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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Innocent until proven guilty? You must be kidding!

I love a good thriller, and Michael Connelly’s new book The Law of Innocence is one of the best I’ve read in a long time! 

It reminds me of two very important points that we often ignore, or just don’t believe: The presumption of innocent until proven guilty just isn’t true, and never has been; and, defense attorneys have an unfair, uphill fight in U.S. courtrooms. 

I still remember my thoughts, when covering my first trial as a young reporter. “Wow, the prosecutor has a strong edge, here!” But, in my naivete, I just assumed that’s the way it was supposed to be. We want bad guys off the street, right? 

Connelly’s fictional defense attorney Mickey Haller insists that going to trial is really a gamble: The prosecution is always the house in this game. It holds the bank and deals the cards. 

The plight worsens substantially for the accused if that person is poor and/or black. 

Here in Michigan, the situation used to be terrible...one of the worst in the country. I saw this first hand when I began helping Maurice Carter in the mid-1990s. 

Here was Maurice, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, arrested in Michigan on the testimony of a jail-house snitch for a crime he did not commit. His court-appointed lawyer, who had a reputation of falling asleep in the courtroom and of fleecing black people, never even met with him until the day of the trial. The only witness to the crime, who could prove that Maurice was not the shooter, was assured by this lawyer that “everything would be all right.” It wasn’t. Maurice spent the next 29 years in prison! Convicted with no evidence, no fingerprints, no weapon and no motive. All-white jury. 

While I am encouraged by progress in Michigan, I stress that the battle to help poor people facing criminal charges is far from balanced. 

In 2013 our legislature established the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which set up very decent standards and insisted that those standards be met state-wide. Dramatic progress has been made. And, good news...there’ll be many more improvements. Good thing, because we have a long way to go! 

BUT, what happens in Lansing and what actually happens in the courtroom are two different things. Especially for that person hoping to prove innocence. 

Fictional attorney Mickey Haller says: There is nothing pure about the law when you get inside a courtroom. It’s a bare-knuckle fight, and each side uses whatever it can to bludgeon the other. 

I conclude with these words of realism from another author, John Grisham: 

“The presumption of innocence is now the presumption of guilt. The burden of proof is a travesty because the proof is often lies. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt means if he probably did it, then let’s get him off the streets.” 

Sad. But spot on.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Can helping prisoners be measured?

“So, how do you measure your success?” 

The question came to us from a potential new staff member. The HFP team and members of our Human Relations Committee were conducting interviews for someone who may be called upon to help us raise funds. “When approaching foundations for money,” she said, “I have learned that they want to see positive results.”

Fair Question. Fair observation. 

I have long held Father Greg Boyle’s opinion, that success is valuable only when it is a by-product of faith. As he puts it, success can be set up by choosing to work with those most likely to produce positive results, rather than those who most need support. In other words, HFP does not choose who it will help in order to stack the deck in the success column! We help everyone who asks. 

The neat thing was the quick response to her question from the front lines...not with numbers, but with stories. 

Susie told of a prisoner who had serious physical issues that made conditions for living with another inmate almost impossible. With a lot of persuasion, we were finally able to get him a single-person room, and he’s beside himself with gratitude. 

Matt told of a grateful prisoner who is being reconnected with his long-lost son, thanks to the hard work of our office. 

I related the fact that I had just signed letters of thanks to 5 prisoners for financial donations to HFP, ranging from $10 to $20. I explained the significance of these gifts, based on the few cents per hour that these people earn at their prison jobs. 

I told of holding the door open for an HFP client who recently stepped into freedom...how we hugged, no words, silently weeping, not even noticing the cold wind and rain. 

The HFP story is not an easy pitch to a foundation. 

We don’t have records showing that we rescued x number of pets, or served x number of meals, or helped x number of abused women or kids. 

Back to Father Boyle again: “Mother Teresa’s take: ‘We are not called to be successful, but faithful.’” 

He goes on: “Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I'm not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.” 

We work with them all, in our little Spring Lake office. Thus, moving, heart-touching stories every day, because we’re staying faithful. 

