All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


What a birthday! Staggering statistics! Promising progress! Amazing accomplishments!

It was August 29, 2001, when I placed my signature on the bylaws of a new organization called INNOCENT! My friend Maurice Carter, serving prison time for a crime he did not commit, had been leaning on me for months, insisting that we needed to start an organization that would help prisoners in situations similar to his. I rather reluctantly agreed. A one man show.

I manned the telephone and worked the cases on a part-time basis as I continued my occupation as a seller of church organs. By 2004, my enthusiasm was on a roll. That was the year that Maurice was freed, the year that Maurice died, and the year that I moved into our first office and began this work on a full-time basis.

Time and experience helped us fine-tune the organization, narrowing the scope to state prisons in Michigan alone and widening our services to assist more than the wrongly convicted. By 2008, it became apparent to our directors that a name change was necessary. Humanity for Prisoners much more accurately reflected our mission.

The word quickly spread among prisoners: Someone cares! Records broken, year after year: 100 calls a month, then 200, 400, early this year 700, and right now---August, 2019, our birthday month---nearly 900! Response now provided by a team of 5, several dedicated volunteers and a panel of professional advisers, with all action originating right here in our very own quarters!

On this, our 18th birthday, I can think of no higher tribute than the words and gifts of prisoners. We sent a thank you note this week to an inmate who donated $12.00. That’s probably half of his monthly salary. A check came from another guy last week: $15.00.

We’ve been trying for ages to get a Public Hearing for Joe, who has served nearly 40 years:

HFP has been a really big part of my life over the past 4 years and I am so very grateful for all that you've done for me. Now I have an opportunity to put this prison life behind me and begin to rebuild my life on the other side.

Bob has terminal cancer…we sent our compassionate physician to see him a few days ago:

I once again thank all of you at Humanity for Prisoners. You all have lifted my spirits at a time that they were really low.

Finally, a prisoner description of the HFP team:

In our world of loneliness and despair there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred.

Says the old hymn writer: Little is much when God is in it.

Amen and Amen!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Some thoughts on those who have no one to pray for them

The venue was First Congregational Church in Muskegon, Michigan.

The date was Sunday, August 25, 2019.

The occasion was the final public performance of HIS MEN, fine musical ensemble that I helped put together in 1972. After a run of 47 years, the sunset finally arrived.

I’ll never forget the date, nor the experience of actually directing the singers in their very last piece of music. Bittersweet, to say the least. It hurts.

But that’s not what’s sticking in my craw today. Instead, I’m reviewing and rethinking one little sentence recited in a prayer. Dave Wikman, well-known Muskegon musician, was offering the morning prayer. With all that was going on, I must confess that my thoughts were drifting. Then came this little petition: We pray for those who have no one to pray for them. Whoa!

The writer of the prayer couldn’t have known this, but that was the hidden message behind the entire mission of HIS MEN! For 47 years these guys went into jails and prisons, hospital rooms, nursing homes, orphanages, tiny venues and obscure mission stations, bringing sunlight into the darkened lives of the forgotten and disenfranchised.

And, the writer could not have known that the “crooked stick” who founded HIS MEN, was also the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. And that petition is also the hidden message behind our mission statement. As we daily seek to provide personal assistance to Michigan prisoners who don’t know where to turn, in actuality we are remembering those who have no one to pray for them.

I’m feeling sad today. There’s a part of me that says the echoes of the music I heard yesterday should never die away. But, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to learn that one should never try to convert a period at the end of a sentence into a comma. On the positive side, no one will ever know the impact of that ministry of music.

Perhaps HFP won’t last any longer than 47 years, either. This frail human being couldn’t control the destiny of HIS MEN, and the same holds true for our prison work.

But I can tell you this: With the exciting combination of determined directors, dedicated volunteers and committed staff members, today we are going to remember and serve those who have no one to pray for them.

There can be no higher calling.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The melody lingers on

Just a bunch of guys who loved to sing. That’s the way we described HIS MEN, tiny male chorus of 13 singers that formed in 1972.

No major goals. No lofty dreams. Out to impress no one on how well we could read notes or sing difficult anthems. Instead, we wanted to deliver a simple message, using simple and melodic songs of faith…songs people loved and wanted to hear. No expensive sound equipment and a traveling bus. From day one the group never charged a fee. If groups wanted us for fund-raising, they got all the money. We were not looking for glory in the major concert halls, but instead made a concerted effort to get into small churches and tiny venues, where good music could or would seldom be heard.

