All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Federal executions resume. YOU can do something!


Charles Anthony Nealy. Not many people remember that name. It’s the name of a young man executed by the State of Texas in 2007. 

Here are two more names that will be new to you: William LeCroy and Christopher Vialva. These two men are scheduled to be put to death this week by the United States Government. 

Not many people can say that they witnessed an execution. I can. 

I didn’t want to watch Texas put Anthony to death. But he was my friend, and he asked me to be there with him as his spiritual advisor. I’m the first to admit that I’m not much good at that “spiritual advisor” stuff, and I’m afraid my presence and my last-minute prayers were quite inadequate. 

The experience, however, solidified my feelings about the death penalty...something I find immoral. 

Sadly, our federal government has opted to resume this barbaric form of punishment. The Catholic Momentum Network has announced plans to conduct two Virtual Prayer Vigils on the scheduled dates for the executions this week. I’ll share the announcement. 

Together we will hold in prayer the victims, their loved ones, and all those who will be impacted by these acts of state-sanctioned violence. 

Virtual Prayer Vigil for William LeCroy 
Tuesday, Sept. 22  |  2-3 pm EDT

Virtual Prayer Vigil for Christopher Vialva 
Thursday, Sept. 24  |  2-3 pm EDT

“I hope you will join us in witnessing against these attacks on human dignity. Your prayers are an act of hope.”

This all comes in the week that we are mourning the loss of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Here is one of her observations re capital punishment: 

“People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty. I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve of execution-stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” 

Said Justice Ginsberg to a college audience: “If I were queen there would be no death penalty.” 

Alas, she is not the queen, and not even with us anymore. 

But you and I are still here, we have voices, and we have the ability to do something. 

If you are a person of faith, I invite you to participate in one or both of the prayer vigils. 

If you are a registered voter, I encourage you to express your opinion to your U.S. Representative and Senator. 

And if their opinions are different than yours, I encourage you to do something about it in November. 

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.

Sister Helen Prejean

Thursday, September 17, 2020

If happiness is a good night's sleep, some women aren't happy!


Deliberate sleep deprivation has been used for centuries as a form of torture.


Hundreds of women serving time with the Michigan Department of Corrections are complaining about sleep deprivation. Here’s the deal. 

Women’s Huron Valley is the only prison in Michigan that houses women. Some 2,000 convicts are incarcerated at this facility in Ypsilanti. There are actually two prison sections on the campus, East Side and West Side. At one time, the West Side was used for housing mentally ill male prisoners, and so large, strong fluorescent lights were installed in the ceiling. They were called “observation lights,” and their glow could light up the whole room. The lights were important and necessary for caring for these special needs people. 

Well, women occupy all of the housing units now, and they’re not mental cases. But, the “observation lights” on the west side remain, and said lights are keeping prisoners awake. The inmates don't like it, they've been complaining, but not much is happening. 

Our sources tell us that putting all the ladies in one prison meant that these cells on the west side had to be double-bunked. And that left inmates on the top bed just one yard away from these four-foot-long light fixtures. The light shines right in their eyes, and there’s no escaping it. 

How often do these lights get turned on, you ask? Not just once or twice: 9 PM, 10 PM, midnight, 2 AM, 5 AM and 6 AM. Residents of these housing units on the West Side no sooner get back to sleep when the lights come on again. 

We have friends in these units who swear that the sleep deprivation is having a detrimental effect on the physical, emotional and mental condition of prisoners. One inmate claimed the on-again/off-again light situation is triggering migraine headaches. 

It doesn’t bother the staff...they’re in the building to work, whether lights are on or off. 

It doesn’t bother the warden. It’s nice and dark in his bedroom at home. 

It doesn’t bother the MDOC people in Lansing. They get to go home at night. 

But it does bother hundreds of women on the West Side at WHV! 

It’s not fair, and something should be done about it! 

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.