Prisoners get it. They’re flooding our office with 50-100 contacts a day! 

Now to convince foundations.



Monday, November 9, 2020

Juvie lifers deserve better from the media...and all of us!

Criticizing the media is a real challenge for me. You see, I am a part of it! 

That’s right. Long before I was a prisoner advocate, I was a reporter, and a darn good one! 

Today, I’m fuming about headlines in weekend MLive newspapers. Yet, I must confess that at one time I might have done the same thing! Might have, that is, before I got into this prisoner business. 

Here are the headlines that raised my hackles: “Three young women, bound, raped and strangled.” “The murders in Kalamazoo that summer nearly five decades ago left the community in fear.” “Now, the convicted killer wants to be a free man.”   

The story is that of Michigan inmate Brent Koster who committed the crime when he was 15. He’s 64 now, and was granted a hearing because the Supreme Court has ruled that we can’t send juveniles to prison for life without parole. He’s been in prison for 45 years. 

I voiced similar complaints in 2014 when the same writer, John Agar, gave the same media treatment to the release of TJ Spytma, age 54, who committed a similar crime at the age of 15. Those stories and headlines generated pages of venomous comments from readers. 

Keep in mind that juveniles have always been treated differently at the state level. We prohibit juveniles from voting, buying cigarettes and alcohol, serving on juries, and getting married without parental consent. 

We, and especially the media, would do well to recognize that The Supreme Court did not make this ruling lightly. 

In 2012, the Court ruled that judges must consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile offender, banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for all juveniles. Then, in 2016, this decision was made retroactive to those sentenced prior to 2012. 

I’m hoping for the day when TV News Directors and newspaper editors instruct their news and headline writers to consider both sides of the story, equally, with headlines that reflect same. It would be fair to create some headlines that stress rehabilitation in prison, as well as accounts of personal growth and maturity. Insisting that a person remain behind bars after 45 years for committing a crime at the age of 15 is more than favoring the rights of victims. It’s cruel and unusual punishment...the very thing the Eighth Amendment was hoping to prevent. And, slanted headlines and an imbalance of copy material do not make for fair coverage! 

In a time of chaos and divisiveness, I still believe that advocates for prisoners and victims are not opponents. We’re all in this together!  Rehabilitation, not retribution, is the path of decency and humanity. 

See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. I Thessalonians 5:15 

And in order to make any progress, we must convince the media as well. 

I speak from experience: I’m on both sides!

 

 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Post-election: Some new in office, some stay. Wrongly convicted: They stay!

Marcia and I were watching the news one evening last week, prior to the election. The non-stop political advertising was overbearing. TV news was filled with “what ifs;” and, opposing candidates and opposing parties were issuing dire warnings.

I’m an old broadcaster and an old newsman, and all that stuff is ho hum to me. 

But then, Channel 8’s investigative reporter Ken Kolker presented a lengthy expose' on what appeared to be a wrongful conviction. That started my blood boiling. 

Listening to the U of M Innocence Clinic’s fine leader, David Moran, telling a story of shoddy police work and all the other ingredients that led to locking up an innocent man ruined the evening for me. 

The prisoner’s name is Jeff Titus, he’s now 68. He’s been in prison 18 years, convicted in a cold case investigation. The actual crime, the shooting and killing of two hunters in a state game area, occurred 30 years ago. 

Those who know Doug Tjapkes know that I got into this prisoner advocacy business by getting involved in a case of actual innocence. Maurice Carter served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. 

Many times, when there is a wrongful conviction, the real criminal remains out on the street. That was the situation in the Carter story. Investigators in the Titus case also knew who the believed perp was. That guy, however, died in prison before this case got cleared. 

Here’s what I’m getting at: While participants in our nation’s wonderful system of justice plod along, taking their sweet time to get this Titus thing resolved (there’s little concern, no need to hurry, when one can sleep home every night as a free person), an innocent man remains behind bars. 

The national election is over, some races are still undecided. The late results and the ensuing challenges will go on ad nauseum. 

