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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, October 30, 2020

Would I be concerned about others? I wonder.

The report of Reggie’s death got me to thinking. 

Reggie was not only old, but he was an old-timer, having received a sentence of life-without-parole back in the 70s. He was never going to get out of prison. He passed into glory the other day. 

I got to wondering what I would do, how I would behave, if I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life behind bars, due to my own foolishness, without even a glimmer of hope. 

My preacher friend Al used to say that if he ever got locked up for a crime he did not commit, he would be a “raging bull” in prison. But Reggie was guilty. He was contrite, but that makes little difference with a life sentence.

Seems to me like it would be quite easy to assume a pretty dark view of everything. To be angry at the world, as well as myself. To assume a pretty selfish attitude...my wishes and desires come first, to hell with anyone else. To reject any programs for self-improvement. What would be the point? Who could care? Who would know the difference? 

We actually know people in prison who think like that. Back to Reggie again. 

Reggie served as chairman of the National Lifers of America chapter in his prison...a post he had held for many years. And the time is past due that I pay tribute to the men and women who are members of and work in this organization. Formed back in the 80s, the NLA is a strong in-house advocacy agency. Most prisons have a chapter. These people communicate with legislators, the Governor’s office, and the Department of Corrections. They meet, they discuss, they take action...all the types of things that I wonder whether I might even consider if I were to end up in prison for life. 

I’ve had personal experience with this organization. They’ve invited me to come and speak. I was even invited to sit in on an NLA Board of Directors meeting. I was so impressed! 

The NLA members destroy the typical stigmatized impressions that go through our minds about a rowdy, scary, scruffy bunch of heathens. If you didn’t see their prison blues, and feel the ominous staring of guards, the atmosphere of intelligent discourse and of kindness and consideration would seem much like that in civic or church meetings. Perhaps even better. Their goals reach beyond their personal plight. They are thinking of others. 

A rich lesson, important reminder, for all of us,...especially right now.

Reminds me of these words in an old gospel song:

Lord, help me live from day to day

In such a self-forgetful way

That even when I kneel to pray

My prayer shall be for others. 

RIP, Reggie. Bless you and your NLA friends for thinking of “others!”

 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Now let me tell you about Mark!

It’s funny how things work.

Two days ago I wrote a piece for this column about my brother Maurice Carter, a black man from Gary, Indiana, who spent 29 years in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit. I spent the last decade of his life at his side, trying to get him out of there. And when that finally happened, he lived for only three months. Maurice died exactly 16 years ago. 

Reliving that experience over the weekend, however, left me in a melancholy mood that wasn’t easy to shake. 

But, as the old gospel songwriter exclaims, Joy Comes in the Morning. 

On this dark, cold, rainy morning, I found myself in the car heading for Ionia, Michigan, and the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility. Pastor Nate Visker and I would be there to greet another very special friend, Mark Hartman, as he tasted freedom for the first time in nearly 12 years. 

But here’s the kicker: I would never have met Mark Hartman if it hadn’t been for Maurice Carter! 

I’ll give you the short version. 

Mark, a businessman from New York State, had no prison record. As he sat in the Earnest C. Brooks CF in Muskegon wondering how life had taken such a sour turn over a trumped-up charge in Berrien County, a fellow prisoner handed him a copy of my book SWEET FREEDOM. 

Two guys getting railroaded into prison in the same county caught his attention, and he decided to pursue that white Hollander who had helped Maurice. That was in 2009. Some weeks later, I paid Mark a visit at Brooks, we met face to face, and the rest is history. 

I introduced him to a couple of my friends in the clergy. One thing led to another, and Mark enrolled in The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) by Prison Fellowship. Upon completing that three-year-program he was accepted as one of the very first prisoner/students in the Calvin Prison Initiative. He graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree!

Mark is a free man today. We celebrate that good news! 

His words: “I have long envisioned myself sharing the story of how a merciful God answered one of my most fervent prayers---offered up in the Berrien County Jail---manifested by the Lord’s refusal to abandon me following an arrest and malicious prosecution in the twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan---the same towns where an out-of-state stranger named Maurice Henry Carter was once treated less than human…all for doing nothing, really, except just being there, an outsider, like me. And sadly, being an African-American, unlike me. The Maurice and Doug story still resonates loudly, particularly in today’s troubled times. It is clear to see that not only do ‘black lives matter’ to Doug and Humanity for Prisoners, but all human lives matter.”

Including Mark's life.

 


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Maurice Henry Carter March 29, 1944 – October 25, 2004

Some things were never the same after that memorable October 25, 16 years ago. Some things never changed.

What changed the most was my life! 

My two careers had centered on two of my favorite things: radio and music. My 29 years as a radio broadcaster, and 21 years as a church organ salesman were just exquisite. But that all changed in the mid-1990s when I met an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, sitting in the Michigan prison system and claiming wrongful conviction. No big deal, right? All prisoners say they’re innocent, right? 

Well, the old news reporter in me smelled a rat, and I wasn’t wrong. This was an innocent man who had been caged in the hoosegow since the 1970s for something he didn’t do. Thus began a 9-year effort to free a wrongly convicted prisoner the likes of which had never been seen in the State of Michigan. 

