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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

That prisoner ain't heavy, Mister. He's my brother!


I remember the first time I saw the drawing. It was in the 1940s. A political cartoon showed a boy carrying a younger boy on his back. The caption read: He ain’t heavy, Mister, he’s my brother. The cartoon first appeared in The Messenger, an early 20th-century political and literary magazine.

Later, of course, it became the logo for Boys Town, and then in 1969, it became a popular ballad recorded by the likes of the Hollies and Neil Diamond.

I’m thinking about that drawing today, on the last day of the year, the last day of the decade.

Major newspapers and TV networks, in reviewing the past year and projecting news stories for the new year, are hitting on important topics like impeachment, politics, the economy, terrorism, climate change and foreign relations. To no one’s surprise, we are hearing nothing about prisoners. Not a popular topic.

I submit to you in my old year/near year message, it IS important because these are your brothers and sisters! Listen to these USA stats:

-One in five has had a parent sent to jail or prison
 -One in eight has had a child incarcerated
 -6.5 million adults have an immediate family member currently in jail or prison
-One in seven has an immediate family member who has spent at least a year behind bars
-One in 34 has an immediate loved one who has spent more than 10 years in prison.

It’s not them and us. It’s us!

I was excited to report to our Board of Directors that my church was going to designate a Sunday last October as Prisoner Awareness Sunday. Dr. Michelle Loyd-Paige, who not only serves as a trustee on our board, but also professionally serves as executive associate to the president for diversity and inclusion at Calvin University, stated that we should be thinking of a Prisoner Awareness Month. She’s right, of course.

As we end 2019, and begin a new year, I’m suggesting that in the short range, we should make 2020 Prisoner Awareness Year. But, thinking like Dr. Loyd-Paige, Prisoner Awareness Decade would be even better.

Because, like it or not, these are not numbers…they are people. These aren’t other people. These are our brothers and sisters.

Fr. Greg Boyle, who has dedicated his life to working with gang members laments: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be some lives out there that matter less than other lives.”

The entire HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS team, in extending New Year wishes, encourages a new focus on the prisoner: our brother, our sister.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Sorry. What you're hearing on TV ain't right. Joy wins!


Two songs come to mind for me this Christmas season: one very old, one very new.

I remember having to lead singing at a Christmas Carol Sing while still a teenager in high school. I ran across the little carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and didn’t much care for the music. The verses were so short, and there were so many of them. I concluded that it would not be a pleasant musical experience. But I loved the words! While a pianist played the melody, I recited the verses.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this poem as a result of a very personal Civil War experience in 1863. But the lyrics apply to the USA today with precision.

The poem starts innocently enough:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

However, as a result of his traumatic experience, the texts kept getting darker until, in exasperation, he wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head ;
"There is no peace on earth," I said ;
    "For hate is strong
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men !"

Sound like today in our country? But then he concludes with these beautiful words, which I’m clinging to today:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

The second song was performed by my friend John Mulder, written by him and Robert Lindsay. Again, the circumstances had nothing to do with today’s political or social woes. John was waiting for a lung transplant that was needed to save his life. His eternal optimism shined through the song: Joy wins!

He sets the stage with these words:

Here in the light, here in this place
With stones and storms and sorrows scattered ‘bout
Beyond the shadows, if I look the other way
I find joy in the heart of my doubt

Then he reaches a conclusion with the same optimism that Longfellow exuded:

There are many ways to find my way back home
Through ups and downs, all the outs and ins
And at the moment where joy and sorrow meet
Joy wins

I’ve decided that’s where we must let our minds rest this Christmas week, with all the garbage and bitter rhetoric that I’m hearing on the news. An elderly black woman once told my daughter, when Sue was manager of a nursing home, “Ain’t nobody goin’ to steal my joy!”

Every one of our kids and grand-kids gathered for the holiday this week for the first time in years. Not an unkind word. Lots of laughter. Lots of love.

