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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Resolved: That 2021 will be The Year of the Prisoner!

 “New Year's Day ... now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”  Mark Twain 

OK, this time, a resolution you can keep. I promise. 

First let me say that we let our prisoners down in 2020, and we can’t allow that to happen again. 

Granted, we were obsessed by more than a handful of other issues: political division, Black Lives Matter, a pandemic with all of its spinoffs and problems, etc. 

But while we were fretting and whining about our own situations, Michigan prisoners sank into the depths of hell. Due, in part, to poor planning and bungling, more and more prisoners caught the virus. More and more prisoners died. And the hundreds of prisoners who could have been safely released never got to see daylight. We’re now approaching 120 prisoner COVID deaths. Positive tests are way past the 60% mark among our 35,000 inmates. 

People often ask, “What can I do?” Or, “Is there anything I can do?” 

The answer is a resounding “YES!” It’s resolution time. 

One of the problems with New Year’s resolutions is that we set unrealistic goals. This year, our proposal is a simple one: Make 2021 the Year of the Prisoner. It can be done with simple, easy steps. Here are some suggestions. 

Write to a prisoner. We can put you in touch with an agency that specializes in connecting you with an inmate. All experiences aren’t positive, but it’s worth the gamble. This can be a life-changing experience. 

Pray. If you are a person of faith, here are three prayer suggestions: 1, pray for prisoners and their plights; 2, pray for those who care for prisoners, such as guards and medical personnel; and 3, pray for those agencies that serve or advocate for prisoners. 

Support. There are wonderful tax-exempt organizations doing their best to help prisoners. Go on line, review their credentials and mission statements. Some are very religious, handling things like Bible study and in-prison services. Some work on legislation to improve our system. Some help prisoners as they re-enter society. Only one works to provide one-on-one assistance on a full-time basis to assist prisoners with their daily, every-day issues, needs and problems. Carefully review. Then pledge your regular financial support. It takes dollars to do this work. 

These are not difficult commitments. BUT, they are important ones! 2021 is approaching. As you reach your conclusion and form your decision, consider these words from American novelist Herman Melville, penned already in the 1800s: 

How feeble is all language to describe the horrors we inflict upon these wretches, whom we mason up in the cells of our prisons, and condemn to perpetual solitude in the very heart of our population. 

Let’s touch those lives! As you consider New Year’s resolutions, please consider making 2021 THE YEAR OF THE PRISONER. 

May God bless your decision.

 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Too many prosecutors on the bench!

 Prosecutors have dominated the bench for too long. We need more public defenders to become judges. Headline, Business Insider.


 Like a lot of prosecutors, I possess a zeal that can border on the

bloodthirsty .... I put a lot of people in prison, and I had a great time doing

it ... Now I describe myself as a recovering prosecutor-"recovering" because

one never quite gets over it. I still like to point my finger at the bad guy.

Paul Delano Butler, former prosecutor, and current Georgetown University law professor.

 

Business Insider is not a publication that I subscribe to, or even read. But I just happened to spot that headline a few days ago, which prompted a quick response from this old man: “Yes!” 

The article was written by Brendon Woods and Emily Galvin Almanza. Woods is the only Black chief public defender in California. Almanza is a former public defender and co-founder of Partners for Justice. 

Their main contention was this. From the Supreme Court on down, the country's judicial benches are occupied by fewer people who have fought for compassion over cages. For every public defender on the federal bench, there are four former prosecutors. 

We have had a similar beef over state courts right here in Ottawa County. 

When our most recent district judge was sworn in, media stories were complimentary, and rightly so. Just thirty-five years ago, Juanita Bocanegra was a migrant worker, born in Mexico, working in fields not far from her courtroom. Now, she’s the county’s first Latina judge. We add our congratulations. 

The only red flag to this story: One more time, we have a person on the bench with a prior history in the county prosecutor’s office. 7 of the 9 judges in Ottawa County spent earlier years in the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office! 

I was a reporter for nearly 30 years before getting into this prisoner advocacy business, and I have always contended that there is a “prosecutor mentality.” Here in conservative western Michigan, our prosecutors may not speak as bluntly as Paul Butler. But I’m convinced that once a prosecutor, always a prosecutor. 

