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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, August 31, 2020

A ray of sunshine, a glimmer of hope, for 2 MI prisoners!

Two innocent men behind bars have new hope today. That makes us very proud! 

As I’ve mentioned before, Michigan prisoners are not permitted to seek legal documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The act, adopted in 1976 so that all persons would have access to legal documents, got amended in 1994. Claiming that prisoners were abusing this privilege, the Michigan legislature determined that prisoners are not “persons,” and put a stop to this activity. 

Our position is that of many legal scholars: Denying prisoners the right to seek important legal documents by submitting FOIA requests actually deprives them of the right to due process of law. So, we file the claims for them. The word has quickly circulated among Michigan prisoners, and we are inundated with requests. To give you an idea, we’ve already filed more than 300 FOIA requests for prisoners so far this year. An amazing number when you consider the fact that we couldn’t file any, due to COVID, in March and April. 

But back to my story. 

A year or so ago Mr. K. contacted our office for FOIA assistance. He’d been trying to prove his innocence for the past 15 years, to no avail. Working hand in hand, he and Matt started retrieving important papers. I’ve just been notified by an attorney specializing in wrongful convictions that he and another lawyer believe the man has a case. They’re going to help! 

That makes two! Last year, documents retrieved through our FOIA assistance produced enough evidence for an Innocence Project to take on another guy’s case. 

Two doesn’t seem like very many. After all, an estimated 1,500 men and women in the Michigan prison system are innocent. Locked up for something they didn’t do. It’s a shameful statistic, and casts a dark shadow over our entire criminal justice system. 

BUT, two guys have new hope today, thanks to the diligent work of the HFP team! 

If this reminds you of the rejoicing in heaven over finding one “lost sheep,” in a parable that Jesus told, keep in mind that the other 99 were safe. In our case, the other 98 just haven’t proven their innocence yet. 

So yes, we’re rejoicing today. 

Tomorrow we’ll try again. 

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Lao Tzu

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fresh, clean water: a prison rarity!

As I sat in a prison waiting room, I noticed that all incoming employees were carrying their own water container.

 “What’s the deal,” I asked my prisoner friend? I should have known the answer. Because the prison water was terrible. He said the nasty water not only had color but also had odor. Yet, that’s what prisoners were stuck with. Staff brought in fresh water. 

It’s that way in many Michigan prisons, and yet our state does nothing about it.

A couple years ago prisoners filed a class action suit in St. Louis, Michigan, because the water in that city’s two state prisons was contaminated. They should not have been surprised when they lost that case over some dumb argument. Prisoners are used to getting crapped on. 

I’ve had reports most recently from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia about bad water. That’s the same prison where the MDOC Director and the warden proudly show off the Calvin University classroom project and the vocational job-training program. They make no mention of the stinky water. 

I have purposely waited to pass along this information because retaliation is rife in the prison system. Now that my reliable snitch is no longer there, here’s what I can tell you, straight from the whistle-blower’s lips: 

“All staff are advised not to drink from the potable water supply; instead, they are permitted to bring in water or purchase bottled water. Meanwhile, prisoners are forced to drink dirty water. The vendor contracted to serving vending machines here ceased placing bottled water in prisoner vending machines some years ago, but they do provide bottled water in staff and visiting room vending machines. This is not coincidence or oversight. Rather, it is intentional. Maintenance workers have confirmed to me that staff sink fixtures contain water filters. Prisoner sinks and water fountains do not. Prisoners who try to do something about it are met with either implied or overt threats by facility leadership. Elected block representatives who try are initially admonished. If they continue to raise concerns, they are indiscriminately transferred to another facility. I know of Calvin Prison Initiative students who were threatened with dismissal by MDOC staff if they didn’t abandon the issue of clean drinking water.” 

If you think the bad water problem is exclusive to the Handlon facility you’ve got another guess coming. We hear complaints like this all the time. Many of our prisoners are consuming, showering in and washing their clothes with bad water. 

But, with Michigan’s outstanding water history---lead poisoning in Flint and PFAS contamination all over the place---what else could we expect? 

An outrage! 

“Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”

– Luna Leopold

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

When will the AG speak for all deserving inmates?

 

When you’re the Michigan Attorney General, somebody listens. 

When you’re the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, that same somebody says, “Doug, who?” 

Case in point: the Michael Thompson story. 

