All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, September 30, 2019

A famous athlete takes on injustice!

Boy, does that sound a lot like the Maurice Carter story!

National basketball star Maya Moore, of WNBA fame, is in the news these days. She shocked the basketball world earlier this year when she quit basketball, saying she wanted some time to pursue “criminal justice reform.” But it’s more personal than that. The real reason is making headlines right now, just in time for the observance of International Wrongful Conviction Day. She’s doing her best to free a prisoner who has served nearly 23 years for a crime he did not commit.

The man was arrested for a non-fatal shooting. After meeting him, hearing his story, and digging into his case, this basketball superstar is flabbergasted. “No physical evidence. No DNA, footprint, fingerprint,” she exclaims! Yep.

Sound familiar?

Granted, Doug Tjapkes was no superstar, but at the turn of the century, he did almost the same thing. Starting in about 1995, I became aware of this black dude who claimed he was innocent, and had already served 15 years for a non-fatal shooting. No physical evidence, no DNA, no fingerprints, no weapon, no motive. Let me add a few more “nos.” No blacks on the jury. No legitimacy to eye-witness accounts. No qualified legal assistance. No integrity in the Benton Harbor Police Department, or in that Berrien County courtroom.

Maurice Carter served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. He was released on a compassionate release, and he died just three months later, in October, 2004. He was never exonerated.

Wednesday, October 2, is wrongful conviction day. Basketball superstar Maya Moore points out that more than 10,000 people are sitting in prisons for something they didn’t do.

What a terrible blight on our alleged system of justice!

And the sad part of all this: The real criminal, quite often, is still out on the street. In Maurice Carter’s case, the drunken bully is not only still alive, but he’s still boasting about how he “shot that white cop!”

As we approach International Wrongful Conviction Day, we pay tribute to Michigan’s two fine Innocence Projects: the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project, and the Innocence Clinic of the University of Michigan Law School.

And we pray for success not only for Maya Moore, but also for all the other advocates with lesser credentials and lower profiles, but with similar stories, hoping for similar outcomes.

As author John Grisham puts it:

“Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in this country, and the reasons are all varied and all the same—bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, arrogant prosecutors.”

Thursday, September 26, 2019

You'd better listen to a whistle-blower!

Some readers are going to accuse me of being very political with this piece. That’s your call.

The topic of “whistle-blowing” is big news today, because it involves the President of the United States. Regardless of your political affiliation, I have something to say to you: You’d better listen to a whistle-blower!

I go back to the year 2014, when MDOC personnel at our only prison for women, Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, were accused of mistreating and abusing mentally ill inmates in the acute care section. There were charges of hog-tying, tasing, excessive use of pepper spray, and food and water deprivation. We’re talking about the treatment of human beings here, not animals in the dog pound.

We could do nothing about this without the help of whistle-blowers. And yes, they came through! I had in my possession a stack of affidavits scribbled out on scrap pieces of paper. Prisoners don’t have access to legal pads, and all the other paraphernalia that we might use to put together a proper legal statement. They used what they could find. These affidavits from prisoners who witnessed cruelty and abuse were smuggled to me by a gutsy inmate who later won a legal battle with the State of Michigan. But that’s another story.

My tribute, today, is to whistle-blowers.

It’s very easy, especially in today’s story, to claim that there’s political motive, or interest in personal gain. But that’s pure and unadulterated baloney! It’s no fun being a whistle-blower. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Unless, that is, you’re hoping to expose the truth. Unless, that is, you’re hoping to bring about change.

I’m proud to say that thanks to some daring whistle-blowers at Huron Valley, subsequent action by our office led to involvement not only by the American Civil Liberties Union, but also the U. S. Department of Justice! The courageous women who dared sign their names will be proud to learn that those little scraps of paper made their way into the files of the ACLU, and led to a lengthy letter of demands to the prison warden and the Department of Corrections.

The acute unit for the mentally ill in Huron Valley isn’t perfect these days. But there is improvement.

I salute, today, every whistle-blower, from the bottom to the top.

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.
Albert Einstein

Monday, September 23, 2019

Parking at the four-way stop isn't very smart!

As I headed into town this morning, a well-meaning driver about ruined my day. As he approached a four-way stop, he made the decision that this was BE KIND TO DRIVERS DAY, and so he just sat there. He let all other cars go first! Of course, that didn’t work. The result was not a "kind" thing at all. It gummed up the works! People stopping, starting, pointing, gesturing. The four-way stop can be a well-oiled machine, but it involves heads-up participation by every driver. Each has a responsibility.