BUT, no matter what happens, the State of Michigan and the United States of America will continue to function. It may not be the way I like it, or the way I wish it were, but there’ll still be business as usual. 

Not so for Jeff Titus. 

Who knows when he will be freed? Who cares? 

I can tell you this. There’s an average of 38 innocent people sitting in each one of Michigan’s state prisons right now! Two of those facilities are 7 miles from my house. That means that, not 10 miles from where I sit, 75 guys are looking out through the bars wondering when and if they’ll ever get out. One thing is for certain: It won’t be in a hurry. 

I’m sickened by politics and unsavory public officials. 

I’m enraged by wrongful convictions. 

You should be, too.



Friday, October 30, 2020

Would I be concerned about others? I wonder.

The report of Reggie’s death got me to thinking. 

Reggie was not only old, but he was an old-timer, having received a sentence of life-without-parole back in the 70s. He was never going to get out of prison. He passed into glory the other day. 

I got to wondering what I would do, how I would behave, if I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life behind bars, due to my own foolishness, without even a glimmer of hope. 

My preacher friend Al used to say that if he ever got locked up for a crime he did not commit, he would be a “raging bull” in prison. But Reggie was guilty. He was contrite, but that makes little difference with a life sentence.

Seems to me like it would be quite easy to assume a pretty dark view of everything. To be angry at the world, as well as myself. To assume a pretty selfish attitude...my wishes and desires come first, to hell with anyone else. To reject any programs for self-improvement. What would be the point? Who could care? Who would know the difference? 

We actually know people in prison who think like that. Back to Reggie again. 

Reggie served as chairman of the National Lifers of America chapter in his prison...a post he had held for many years. And the time is past due that I pay tribute to the men and women who are members of and work in this organization. Formed back in the 80s, the NLA is a strong in-house advocacy agency. Most prisons have a chapter. These people communicate with legislators, the Governor’s office, and the Department of Corrections. They meet, they discuss, they take action...all the types of things that I wonder whether I might even consider if I were to end up in prison for life. 

I’ve had personal experience with this organization. They’ve invited me to come and speak. I was even invited to sit in on an NLA Board of Directors meeting. I was so impressed! 

The NLA members destroy the typical stigmatized impressions that go through our minds about a rowdy, scary, scruffy bunch of heathens. If you didn’t see their prison blues, and feel the ominous staring of guards, the atmosphere of intelligent discourse and of kindness and consideration would seem much like that in civic or church meetings. Perhaps even better. Their goals reach beyond their personal plight. They are thinking of others. 

A rich lesson, important reminder, for all of us,...especially right now.

Reminds me of these words in an old gospel song:

Lord, help me live from day to day

In such a self-forgetful way

That even when I kneel to pray

My prayer shall be for others. 

RIP, Reggie. Bless you and your NLA friends for thinking of “others!”

 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Now let me tell you about Mark!

It’s funny how things work.

Two days ago I wrote a piece for this column about my brother Maurice Carter, a black man from Gary, Indiana, who spent 29 years in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit. I spent the last decade of his life at his side, trying to get him out of there. And when that finally happened, he lived for only three months. Maurice died exactly 16 years ago. 

Reliving that experience over the weekend, however, left me in a melancholy mood that wasn’t easy to shake. 

But, as the old gospel songwriter exclaims, Joy Comes in the Morning. 

On this dark, cold, rainy morning, I found myself in the car heading for Ionia, Michigan, and the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility. Pastor Nate Visker and I would be there to greet another very special friend, Mark Hartman, as he tasted freedom for the first time in nearly 12 years. 

But here’s the kicker: I would never have met Mark Hartman if it hadn’t been for Maurice Carter! 

I’ll give you the short version. 

Mark, a businessman from New York State, had no prison record. As he sat in the Earnest C. Brooks CF in Muskegon wondering how life had taken such a sour turn over a trumped-up charge in Berrien County, a fellow prisoner handed him a copy of my book SWEET FREEDOM. 

