All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Holy Week means hope for prisoners

Everybody loves a “second chance.” Unless it’s for a prisoner. Then we have “second thoughts.” 

Prosecutors and victims’ rights groups argue that those who lost their lives in heinous crimes won’t get a second chance. Why, then, should the perpetrator? 

And so, unlike the country of Norway where they believe that every life is redeemable, all persons can be rehabilitated, and there is no such thing as life without parole...unlike that remarkable nation, we love life sentences and even the death penalty! Punishment and retribution reduce crime, right? (It hasn’t worked yet!) 

But then, in Lent, comes the poignant story of Dismas. 

And all protestants say, “Who the heck is Dismas?” Many Catholics do, as well. 

Well, that’s the name that was given to the penitent thief on the cross, one of the guys getting crucified next to Jesus, 

Only Dr. Luke publishes this story. 

One criminal taunted Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” And then the other thief rebuked him, saying, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus told him, “This day you will be with me in paradise” 

The powerful lesson: It’s never too late. 

On March 25, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of St. Dismas. I like that! As a person who works and mingles with inmates, the story has deep meaning for me. It should also have deep meaning for every person behind bars. 

The message of Easter is not just for those of us who are and have been long-time followers of Jesus. This guy never saw Jesus perform a miracle, never read a word of the Old Testament prophets, and was at death’s door. Yet, at the last minute, he chose to make a U-turn.

There’s a sermon here, of course...deep spiritual truths. But there’s broader meaning as well for the incarcerated. It’s not easy being judged by the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. It’s terrible to be locked up for a crime you didn’t even commit. We cannot even imagine the huge challenge in attempting to get a fresh start. This story offers hope.

 Every second a seeker can start over,

 For his life’s mistakes

 Are initial drafts

And not the final version.

-Sri Chinmoy 

Holy Week is Hope Week. For all of us. Especially those behind bars.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Maurice H. Carter, born 3/29/44. Little did his mother know!

It’s funny how the mind works. 

My brother Maurice’s birthday is here. I’m thinking how much I miss him. My mind is flooded with memories. And I’m also thinking of his mother. I used to visit his elderly mom in her tiny, ramshackle home in a deteriorating Gary, Indiana neighborhood. 

She loved those visits! She loved her son! 

And as I’m thinking about a mother’s love for her son, and her hopes and dreams for the lad, a song runs through my mind. It’s one of my favorite Christmas pieces, introduced to the public exactly 20 years ago: Mary, Did You Know? 

To be clear, I’m NOT attempting to compare Maurice to Jesus, or Mrs. Elizabeth Fowler to the blessed virgin. 

I love the poignant questions to Mary, penned by Mark Lowry and set to music by Buddy Greene: Did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water, would save our sons and daughters? Did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man, will calm the storm with his hand? Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God? 

I can’t match that kind of stuff when talking about Maurice. But I’ll bet good money that his dear, little mother had no idea that her kind and gentle son---born and raised in poverty, falsely accused and incarcerated for nearly half his life for a crime he did not commit---would make such an incredible impact. 

She could not have known that his story would appear in book form and in a stage play. She never would have guessed that the little organization, founded on her son’s dream, would grow to become a leading prisoner advocacy agency in our state...that because of Maurice, HFP’s team members are compassionately touching the lives of thousands of Michigan inmates every day! 

In fact, his wrongful conviction became a rallying cry around the world. 

Phil Campbell, Toronto attorney, was paying tribute to my efforts at the time of Maurice Carter’s death, but his sentiments are accurate: 

The official record shows Maurice to be convicted of attempted murder. But in the eyes of the public, and of many more who studied the case, he achieved exoneration. When you met Maurice he was a forgotten man; he died a celebrity. When you met him he was reviled as a dangerous criminal; he died a symbol of wronged innocence. When you met him he had no real friends; he died surrounded by love. 

I conclude with this statement by Phil: 

The qualities he displayed during the bleakest years imaginable are answer enough to his accusers.

