All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, March 30, 2020

It's not a relaxed pace, Maurice! Belated Happy Bday!

Maurice Carter’s birthday quietly slipped past yesterday. All of his friends still living huddled in their homes, fearing for their lives in the midst of a pandemic. Marcia and I, now 83 years of age, remained in seclusion nursing our own non-virus respiratory ailments. No celebrations. Not even any quiet observances. He deserved better.

Maurice Henry Carter would have been 76 on March 29. We lost him in 2004, just three months after his release from prison.

BUT, what a legacy!

Today, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is thriving, although not quite the way Maurice had envisioned it.

How he loved to fantasize about how it would be someday. Maurice had persuaded me to get this organization started already at the turn of the century. We officially became a non-profit organization in 2001.

“I can see us now,” Maurice would say to me. “We’ll have a big table in our office. You and I will sit around that table, reviewing cases of prisoners, and deciding which one we’re going to help.”

Well, that’s just not the way things turned out, Maurice.

Probably because of the coronavirus scare and the panic being felt by 38,000 men and women in Michigan’s 30 prisons, there were 87 email messages waiting for us when the business week got started this morning. In addition to that, there were 31 letters in our post office box from even more prisoners. And we didn’t decide which one to help. We chose to help them all!

Our son Matthew was a young staffer for the Grand Haven Tribune when he took that photo of Maurice holding his release papers, as he walked out of prison in 2004. Today, Matt is our CEO, heading up a team of 5 plus a battery of volunteers. This month we will have responded to a record number of contacts---nearly 1,500!

Maurice would love my vision. It is my hope that eventually there will be a chapter of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS in every state, helping prisoners in our own unique one-on-one style with their personal issues when they don’t know where to turn.

RIP, Maurice.

You done good!

We’ll carry on!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Something's gotta happen! Now!

The fuse is burning. I fear a pending explosion! We can’t wait any longer.

The plight of prisoners didn’t get ranked number one in the Governor’s set of priorities, and perhaps that was explainable. People are dying of the coronavirus. Hospitals are jammed. Doctors and nurses are frustrated with equipment shortages. The President and the Governor can’t get along, or don’t want to.

But the prison situation cannot be ignored any longer.

We’re talking about 38,000 people here, all caged in Michigan’s 30 prisons. 2,000 of these people are women, all in one facility in Ypsilanti.

We started repeating some of the stories, but they’re too common now. Too many of them sound the same. In these overcrowded facilities, social distancing is almost impossible. You have people standing in med lines, eating in chow halls, sleeping in crowded cubes. Prisoners tell us that MDOC reports about plenty of soap, sanitizer and toilet paper are not true. They’re constantly running out. There are sanitizer dispensers on the wall, but they are empty. Horror stories are coming into our office at a record pace.

The President of the Corrections Officers’ union is quoted in Bridge Magazine as worrying that the virus will run rampant in one of these prisons. It’s not a far-fetched worry. Bridge quotes Michigan State University infectious disease expert Peter Gulick with our worry: “This could be an explosion waiting to happen!”

While the Department of Corrections is going to have to get a handle on policies and products, Governor Whitmer can and must make work of reducing the population.

We have nearly a hundred people in our prisons over 80 years of age, for example. We have lifers who have been in there 40 years or more. We have people whose legitimate requests for a commutation of sentence have been stacked in dormant piles on the Governor’s desk. We have people who deserve pardons. We have people who will receive parole yet this year, who could be released early. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many more could be released.

We’re not suggesting that this be handled in a reckless manner. Obviously, we can’t have infected people released into society. That would just compound the problem. The Governor and the Parole Board have too much on their plates right now. It’s time for a special panel or commission, a new system. No more words. It’s time for action!

One prisoner told us: “I have repeatedly heard Corrections Officers, the 'professionals' who are supposed to represent the State of Michigan, say that Covid19 is the perfect way to reduce the prison population and help the MDOC fix its budget!”

No, there's a better way.

Pray for prisoners. Pray for staff. Pray for the Department. Pray for the Governor. Pray for solutions. Pray for quick action.

Maybe if we hurry we can douse that fuse before the explosion occurs.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Together with them

“Now your work becomes essential. It was much needed before, but now essential.”

That statement was made to me by one of our business affiliates, and it was prior to Governor Whitmer’s announcement permitting only essential businesses to stay operating.

I’m going to be very upfront about this. I make no claims that our little team ranks among the nation’s top heroes in this crisis, the first responders, the doctors, the nurses, etc. BUT, as you know, there’s an exceptionally vulnerable group of citizens during this emergency, and they happen to reside behind bars. AND, there’s an exceptionally heroic staff of prisoner advocates who are doing their very best to hold their hands.