Two guys getting railroaded into prison in the same county caught his attention, and he decided to pursue that white Hollander who had helped Maurice. That was in 2009. Some weeks later, I paid Mark a visit at Brooks, we met face to face, and the rest is history. 

I introduced him to a couple of my friends in the clergy. One thing led to another, and Mark enrolled in The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) by Prison Fellowship. Upon completing that three-year-program he was accepted as one of the very first prisoner/students in the Calvin Prison Initiative. He graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree!

Mark is a free man today. We celebrate that good news! 

His words: “I have long envisioned myself sharing the story of how a merciful God answered one of my most fervent prayers---offered up in the Berrien County Jail---manifested by the Lord’s refusal to abandon me following an arrest and malicious prosecution in the twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan---the same towns where an out-of-state stranger named Maurice Henry Carter was once treated less than human…all for doing nothing, really, except just being there, an outsider, like me. And sadly, being an African-American, unlike me. The Maurice and Doug story still resonates loudly, particularly in today’s troubled times. It is clear to see that not only do ‘black lives matter’ to Doug and Humanity for Prisoners, but all human lives matter.”

Including Mark's life.

 


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Maurice Henry Carter March 29, 1944 – October 25, 2004

Some things were never the same after that memorable October 25, 16 years ago. Some things never changed.

What changed the most was my life! 

My two careers had centered on two of my favorite things: radio and music. My 29 years as a radio broadcaster, and 21 years as a church organ salesman were just exquisite. But that all changed in the mid-1990s when I met an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, sitting in the Michigan prison system and claiming wrongful conviction. No big deal, right? All prisoners say they’re innocent, right? 

Well, the old news reporter in me smelled a rat, and I wasn’t wrong. This was an innocent man who had been caged in the hoosegow since the 1970s for something he didn’t do. Thus began a 9-year effort to free a wrongly convicted prisoner the likes of which had never been seen in the State of Michigan. 

Sadly, Maurice Carter, who over time became my brother and a member of my family, was never exonerated. His release in July, 2004, was granted by Governor Granholm because he was dying of Hepatitis C. His freedom lasted only three months, to the day. 

The bad news first. 

-Prisoners are still being wrongly convicted.

-Prisoners are still being denied adequate health care.

-Tommie Lee, the thug who actually committed the crime, is still free, laughing and boasting how he shot “that white cop.”

 Now the good news. 

-When I met Maurice, he was a forgotten man, and had few friends. When he died, he was a celebrity, and surrounded by love.

-His story, now being told in book form and a stage-play, has inspired and continues to inspire thousands.

-The project we started at his behest is now a leading prisoner advocacy agency in the State of Michigan, responding to nearly 2,000 calls a month and touching the lives of prisoners daily!

As I reflect on this today, in my own sunset years, I find the words, scribbled in a note to me by my dear friend and former pastor Keith Tanis, still relevant: 

It was an amazing year---Maurice getting outta jail, and then outta here altogether.

Heaven is closer. Life is precious!

Keep praising the Christ.

Drink good wine.

Laugh a lot. 

RIP, my brother Maurice. We’ll meet again.

 

 

Monday, October 19, 2020

No more "Lock her up" talk!

 “Lock her up!” 

That was a popular phrase during the 2016 presidential campaign. The chant at Trump rallies was in response to perceived indiscretions by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

Four years later, the roles got reversed when a New York Times expose revealed that the President has been paying little if any income tax. “Lock him up,” chanted attendees of a Joe Biden rally. 

Last weekend, the chant got revived just north of here in Muskegon, where President Trump cited a recent court ruling against our own Governor Whitmer. “Lock her up,” shouted the crowd. 

And to all people who attend political rallies for both parties, I shout back No! No! No! We don’t want anybody to lock up anybody! 

Our staff handles an average of more than 60 calls a day from prisoners or their loved ones, sharing horror stories from behind bars. You have no idea! 

Do you really want to recommend that anyone be placed behind bars? Really? 

-Ask the parent of a daughter who is struggling with pregnancy while in prison.

-Ask the kids who have parents serving life without parole.

-Ask the wife of a prisoner who tested positive for COVID 19, but cannot get treatment.

