All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Transgender prisoners. Created in the image of God?

Transgender prisoners are on my mind. 

We’re hearing some positive news about transgender people these days. Shortly after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order allowing transgender people to serve in the military. In fact, on his first day in office the President reinstated protections for gender identity that had been earlier curbed. 

But progress for this group of people (all created in the image of God) has been slow. For example, on the day Biden signed that order, 2,100 miles away conservative legislators in Montana advanced a law to ban transgender youth from competing in girls’ sports. 

What does it mean to be transgender? 

Transgender people are persons whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth. When we're born, a doctor usually says that we're male or female based on what our bodies look like. Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth. 

My intent today, with this column, is to focus on transgender prisoners. Can you even begin to imagine the problems these people face? 

The National Center for Transgender Equality says: 

Transgender people in prison are exposed to horrific rates of abuse by both staff and their fellow inmates, facing physical and sexual assault at much higher rates than their counterparts. As the USTS found, transgender people are ten times as likely to be sexually assaulted by their fellow inmates and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by staff. 

Now I’m going to share something with you that makes me very proud. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS recently signed up its 40th transgender client, a resident of the Michigan prison system! We’re here for them, and they know it! 

Transgender prisoners are too frequently targeted for violence and abuse. Sadly, some of that violence and abuse comes from the very authorities entrusted with their safety. 

Transgender prisoners also face numerous other challenges behind bars, including denials of medical care and lengthy stays in solitary confinement. 

When a prisoner comes to HFP for help, we don’t check his or her rap sheet first to see what kind of crime sent them to a cage. We don’t screen for color, beliefs, or gender identity. That prisoner has a name and a problem. Our response is to care, and then to help if we can. 

I love Psalm 139. These words in verse 14 fit our discussion today: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 

I found this touching quote by a struggling transgender Christian, who referred to that Psalm: 

God made me transgender; that is the way that it is. He did not make a mistake, for it was in His plans that I am who I am.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Speaking of solitary confinement, Albert holds the record for life in the hole!

The problem with writing about a subject like solitary confinement is that sometimes I can’t let it go. 

Just a few days ago I posted a piece exposing shameful solitary confinement numbers in Michigan, now I’m back again, like a bad penny. 

I bumped into a story in the Guardian US, an on-line British newspaper. It told about an old guy who spent almost 40 years in solitary confinement! And this happened in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison where, for years, some religious leaders touted how Christianity was making a difference in improving the lives of prisoners. 

Former Warden Burl Cain had invited the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to set up a Bible college in the prison. Other states, upon hearing Warden Cain’s claims of success, followed suit. Right here in western Michigan, Calvin Theological Seminary has been sending students to Angola for more than a decade. Calvin University and Calvin Seminary now operate a for-credit college program in Ionia, Michigan. 

But back to Angola... 

Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for Guardian US, wrote a compelling piece about a former prisoner named Albert Woodfox who, for almost 44 years, lived alone in a 6 by 9-foot concrete box: America’s longest-serving solitary confinement prisoner! 

It’s all told in his book, Solitary, published just two years ago and now a Pulitzer finalist. 

Woodfox was released 5 years ago this month, on his 69th birthday...43 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. 

What I really want to stress, as I did yesterday, is that Solitary confinement is torture. 

Writer Pilkington says that, in his book, Woodfox explains how he preserved his sanity: 

He immersed himself in prison library books by Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey. He studied law for his appeals. He organised math tests and spelling bees, played chess and checkers, shouting quiz questions and board moves through the bars of his cell to fellow solitary prisoners down the tier. His proudest achievement was teaching another inmate to read. 

“Our cells were meant to be death chambers but we turned them into schools, into debate halls,” Woodfox told me. “We used the time to develop the tools that we needed to survive, to be part of society and humanity rather than becoming bitter and angry and consumed by a thirst for revenge.” 

Well, thankfully, Albert Woodfox survived, and I hope he wins the Pulitzer. But you just know there’s some damage to the man’s mind. He says he’s feeling long-term damage inflicted by those conditions...conditions the UN have denounced as psychological torture. 

Citizens for Prison Reform is to be commended for efforts to reduce solitary confinement in Michigan prisons. We may not treat people this way. 

As for Angola, I’m in no position to say that Christianity did or did not make an impact on lives of prisoners. 

It certainly didn’t on the life of Albert Woodfox.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The number of lifers continues to rise. So does the stupidity behind it!