E. Joseph Cossman


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

State COs are picketing! Are we listening?

Michigan prison guards are making some strong demands, and it’s time that somebody listens. 

A couple weeks ago the Michigan Corrections Organization organized a picket at both prison sites in Muskegon. This week they did the same at Marquette Branch Prison in the U.P. The MCO is a union that represents more than 6,000 corrections officers who serve in our 30 state prisons. 

The problem, simply stated: They’re shorthanded. 

Employees with the Michigan Department of Corrections say 750 officer vacancies statewide have made working at prisons dangerous. Byron Osborn, union president, is being quoted in media reports as saying that widespread mandatory overtime, sometimes several days a week, is normal practice. “It’s not uncommon for our folks to be on the clock for 24 hours because they can’t get relieved. We don’t have anybody to go relieve them.” 

We hear it from the prisoners’ perspective in our office. You know things aren’t good when you have inmates taking the side of the COs. Time and again we hear prisoners feeling sorry for officers who are working double shifts, so tired they can hardly see straight. 

The union is making some pretty strong demands. 

They want MDOC Director Heidi Washington replaced. And, they’re asking that the state legislature and the Governor make work of addressing this issue. 

We’re not going to get into pensions, and what the state ought to do about retirement for officers. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that recruiting people for a highly stressful position is difficult enough. Then, when you factor in other issues, like COVID 19 and working double-shifts, red flags abound. How are you going to entice people to make this a career when the people already employed hate to go to work? 

This cannot continue. Families, friends and loved ones of 35,000 men and women who reside in our state prisons expect them to be cared for and treated properly. That’s what the state promises when these people get locked up. That’s what our constitution guarantees. 

“We believe a complete overhaul in leadership is needed, and there also needs to be a commitment made by the legislature and the Governor’s office to address the recruitment and retention of corrections officers in Michigan,” said Osborn.

We’ve been critical of some officer behavior in the past, and we’d certainly love to see more training, especially in areas of handling the mentally challenged. But for now, we’re siding with these men and women on this immediate problem. 

It’s a difficult and thankless job, that of being a corrections officer. If we want good people doing these tasks, we’ve got to be good to them! 

Friends and family members of Michigan inmates should be contacting their state legislators and their Governor right now. 

Time’s a wastin’!


Sunday, September 6, 2020

Four Labor Day heroes nominated by prisoners

Labor Day, 2020, like none other in the history of the United States! 

While paying tribute to all laborers on this special day, it’s especially important that we honor first responders in the COVID crisis. The nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude! 

My focus today, however, is on four first responders in the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. These four people last month, while trying to cram in some last-minute summer vacation time and while working around a two-day J-Pay collapse, still managed to respond to 1,695 messages from prisoners or their loved ones! A one-month record! (There was a day, not that many years ago, when we thought 100 calls in one month was a big deal!) 

It’s no wonder so many prisoners are contacting our office. They’re hearing first-hand reports from their friends behind bars about an agency where people care, where people help, where people listen. 

Like Clement, who claims innocence and who needed legal files to prove it. HFP filed FOIA requests on his behalf. Based on the results, two powerful attorneys are taking on his case! 

Like Linda, a transgender inmate in a male prison, who struggles with dyslexia and ADD: “My bleakness turned into light by just having someone to listen and care about what I am going through as a forgotten person in prison.” 

Like David, who reported that, in his facility, maintenance took action to enforce social distancing, by forcing 60 prisoners “to share just 2 toilets, 2 sinks, and 1 urinal!” Thanks to HFP action, one day later the order was rescinded. 

Like Nelson, whose toothache got so bad he couldn’t sleep nights. He contacted our team.I wanted to let you know that the warden called health service here and told them to take care of my dental problem ASAP!” The next day the offending tooth was pulled. 

Heather, another transgender inmate, put it this way: “Without HFP I would still be lost, angry, and probably worse. Matt, Susie, Holly, Melissa, and all the volunteers at HFP are heroes and true credits to the human race.” 

