All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats
Sunday, June 28, 2020
You gotta hand it to the Catholic Church.
Led by fearless fighters like Sister Helen Prejean, the church has adopted this position:
The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is "inadmissible" in all cases because it is an "attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." (CCC 2267)
Meanwhile, so-called evangelical Christians on the Protestant side can’t seem to get their act together on the important issue of capital punishment. We love to talk about being “pro-life,” but that seems to focus a lot more on the beginning, rather than the end, of life.
My own denomination, The Christian Reformed Church of North America, whose doctrines I believe and support, continues to waffle on the subject of the death penalty.
Now, federal executions are about to get started again. What a shame!
As if there aren’t enough nasty things claiming lives.
-According to the Center for Disease Control, the coronavirus death toll in the United States could hit 150,00 by the end of next month!
-So far this year, there have been 170 mass shootings in our country, resulting in more than 160 deaths!
-Drug overdoses are killing people by the thousands! More than 750,000 Americans died from drug overdoses from 1999 to 2018!
Still, with everything our country is going through, our nation’s leaders seem hell-bent on taking more lives. The government is attempting to restart the practice of executions for the first time in 17 years. On June 15, the U.S. Department of Justice scheduled three federal executions to take place over a five-day span beginning July 13. A fourth execution is scheduled for the end of August. The legality of the federal government's execution protocol is still being contested.
A movement within the Catholic Church is calling on all of us to “proclaim on the housetops the dignity of all human life, no matter the harm one has caused or suffered.” Catholic Mobilizing Network is joining with other faith traditions across the country in urging a stop to federal executions. And you can take part.
CMN asks us to go to their web site and sign this joint statement:
"As faith leaders from a diverse range of traditions, we call on President Trump and Attorney General Barr to stop the scheduled federal executions. As our country grapples with the COVID 19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, we should be focused on protecting and preserving life, not carrying out executions."
I’ve signed it. I’m asking you to sign it.
As the Catholics say,
We cannot build a culture of life with a federal government that puts people to death.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
We have such an incredible team!
We not only have a committed staff, but we also have a dedicated board, a fine group of volunteers, and an impressive battery of professionals who are willing to assist prisoners in so many wonderful ways.
And yet, we can’t solve all problems. We can’t meet all needs.
When this was a one-man operation, I quickly learned that I couldn’t do the heavy lifting alone. Back then, I would hear of a difficult situation once in a while.
Today, it’s different. When I compare notes with our team and hear stories like those of Al, Ken, Carl and Jim, I’m thankful that I can do more than just wish these guys the best of luck over a four-leaf clover.
Al, 34, doesn’t call his mother much. She has a drinking problem, exacerbated by worry for her son. He’s dying of brain cancer, and she’s all he has. So, he’ll call again. He won’t be around much longer. He’ll die alone in the prison hospital.
Ken, 72, may be an old man, but he sounds like a second grader, because of severe mental illness. The system has failed him all his life. He received a life sentence instead of institutionalization for his mental challenges. Now, he tested positive for Covid 19. He could try to get out, I suppose, but his sister won’t talk to him.
Carl, 62, is broken-hearted. He just learned that his son died of Covid 19 complications. This, after surviving the same disease while serving time in the Michigan prison system. On top of that, Carl has now suffered a stroke. He’s not thinking clearly.
Jim, 58, finally caught a parole after serving nearly 40 years. He was excited to meet a new friend upon his release. He learned, too late, that this person was, instead, a trouble-maker. He now faces a list of false charges, and if this doesn’t get straightened out, he’ll go right back where he came from. And guess how difficult it will be to ever get out again!
Clumsy may be my pleas, but I must seek God’s help when faced with a flood of stories like these. I don’t have the right words for these guys, let alone answers for their problems
Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.
If you are a person who prays, I invite you to remember the thousands of prisoners and former prisoners facing problems like these or worse, as well as the compassionate advocates who spend hours each day holding the hands of these precious people.
Groanings which cannot be uttered are often prayers which cannot be refused.
Saturday, June 20, 2020
I love Father Greg Boyle’s stories.
One of the reasons his anecdotes touch my heart is because his work with gang members parallels the work that we do with prisoners, in so many ways.
I know this: His love for gang members is comparable to my love for people behind bars.
