All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Black History Month is demeaning

I got talking with a friend about Black History Month the other day. He lamented the fact that he had been born and raised in a part of the Midwest where he had never met an African American until he became an adult. I felt so sorry for him.

I’m sure you’re wondering about the title of this piece. I feel we’re throwing the black people a bone by designating just one month to highlight their history and their achievements.

My dear friend Cy Young, in a radio interview with me back in the 1970s, laughed when they expanded Black History Week to Black History Month. “They gave us the shortest month of the year,” chuckled the Rev. Cy.

In thinking of how many people of color have touched me, I can only conclude how sterile, how lackluster, how desolate, how barren my life would have been without their involvement. The thesaurus doesn’t have enough words.

I’m not just talking about major public figures, like our former President and Dr. Martin Luther King. And I’m not just talking about casual acquaintances. I’m talking about deep friendships, personal relationships. I’m talking about people who made a profound impact on my life. I just made reference to the late Rev. Cy Young, whose life was cut short when struck down by a car as he exited a civil rights meeting. Many of you know about the late Maurice Carter, black man from Gary, Indiana, whose wrongful conviction saga led to a new career for me.

I can’t begin to list all of them. The page isn’t large enough, and I’d surely  forget some names. The amazing and exciting post script to this is that more are still being added. Each day! Many of them are incarcerated…men and women whom we try to help, in one way or another, eventually leading to friendship.

I’ve never tried anything like this before…maybe it won’t work. But before you leave this page, I ask you to take 3 minutes and enjoy a song with me. The familiar hymn JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE is sung here by a black gospel quintet that flourished in the Muskegon area in the 50s. I first met the Spiritualaires as a teen-aged weekend radio announcer on WMUS in Muskegon around 1955. I loved these guys, and loved their music! They’re all gone now. But please enjoy this performance with me, recorded in 1958, as we exit Black History Month, 2020. You’ll not hear a better rendition of this classic!

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Be not deceived. The state doesn't really care!

Remember last year when the state legislature adopted a bill that would increase the number of compassionate releases from prison?

The Michigan Department of Corrections issued this statement:

-- Today Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bills 4129 through 4132, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, to allow the Michigan Department of Corrections to parole seriously ill and medically frail prisoners so that they can obtain care at medical facilities or nursing homes instead of prison ...May 22, 2019

As one looked a little deeper into the news stories, the bills didn’t sound all that spectacular.

We soon learned that

-legislators weren’t really all that concerned about dying prisoners…it was the cost of the care that was bothering them;

-perhaps as few as 30 of Michigan’s 38,000 prisoners would meet the criteria!

All that attention lavished on action that may affect 30 prisoners?!

I have mentioned Allen to our readers. He’s a 33-year-old terminally ill prisoner whom we’re trying to help. 33 years of age, and he won’t last the year.

A year ago it was discovered that he had cancer behind one eye. Surgery was performed that removed a section of his face, but doctors told Allen they were certain they “had it all.” Turns out, they didn’t. The disease is back with a vengeance. It’s throughout his body now. He’s getting chemo, but one physician told his mother that her son may not live long enough to observe his birthday in June.

After speaking with his mother, I immediately contacted the Department of Corrections.

Under the new bills, would they help? “In January he didn’t qualify for medical parole based on the very narrow definition created by the Legislature.  They didn’t apply the standard solely to those with a terminal condition, as be must also be unable to sit, stand, or walk without assistance.  At last check, he is still able to do those things, so he doesn’t qualify under the law.”

Would the ACLU help? “Has Mr. Tjapkes contacted MDOC’s Bureau of Health Care Services? They’re the ones who have to initiate the recommendation to the parole board.”

Would the Governor’s office help? “Do you know if Mr. H has a medical commutation on file? I understand that this is an urgent matter and our office would like to help anyway we can. However, we have to follow proper protocol for all clemency requests.”

Imagine an elderly mother, ailing and indigent, trying to simply make arrangements for her son to spend his remaining days with his family, yet challenged with unraveling this very large spool of red tape!

Here’s a word that describes the work of our office, from the very day it began 19 years ago: Sticktoitiveness!

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Adequate medical care: elusive!

As a young news reporter, I smoked anything legal that I could get my hands on: cigarettes, a pipe…even cigars. And though I quit the nasty habit over 50 years ago, nicotine did its number on me. I live with COPD.

That means that even a common cold can give me some serious grief. So, when the symptoms appeared last weekend, I immediately contacted my medical care people. I was able to get an appointment, and proper medication, within hours.

This wonderful medical care, which we take for granted on the outside, is in stark contrast to what our friends behind bars must endure.

Sylvia tried to get help when she experienced early symptoms, but that’s not the way it works for the incarcerated. Based on her email message this morning, let us walk you through just one episode in Michigan’s prison for women.