On Facebook one day some contributor allowed that a very Christian thing to do, that day, would be to let the other guy go first at a four-way stop. No! No! No! That has the opposite effect. Very un-Christian words get uttered in cars approaching that intersection!

I see that as quite symbolic of all of life.

You can’t go to your church and just sit there, letting all the others go first to sing in the choir, serve on the council, volunteer to be an usher, teach Sunday School or work in the food pantry.

You can’t join the Rotary Club hoping that the membership will make you look good, then just sit there, refusing to serve on committees, run for office, or volunteer for projects.

You can’t send your kids to the best school, but then refuse to serve on the PTA, run for school board, car-pool kids to the special events, or assist the coaches.

It doesn’t make much sense to complain about your government in the coffee shop or bar, but then refuse to run for office, or at least communicate with elected officials, or even get off your duff and go to the polls.

Fred Rogers, famous kid’s show TV host, said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say ‘It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

As a prisoner advocate, I’m not suggesting that you must help prisoners, and your job is to do it now. Although that would be nice.

I am saying that you’re doing the world no favor by staying put at the four-way stop, leaving others to the task of negotiating that intersection.

“We have to do the best we can.  This is our sacred human responsibility”
Albert Einstein

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Kindness begets kindness evermore. Sophocles

HIS MEN, the male chorus that I founded in 1972, is no more. While the music has stopped, my memories continue. We liked little things!

While other Christian groups seemed to thrive on performing in prominent venues before large crowds, our most meaningful experiences were in circumstances exactly the opposite. We performed an entire concert for an ailing missionary on the Haitian Island of La Gonave. When we were traveling in the “hollers” of Kentucky, we sang for a little old lady who wasn’t well enough to come to the concert. We performed in the back of a pickup truck down her little two-track road. An audience of one.

I’m reminded of that today as we prepare for a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS Board of Directors meeting. For these quarterly sessions, key people in our team are asked to prepare activity reports.

Our kind and caring Medical Director, Dr. Bob Bulten, reported that in addition to answering more than a couple hundred email messages related to prisoner medical issues, he personally made some visits to inmates. Said Dr. Bob: “One of whom I have seen multiple times, as he is dying of tongue cancer at Duane Waters Medical facility.” Just doing it because he cares.

As with HIS MEN, we take pride in major successes---freeing Maurice Carter, freeing Jimmy Hicks! But there’s something really special about helping a musician-prisoner to finally get permission to play his keyboard behind bars, arranging transportation to prison for an elderly and disabled mom, or helping a young, imprisoned mother to see her little girl for a birthday visit.

I can tell you this: We may be responding to 1,000 calls a month, but small acts of kindness are common here, and we intend to keep it that way! It's part of our DNA.

My dear friend and gospel singer Alma Perry, who left this earth far too early, used to sing:

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he's traveling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Leo Buscaglia put it this way:

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.     

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Time to get your hands out of your pockets!

The late Tony Wolf, missionary to Haiti, was a guest on my radio talk show, telling about a young Haitian woman who gave birth to a child while riding in his Jeep. “I decided it was time for me to take my hands out of my pockets,” said Tony.

Still good advice today.

I’m reading Sister Helen Prejean’s life story in her new book: RIVER OF FIRE: MY SPIRITUAL JOURNEY.

I guess one might have predicted that this vivacious Roman Catholic nun, who appeared in Grand Haven as a guest of HFP last year, would go on to greatness. And that, at age 80, she hasn’t even begun to slow down. One might have guessed that just by watching her jump out of the family station wagon, as a teenager, ready to begin her new life in a convent. “I’m here,” she proclaimed. “I’m here to become a bride of Christ!”

As another active octogenarian, I’m constantly amazed at the number of my peers who are sitting around doing nothing. Many are in good physical and mental health for their age, yet they remain idle. That doesn’t seem healthy to me. Or wise. This may seem a bit judgmental, but I don’t think it’s even right, especially since there’s just so much to be done!

If you watched Lester Holt’s TV specials over the weekend, these numbers should have startled you: 2.2 million Americans behind bars; and, 2.7 million kids in American who have a parent behind bars!

Let me just add one more stat: 38,000 people in the Michigan prison system---much higher number than the averages of other Great Lakes states. And, at least 1,000 of them are innocent! Wrongly convicted! Shocking. Shameful.

