All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Blessed Thanksgiving to you. And that's no baloney!

Maurice Carter once joked with me about Thanksgiving behind bars. “Take a look at our Thanksgiving Day menu,” he said. The public saw a prison menu boasting a turkey dinner for inmates. In actuality, the main meat of the day turned out to be turkey bologna!

Prisoners have a difficult time on holidays such as this. What’s to be thankful for?
I can tell you this: In 2019, many prisoners---hundreds, perhaps thousands---are thankful for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. I make this claim, not in a boasting manner at all, but in deep humility, because I’m thankful that we can be there for them!

They’re thankful that, even though we may not have had complete success, someone was there to try to help them get appropriate health care. You and I can “doctor shop,” or even run to a med center if necessary. The options behind bars are very limited. They’re thankful that we could help them track down a missing family member. They’re thankful that someone will assist them in seeking important legal documents, because the state refuses to allow them to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act. They’re thankful for the assistance we have provided, and will continue to provide, for all who wish to apply for a commutation of their sentence. They’re thankful for our Parole Board preparation packet, thus helping them get ready for an upcoming session with the Michigan Parole Board.

At Thanksgiving time, 2019, I’m not thankful for prisoners, but I am thankful for their friendship.

I’m thankful that this organization that I founded 18 years ago is now touching the lives of thousands of Michigan prisoners with loving assistance.

I’m thankful for a wonderful team of staff members and volunteers who compassionately make all of this happen, on a daily basis.

I’m thankful for the time and dedication of every member of our Board of Directors…for their commitment to our goals, vision and mission.

I’m thankful that we have a delightful, spacious environment in which to work.

And, I’m thankful to the many individuals, groups, families and foundations who make all of this work possible.

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." -Albert Schweitzer

Thursday, November 21, 2019

If Amazon can do it, so can the MDOC!

For this octogenarian, born and raised in a computer-less generation, technical advances are just incomprehensible. My mind can’t begin to understand it.

I saw some video clips from an Amazon warehouse recently, explaining how same-day and next-day delivery services are implemented for catalog customers all over the nation.

I still remember the day that a Calvin College official took me into a large, temperature and humidity-controlled room back in the 70s, to show off that institution’s new state-of-the-art computer system. The room was filled with giant pieces of electronic equipment, many of them with what appeared to be tape recorders herking and jerking, clicking and popping.

Now I’m told that the computer in my cell phone can do more than that room full of stuff!

All this leads me to a discussion of an area that concerns many families. The Michigan Department of Corrections spends $30-million a year to transfer inmates from one facility to another. There are many reasons for transfers. Some facilities offer specific programs that an inmate must complete. Others have certain vocational programs. Some are offering college courses. Unusual healthcare needs can only be met in certain facilities. Then there are court dates and public hearings. Besides that, prisoners die and prisoners are released. Beds must be filled. And so inmates are transferred from prison to prison, some 30 different locations.

We’d like the department to add one more factor to the transfer process: geographic location of friends and loved ones.

Corrections officials recognize the importance of family visits:

          -keeping the family intact
          -improving chances for reentry into society
          -reducing chances of re-offending
          -improving prisoner morale.

And yet, it is very apparent that family accessibility plays little or no role in where prisoners are transferred.

David, who was ticket-free for 18 years---a model prisoner known for his skills in tutoring and dog-training---was ordered to pack up early one morning, and was shipped off to the Upper Peninsula. His elderly parents in Grand Rapids found it difficult to make that 6-hour drive. Joyce, elderly black woman in Detroit battling cancer, learned that her son had been transferred to a prison even farther away in the U.P. There was no way she could make that trip in her old car. We hear complaints like this regularly.

There’s gotta be a better way!

If we want to do more than just provide programs, just keep these people behind bars until their release date…if we want to help them stay sane, keep their families intact, prepare for re-entry and stay out of trouble, then we must do better.

If Amazon’s computer can find the right pair of socks for me in another state, and arrange to have them delivered to my door the next morning, our state computers can include family locations among all the other deciding factors for prison transfers.

Visitation by family and loved ones deserves higher consideration.

Now. Not someday.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

"If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice." Sister Helen Prejean

An overnight vigil was held this week in Washington DC. Protesters are urging the US Supreme Court to stop a Texas execution. 51-year-old Rodney Reed is scheduled to be executed on November 20. He’s been on death row for more than 20 years. Reed and many of his supporters claim he is innocent.

Reading this stuff brings back one of the darkest chapters of my life. I went to Texas, and I witnessed an execution.

In September, 2006, I received a letter from my friend Charles Anthony Nealy, a 42-year-old black man on death row. He asked if I would be his “spiritual adviser” at the time of his execution. How does one respond to a request like that? “No, I really don’t feel like it?” “I’m not qualified, go find someone else?