 The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be some lives out there that matter less than other lives.” Fr. Greg Boyle 

It wouldn’t be right to go through Black History Month without dealing with the topic of life sentences. The Sentencing Project recently issued a report that has my blood boiling! And it’s not just about racial disparity among lifers. It’s about the stupidity of the whole concept! 

First a word about The Sentencing Project. It’s an agency that strives for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by producing “groundbreaking research to promote reforms in sentencing policy, address unjust racial disparities and practices, and to advocate for alternatives to incarceration.” 

Please join me in taking a look at some of this “groundbreaking research.” 

The number of people serving life sentences in the U.S. is higher than ever before! Complains the report: 

Extreme punishment for punishment’s sake is now a hallmark of the justice system with little evidence that such an approach produces better public safety outcomes. 

Here in Michigan, 5,657 prisoners are serving life sentences or virtual life sentences. That’s 15% of the entire state prison population! 

Not only that, two-thirds of these lifers are people of color. One in five black men in prison are serving life sentences. 

Readers of this column know that I also grumble about keeping old-timers behind and women whose release would compromise nothing, jeopardize no one. I’ll simply give you this number. 30% of lifers in Michigan are 55 and older. 

The Sentencing Project affirms what I’ve been trying to say all along: 

Lengthy prison sentences ignore the fact that most people who commit crime, even those who have committed a series of crimes, age out of criminal conduct. 

Life without parole is just unheard of around the world. Other countries see value in preserving human dignity, which means that you aim for rehabilitation and transformation. Just ask the criminologists in Norway. 

But not here in the U.S. of A. No, sir. We’ve got 55,000 people serving life without parole, each one deserves it, and to hell with the cost of housing, feeding and medical care! 

The Sentencing Project points out that by de-emphasizing incarceration and scaling back punishment we could then use public resources to support victims and communities to heal and thrive..a path to real crime prevention and true public safety. 

Louisiana Deputy Warden Perry Stagg says: 

“I am a staunch Republican conservative, and I believe that life without the possibility of parole...does not make sense in most cases...these are not bad people, but people who did a bad thing, and at some point in their lives they deserve to tell their story...they deserve hope.’” 

Amen and Amen!


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

YOU can do something about torture in our prisons!

Getting thrown into “the hole” messes up lives...inside and outside. No one knows that better than Lois DeMott Pullano, whose son was mistreated by the prison system as a youth. 

When Lois goes out on a speaking engagement, she takes along a most amazing exhibit for her audience to see and experience. She has a portable prison cell, and you’ll start feeling a hint of claustrophobia the moment you step into that tiny, parking-space sized room. 

Lois is the Executive Director of Citizens for Prison Reform, a Lansing-based prison advocacy agency that got its start very much like that of Humanity for Prisoners. Actual experiences led her into this business, and led me into this business. 

This week her agency issued a blistering report about solitary confinement. I’m going to encourage you to read it and do something about it. “Tsk, tsk, tsk” isn’t enough...this must go to your State Representative and State Senator along with your strong message of support. 

Why are prisoners placed in solitary confinement? For many reasons, but mostly for punishment. Mentally ill and suicidal inmates are often placed in segregation, as well. 

The numbers are disputed by the Michigan Department of Corrections. Leave it to them to argue about the numbers instead of the problem. CPR says that more than 3,200 Michigan prisoners are affected, and we support those numbers. The state says it’s more like 900. 

Now listen to this: 1/3 of them have been in for 1-2 years! Nearly half have been in for more than 2 years! 10% have been in isolation for 5-20 years! 

No wonder the state is sputtering. Many experts will testify that spending 23 hours a day alone in a cell for any longer than 15 days is considered torture. That kind of isolation does terrible things to the mind! 

And, the report stresses that this problem affects more than just the prisoner. Family members suffer as well. They’re cut off from visits and normal communications. 

Now here are the basics. 

The CPR report, titled Solitary: The Family Experience, can be found here:

CPR begs the MDOC to use isolation "only if absolutely necessary" to protect the safety of prisoners and staff and to limit its use to no more than 15 days. It states that the use of solitary confinement should end for vulnerable prisoners, including those with medical or mental health issues, those 21 or younger or over the age of 55, pregnant women and new mothers, and those who are LGBTQ. 

While disputing the numbers, the MDOC agrees that it’s a problem and says their strategic plan calls for reduction in years to come. That’s not good enough. 

Lois and her little agency can’t be the only ones supporting these isolated people living in “the hole.” They need us. Now. 

