All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, March 29, 2019

Maurice wouldn't fit in today!

It’s March 29, Maurice Carter’s birthday, and I’m reading about the President’s political rally last night here in our part of the state.

For those who may not know the story, Maurice served 29 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was granted a compassionate release in 2004, and then lived in freedom for just 3 months. It was his dream and his passion that led to the founding of this organization.

Here’s something you gotta know about Maurice.

On a beautiful, sunny day in July, I personally walked him out of prison and placed him in the front seat of Jerry Horne’s luxurious motor home. From that perfect location, he would enjoy the scenic panorama all around him in his short trip from Jackson to Spring Lake, where a welcoming party awaited. A friend presented Maurice with a cell phone…something he had never seen before. During the ride, he placed calls to his friends all over the country. Jerry, who was doing the driving, was able to overhear one side of all those conversations.

The point that amazed Jerry:  Maurice never bad-mouthed anyone! Not anyone in the system, not anyone among his accusers, not anyone who shamefully battled to keep him behind bars for half of his lifetime!

And that just wouldn’t fit today.

It wouldn’t fit in a society where polarization is so rife that one is hard-pressed to find civil conversations about crucial national and international issues anywhere anymore. Our national leaders take delight in mocking, deriding and condemning all opponents or even those with differing views.

Maurice was a believer, but that type of attitude wouldn’t fit in with some types of Christians, either. The evangelical church is getting a black eye because a vocal segment of its alleged adherents quote the Bible to blister those persons who have different or opposing views on such things as abortion, immigration, gay and transgender rights, black lives matter, and yes, even political party.

Don’t get me wrong. Maurice Carter was firm in his beliefs, and had definite opinions about unfairness and injustice. But he seemed to understand Solomon’s words in Proverbs 15:

 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

We could use Maurice Carter in a lot of ways…especially because of his attitude! It’s a rare commodity these days.

Happy 75th, my friend. RIP. There ain't much here!

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.