Fr. Boyle tells of the day he was asked to give a keynote address to a large audience. He brought along two reformed “homies,” as he calls them, to briefly tell their stories before he gave his speech.
In the Q and A session following their presentation, a woman in the audience said she had a question for one of the boys. He nervously approached the microphone.
“You say you’re a father,” the woman began, “and your son and daughter are starting to reach their teenage years. What wisdom do you impart to them?” She recalibrates. “I mean, what advice do you give them?”
There stood the young former gang member and trouble-maker, trying to formulate an answer. With eyes closed, he clutched the microphone. Finally, sobbing, he blurted: “I just don’t want my kids to turn out like me!”
The audience was silent, and not one of us made a move to fill it. The woman stood up again. Now it was her turn to cry as she pointed at Mario, her voice steely and certain, even through her tears. “Why wouldn’t you want your kids to turn out to be like you?” she said. “You are gentle, you are kind, you are loving, you are wise.” She steadied herself, planted herself firmly. “I hope your kids turn out to be like you.” There was not much of a pause before all one thousand attendees stood and began to clap. The ovation seemed to have no end.
Now it’s my turn to convey a similar message to many fathers and grandfathers in prison.
I know that parents behind bars express similar sentiments: They pray that their kids won’t turn out like them. And that’s the wrong prayer.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “Some of the nicest people I know are in prison; some of my best friends are in prison!”
I am daily impressed by their incredible stamina, amazing fortitude, honesty beyond bounds, undying loyalty, genuine spirituality, exemplary care and compassion for others, and a love for spouse and family that knows no bounds.
And so, my dad-friends behind bars, it’s OK to pray that your kids don’t stray.
But, I’d be honored to hope that my kids boast the attributes that I see in you!
"Becoming a dad is one thing - being a dad is many things."
Thursday, June 18, 2020
One of our prisoner correspondents has chosen to focus on inmate stories that could and should have been handled differently.
Readers of this column know that we have repeatedly and strongly advocated for the mentally ill, especially those who live here in Michigan where our care is so inadequate. Well, here’s the story of Mr. Brown (his real name), and how our system in the State of Michigan failed him every step of the way. Mr. Brown is 72 now, although he sounds like a child. His peers say he cannot function properly, and insist that he needs help.
Three guys arrested in Detroit when a person is killed. Mr. Brown’s two co-defendants take advantage of his mental illness, and place the blame on him. Following short prison terms, they are free.
Though seriously mentally ill, Mr. Brown receives a life sentence in prison, rather than assignment to a mental institution.
Over the years in prison
Mr. Brown’s health deteriorates: bronchitis, asthma, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Mr. Brown contracts Covid 19. “There is no way he could make it through a second wave of infection.”
Our correspondent Jamie Meade, who represents the National Lifers Association chapter in his facility, is begging for help for the man: “Mr. Brown can safely be released to a senior living facility. His age and mental illness require continuous care. It is a social injustice to keep him in prison another day. If Mr. Brown does not receive help he will die in prison.”
Here we have an elderly African American man, severely mentally ill, who has spent the past 43 years behind bars. Now he’s physically ill, eligible for parole but obviously having trouble catching a parole, and no place to go if he does get out. What a sad, sad story!
The system has failed him from top to bottom, from beginning to end, from start to finish.
Does Jesus care when my way is dark
With a nameless dread and fear?
As the daylight fades into deep night shades,
Does He care enough to be near?
With a nameless dread and fear?
As the daylight fades into deep night shades,
Does He care enough to be near?
Oh, yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.
I’m convinced that Jesus cares.
Monday, June 15, 2020
Scene 1, 1957
As a newly hired radio newsman in Holland, I was appalled to learn that the City Council met in secret session, over dinner, prior to each scheduled public meeting. The regular sessions were aired live on local radio, and council members didn’t want the public to see and hear any argument and/or disagreement. Those were the days before open meetings became law. The city picked up the dinner tab.
To protest this shameful practice, I would obtain the dinner total the next morning, then report to my listeners: “Your city council met in secret last night to prepare its official meeting for tonight’s broadcast. It cost you $xxx.xx!
My little protest, along with those of many other responsible journalists, eventually resulted in open meeting legislation that prohibits that kind of practice these days.
