All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

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.

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.