Singing for church services took second place, so that, instead, we could bring our songs to the downtrodden and disenfranchised, the elderly, the sick and injured. We went into hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, jails, prisons. Where others chose not to go, we opted to share Christ in music as HIS MEN!

We proudly embraced that name. We were singing HIS praises, doing HIS work.

Remember in the Bible when God said he’d give Solomon whatever he wanted? Solomon asked for wisdom, and God was so touched by that that he gave him riches, as well. I think in our case, God honored our lofty goals by blessing us with good sound as an added bonus. The sound of HIS MEN, from day one in the autumn of 1972, has been outstanding.

Now those sounds are coming to an end. After hundreds of performances, thousands of miles traveled, millions of dollars raised for charity, the ministry of HIS MEN is going silent. The exit will quietly take place Sunday morning, August 25, at John Mattson’s church, First Congregational in Muskegon. And I’ll admit, I’m feeling a bit emotional about this. I was the director for the first 21 years. Mattson, well-known church musician in the Greater Muskegon area, took the baton from that day on. Just two directors, both unpaid, in 47 years!

I’ve never done this on the blog site, and I hope it works. I’d like to proudly share my last performance with HIS MEN in 1993. (They sound even better today!)

Only God knows how many lives have been touched by the musical ministry of HIS MEN, especially prisoners. But not just the lives of those who heard them. That also includes the lives of the 46 men who, over the years, sang in the group. And six accompanists.

And especially two directors.

The melody lingers on.


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Michigan's juvenile lifers: Getting the short end of the stick?

Offending teenagers ain’t gonna get off easy in Michigan! No siree!

Over the past 15 years or so, progressive-minded people in our nation’s judicial system have been taking a second look at severe sentencing practices involving kids. Getting tough on crime meant getting tough on youthful offenders back in the 80s and 90s, but finally that concept is getting some reassessment. Even so, as the Detroit Free Press points out, it’s slow going in Pure Michigan.

Already in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that we can’t execute kids anymore, but that didn’t affect Michigan because we don’t have the death penalty.

Then, in 2012, the high court ruled that life without parole for juveniles amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. It was no longer allowed. Michigan, which has the second highest number of juvenile lifers in the country, pushed back, saying this ruling should not be retroactive. The court disagreed, and in 2016 made it official.

BUT, they left the decisions on how to get the job done up to each state. And predictably, Michigan is dragging its feet. Says the Freep: Three and a half years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile lifers should have the opportunity to be re-sentenced and come home, more than half in Michigan are still waiting to go before a judge to learn their fate.
That means nearly 200 inmates are still waiting for a judicial review! 

Since I started working on judicial issues back in the mid-90s, I have some personal feelings about almost all persons I have met who are prosecutors, or were prosecutors, or who want to be a prosecutor. They seem to possess something I call the “prosecutor mindset.” I can’t quite put it into words, but be assured that it sides heavily with victims of crime, leans heavily on punishment, and gives little consideration to such matters as development differences in the teenage brain and rehabilitation.

That’s why I have little hope for immediate improvement in the juvenile lifers situation in Michigan.

Michigan prosecutors are quoted as defending this slow pace, saying they are “thoughtfully weighing each case.” Riiiiiight.

Says Eli Savit, an Ann Arbor-based lawyer: "I think we’re on the far end of the spectrum in terms of not being very forgiving."

Oh, really?

According to Savit, who hopes to be a prosecutor someday, the job of prosecutor is first about keeping the community safe — but in that equation comes the responsibility to assess what is best for the community. 

Let’s hope that a new crop of prosecutors and judges taking office in years to come will take a fresh look at this important topic. It’s dragging on far too long.

Let’s support those agencies clamoring for a speed-up.

Let’s seek out future candidates for office who don’t seem to identify with the “prosecutor mindset” of the old guard.

Our juvenile lifers deserve better.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

More can be done to stop prisoner deaths

I’m not going to let it go. The story is still on the TV news tonight. My latest rant is here tonight. I’m not ready to abandon this whole topic of deaths behind bars. Maybe the Jeff Epstein story will finally heighten awareness of this problem, one that our team faces on a regular basis.

Let’s be honest. Most of us have little interest in the deaths of prisoners. We read about it in the newspaper, we see it on the TV news: another suicide in a county jail, another murder in a state prison, or a mysterious death in a federal facility, like the one making headlines these days. Yawn.

Major newspapers are carrying a quote that I want to underscore. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s prison project: “Tragically, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about what happened to Mr. Epstein... . This is just the…baseline dysfunction of prisons and jails and how suicide prevention in most prisons and jails is a joke.”