Happy Birthday, my brother Maurice. RIP!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

On why we tell you what goes on behind bars

I have an announcement to make. And a confession. 

The announcement: I have a new book in the works...I’m hoping it will be released in a few months. The confession is that I’m rather ashamed of some of its content. 

Let me explain. 

As an octogenarian, I have had three distinctly different careers. My first career was that of radio newsman, and as I concluded nearly 30 years in the business, I owned and operated Radio Station WGHN right here in Grand Haven, Michigan. 

As a local newsman/broadcaster, I felt it was my duty to air editorials on local issues. Unlike articles and editorials in the newspaper, which can and do get saved, many things on the air later disappear. 

A former employee enjoyed those editorials, and saved copies of some 300 of them, aired between 1964 and 1978. With the kind assistance of Grand Haven’s Historical Museum and Loutit Library, we’re assembling more than 80 from that collection into a fine book that accurately reflects the social history of our community during that era. 

I’m very proud of this book. My positions on some issues, however, make me ashamed. Based on my life experiences, those opinions seemed quite valid back then. Cops and prosecutors were seldom if ever wrong. Arrested folks were obviously “bad apples.” Problems involving young people were obviously the fault of the teenagers. Certainly not the adults. 

My opinions were colored by these inhibiting factors: I had been a radio newsman in three predominantly white communities; I had never met a prisoner; I had never parented teenagers. 

My life, and my opinions, are different today. Now my friends and acquaintances have a variety of skin colors, and many of them are, or were, in prison. Today, while I greatly respect those persons in law enforcement and the courts who do their jobs fairly and honorably, I am fully aware of those who misuse their power and authority. And today, I can honestly say that the joys of raising kids through the teen years far outweighed the challenges. 

When I founded HFP 20 years ago, the old newsman in me demanded that we tell stories. Only then would people know what it’s like behind bars. Many reports were shocking. All were enlightening. One day a friend asked if I was making them up! 

The average citizen has no awareness of prison conditions and problems. As a former newsman and founder of an agency that helps and promotes humanity for inmates, I encourage our team to face that challenge and communicate, communicate, communicate! We’ll keep telling you the stories. 

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll watch for the new book. 

And I hope you’ll pray for the incarcerated.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

On meeting “deep hunger” behind bars

When a memorial service was held for my mother, our family was astounded at the number of people who showed up whom we didn’t know or recognize. As we circulated among the crowd it became apparent that “little things” done by my mom became “big things” in the minds of many. 

She was great at sending a little hand-written note, baking a pie for someone, or inviting a needy soul over for a cuppa. 

Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat ildan said, “Without water drops, there can be no oceans; without steps, there can be no stairs; without little things, there can be no big things!” 

I could never fill my mother’s shoes. I did learn some important lessons from her, though, and those have filtered down into Humanity for Prisoners. And because our CEO, son Matt, has some of the same genes, we’re on the same page when it comes to compassion. 

With nearly 2,000 calls a month coming into our office, many are predictable. Helping prisoners file requests under the Freedom of Information Act and helping those needing improved medical care will occupy nearly 50% of our time. 

But then there are the unusual ones that might seem small or insignificant. 

A long-time friend of ours serving time at Women’s Huron Valley asks if HFP can help a woman in her unit who is illiterate and can speak only Spanish. The woman would like to file an application seeking a commutation of her sentence, but the obstacles are huge. 

The father of a prisoner who has been denied telephone privileges asks if we can arrange an exception of the rule so his son may have one final conversation with his dying grandmother. She’s under hospice care, and won’t last long. 

A prisoner in Saginaw CF asks what we can do to help an 83-year-old man in his unit. The poor old guy suffers from dementia, he soils himself, and nobody seems to really give a damn. Nobody, that is, except this caring prisoner, and our caring team. 

If you had a loved one behind bars, for whatever reason, I think you’d be pleased to know that calls like this get top priority in our office. 

