All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, July 29, 2019

He's not a person, he's a prisoner!

Pastor Nate was making the point that all humans are created in the image of God. That’s when he made reference to the shameful period in US history when we had the Three-Fifths Compromise. The Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise reached among state delegates during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention…a plan to count three out of every five slaves as people for this purpose. In other words, the votes of 5 blacks totaled 3.

Today, I’m accusing the State of Michigan of reducing the status of prisoners to the “non-person” level.

Blacks were not three-fifths of a person back in 1787, just as prisoners are not “non-persons” today in Michigan.

Our state refuses to allow prisoners the right to file requests under the state’s FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT, and that’s a step in the wrong direction. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)---signed into law in 1976---provides for public access to most records of public bodies. Here’s how it was originally worded:

It is the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees… .

This was a huge help for prisoners, many of whom cannot afford lawyers. With information gleaned from visits to prison law libraries, and documents obtained through FOIA requests, inmates were able to prepare much of their own legal work. But then came the complaints. Some prisoners were abusing the system, and all of this was costing the state money.

I’m making a very long story very short here, but in 1994 the state legislature’s knee-jerk reaction to those complaints was an amendment to the bill, so that it would read:

  It is the public policy of this state that all persons, except those persons incarcerated in state or local correctional facilities, are entitled to full and complete information, etc., etc.

Among those strongly disagreeing with the state’s position was Dan Manville, Clinical Professor of Law & Director, Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University’s School of Law.

“There’s always some people who will abuse anything that exists,” said Manville. “We have legislators that have affairs, and then they force their staff members to lie, but we never see the legislature imposing restrictions so that married people cannot get elected to the legislature. What we’re asking for is the use of common sense.”  

In researching the subject, our staff discovered this: Michigan appears to be the only state refusing to allow prisoners the right to file FOIA requests!

It’s past time to remedy this situation. As Professor Manville puts it, it’s time for some “common sense.” Time to prove that, here in Pure Michigan, prisoners are persons.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

July 24: Matt & Maurice, and how those two lives intersected

July 24 is special, no doubt about it! It’s the birthday of Matt Tjapkes, and it’s the day that Maurice stepped out of prison as a free man…the first time in 29 years!

On July 24, 2019, I reflect, in awe, on how this indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, and his touching account of a wrongful conviction, changed the career paths of two professional broadcasters.

True, I started working to help free Maurice Carter in the late 1990s while selling church organs. But I was intent on returning to the field of radio broadcasting, a career I loved that began in 1954. It never happened. Instead, in 2001 at the urging of my brother Maurice Carter, I founded a non-profit organization called INNOCENT, later to be known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. And never looked back.

But our story today is about Matthew, another professional broadcaster, whose specialty is sports coverage.

Matt, our youngest son, was still in school when I embarked on the quest to free Maurice, thus the story was very familiar to him. He still boasts of an A that he received in a college speech class for a Maurice Carter presentation.

On this date in 2004, his birthday, Matt was in Jackson to cover the story of Maurice walking out of prison, as a cub-reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. His photograph of a jubilant Maurice, holding high his freedom papers, appears on the cover of my book SWEET FREEDOM!

Maurice died three months later, but his story lives on.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS grew to amazing proportions in its 18-year history. Matt joined the HFP team in 2012 to help with the work load, but radio sports lingered in his mind. He was moonlighting on a regular basis, covering a lot of high school sporting events, and his intent was to go higher. That, too, never materialized.

In April, 2019, the Board of Directors of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS appointed Matt to the position of President and CEO, to succeed his father.

I lovingly continue to blame it all on Maurice, but of course it was part of a much bigger, broader plan, divine in nature.

I doubt that Matthew has ever seen this quote from my favorite theologian, Frederick Buechner, but I think it applies: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

Buechner concludes: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. 

Yep, that’s where we are!

Happy Birthday, Matthew! RIP, Maurice!

Two names still making a difference.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Points our new Michigan AG should consider

We’ve complained a lot, over the years, about the performance and the role of Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel in Michigan Parole Board Public Hearings. We were rather surprised that Rothermel, who served under former State AG William Schuette, continued on under newly-elected Democrat Dana Nessel. We believe that if AG Nessel, whose philosophy and that of former AG Schuette are miles apart, chooses to keep Rothermel on the job, she could and should steer him in a different direction.

I bring up these issues after reviewing two independent surveys which grade Michigan’s parole system at C-minus.

Prison Policy Initiative says, for example, that Prosecutors should not be permitted to weigh in on the parole process. Their 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.

In a very recent Public Hearing, Rothermel twice mentioned that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office strongly opposed parole for that inmate, based on the nature of the crime (which occurred in 1994!).

PPI also contends Survivors of violent crimes should not be allowed to be a part of the parole-decision process. 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.

