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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Saturday, May 23, 2020

WWJD?


Melissa Cedillo has a word of advice for prison ministries: It’s time to get your hands out of your pockets!

The graduate student at Harvard Divinity admits, in a recent Sojourners Magazine article, that at one time she considered becoming a prison chaplain. Then, she says, the more she discovered how our prison system exploits incarcerated people, their families, and their communities, she changed her mind.

Just going into prisons and teaching Bible lessons doesn’t cut it, according to Melissa. If prison ministries do this “without addressing root causes, (it) merely allow the prison system to continue practices and policies that strip away the dignity of those experiencing incarceration. This is not something I believe is pleasing to Christ.”

Whoa!

Commenting on the fact that black Americans, who only account for 13% of the total population, make up 40% of our incarcerated population (it’s no different in Michigan), she accuses the American prison system of having a white supremacist goal---"to control and dehumanize people of color, the impoverished, the marginalized.” Because of this, she goes on to say, “any form of prison or mail ministry rooted in Christian values must also address the injustice of mass incarceration.” This can be done, says the author, “by advocating for early release, working to dismantle unjust systems of power, and pushing for a rehabilitative, not punitive, justice system.”

Commenting on the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on prisoners and their loved ones, Melissa says: “I believe Christ would be using this moment as a chance to move the world from visitation to decarceration, a world in which prison ministry centers around advocating for early release and an end to the use of incarceration as a solution for societal ills such as poverty, addiction, and lack of education.”

After letting this article stew in my mind for a few days, I’m convinced that now is the time for all prison ministries, from local to national, to take a bold, new stand and dare to get involved. Prison ministries have clout. Prison ministries can bring about change. I agree with Melissa: Just continuing what's been done in the past isn’t enough.

Concludes the author:

As I continue my theological studies, I am always asked to take more seriously what mercy looks like. I have been taught that theology, when done right, must translate teachings into actions. It must ask the faithful, what more can I do now?


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Willie aint’ goin’ home! Neither is Nancy. Neither is Mark. Neither is Andre’. Neither is Troy. Neither is Tracy…


From news sources this week:

MLive:

A former United Auto Workers vice president and Flint union boss has been released from a federal prison’s minimum security satellite camp and is expected to finish his sentence through home confinement, part of the federal government’s efforts to expedite the release of eligible inmates during the COVID-19 emergency. Federal inmate records show the transfer occurred this week, putting Norwood Jewell, 62, in the custody of a Residential Reentry Management field office in Detroit, which is expected to transition him from a halfway house to home confinement.

Politico:

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — who was serving a 7½-year sentence on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller — was released to home confinement Wednesday due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in federal prisons, a lawyer said.

Need I even say any more?

Fredric Neuman, MD:

Someone wrote a book—and then a musical—about how to succeed in business without really trying. It was a prescription for what an ambitious person without skills, talent, or brains needs to do to succeed. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time and saying the right things to the right people. It was amusing because it alluded to certain aspects of business that we all recognize. People sometimes fail their way up the corporate ladder. Others “rise to their level of incompetence.” It is said—usually by someone who is not progressing quickly in a career---that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

In 2007, I sat on Texas death row with my friend Anthony Nealy. He was amazingly upbeat when one considers that he was about to be executed for a crime he claims he did not commit. I naively asked about his companions on death row, being a newcomer to this scene…wondering how the wealthy, white guys were faring. “Doug,” Anthony patiently explained, “there are no rich, white guys on death row.” Duh.

As an old-time journalist, I’m still a news junkie, so I’m still reading newspapers and scanning news channels. I do that when I’m not at my desk, with the other team-members at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. The reports in the media break my heart, as we review hundreds of incoming messages from prisoners dealing with Covid 19.

There’s nothing fair about this.

Some of the rich folks behind bars may be going home, but I’ll be quick to point out that the poor folks in prison are NOT going home. Many are past due, many are eligible, some are sick, some are dying, and many deserve it.

It’s not happening.

It is one thing to be awakened to injustice, and quite another to be willing to be inconvenienced and interrupted to do something about it.
Christine Caine


           

Monday, May 11, 2020

Putting a face to a name, a name to a number, a number to a story


We are sad to report the death of a prisoner who tested positive for COVID-19. The prisoner had originally been housed at Lakeland Correctional Facility. There have now been 50 prisoners in MDOC custody to pass away from this virus.