-Ask the girl-friend of an inmate who cannot call her because the gangs are controlling the prison phones.

-Ask the man whose elderly father is being extorted by gang bangers behind bars.

-Ask the mother whose mentally challenged son is regularly abused by guards.

-Ask the sister of a woman being deprived of sleep by an annoying cell light fixture. 

Says American historian Howard Zinn: “It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.” 

Some will argue that these chants are just in fun, just part of the rally frenzy...it’s all in jest. 

To quote Molly, from a favorite old radio show: “’t’ain’t funny, McGee!” 

In August, 1988, George H. W. Bush received his party's nomination for President. In his acceptance speech, he called for a "kinder, gentler nation." 

That’s exactly what is needed right now. 

A pastor friend this week wondered, “how you can preach your butt off every week about Jesus and then have your folks run off to a political rally and shout "Lock her up!"  Does it make any difference?” 

Yes, it does. It can start with two people: you and me. 

I saw a t-shirt the other day that says, Be you, not them! 

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4:32 

Let’s start today.

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Let prisoners see funeral videos!

 Grieving is important because it allows us to ‘free-up’ energy that is bound to the lost person, object, or experience—so that we might re-invest that energy elsewhere. Until we grieve effectively we are likely to find reinvesting difficult; a part of us remains tied to the past.

University of Washington 

Over the past two decades I’ve done a lot of hurting with prisoners. Manifestations and expressions of grief can be elusive when you lose loved ones, and are unable to be present at a wake, at family gatherings, or especially at funeral or memorial services. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections will permit some prisoners to be released for a few hours when a loved one dies, under certain circumstances. But, it is costly and it is risky. It’s costly because the prisoner and/or family must underwrite the cost of prison guards who will perform this transfer. And it’s risky because there is a shortage of guards in Michigan, and it’s entirely possible at the last minute that the officers may be assigned overtime and therefore cannot implement the transfer. In situations like that, disappointment is added to heart-break. 

We think there’s a partial solution to this. It’s not a perfect substitute, but it is not costly and it is not risky. We are suggesting that the prisoner be allowed to watch a video of the memorial service. To that end, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has submitted a request for a specific policy on the issue to Heidi Washington, MDOC Director. 

A specific policy is necessary because, based on our experience, prison wardens may not be open to the idea. 

In 2016 Mark’s mother died in her home town in the State of New York. Obviously, the MDOC would not allow the prisoner to travel that far for a memorial service. But, the state would not permit him to see a video, either! A recording of the Catholic Mass had been sent to Mark on a thumb drive. The prison chaplain agreed to play the video on his office laptop, where he would also remain present during the viewing. No soap. The warden said he didn’t want to “open that door.” 

Very recently we tried, once again, to make provisions for a prisoner in the U.P. to watch a video of his brother’s funeral service. Nope. Couldn’t make it happen. 

And so, our formal request for a policy change. Seems like it would be a winning situation for everyone. It wouldn’t cost the state any money. And, it would enable a prisoner to better grieve the loss of a family member. We’ll let you know how Lansing responds. 

It’s humanity for prisoners that we seek. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Matthew 5:7




Saturday, October 10, 2020

Shouldn't happen to a dog, let alone model prisoners!

Some of Michigan’s 29 prisons that just seem to be “hot spots” for trouble. When prisoner reports come in from some of those facilities, eyebrows are hardly raised. We don’t like it, but we sort of expect it. 

Not so, however, for the R.A. Handlon CF in Ionia. That’s where wardens and MDOC officials have proudly trotted out the college credit program offered by Calvin University, and the job training Vocational Village. Exceptional programs. Exceptional prisoners. 

Let me be clear about why I’m focused on this today. I’m NOT saying it’s bad because exemplary inmates shouldn’t be treated this way. What you are about to read here should not happen to any Michigan prisoner...not the worst of the gang-bangers, not the trouble-makers in Level Five! 

OK. Now the words from our whistle-blower:

 

I want to let you know about what is happening here at R.A. Handlon. 

