims Judge Colleen O'Brien ordered the state to pay him the full $500,000 by Jan. 16. 

But he’s still not getting his money!

Michigan Department of Treasury spokesman Ron Leix is quoted in the Detroit News as saying that the exoneration fund contains about $1.6 million — or $400,000 less than the $2 million it owes just one wrongfully convicted murderer, Richard Phillips. Phillips spent 46 years in prison before his case was overturned.

So, Hatchett is still on hold.

It’s like a sign I saw in a little tavern where I stopped for a beer years ago. THOSE WHO CANNOT PAY FOR THEIR BEER ARE ASKED TO CONTACT OUR CREDIT MANAGER, HELEN WAITE.

Sounds to us like Hatchett has been told to go to the same person! 

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, when contacted by the News, said: "At this time, we are not commenting on specific items in the budget until the Governor releases her executive budget in March.” 

Sorry, not acceptable. State legislators, you made the law. Now live up to your agreement.

The roads can wait.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Needless spending/shameful treatment: that's Michigan!

Where are the voices of budget-minded Michigan legislators when it comes to corrections?

The State of Michigan Corrections budget has been $2.2 billion annually for years, even though the state boasts that the population keeps going down.

One of the simple reasons for the high cost is that we refuse to let go of parolable lifers. More than a thousand of these men and women deserve to be released, they no longer pose a threat to society, and the cost of keeping them is astronomical!

While the prison system says the cost of housing a prisoner for a year is around $36,000, that figure isn’t very realistic because many of these people have serious health issues.

I want to give our writer/reporter from behind bars, Ricardo Ferrell, credit for his assistance with this story. It’s one thing to talk about dollars, but it’s not fair to do so without talking about people. Ricardo has provided a few names, and I’m adding one of my own.  I stress that these are not the only people deserving of parole. We give their names strictly as examples.

Ricardo, himself, has served 37 years, and his medical needs are considerable. He’s 61.

Then there’s Charles Ross, age 75, who has served 44 years; Darnell Bolden, 66, who has served 44 years; Raymond Richardson, age 50, has served 35 years (he was 15 when he came to prison!); and finally, I want to mention my friend Herbert Collins, who is now 77, and has served 50 years and who struggles with serious health issues.

Ricardo and I estimate it has already cost the state well over 10-million dollars on these five guys! And there are a thousand more names!

Now here are a couple things that just annoy the dickens out of me. By the state’s own assessment mechanism, Ricardo, Charles, Darnell and Raymond are considered low risk! Then why the holdup? Why the delay?

The second issue is this: admission of guilt. I was at the side of Herb Collins when he met with a member of the Parole Board. I did so AT THE REQUEST OF THE WARDEN, WHO INSISTED THE MAN SHOULD BE RELEASED! But no soap. The problem? Herb cannot remember the details of the crime because he was in an alcoholic blackout when it was committed. He doesn’t contest the details, he even pled guilty…he just can’t remember. Because he refused to lie and say he remembered all the details of that crime, the Parole Board member wouldn’t let him continue. She was tired of it…wanted to hear no more. She sent him back where he came from.

That’s the stuff that’s gotta stop.

Holding prisoners who have been eligible for parole for decades, especially those who are elderly, makes absolutely no sense.

Michigan spends 20% of its general fund in corrections…1 in every 5 dollars. "If this sort of wasteful spending doesn't shock the conscience of ordinary people, then what will?" asks Ricardo.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Doug says "Thank You" to prisoners!

Now that I’m well on the road to recovery, it’s appropriate for me to send a special message of thanks to many Michigan prisoners.

Their response to my recent heart problems has me thinking about the words of Sister Helen Prejean when she was in town last fall. She could have been talking about my state of mind back when we formed HFP.

“I cannot walk away from this. I cannot put my head on the pillow at night as though this is not going on. And then by God's grace we move. We begin to take simple steps. We write letters, we do visits. I know how overwhelming it is. I know sometimes you must feel like you are the smallest little Rolaid in the biggest stomach in the world because there are so many needs. We go into prison, we turn to each other, and we keep going back. We make a commitment that we will not abandon them, that we will be with them and we will work for justice until the dawn comes, until justice comes in this one life…”

Nearly 20 years later, following my heart attack and subsequent triple-bypass operation, prisoners begin responding: get-well cards and letters, email messages, even phone calls. Not just a few. Loads of them! One card from the Handlon CF contained personal messages of 21 different guys! One woman from Huron Valley said, “We’re ALL praying for you!”

It’s two months after the surgery now, and I’m still opening another card. A little single-fold hand-made get-well treasure containing short notes from 17 inmates at Lakeland CF! Not just trite “get well soon” wishes…actual meaningful, personal messages.

