All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Is Cindy right? I hope so!

Cindy Anderson may have a point.

Cindy, former board chair of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, still serves as a director. And when she heard the news that the Michigan legislature had passed a series of bills making elderly, frail prisoners eligible for parole, she insisted that we had something to do with it.

My immediate reaction was to refute that contention, because we really don’t get involved in lobbying and legislation. But Cindy was holding to her position. She pointed out that we’ve been seeking better and more compassionate care for the aged and ailing behind bars for 18 years. And when an agency doesn’t let up over that period of time, the message is bound to get out and the effort is likely to spread.

Well, she’s definitely right about our aims and goals.

After all, it was an elderly and sickly human being that helped form this organization. Maurice Carter had not only served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, but he was also dying of Hepatitis C because of poor diagnosis and care in prison. By the time we were able to get a compassionate release for Maurice it was too late for a liver transplant, and he lived in freedom for only three months.

Three years before he left this earth, however---at his suggestion---I founded what was then known as INNOCENT.

In our early days, thinking we would focus primarily on wrongful convictions, I was approached one day in the parking lot by a young, teen-aged black woman. “Are you Mr. Doug?” she asked. I have no idea how she knew me, found me, and knew what I did for a living…but she broke into sobs. Her imprisoned father had cancer and was dying. Could I get him out, to be with his family in his final days? This was all new to me. I tried, and I failed. Too little too late. I was the only white person attending her father’s funeral service.

Since that day we never let up, finally changing our name to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS to better reflect our mission.

And Cindy is absolutely correct. Since those early days, we have passionately struggled to get better care for the elderly and dying in prison, compassionate releases for the terminally ill, and improved visitation for families of the dying. It has been an uphill fight. Still is.

So, the signature by Governor Whitmer on those recent bills was most welcome!

We’ve already started submitting names of deserving clients. And, we’ll proudly accept Cindy Anderson’s belief that efforts by prisoner advocates on behalf of ailing old-timers contributed to the victory of this small step forward.

We must not stop now!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Memorial Day salute to the MDOC and its incarcerated veterans!

The Government calls them “justice-involved veterans.” They’re former service members now serving time under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

On this Memorial Day, I’d like to pay tribute not only to incarcerated veterans in the State of Michigan, but also to the Michigan Department of Corrections for its treatment and care of veterans.

How many are in prison, and what brought them there?

Well, there are more than 100,000 military veterans locked up  in prisons throughout the United States…2,300 of them right here in Michigan. More than 98% are men.

According to the VA, more than half of “justice-involved veterans” have either mental health problems or substance-abuse disorders, most notably alcohol or cocaine addiction. In addition, a large percentage are also homeless or at-risk for homelessness, and many others face such challenges as finding work and reintegrating into society. Sadly, these vets also may be at higher risk for suicide.

What can we do about it, and how is the State of Michigan handling it?

While there are veterans groups in several Michigan prisons, there’s an actual veterans unit at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland. It’s a good program, and we hope to see more.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency was recognized for its first-in-the-nation initiative that ensures incarcerated veterans receive the same measure of advocacy as other veterans. The program makes Michigan the only state in which a veteran can get connected to VA disability benefits while incarcerated.

Central to the program was the MDOC’s commitment to create that veterans unit at Saginaw CF. The department also transports incarcerated veterans to VA medical centers for  physical examinations at no cost. Previously, these people were unable to attend their exams and their applications for benefits were often terminated.

MDOC Director Heidi Washington says that starting the veterans unit was a priority and that she hopes to continue expanding services there.

On Memorial Day, 2019, deep appreciation to the MDOC for forward-thinking steps to improve the lot of our military veterans. And, deep thanks to these men and women for their service! You’re just not going to find a nicer group of people. HFP has always had a fine relationship with Michigan’s “justice-involved veterans,” and we’re committed to continuing our help and support.

"How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!" -- Maya Angelou

Yes, including those behind bars!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Some random thoughts on hypocrisy

Example one:

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, while signing that state’s Human Life Protection Act on April 15, 2019:

“…this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”

ONE DAY LATER, Equal Justice Initiative issued this statement in a news release:

Today, the State of Alabama executed Michael Brandon Samra, who was 19 at the time of the crime, despite evidence of an unfair trial and unreliable conviction and sentence.

Example two:

I have a very good friend who abandoned his church after the church leaders aggressively urged the pastor, as well as other “evangelical” churches in that community, to condemn homosexuality as sin.

The sign in front of the church proudly states: “Everyone Welcome!”