A retired Michigan prison warden insists that only 12% of these people receive visits.

That means that, in these days of uncertainty and fear about the coronavirus, more than 80% of Michigan’s 38,000 prisoners have no one to talk to, no friends or relatives to confide in, no one on the outside to give them answers. Well, almost no one.

When prison health crisis protocols were introduced, when prison visits were banned, guess where prisoners and their loved ones went for answers? Humanity for Prisoners, that’s where!

My daughter does peer counseling. Once a week there are several inmates in a small room, far over guidelines.

Guys in our facility are paying no attention to limits on day-room attendance. As soon as the doors opened, guys flocked into the rooms like a group of hungry seagulls on a rotten carp.

We have 8 and 16-man cubes! Social distancing?

There’s only one shower for every 25 prisoners and one sink and toilet for every 11 prisoners…severely overcrowded!

No ways to sanitize our phones after a person uses them.

No social distancing for women in our med line.

This facility is seating 200 prisoners in the chow hall at a time and they are seated less than a foot apart.

My husband is denied basic rights, like disinfectants and cleaning soaps.

My loved one is scared to death because he has a heart condition, plus COPD, diabetes and is an amputee.

We’re exceeding our budget on email stamps, postage stamps and telephone calls. No volunteers on duty. Only one or two in the office at a time. But, we’re on duty, 24/7! Up to 90 contacts a day! Prayers and financial support during this time are critical.

I was searching for new or different Bible verses to apply to our situation, but I can’t improve on our favorite in the book of Hebrews:

…remember those in prison as if you were there together with them.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Civility. Think we'll ever get it back?

Rev. Al Hoksbergen and I were on the way to Grand Rapids for an important meeting. He and I served on a committee charged with making recommendations to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church of North America regarding its position on capital punishment.

Al was driving. Handing me a Bible, he asked me to look up a certain passage which he intended to use in opening devotions. The scripture verse was First Peter 2:17: “ Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers…”

“There may be differing opinions on the death penalty,” the good pastor explained to me, “and emotions might get high. But, we must remain kind and respectful.”

I’m thinking of that today after watching the President’s press conference yesterday. During the Q and A session, NBC reporter Peter Alexander asked, “What do you say to Americans who are scared?"

President Trump replied: "I say that you are a terrible reporter. That's what I say."

I’m miffed by that for two reasons. Number one, I still try to abide by what my mentor, Al Hoksbergen, insisted on: civility. And number two, I’m an honest, legitimate journalist. So is Peter Alexander, by the way.

If I were a smart ass, and in that situation, I might like to respond with a quote from our third President, Thomas Jefferson: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Civility was something I demanded when I hosted a daily talk show on my own radio station decades ago. Listeners were welcome to call in, but they were not welcome to rough up my guest, regardless of any differences of opinion. If they didn’t cool it, I cut them off.

Civility has trickled down in the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS office. It is only natural that prisoners get frustrated by inadequate or inappropriate medical care, by rude prison staff personnel, or just by the atmosphere of heartlessness. But, that is no excuse for rude behavior toward our team. We may come up with an answer the prisoner doesn’t appreciate. We may come up with NO answer, which can be even more frustrating. Still, we insist that our clients communicate in a civil manner, and we’ll try to do the same.

In this day and age, it appears that we cannot look to the top voices in government for good examples of civility. 

We can go to Holy Scripture. Says the writer of Proverbs: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

God knows I’m no hero when it comes to civility, but I’m praying for its return.

Quoting still another President: “Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” Theodore Roosevelt

Thursday, March 19, 2020

While prisoners fret, we bicker!

It reminds me of the second or third grade!

“My dad can beat up your dad.”

“Nyah-uh, my dad is bigger and stronger, and he can wallop your dad!”

I’m looking at comments from people for whom I’ve had a lot of respect.

“The Republicans are to blame for all of this.”

“Uh-uh, those Socialist Democrats are all losers…they caused this problem.”

“Thank God we have Trump in charge, instead of that loser Obama. He’s to blame!”

“Obama has more compassion in his little finger than Trump has in his big head.”

As I’m reading this, Matt and I are struggling to stay ahead of 60-70 email messages a day from frightened and nervous prisoners. There are 38,000 men and women, created in the image of God, living in Michigan’s 30 prisons, and they
           -cannot practice social distancing (not in crowded med lines and mess halls)
          -can’t take preventive sanitizing measures
          -may not have visitors
          -don’t have money to keep making phone calls and sending emails
          -worry a lot about their very welfare, and
          -hear all kinds of rumors.

