All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, April 27, 2020

Inadequate medical treatment for prisoners? Nothing new for the mentally ill!

With all the COVID19 commotion, we must not forget the mentally ill in prison.

Sadly, a town hall session on the topic, scheduled to be held in Grand Haven in March, had to be canceled due to the coronavirus. The discussion was timely, and it’s still needed.

I’m writing a book that may or may not ever get finished, and may or may not ever get read by anyone. I’m trying to focus on the incidents and people in the formative years of Humanity for Prisoners that helped shape who we are and what we do today. Our heart for the mentally ill did not just happen by accident.

2008 was a significant year.

MaryAnn had contacted me about her mentally ill brother, an old guy who never should have been sent to prison in the first place. He got into a pissing match with a neighbor, and some tough-on-crime judge decided that this mentally challenged individual deserved prison time.

Once behind bars, old Arnie was always in trouble. He’d stand in line hoping to buy some socks when guards would ticket him for being in the wrong place. One hot summer day they got so upset with him they threw him in the hole, then turned off his cold water. The COs thought it was hilarious when his only option was scalding water.

I had the satisfaction of sitting in the courtroom when the State Supreme Court forced that inept judge to reduce Arnie’s sentence and let him out for time served.

And then Lois contacted me about her son Kevin, a teenager who didn’t belong in the adult prison system. Kevin asked if I might be able to help Kyle, another young teen. Both boys were mentally challenged and shamefully treated by Michigan prison guards. Both arrested at age 13. I personally visited both of them.

I heard stories of Kyle sitting in his bunk crying, after guards showed him an orange and said that this was the size of the testicles of a man who was coming to rape him.

And Detroit Free Press reporter Jeff Gerritt put a picture of Kevin on the front page. The teen was chained to his bunk in Ionia Max, wearing a helmet because he wouldn’t stop banging his head against the wall.

These are real people, ladies and gentlemen, not unlike the mentally imbalanced boys, girls, mothers and dads in our own lives, and there’s no justification for treatment like that.

Those stories helped shape our attitude regarding mentally ill behind bars. So, it’s no wonder after receiving numerous reports of abuse from whistleblowers at Women’s Huron Valley, that we, in turn, blew the whistle. The U. S. Department of Justice launched a lengthy investigation into shameful treatment of mentally ill women in 2014 because of our efforts.

While the coronavirus gets top billing these days, the much lower profile mental illness issue is no less worrisome and must not be ignored.

We are here for them.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

God listens. The Governor does not!

1 Peter 3:12
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer.

Jeremiah 29:12
I will listen to you. 

Psalm 66:17
God has surely listened and has heard my prayer. 

Psalm 66:19
But certainly God has heard;
He has given heed to the voice of my prayer.

Psalm 34:6
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him

I Kings 9:3
The Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your supplication,.”

Exodus 8:31
The Lord did as Moses asked

1st Samuel 1:27
…the LORD has granted me what I asked of him.

Psalm 31:22
You heard the sound of my pleading
when I cried to You for help.

Isaiah 65:35
Even before they call, I will answer;
while they are still speaking, I will hear. 

Jeremiah 29:12
Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.

Psalm 116:1
He hears my voice and my supplications.

Psalm 4;3
The Lord hears when I call to Him 

Nearly 40,000 people sitting in Michigan prisons, as well as prison staff, their families, and communities, face serious COVID19 threats. Their lives are important. Many inmates can and should be released. Prisoners, their families and loved ones, and their advocates are pleading with Governor Whitmer. She is not listening. Time is running out

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Once a Prosecutor, always a Prosecutor?

I’m wondering if a “prosecutor mentality” is what’s holding up the release of prisoners in Michigan. In our opinion, Governor Whitmer has done so many things right in this battle against COVID19. But, she’s been a serious disappointment when it comes to the release of prisoners.

The Parole Board says it is working overtime to get those people out of prison who are eligible for parole. But, PB members keep insisting that they do not have the jurisdiction to release aging, medically frail, and dying. And that’s where the Governor not only has the authority to do something, but in our opinion, the responsibility to do something!

