All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

On why Michigan prisons are too full

A warden came to me one day and asked that I try to help get a man out of prison! 

Say what? 

Yep, it’s true. Some six years ago I was asked to do my best to help an ailing, 74-year-old inmate to get a parole. He had been locked up for 47 years on a murder charge. He had died at least once, and was revived by prison medical personnel. He had had a spiritual conversion. He was now helping other prisoners with their legal problems in the law library. It was costing the state a fortune to keep him there, and the warden felt there was every reason for him to be granted a parole. 

So, when Bert’s Parole Board review came up in 2015, I was at his side. The Parole Board member’s first request was that he describe his crime as he remembered it. He quietly explained that he could describe the crime as it was written in a police report, but that he could remember nothing, because he was an alcoholic, and the crime had occurred during a “blackout.” Within minutes, he was reduced to sobbing as she refused that answer, calling it a cop-out, and saying he either described the crime based on his memory, or no parole. He refused to lie, so his opportunity for parole was rejected. His next review would come in five years. 

I was incensed, and so was the warden, but there was nothing we could do about it. 

It’s 2020 now, and Bert came up for review again. He’s now 79 years of age, has now served 52 years, is in terrible health but in good spirits. This time Matt participated in the PB review, by telephone because of COVID restrictions. We just got the word. They flopped him again! Next review, 2025! Maddening! What could possibly be the reason? 

I’m convinced that it’s the nature of the crime, something that should not even be influencing the decision, according to Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. It was a brutal murder, even if he was drunk, and 52 years is not enough!

One Stanford University study of 860 murderers paroled in California found only five returned to prison for new felonies, and none for murder. This is especially true for older prisoners. Recidivism rates drop steadily with age. And older prisoners are more expensive: The average annual cost per prisoner doubles at age 55 and continues to climb thereafter.

Just when I think things are improving with this Parole Board, something stupid like this decision reminds me that we’ve got a long road ahead of us. 

This is not the last chapter of Bert’s story.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Noisy headlines, and mental illness gets shoved aside again

Black Lives Matter. Presidential debates. COVID 19. All making headlines these days. And once again, mental illness gets placed on the back burner. 

Yet, guess what? The problem doesn’t go away! And it won't. 

I’ve been hammering on it for years. We have a mental illness crisis in our state prisons, and thousands of people are not only suffering...they’re not being properly treated. 

Our in-prison essayist, Ricardo, has long served as a Prisoner Observation Aide, and claims to have personally witnessed over 1,000 mentally ill individuals suffering from acute disorders. He says that 10,000 Michigan prisoners have been diagnosed as being severely mentally ill. That’s a significant chunk of the population total of 35,000. Based on the messages crossing the desks in our office, we think the percentage of prisoners experiencing some mental challenges is considerably higher than that. One of our inmate whistle-blowers places the estimate at 80%! 

It’s a huge problem. 

For the most part, it’s being handled in the prison system by merely administering psych meds, according to Ricardo. “And in many instances those individuals experiencing episodes where they’re displaying harmful behavior, the approach by staff often takes a more punitive measure.” He claims that many prisoners housed in what is called the Residential Treatment Program are the subject of physical, verbal and emotional abuse by guards. 

In another facility, Michael writes: “Living in close quarters with mentally ill individuals doesn’t allow one to adjust, much less learn to adapt to a normal social environment.” He said that the mentally ill sometimes scream throughout the night, making it difficult for all to sleep. So, it’s hell when the non-mentally ill inmates are mixed in with the mental cases. 

Not that it’s all that much better on the outside. Things slid downhill in a hurry when we closed our mental institutions in the 70s. Just two years ago, a study showed that more than 650,000 Michigan residents with a mental illness and more than 500,000 with a substance use disorder are not receiving treatment! 

We’ll eventually get a vaccine for the coronavirus. 

But, like the poor, we’ll always have the mentally challenged with us. It’s time that we provided compassionate and responsible treatment to all, especially those behind bars.

We're completely aware of the fact that the "squeaky-wheel" headlines demand and will get attention. But behind the scenes, our mentally ill need attention now. 

Especially in our prisons!

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”

 – Glenn Close


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Federal executions resume. YOU can do something!


Charles Anthony Nealy. Not many people remember that name. It’s the name of a young man executed by the State of Texas in 2007. 

Here are two more names that will be new to you: William LeCroy and Christopher Vialva. These two men are scheduled to be put to death this week by the United States Government. 

Not many people can say that they witnessed an execution. I can. 

I didn’t want to watch Texas put Anthony to death. But he was my friend, and he asked me to be there with him as his spiritual advisor. I’m the first to admit that I’m not much good at that “spiritual advisor” stuff, and I’m afraid my presence and my last-minute prayers were quite inadequate. 

