Showing posts from 2019

That prisoner ain't heavy, Mister. He's my brother!

I remember the first time I saw the drawing. It was in the 1940s. A political cartoon showed a boy carrying a younger boy on his back. The caption read: He ain’t heavy, Mister, he’s my brother. The cartoon first appeared in The Messenger, an early 20th-century political and literary magazine. Later, of course, it became the logo for Boys Town, and then in 1969, it became a popular ballad recorded by the likes of the Hollies and Neil Diamond. I’m thinking about that drawing today, on the last day of the year, the last day of the decade. Major newspapers and TV networks, in reviewing the past year and projecting news stories for the new year, are hitting on important topics like impeachment, politics, the economy, terrorism, climate change and foreign relations. To no one’s surprise, we are hearing nothing about prisoners. Not a popular topic. I submit to you in my old year/near year message, it IS important because these are your brothers and sisters! Listen to these

Sorry. What you're hearing on TV ain't right. Joy wins!

Two songs come to mind for me this Christmas season: one very old, one very new. I remember having to lead singing at a Christmas Carol Sing while still a teenager in high school. I ran across the little carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day , and didn’t much care for the music. The verses were so short, and there were so many of them. I concluded that it would not be a pleasant musical experience. But I loved the words! While a pianist played the melody, I recited the verses. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this poem as a result of a very personal Civil War experience in 1863. But the lyrics apply to the USA today with precision. The poem starts innocently enough: I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play,     And wild and sweet     The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men! However, as a result of his traumatic experience, the texts kept getting darker until, in exasperation, he wrote: And in despair I bowed my hea

My Christmas Eve gift to you

Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was covering, writing and airing news stories on radio, our stations had no network news. We relied on newswire services. One of my favorite writers was Louis Cassels, of UPI. Before he died in 1974, I had an opportunity to meet him and chat with him at a radio conference. As UPI’s Religion Editor he wrote one of my favorite commentaries. I still have a tattered teletype copy in my files. I read it to my listeners each Christmas season starting in 1959 until my voice was silenced on the airwaves in 1983. I no longer own a radio station, but I have this blog site, and I share this story with you today as my way of wishing richest holiday blessings to you and yours. Let’s enjoy Louis together. The Parable of the Birds By Louis Cassels Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believ

We may no longer remain silent!

There are times when I just shake my head. I’m reading a short news item about the Michigan Department of Corrections. Director Heidi Washington proudly reports that the prison population dropped again this year…it’s now down to its lowest level since the mid-90s. While we have been critical of the department and the Parole Board on many issues, we must give credit where credit is due. For five years now the number has been coming down. Michigan’s recidivism rate is much improved, and fewer people are returning to prison once they get out. Numbers like this don’t just happen. It takes a lot of work by a lot of people, and it requires a fresh attitude about human beings, their worth, and their ability to be rehabilitated. Back to shaking my head. That’s what happens when I read on-line comments about this story. Some people actually think the number reduction is a bad thing! -I would say it is the overall failure to properly sentence criminals. Too many crimes go unpun

What's in the brown paper bag?

I’d like to share a beautiful story...a story not written by me.   I feel certain that Luis Ramirez would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him.   He's dead. This message came to me from Death Row in Texas back when we were just getting started. It touched me then, just as it touches me now. This may change your thoughts about the types of prisoners due to be executed. I hope so. Anyway, here’s my holiday gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez: (In all caps, just the way he sent it) I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.   I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET.   I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST. THE FIRST PERSON I MET THERE WAS NAPOLEON BEASLEY.   BACK THEN, DEATH ROW PRISONERS STILL WORKED.   HIS JOB WAS TO CLEAN UP THE WING AND HELP SERVE DURING MEAL TI

Good for Oklahoma! Now it’s Michigan’s turn!

It's time to stop pardoning turkeys and start granting clemency to people   Sister Helen Prejean 462 Oklahomans walked out of prison the other day. It was the largest single-day commutation in United States history. It’s an interesting story…one of the bright shining lights in the darkness of mass incarceration. Back in 2016 Oklahomans voted to reclassify simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. Later, the state Legislature made that change retroactive . That left all kinds of people behind bars who didn’t belong there. Now, it’s Michigan’s turn. Our new Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has already taken steps to improve the lot of young offenders. Now it’s time to consider the old-timers. We have a ton of them who no longer belong in our Michigan prison system. I’ll give you four categories (there are more), and I’ll just grab four examples from our case files (there are many more!). 1.     Medically frail inmates (approx. 800 of them)


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 g

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

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 man

"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 visi

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

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