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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, October 18, 2019

It was delightful...for a few minutes!


It was a wonderful evening! Against all odds!

Renowned author and lecturer Alex Kotlowitz was in Grand Haven for a community event, sponsored by HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. He was to speak in a local school auditorium. The key word here is “was,” because that is not where the event ended up.

Just one day earlier, the school system advised us that the auditorium had been double-booked. Sorry, we’d have to find another place. ONE DAY BEFORE OUR PROGRAM!

So, we had to punt. But thankfully, we have a team including our staff, board members and committee members, that can roll with anything. And they did!

A pre-program dinner and reception were planned to be held at St. Patrick’s Family Center in Grand Haven, so why not just keep people there, and hold the event in the same spot? It took a lot of scrambling, a lot of last-minute publicity, and a bit of finagling, but it all worked out.

More than 100 people gathered in a beautiful, intimate setting to listen to and interact with the author of some delicious books that everyone should read.

Board Chairman Russ Bloem introduced a new legacy program that is designed to keep our agency running for years to come.

Long-time board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete were honored guests, receiving the Maurice H. Carter Humanitarian award for their many services over the years.

Alex answered questions and signed books.

It was a wonderful evening.

This morning, however, it was a different story. There was no time to bask in the warm fuzzies, the good feelings, the kind words, the warm compliments. In the echo of Alex’s praise of HfP work, insisting that there should be similar chapters in every state, reality rushed in as we walked through our front door. There were between 30-50 unopened letters from prisoners, all asking for help. There were 50 unopened email messages from Michigan inmates, all wanting attention and needing answers now.

The phone rang…a collect call from a prisoner. A prison dentist was quick to pull out the inmate’s teeth, because they were all bad. But now he’s invoking some silly rule, and the guy has to wait two years for his dentures. Look, Ma. No teeth! No way to eat!

A sigh.

On the plus side, also in the mail was a generous $5 donation from a prisoner. It represented one week’s wages!

A tear.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

AG Nessel, where are you?


For a while, there, I really believed we had a kinder, gentler State of Michigan. Memories of former Attorney General William Schuette and angry Parole Board members faded into the past.

The occasion was a Public Hearing, conducted in Ionia by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Readers of this column know just how much criticism these public hearings have prompted from me in the past. Some members of the Parole Board have been cold and rude, some hearings have been poorly run, and there were times when the Assistant District Attorney was brutal.

Today, it was a different story. Presiding Parole Board member Sonia Amos-Warchock, whose anger and brusque manner I’ve personally witnessed, was on her best behavior. She quietly and patiently explained what was happening to the prisoner. Not once did she raise her voice. Her kind manner set the tone for the entire hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, whose sometimes raw prosecutorial-style questioning has driven many prisoners to tears, actually seemed sensitive to the prisoner’s personal story and emotions. He remained calm, and he actually demonstrated patience. Was the fact that he answers to a new boss with a radically different philosophy actually making a difference?

I should take a moment, here, to tell you about the prisoner. Joe is one of our clients, and Matt, Holly and I were all in the hearing room to support him. His story is a shameful indictment of the judicial system in Michigan. At the age of 18, this young black teenager and his buddy needed some pocket change, so, from their car, they aimed their pellet rifle at two kids operating an ice cream cart on the sidewalk and demanded money. While all this was going on, a little child came up to buy some ice cream. They gave the lad his ice cream, as well as his change…then continued with their robbery operation. They stole 27 dollars and 50 cents! That was 38 years go!

Joe received a life sentence for that crime! Without the persistence of our Holly, I don’t think that, even now, he’d be getting this Public Hearing.

I must say that today’s hearing was by far the most calm and sedate of any I have attended. 

Then, at the very end, it got spoiled.

That’s when Assistant AG Scott Rothermel stated that the Michigan Attorney General’s Office objected to the proposed parole. It was an assaultive crime. No mercy recommended.

Aaaargh!

Shades of Bill Schuette!

Michigan is better than that.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

YOUR story deserves applause!


I’m humbled by that applause. Johnny Carson

To my delight, reruns of the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson are still available on cable TV. At the end of each performance, the producer inserts the above quote. I’m sure Johnny made it “tongue-in-cheek,” because performers thrive on applause.

But here in the quiet of my office, I must admit: I am humbled by applause.

I’m basking in the afterglow, after viewing another staged reading of the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. It was presented over the weekend at the prestigious Atlanta Black Theatre Festival. This powerful stage presentation, capsulizing the story of my ten-year battle with Maurice Carter to seek his freedom, was written ten years ago by award-winning Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne.

Several factors, not the least of which is my age, make it very difficult for me to leave home for any period of time. But, thanks to the love and generosity of HfP board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete, I got to Atlanta and back in 24-hours, and in one piece! What an amazing experience!

I counted nearly 100 people in the compact theatre of the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, near Atlanta. At the conclusion of the presentation, the cast of 10 received a warm and well-deserved standing ovation. As the applause died down, a festival spokesperson introduced each member of the cast. Then, said the emcee, “We feel very fortunate to have with us the real Doug Tjapkes! Gasps, and then enthusiastic applause. And that leads me to my opening premise: I am, indeed, humbled by such applause.

Taking advantage of the moment, I rushed on stage to give Greg Daniels and Carle Atwater, the guys who played Doug and Maurice, bear hugs. One by one, I grasped the hand of each member of the cast. A lot of emotion. And yes, a lot of tears.

The reason for my humility on the applause issue is very simple, and very real. Granted, it’s a great story! I’m proud of that. BUT, it’s one of just thousands and thousands of similar stories that never get told. I’m well aware of this because I and my team see them and hear them every day!

Today I applaud all the unsung heroes of similar, and even better stories!  Yes, our story happened to catch the attention of playwrights, and happened to get publicity. But, yours/theirs is equally as important.

We have a system of justice in [the US] that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes
Bryan Stevenson