In explaining why public defenders should be on the beach, the authors said, “Being a public defender is not a job, but an identity. It's an identity that prioritizes the needs of the most marginalized and makes sure that every person is fought for and empowered. Attorneys who share this identity believe that the people most impacted by structural racism and systemic harms are the people whose visions will bring us toward a new, more just world.” 

Public Defenders, are you listening? Right here, right now, there’s an imbalance in the justice scale. 

“If we want liberty and justice for all we have to demand it...and put judges on the bench who will do it.” 

Amen and Amen!



Saturday, December 26, 2020

Coal in Christmas stockings!

Many prisoners and their families received coal in their Christmas stockings this year. You probably won’t hear a lot of complaining. These people are accustomed to having their situations ignored. On the other hand, you can expect to hear it from this writer. 

The two St. Nicks who could have made a huge difference failed. 

The President of the United States is given the power to grant clemency, thanks to Article Two of the United States Constitution (Section 2, Clause 1), which provides: “... shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States...” 

The Governor of the State of Michigan is given executive clemency authority by the Michigan constitution, to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons for any offense except impeachment. 

At the national level, President Trump thumbed his nose at compassion and tradition, and instead granted pardons to war criminals, crooked politicians and family. Even more reprehensible, he chose to dangle pardon offers in exchange for loyalty and favors. 

Those familiar with the federal prison system say our facilities contain many men and women who have clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses. No end-of-the-year breaks for these deserving people. 

At the state level, Governor Whitmer had the right idea, but instead of making an impact, she threw us a bone. She granted requests for clemency to four men serving lengthy prison terms for nonviolent crimes tied to drugs. That was it. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. Those four commutations were well-deserved, and the Governor and Parole Board are to be commended. 

BUT, the list of Michigan inmates who also deserve consideration numbers into the hundreds! We know, because we helped many of them file their applications. For example,

          Lifers, especially LWOP

          Aging and ailing inmates

          Those serving long, indeterminate sentences

          Battered women.

With overcrowded prisons and a raging pandemic that is seriously affecting those behind bars, this would have been the perfect year for high numbers of clemency. Unfortunately, the descriptive words “care” and “compassion” do not seem to apply to those who can and should do more. 

So, for Christmas of 2020, the Clemency Santa was elusive. 

Let’s pray that these old chunks of coal in the stockings might be diamonds some day.



Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Our gift to you: A Christmas Parable

Louis Cassels was one of my favorite news writers. A Washington Correspondent for UPI for many years, he later became its national religion writer. In 1959 he wrote a parable for UPI that will last forever. I was News Director of WJBL in Holland when I first tore that copy off our newsroom teletype machine, and aired it. For the next 25 years, my listeners, first in Holland and then in Grand Haven, heard me read this parable at Christmas time. Today, as the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I share this beautiful story on Christmas Eve as my gift to you. 

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.

 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

This meaningful Christmas gift will cost you nothing!

A petition is being circulated asking that Michigan prisoners get high priority for the vaccine, in contrast to the present policy. Your signature will be a gift to the 36,000 men and women behind bars. 

Right now, here’s the state’s position, according to Kyle Kaminski of the Michigan Department of Corrections: 

“Prisoners aged 65 and above as well as prisoners aged 18 - 65 with medical conditions such as COPD, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, obesity or other conditions that puts them at high risk of a negative COVID-19 outcome will fall into Phase 1C.

Based on our study of these groups, we currently have 1,692 prisoners who are 65 or above and we are evaluating the number of prisoners who meet the conditions mentioned above.

All other prisoners will fall into Phase 2 of the plan.” 

Diane Bukowski, Editor of The Voice of Detroit, contends that is not good enough, and we agree. Consider these numbers, which are changing by the minute: 

            -77+% Active cases in Michigan prisons

          -More than 100 COVID deaths. 

She contends that the MDOC ranks among the 5 worst states in the country for prisoner COVID infections and deaths. 

Citing quotes from the American Medical Association and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, she, along with other prisoner advocacy groups including HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, say that prisoners should be placed in the top tier of vaccine recipients. Prison is no different than those other facilities with captive, concentrated populations, like nursing homes. 

For the health of our prisoners, as well as the public, you can help by signing the petition. Here’s the link:  http://chng.it/69WPdC7Gbb. 