Because family members and loved ones cannot be there for them, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS staffers seem to be stepping in as surrogates. These people are craving more information, worry that they’re not getting appropriate health care, and struggle, wading through a maze of disinformation or misinformation. If nothing else, they just need someone to talk to.

If that virus goes on a rampage in our prison system, the devastation will be immeasurable.

Meanwhile, Matt and I are concerned about our own staff, our own volunteers, and yes, our own families.

As a member of one of the highest risk groups, I’m sitting here doing my best to hold the hands of inmates, and encourage the HFP team. And then I read this juvenile, partisan garbage in Facebook.

If that bickering and petty finger-pointing reflect your personal claims of patriotism, Christianity, and humanity, the coronvirus is not our only problem.

I'm hoping you'll join us in rising above all of that today, and, as you pray, remember especially our prisoners, their families and loved ones, and all who work with them and for them. 

We ARE all in this together.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Michigan’s steps for prisoners too few, too small!

While everyone has justifiably been worrying about their kids, their elderly parents, and yes, themselves, we’ve been worrying about prisoners. It’s no secret that during this national emergency, Governor’s offices, parole boards, corrections officials and state legislators are getting all kinds of advice, and all kinds of pressure, all over the country.

Michigan is no exception.

A number of prisoner advocacy agencies are collaborating on a list of important items that are not quite demands, but really can’t just be labelled suggestions. For this column, however, I only want to focus on family and friend relationships.

In times of a pandemic, the first thing that happens is a ban on prison visits. And while there’s no argument that this is absolutely necessary, there is also strong argument for continued contact with those persons closest to an inmate.

The Michigan Department of Corrections realizes this, and quickly made work to get some rates reduced. A statement from the department today indicated that their vendor for phone services, Global Tel Link Corporation, is offering two free, five-minute phone calls to prisoners each week. Call rates are 16 cents per minute. In addition, MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz was quoted as saying prisoners would also get a break with email service. JPay, which is the service available to Michigan prisoners, is offering two free stamps per week, covering the cost of two emails. Each email requires one stamp. The cost of those stamps is $5 for 20, $10 for 50, or $20 for 100.

Two free brief phone calls and two short email messages a week? Not good enough!

The Michigan State Appellate Defender Office and Criminal Defense Resource Center has asked the Governor and the State Legislature to go one step better: The following should be made available free of charge for those who remain incarcerated: telephone calls, video visits, email communication, materials for correspondence, and postage so that people can communicate with their loved ones during the State of Emergency.

We support that position.

Quoting the Marshall Project: Inmates, institutions and children benefit. Research shows visits help reduce prison misconduct and recidivism. Evidence also suggests that visits can positively affect a child's well-being and improve the chances that families will remain intact when a former inmate reenters the community.

Michigan is off to a slow start. Let’s make this happen for the incarcerated and their loved ones now!

“Families are the compass that guides us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter.”
 Brad Henry

Friday, March 13, 2020

Does all this anger make you angry?

For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

In my 83 years, I’ve never seen so much anger. The President of the United States thinks it’s cool to say, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” His supporters, then, think it’s cool to shout, “Lock her up.” For those who dislike the President and despise his supporters, it’s now OK to mouth strong words of hatred and opposition. All of this trickles down. Unparalleled road rage. Even at the level of childhood, kids hear this and feel encouraged to bully others.

I’m thinking of all this anger today as I try to respond to a young man in prison. Daniel is only 26 years of age, but he’s an angry, bitter human being. Granted he committed a terrible crime, and the families and friends of the victims will never be the same.

Now, his demons don’t stop pestering him. Well, this state has crushed me mercilessly for 9 years. My attorney has now abandoned me, and I see a long hopeless road before me. I have existence problems. My only option now is to soon do a media interview. You were a reporter, so you know hate and negativity sell "honest" news. So, how would I interview? Do I manufacture negativity, or defend myself? I stand a better chance of having my sentence reduced by being mean, instead of being who I truly am at heart.

My first job was and is to correct the record. Hate and negativity do not “sell” news. Granted, it’s in the news. That’s because right now the world is full of it. But I was a reporter, a darn good one, and my goal was to get above the gory and the bloody, the mean and the bitter. I read excellent work by competent journalists every day that is not focused on hate and negativity.