The experience, however, solidified my feelings about the death penalty...something I find immoral. 

Sadly, our federal government has opted to resume this barbaric form of punishment. The Catholic Momentum Network has announced plans to conduct two Virtual Prayer Vigils on the scheduled dates for the executions this week. I’ll share the announcement. 

Together we will hold in prayer the victims, their loved ones, and all those who will be impacted by these acts of state-sanctioned violence. 

Virtual Prayer Vigil for William LeCroy 
Tuesday, Sept. 22  |  2-3 pm EDT

Virtual Prayer Vigil for Christopher Vialva 
Thursday, Sept. 24  |  2-3 pm EDT

“I hope you will join us in witnessing against these attacks on human dignity. Your prayers are an act of hope.”

This all comes in the week that we are mourning the loss of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Here is one of her observations re capital punishment: 

“People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty. I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve of execution-stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” 

Said Justice Ginsberg to a college audience: “If I were queen there would be no death penalty.” 

Alas, she is not the queen, and not even with us anymore. 

But you and I are still here, we have voices, and we have the ability to do something. 

If you are a person of faith, I invite you to participate in one or both of the prayer vigils. 

If you are a registered voter, I encourage you to express your opinion to your U.S. Representative and Senator. 

And if their opinions are different than yours, I encourage you to do something about it in November. 

If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.

Sister Helen Prejean

Thursday, September 17, 2020

If happiness is a good night's sleep, some women aren't happy!


Deliberate sleep deprivation has been used for centuries as a form of torture.


Hundreds of women serving time with the Michigan Department of Corrections are complaining about sleep deprivation. Here’s the deal. 

Women’s Huron Valley is the only prison in Michigan that houses women. Some 2,000 convicts are incarcerated at this facility in Ypsilanti. There are actually two prison sections on the campus, East Side and West Side. At one time, the West Side was used for housing mentally ill male prisoners, and so large, strong fluorescent lights were installed in the ceiling. They were called “observation lights,” and their glow could light up the whole room. The lights were important and necessary for caring for these special needs people. 

Well, women occupy all of the housing units now, and they’re not mental cases. But, the “observation lights” on the west side remain, and said lights are keeping prisoners awake. The inmates don't like it, they've been complaining, but not much is happening. 

Our sources tell us that putting all the ladies in one prison meant that these cells on the west side had to be double-bunked. And that left inmates on the top bed just one yard away from these four-foot-long light fixtures. The light shines right in their eyes, and there’s no escaping it. 

How often do these lights get turned on, you ask? Not just once or twice: 9 PM, 10 PM, midnight, 2 AM, 5 AM and 6 AM. Residents of these housing units on the West Side no sooner get back to sleep when the lights come on again. 

We have friends in these units who swear that the sleep deprivation is having a detrimental effect on the physical, emotional and mental condition of prisoners. One inmate claimed the on-again/off-again light situation is triggering migraine headaches. 

It doesn’t bother the staff...they’re in the building to work, whether lights are on or off. 

It doesn’t bother the warden. It’s nice and dark in his bedroom at home. 

It doesn’t bother the MDOC people in Lansing. They get to go home at night. 

But it does bother hundreds of women on the West Side at WHV! 

It’s not fair, and something should be done about it! 

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.

E. Joseph Cossman


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

State COs are picketing! Are we listening?

Michigan prison guards are making some strong demands, and it’s time that somebody listens. 

A couple weeks ago the Michigan Corrections Organization organized a picket at both prison sites in Muskegon. This week they did the same at Marquette Branch Prison in the U.P. The MCO is a union that represents more than 6,000 corrections officers who serve in our 30 state prisons. 

The problem, simply stated: They’re shorthanded. 

Employees with the Michigan Department of Corrections say 750 officer vacancies statewide have made working at prisons dangerous. Byron Osborn, union president, is being quoted in media reports as saying that widespread mandatory overtime, sometimes several days a week, is normal practice. “It’s not uncommon for our folks to be on the clock for 24 hours because they can’t get relieved. We don’t have anybody to go relieve them.” 

We hear it from the prisoners’ perspective in our office. You know things aren’t good when you have inmates taking the side of the COs. Time and again we hear prisoners feeling sorry for officers who are working double shifts, so tired they can hardly see straight. 

The union is making some pretty strong demands. 

They want MDOC Director Heidi Washington replaced. And, they’re asking that the state legislature and the Governor make work of addressing this issue. 

We’re not going to get into pensions, and what the state ought to do about retirement for officers. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that recruiting people for a highly stressful position is difficult enough. Then, when you factor in other issues, like COVID 19 and working double-shifts, red flags abound. How are you going to entice people to make this a career when the people already employed hate to go to work? 

This cannot continue. Families, friends and loved ones of 35,000 men and women who reside in our state prisons expect them to be cared for and treated properly. That’s what the state promises when these people get locked up. That’s what our constitution guarantees. 