Following a spate of drug overdoses, administration has chosen to respond by locking down the entire compound. It is no mystery who the real culprits are here, yet this issue has been met with derision and the usual ineptitude: punitive measures imposed upon all, effectively dispensing "kindergarten justice." 

Worth noting is the fact that drugs are NOT entering the facility by family or friends of prisoners because visitation was cancelled statewide effective Friday, 3/13/2020. Anything illegal coming into MTU through regular U.S. mail suggests either dereliction of duty or complicity of mailroom personnel to allow contraband into the facility. If not them, who else is left? 

In D-Unit, one of two housing units shared by students and graduates of two programs: Calvin University's CPI and the Vocational Village skilled trades, we have been locked in our rooms since 1:10 PM Tuesday, 10/6. Please note, these are where level 1 and level 2 prisoners peacefully cohabitate together to lead positive programming. 

Given that we are keyed-in our rooms all day and all night, there's no ability to use restrooms when most necessary, no access to showers, no laundry, and little-to-no effort made by shift command or unit officers to accommodate the most basic or fundamental human needs. Men are being forced to throw human waste outside their windows because it is the only option during many hours! This is not only disgusting, it merits public disclosure. Further, normal access to outside communication is denied. 

Someone in Lansing should know about this inhumane treatment we are being subjected to. Access to restrooms, showers, and drinking water are basic human needs and a must! 

Grievance forms are unavailable. Even if we could gain access to forms, we do not have the ability to file it because we cannot get past the desk to unit mailboxes. 

 

Shameful! Here is the slogan for the Michigan Department of Corrections: Committed to Protect, Dedicated to Success. Years ago, the old slogan was, Seeking Excellence Every Day. To which my friend Ronnie used to add, and never finding it! 

Indeed.

 

 

 


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

No presidential treatment for this COVID patient!

Louie isn’t his real name. Louie is one of our whistle-blowers in the Muskegon Correctional Facility, so we’re protecting his identity. 

Louie managed to avoid the coronavirus for a while, but in that particular prison it became almost impossible. 

His story. 

I started getting a bad sore throat last week. The sore throat turned into a horrible (worst I ever had) bronchial infection. It affected my mind in such a way that extreme anxiety set in. I would sweat profusely. My heart would race. I could not breathe. I would repeatedly hyperventilate. I thought I was either having a heart attack or a stroke. I began to have panic attacks. I couldn't sleep for fear of dying. I didn't sleep for 3 days. I felt extremely light headed and claustrophobic, to near insanity. There came a time where I made my peace with God and just waited for the death which did not come. 

I begged the CO's for help. I was told to wait for a nurse to make their rounds. The first nurse instructed me to kite mental health...she thought I was just suffering from a panic attack. The second nurse barely spoke English, and didn't even report my condition to anyone. I had to chase down a male nurse, and explained that I needed help. I never heard anything back from him. I sent out 2 kites, one to mental health and one to healthcare, begging for help. I sent those kites 4 days ago and still haven't heard anything back from either of them. I have not heard from anyone period. They haven't even been by to check on me. 

I am fortunate that the Lord spared me. I am sore all over. Friday afternoon I finally fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. The claustrophobic feelings and anxiety let up quite a bit, and the other symptoms began to let up as well. The fever finally broke last night. I am much better today (9 days from when it started). 

I was a very healthy person. I finished 2nd on the compound last year in the power-lifting competition at 53 years old. I work out 4x a week. I don't say this to toot my own horn. I say this to show how badly it affected a very healthy individual. How much worse would the older and less active guys have it? 

On the heels of national news coverage this week, it seemed appropriate to show the contrast between presidential treatment for the virus, i.e. helicopter transportation to a major hospital, a team of specialists, and extensive medication including experimental drugs. 

Not quite the same for a hurting, ailing, lonely inmate in the Michigan prison system. 

...remember those in prison as if you were together with them. Hebrews 13:3

 

 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

On why Michigan prisons are too full

A warden came to me one day and asked that I try to help get a man out of prison! 

Say what? 