John Mulder was right on the money!

No matter what’s going on, Joy wins!


Monday, December 23, 2019

My Christmas Eve gift to you


Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was covering, writing and airing news stories on radio, our stations had no network news. We relied on newswire services. One of my favorite writers was Louis Cassels, of UPI. Before he died in 1974, I had an opportunity to meet him and chat with him at a radio conference.

As UPI’s Religion Editor he wrote one of my favorite commentaries. I still have a tattered teletype copy in my files. I read it to my listeners each Christmas season starting in 1959 until my voice was silenced on the airwaves in 1983.

I no longer own a radio station, but I have this blog site, and I share this story with you today as my way of wishing richest holiday blessings to you and yours. Let’s enjoy Louis together.

The Parable of the Birds
By Louis Cassels

Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a man, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.

“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite and that he would much rather just stay at home. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier. Then he went back to his fireside chair to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another and another — sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must have been throwing snowballs against his living room window.

But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.

Quickly he put on a coat and galoshes and then he tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them. So he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs and sprinkled them on the snow. He made a trail to the brightly lit, wide-open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the breadcrumbs and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow.

He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them and waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me — that I am not trying to hurt them but to help them. But how?

Any move he made tended to frighten and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed, because they feared him.

“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.

“Now I understand,” he whispered. “Now I see why you had to do it.





Friday, December 20, 2019

We may no longer remain silent!


There are times when I just shake my head.

I’m reading a short news item about the Michigan Department of Corrections. Director Heidi Washington proudly reports that the prison population dropped again this year…it’s now down to its lowest level since the mid-90s. While we have been critical of the department and the Parole Board on many issues, we must give credit where credit is due. For five years now the number has been coming down. Michigan’s recidivism rate is much improved, and fewer people are returning to prison once they get out.

Numbers like this don’t just happen. It takes a lot of work by a lot of people, and it requires a fresh attitude about human beings, their worth, and their ability to be rehabilitated.

Back to shaking my head. That’s what happens when I read on-line comments about this story. Some people actually think the number reduction is a bad thing!

-I would say it is the overall failure to properly sentence criminals. Too many crimes go unpunished
-Fewer inmates = rise in crime
-Too many soft judges with slap-on-the-wrist sentences.
-They are letting out prisoners that aren't ready to be out
We could get it down even more if we executed all those charged with first degree murder. Sex offenders too!

Dr. Martin Luther King once said: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

My tendency was to stop at that quote, and continue my fretting. But, I read on, and then got to this profound statement by Dr. King: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Which means that it’s our turn.

When we see and hear our nation’s leaders using foul language and denigrating national heroes;
When we see and hear those with disabilities and unusual sexual preferences belittled and mistreated;
When human beings of varied colors and ethnic beliefs are reduced in value and care;
When persons behind bars are considered “throw-aways;”
When people praise executions instead of condemning them---
IT’S TIME FOR US TO END OUR APPALLING SILENCE!

In this season of Advent, patience is an underlying theme, as we anxiously await the coming of the Messiah once again. But patience must not be confused with complacency.

May the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate in this season, give us the strength and courage to speak up for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Now. All of them. Regardless of belief or color or nationality.




Tuesday, December 17, 2019

What's in the brown paper bag?


I’d like to share a beautiful story...a story not written by me.  I feel certain that Luis Ramirez would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him.  He's dead.

This message came to me from Death Row in Texas back when we were just getting started. It touched me then, just as it touches me now. This may change your thoughts about the types of prisoners due to be executed. I hope so.

Anyway, here’s my holiday gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez:
(In all caps, just the way he sent it)

I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.  I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET.  I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST.