Thompson is one of hundreds of unfortunate prisoners in Michigan who have been over-sentenced. He got 42-60 years on drugs and weapons charges. That type of sentence prevents him from even seeing the state Parole Board until he has served the minimum number. He was 45 years of age when he was sentenced, so some judge determined that should not have a chance for parole until he was 87 years of age! Shameful. 

Thompson is one of more than 4,000 Michigan prisoners who have contracted the COVID19 virus in recent weeks. 

And, Thompson is one of more than 100 patients at the Duane L. Waters Health Center, a wannabe-hospital located in Jackson. 

You get the picture, right? There are many prisoners in similar situations. Yet, wonder of wonders, Thompson is getting a Parole Board hearing this week. Why? Because the Michigan Attorney General has spoken. 

As newspaper stories are pointing out, Thompson’s case “had gained notoriety nationwide as a symbol for the draconian drug laws of the 1990s.” A “Free Michael Thompson” movement was started on social media. With that kind of support, the prisoner was then able to hire an attorney, who called for an expedited Parole Board hearing last January. Still nothing, until the Michigan Attorney General got involved. A couple weeks ago Dana Nessel wrote a highly publicized letter to Governor Whitmer, supporting calls for his release. 

Here’s the thing. 

There’s no question that Michael Thompson should be considered for release. He’s 69 years of age, he has served 24 years, he’s dealing with a serious medical condition and he’s on oxygen. We hope these efforts are successful, and we wish for him not only an early release, but also a successful recovery. 

BUT, he’s not the lone wolf! From the very beginning of this pandemic we’ve been trying to get the Attorney General’s attention, and we’ve been begging the Governor to take a fresh look at this. There are all kinds of people in the Michigan prison system who have been over-sentenced, who have served way more time than they deserved, who are ailing and elderly, and especially because of the coronavirus, who deserve immediate consideration for early release. They just haven’t been fortunate enough to have caught the attention of celebrities and major activists. Not the Attorney General or the Governor, either. 

They have caught the attention of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, however, and today, with our small voice and with little or no clout, we obey the command in Proverbs 31 to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves! 

Will someone please listen?


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Never sure who you'll meet at the ice cream stand!

There was a day when I was pretty upset with a local area church. 

Some years ago I had a meeting with a member of that church’s Missions Committee. A church member with a daughter in prison appreciated the assistance HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS had provided, and thought that perhaps his church might be willing to provide some financial support. 

I made, what I thought was a meaningful and accurate presentation, about our “action with compassion.” 

But, it wasn’t as effective as I had hoped. A few weeks later we were informed that the committee voted against supporting HFP. They felt the church should support only missions that “teach Jesus.” 

I was quite offended by that. It’s like the old story of church missionaries going to foreign countries and preaching the gospel to starving people. What the starving people needed was food, not Bible lessons. Later, with stomachs full, perhaps they could start thinking about their souls. 

You’ve heard my arguments before on this topic. There are wonderful agencies already teaching Jesus in the prisons. There is no other agency like ours, doing our best to model Jesus as we tend to the practical needs of prisoners. 

OK. That’s the preface to my story. Now this little anecdote. 

On a hot summer evening a few days ago I was standing outside a neighborhood ice cream hut, waiting for a couple of dessert cones for Marcia and me. I was properly masked and maintaining a social distance when a very nice woman came up to me---also masked---and said, “Excuse me.” She went on to say that she had intended to pay for my ice cream, but didn’t get there in time. But, she said, she also felt the need to say a prayer with me. Was there something she could pray for? 

I assured her there was, indeed. I explained my work with prisoners, and the terrible situation behind bars right now because of extreme heat and the pandemic. “Prisoners need our prayers,” I said. 

Without hesitation she offered a very short, but meaningful prayer, for prisoners and for HFP. 

She said “Amen” just as the ice cream cones arrived. I thanked her, and as we parted ways. I asked her name. “Rachel,” she said…and then she gave me the name of the church she represented. The whole episode took only a few minutes. 

Not until the next day did I realize that this was the same church that opted not to give us any money. 

And I could hear God saying, “Dollars aren’t the only kind of support you need.” 

Thank you, Lord, for that reminder. 

Thank you, Rachel, for that prayer.


 

 

 


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

HFP Nationwide? It’s time!

The secret’s out. Now it’s time to share. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is no longer one of Michigan’s best-kept secrets. 

When I started this outfit nearly 20 years ago, we not only had no eye on the future, but we didn’t even know where we were headed. We simply recognized that my prisoner friend/brother Maurice Carter insisted there should be an organization to help inmates, and someone had to make it happen. 