Yep, it’s true. Some six years ago I was asked to do my best to help an ailing, 74-year-old inmate to get a parole. He had been locked up for 47 years on a murder charge. He had died at least once, and was revived by prison medical personnel. He had had a spiritual conversion. He was now helping other prisoners with their legal problems in the law library. It was costing the state a fortune to keep him there, and the warden felt there was every reason for him to be granted a parole. 

So, when Bert’s Parole Board review came up in 2015, I was at his side. The Parole Board member’s first request was that he describe his crime as he remembered it. He quietly explained that he could describe the crime as it was written in a police report, but that he could remember nothing, because he was an alcoholic, and the crime had occurred during a “blackout.” Within minutes, he was reduced to sobbing as she refused that answer, calling it a cop-out, and saying he either described the crime based on his memory, or no parole. He refused to lie, so his opportunity for parole was rejected. His next review would come in five years. 

I was incensed, and so was the warden, but there was nothing we could do about it. 

It’s 2020 now, and Bert came up for review again. He’s now 79 years of age, has now served 52 years, is in terrible health but in good spirits. This time Matt participated in the PB review, by telephone because of COVID restrictions. We just got the word. They flopped him again! Next review, 2025! Maddening! What could possibly be the reason? 

I’m convinced that it’s the nature of the crime, something that should not even be influencing the decision, according to Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. It was a brutal murder, even if he was drunk, and 52 years is not enough!

One Stanford University study of 860 murderers paroled in California found only five returned to prison for new felonies, and none for murder. This is especially true for older prisoners. Recidivism rates drop steadily with age. And older prisoners are more expensive: The average annual cost per prisoner doubles at age 55 and continues to climb thereafter.

Just when I think things are improving with this Parole Board, something stupid like this decision reminds me that we’ve got a long road ahead of us. 

This is not the last chapter of Bert’s story.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Noisy headlines, and mental illness gets shoved aside again

Black Lives Matter. Presidential debates. COVID 19. All making headlines these days. And once again, mental illness gets placed on the back burner. 

Yet, guess what? The problem doesn’t go away! And it won't. 

I’ve been hammering on it for years. We have a mental illness crisis in our state prisons, and thousands of people are not only suffering...they’re not being properly treated. 

Our in-prison essayist, Ricardo, has long served as a Prisoner Observation Aide, and claims to have personally witnessed over 1,000 mentally ill individuals suffering from acute disorders. He says that 10,000 Michigan prisoners have been diagnosed as being severely mentally ill. That’s a significant chunk of the population total of 35,000. Based on the messages crossing the desks in our office, we think the percentage of prisoners experiencing some mental challenges is considerably higher than that. One of our inmate whistle-blowers places the estimate at 80%! 

It’s a huge problem. 

For the most part, it’s being handled in the prison system by merely administering psych meds, according to Ricardo. “And in many instances those individuals experiencing episodes where they’re displaying harmful behavior, the approach by staff often takes a more punitive measure.” He claims that many prisoners housed in what is called the Residential Treatment Program are the subject of physical, verbal and emotional abuse by guards. 

In another facility, Michael writes: “Living in close quarters with mentally ill individuals doesn’t allow one to adjust, much less learn to adapt to a normal social environment.” He said that the mentally ill sometimes scream throughout the night, making it difficult for all to sleep. So, it’s hell when the non-mentally ill inmates are mixed in with the mental cases. 

Not that it’s all that much better on the outside. Things slid downhill in a hurry when we closed our mental institutions in the 70s. Just two years ago, a study showed that more than 650,000 Michigan residents with a mental illness and more than 500,000 with a substance use disorder are not receiving treatment! 

We’ll eventually get a vaccine for the coronavirus. 

But, like the poor, we’ll always have the mentally challenged with us. It’s time that we provided compassionate and responsible treatment to all, especially those behind bars.

We're completely aware of the fact that the "squeaky-wheel" headlines demand and will get attention. But behind the scenes, our mentally ill need attention now. 

Especially in our prisons!

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”

 – Glenn Close

 


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.

 Optalert

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