All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

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 Decisions based on someone’s transformation or current goals should not be contaminated by outdated information that was the basis for the underlying conviction or plea bargain.”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.