On Labor Day, 2020, I salute Matt, Susie, Holly, Melissa, our wonderful gang of volunteers and our exceptional panel of medical and legal experts. You are, indeed, heroes! We know, because prisoners are telling us! It’s not only your work, it’s your heart! 

My dear friend Alma James Perry used to sing this old Mahalia Jackson gospel song when we held prison services together. I dedicate it now to our team: 

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 travelling wrong,

 Then my living shall not be in vain.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

On following rules: good or bad example for prisoners?

I love this quote by Albert Schweitzer: Example is leadership! 

If we want prisoners to be law-abiding citizens someday, it is important that all of us set good examples. The Grand Old Party did just the opposite last week. While prisoners are expected to follow rules and abide by policies, Republican leaders chose a different route at their national convention. 

On rules 

Many prisoners wind up going back to prison after they are paroled. NOT because they reoffended, but because they violated some rules. 

The same is true about prisoner misconduct “tickets.” Many times, the tickets are issued for the violation of a rule, rather than troublesome behavior. 

Now let’s talk about the convention. 

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in most political activity inside federal buildings or while on duty. 

Yet, the political confab barely got started when 

There was a presidential pardon from the white house;

The Secretary of State gave a political speech while on business in Jerusalem;

The First Lady spoke in the rose garden; and

The Acting Homeland Secretary presided over a Naturalization ceremony. 

On Policies 

Due to the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control has issued these policy guidelines for all Americans. 

On social or physical distancing: “stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms' length) from other both indoor and outdoor spaces.” 

On face masks:wear a mask in public settings and when around people who don't live in your household... 

Michigan prisoners have similar instructions from the Department of Corrections. In addition, to avoid personal contact, the department has stopped all personal prison visits. 

Now let’s check on what prisoners saw on TV at the political convention. 

No wearing of masks;

No social distancing;

All kinds of personal contact---even shaking of hands! 

On behalf of all my brothers and sisters behind bars, I ask: What kind of a message is this sending? Where is the respect for rules and policies? 

Don’t talk to me about political bias. If the shoe fits, ... 

I’m standing in solidarity with all occupants of prisons---inmates and guards. Rules are rules, policies are policies, and neither have been written or adopted to be disregarded by those of us in free society. 

“Example is leadership!”

Albert Schweitzer 

“To flaunt is not!”

Doug Tjapkes

Monday, August 31, 2020

A ray of sunshine, a glimmer of hope, for 2 MI prisoners!

Two innocent men behind bars have new hope today. That makes us very proud! 

As I’ve mentioned before, Michigan prisoners are not permitted to seek legal documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The act, adopted in 1976 so that all persons would have access to legal documents, got amended in 1994. Claiming that prisoners were abusing this privilege, the Michigan legislature determined that prisoners are not “persons,” and put a stop to this activity. 

Our position is that of many legal scholars: Denying prisoners the right to seek important legal documents by submitting FOIA requests actually deprives them of the right to due process of law. So, we file the claims for them. The word has quickly circulated among Michigan prisoners, and we are inundated with requests. To give you an idea, we’ve already filed more than 300 FOIA requests for prisoners so far this year. An amazing number when you consider the fact that we couldn’t file any, due to COVID, in March and April. 

But back to my story. 

A year or so ago Mr. K. contacted our office for FOIA assistance. He’d been trying to prove his innocence for the past 15 years, to no avail. Working hand in hand, he and Matt started retrieving important papers. I’ve just been notified by an attorney specializing in wrongful convictions that he and another lawyer believe the man has a case. They’re going to help! 

That makes two! Last year, documents retrieved through our FOIA assistance produced enough evidence for an Innocence Project to take on another guy’s case. 

Two doesn’t seem like very many. After all, an estimated 1,500 men and women in the Michigan prison system are innocent. Locked up for something they didn’t do. It’s a shameful statistic, and casts a dark shadow over our entire criminal justice system. 

