All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

How prison families identify with COVID victims

 There's no greater misfortune than dying alone.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

Day after day, during this past year of COVID horror, we have been bombarded with tragic stories about being alone. Time and again we heard tearful reports of family members unable to visit ailing and dying loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals. Thousands upon thousands of COVID patients died one at their bedside to hold hands, say last goodbyes, offer final prayers. Heartbreaking! 

Experiences like that were new to many of us. We’ve never had a pandemic like this before. 

But, surprise, surprise. This is nothing new for anyone who has a family member in prison! No, it’s not a virus that causes similar problems. It’s the cold, heartless, impersonal system that’s to blame...and it’s not nice. 

Our home phone rang the other night. Old feller called me and introduced himself. He had gotten my name and telephone number from a friend of a friend. In this business, the calls, the pleas for help, don’t come just during office hours on weekdays. 

Anyway, I quickly identified with Mr. D because he was exactly my age. He has a son nearly 60 years of age in prison, and lately he and his wife had been unable to connect with him. Trying to pry information from prison staff members is a daunting task, but thanks to his persistence he finally learned that his son is in the hospital. No one had bothered to tell his parents. The man called us, wondering how to work through the red tape of arranging a hospital visit. 

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS did what it does best, and was able to pave the way for a parental hospital visit to their son. Sadly, it may be too little too late. And that leads me to this: I don’t know what it’s going to take to introduce a tiny measure of compassion into this system, but that’s what must happen. 

Our files are filled with horror stories.  Stories of wives or parents who suddenly lose contact with a son or daughter behind bars, only to learn later that they’ve been transferred to the prison health center or a private hospital. Stories of loved ones unable to communicate final goodbyes to sick and dying prisoners. Stories of lonely incarcerated individuals who simply died alone in a cold prison infirmary. 

Yes, because of COVID, the rest of the world is finding out what families of prisoners have known for a long time. There is no greater misfortune than dying alone. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Watch your mouth. You may need a criminal lawyer someday!

The Constitution of the United States of America gets treated much like the Holy Bible. We pick and choose which parts we really like. 

Today, I’m picking a less popular amendment, as I come to the defense of criminal lawyers. 

Eric Nelson has been taking a lot of heat these days. He was the lead defense attorney for recently convicted Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin. 

In coffee shop or tavern discussions, you’ll invariably hear negative comments about any lawyer who would defend a guy like that. I remember long ago when a young criminal attorney married into a prominent family. You’d have thought their daughter had married someone of a different faith or, gasp, of another color. A member of his new family rudely wondered how the man could sleep at night. 

I think the world of defense attorneys.  When invited to speak at their state convention, I concluded my address with the statement that I considered these lawyers “the backbone of our justice system.” I received a standing O. 

Here’s what we must remember. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the rights of criminal defendants, including the right to a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to a lawyer, the right to an impartial jury, and the right to know who your accusers are and the nature of the charges and evidence against you. 

Even with that guarantee, the criminal defense attorney faces an uphill battle. There’s a shameful discrepancy between the resources available to the prosecutor and those for the defense attorney. If it’s a public defender, the hill is even steeper. The prosecutor probably has a better-funded office, but for certain has services like police investigators and lab technicians at his/her fingertips. 

A couple of observations.

First, when you hear of a jury acquitting someone of a criminal charge, don’t immediately blame a sleazy defense attorney. Blame the state for not making its case. 

And second, if and when an unlikely situation develops and you need a lawyer, you’re going to thank God that some people have chosen to become warriors for the accused! 

That’s what Eric Nelson is. He did his best to make sure the state did its job properly when accusing a police officer of murder. 

An HFP salute today to criminal attorneys, especially public defenders, who perform a most important role. They have a duty to their clients to ensure that those persons accused of a crime receive due process of law and enjoy every possible benefit from their talent.

I repeat: They're the backbone of our judicial system!

Monday, April 19, 2021

Days, weeks, months, years in the hole? Not acceptable!

My friend puts it well: Getting old sucks! 

In response to my kids’ persistence, I called my physician to ask about a troublesome leg. That led to a visit to Urgent Care, and that led to the Emergency Room. Possible blood clot. 