Sister Prejean rather jokingly explains her naivete re social justice issues as a young nun: “I thought that all I had to do was to be charitable to those around me and maybe make a contribution to the missions. I thought that praying was enough.”

A sentiment not uncommon among the people with whom we circulate.

Regardless of your age, praying is not enough. A contribution to a mission is not enough. This is an American crisis.

It’s time for all of us to get our hands out of our pockets!

Friday, September 6, 2019

Good for Lester! Good for HFP!

I hope you’ll be watching upcoming TV specials when NBC’s Lester Holt focuses on mass incarceration. May God bless his efforts to bring public awareness to this terrible blight on our nation.

As I’m watching and listening, I’m excited and impressed all over again about the niche that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has found under this same umbrella. Because of the uniqueness of our work, I see a critical need for its expansion into all states.

As it stands right now, the HFP team is on target to respond to 1,000 calls this month! The total in August was 949. While it’s terribly important for NBC and USA Today to focus on huge incarceration issues, it’s equally as important for someone to help the individual behind bars experiencing little, daily problems that he or she just cannot resolve without outside help. This is also true for family members and loved ones.

-A senior inmate is told not to worry when his heart keeps acting up. He contends health-care doesn’t want to spend money on old-timers.

-The wife of a prisoner complains that she’s not allowed to leave the visitor room for an emergency break, and there are no sanitary napkins in the adjoining rest room. She is told by prison staff to stay home when she has her period.

-The grandmother of a mentally challenged inmate doesn’t know where to turn when her grandson is being extorted by gang bangers. They tell him that money must be sent to these thugs behind bars, and she sends it!

-An inmate is fully aware of the fact that the Parole Board’s copy of his record has inaccuracies, but he doesn’t know how to get it corrected.

-A prisoner wants to obtain some legal records to help his appeal, but Michigan is the only state in the country that will not permit inmates to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

-Diabetics in one facility are simply asking that their meal times be coordinated to fit the times of insulin shots.

-An inmate with sleep apnea complains that the prison won’t provide distilled water for a CPAP breathing device.

Yesterday our staff and team of professional volunteers responded to 55 calls like these. EVERY prisoner, every representative of a prisoner, every prisoner’s family member gets immediate attention and response. We may not be able to solve the problem right away, but callers talk to real people who care.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS: an incredible agency. It’s growth over 18 years has been phenomenal! I see major excitement and development in its future!

…remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Hebrews 13:3

Monday, September 2, 2019

A soft answer vs a harsh word: Prov 15:1

Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.
 -Yehuda Berg

The church music staff was a bit short-handed Sunday morning…it was Labor Day weekend. I was the organist on duty. I love the “king of instruments” and do my best to use its capabilities to enhance the worship experience for those in attendance. But I wasn’t prepared for this compliment, warmly handed to me by a guest following the service: You filled the room with the grace of God!”

Nine little words, and they made my Sunday!

That simple act of kindness served to remind me of the role our HFP team members play every day. We’re interacting with prisoners at a record pace. And when we’re so rushed responding to email messages and phone calls, it’s easy to be curt with our answers and short with our responses. Yet, it’s important for us to remember that, for incarcerated men and women, kind and gentle words are foreign. Their world is filled with oral unpleasantries, coming from all directions---their bunkies, the general population, and yes, the staff. Their waking hours are filled with orders, threats, bitches and complaints.

This means that if we’re going to show an inmate that we care, we must keep the snarky comments to ourselves, we must resist the urge to correct, and we must remember that it’s not important for us to have the last word. Instead, we do our best to try to encourage inmates. It’s meaningful to thank them when they send kind words of gratitude to us. Even when they raise their voices in frustration, we try not to respond in kind.

How does this apply to your lives, those of you who are reading this and who are not communicating with prisoners? Well, I think this kindness is important not only in how we speak with prisoners, but also how we speak about them. It’s very easy to label them “the worst-of-the-worst, losers, animals, vicious criminals, predators, derelicts, etc.” Father Greg Boyle says: “It is certainly true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a book by its first chapter—even if that chapter is twenty years long.”

And so, we covet your prayers, as we do our best to extend compassion to those behind bars today, maybe with just a kind word. And we ask that you soften your thoughts and words about the incarcerated. As Fr. Boyle stresses: there’s no us and them, only us.

Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.
 -Mother Teresa