BUT, two guys have new hope today, thanks to the diligent work of the HFP team! 

If this reminds you of the rejoicing in heaven over finding one “lost sheep,” in a parable that Jesus told, keep in mind that the other 99 were safe. In our case, the other 98 just haven’t proven their innocence yet. 

So yes, we’re rejoicing today. 

Tomorrow we’ll try again. 

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Lao Tzu

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fresh, clean water: a prison rarity!

As I sat in a prison waiting room, I noticed that all incoming employees were carrying their own water container.

 “What’s the deal,” I asked my prisoner friend? I should have known the answer. Because the prison water was terrible. He said the nasty water not only had color but also had odor. Yet, that’s what prisoners were stuck with. Staff brought in fresh water. 

It’s that way in many Michigan prisons, and yet our state does nothing about it.

A couple years ago prisoners filed a class action suit in St. Louis, Michigan, because the water in that city’s two state prisons was contaminated. They should not have been surprised when they lost that case over some dumb argument. Prisoners are used to getting crapped on. 

I’ve had reports most recently from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia about bad water. That’s the same prison where the MDOC Director and the warden proudly show off the Calvin University classroom project and the vocational job-training program. They make no mention of the stinky water. 

I have purposely waited to pass along this information because retaliation is rife in the prison system. Now that my reliable snitch is no longer there, here’s what I can tell you, straight from the whistle-blower’s lips: 

“All staff are advised not to drink from the potable water supply; instead, they are permitted to bring in water or purchase bottled water. Meanwhile, prisoners are forced to drink dirty water. The vendor contracted to serving vending machines here ceased placing bottled water in prisoner vending machines some years ago, but they do provide bottled water in staff and visiting room vending machines. This is not coincidence or oversight. Rather, it is intentional. Maintenance workers have confirmed to me that staff sink fixtures contain water filters. Prisoner sinks and water fountains do not. Prisoners who try to do something about it are met with either implied or overt threats by facility leadership. Elected block representatives who try are initially admonished. If they continue to raise concerns, they are indiscriminately transferred to another facility. I know of Calvin Prison Initiative students who were threatened with dismissal by MDOC staff if they didn’t abandon the issue of clean drinking water.” 

If you think the bad water problem is exclusive to the Handlon facility you’ve got another guess coming. We hear complaints like this all the time. Many of our prisoners are consuming, showering in and washing their clothes with bad water. 

But, with Michigan’s outstanding water history---lead poisoning in Flint and PFAS contamination all over the place---what else could we expect? 

An outrage! 

“Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”

– Luna Leopold

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

When will the AG speak for all deserving inmates?


When you’re the Michigan Attorney General, somebody listens. 

When you’re the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, that same somebody says, “Doug, who?” 

Case in point: the Michael Thompson story. 

Thompson is one of hundreds of unfortunate prisoners in Michigan who have been over-sentenced. He got 42-60 years on drugs and weapons charges. That type of sentence prevents him from even seeing the state Parole Board until he has served the minimum number. He was 45 years of age when he was sentenced, so some judge determined that should not have a chance for parole until he was 87 years of age! Shameful. 

Thompson is one of more than 4,000 Michigan prisoners who have contracted the COVID19 virus in recent weeks. 

And, Thompson is one of more than 100 patients at the Duane L. Waters Health Center, a wannabe-hospital located in Jackson. 

You get the picture, right? There are many prisoners in similar situations. Yet, wonder of wonders, Thompson is getting a Parole Board hearing this week. Why? Because the Michigan Attorney General has spoken. 

As newspaper stories are pointing out, Thompson’s case “had gained notoriety nationwide as a symbol for the draconian drug laws of the 1990s.” A “Free Michael Thompson” movement was started on social media. With that kind of support, the prisoner was then able to hire an attorney, who called for an expedited Parole Board hearing last January. Still nothing, until the Michigan Attorney General got involved. A couple weeks ago Dana Nessel wrote a highly publicized letter to Governor Whitmer, supporting calls for his release. 