The New York Times reported that the two overworked staffers assigned to Epstein’s unit ― one of whom wasn’t working as a corrections officer but was forced to take on that role due to staffing shortages ― fell asleep and falsified records saying they had performed checks as required. From what we are able to determine, fake cell checks are extremely common at all levels, federal, state and county.

We are outraged when people are gunned down in the national plague of mass shootings. We are brokenhearted when traffic accidents claim the lives of friends and loved ones. Citizens mourn when US military personnel die serving their nation. But prisoners? That’s another story.

It comes down to this simple statement by Father Greg Boyle, as he discusses our disinterest in the senseless killing of gang members: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.” 

The work in our office focuses on the occupants of state prisons in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Corrections records more than 100 deaths per year among our population of more than 38,000 prisoners. Because of our state’s shameful record of keeping people in prison far too long, many of these are deaths due to natural causes among the aging population.

But the others are not, and I think it’s safe to say that many of these are preventable.

It’s time for Michigan’s new administration to insist on more corrections officers, better-trained officers (especially in the field of mental illness), and improved procedures.

It's true: Even prisoners are created in the image of God.

Their lives matter, too.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Will the Epstein death raise awareness of a big problem?

Amazing how a high-profile death behind bars suddenly raises interest.

A lot of people in an uproar these days over the alleged jail cell suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. Sadly, that kind of stuff goes on all the time. For most of us, however, it’s out of sight, which means out of mind. This is NOT a new problem.

Recently, closer to home, television reporters helped narrow the focus on a Muskegon County jail situation. The coroner ruled it a natural death when a guy died in his cell. That is, until Channel 8 found that the jail had deprived the inmate of a critical medication prescribed by his doctor. The inmate suffered 15 seizures over more than three hours, all allegedly unnoticed by guards, while in a close-observation cell. Then he died. Just another prisoner. No big deal…until an investigative reporter started sniffing.

Death in prison is something we deal with on a regular basis, and you wouldn’t like what we hear and what we know.

The other day a very good friend, recovering from surgery in the infirmary of Michigan’s prison for women said, in a personal letter to me: “We lost a gal here 3 days ago. She took her oxygen off during the night, and left us by morning. There was no hope left in her.”  Routine. Family notified. Another bed available. Was anybody paying attention?

My hope is that the Epstein case helps focus on the bigger picture. Many prison deaths are unnecessary and preventable! Let me tell you something, and this comes from an office that handles 600-700 calls a month from prisoners, that responds to 100 complaints a month about inadequate medical care, and that has a difficult time meeting budget because caring for and about prisoners doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as rescuing puppies or kittens or whales. Unless we are working with a family who has someone critically ill behind bars, or who has had a serious accident while in prison, or who has someone struggling with unacceptable prison medical care, we cannot attract interest. Period.

I’m so tired of people who like to expound on the contention that we are a Christian nation, and then, in another breath, are totally OK with the concept that prisoners can be treated like animals. After all, “if they hadn’t committed the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time.”

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Genesis 1:27

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Making a difference, even behind bars!

I love good quotes. I have such deep respect for those speakers and writers who can create profound statements on a given topic…statements that prompt genuine self-examination and honest discussion.

Today, as I’m thinking about two prisoners whose actions touched me, I’m paging here and there, hoping to spot just the right quote. It’s finally dawning on me. This time the statements just may have to come from me. These prisoners made an impact on my thinking, and hopefully my life. It’s time for my words.

You already know about my friend Sharee, the topic of our blog of August 1. If you haven’t read it yet, please take a moment to do so. The important thing to note is that Sharee was not only intent on getting her job back. Sharee knew that her legal action against the Michigan Department of Corrections would ultimately result in better care of mentally ill inmates. Recently her four-year battle came to an end, and change will come.

Then I learned about a ballsy jailhouse lawyer. Mr. D is confined to a wheelchair. But, that didn’t keep him from the law library, and didn’t prevent him from taking legal action against the MDOC. Each time the antiquated prison elevator broke down (which happened frequently), he and others in wheelchairs were stuck in their basement cells. They couldn’t make their medical appointments, couldn’t go outside for fresh air, couldn’t see visitors, couldn’t go watch TV or even get to a church service.  It’s not official yet, but we’ve learned that because of Mr. D’s persistence and expertise, we’ll soon see the installation of new wheelchair ramps, replacement of decrepit elevators, as well as new and improved wheelchairs for the disabled in Michigan prisons!

Granted, Sharee and Mr. D took action to improve their personal situations. But, they also knew that favorable decisions would make a huge impact on the care and treatment of mentally and physically challenged prisoners for years to come.

