All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, June 28, 2019

A fruity reputation

Jesus was warning his followers about false prophets. That’s when Matthew quotes him as saying, “By their fruits you will know them.”

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has, in my humble opinion, a “fruity” reputation.

When we’re answering dozens of calls a day, it’s not easy to focus on a few cases, but let me give you some fresh examples.

-HFP participated in a Public Hearing before the Michigan Parole Board this week, speaking on behalf of a 71-year-old black man who has served nearly 25 years and deserves a parole. Other than his wife, we were the only person to show up.

-HFP responded to a call from panicky relatives after their niece, a prisoner in Huron Valley who is dealing with lung cancer, collapsed and fell, striking her head on the concrete floor. Fearing that she may have suffered a closed-head injury that wasn’t getting appropriate attention, they called our office. Within the hour she was receiving a medical evaluation.

-HFP received a telephone call from a paraplegic inmate. As one might expect, multiple issues, multiple problems.

-HFP received this message from a long-time friend, a 77-year-old dude who is so medically frail that he has been revived from death more than once behind bars: If possible, please give me some hope; some light at the end of the tunnel. Please give me something. I'm getting really tired. Keep in mind: I have NO LIVING RELATIVES who can in any way help me.

In my June, 2019, HFP newsletter column, I make reference to some religious radio stations. As a veteran broadcaster, I’ve had first-hand experience where the rough-shod treatment of employees and unethical behavior of executives were in stark contrast to the daily programs sent over the airwaves. That’s why I always contended that my radio station, while not considered a religious station, was very Christian.

The same is true for HFP.

We are not a religious agency. Yet, each day our team provides one-on-one assistance, without any qualms or questions, to prisoners who are Muslims, Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists---you name it. If they need help, we’re here for them.

That, we believe, is the Christian way.

And by those fruits, you’ll know us.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

On false confessions, will common sense prevail?

I have a problem with the President.

I’m not talking politics, here…that would take a separate book. I’m talking about an issue of extreme importance in the field of justice: the false confession.

U.S. News reported this week that “President Trump continued his refusal to apologize for his 1989 call to execute five teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in the notorious Central Park Five case.”

For the record, you should know that Trump took out full-page ads in New York City newspapers in 1989 calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York following the arrest of these five teens ― four of whom were black and one Hispanic ― in connection with the rape of a white jogger in Central Park.

Thank God, the kids weren’t executed, because there’s more to the story.

The low point of this story is that all five teens were convicted based on coerced confessions and little evidence. The high point is that they were exonerated in 2002 thanks to DNA evidence and were paid millions by the city to settle lawsuits.

Here’s the thing: False confessions are a major cause of wrongful convictions. And it doesn’t help when the New York Prosecutor says she doesn’t care what the DNA tests proved, she still thinks these guys are guilty…and when the President of the United States agrees.

According to the Innocence Project, 30 percent of all DNA exonerations involve false confessions. The National Registry of Exonerations estimates that 182 out of 1432 known exonerations (or 13 percent) involved a false confession as a contributing factor.

Why would someone confess to a crime that he or she did not commit? Good question, but stop to think about it.

-In Texas, for example, prosecutors get false confessions by telling a suspect that if he admits to the crime, they’ll make sure he will not get the death penalty.
-In Michigan, prosecutors persuade alleged sex offenders to plead to a lesser charge to avoid placing their name on our state’s terrible sex offender registry.
-Chicago has a horrendous record of cops beating and torturing suspects until they signed confessions.
We know of a Detroit case where a suspect with an IQ in the 60s signed a confession when he couldn’t read or write.

This is a serious problem, boys and girls, and it won’t get much better when our political and judicial leaders refuse to remove their blinders.

Monday, June 17, 2019

This old man's gotta change!

Holly and I were huddled together in a coffee shop, discussing speeches. Holly, Vice President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, is just beginning her speech-making activities for us. I’m nearly at the end of mine.

We reviewed shameful incarceration statistics in our country and in our state, the sad conditions and policies and methods of our Michigan prisons. Then we discussed the amazing progress made in services offered by HFP, our dedicated team, and the phenomenal growth of our activity rate.

As I explained to Holly, that’s what I use in speeches. BUT, I’ve come to the conclusion that change is needed. More must be said. After reflecting on powerful presentations by Father Greg Boyle and Sister Helen Prejean in recent years, I’m convinced that facts, figures and anecdotes are not enough.

It’s past time for all of us on the HFP team to answer two important questions: Why do we do this, and why you should care?

It’s no surprise to me that we’re now responding to some 700 messages a month from Michigan inmates and their families. HFP is doing something that no one else wants to do. Prisoners have discovered that somebody cares, and the word is spreading like wildfire.

This statement by Fr. Boyle perhaps best explains what prompts us to help the disadvantaged: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be some lives out there that matter less than other lives.”

He goes on:
“The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”

That’s what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And why should you care? My favorite theologian, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way: Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me.

That’s what this old man’s gotta start talking about. And that’s what Holly must emphasize in her speeches. And that’s what the HFP team must remember as we struggle to stay ahead of the daily pleas for assistance.

We’re not dealing with facts and figures. We’re dealing with people!

“Somebody has to stand when other people are sitting. Somebody has to speak when other people are quiet.”
Bryan Stevenson

Monday, June 10, 2019

One Doug is more than enough!

“Good for you, Doug. We need people like you!”

In the very first chapter of my new book I respond to people who, after hearing what I do, make such statements.