Here’s the thing. 

There’s no question that Michael Thompson should be considered for release. He’s 69 years of age, he has served 24 years, he’s dealing with a serious medical condition and he’s on oxygen. We hope these efforts are successful, and we wish for him not only an early release, but also a successful recovery. 

BUT, he’s not the lone wolf! From the very beginning of this pandemic we’ve been trying to get the Attorney General’s attention, and we’ve been begging the Governor to take a fresh look at this. There are all kinds of people in the Michigan prison system who have been over-sentenced, who have served way more time than they deserved, who are ailing and elderly, and especially because of the coronavirus, who deserve immediate consideration for early release. They just haven’t been fortunate enough to have caught the attention of celebrities and major activists. Not the Attorney General or the Governor, either. 

They have caught the attention of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, however, and today, with our small voice and with little or no clout, we obey the command in Proverbs 31 to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves! 

Will someone please listen?

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Never sure who you'll meet at the ice cream stand!

There was a day when I was pretty upset with a local area church. 

Some years ago I had a meeting with a member of that church’s Missions Committee. A church member with a daughter in prison appreciated the assistance HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS had provided, and thought that perhaps his church might be willing to provide some financial support. 

I made, what I thought was a meaningful and accurate presentation, about our “action with compassion.” 

But, it wasn’t as effective as I had hoped. A few weeks later we were informed that the committee voted against supporting HFP. They felt the church should support only missions that “teach Jesus.” 

I was quite offended by that. It’s like the old story of church missionaries going to foreign countries and preaching the gospel to starving people. What the starving people needed was food, not Bible lessons. Later, with stomachs full, perhaps they could start thinking about their souls. 

You’ve heard my arguments before on this topic. There are wonderful agencies already teaching Jesus in the prisons. There is no other agency like ours, doing our best to model Jesus as we tend to the practical needs of prisoners. 

OK. That’s the preface to my story. Now this little anecdote. 

On a hot summer evening a few days ago I was standing outside a neighborhood ice cream hut, waiting for a couple of dessert cones for Marcia and me. I was properly masked and maintaining a social distance when a very nice woman came up to me---also masked---and said, “Excuse me.” She went on to say that she had intended to pay for my ice cream, but didn’t get there in time. But, she said, she also felt the need to say a prayer with me. Was there something she could pray for? 

I assured her there was, indeed. I explained my work with prisoners, and the terrible situation behind bars right now because of extreme heat and the pandemic. “Prisoners need our prayers,” I said. 

Without hesitation she offered a very short, but meaningful prayer, for prisoners and for HFP. 

She said “Amen” just as the ice cream cones arrived. I thanked her, and as we parted ways. I asked her name. “Rachel,” she said…and then she gave me the name of the church she represented. The whole episode took only a few minutes. 

Not until the next day did I realize that this was the same church that opted not to give us any money. 

And I could hear God saying, “Dollars aren’t the only kind of support you need.” 

Thank you, Lord, for that reminder. 

Thank you, Rachel, for that prayer.




Wednesday, August 12, 2020

HFP Nationwide? It’s time!

The secret’s out. Now it’s time to share. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is no longer one of Michigan’s best-kept secrets. 

When I started this outfit nearly 20 years ago, we not only had no eye on the future, but we didn’t even know where we were headed. We simply recognized that my prisoner friend/brother Maurice Carter insisted there should be an organization to help inmates, and someone had to make it happen. 

Over the years we fine-tuned the name of the agency, as well as the work. Now, the word is out. Someone cares about the everyday needs and problems prisoners face, and is willing to help. The news is spreading like wildfire, and our team is struggling to keep up. 