Example three:

One of the largest churches in our community boldly proclaims on its website:

We are a community that experiences the transcendent glory of God and is transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.

When HFP asked if we could meet with the church leadership to explain our prison ministry, based in the same town, a curt email message said:

“…this is not something we are willing to invest our time and resources in.”

Thanks to a wonderful supporter of our work, I was able to meet with, discuss prison ministry with, and pick the brain of former Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske this week. My quest is this: To persuade the Christian community that showing kindness and compassion to all prisoners---regardless of their crime, regardless of their belief, regardless of their color, regardless of their sexual orientation---that is the basic ministry that must come before all other ministries can be effective. Ministries such as Bible lessons and correspondence courses, Christian concerts and in-prison worship services. First, we must prove that we care!

We didn’t come to any conclusions in that discussion, but the conversation was rich.

Once again, I fall back on the healing words of one of my heroes, Fr. Greg Boyle. This is HFP:

You see the needy and downtrodden and lonely and abused and actually do something for them - and your goal is not to get them to your church, but to be the hands and heart of Christ.”

Friday, May 10, 2019

Happy Mother's Day?

Paula often dreamed of being a mom. Now, it can’t ever happen. One stupid mistake. That’s all it took. Now she’s spending the rest of her life in prison.

Someday she would settle down. Someday she would find the right partner and have a family. But for the moment, life in the fast lane was fun. Fun, that is, until a tragic day when the wrong crowd with whom she had chosen to associate got involved in some shady activity. And then something went horribly wrong.

“The jury finds the defendant guilty, Your Honor.” Life without parole.

Mother’s Day is a busy day at Women’s Huron Valley, Michigan’s only prison for women. Of the more than 2,000 women housed in the facility, many are mothers. And, many occupants have moms who are still alive. It’s a bittersweet time. The visits are usually pleasant, but then come the “goodbyes.” Inmates must return to their cells. Alone.

How Paula would love to chat with her mother one more time! Yes, her mom would be so pleased that she is finally using that beautiful voice to sing in the prison praise team for Sunday morning worship. And she’s even writing songs now! Who would have guessed it? She’s also furthering her education.

But Paula’s mother died, and that was another story. Paula was unable to attend the memorial service. Prisoners are sometimes permitted to attend the funerals of family members, but it’s complicated and costly. Permission isn’t quickly granted. And then, it all hinges on the hiring of off-duty corrections officers to accompany the inmate. That leads to two important requirements: a lot of money; and, availability of officers. Her family helped raise the necessary funds, but on the day of the service, alas, due to overtime issues, no corrections officers were free. Paula remained behind bars.

Yes, it took a while, but Paula’s life is getting straightened out, and she praises God for that.

But on this Mother’s Day, 2019, she’s alone.

No kids.

No mother.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Yep: Joe's mad at HFP!

Old Joe is pissed!

It says right in the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS brochure: No request for assistance is ignored or denied!

And Joe, who has been in prison since 1984, is flat broke. So, he asked HFP for money. And guess what? He got denied. Joe was so angry that he filed a complaint with the Michigan Attorney General. Now our team will have to take time off from helping other inmates to explain to Dana Nessel’s office that we really weren’t ignoring him, and that his request just didn’t fall into any categories otherwise outlined in that same brochure.

But be that as it may, the incident points out a couple of things.

First and foremost, prisoners do have money problems. There are times when I wish I could be a DeVos or a Van Andel, just so that I could help people like

 Joe, who needs money to pay for his deodorant, toothpaste, bath soap and other personal hygiene needs;
Karen, who desperately wanted money to pay the cost of prison guards so that she could attend her mother’s funeral service;
Daniel, who needed only $150 for tuition so that he could continue his community college classes behind bars.

But it’s true in all of life, isn’t it? People of means could do so much more to help the plight of the poor. If they wanted to.

And the second point is, even though old Joe is upset with us, and even though our team is bummed that they must put prisoner assistance aside in order to provide all the necessary information to the State AG’s office, we’ll still be here for him.

On that day when he has some problem getting appropriate medical care, needs some help in filing a FOIA request, wants some assistance in preparing to meet with the Parole Board, hopes to track down a missing loved one, or wants some guidance in preparing a commutation application, HFP stands ready to help. We go the extra mile to provide assistance…even to the ornery ones! Truth of the matter is, we love ‘em, we think they have worth, and even the meanest and the most unlikable still deserve humane treatment.

That now-famous itinerant preacher who is our leader once told his followers:

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

We’re pretty good at that.