THE FIRST PERSON I MET THERE WAS NAPOLEON BEASLEY.  BACK THEN, DEATH ROW PRISONERS STILL WORKED.  HIS JOB WAS TO CLEAN UP THE WING AND HELP SERVE DURING MEAL TIMES.  HE WAS WALKING AROUND SWEEPING THE POD IN THESE RIDICULOUS-LOOKING RUBBER BOOTS.  HE CAME UP TO THE BARS OF THE CELL AND ASKED ME IF I WAS NEW.  I TOLD HIM THAT I HAD JUST ARRIVED ON D.R.  HE ASKED WHAT MY NAME IS.  I TOLD HIM.  HE HOLLERED AT EVERYONE:  “THERE'S A NEW MAN HERE.  HE JUST DROVE UP.  HIS NAME IS LUIS RAMIREZ.”

I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF IT.  LIKE MOST OF YOU, I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT EVERYONE ON D.R. WAS EVIL.  NOW THEY ALL KNEW MY NAME.  I WAS SURE THEY WOULD SOON BEGIN HARASSING ME.

WELL, THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED.  AFTER SUPPER WAS SERVED, NAPOLEON WAS ONCE AGAIN SWEEPING THE FLOORS.  AS HE PASSED MY CELL HE SWEPT A BROWN PAPER BAG INTO IT.  I ASKED HIM, “WHAT'S THIS?”  HE SAID FOR ME TO LOOK INSIDE, AND CONTINUED ON HIS WAY.

MAN I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT.  I CAREFULLY OPENED THE BAG.  WHAT I FOUND WAS THE LAST THING I EVER EXPECTED TO FIND ON DEATH ROW, AND EVERYTHING I NEEDED.  THE BAG CONTAINED SOME STAMPS, ENVELOPES, NOTE PAD, PEN, SOAP, SHAMPOO, TOOTHPASTE, TOOTH BRUSH, A PASTRY, A SODA, AND A COUPLE OF RAMEN NOODLES.  I REMEMBER ASKING NAPOLEON WHERE THIS CAME FROM.  HE TOLD ME THAT EVERYONE HAD PITCHED IN.  I ASKED HIM TO FIND OUT WHO HAD CONTRIBUTED…I WANTED TO PAY THEM BACK.  HE SAID, “IT'S NOT LIKE THAT.  JUST REMEMBER THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE SOMEONE COMING HERE LIKE YOU, YOU PITCH IN SOMETHING.” 

I SAT THERE ON MY BUNK AND THOUGHT OF HOW MANY TIMES I HAD SEEN “GOOD PEOPLE” OF THE WORLD PASS BY SOME MAN, WOMAN OR CHILD HOLDING A SIGN THAT SAID HUNGRY, OR WILL WORK FOR FOOD.  I'M GUILTY OF THE SAME.  I JUST PASSED THEM BY.  YET HERE ON DEATH ROW AMONG THE “WORST OF THE WORST,” I DIDN'T HAVE TO HOLD UP A SIGN.

I NEVER GOT TO TELL NAPOLEON ABOUT MY FEELINGS.  HE WAS EXECUTED.  I COULDN'T FIND HIS FAMILY.

WHAT'S IN THE BROWN PAPER BAG?   I FOUND CARING, KINDNESS, LOVE, HUMANITY AND COMPASSION ON A SCALE THAT I'VE NEVER SEEN THE “GOOD PEOPLE” IN THE FREE WORLD SHOW TOWARDS ONE ANOTHER.

After reading this story, I wanted to send a note of thanks to Luis Ramirez.  But I was too late.  He was executed by the state of Texas in October, 2005.  He was 42.  He claimed wrongful conviction until his death.

Blessed Holidays from me to all of our readers! 

“What you do to these men, you do to God"
--Mother Teresa during her visit to San Quentin Prison




Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Good for Oklahoma! Now it’s Michigan’s turn!


It's time to stop pardoning turkeys and start granting clemency to people
 Sister Helen Prejean

462 Oklahomans walked out of prison the other day. It was the largest single-day commutation in United States history.

It’s an interesting story…one of the bright shining lights in the darkness of mass incarceration. Back in 2016 Oklahomans voted to reclassify simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. Later, the state Legislature made that change retroactive. That left all kinds of people behind bars who didn’t belong there.

