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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Watch your mouth!

I wonder what my mom might have been. 

I say that because something rotten happened to her when she was just a kid. That episode helped mold her into the beautiful person that she became, but one can’t help but wonder. 

Born in 1914 of humble parents in Muskegon, Mary Trap wasn’t like her other sisters and brothers. Not only was she a “tom-boy,” playing street hockey with the neighborhood guys, but she was an avid reader of books. How she loved prowling through the treasures at the Hackley Public Library! 

That led her to a love of poetry and writing, and that led to a tragic chapter, and I don’t minimize the word “tragic.” She submitted a writing assignment as a high school student, and it was rejected! The teacher accused her of plagiarism! The piece was too good. Could not possibly have been written by his student. 

Those of you who knew Mary Trap Tjapkes need no persuasion that she would never cheat. But for the moment, it broke her spirit. She was so ashamed, and never told anyone for decades. Sometimes I wonder if she ever fully recovered from that devastating moment. 

Many years later, I wish I could have found that teacher to tell him not only what a jerk he was, but to explain the impact of words. 

That dastardly deed by an insensitive educator may have changed my mom’s career path. Her love for writing took a serious hit. But on the other hand, I’m convinced that it taught her a valuable lesson. Roy T. Bennett explains it this way: 

“Be an Encourager: When you encourage others, you boost their self-esteem, enhance their self-confidence, make them work harder, lift their spirits and make them successful in their endeavors. Encouragement goes straight to the heart and is always available. Be an encourager. Always.” 

As we observe the birthday of Mary Tjapkes on January 28, we will remember her as an encourager. She was an encourager to her family, to friends, and yes, even to strangers. It was not uncommon for my mom to be a pen pal to a prisoner. Her son does his best to encourage prisoners to this day. 

No, she didn’t find fame and fortune as a writer. Sadly. But, in her own little corner of the world she was a bright shining light, radiating love and encouragement, especially to the downtrodden, the sad, lonely, and disenfranchised. 

What a legacy! 

RIP, Mom. 

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.

Ephesians 4:29

Friday, January 22, 2021

Sitting on our hands while prisoners croak? Shameful!

I’m going to let some other folks do the talking today. 

The words of a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS client suffering from COVID: 

“From what the Marshall Project's statistics show, Michigan ought to be ashamed of itself. We ranked 2nd in deaths per 10,000 behind New Mexico, and 3rd in cases per 10,000 behind South Dakota and Arkansas. We are messed up as a prison system regardless of the MDOC's spokesman's propaganda on their ‘wonderful’ protocols. I've got a bunch of dead friends who wouldn't be if staff had actually followed the protocols, or better yet, had reduced the population so we aren't stacked up in here like logs on our own funeral pyre. Okay. Deep breath. Yeah, I've got some seriously strong feelings about the screwed up way this pandemic has been handled when, for a couple of those days, I thought I might be a double stat.” 

The words of a client of SAFE AND JUST MICHIGAN: 

"We always heard about the restaurants and the schools. (Gov. Whitmer) never really addressed what was going on within the prison system. We just felt like we were inhuman to her. Like we didn't exist. We have something to live for just like everybody else in society, and we deserve the same thing. [What] society is getting, the prison system deserves it as well." – 

The words of Jonathan Sacks, Director, STATE APPELLATE DEFENDER OFFICE: 

“This is a humanitarian crisis. Every day at the office, we hear of clients (prisoners) who have tested positive and even died. Michigan must prioritize vaccine access for incarcerated people, as recommended by the American Medical Association, and as, example, Massachusetts and California have done. In Michigan, corrections staff have been identified as a priority, and appropriately so, but not the people in their care.” 

Now it’s time for our voices to be heard. No more stalling. No more excuses. Our elected state officials must know where we stand. Prisoners MUST get the vaccine!

In conclusion, one more quote, from author DaShanne Stokes: 

“If I were to do nothing, I'd be guilty of complicity.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

When will we think about prisoners?

I’m impressed. I must admit it. As a news junkie, I was glued to the TV screen watching the peaceful transfer of power. But this time I felt better. Perhaps it was the stark contrast between the outgoing administration and the incoming administration. Yet, with all that feel-good stuff, I still experience a tug of pessimism regarding my friends behind bars. 

Here’s why. 

The new President of the United States and his administration do not have a plate big enough to hold the giant stack of pressing problems. The pandemic, or course, is at the top of the list. The many issues involved with the coronavirus crisis alone demand immediate attention...deaths, business closings, job loss, homelessness, hunger, education, depression. Then you have the economy. Global warming. Immigration. Ugh! 

My fear is that, with so many squeaky wheels, there may not be enough oil to squirt on the bearings. 