We know that Michigan Prosecutors regularly take positions against early release of prisoners. They’re speaking on behalf of victims of crime, they claim. In our experience attending public hearings held by the Michigan Parole Board, it is not uncommon for prosecutors to oppose release of inmates---especially if the crime was assaultive in nature---regardless of length of time served, accomplishments achieved, and rehabilitation evidenced. It appears that punishment is far more important than whether a person might re-offend. 

Governor Whitmer was a County Prosecutor for only a few minutes, but is that the mentality that is holding her back on this issue? We hope not.

There are hundreds of applications for pardon and/or commutation of sentence, dating way back to Governor Snyder days, still on the desk of this Governor. We have clients who are very old, clients who are seriously ill, and yes, clients who are terminally ill. Their applications for commutation have been submitted, yet the only response has been a form letter.

Release of these men and women would pose absolutely no danger to the public. There’s not a hint of a possibility that any one of them would re-offend. They’re old, they’re sick, they’re dying, for heaven’s sake!

Prove that you care, Governor Whitmer. Prove that during this pandemic, all Michiganders, inside and outside of prisons, are your concern. We’re offering to help. No charge. No strings attached. Please, assign people to the task and start making things happen.

Time’s awastin’ and precious lives are at stake.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

A time to be silent, and a time to speak: Ecclesiastes

I seriously dislike the idea of grabbing a Bible verse and taking it out of context for justification. I hope that I’m correct in feeling that this is a time to speak.

I’m watching TV news. Of course, coronavirus dominates the news. But then I hear: “About 200 prisoners per week are leaving lockup as the Michigan Department of Corrections tries to walk the fine line between public and prisoner safety.”

That’s exciting news to me, and to our agency, because ours was one of 11 organizations that asked the Governor and the MDOC to reduce the prison population. Michigan has 38,000 people in its 30 prisons, they can’t practice social distancing in many of the facilities, and the virus is spreading, not only among inmates but also among staff. As of today, more than 400 inmates have tested positive…11 prisoners have died.

After making that announcement, though, Channel 8’s news department chose to seek comments from the Kent County Prosecutor and a victim’s rights organization. No one bothered to ask any of the 11 agencies who sought early prisoner release for comment.

Intoned the Ch 8 reporter: “…the Kent County prosecutor and victim advocates like the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence are concerned that the releases could do more harm than good. Some people say that criminals shouldn’t get ‘special treatment’ during this outbreak.”

See, my problem is that my background is in broadcast journalism. I did it for 28 years, I taught a college class on the subject, and I wrote a newsroom textbook. Our goal in radio/TV news was and still is to keep opinion and editorializing out of news copy. But I can tell you exactly how listeners respond to statements like I just quoted, especially when supported by responders from only one side of the question.

I am so sick of this idea that prosecutors and victims’ rights people are on one side, and prisoner advocates are on the opposing side. As Fr. Greg Boyle has tried to explain forever: there is no “we” and “they.” It’s all US!

You need not fear, and if TV news departments did just a little digging, they would learn that all kinds of people can be released from prison without causing any danger to the public, such as:

-People who are not only eligible for parole, but whose parole success is highly rated
-Persons who were returned to prison for a technical violation, NOT a crime
-Prisoners who are elderly, infirm and frail
-Patients who are receiving care for cancer and other chronic conditions.

Upon hearing the TV news story, I immediately checked with Kyle Kaminski at the Department of Corrections. This was his prompt response:

It is the normal parole process, but we are expediting the release process to the extent possible.  All of these cases have served at least their minimum sentence, so the Parole Board is reviewing their cases, conducting additional interviews, voting on previously deferred cases, etc. while working as quickly as possible. What is very important for people to understand is that these are not “early” releases of people who are not parole eligible, as those are still not allowed under current law. These are just releases that can legally occur, which we are working to get done as quickly as possible.

This is a responsible and sensible process, and it’s time for me to speak.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The last chapter: A good one. Thanks to Easter!

I tuned in to the Robert Schuller worship service on a Sunday morning years ago, hoping to catch some fine music. I loved the Crystal Cathedral choir and majestic pipe organ! But, I was too late. I was about to click off when I noticed that one of my favorite preachers was at the podium. I always enjoy listening to former Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw.

