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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

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!


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