“We believe a complete overhaul in leadership is needed, and there also needs to be a commitment made by the legislature and the Governor’s office to address the recruitment and retention of corrections officers in Michigan,” said Osborn.

We’ve been critical of some officer behavior in the past, and we’d certainly love to see more training, especially in areas of handling the mentally challenged. But for now, we’re siding with these men and women on this immediate problem. 

It’s a difficult and thankless job, that of being a corrections officer. If we want good people doing these tasks, we’ve got to be good to them! 

Friends and family members of Michigan inmates should be contacting their state legislators and their Governor right now. 

Time’s a wastin’!


Sunday, September 6, 2020

Four Labor Day heroes nominated by prisoners

Labor Day, 2020, like none other in the history of the United States! 

While paying tribute to all laborers on this special day, it’s especially important that we honor first responders in the COVID crisis. The nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude! 

My focus today, however, is on four first responders in the office of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. These four people last month, while trying to cram in some last-minute summer vacation time and while working around a two-day J-Pay collapse, still managed to respond to 1,695 messages from prisoners or their loved ones! A one-month record! (There was a day, not that many years ago, when we thought 100 calls in one month was a big deal!) 

It’s no wonder so many prisoners are contacting our office. They’re hearing first-hand reports from their friends behind bars about an agency where people care, where people help, where people listen. 

Like Clement, who claims innocence and who needed legal files to prove it. HFP filed FOIA requests on his behalf. Based on the results, two powerful attorneys are taking on his case! 

Like Linda, a transgender inmate in a male prison, who struggles with dyslexia and ADD: “My bleakness turned into light by just having someone to listen and care about what I am going through as a forgotten person in prison.” 

Like David, who reported that, in his facility, maintenance took action to enforce social distancing, by forcing 60 prisoners “to share just 2 toilets, 2 sinks, and 1 urinal!” Thanks to HFP action, one day later the order was rescinded. 

Like Nelson, whose toothache got so bad he couldn’t sleep nights. He contacted our team.I wanted to let you know that the warden called health service here and told them to take care of my dental problem ASAP!” The next day the offending tooth was pulled. 

Heather, another transgender inmate, put it this way: “Without HFP I would still be lost, angry, and probably worse. Matt, Susie, Holly, Melissa, and all the volunteers at HFP are heroes and true credits to the human race.” 

On Labor Day, 2020, I salute Matt, Susie, Holly, Melissa, our wonderful gang of volunteers and our exceptional panel of medical and legal experts. You are, indeed, heroes! We know, because prisoners are telling us! It’s not only your work, it’s your heart! 

My dear friend Alma James Perry used to sing this old Mahalia Jackson gospel song when we held prison services together. I dedicate it now to our team: 

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,

 If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,

 If I can show somebody, that he's travelling wrong,

 Then my living shall not be in vain.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

On following rules: good or bad example for prisoners?

I love this quote by Albert Schweitzer: Example is leadership! 

If we want prisoners to be law-abiding citizens someday, it is important that all of us set good examples. The Grand Old Party did just the opposite last week. While prisoners are expected to follow rules and abide by policies, Republican leaders chose a different route at their national convention. 

On rules 

Many prisoners wind up going back to prison after they are paroled. NOT because they reoffended, but because they violated some rules. 

The same is true about prisoner misconduct “tickets.” Many times, the tickets are issued for the violation of a rule, rather than troublesome behavior. 

Now let’s talk about the convention. 

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in most political activity inside federal buildings or while on duty. 

Yet, the political confab barely got started when 

There was a presidential pardon from the white house;

The Secretary of State gave a political speech while on business in Jerusalem;

The First Lady spoke in the rose garden; and

The Acting Homeland Secretary presided over a Naturalization ceremony. 

On Policies 

Due to the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control has issued these policy guidelines for all Americans. 

On social or physical distancing: “stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms' length) from other both indoor and outdoor spaces.” 

On face masks:wear a mask in public settings and when around people who don't live in your household... 

Michigan prisoners have similar instructions from the Department of Corrections. In addition, to avoid personal contact, the department has stopped all personal prison visits. 

Now let’s check on what prisoners saw on TV at the political convention. 

No wearing of masks;

No social distancing;

All kinds of personal contact---even shaking of hands! 

On behalf of all my brothers and sisters behind bars, I ask: What kind of a message is this sending? Where is the respect for rules and policies? 

Don’t talk to me about political bias. If the shoe fits, ... 

I’m standing in solidarity with all occupants of prisons---inmates and guards. Rules are rules, policies are policies, and neither have been written or adopted to be disregarded by those of us in free society. 

“Example is leadership!”

Albert Schweitzer 

“To flaunt is not!”

Doug Tjapkes