I’ll have to paraphrase his opening story…his style is inimitable. He confessed to the congregation that he sometimes enjoys reading a cheap who-dunnit. Not only that, but he also admitted that sometimes he takes a sneak-peek at the final chapter! He explained that he would become a bit anxious, on page 247, when the hero’s life was in danger, and when the heroine had been kidnapped by the bad guys. Dr. Mouw allows that he still goes back and reads the entire book, but he just wanted to put his mind at ease, knowing that everything ended up OK.

He then went on to say that there were probably many in the audience that morning with problems in their lives. But he reminded them that, in their book of life, they were still at page 247. He then assured his listeners that there was hope, because (holding up his Bible) he had read the last chapter.

I woke up this many years later, thinking of that story. It’s a terribly trying time because of this raging pandemic. In my field of work it’s especially worrisome because we deal with prisoners. I can tell you that right now prisoners are anxious, worried, terrified and angry. The number of those testing positive is rapidly increasing. Several in Michigan have died. Prison staff members are also testing positive. It’s getting worse.

But, my Easter message to prisoners is that we’re at page 247.

A hint of good news for inmates came already on Good Friday, when Jesus welcomed that guy some have named Dismas into heaven. Dismas was not a wrongly convicted prisoner. He was a criminal with such a terrible record that he received a death sentence. Yet, in his final moments, hanging on a cross next to Jesus, he asked the Savior to remember him. Just that fast, Jesus accepted his request. No need for baptism. No need for catechism classes. No need for proof of good works and/or Bible study.

Then came Easter morning. Jesus Christ, whom prisoners can identify with---wrongly accused, abused, and over-sentenced---rose again from the dead!

Christ is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

His resurrection doesn’t mean that all suffering has now come to an end. But, because of the risen Christ, Covid-19 doesn’t infect the last chapter for anyone. Inside or outside of prison.

Because He lives, we can face tomorrow!

Monday, April 6, 2020

It didn't have to be this way!

Lurking in the shadows of the coronavirus crisis in Michigan is a sub-title, a sub-heading. There’s a related potential crisis that is ready to explode, and if it does, we’ll have a disaster beyond belief. That tinderbox is made up of Michigan’s 30 prisons. We’ve got ourselves a mess!

There are 38,000 women and men living in our state prisons, they’re getting sick, they’re dying, and if we don’t do something about it right now that situation is going to get completely out of hand.

The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way.

For years we’ve been complaining. By “we,” I mean all of the fine prisoner advocacy agencies in our state. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is the only agency that specializes solely in one-on-one advocacy, but Michigan is blessed with many fine organizations doing their very best to improve the system and help prisoners.

We’ve complained about the number of mentally ill in prison, the number of parolable lifers who should be out, the number of juvenile lifers who should have been re-sentenced, the number of prisoners with long-indeterminate sentences, the number of commutation applications that never got a response, the number of prisoners past their earliest release date, the number of frail and elderly, the number of sick and dying.

I was looking over my notes from a speech I gave in 2015. I was hammering away on all of these topics way back then. Some years ago the Citizens Research Council concluded that if Michigan just reduced its inflated prison population to the same averages as the other Great Lakes states it could save $500-million!

But, the Governor, the Corrections Director, our state legislators, always had other priorities that needed attention first.

Martin Luther once marveled at “How soon ‘not now' becomes ‘never.'”

Well, those other priorities have faded into the background now. We have a full-blown national and state emergency, and we have the potential for a prison crisis on a scale no one has ever seen before.

The coronavirus is spreading, and prisoners are getting sick by the day. Staff members are testing positive. We cannot wait any longer! This time, now means right now!

Our CEO, Matt Tjapkes, conferred with other leading prisoner advocates for nearly two hours over the weekend. They carefully prepared a lengthy letter of recommendations to the Governor and the Corrections Director requiring immediate attention. It was signed by 11 agencies. Please add your voice of support. 

President Theodore Roosevelt had some words on important decision-making: “In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing to do, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Let us not become weary in doing good,
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Galations 6:9