That was the Sunday report from the Michigan Department of Corrections. Today, four more deaths were added to the list.

He’s a former police officer who made one mistake in 1986. He spent the next 44 years behind bars.For the record, the prisoner’s name, in that Sunday dispatch, was Vernard Washington.

Never mind that he had
            -heart problems (quadruple bypass, pacemaker)
            -colon problems (colon mistakenly nicked during surgery)
            -prostate problems
            -swollen legs (needed a walker for mobility).

Vernard Washington
This 73-year-old black man belonged in prison, and that’s where he was going to stay! That, according to the Michigan Parole Board in 2018, after granting Mr. Washington a Public Hearing. Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, who seems to feel that no one should ever get out of prison, kept poking holes in his story about the crime. His recollection of the event, 40 years ago, wasn’t all that clear any more. (Duh!) Based on the fact that his description of the crime wasn’t accurate, and what was deemed a “lack of candor,” the Parole Board decided to keep this dangerous man in prison. 

My good friend Rev. Rodney Gulley, pastor of New Covenant Community Baptist Church of Benton Harbor, (we go back to Maurice Carter days!) alerted me to the plight of Mr. Washington in 2017. We supported his release, and Pastor Gulley, who serves on our Board of Directors, actually attended the Public Hearing.

I realize this story sounds like a broken phonograph record. I have been repeating similar tales for years, trying to answer the question that Pastor Gulley posed this week: “Why does the state keep poor old sick people in prison? It makes no sense!”

Why, indeed!

Point one, the recidivism rate for old duffers like this is virtually nil. Point two, the cost of caring for them is astronomical. Point three, reducing the population will improve social distancing efforts. Point four, these poor people are among the highest-risk inmates now during the coronavirus pandemic. The Lakeland Correctional Facility is sometimes referred to as the prison’s nursing home, so the virus deaths are exceptionally high there.

The State of Michigan---more specifically Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been dragging her heels on this whole matter of releasing prisoners, siding, instead with state prosecutors and victims advocates. It’s a ticking time bomb. Hundreds of prisoners could and should be released ASAP!

The Detroit Free Press says we have already recorded more prison coronavirus deaths than any other state.

If you think it’s bad now, just wait.

We ain't seen nothin' yet!


Saturday, May 9, 2020

Mother’s Day came in July for Maurice’s Mom


On Mother’s Day, 2020, I’ve chosen to pay tribute to mothers of prisoners by telling the story of Maurice Carter’s mother. Our guest writer was a student at the University of Wisconsin when the Carter story was being played out.


Taken from The story of one man, the face of 200,000, By Clarissa Driban, CURB magazine, 2006     

In the modest living space of a rundown Gary, Indiana home, they gathered: Doug Tjapkes, Reverend Al Hoksbergen and Elizabeth "Mama" Fowler. A Mother’s Day tradition, they piled in the crowded room, bearing gifts, and hoping to bring happiness to an aging woman whose health was failing. Meant to be quality time with Fowler, for Doug, it was a constant reminder of someone’s absence. He forced a smile, masking his thoughts to cover his pain. It was to be a joyous ceremony. It’s for Maurice, he reminded himself. “Maurice sent this pretty flower to you,” Doug said, offering the plant to a delighted Elizabeth Fowler.

“He did? That Maurice, he never forget his mama. He was always a good boy!”

They chatted and ate. The phone rang. Maurice. “Hi Shorty,” he said lovingly, teasing his mother as she put her ear to the receiver. “Is that my baby?”

As the visit neared an end, the three stood together and held hands in prayer. From across the circle, Fowler stared into Doug’s eyes and asked the question he dreaded, bringing forth emotions he had fought to keep hidden.

“When is my baby coming home? He didn’t do nothing wrong!”

The truth was, her baby wasn’t coming home. Despite unwavering claims of innocence, Maurice Carter remained Michigan prison inmate number 145902, convicted for the 1973 shooting and attempted murder of off-duty Benton Harbor police officer Thomas Schadler. Had it not been for the tireless efforts of Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and Doug Tjapkes, Carter’s closest friend and ally, Carter may have never been granted medical commutation and released. He may have never walked into the arms of his 90-year-old mother, finally a free man at the age of 60. Freed from bondage, but not fully liberated from his tarnished name, Carter died of liver failure three months to the day after his release in 2004. The Michigan courts never proclaimed his innocence. He never returned home to Mama.