They’re heroes, in my book!

And now I will still conclude with three quotes.

From Thomas Foxwell Buxton: “With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.” 

The first verse of an old, gospel song Marcia used to sing:

Lord, help me live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even when I kneel to pray
My prayer shall be for others.
Others, by Charles D. Meigs

And, from the Bible I love: As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace. I Peter 4:10

Monday, August 5, 2019

Talking about it, or doing something about it. That's our choice.

Well done is better than well said
Benjamin Franklin

In my four score years and two, I have seen one consistency: lots of talk, little action.

When I was a reporter in Grand Haven back in the 60s and 70s, I could provide the names of people who would attend every city council meeting. These people were exceptionally knowledgeable not only about the workings of the city, but its many problems. They would expound on these matters in local coffee shops, and write letters in the local newspaper. But they never did anything. For all I know, they may not even have been registered voters.

All talk, no action.

50 years later I’m in the prisoner advocacy business. Similar experiences.

As Matt and I left a two-hour meeting 7 or 8 years ago, we decided never again! We knew that those attending this meeting were exceptionally knowledgeable and vocal about corrections issues and problems. But we could see beyond that meeting. Nothing was going to come of it. And it didn’t.

I see that as a major problem today---right now---at several different levels.

I see and feel it in the organized church, where people have lots of criticism, but won’t lift a finger to do anything about it.

Local government still faces the challenges it did back then. Many people know what should be done, but won’t step up to the plate.

In HFP’s work with prisoners, we face all kinds of issues of injustice, cruelty, racism, wrongful conviction, prisoner abuse, exorbitant sentences, unfair rules and regulations. Experts study these matters, write papers about them, give speeches about them, publish articles about them, but I’m here to tell you: Despite all the talk, the wheels of progress and change are barely rolling.

On the national level, the people of this nation so far this year have tolerated an average of 1.4 mass shootings a day. Following last weekend’s carnage, once again everyone’s talking. Besides “thoughts and prayers,” we’re pointing fingers at people and problems. Tune in to any news channel or newscast, and you’ll hear experts who know exactly what the problems are. And that’s precisely where everything stops.

I promise you, in a few days, we’ll hear reports of another shooting. There was no caboose on those in El Paso and Dayton. Sadly, there’ll be more thoughts and prayers, more rhetoric, and more talk about what should be done.

From issues on the lowest level to the highest level, lots of words, not much action.

Said Leonardo da Vinci: "I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do." 

Talk doesn’t cook rice
~Chinese Proverb

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A modern-day "David" takes on Goliath!

Apologies for this contemporary paraphrase of I Samuel 17

Now the State of Michigan gathered its forces and drew up its battle lines against the American Civil Liberties Union.

A Goliath named MDOC, a behemoth of a department costing the state $5-million per day, came out of the Michigan camp. He shouted at and taunted the cowering Prisoner Observation Aides at Huron Valley Correctional Facility. “Why have you come out for battle? Am I not the State of Michigan, and are you not prisoners behind bars? Now choose one person to fight me. If I win, nothing will change. If your warrior is able to fight me, however, things will improve for the mentally ill behind bars.”

On hearing his words, the Aides were dismayed and terrified. They had been witnessing abuse and neglect of mentally ill patients for months and years, and their complaints were constantly ignored.

Upon facing this challenge, a POA named Sharee, angered because she had lost her job for reporting incidents of abuse, told her fellow prisoners: “Let no one lose heart, your servant will go fight the state!”

The battleground was the US District Court. Sharee Miller took her slingshot, and picked up four stones with a single letter etched in each one: A C L U. Encouraged by HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS to proceed with her battle, she informed Goliath: “You come against me with might and dollars. I come on behalf of the downtrodden, with the truth on my side!”

Reaching into her bag and taking out a stone, Sharee slung it and struck the MDOC in the forehead. A messenger ran to her fellow POAs with the news:

The ACLU of Michigan has settled a federal lawsuit after the Michigan Department of Corrections agreed to a major policy change that will allow prisoners to report any abuse they witness of other inmates. In addition, Ms. Miller will be reinstated to her position as a POA, compensated for her lost wages, and have her record cleared of having been terminated for violating prison rules.

Said Sharee in a personal message to HFP:

Although I am certainly tired, I am gracefully tired and grateful. God is so amazing. He always does what is right and best. Thank you for taking the hundreds of phone calls, the endless tears you listened to over this, and thank you for sending all the right people my way. Today has truly been rewarding. The change is usually subtle, but this time the change is great. Thank you again for helping me through the retaliation, tears, hurt and anger, it was worth it!