Copies of this petition will go to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, MDOC Director Heidi Washington, and to the office of Michigan Health and Human Services. 

So far, our voices clamoring for vaccine for prisoners haven’t been heard. By adding your voice, we’ll get louder!

Shout now.

 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

What's in the brown paper bag?

It has become a Christmas season tradition that I share this story. The story takes on additional meaning in 2020 because of the federal government’s shameful decision to resume executions before the new administration takes office. This story was 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 in this business. It touched me then...it touches me now. 

Anyway, here’s my 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. 

“What you do to these men, you do to God"

--Mother Teresa during her visit to San Quentin Prison

Monday, December 14, 2020

Prisoners are watching you, Michigan!

“Be a good example.” We’ve heard it all our lives. “Your actions are so loud I can’t hear your words.” Says broadcast journalist Germany Kent: “Be the girl you want your daughter to be. Be the girl you want your son to date. Be classy, be smart, be real, but most importantly be nice.” 

"Most importantly, be nice!"

I’m fretting today, after reading the headlines this morning. This one caught my attention: 

Legislative office buildings in Lansing closed Monday over security concerns

The Detroit News said the decision was based on “credible threats of violence.” It’s the day for the electoral vote, and we have a group of nuts who believe that overthrowing legitimate votes of our citizens is a way to achieve better government. 

Members of our little team of staffers and volunteers work hard each day to set an example to the thousands of Michigan prisoners with whom we come into contact. We know that 95% of them are going to reenter society someday, so it’s time they get some civil and humane treatment right now. We like what a Norwegian prison warden says: “It’s really very simple. Treat people like dirt, and they’ll be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they’ll act like human beings.”

Yet, while we’re doing our best to try to provide a good influence on inmates in this state, the blasted headlines tell of radical behavior in Pure Michigan that reflects exactly the opposite. Some examples: 

Armed protesters demonstrate against Covid-19 lockdown at Michigan capitol

Police and capitol staff held back protesters – some armed with rifles – attempting to enter floor of legislative chamber. (April 30) 

F.B.I. Says Michigan Anti-Government Group Plotted to Kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

(October 8) 

Armed protesters surround home of Michigan Secretary of State

(December 7) 

I love this state, and I know these headlines do not represent the thoughts, ideas and goals of many wonderful Michiganders. But we can do better than this, folks. Too many ugly headlines.

36,000 Michigan prisoners are watching! 

The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today

 Francis of Assisi

 

 


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Prisons aren’t built to be hospitals!

I’m starting to feel like Jeremiah! 

That feisty Old Testament prophet complained that nobody listened. Instead, his constant messages from heaven on pending violence and destruction here on earth simply got him insult and reproach. But, he says, “If I say I won’t do it anymore, his (God’s) word is in my heart like a fire...I can’t hold it in.” 

Jeremiah preached his message for 40 years and nobody listened. It's no wonder he was discouraged. 

Well, here’s Douger, the “Jeremiah” of bloggers, complaining once again about all the old people in prison. People who pose no threat to society, people who have paid their dues, many who are sick and dying...and all of this is costing us a fortune! I’m hoping someone will listen. I could just shut up, but it’s in my heart. (Maybe because I, too, am so old!) 

Conservative readers should at least identify with the cost issue, and seek change. But those of us who are more progressive must, instead, be lamenting the inhumanity of the whole situation. Something’s gotta happen! 

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that nearly 21 percent of the nation’s prison population, or almost 300,000 people, were fifty or older. In our circles, fifty is no longer considered elderly. But when you’re behind bars, years of bad food, little exercises and poor health care take their toll. 

Right now, more than 8% of our state prisoners are 60 and older. 

Here’s something just as sure as taxes and death: With all the COVID issues, prisons will also face an explosion of geriatric needs—and the skyrocketing costs that come with it. 

Our staff will tell you that, even before the arrival of COVID-19, medical care in Michigan prisons has been typically inadequate, often bordering on life-threatening. HFP receives more than 300 complaints a month dealing with health-care! 

Stephanie Prost, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville who has extensively researched aging in prisons, understands how decades of tough-on-crime sentencing has led to prison wings that resemble long-term-care settings. She is quoted in The Progressive as saying, “Prisons aren’t built to be hospitals.” Prisoners, she notes, typically acquire serious and chronic health conditions at a younger age than people who are not incarcerated. 