Sadly, Maurice Carter, who over time became my brother and a member of my family, was never exonerated. His release in July, 2004, was granted by Governor Granholm because he was dying of Hepatitis C. His freedom lasted only three months, to the day. 

The bad news first. 

-Prisoners are still being wrongly convicted.

-Prisoners are still being denied adequate health care.

-Tommie Lee, the thug who actually committed the crime, is still free, laughing and boasting how he shot “that white cop.”

 Now the good news. 

-When I met Maurice, he was a forgotten man, and had few friends. When he died, he was a celebrity, and surrounded by love.

-His story, now being told in book form and a stage-play, has inspired and continues to inspire thousands.

-The project we started at his behest is now a leading prisoner advocacy agency in the State of Michigan, responding to nearly 2,000 calls a month and touching the lives of prisoners daily!

As I reflect on this today, in my own sunset years, I find the words, scribbled in a note to me by my dear friend and former pastor Keith Tanis, still relevant: 

It was an amazing year---Maurice getting outta jail, and then outta here altogether.

Heaven is closer. Life is precious!

Keep praising the Christ.

Drink good wine.

Laugh a lot. 

RIP, my brother Maurice. We’ll meet again.

 

 

Monday, October 19, 2020

No more "Lock her up" talk!

 “Lock her up!” 

That was a popular phrase during the 2016 presidential campaign. The chant at Trump rallies was in response to perceived indiscretions by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

Four years later, the roles got reversed when a New York Times expose revealed that the President has been paying little if any income tax. “Lock him up,” chanted attendees of a Joe Biden rally. 

Last weekend, the chant got revived just north of here in Muskegon, where President Trump cited a recent court ruling against our own Governor Whitmer. “Lock her up,” shouted the crowd. 

And to all people who attend political rallies for both parties, I shout back No! No! No! We don’t want anybody to lock up anybody! 

Our staff handles an average of more than 60 calls a day from prisoners or their loved ones, sharing horror stories from behind bars. You have no idea! 

Do you really want to recommend that anyone be placed behind bars? Really? 

-Ask the parent of a daughter who is struggling with pregnancy while in prison.

-Ask the kids who have parents serving life without parole.

-Ask the wife of a prisoner who tested positive for COVID 19, but cannot get treatment.

-Ask the girl-friend of an inmate who cannot call her because the gangs are controlling the prison phones.

-Ask the man whose elderly father is being extorted by gang bangers behind bars.

-Ask the mother whose mentally challenged son is regularly abused by guards.

-Ask the sister of a woman being deprived of sleep by an annoying cell light fixture. 

Says American historian Howard Zinn: “It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.” 

Some will argue that these chants are just in fun, just part of the rally frenzy...it’s all in jest. 

To quote Molly, from a favorite old radio show: “’t’ain’t funny, McGee!” 

In August, 1988, George H. W. Bush received his party's nomination for President. In his acceptance speech, he called for a "kinder, gentler nation." 

That’s exactly what is needed right now. 

A pastor friend this week wondered, “how you can preach your butt off every week about Jesus and then have your folks run off to a political rally and shout "Lock her up!"  Does it make any difference?” 

Yes, it does. It can start with two people: you and me. 

I saw a t-shirt the other day that says, Be you, not them! 

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4:32 

Let’s start today.

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Let prisoners see funeral videos!

 Grieving is important because it allows us to ‘free-up’ energy that is bound to the lost person, object, or experience—so that we might re-invest that energy elsewhere. Until we grieve effectively we are likely to find reinvesting difficult; a part of us remains tied to the past.

University of Washington 

Over the past two decades I’ve done a lot of hurting with prisoners. Manifestations and expressions of grief can be elusive when you lose loved ones, and are unable to be present at a wake, at family gatherings, or especially at funeral or memorial services. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections will permit some prisoners to be released for a few hours when a loved one dies, under certain circumstances. But, it is costly and it is risky. It’s costly because the prisoner and/or family must underwrite the cost of prison guards who will perform this transfer. And it’s risky because there is a shortage of guards in Michigan, and it’s entirely possible at the last minute that the officers may be assigned overtime and therefore cannot implement the transfer. In situations like that, disappointment is added to heart-break. 

We think there’s a partial solution to this. It’s not a perfect substitute, but it is not costly and it is not risky. We are suggesting that the prisoner be allowed to watch a video of the memorial service. To that end, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has submitted a request for a specific policy on the issue to Heidi Washington, MDOC Director. 

A specific policy is necessary because, based on our experience, prison wardens may not be open to the idea. 

In 2016 Mark’s mother died in her home town in the State of New York. Obviously, the MDOC would not allow the prisoner to travel that far for a memorial service. But, the state would not permit him to see a video, either! A recording of the Catholic Mass had been sent to Mark on a thumb drive. The prison chaplain agreed to play the video on his office laptop, where he would also remain present during the viewing. No soap. The warden said he didn’t want to “open that door.” 

Very recently we tried, once again, to make provisions for a prisoner in the U.P. to watch a video of his brother’s funeral service. Nope. Couldn’t make it happen. 