Dr. David Schuringa, as our consultant some years ago, said, “Nobody does what you do!  Nobody wants to do what you do!” 

I love this quote by theologian Frederick Buechner: 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

No sunlight for prisoners. Not in this state!

In that this is Sunshine Week, a time when we are supposed to celebrate transparency in our government, we sadly report this: Michigan ranks last among all states in government transparency! 

The shameful fact is that both the Governor of the State of Michigan and our State Legislature are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. And, whenever you and I hear that, our first question should be: What are they hiding? 

But even more annoying to me is this: Michigan prisoners are not allowed to file requests under this act! Ours is only one of a handful of states with this ridiculous rule. 

Let me give you a couple examples of how prisoners can use the act. 

Many prisoners need “newly discovered evidence” to get their cases reopened. That can be accomplished with FOIA requests to prosecutors and police. Michigan won’t let them do it! 

Prisoners rejected by the Parole Board would like to know reasons behind that decision, so they can work on improvement. The only way to find how the Parole Board voted and why is to file a FOIA request. Michigan won’t let them do it! 

There are numerous other issues that require support by desire legal documents. 

The state argues that many prisoner requests are frivolous and responding to those requests is too costly. And so, while the law says all citizens are entitled to such information, our legislature adopted an amendment which says, in effect, that prisoners are not citizens! 

Some lawyers and some agencies will file FOIA requests on behalf of prisoners, but they charge for it. But, in many cases, lack of funds is the very reason why prisoners want to take this action on their own. 

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS provides this service to many Michigan prisoners, and we do it at no charge. Inmates are asked to pay expenses for copies. 

Last year we filed more than 500 requests for prisoners! This year, we’ve filed more than 150 already! These were legitimate requests, not frivolous, according to our team. Response to, and support for, our assistance in this field is overwhelming! But, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

There must be some way to reach a compromise, whereby some restrictions remain in place, but whereby prisoners are not denied “due process.” 

Sunshine Week is the perfect time for our lawmakers to rethink the issue.


Monday, March 15, 2021

I’ll tell you where you can take your “sunshine!”

This is Sunshine Week, a week when we are supposed to celebrate the Freedom of Information Act, something that actually holds our public officials accountable. In all states, that is, except Michigan. Our state, affectionally referred to as Pure Michigan, ranks last among states for government transparency! That according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Here are three damning points you should be aware of, during Sunshine Week:

-We exempt the Governor’s Office from disclosure of public information. She’s a Democrat.

-We exempt the state legislature as well. Both houses are Republican.

-Prisoners in Michigan are not allowed to file FOIA requests. 

In his Sunday newspaper column, MLive Vice President of Content John Hilner describes barriers his reporters encounter when they try to get information. I have personally heard a public official in my county boast about how tough the FOIA Coordinator makes it for those filing requests. 

And our office is keenly aware of that problem because we file hundreds of FOIA requests on behalf of Michigan prisoners, often meeting resistance. The law states that citizens have the right to know, but in 1994 the Michigan Legislature OK’d an amendment to say that prisoners are excluded from FOIA. In other words, they are not citizens. 

Michigan is one of only a few states that will not allow inmates to file FOIA requests. 

Our friend Dan Manville takes our side. And he’s well-qualified to do so. Manville is an associate clinical professor at the Michigan State University law school, where he directs the Civil Rights Clinic. He has plenty of first-hand experience with this issue, as a former inmate and jailhouse lawyer himself. 

He gives this example of prisoners being hurt by that provision. When Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, federal law requires prison officials to investigate allegations of sexual assault by guards or inmates. BUT, when inmates submit a complaint, after the investigation is complete, the prisoner is only given a one-page document that tells them whether or not there was sufficient evidence to support the complaint. If a prisoner wants to file a lawsuit, without FOIA they're usually unable to determine whether or not they have a strong enough case to go to court. 

What it boils down to is this. Whether you’re inside or outside of prison bars, there’s a whole lot your state officials don’t want you to know. 

And that leads to this Sunshine Week question: What are you going to do about it?

