Showing posts from August, 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

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, hospit

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 sha

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 g

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 assig

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

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

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.

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