Scene 2, 1976
I considered it a violation of journalism ethics when the Grand Haven Tribune repeatedly published the name of a black truck driver jailed in our town for the alleged rape of a white woman in a truck stop. As it turns out, the driver was the victim. The woman was charged with filing a false report. My editorial was selected by judges at the State Bar of Michigan over all entries from all media, for their Advancement of Justice Award.
Scene 3, 2004
When Governor Jennifer Granholm took her sweet time responding to our appeals for a compassionate release for my ailing prisoner friend Maurice Carter, I chose to take another step. We placed a large billboard truck directly across the street from the Governor’s office window. The message: Show Compassion. Commute the Sentence of Carter. On the billboard was a photo of Maurice looking at her.
Scene 4, 2008
As the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, my cousin, who admitted to being a “computer nerd,” persuaded me to start a blog site. “People will read your messages,” he assured me. So, we started verbal protests in the form of blog entries, a practice that continues to this day, reviewed by a couple thousand readers each month.
Am I trying to picture myself as a hero? Those who know me know better than that. I’m simply using these examples to insist that, no matter who you are, no matter your role in life, you must protest when you see wrong.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
-Robert F. Kennedy
Thursday, June 11, 2020
“There is no 'them' and 'us.' There is only us!”
Father Greg Boyle
Father Boyle might as well be barking to the choir, because I swear not a soul is listening! Not one!
The current police controversy is a perfect example. Because many of us have taken stands that black lives matter, following the George Floyd murder, it must mean that we hate cops…especially white ones. We have no more use for cops, want to abolish their departments, and want to spend that money on other things. Don’t ask me how you reach that conclusion, because it defies reason. That, in turn, prompts a pro-cop faction…police unions, families of officers, all of them as equally outspoken in their positions.
Since the Floyd incident, we’ve been exposed to many more reports of people of color being abused by the police. Somehow, that degenerates to taking sides. You must choose a position. You may not live on both sides of the street.
That damn divisiveness starts at the very top, and it’s getting worse. All Republicans are good, all Democrats are bad, or vice versa. All Republicans are conservative. All Democrats are socialists. All gun carriers support the NRA. Liberals have no use for the Second Amendment. All Christians are right-wingers. All right-wingers are evangelical Christians. Middle-of-the-road and compromise are rapidly losing ground. Reason and calm discussion are getting thrown by the wayside.
In this prison advocacy business, we’ve been dealing with that for years.
I hear family members of prisoners cursing every prison guard. Corrections Officers are no good! Evil. Rotten. We know better than that.
Those of us fighting for humane and fair treatment of prisoners are considered the enemy by many victims, many victims’ rights groups, and many prosecutors. Then again, many of our friends in prisoner advocacy think that all prosecutors and judges are evil. Victims’ rights groups are cruel and uncaring.
Let us pray that the Spirit of God whom Fr. Boyle preaches and whom I serve might descend on us with a blanket of reason, whereby
-we deplore abusive activity by law enforcement, and seek positive police reform;
-we put color aside, and see all humans as one race;
-our political leaders find respect for opposing opinions, and seek common ground;
-evil prison guards are overshadowed by kind, hard-working and caring officers;
-victims of crime recognize that many prisoners are victims, too;
-advocates for prisoners feel the pain and heartache of crime victims;
The ball is in our court. May change begin with us.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Jamie Meade, one of our fine correspondents behind bars, was reflecting on a news clip of last weekend. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was marching with protesters. All of this, of course, was in response to the murder of George Floyd, a black man who died under the knee of a white cop, all the while protesting, “I can’t breathe.” Those words, said Jamie, were heard around the globe and sparked international protests for reform.
While viewing that march on TV in his Macomb Correctional Facility cell, his thoughts led to a friend right there who claimed he couldn’t breathe. William Garrison had caught the virus while in prison this spring. A couple months back William’s cell mate reported to three Corrections Officers that the man was sick and “could not breathe.”
The Department states that officers rushed in, tried life saving measures, and failed. His bunkie tells a different story…that he was gasping for air, calling out for help, and staff was slow to respond. He died in April. Just 60 years old. Just one month before his scheduled release.
A juvenile lifer able to get resentenced under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, William was ready to begin a new life after spending 44 years behind bars.
Says Jamie: “3 prison staff stood by, failing to help him. William could not breathe. The Michigan Department of Corrections is under the 'Executive Branch' of the government. Isn't William Garrison's death a social injustice?”
Indeed. I would add this: The William Garrison story isn’t unusual.