Here’s a glimpse at ways we try to aid Michigan prisoners: 

-Help prisoners struggling with proper medical care or troubling medical questions;

-Help prisoners file appropriate FOIA requests (Michigan is one of only a few states not permitting inmates to file their own queries under the Freedom of Information Act;)

-Help prisoners track down and find missing family members and loved ones;

Help prisoners find important information;

Help prisoners prepare commutation applications;

Help prisoners prepare to meet the Parole Board. 

Following years of steady growth, we experienced sharp increases in 2019. Our staff and volunteers added over 1,000 names to our list of prisoners being helped, and they responded to nearly 10,000 messages via email, snail mail and telephone. 

Then, in 2020, came the pandemic and a hotter-than-usual Michigan summer, and all hell broke loose! CEO Matt Tjapkes reports that, as of this week, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has topped all of last year’s numbers! A deluge! 

To put it in perspective, we’re adding 5 names per day to the list of prisoners we are helping; we’re responding to 40-50 messages per day from inmates or their representatives---7 days a week. Numbers support our claim that we’ve touched the lives of more than 10% of Michigan’s prisoners! 

How do incarcerated persons feel? HFP is receiving a record number of personal contributions from inmates…men and women who earn a few dollars a week! The ultimate compliment!

The time is now for HFP to consider methods of expansion into other states. Perhaps it can be as simple as designing a franchise system. 

Consultant Dr. David Schuringa said, while helping us formulate a strategic plan: “No one does what you’re doing. No one wants to do what you’re doing!” 

Prisoners in other states deserve the same kind of “action with compassion” provided by our team of staff members, volunteers, and professional consultants. And I’m betting someone wants to do it! 

May these two Bible verses be the incentive. From the Old Testament: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.  From the New Testament: …remember those in prison as if you were together with them. 

What are we waiting for?





Wednesday, August 5, 2020

If our goal is vengeance, we're doing just fine!

Someone once labeled these as The Seven Last Words of the Church: “We never did it that way before!” 

For years American penologists have been studying alternatives to incarceration, but I’m afraid the same philosophy is winning. We just can’t get past our penchant for using jails and prisons to “punish and deter.” Never mind how ineffective or inefficient the process. 

When Roger Stone was sentenced to a federal prison earlier this year, even conservative Detroit News writer Nolan Finley joined my bandwagon: “Up to 39% of the 2 million Americans rotting away in prison cells shouldn't be there, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.” 

It makes me sick when I think of the number of people I’ve seen behind bars in the last two decades who were over-sentenced, who shouldn’t be there at all, or who could benefit themselves and society by serving a positive, alternative sentence. 

Hear me out on alternative sentencing. 

You may remember the high-profile national case some years ago, when billionaire Martha Stewart was sent to prison for corporate fraud. Does it take a genius to figure out that, instead of paying for her room and board, we could assign this nutrition expert to community service, perhaps helping poor people find a healthy way to buy food and prepare meals on a low budget? Duh! 

Years ago friends of a woman who had embezzled from her employer met with me to complain about her sentence. The accountant had no criminal record, but wrongly chose to steal the money to cover her husband’s financial indiscretions. I’m not defending the crime, but I’m saying that a professional accountant could be handed an effective community service assignment. Just imagine mentoring and tutoring possibilities!  Less cost. Greater benefits! 

The researchers Nolan Finley referenced earlier “…found 14% of those incarcerated have already served long sentences, are reformed and no longer present a threat to society. Another 25% are non-violent offenders who…are not likely to repeat.” 

Concludes Finley: Locking them away for months or years serves no societal purpose that couldn't be achieved by other means. It simply sates our thirst for vengeance. We have to get over our insistence that a prison sentence is the only way to deliver justice to the victims of crime. It may make us feel good to see Roger Stone and others like him marched into a cell, but that satisfaction is not worth the price in taxpayer dollars and ruined lives.  