Mass incarceration may not seem like the most pressing issue in our country, but it’s a serious, serious problem. I’m cautiously thinking that maybe, with our incoming administration’s emphasis on unity, kindness, compassion and such, just maybe we can finally steer away from our country’s obsession with revenge and overly-punitive punishment. Because of that attitude, the U.S. has over 2-million people behind bars. In fact, since 1980, there has been a 500% increase in population of our jails and prisons! 

I’ve raised these issues before, but these are some of the most disturbing things about our country’s prison statistics: 

-People of color make up 37% of our nation’s population, but 67% of our prison population!

-1 out of 3 black boys today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life! 

Attorney and California Senator Dave Linn also offers these baffling observations: 

-There’s no connection between our country’s crime rate and incarceration rate!

-Overkill in the justice system is directly related to higher recidivism rates! 

With all of the immediate problems facing our nation’s new leaders, dare we even hope for such things as prison reform and sentencing reform? 

There are two things, I think, that we can and should do. 

First, let’s pray that kinder, gentler leadership at the top level of our government will trickle down to a softening of our “law and order” nation’s street-level feelings of revenge and retribution. 

Meanwhile at the bottom of the ladder, you and I can get it started with more compassionate, more humane attitudes. As Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman concluded in her inauguration presentation today: 

For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

 

 

 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Martin and Cy: Free at last! Thank God Almighty, they’re free at last!

I must admit that Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t make much of an impact on my life while he was alive. 

Sure, I remember the I Have a Dream Speech. I remember the sadness and dismay upon his assassination when I reported that story on the air in 1968. 

But, frankly, I was white, living in an all-white community, attending an all-white church, and Dr. King’s challenges and concerns bore little resemblance to mine. 

Then, a few years later, I booked a guest for my morning radio talk show to discuss Black History Week (that was before Black History Month). 

The date arrived, and this tall, striking black man with a tiny patch of white hair in the front walked in. His name was Cy Young, a Grand Rapids taxi driver and former nightclub entertainer who would later become an itinerant preacher. 

What a delightful radio interview! Cy Young told how he found a discarded book of Dr. Martin Luther King speeches in a parking lot. As he sat in his taxi waiting for calls, he started memorizing. He had been blessed with the gift of recitation, and he learned all of MLK’s speeches. With his big, booming voice, he delivered those addresses with a fervor that stirred audiences and would have made King proud! 

At the conclusion of that one-hour show, Cy recited the entire I HAVE A DREAM SPEECH. 

I must confess that I was teary-eyed when I signed off. 

That began a long and meaningful friendship that lasted until he was struck down by a car, as he left a civil rights meeting. I place Cy Young’s name on a list of people whose influence led me into this honorable profession of prisoner advocacy. 

Cy’s dream was to form a Martin Luther King Association with the express purpose of seeing that young and budding African Americans would get a fair chance in life. That leads me to believe that Cy already knew what I still had to learn: African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites; black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to federal or state prison in their lifetime; and, the imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women. 

It reminds me of these words. 

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK 

Both of these men are my heroes, and I honor them today. 

Rev. Cy Young and Dr. Martin Luther King: one local, one international, both with voices for harmony among the races, today enjoying their reward, side-by-side, in the Promised Land!

 

 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Some people in Washington DC didn’t have a dad like mine!

It was early in the 1940s. A little boy named Doug Tjapkes went down the street to play with his friends Billy and Chucky. Playing in their spacious back yard was always fun. And, their mother had a nice vegetable garden back there. 

On that particular day, Billy and Chucky asked me if I liked to throw tomatoes. Well, I had never considered it...we didn’t raise tomatoes at our house. So, we all gave it a try, and I must admit it was fun. The neighbor lady had just received a new shipment of cement blocks across the alley, and we splatted tomato after tomato against that block stack. 

Much later in the day, my father asked me if I had been playing with Billy and Chucky. I allowed that I had. Then he asked if I had thrown tomatoes. Yep, I said, we all did. Turns out the owner of those cement blocks was a customer of my dad’s neighborhood grocery, and she was steamed. 

The elder Tjapkes assured me that, after supper, he and I would take a walk to Mrs. Smith’s house and tell her that we were sorry. Supper hour was somber. 

Turns out that Mrs. Smith was very kind, but pointed out that Billy and Chucky had placed all the blame on me. I would learn later just why my dad wasn’t all that surprised. He had had some unfavorable business dealings with their father earlier, and had experienced similar behavior. Trickle down. 

Well, I learned two important things from that experience. 

Number one, the harsh reality of life is that some people without a strong moral compass won’t accept blame...they’ll pin it on you or someone else. 

And even more important than that, number two: Apology is an integral part of the Christian walk. 

The writer of Proverbs says: Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it. 

Over the years, as I have helped dozens of prisoners prepare their applications for clemency, I always stress the importance of owning up to their mistakes and offering a genuine apology. We all blow it at one time or another. But we don’t all admit it! 