Are there steps that can be taken? Of course there are! 

Instead of bickering about COVID restrictions and alleged election irregularities, it’s time for our state legislators to rethink life without parole and to do something about long, indeterminate sentences. More paroles are warranted. And it’s way past time for our Governor to consider clemency for aging and deserving inmates. 

Jeremiah asks: “Are you listening?” 

Douger asks: “What are you going to do about it?”



Sunday, December 6, 2020

How soon should MI prisoners get the vaccine? ASAP!

The feds have come up with some cockamamy idea that prison staff should have priority for the COVID vaccine, but not the inmates! 

Michigan must not let that happen. 

State health officials are currently working on a distribution plan for the vaccines when they become available. We have heard no details yet, but we are particularly interested in the recommendations for prisoners. 

Federal officials have suggested that corrections staff be placed on high priority status for the vaccine, but not the millions of federal prisoners! That goofy bit of information comes to us from the New York Times. 

Roni Caryn Rabin, of the NY Times, accurately describes prison environment: 

They live in crowded conditions, sharing bathrooms and eating facilities where social distancing is impossible. They have high rates of asthma, diabetes and heart disease. 

Many struggle with mental illness. A disproportionate number are Black and Hispanic, members of minority communities that have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The same can be said about state prisons in Michigan, and most everywhere else. 

So, asks Ms. Rabin, “Should prisoners and other detainees be given priority access to one of the new Covid-19 vaccines?” 

Heavens, yes! 

Kyle Kaminski, in the MDOC front office, told me, “As a high-risk congregant setting, we are obviously hopeful that we will have access to a safe and effective vaccine in the near future.” Michigan prisoner deaths are approaching 100. Number of cases among prisoners is over 17,000! 

The C.D.C. advisory committee has prioritized correctional officers and others who work in jails and prisons for the first phase of immunizations. The federal prison system will set aside its initial allotment for such employees, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Said the NY Times:

The discrepancy raises a chilling prospect: another prison outbreak that kills scores of inmates after the only preventive was reserved for staff. Officials at the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

It is our hope that Michigan health officials join with the American Medical Association in calling for a modification of this bone-head decision.

Because of the unique risks to people behind bars, as well as the potential for outbreaks to spread from correctional centers, Coronavirus vaccines must be given to inmates and employees at prisons, jails and detention centers as early as possible!

 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Medical co-pay behind bars: unfair, ineffective, and stupid!

Medical co-pay in Michigan prisons has been a burr under my saddle for a long time. It’s so ridiculous. So counter-productive! 

Here’s the deal. 

In hopes of discouraging prisoners from abusing the medical system (if you can call it that), the Michigan Department of Corrections imposes a $5 charge any time an inmate makes a healthcare visit. 

The poor devil has been worrying about a headache for a week, finally goes to health-care, and the nurse tells him to take two aspirin. “Five dollars please!” 

The good news is that, to its credit, the MDOC has waived the medical co-pay for anything COVID related since March. We’re told it will stay that way until the threat if over. We sincerely applaud that decision. 

The bad news is that, for all other medical reasons, the co-pay remains. 

First, a comment on the “good” decision. 

Even that compassionate move has its problems because quite often infected people show no symptoms. The CDC estimates that some 40% are asymptomatic. Our guess is that, in prison, where social distancing and other sanitation measures are marginal, the percentage is considerably higher. 

But now let’s talk about this darned co-pay thing. 

Because of ridiculously low wages in prison, this fee could be equivalent to a week’s work, thus discouraging prisoners from seeking care. 

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! (No one can remember when wages last went up!) Keep in mind that many of the 35,000 don’t have jobs at all, or work part-time. 

The HFP team can tell you that individuals often delay seeing a doctor and may wait too long. That can bring on an emergency situation, and the cost of treatment goes even higher! 

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 comes into contact. 

Twelve states have decided to drop medical co-pay for prisoners. We think Michigan should be number thirteen. 

California did away with the policy saying, “Copays are dangerous barriers to healthcare access that force incarcerated people into a risky waiting game and ultimately undermine public health throughout the state.” 

It’s time for our state legislature to do the same. 

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

There’s every good reason to discontinue the practice.

 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Federal executions/Silence from people of faith!