I’m sure I won’t see it anymore in my lifetime, but I’m still hoping for the day when U.S. penal experts say, “We’ll never do it that way again!” 

May God grant us wisdom and foresight, as we consider humanity for prisoners.

Friday, July 31, 2020

What not to read in the doctor's office

I’m sitting on a little bench in the examining room, waiting for the doctor, who is about to perform my annual physical examination. No magazines allowed, thanks to COVID 19. So, I scroll through the daily email dispatch from the wonderful Marshall Project on my telephone screen.

Item #1, Nearly 79,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 in state and federal penitentiaries.

Item #2, New Jersey legislators are poised to pass a COVID-19-related measure that would authorize the release of about 3,000 state prisoners who are within eight months of their release date. (Something like that could and should be happening in Michigan, but it is not!)

Item #3, Death row prisoners in California are dying of COVID-19 while the state’s attorney general defends dubious convictions and sentences.

Item #4, Patricia Ann Prewitt is the longest-serving woman in Missouri’s prison system, sent away for life after being convicted of murdering her husband in 1984. There was little evidence against her—she professes her innocence 35 years later.

Item #5, William Haymon has spent more than 500 days in an adult jail in Mississippi without any charges filed against him and without prosecutors presenting evidence to a grand jury. Haymon is 16 years old.

Item #6, Prosecutors in Miami-Dade, Florida, dropped charges against a county prisoner after a video shows him, handcuffed and with a cane, being attacked by a guard.

I stopped reading, as the door opened.

“Do I detect I spike in your blood pressure, Mr. Tjapkes?”


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

On prisoner deaths, we opt for compassion!

A reader took me to task recently for suggesting that a dying inmate should have been released to spend his remaining days at home. She checked his arrest record, and based on his checkered past, it was her decision that the state did exactly the right thing by keeping him behind bars for his last breath.

I respect her comments and position. I have never written editorials in an effort to convince readers or listeners that I am right. My goal has always been to stimulate discussion on a particular topic.

I think it’s important, then, in response to the reader’s observations, that I explain once again, our philosophy for helping Michigan inmates. I found it interesting that she checked his “rap sheet.” That’s something we just don’t do. The crimes they’ve committed and their sorry track records have nothing to do with the quality or depth of our help and compassion.

There’s a good reason why I call this “Jesus work.” Our Lord was notorious for showing kindness to tax collectors, lepers, adulterers and the like. Said Pastor Randy Hyde, of Little Rock, Arkansas: “…if he saw people who had need of what he uniquely was able to offer, he gravitated toward them and they toward him. In fact, he was quite careless about the company he kept. Why, he just threw his mercy and his grace around as if he had an unlimited supply of it. And the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t like it.”

Father Greg Boyle pretty much summarizes our thoughts on people behind bars:

“I’ve never met an ‘evil person,’ ‘cause the minute you start to know what people carry, it breaks through and you stand in awe at what folks have to carry rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”

So, that’s our attitude here. We offer kindness and compassion to all, no questions asked.

After all, says Pastor Hyde, “If we want to keep company with Jesus, we might just have to re-think our daily agenda and go where he goes, do what he does, love those he loves.”

When we moved into our new quarters, we had quite an internal debate among our team as to what quote should be painted on the wall of the HFP conference room. Matt and I settled on this, from Father Boyle:

You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

16 years later, whaddaya think, Maurice?

“Hey, Big Bro, I can see us now, working on cases…”

Maurice Carter always called me “Big Bro,” pronounced “bruh.” We were standing on the banks of the Grand River in Lamont, Michigan…Maurice living in an adult care facility up on the hill.

I’m thinking about it today because it was exactly 16 years ago that I accompanied him as he walked out of prison. He had served 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

In the delightful stage play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER, written by Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne, Maurice has a poignant chat with me. He’s in heaven, and I’m still here on earth. I’m thinking how that chat might be today, as I reflect on our story.