As I’m reading the major news stories of the day, I’m struck by the fact that many public officials obviously didn’t have John Tjapkes as their father. 

I can assure you that, if they had, some headlines would be different.

 

 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Second chances for juvie lifers? Elusive!

I blame it on prosecutors!

Here’s what’s going on. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012 and 2016, ruled that we may not sentence juveniles to life without parole. AND, those who are now in prison serving that kind of sentence must have those sentences reviewed.

And that’s where the rub comes in.

The Marshall Project, which recently published an in-depth report on the topic, found that we’re not doing our job here in Michigan. We had about 350 juvenile lifers whose sentences needed review. But get this: It’s 2021, and 200 of those lifers have yet to receive a new sentence! 

What the ? 

This, even after the Michigan Legislature responded by ruling that prosecutors should take less than 6 months to get these prisoners resentenced. 

Did that happen? Heck, no! 

To no one’s surprise, according the Detroit Free Press, many prosecutors decided to take a lengthier approach. Simply put, they chose to defy the high court’s determination that life without parole for a kid should be exceedingly rare. 

Four of those waiting to be resentenced were 14 when arrested. 33 others were 15.

The reason this is becoming such a hot issue right now is because while prosecutors continue to drag their heels, COVID 19 continues to run rampant through Michigan prisons. The Marshall Project reports that Michigan is third, only to Ohio and Texas, with more than 3,000 confirmed COVID cases. 

Prisoners in this special category now fear that the virus will get them before they can get resentenced. As if it wasn’t scary enough to walk into an adult prison as a teenager in the first place.

For one Michigan inmate, it's already too late. William Garrison had served 44 years for a crime he had committed as a teenager. Just 24 days before he was finally scheduled for release, COVID got him last month. What a tragedy! 

In a December blog, I referred to what I call a “prosecutor mentality” that leans strongly toward victims, victims’ rights, and punishment. I quoted former prosecutor Paul Delano Butler, now a Georgetown law professor: Like a lot of prosecutors, I possess a zeal that can border on the bloodthirsty .... I put a lot of people in prison, and I had a great time doing it. 

I’m at a loss here...how to get things moving? To whom should we complain? Where should we apply pressure? The state attorney general? A former prosecutor! The Michigan governor? A former prosecutor! 

To summarize: We have the U.S. Supreme Court and the Michigan Legislature saying our prosecutors must get on with resentencing 200 juvenile lifers. Meanwhile, a raging pandemic is threatening the very lives of these prisoners. Nothing is happening.

And how do our prosecutor’s respond? With the third finger. 

Disgusting. 



 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

2021: Year of burying the hatchet?

While fighting to free Maurice Carter, at the turn of the century, I learned some important lessons about forgiveness. 

I’ll not forget when a consortium of Innocence Project professionals decided to conduct a public seminar on the fallacies of eyewitness identification to focus attention on our case. It would be held on the campus of Andrews University, right in Berrien County where Maurice had been wrongly convicted. I was floored to learn that one of the nation’s leading experts on the topic, Dr. Gary Wells of Iowa, would coordinate this program on our behalf. 

That’s when I first met Jennifer Thompson, who came to share her story. DNA testing cleared a man, 22 year old Ronald Cotton, whom she positively identified as her rapist, and who served 10 years. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Jennifer explains that she humbly begged for forgiveness. And Ronald, who could have remained bitter over the ordeal, was big enough to forgive. They later co-authored the best-selling book Picking Cotton...a must read. Both of them came to Grand Haven some years ago for our lecture series. Beautiful people! 

I got to thinking about that the other day when I read a fine newspaper column by Alabama free-lance writer Leslie Anne Tarabella. She recalled that rather obscure 2020 story where Christian Cooper, a black man, was in Manhattan’s Central Park bird-watching when he politely asked a white woman to put a leash on her dog, as the law required. The woman, instead, called police, screeching on her cell phone, “An African American man is threatening my life!” 

Police sorted it out, and some friends urged Cooper to get even. However, he refused to file false report charges and publicly shame the complainant. “She shouldn’t have to live with her mistake the rest of her life,” he quietly told reporters. 

I am astounded when one after another of my friends gets released from prison---perhaps wrongly convicted, probably over-charged or over-sentenced--- and decides against any future retaliation, choosing, instead, to bury the hatchet. Prisoners have taught me a powerful lesson that theologian Frederick Buechner describes this way: 

When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. 

When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. 

Three Ps were at the heart of most of our shouting at each other in 2020: politics, pandemic and police misconduct. 

It’s a new year, time for all of us to find that “kinder, gentler nation” that former President George H.W. Bush described. 

Please join me in digging a pit for the hatchet.