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Jim Crow is alive and well!

This week we remember a terrible incident that occurred in Alabama. Hundreds formed a march to Birmingham hoping to ensure the right of Black people to vote. That was in March, 1965. White cops used vicious dogs and fire hoses to show those folks just who was boss. 

Not to be outdone in U.S. history books, the State Senate in neighboring Georgia---exactly 50 years later---voted to pass legislation containing a slew of restrictions to suppress voting rights. The House is sure to follow suit soon. Too many Black people voting. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an avalanche of voter suppression bills being introduced around our country. And believe me, they’re not designed to keep white middle-classed citizens like me from voting! 

Which begs the question I ask time and again: Just how much progress have we really made in leveling the playing field for people of color? 

I recently read something in THE MARSHALL PROJECT that prompts my question. Take a look at this:

White children were released from juvenile detention at a far higher rate than their Black peers during the early stages of the pandemic, new data reveals. Since the pandemic, younger people of color have also been detained longer in juvenile jails. The racial gap is widening even though teenagers in many jurisdictions were arrested less often in 2020 and incarceration rates for juveniles remain at or near generational lows. 

That led me to scroll through daily briefings from THE MARSHALL PROJECT to look for any other headlines indicating lack of progress in our treatment of blacks. 

Well, let’s see. 

-The Minneapolis trial of a former police officer accused of killing George Floyd last year. 

-Four stories spinning from the white supremacist attack on the nation’s Capitol. 

-New York:  An officer caught on camera pepper-spraying a Black woman as she held her 3-year-old child. 

-New York, again: City police commissioner Dermot Shea apologizes for the NYPD’s relentless mistreatment of communities of color. 

-From the FBI: White supremacists plan to continue to infiltrate law enforcement agencies and the military to gain tactical training. 

-In Louisiana: A Black sheriff’s deputy died by suicide sitting in his patrol car...distraught, he said, about police violence and racial injustice. 

-And finally, circling back to Georgia again: Republican lawmakers want to prosecute people for bringing food and water to fellow citizens waiting in line for hours to vote. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, on August 14, 1957: 

"We have come a long, long way, but we have a long way to go.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

A year ago everything changed; nothing changed!

It was exactly one year ago. Up until that specific date, no one except medical practitioners in the operating room ever gave thought to wearing a mask. 

Now, all of us do it, all of the time. We don’t shake hands anymore. We don’t stand close to each other. 

That was the dramatic change. What didn’t change in the least is our attitude toward and our treatment of Michigan prisoners. Same old same old. 

One would think that, in the midst of an international pandemic, extraordinary measures would be taken to make sure staff didn’t bring in the disease. After all, restrictions were immediately enforced banning visitation by family, friends, and volunteers. The bug would have to come in somehow, right? Therefore, no outsiders allowed, period. But. the state's system was flawed. 

There’s no need to outline the train wreck that followed. I’m not convinced that many of us really care...we’ve got our own health and welfare to worry about. But, for the record... 

There are 35,000 people incarcerated in Michigan state prisons...more than 25,000 have had COVID. 3,600 cases among staff have been reported. Some fear there are more, but the state reports that at least 135 prisoners have died. More than 30 of them were friends/clients of HFP. Sad story after sad story filtered in to our office. Helpless, we could only pray. 

Deaths occurred among prison staff as well. So far, at least 4. 

Then came the vaccine. A God-send! 

Were prisoners among those granted priority status for the shots? YES, in some states. NO, in Michigan! 

Having grown accustomed to low interest in prisoners under the past regime, we falsely hoped that a new Governor from the other side of the aisle would make a difference. Nada. While we appreciate many of the stands this Governor has taken, her attitude toward prisoners is disappointing. Based on her interest to date in clemency for deserving inmates, I guess this should come as no surprise. 

So, while all of us face world much differently these days---wearing masks and such, some things never change. Not when it comes to our prisoners. 

May that day still come.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

 II Corinthians 4:18