Over the years we fine-tuned the name of the agency, as well as the work. Now, the word is out. Someone cares about the everyday needs and problems prisoners face, and is willing to help. The news is spreading like wildfire, and our team is struggling to keep up. 

Here’s a glimpse at ways we try to aid Michigan prisoners: 

-Help prisoners struggling with proper medical care or troubling medical questions;

-Help prisoners file appropriate FOIA requests (Michigan is one of only a few states not permitting inmates to file their own queries under the Freedom of Information Act;)

-Help prisoners track down and find missing family members and loved ones;

Help prisoners find important information;

Help prisoners prepare commutation applications;

Help prisoners prepare to meet the Parole Board. 

Following years of steady growth, we experienced sharp increases in 2019. Our staff and volunteers added over 1,000 names to our list of prisoners being helped, and they responded to nearly 10,000 messages via email, snail mail and telephone. 

Then, in 2020, came the pandemic and a hotter-than-usual Michigan summer, and all hell broke loose! CEO Matt Tjapkes reports that, as of this week, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has topped all of last year’s numbers! A deluge! 

To put it in perspective, we’re adding 5 names per day to the list of prisoners we are helping; we’re responding to 40-50 messages per day from inmates or their representatives---7 days a week. Numbers support our claim that we’ve touched the lives of more than 10% of Michigan’s prisoners! 

How do incarcerated persons feel? HFP is receiving a record number of personal contributions from inmates…men and women who earn a few dollars a week! The ultimate compliment!

The time is now for HFP to consider methods of expansion into other states. Perhaps it can be as simple as designing a franchise system. 

Consultant Dr. David Schuringa said, while helping us formulate a strategic plan: “No one does what you’re doing. No one wants to do what you’re doing!” 

Prisoners in other states deserve the same kind of “action with compassion” provided by our team of staff members, volunteers, and professional consultants. And I’m betting someone wants to do it! 

May these two Bible verses be the incentive. From the Old Testament: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.  From the New Testament: …remember those in prison as if you were together with them. 

What are we waiting for?

 



 

 

 


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

If our goal is vengeance, we're doing just fine!

Someone once labeled these as The Seven Last Words of the Church: “We never did it that way before!” 

For years American penologists have been studying alternatives to incarceration, but I’m afraid the same philosophy is winning. We just can’t get past our penchant for using jails and prisons to “punish and deter.” Never mind how ineffective or inefficient the process. 

When Roger Stone was sentenced to a federal prison earlier this year, even conservative Detroit News writer Nolan Finley joined my bandwagon: “Up to 39% of the 2 million Americans rotting away in prison cells shouldn't be there, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.” 

It makes me sick when I think of the number of people I’ve seen behind bars in the last two decades who were over-sentenced, who shouldn’t be there at all, or who could benefit themselves and society by serving a positive, alternative sentence. 

Hear me out on alternative sentencing. 

You may remember the high-profile national case some years ago, when billionaire Martha Stewart was sent to prison for corporate fraud. Does it take a genius to figure out that, instead of paying for her room and board, we could assign this nutrition expert to community service, perhaps helping poor people find a healthy way to buy food and prepare meals on a low budget? Duh! 

Years ago friends of a woman who had embezzled from her employer met with me to complain about her sentence. The accountant had no criminal record, but wrongly chose to steal the money to cover her husband’s financial indiscretions. I’m not defending the crime, but I’m saying that a professional accountant could be handed an effective community service assignment. Just imagine mentoring and tutoring possibilities!  Less cost. Greater benefits! 

The researchers Nolan Finley referenced earlier “…found 14% of those incarcerated have already served long sentences, are reformed and no longer present a threat to society. Another 25% are non-violent offenders who…are not likely to repeat.” 

Concludes Finley: Locking them away for months or years serves no societal purpose that couldn't be achieved by other means. It simply sates our thirst for vengeance. We have to get over our insistence that a prison sentence is the only way to deliver justice to the victims of crime. It may make us feel good to see Roger Stone and others like him marched into a cell, but that satisfaction is not worth the price in taxpayer dollars and ruined lives.  

I’m sure I won’t see it anymore in my lifetime, but I’m still hoping for the day when U.S. penal experts say, “We’ll never do it that way again!” 

May God grant us wisdom and foresight, as we consider humanity for prisoners.