Marcia and I flew to Texas in March, 2007.

I cannot begin to describe the ugly memories---

The indifference and “business as usual” attitude on death row
The braying bloodhounds in kennels just outside the prison
The refusal to allow contact visits (We’d press our hands together on both sides of the glass partition as I prayed with him)
The laughing and flirting of guards with reporters in the “death house”
Armed guards on the roof as we were led to the death chamber.

In his final statement, while strapped to the gurney, Anthony thanked me for being there. Then, as his sister Debra and I watched, the State of Texas murdered my friend. Chemical one put the prisoner to sleep. Chemical two stopped his breathing. Chemical three stopped his heart. Right in front of our eyes. The silence was deafening.

Where were my profound words of sympathy to Deb and my expressions of faith in this traumatic time? Seems like I could have found some powerful piece of scripture, like Death, where is your sting? Instead, I mumbled, “Have you ever seen such horse-shit?”

I couldn’t wait to take a shower. I couldn’t wait to get out of Texas.

Sister Helen Prejean, among those fighting for a stay of Rodney Reed’s execution, says:

If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.

It’s time to pray not only for a stay of execution for Rodney, but for a halt to this nonsense.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Prison: Bumpy road for gay and transgender inmates

A front-page Associated Press story caught my eye this week. Only 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

I think about the difficult road for gay and transgender persons a lot these days.

I knew very little about this kind of thing when I was a child. Back in the 40s and 50s we gave gay people terrible labels, and it was not uncommon for bullies to beat up gays just because they were different. I was silent and did nothing about it.

That has changed.

I’m in the sunset years of my life now, and in my third career I’m closely aligned with prisoners. Just as in the outside world, there are sexual identity issues in prison. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I can tell you this about gay people in prison. Many gay inmates, even those who may have been openly gay while on the street, stay in the closet while behind bars. That’s because any man or woman in prison who is known or perceived to be gay faces a high risk of sexual abuse. And this can come from guards as well as from fellow inmates.

Transgender prisoners have an awful time of it. They are especially vulnerable due to a general policy of housing them according to their birth-assigned gender or genital configuration, regardless of their current appearance or gender identity.

I’m no longer silent.

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does its very best to treat these people in a kind, humane and dignified manner. We stand beside those who are gay, we find clergy who will visit them, we go to bat for them when no one else steps up to the plate. The same for transgender inmates. We politely call them by their new transgender name, and refer to their sex as that with which they identify, regardless of genital configuration.

I so appreciate the position of the Episcopal Church:

“Homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the church.”

I spotted a paraphrase of a familiar hymn while putting together this piece: In Christ there is no gay or straight.

And that’s the way we operate, that’s our philosophy. The business card of every HFP team member proudly bears these words:

“…all prisoners and their loved ones deserve to be treated with humanity, kindness, and dignity---without exception.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

On quietly doing the work of the deacons

The work of the deacons seldom attracts attention.

The work of the pastor and the elders are often the main focus in a church. After all, what can be more important than the preaching and the teaching?

And so, when the Executive Director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (my denomination) decides to comment on Hebrews 13:3, his article in the denominational magazine focuses on a program conducted by Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in one of the Ionia Prisons offering undergraduate courses to inmates. He draws attention to the wonderful work of our friends at Crossroads Prison Ministries. He praises a worship team that goes into one of the Muskegon prisons to lead services each month.

The agencies and the people mentioned deserve that spotlight.

But once again, the work of the deaconate didn’t draw any attention. I’m not a theologian, and I know better than to pretend that I’m knowledgeable on these matters. But Calvin Seminary prof Dr. John Rottman, who serves on our Board of Directors, knows what he’s talking about. And he insists that the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is the work of deacons.

If you stopped in our office today, you’d likely find the team

Helping a guy straighten out a Social Security number mix-up
Helping a brain cancer victim in his final days
Sending a photo behind bars for an artist to paint
Finding a long-lost relative
Helping a dyslexic inmate prepare a commutation application
Helping a transgender inmate with multiple in-prison issues
Helping a wrongly convicted inmate obtain legal documents.

I’m not complaining about Steven Timmermans’ piece in the Banner. Not at all. We thank God for every person, every agency, that is willing to do something for prisoners.

But his conclusion asks members of our denomination to consider gifts and opportunities to those agencies remembering prisoners, as challenged in Hebrews 13. And when it comes to “gifts and opportunities,” I’m suggesting that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS should be high on everyone’s year-end list. We’re the ones down in the trenches, quietly doing the work of the deaconate.

"Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated…”