I was reminded of that while reading a recent edition of THE BANNER.

Rev. Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning said:

…when I worked as a reintegration chaplain with men leaving prison, I would often talk about my work in local churches and schools. I could count on a few people to come up afterward to say, “I’m so glad you’re doing that work. It’s so important for some of us to do.” Those comments always grated on me. I know people mean well. Most wanted to compliment me on what they see as valuable work. But three words always stuck out to me: SOME OF US. Implicit is the idea that some of us are called to the work of justice and solidarity, but the rest of us are not.

Here’s the deal. While it’s true that I have been called to prison ministry, the fact remains that all of us are called to do justice.

I’m sure that, in the minds of some folks, there’s a fear about this call to action, thinking they might be asked to go into prison, or take ex-convicts into their homes. God bless those people who actually do this, but we’re talking about something far simpler, far easier.

To “act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God," as the prophet Micah directs, here’s something all of us can do:

-Speak with our pen. There are wonderful pen-pal programs where you can communicate with a prisoner. Here in Michigan, statistics show that only 12% of state inmates receive a visit! Think what a letter a month could mean.
-Speak with your wallet. Every prison ministry struggles to make ends meet, due to the unpopularity of this work. What a meaningful adjustment this could be to your monthly tithe.
-Speak with your vote. Where do those men and women who represent you in public office stand on issues of prison reform and humanity for prisoners? Your vote is important, and can certainly reflect your values.

Back to my first statement again, no, we don’t need another Doug. We’re stuck with him. WE NEED YOU!

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
M.L. King

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A new sign in front of our building?

A friend of mine is highly offended by trite and whimsical church signs. It drives him crazy, for example, at Christmas time to see this sign in front of a house of worship: Jesus is the reason for the season!

At one time, during my second career as a church organ salesman, I started collecting sayings and slogans and quotations that appeared on these signs. I was going to publish a book of church signs by topic (turns out I was a day late and a dollar short, someone had already done it!).

Maybe it goes back to a cartoon that I remember as a kid. Two small-town churches across the street from each other, obviously competing for members, used street signs in their combat. Said one sign: Will there be any stars in my crown? The church across the street used the words of another hymn to respond on its sign: No, not one. No, not one!

The topic of church signs came up, interestingly, in a recent HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS committee meeting. Members of our board, working on a specific project, were discussing our unique philosophy and work ethic after sharing a photo of a church sign that someone had posted on Facebook. Said the sign:  JUST LOVE EVERYONE. I'LL SORT 'EM OUT LATER - GOD

That’s where we are!

Over our 18-year history we have had some folks claiming religious conviction who seemed to deplore the idea that HFP provides necessary assistance and shows compassion to all prisoners, regardless of the nature of the crime, regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof, regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of their sexual identity…you get the picture. With examples like the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, it’s been my contention from the very beginning that we’re doing exactly what Jesus would be doing.

That’s the way we operate, and we’re making sure it won’t change.

My dear old friend Mitch, who lives in northern Michigan and who wasn’t well enough to make the trip downstate to attend our open house event at the new HFP headquarters sent his regrets by email today. He said that he was here, indeed, in spirit. And then he added this statement: Jesus hovers above your door!


Now that’s a sign I’d be proud to see in front of our building!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Come see us!

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” So says popular American cartoonist Bill Keane.

I’m thinking about that today, as we prepare for a public Open House on Wednesday.

I was a church organ salesman in 2001 when Maurice Carter and I put our heads together to form an organization called INNOCENT, designed primarily to provide assistance to inmates claiming wrongful conviction. I worked with two telephones from my Grand Rapids office.

Three years later I quit the organ business, made prisoner advocacy my full-time work, and moved the office to Muskegon. God has a sense of humor: Our office was located in the old Muskegon County Jail building! But, the price was was donated.

We moved to Grand Haven in 2008 and changed our name to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS…a name that better reflected our mission. We then decided to focus all of our assistance on helping inmates in the Michigan prison system. Nothing out of state, no federal prisoners, no county jail inmates.

At first I worked alone, with the assistance of an occasional intern. By 2011 the work load became too heavy and our son Matt came aboard on a part-time basis. The two of us worked out of a little one-room office, filled to capacity with filing cabinets, desks, office supplies and two large men.

Today I checked back on my President’s Report for the first quarter of 2013. We made history. We responded to 100 or more calls each month for January, February and March…a total of 334!

Fast forward to today, and the reason why this board took a bold and progressive stance and decided we needed office space. Now. HFP currently has five staff members, two who are full-time. They are assisted by a few volunteers. We have a medical and a legal assistant who donate their time and expertise. Those experts are backed up by a panel of 20 doctors and lawyers in a variety of specialties who stand ready to help at a moment’s notice.

President and CEO Matt Tjapkes and his helper Susie Greenbauer this year are responding to an average of 700 calls a month! We assist in a wide variety of ways, helping these prisoners with everyday needs and problems. Assistance most frequently sought falls into categories of medical care, Freedom of Information Act requests, commutation application assistance and legal questions. We call it "Jesus work:" helping others, no questions asked, no requests denied.

I’d love to have you see the new facility that houses this well-oiled machine, now touching the lives of more than 3,000 prisoners! Come and meet the people who make it run so smoothly and efficiently, and on a shoe-string budget. Open House hours are this Wednesday, June 5, from 5-7 PM. Our address is 14998 Cleveland Street, Spring Lake, MI 49456.

I hope to see you there!