And so, our formal request for a policy change. Seems like it would be a winning situation for everyone. It wouldn’t cost the state any money. And, it would enable a prisoner to better grieve the loss of a family member. We’ll let you know how Lansing responds. 

It’s humanity for prisoners that we seek. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Matthew 5:7




Saturday, October 10, 2020

Shouldn't happen to a dog, let alone model prisoners!

Some of Michigan’s 29 prisons that just seem to be “hot spots” for trouble. When prisoner reports come in from some of those facilities, eyebrows are hardly raised. We don’t like it, but we sort of expect it. 

Not so, however, for the R.A. Handlon CF in Ionia. That’s where wardens and MDOC officials have proudly trotted out the college credit program offered by Calvin University, and the job training Vocational Village. Exceptional programs. Exceptional prisoners. 

Let me be clear about why I’m focused on this today. I’m NOT saying it’s bad because exemplary inmates shouldn’t be treated this way. What you are about to read here should not happen to any Michigan prisoner...not the worst of the gang-bangers, not the trouble-makers in Level Five! 

OK. Now the words from our whistle-blower:

 

I want to let you know about what is happening here at R.A. Handlon. 

Following a spate of drug overdoses, administration has chosen to respond by locking down the entire compound. It is no mystery who the real culprits are here, yet this issue has been met with derision and the usual ineptitude: punitive measures imposed upon all, effectively dispensing "kindergarten justice." 

Worth noting is the fact that drugs are NOT entering the facility by family or friends of prisoners because visitation was cancelled statewide effective Friday, 3/13/2020. Anything illegal coming into MTU through regular U.S. mail suggests either dereliction of duty or complicity of mailroom personnel to allow contraband into the facility. If not them, who else is left? 

In D-Unit, one of two housing units shared by students and graduates of two programs: Calvin University's CPI and the Vocational Village skilled trades, we have been locked in our rooms since 1:10 PM Tuesday, 10/6. Please note, these are where level 1 and level 2 prisoners peacefully cohabitate together to lead positive programming. 

Given that we are keyed-in our rooms all day and all night, there's no ability to use restrooms when most necessary, no access to showers, no laundry, and little-to-no effort made by shift command or unit officers to accommodate the most basic or fundamental human needs. Men are being forced to throw human waste outside their windows because it is the only option during many hours! This is not only disgusting, it merits public disclosure. Further, normal access to outside communication is denied. 

Someone in Lansing should know about this inhumane treatment we are being subjected to. Access to restrooms, showers, and drinking water are basic human needs and a must! 

Grievance forms are unavailable. Even if we could gain access to forms, we do not have the ability to file it because we cannot get past the desk to unit mailboxes. 

 

Shameful! Here is the slogan for the Michigan Department of Corrections: Committed to Protect, Dedicated to Success. Years ago, the old slogan was, Seeking Excellence Every Day. To which my friend Ronnie used to add, and never finding it! 

Indeed.

 

 

 


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

No presidential treatment for this COVID patient!

Louie isn’t his real name. Louie is one of our whistle-blowers in the Muskegon Correctional Facility, so we’re protecting his identity. 

Louie managed to avoid the coronavirus for a while, but in that particular prison it became almost impossible. 

His story. 

I started getting a bad sore throat last week. The sore throat turned into a horrible (worst I ever had) bronchial infection. It affected my mind in such a way that extreme anxiety set in. I would sweat profusely. My heart would race. I could not breathe. I would repeatedly hyperventilate. I thought I was either having a heart attack or a stroke. I began to have panic attacks. I couldn't sleep for fear of dying. I didn't sleep for 3 days. I felt extremely light headed and claustrophobic, to near insanity. There came a time where I made my peace with God and just waited for the death which did not come. 

I begged the CO's for help. I was told to wait for a nurse to make their rounds. The first nurse instructed me to kite mental health...she thought I was just suffering from a panic attack. The second nurse barely spoke English, and didn't even report my condition to anyone. I had to chase down a male nurse, and explained that I needed help. I never heard anything back from him. I sent out 2 kites, one to mental health and one to healthcare, begging for help. I sent those kites 4 days ago and still haven't heard anything back from either of them. I have not heard from anyone period. They haven't even been by to check on me. 

I am fortunate that the Lord spared me. I am sore all over. Friday afternoon I finally fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. The claustrophobic feelings and anxiety let up quite a bit, and the other symptoms began to let up as well. The fever finally broke last night. I am much better today (9 days from when it started). 

I was a very healthy person. I finished 2nd on the compound last year in the power-lifting competition at 53 years old. I work out 4x a week. I don't say this to toot my own horn. I say this to show how badly it affected a very healthy individual. How much worse would the older and less active guys have it? 

On the heels of national news coverage this week, it seemed appropriate to show the contrast between presidential treatment for the virus, i.e. helicopter transportation to a major hospital, a team of specialists, and extensive medication including experimental drugs. 

Not quite the same for a hurting, ailing, lonely inmate in the Michigan prison system. 

...remember those in prison as if you were together with them. Hebrews 13:3