Now, it’s Michigan’s turn.

Our new Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has already taken steps to improve the lot of young offenders. Now it’s time to consider the old-timers. We have a ton of them who no longer belong in our Michigan prison system.

I’ll give you four categories (there are more), and I’ll just grab four examples from our case files (there are many more!).

1.    Medically frail inmates (approx. 800 of them)
Herbert Collins, 78, is in terrible health, and has served 51 years
2.    Octogenarians
Willie Jeffries, 84, has served 36 years and is battling cancer
3.    Prisoners serving long indeterminate sentences (approx. 250 of them)
Troy Chapman, 55, is serving a sentence of 60-90 years.
He will be 82 before he becomes eligible for parole!
4.    Inmates who’ve been in a long time, serving life without parole
Steven Benjamin, 70, has served 45 years…has an exemplary record!

Here you have four men from our client list of several thousand, and these four men have served more than 165 years. And if you think the average cost of housing a prisoner applies to these guys, guess again. They’re aging and their health is deteriorating. The cost is double and triple.

Governors have the right to grant clemency for all kinds of criminal activity. Says NYU law professor and clemency expert Rachel Barkow: “If you really want to get robust clemency, governors have to accept the fact it will never be risk-free. And so what they really need to do is explain to constituents why it’s worth doing.”  The…hope is, she says, that “as governors get experience actually granting clemency, they’ll see it’s a pretty meaningful thing that they can do. They can completely transform someone’s life.”

Many deserve and should be granted clemency in Michigan. Our new governor can transform lives. Lots of them!

Now is the time.





Monday, December 2, 2019

NO MORE TALK ABOUT CO-PAY. IT’S TIME FOR ACTION!


Skyrocketing costs of healthcare and prescription drugs tend to bring sad stories to the surface. We hear and read heartbreaking stories about people in financial straits, who must make decisions regarding food or medicine, rent payments or medical bills.

Yet, we hear very little about the plight of prisoners. When it comes to healthcare for Michigan inmates, it stinks!

Here’s the picture in a nutshell.

If a Michigan inmate can get a job (many have been eliminated), he or she will likely earn between 75 cents and $3 a day. Not an hour…a day! Keep in mind that many of the 39,000 people in our state prison system are unemployed, or work only part-time.

What little money they have is often spent on personal hygiene items, such as soap and deodorant; or, on food. Food may sound like a luxury to you, but you should know that Michigan spends less than a dollar per meal for our prisoners. And, even though prisoner wages haven’t been increased in 25 years or so, prices keep going up at the prison store.

Now, here’s the kicker. The state charges a $5 co-pay for every healthcare visit in prison. That could be a week's wages. It’s time for our legislature to abolish this ridiculous practice. 

It’s happening in other states. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation eliminated medical co-pays, citing public health concerns. Says Eric Henderson, Policy Director with Initiate Justice: Co-pays are dangerous barriers to healthcare access that force incarcerated people into a risky waiting game and ultimately undermine public health throughout the state.

Kay Perry, MI-CURE Director, points out in her monthly newsletter that individuals often delay seeing a doctor and may wait until the condition escalates to an emergency, or until the cost of treatment exceeds the cost of early care.

Then there’s the ripple effect.

A prisoner chooses soap or snacks over medical co-pay, and as a result gets sicker…and as a result threatens the health of other prisoners with whom he or she come into contact.

There’s no good reason to charge medical co-pay in prison.

There’s every good reason to discontinue the practice.

As with Mark Twain’s observation about the weather, we keep complaining about it, and that’s all. We do nothing about it.

That’s gotta change. please go to the Michigan Legislature website, find the names of your State Representative and State Senator, jot down their email addresses, and forward the link to this blog site. Add your own comment. You’re the voter. They’ll listen.

Enough is enough.