I have a question for my fellow believers: Why the silence on federal executions? 

Readers of this column know that I really try to avoid political issues, and when I as much as dip my toe into the political mud puddle, I hear about it. 

But when it comes to the death penalty, the gloves come off. 

Here’s what has quietly been going on, with little publicity, and certainly little comment from religious sources (except the Catholics!):

-Since July, when it resumed carrying out the death penalty after a 17-year hiatus, the present administration has executed eight federal inmates. 

-The Justice Department plans to execute five more inmates before the next President, who opposes the death penalty, takes office. (The only woman on federal death row, Lisa Montgomery, who is a mentally ill victim of sex trafficking, is scheduled to be executed just 8 days before the inauguration!) 

-A new rule published by the Justice Department will allow the use of different methods permitted by states, including firing squads and electrocution, for federal executions. 

What the ...? 

And we’re doing nothing? Saying nothing?

I had a memorable experience in 2003, during the early days of my prison advocacy. Then Governor George Ryan of Illinois was guest speaker at an Innocence Network Conference. After Innocence Projects proved that some people on Illinois death row had been wrongly convicted, Ryan got his belly full and commuted the death sentences of all 167 prisoners! 

I rode with him on the hotel elevator following that presentation. “It felt like I was tossing a coin to see if he was guilty or innocent,” he said, “and I just couldn’t do it.” 

Five years later, I would personally witness the execution of a friend, a young man of color who claimed wrongful conviction, put to death by the State of Texas. That solidified my feelings on the topic. 

The Catholic Mobilizing Network puts it this way: The death penalty violates both the Church’s pro-life teaching and the teaching on the inherent dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. 

But even if, as a fellow believer, you take issue with that position, even if you claim biblical evidence favors the death penalty, you must still deal with the failings of our judicial system. For example: 

Since 1973, 172 people on death row were released, having been found INNOCENT! 

This country still permits the execution of the severely mentally ill! 

Death penalty cases show a huge history of racial disparity! 

My church won’t take a stand like this, but the Catholics will, and so will I: We cannot build a culture of life with a federal government that puts people to death.






 

 

 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Can you believe it? Some prisoners are still giving thanks today!

Back in the 90s, when Maurice Carter was still in prison, he joked about the prison Thanksgiving menu that had been published to show just how well our prisoners are treated. The menu showed that they were getting a turkey dinner. Turns out it was turkey bologna, and the same old slop. 

Truth be told, any publicity that attempts to show exemplary treatment of Michigan prisoners is baloney. 

Would that menu were the worst thing to grumble about on Thanksgiving, 2020. 

I’m not sure how prisoners are giving thanks this week. I don’t think I could do it. But, like the Apostle Paul who wrote some of his most powerful stuff while in prison, many of these men and women look beyond their present circumstances. 

And that’s good, because in my two decades of work in this field, I’ve never seen anything this bad. A few days ago, the Editorial Board of the New York Times described it this way: 

The American penal system is a perfect breeding ground for the virus. Squabbles over mask wearing and social distancing are essentially moot inside overcrowded facilities, many of them old and poorly ventilated, with tight quarters and with hygiene standards that are difficult to maintain. Uneven testing, inadequate medical resources and the constant churn of staff member and inmates further speed transmission. Crueler still, inmates suffer disproportionately from comorbidities, such as high blood pressure and asthma, putting them at an elevated risk for complications and death. 

It's hell in there. 

I mentioned the Apostle Paul, but I’m going to dig way back into the Old Testament, where I find a prophet with the funny name of Habakkuk, showing the same fortitude of these courageous men and women behind bars. 

After another country had brutally attacked and ransacked his land, he sat down, thought about it, and said: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” 

Here’s what I find amazing. Day after day, we hear from prisoners still clinging to their faith, still willing to give thanks, still thinking of others, still sending us greetings---midst the most rotten of all circumstances. 

Instead of giving the usual prayers of thanks this year, I’m asking that we remember the incarcerated. We are inundated with horror stories. 

The one thing the virus cannot destroy in the minds of prisoners is hope. That’s what kept Paul going, in the darkest hours: Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. 

God bless you, men and women behind bars. A better day is coming. 

God bless you, readers of this column. Keep these people in your prayers.

 

 

 

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!