The second agency to grade parole systems was Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE).  CURE clearly states what we’ve been saying for years: The “nature of the crime” or “seriousness of the offense” should NOT be the reason for parole denial.

At the conclusion of every Michigan Public Hearing, AAG Rothermel explains that he does not have a vote, but that he simply represents “the people of the State of Michigan.” He then goes on to recommend no parole for EVERY prisoner convicted of an assaultive crime.

History has shown that the Parole Board pays little attention to such recommendations, because many of those same inmates are granted a second chance. But, with new emphases, our new AG could make the participation and the contributions of her AAG far more effective and meaningful.

We applaud the dramatic changes we have seen in the office of Michigan Attorney General. It’s time for that kind of change in the Parole Board Public Hearing process as well.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Where is Edith when we need her?

Marcia and I are watching ALL IN THE FAMILY reruns, and we’re laughing, once again, at Archie “Bunkerisms.”

Norman Lear’s attack on our problems, especially racism, was daring back in the 70s. But as we watch, we’re starting to wonder just how much, or little progress, has really been made in the U.S.

Take the time that Sammy Davis, Jr., made a guest appearance on the show.

Archie Bunker: “Now, no prejudice intended, but I always check with the Bible on these here things. I think that, I mean if God had meant for us to be together he'd a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the white countries.
Sammy Davis Jr.: Well, he must've told 'em where we were because somebody came and got us.”

A position some of our nation’s leaders might take today!

Little did I know, back in the 70s, that racism would become so close to my heart. 20 years later, I began a 9-year trek on the road to freedom for a black man who was wrongly convicted. Maurice Carter would later be considered my brother, and it’s no secret that racism played a role in keeping that man behind bars for half of his life.

That Maurice Carter experience then led me into a third career as a prisoner advocate.

Check out this statement from Michelle Alexander’s book THE NEW JIM CROW:

“Almost two million people are currently locked up in the immense network of U.S. prisons and jails. More than 70 percent of the imprisoned population are people of color. It is rarely acknowledged that the fastest growing group of prisoners are black women…”

In case you’ve forgotten, the bright, shining light in that TV sitcom was Edith Bunker, who took her black next door neighbor, Louise Jefferson, as her best friend, who readily made room for Lionel Jefferson to sleep on her couch during a feud with his father, and who constantly debunked Archie’s white nationalist comments.

The New York Times obituary for Jean Stapleton (Edith) said, she “found vast wells of compassion and kindness…and a sense of fairness and justice that irritated her husband to no end and also put him to shame. She was an enormously appealing character, a favorite of audiences, who no doubt saw in…her noble spirit a kind of inspiration.”

At a time in our nation’s history when racism is once again rearing its ugly head, I contend that we need more Edith Bunkers!

Gloria: How come you married Daddy instead of Freddie Witthauser?
Edith: Well, I liked being called a “Goddess of Beauty”, but somehow it seemed more permanent when your father called me a dingbat.

No, Edith, you really weren’t a dingbat. Not then. Not now.

The word is “hero.”

Thursday, July 11, 2019

What kind of gospel is that?

I’m going to start this piece with a confession.

I don’t believe there has ever been a bigger hypocrite to darken the door of a church than this writer. I stand guilty before you and before God.

Having said that, I’m going to grumble a bit.

I think the church should take stronger stands on certain social issues. I was appointed to a committee some years ago to make recommendations to the synod of my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, regarding capital punishment. We urged the denomination to take a stand against the death penalty, for a number of reasons, but our recommendation was denied. Sadly, as of today, there’s still no firm opposition to the practice.

There are numerous and even more controversial matters that deserve thoughtful discussion in the church. Granted, different and varied interpretations of scripture will result in lengthy deliberations on some topics and final positions won’t come quickly. And they shouldn’t. But how hard is it to oppose blatant evil activity such as racism, injustice and wrongful convictions?

And getting to the issues that are important to me, and my team…rather than just praying for suffering inmates in our state prisons, I wish we’d raise hell about the heat in the cells, the terrible food, inadequate medical care, and the shameful manner in which we treat women and the mentally ill.

Saint Óscar Romero y Galdámez was a prelate of the Catholic Church in the early 1900s. He was outspoken on topics such as poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. I love and support this quote:

I think the Jesus who overturned money tables in the temple is just as angry over these matters.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love the church. I love my church!

But, if our church leaders are reluctant to speak out, how can we expect their parishioners to do so?

I join with St. Romaro.

What kind of gospel is that?

Monday, July 8, 2019

Black and white issues give me a red face!

It came back to me in a heartbeat.

Bryan Stevenson was relating the experiences of a wrongly-convicted black guy to a popular TV network journalist the other day.