I spent nearly ten years of my life trying to free Maurice. He walked out on July 24, 2004, and lived in freedom for just three months. The Hepatitis C that he contracted while in prison claimed his life.

In our riverside conversation, leaning on a fence, Maurice was fantasizing about that day he and I would be working side by side in an organization called INNOCENT. Years later, that name would be changed to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

Maurice envisioned it as a relaxing atmosphere, with a conference table, where he and I would sit reviewing cases of inmates before making a decision as to whether to help that individual. Well, things didn’t quite turn out that way.

Were he and I to have a similar conversation today, he would be speechless, dumbfounded! He could never imagine arriving in the office on a Monday morning, only to have 100 email messages from Michigan prisoners waiting in our “inbox” for a prompt response. And, not to be confused with reviewing one case, our team is responding to 1,500 messages a month!

He would be blown away to know that we have our own offices, a staff of 5, a great list of eager and dedicated volunteers, a panel of doctor and lawyer consultants, and an amazing Board of Directors committed to our mission!

And the messages.

I know he would be proud to hear from James. HFP helps inmates reconnect with loved ones. “My son is back in my life! Thank you.”

I know he would feel the heartbreak. Allen died last weekend. Said his ailing mom: “I saved almost a thousand dollars from my disability checks so I could pay for his cremation. Now the funeral home tells me I owe another 700 dollars! Where the hell am I going to get another 700 dollars?”

We found it for her.

“You’re doing good, Big Bro!”

Yes we are, Maurice, yes we are. And you started it all! RIP.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Did this black life matter? Allen Hollins, Jr. 1986 – 2020

I was going to make the statement that, to the State of Michigan, black lives do not matter. But that wouldn’t be quite fair, or quite accurate.

Here’s what I can say with some degree of accuracy: The State of Michigan doesn’t give a damn about sick and dying prisoners!

Yes, my anger is evident today. It’s right at the surface, after a tearful telephone chat with the mother of Allen Hollins. Allen died Saturday afternoon at Henry Ford Hospital just 7 minutes before his mother arrived to say goodbye. He was 34.

Readers of this column will remember when we launched an effort to get him released from prison, to die surrounded by family. His mother, Mrs. Yvette Patton, first contacted our office in January. Surgery had been performed a year earlier to remove cancer from behind his eye. Doctors thought they got it all. They didn’t. The cancer returned with a vengeance.

Optimistic despite MDOC warnings that efforts to obtain compassionate releases rarely succeed, we jumped through all the hoops. By early spring, HFP had rushed a commutation application, signed by his mom, through the process and into the hands of the Parole Board. Letters were sent to the Governor. Mrs. Patton was assured by the PB that they would get back to her. She’s still waiting.

So, here’s why I make the board statement that the State of Michigan doesn’t give a damn about sick, dying inmates in our state prisons.

Medical Care

If the Michigan Department of Corrections really cared, they’d provide better medical care for prisoners. It cannot be proven, but there’s strong indication that if Allen Hollins’ cancer had been properly handled from the beginning, he’d still be here today.

Commutation Process

If the Parole Board really cared, applications like that for Allen Hollins, could and should be expedited.

Medically frail prisoner bill

If the State Legislature really cared, lawmakers would have drawn up a reasonable and effective bill to see that sick and dying prisoners get released. Instead, they rewrote and revised a bill, signed by the Governor in May, 2019, that was a cruel hoax. It specified criteria that few prisoners could meet. I checked today on how many prisoners have been released under that bill. Here’s the State of Michigan response:

To date zero prisoners have been released under the specific criteria of the Medically Frail Legislation. The Parole Board is reviewing a number of cases that may be eligible, but the definition for “medically frail” in the bill is narrow and has to be applied by the board consistent with the law.

And, finally

If the Governor really cared, she’d do something about it. So far, nada.

I rest my case.


RIP, my friend Allen.

We tried.

We really, really did.