A huge task will be to convince Daniel that his life and outlook can still change. Being mean will get him nowhere. It took my friend Maurice Carter many years to see that. The old way, the old attitudes, weren't working. I related to Daniel how Rubin Hurricane Carter told me about his rage over being wrongly convicted. He said that he looked in an old, cracked, piece of a mirror in prison one day and saw a face that he didn’t even recognize. He vowed that that person would no longer exist. Rubin became one of the nicest, kindest human beings one could ever meet.

Daniel is going to be a challenge, but I’m encouraged by the words of Father Greg Boyle:“You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”

Help me, Lord. 

Help Daniel, too.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Local prisoner advocates win awards!

I have never cared very much for personal prizes. A person does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards. Nelson Mandela

When I was a young radio newsman, running a low-budget news operation in a small-market station, I had little use for those radio and TV stations touting “Award-winning News Department!”

If ever there was an award-winning newsroom, it was ours. Our little team worked around the clock, 7 days a week, to keep our community informed. We didn’t have the time and energy to fill out applications for winning awards. We actually editorialized on local issues. Listener response and appreciation was our reward.

I still feel that way. All kinds of people deserve awards today, who receive little or no recognition: hospice nurses, nursing home attendants, hospital orderlies, beat cops, volunteer firemen. Each one of us can name heroes who get paid very little, and receive even less recognition.

Now in this field of prisoner advocacy, if I could arrange an awards ceremony and if I could spotlight winners, the gang at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS would be at the top of the list. Bragging was a deadly sin, according to my father, so I tread lightly on this topic. He insisted that others should do the praising.

OK, Pa, that’s exactly what I’m going to do right now.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the envelopes please---

Award #1, to Doug:

This morning a former prisoner called me. Years ago, when he received a parole thanks to our help, I held the prison door open for him as he stepped into freedom after 38 years behind bars. “You gave me a new life.”

Award #2, to Matt:

Today Matt opened a letter from a prisoner with health problems whom we have been helping. “Thank you for making me feel I am not alone…I thought about my son, and wished he be like you!”

Award #3, to Holly:

As we seek a compassionate release for a terminally ill prisoner, his mother today had high praise for our Vice President: “She’s awesome!”

Awards #4 and #5, to Susie and Melissa:

Just today I sent a thank you note to a prisoner who made a $15 donation to HFP…the 10th Michigan inmate already this year to send us a financial contribution! I told our team today that these gifts are a huge “thank you” for their compassion and hard work.

There’ll be no mention of these awards in the media. We won’t be getting dollars or trophies.

But as Mark Twain says: “Great things can happen when you don't care who gets the credit.”

God will repay each person according to what they have done
Romans 2:6

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Wanna know where death's sting is? In prison. That's where!

The subject of death is surrounding me these days. At age 83, it’s bound to happen.

Friends are dying, peers are dying, my friends’ loved ones are dying. I catch a common cold, my tired old body tries to fight it off, and those close to me wonder if I’m going to be OK.

But that’s not the death I’m talking about.

I’m in the prisoner advocacy business, and death is a different ball game when it involves prisoners.

We’ve been frantically working this week to try to help Allen, who at the age of 33 is dying. The jury is out whether the state treated his earlier cancer properly, and if anyone is to blame. Makes no difference now. The cancer is back, it has spread, and it won’t stop.

In my 20+ years in this business, I’ve discovered two things that prisoners dread: dying in Duane L. Waters Health Center (the shameful prison hospital in Jackson); or, just dying in prison.

We’ve mobilized a team of staff, volunteers, family and friends this week, hoping to allay those fears by Allen. In his email message to me today, he said: “I’m not doing so well. My jaw has swollen to the point I can’t chew which means liquid diet..and weight loss. I’ve been in the bed ‘cause I’ve had a constant headache. I’m on morphine and that’s not stopping the pain, so I’m fighting, so please keep praying and fighting for me.”

It brings back so many memories.

-When HFP first got started, a weeping little black girl came to me asking if I could get her daddy out to die at home. There was no hope for victory in that one…he died two weeks later.

-The wife of a dying inmate called us, nearly hysterical, after going to prison for one final visit, only to learn that her husband had been transferred…no one would say where to!

-Our friend David was in a coma, dying in a northern Michigan hospital, still shackled to his bed (wouldn’t want him to escape!), and his parents were denied a visit.

I could fill a page with these stories. But my point is, when death involves prisoners, it’s a completely different story.

I’m hurting today. I’m hurting for Allen, for his mom, and for all the others in similar situations. More than 100 prisoners a year die in our Michigan system, and that number is only going to increase because our population is getting older. 

We’re pulling every available string, hoping that Allen’s final hours may be spent with loved ones. That’s what you and I long for…it’s no different for the incarcerated.