These words from Sister Helen prompt my words of gratitude today:

“We meet people in prison, and once you cross that barrier and go and look in the eyes of this human being who others are saying is nothing but disposable human waste. And we go, ‘Oh my God, he's a human being!’ And then when we hear the stories and we put it against our own privileged, cushioned, protected life. We begin to develop a humility and gratitude. But we also develop a reciprocity of mutuality. After a while we begin to realize, ‘I’m not just going there for those prisoners. It's what they also give to me!’ The super people, the Super Christian people that go to those ‘poor prisoners’ and shower love and mercy on them…it's a one-way gift. NEVER! The best stuff is always going to be when it's mutual.”

Yes, I love what I’m doing. I love these prisoners. But I must confess: It’s what they also give to me!

My heartfelt thanks!

Monday, January 28, 2019

When will things change for the mentally ill?

I honestly don’t know how to write about this subject anymore.

A series of weekend articles in the M-Live newspapers has prompted me to write about mental illness one more time. Their focus is on the relationship between untreated mentally ill people and their deadly threat to our police officers.

Not meaning to minimize the threat to those in law enforcement, I want to concentrate on the actual people who are mentally challenged. I say we’re not giving them a fair shake. In fact, I contend that we’re dropping the ball.

I hear some Democrats say, “Fix the damn roads!” My response is, “What about people?”

Fact: 257,000 Michiganders suffer from severe mental illness.
Fact: Michigan has closed all but four state psychiatric hospitals.
Fact: These hospitals have a 200-bed waiting list.
Fact: Michigan ranks 47th in the nation when it comes to beds available.

I hear some Republicans say, “Protect the unborn!” My response is, “What about those already born?”

            Fact: Michigan’s population consists of more than 2-million kids under 18.
Fact: Suicide is one of the 5 leading causes of adolescent deaths (mental illness).
Fact: Michigan has one (1) state psychiatric hospital for kids.

Where am I going with all of this? Just bear with me for a sec, because I’m going to shift our focus to prisoners. History has shown that, when we don’t have enough psych wards, the mentally ill eventually go to prison. And here’s what I can say for certain: Locking up the mentally challenged is NOT the answer!

I realize that we’re beating the same old drum, here, but we have to keep doing this until someone hears it and does something about it. We have more than 38,000 people in our state prison system, and Department of Corrections reports that 25% have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. That’s over 9,000 prisoners! (Our staff estimates that the actual figure is closer to 50% who are struggling with mental issues.)

The prison system employs nearly 400 people to deal with this: mental health workers, psychiatrists, social workers and counselors…a drop in the bucket. The rest of the day-to-day challenges unfairly fall in the laps of the corrections officers, who have had little or no training in how to handle mentally ill patients.

Our office routinely handles complaints of abuse and mistreatment of mentally struggling Michigan inmates.

It’s another challenge for our new state administration and our current state legislators. Previous administrations and legislatures haven’t done such a hot job. Can we look for change, for improvement?

We’re not talking about numbers. These are real people, with names and family members and friends. They’re crying out to you and me for help.

How will we answer?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Too much itching! Is it time to scratch?

We’ve remained silent long enough on the skin rash issue at Michigan’s only prison for women.

For over a year, women at Huron Valley near Ypsilanti have been complaining about this problem. Already last February, prison doctors ruled out scabies. Now, nearly one year later, an outside doctor offered proof: Yep, it’s scabies!

Dermatologist Dr. Walter Barkey, whose name showed up a lot during the Flint water crisis as he checked out skin rashes, finally made his way into WHV with his microscope. It took some doing, but he has a friend with a relative in the prison. Using that wedge, he finally made it.

Now, following absolute proof of the cause, the entire prison is closed to visitors, and all prison residents---more than 2,000 women---are undergoing treatment for scabies.

We use this story to beg the question, once again, as to the effectiveness of Corizon, the private health services provider under contract with the Michigan Department of Corrections. Our Medical Director has had issues with Corizon for years.

Last week it was reported that Corizon, one of the largest corrections healthcare providers in the country, got fired by the State of Arizona. The Department of Corrections refused to renew their contract.

Just a couple years ago, Indiana did the same thing. Media in both of those states reported numerous horror stories of terrible medical care behind bars.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is quoted as saying that “thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Corizon.” We read recently that some 150 lawsuits had been filed by New Mexico prisoners against Corizon since 2007. 150!

Months and months and months of inaccurate diagnoses at WHV is just not an acceptable situation! And while news media kept printing stories, and medical people kept debating the cause of the problem, the women kept on scratching. The itch, as well as the lack of a solution, was driving them crazy! What’s it going to take to bring about change?

Our new state administration has renewed the contract with MDOC Director Heidi Washington. We think it’s time, now, for Director Washington to take a hard look at the contract with Corizon.

That itch has been going on long enough.

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.