Well, I’m finally seeing progress in my health problems. At first it was respiratory problems. The treatment: Alka Seltzer. Two days in, it was nausea, stomach pain, extreme headaches and weakness to the point I couldn’t walk. Healthcare refused to see me, and instead insisted that I “push fluids.”

Finally, on the 7th day, an officer contacted Healthcare and they said I could come. A nurse reviewed my symptoms with the doctor, and he sent me to the hospital via ambulance. They took good care of me with IV fluids, as well as pain, nausea and vitamin meds. All symptoms stopped. I begged the doctor not to discharge me, knowing that there would be no follow-up care in prison. He replied: “I tried, it was denied.”

I was discharged with orders to take magnesium, potassium, antibiotics for 6 days, along with a liquid diet, to control nausea and pain. Yet, the only thing I received was a liquid diet. I was on the floor of my cell, begging the officers to call Healthcare again, as all symptoms had returned. The nurse refused: “They sent her to the hospital, there was nothing wrong with her. Push fluids.”

Finally, after 12 days, food was good to my body.

Many of us have had similar problems. It’s upsetting to see these people crying and needing basic medications, only to be told to “push fluids.”

Sylvia’s getting back to her routine now, as a busy person involved in numerous projects. She says she has a lot of paperwork to do, must get to her ironing, and wants to do some walking.

A little extra time is all it will take with Jesus.

Our office is flooded with stories like this. In a typical month, we will receive 200-250 messages via letter, email and telephone, regarding inadequate or inappropriate healthcare in Michigan prisons.

Jesus is available to them. Medical care is more elusive.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Prosecutors can make a difference!

I suppose it’s pretty unusual to pay tribute to a couple of Michigan Prosecutors during Black History Month. But then again, who could ever make the claim that Doug Tjapkes marches to a given drummer?

Those of us in prisoner advocacy rarely have high appreciation for county prosecutors. I have always grumbled about, what I call, a “prosecutor mentality.” I point out that prosecutors are elected to office, and it is not uncommon for the number of convictions to be a strong campaign issue for reelection.

To set the stage for my comments, let me first point out, as we observe Black History Month, that

-African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites
-Black men have a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison in their lifetime
-Among black kids, 1 in 9 has had a parent in prison.

Let’s move on with a couple more stats:

-Nearly 80% of prosecutors in the United States are white men, and
-Here in Michigan, we have 83 counties…21 with female prosecutors.

I’m paying tribute today to two of those prosecutors: Kym Worthy, in Wayne County; and Carol Siemon in Ingham County. Prosecutor Worthy is black, Prosecutor Siemon is white, but notably, both are women!

We’ve had our differences with Prosecutor Worthy, but we honor her today for forming Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit. This unit “investigates claims of innocence, to determine whether there is clear and convincing new evidence that the convicted defendant was not the person who committed the conviction offense.” It’s about time! Chosen to head up this unit is another female lawyer of great integrity. Says the State Appellate Defender Office:  Valerie Newman has battled prosecutors as an attorney at the State Appellate Defenders Office for 23 years. Now she has joined the other side – to help her former opponents avoid sending innocent people to jail. 

We also pay tribute to Carole Siemon in Ingham County, today, for taking a bold approach to lifers in prison. Quoting an article in CityPulse: Siemon — with pro-bono help from former Assistant Attorney General Ron Emery — this year plans to begin a formal review of the 90 convicted murderers serving life in prison without parole in Ingham County. And for a select few, she said she plans to seek a gubernatorial commutation that could get them back out on the streets.

Why is she doing this?

“I just don’t believe in the death penalty,” Siemon explained. “I think life in prison without parole functions in a similar way, and I think everyone should have an opportunity to be able to get out some day.”

A tip of the HFP hat to these two prosecutors, striving to right some wrongs in Pure Michigan!

This is an election year. Know who you’re voting into the Prosecutor’s Office. There are things more important than party affiliation.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

In the ditch, or in gotta stop and help!

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?” The expert in the Law of Moses answered, “The one who showed pity.” Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”

Marcia and I were driving home from our daughter Sue’s home in a snowstorm last night. We had just pulled onto Hickory Street, a rural road in Spring Lake Township, when I spotted a set of headlights on the wrong side of the street. They were way down in a water-filled ditch. Sue and our grandson Brenden were following us. Seeing my hazard lights, they stopped as well. I told Marcia, “I gotta see if that driver’s OK.”

By the time I got back there Brenden was already down in the ditch talking to the guy. He wasn’t injured, but getting his car out of that steep gulley was going to be a challenge.

Hickory is not a busy street, but along came another car as we were stopping. When he saw that we trying to help the guy, he kept on going. One other car approached. Same situation: cars along the street with hazard lights flashing, a set of headlights far down in the ditch. This driver not only chose to disregard someone else’s misfortune, but he stepped on the gas! He blew through the scene with snow flying and exhaust roaring. I doubt that he could have seen my gesture, had I thought to give him one.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan came to mind. Nobody wants to get out of their car on a dark, cold, snowy night to check on someone in a ditch. But the simple fact is that someone could have been you or me…it was a real person, in real trouble.