While we’re seeing and hearing more about police impropriety these days, much of this exposure is happening because of cell phone cameras and body cams. Similar improper activity is going on in our county, state and federal detention facilities, as well, but we don’t hear much about it. No cell phone cameras. No body cams.
ABC news did a major story about Mr. Garrison’s death. The report incorrectly stated that “when the first presumptive cases of COVID-19 were announced in Michigan in early March, corrections officials began scrambling to reduce the state prison population, anticipating that social distancing would be tough to accomplish in packed prison cellblocks.”
The population has been reduced. That big announcement was just made today. Much of this occurred thanks to hard work by the Parole Board, and stopping the intake from county prisons.
The Governor has done nothing. She needs to do more than walk with protesters. Many more Michigan prisoners can and should be released.
It’s not too late.
Saturday, June 6, 2020
Once again my friends behind bars in Michigan are being ignored. And while they’re saying, “What else is new,” I’m saying this is unacceptable.
It’s no surprise that citizens behind bars aren’t being noticed these days.
In no way will I minimize the impact of the George Floyd death beneath the knee of a cop.
In no way will I say one unkind word toward tens of thousands of peaceful protesters who are involved in what may be the strongest statement for civil rights in our lifetime.
In no way will I take the spotlight off the multitude of first responders and medical personnel who are struggling to stay ahead of a raging pandemic in our nation.
In no way will I join those criticizing our Governor for her firm action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Michigan.
BUT, I’m pissed that with all of this going on, nothing extra is happening to reduce the population of Michigan’s prisons. We’re overcrowded, and the sting of the virus will be much less if we let out deserving people. Yes, the Parole Board is working hard to release eligible inmates. But so much more can and should be done!
Said Nolan Finley in the Detroit News:
Other states have moved more aggressively to thin their prison populations to slow the spread of the virus. Governors in California, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere have used their commutation powers and ordered early releases of prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, Michigan has taken much smaller steps.
A team of U of M researchers found, for example, that inmates over age 55, even those who have been convicted of murder, present an extremely low risk of committing another crime. Among older homicide convicts who have been released, 99 percent will not repeat their offense. Their conclusion: “We’re keeping 99 people in prison who will never commit another violent crime to stop one who might.”
And that's just one segment. Many others, described in past columns, are worthy of consideration for release.
We’ve been hammering on this since the coronavirus scare began. Though faced with many major problems, our Governor is overdue in finally getting involved here. It’s past time for our state legislature to take a look at the plight of prisoners. And, I know it’s wishful thinking, but our media just might take a moment to peek behind the major headlines.
My friends behind bars in Michigan are being ignored!
They’re not complaining. I am.
They’re used to it.
Monday, June 1, 2020
Yep, we wanna blame that SOB white cop for keeping his knee on George Floyd’s neck. That’s why we’re having all these damned uprisings all around the world.
It’s like, a couple thousand years ago, blaming Judas Iscariot for Jesus’ death. Or Pontius Pilot. Or those Roman soldiers who beat him or who pounded the nails.
Nay. Hymn writer Horatius Bonar got it right way back in the 1800s:
’Twas I that shed the sacred blood,
I nailed him to the tree,
I crucified the Christ of God,
I joined the mockery.
True, Mr. Floyd’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
But, for my fellow white friends, please review these shameful facts that our black brothers and sisters face:
-About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police.
-A black male in the United States today has greater than a 1 in 4 chance of going to prison during his lifetime.
-African Americans are locked up at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
-The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
I’m blessed to have many friends in Christian ministry. Most of these pastors are white, with typical American family history. But one Christian leader is black, and you might find this a little more difficult to identify with. His son was murdered, his father was murdered, his grandfather was murdered, and his great grandfather was lynched! When he gets stopped for speeding, he is ordered to get out of the car and place his hands on the roof of the vehicle. When he and a wealthy friend go fishing, a fine boat occupied by two black men invariably gets stopped. Just a routine check, of course.
We may not be old enough to remember lynchings, but some of us can still remember the shameful episode in 1944 when a little black boy was given the electric chair for the alleged murder of two little white girls. He later was proven innocent, but that didn’t bring back his life.
No, dear readers, the blame goes far beyond rogue white cops. It includes white prosecutors and judges, but goes even further.
It is time for us to lament. To confess. And then to be voices and examples for change.
We are to blame.