“I didn’t do it,” swore the suspect. “Listen,” said the cop, “You’re going to jail. Take a look. White prosecutor. White judge. All-white jury!” No reference was made to the court-appointed defense attorney, but you can darn betcha that he was white, also. The police officer’s words were accurate, and it took years before an Innocence Project corrected this injustice.

If the name Bryan Stevenson doesn’t ring a bell, I must confess that he’s a hero in my mind. I’ve met him, and I’ve chatted with him. Bryan A. Stevenson is an African-American lawyer, social justice activist, founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative.

His story over the weekend brought the Maurice Carter battle right to the forefront of my mind again. My brother Maurice, of Gary, Indiana, was arrested in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for a crime he did not commit. The warrant was issued by a white prosecutor. The trial was presided over by a white judge. He was defended, if you can call it that, by a white court-appointed attorney who had a reputation for dozing in the courtroom. And, the decision was rendered by an all-white jury. A black man had shot a white cop, and somebody was going to pay! Maurice served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

I’ve gotta tell you that many of the people with whom I associated didn’t give a Tinker’s damn back then, and when it comes to this subject today, many still don’t. Maddening!

More than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today. More than four-in-ten say the country hasn’t made enough progress toward racial equality, and there is some skepticism, particularly among blacks, that black people will ever have equal rights with whites, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

According to Pew: Majorities of black and white adults say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with police and by the criminal justice system.

True, I’m white. But, in case you haven’t noticed, this makes me angry.

Said Dr. M.L. King: “300 years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.” 

It’s why I keep shouting.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Give us this day our daily bread

How was your holiday picnic?

Sounds like Americans really enjoyed their picnics on the 4thCheck out these advance numbers from the National Retail Federation:

Eighty-six percent of Americans plan to celebrate Independence Day this year, spending a total $6.7 billion on food items, according to NRF’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics.


Planned per person spending on food items for Independence Day: $73.33.

While we were enjoying our hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs and pork barbecues, there wasn’t any change in the menus behind bars.

After hearing those holiday statistics, I contacted the Michigan Department of Corrections Office in Lansing for an up-to-date figure on the food budget. You’ll be pleased to know that, here in Pure Michigan, "$2.85 per prisoner per day to cover all three meals is the goal for the normal menu."


I was raised in the upstairs apartment of a neighborhood grocery store, back in the 30s and 40s, and I still remember the food prices of those days. Many years later, at age 82, I do the grocery shopping for Marcia and me, and I watch for bargains. Our appetites aren’t very large anymore, but we enjoy good food. We could not make breakfast, lunch and dinner for $2.85 per person per day.

Granted, we cannot buy food in large quantities, either.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we routinely hear complaints from prisoners about food quality and taste, lack of nutritional value, and small portions.

The Marshall Project recently carried a story about prison food.

Nutritional standards at state and local facilities are governed by a patchwork of state laws, local policies, and court decisions. A Texas law requiring inmates be fed three times in 24 hours, for example, only applies to county jail inmates, not state prisoners. Some jails and prisons require low-fat or low-sodium diets, while others mandate inmates receive a certain number of calories. All detention facilities must have a licensed dietician review their menus in order to be accredited by the American Correctional Association. The association recommends — but does not mandate — that prisons offer inmates three meals a day.

For those prisoners who have adequate funds, food can be purchased for snacks, and we continually hear of creative recipes developed by inmates, often using a microwave oven. But for the poor, indigent cuss who has no money to spend, it’s meager fare, indeed.

Maybe it’s not worth talking about.

They’re just prisoners.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A contemplative 4th?

When I heard the cost of a military display for our nation’s Independence Day observance, my first reaction was to write a blistering piece of disagreement. But I’ve changed my mind on that, and on all the other concerns that I have about our nation’s direction. Instead, for this Fourth of July, I’m going to simply suggest discussion topics.

Those who know me completely understand how difficult it is for me not to put in my two cents’ worth.

So, here’s the format. I’m going to give you a famous quote. Then I’ll supply a couple of headlines to serve as holiday discussion starters. The rest is up to you.

Here goes.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Statue of Liberty

Squalid Conditions at Border Detention Centers, Government Report Finds
New York Times
Migrant father and daughter who drowned at US-Mexico border were desperate for a better life

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
Declaration of Independence

Trump’s transgender military ban now in effect
Washington Blade
The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women
The measure of a country is how it treats its prisoners. The U.S. is failing.
Washington Post

"A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
"The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything." -- Albert Einstein

In Alaska, climate change is showing increasing signs of disrupting everyday life
Washington Post
Warming seas may increase frequency of extreme storms
US withdrawal from Paris agreement may affect climate change

As promised, no comments from me. Just a final observation from Nelson Mandela:

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Happy Birthday, America. May God shed his grace on thee.