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Gal 6:2

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Pardon my French, but Michigan voters, you should be pissed!

Leonard Pitts, Jr., fine columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote a great piece the other day about that high school principal in South Carolina who recently made national news. He took a night job at Walmart to help school kids living below the poverty line. 

Pitts took issue with those who claimed this was a “feel-good” story. Instead, he argued, it should make us feel rotten that teachers still have to use their own money for supplies, that the government keeps giving tax cuts for the rich while working class people must protest to get a working wage. You get the idea. 

I’ve been having similar feelings about the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 

We experienced an 88% increase in our work-load last year, providing personal assistance to persons incarcerated in the state prison system. Last month was the second-busiest month in history, as our staff and volunteers struggled to respond to nearly 2,000 calls. Meanwhile, board members are scrambling to meet the resulting increase in our budget. 

It all sounds exciting! Growing pains! Great work, HFP team! 

But that ain’t the way I see it. While we love to tout the assets of Pure Michigan, the fact of the matter is that the people we elected to public office in this state have let us down! 

-COVID may be one of the big reasons for the increase in our activity, but we should be pissed that the state did not give vaccine priority to our prisoners.

-FOIA Requests take up an immense amount of time as we assist prisoners in obtaining legal documents, but we should be pissed that Michigan is one of only a few states that won’t allow prisoners to file their own requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

-Medical care is another hot topic. 15 to 20% of our messages from prisoners deal with inadequate or insufficient medical care. But we should be pissed that the state not only does a shameful job with prisoner health-care, BUT ALSO demands a $5 co-pay from the inmates.

-Commutation assistance is a big part of our work. But we should be pissed that our Governor ignores clemency as a means to effectively and safely reduce the prison population by releasing hundreds of deserving inmates. 

Do see what I’m getting at, here? 

There’s no question that the HFP team deserves accolades for its compassionate assistance to thousands of Michigan prisoners. But the bigger issue is that if the State of Michigan were doing its job, we would be sitting twiddling our thumbs! 

Now, voters, it’s your turn. 

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”― John Stuart Mill

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Black History – Pastor Gulley can tell many “Jim Crow” stories!

Pastor Rodney Chester Gulley, an inner-city preacher since 1974, can tell Jim Crow stories that’ll make your straight hair curl up into kinks! His son was murdered, his father was murdered, and his grand-father was burned alive by the Klan! 

As we discuss and think about Black History Month, I’d like to focus on this member of the HFP Board of Directors. Pastor Rodney Gulley’s name belongs among those whose courage and tenacity led to the eventual formation of HFP. 

I first met Rodney while trying to free Maurice Carter, an indigent black man who had been wrongly convicted of shooting and injuring an off-duty white cop in Benton Harbor back in the 70s. The newly-formed Wisconsin Innocence Project, helping us with the case, wanted to hold a public information session in the city where the crime had occurred. 

It was around the turn of the century when Pastor Gulley stepped up to offer his church for such a meeting. As the African American audience listened to an all-white group of students and professors talk about the alleged injustice, a black preacher finally blurted, “Who says this man is innocent?” The response was quick, from the store clerk and only witness to the crime. Gwen Baird, a prominent local school teacher, rose from her seat and stated, “I do!” From that point on, everything changed. By the end of that evening, the entire crowd circled the basement of New Covenant Community Baptist Church, held hands, and prayed for success in our case! 

I have more about this pastor. 

A young inner-city war vet spotted our “Free Maurice Carter” poster on a Benton Harbor pole and questioned his mother about the case. “Carter didn’t do it,” she insisted. “Uncle Tommie Lee did!” The troubled young man, feeling the need to reveal that secret to someone, called Pastor Gulley. That led to efforts uncovering solid evidence that the real shooter was not Maurice Carter. 

My last memory of Pastor Gulley’s involvement in the Carter saga was when legal papers were filed at the Berrien County Courthouse on a nasty November day. Chanting Carter supporters carrying placards circled the building. Then Pastor Gulley gathered the demonstrators on the snow-covered lawn, and led a public prayer beneath the Prosecutor’s Office window. Powerful! 

As we launch Black History Month, I proudly honor my friend Pastor Rodney Chester Gulley. I love the guy! 

I still recall when a tough female reporter for Dutch television, in Benton Harbor to cover the Maurice Carter story, brought her cameraman right into Pastor Gulley’s Church on a Sunday morning for some footage. 

When I asked her about my friend, she gushed, “He preached a helluva sermon!” 

I’ll bet he did!