Editor’s notes:

Mrs. Fowler welcomed her baby into freedom on July 24, 2004, at a reception we prepared for him in Spring Lake, Michigan.  Our warmest wishes to all mothers on this special day, especially remembering the mothers of prisoners.

Curb is a lifestyle magazine produced annually by 23 University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication students.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Jesus wept. Are we?


I’m just stewing!

I’m no longer a broadcast journalist. Now I’m simply a prisoner advocate, trying to hold the hands of people behind bars, as well as their friends and loved ones, during this pandemic. Right now I’m fretting, after hearing these updates:

            -More than a quarter-million people have died from Covid 19
                   72,000 in the United States
                   More than 4,000 in Michigan
                   More than 40 in Michigan prisons.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not hearing a lot of weeping.

I remember when George H. W. Bush received his party's nomination for president of the United States in 1988. In his acceptance speech, he called for a "kinder, gentler nation." 

Who can forget that day in 2001, when terrorism raised our blood pressure to new heights? Two days after 9/11, in a press conference, the Christian Science Monitor’s Francine Kiefer asked President George W. Bush: "About the prayer day tomorrow, Mr. President. Could you give us a sense as to what kind of prayers you are thinking and where your heart is for yourself?" In his first public expression of emotion since this most traumatic event, his eyes welled with tears. He leaned forward: "Well, I don't think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children."

I was touched, in 2015, when President Obama sang 'Amazing Grace' during the funeral of Clementa Pinckney. Rev. Pinckney was the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and was one of 9 people killed in a massacre at the church.

Empathy and compassion trickled down.

At the national level, I’ve not heard one word of condolence, grief or compassion from our President.

At the state level, I saw people with guns storming our capitol claiming rights were being stolen or violated, but I heard no words of empathy for the sick, the dying and the grieving.

When it comes to Michigan prisons, we simply receive numbers every day. Numbers of men and women who tested positive, numbers of staff members who tested positive, numbers of inmates who died from the virus, and numbers of prison staff persons who perished from this curse. Just statistics.

Perhaps I was a hardened newsman. In my 29 years as a reporter, I covered, first hand, more deaths from traffic accidents, fires, water tragedies and criminal acts than you could ever imagine. But I learned about grief at a young age when my only sister was killed by a drunk driver---a young married woman, preparing to start a family and build a career. That very incident colored the way I reported every fatal accident from that day on. I personalized the stories I wrote. I often dropped a personal note to the families of traffic victims.

We’re going to survive this crisis. But as a part of our survival, we must not ignore those who are suffering.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Galations 6:2


Friday, May 1, 2020

Very good people? Sez who?


We had a shameful demonstration at the State Capitol this week. God knows that I’ve taken stands in the past in favor of protests. But this protest against our Governor over stay-at-home orders was ridiculous. Perhaps a better word is shameful.  I saw photos of

-a man swarming the capitol in tactical gear carrying a high-powered weapon
-a guy (mask-less) screaming in the face of a police officer
-a demonstrator carrying a sign calling our Governor a “bitch”
-a person waving a confederate flag
-someone throwing a noose over a branch!

At the end of the day, all of these people went home. Freedom of speech, we call it. Something we all have the right to do.

Today, President Trump urged Governor Whitmer to “make a deal” with those protesters. Claimed the President: “These are very good people!”

Now let me give you a few examples of some other folks who, at one time in their lives, did not get to go home. These are some of the people we deal with on a daily basis.

-A woman who killed her husband, as he was trying to take her life
-A mentally ill child who tried and failed to hold up a pizza joint with a toy gun
-A black man wrongly identified as the killer in a hold-up
-A front-seat passenger, accused as the driver of a truck in a fatal accident
-A reformed robber who has spent the last 40 years mentoring young inmates.

Matt, Susie, Melissa, Holly and I insist that these are very good people! Yet, they’re still behind bars.

I conclude with these questions.

Does something seem “bass-ackwards” here?

When does freedom of speech activity turn into terrorism-like behavior?

Can you imagine what would have happened if a group of black people armed with assault weapons stormed the capitol building? Would they all be allowed to go home?

Where can we find state and national leaders who might be willing to define our friends as very good people?

That’s it. I’m tired of fretting over that Lansing episode. For this weekend, I’m quitting my bitching and joining with Fr Greg Boyle:
-
I want to be prophetic and take stands and stand with those on the margins, and I want to laugh as much as I can.