I tell this story not to boast about stopping. I tell it to draw a parallel.

This is what we do at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

One of our supporters told Matt and me this week, “A lot of people really admire you for what you are doing, but they wonder why you are being kind to this segment of society.”

The words of Jesus: Go and do the same.

That’s exactly what we’re doing. Just as the unfortunate driver was a real person, people in prison are human beings. Truth be told, they’ve been created in the image of God just like the rest of us living on the outside.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has already touched the lives of 200 new Michigan prisoners this year. Our records show that we have now assisted at least 10% of the entire state prison population, in one way or another, since we began 19 years ago!

I’m proud of our gang, our work, and our mission.

…the same.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Message to Governor Whitmer

OK, Governor Whitmer.

We’ve finally taken steps to fix the damn roads. Your response, on behalf of your party, to the State of the Union Address went flawlessly. Now it’s time for you to take a hard look at the #$%&* prisoner commutations!

Granted, it wasn’t very nice of former Governor Snyder to leave all those unanswered commutation requests in your lap. Decency would have suggested that he, at the very least, give all of those Michigan prisoners seeking clemency either a “yes” or a “no.” Yes, he did commute a handful of sentences. But, the rest of the applicants (and there were hundreds), never got answers.

Here’s the thing. When an application is denied, prisoners may try again in two years. Well, two years is coming up for some of these men and women, but they still haven’t received a formal answer to their first application! You can’t put this off any longer.

In recent months, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has reached out to you personally, and to your staff, offering to help with this massive stack of applications. We have commutations experts on our team (we’ve actually prepared a printed guideline for inmates to assist them in filling out the application forms!), and we’re willing to help, without charge or obligation. But to date, we can’t even get a meeting. We can’t even get someone to talk about it.

The stack continues to grow by the day. You not only have all of those old applications from the Governor Snyder days, but you have applications coming in now from prisoners who see and feel new hope because of a new administration, a new attitude.

We believe there are prisoners who deserve to have their sentences commuted. Regardless of how you and your staff feel about the 38,000 people who are housed and fed by our state prison system, they are human beings. They deserve an answer, a response.

Will you respond?

Can we help?

The position of HFP has been, and always will be, that 95% of the incarcerated will someday leave these prisons and reenter society. They’re going to be neighbors. To make them better citizens then, they deserve humane treatment now. They need someone to care.

Ignoring pleas for help from this segment of our society is no longer an option.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Not to worry if you have lotsa dollars and good lawyers? Think again!

I don’t have a law degree.

Worse than that, I don’t have a good understanding of the law. I’m also confused by what we call our system of justice.

I’ll give you three very short stories, changing names.

Bill was a highly successful businessman. By all appearances, he had everything. Beautiful family, several cars, and even three homes that his family enjoyed in various seasons. His two young sons were exceptionally popular. Parents of two of the boys’ acquaintances, however, were jealous of all this wealth, and connived to get a piece of it. They persuaded their boys to claim that Bill had molested them once in a back-yard camp-out. Bill would get arrested. Then, they could and would file a damage suit for thousands of dollars. It worked, just as they had planned.

Diana was a highly successful corporate executive. But, life wasn’t all that pleasant at home. Her husband struggled with mental illness. While dealing with extreme paranoia, he was constantly confiding to others that his wife was plotting against him, that she wanted to get rid of him. He wrote a document to that effect, saying that, “If I’m gone, you’ll know who to blame.” Then he took his own life. Guess who got blamed, arrested and convicted? You got it!

Matt’s consulting business was on a roll, and it kept him traveling most of the time. For one of his trips he unwisely chose an “on-and-off” woman friend who struggled with substance abuse. She assured him that she was no longer taking prescription meds. But, that was not the case, and while staying in a luxurious Michigan resort, she overdosed, stumbled and fell while Matt was gone with a client. Upon his return, Matt found the women bruised and bloodied, an argument mushroomed over the recurring substance problem, and the noise upset the neighbors. Hotel occupants called the cops, the woman claimed that those injuries were caused by Matt, and he wound up in the pokey. He’s still there!

Now here’s what I don’t get. All three of these people had the means to hire what they thought was the best legal counsel. Yet, in all three cases, these innocent people lost. Now, I can understand how that sometimes happens with jury trials. Prosecutors don’t win by accident. They’re good, and they strive for convictions. But here’s the confusing part. If our system is the best in the world, if, indeed, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, how come these three people are still in prison? Worse than that, all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. All this money spent, all these powerful attorneys, still no resolution, and nowhere else to turn! No more options. That’s justice?

I give these examples to my friends with law degrees. They pat my hand, and say, “Doug, you just don’t understand.”

There could not be a more accurate statement.