I have great respect for the medical profession, but all of my hospital visits in my 80+ years have not been pleasant. We’re in a small town so, in this case, there was a 2-hour wait while the facility’s ultra sound technician was paged and brought in. 

And here’s the deal. You’re sitting on a gurney with your pants off, so you can’t run to the bathroom. The ER exam room is tiny, the curtain is pulled, there’s no radio, no television, COVID has resulted in the removal of magazines. And, my cell phone was in the car. 

Alone with NOTHING to do for 2 solid hours. 

And that got me to thinking about people I love behind bars, and the common practice I detest: solitary confinement. 

For a variety of reasons, we can and do place men and women in tiny cages for 23 hours a day. 

Some months ago I wrote about an old boy in Louisiana who’d been in solitary for over 40 years, staring at the walls of a 7 by 9 cell. 

Psychiatrists warn that solitary confinement can lead to mental issues. Some experience panic attacks, depression and paranoia, and even hallucinations. One expert claims that it renders many people incapable of living anywhere else. Then, when prisoners are finally released, they are overwhelmed with anxiety. 

My friend Lois Pullano, who founded Citizens for Prison Reform and who has stories to tell about segregation, has been passionate in promoting what is called the Open MI Door campaign. We support it, too. The campaign calls for an end to solitary confinement in our state’s prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities. This, she says, would bring Michigan into full compliance with the UN Mandela Rules. 

The Mandela Rules restrict the use of solitary confinement as a measure of last resort, to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Mandela found solitary confinement to be “the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there’s only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.” 

Your support is needed in this campaign: 

Getting old sucks. 

Being locked up really sucks. 

Being locked up alone is simply cruel and unusual punishment and must be stopped. 

...remember those in prison as if you were together with them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

What’s in a name?

So, how do you refer to people who reside behind bars? What do you call them? Criminal, convict, offender, felon, super-predator, lawbreaker, delinquent, inmate, prisoner?

Our board chair, Russ Bloem, has been insistent that we reconsider the terms used for referring to someone who is incarcerated. This week we get some guidance from the Marshall Project, which has developed a policy on what to call someone behind bars. In a prison survey taken by the MP, 38% preferred being labeled an “incarcerated person,” 23% were OK with the term “prisoner,” but only 10% wanted to be called an “inmate.” 

I thought the Marshall Project gave an excellent explanation as to why they were taking a look at this issue: 

It’s important to note that our policy is not an attempt to exonerate anyone or minimize the impact of crime on people victimized by it. It is designed to promote precision and accuracy and to convey the humanity of people who are routinely dehumanized by the media and society 

So, here’s the Marshall Project’s new policy: the words “inmates” and “convicts” are never used! The preferred term is “incarcerated,” next in line is “imprisoned,” followed by “people or person in prison.”

After 20 years in this business, I’m thinking Russ and the Marshall Project are on the right track. We should be more considerate when choosing titles for those behind bars.

In my conversations with the incarcerated over the years, I have found that many are much less sensitive than others over what they are called. One of our clients bitterly complained to me about being called an “inmate” back in the early days of our formation. I asked others behind bars, and many just shrugged. They really didn’t care.

In all fairness, the Marshall Project survey wasn’t all that scientific, either. I think they polled about 200 incarcerated persons. 

The thing is, county jails also fit under the MP’s umbrella, and according to their statistics about 70% of people in jail have not yet been convicted! If the word “inmate” implies guilt, calling these people inmates isn’t fair at all. 

Really, it’s all a matter of dignity, and I and our team respect that. "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27. 

This statement from UNICEF underscores the importance of being sensitive when using labels referring to the incarcerated:

Every human being deserves respect, dignity and equality. No matter who they are. No matter where they live. No matter the colour of their skin.

The perpetrator of a heinous crime, you, and me: All created in the image of God.


Monday, April 12, 2021

The real message behind problem solving: Someone cares!

I had an idea for a radio show back in the 1970s. Call-in shows were popular on local radio, but they all sounded alike. My idea was to be active instead of passive, to help listeners solve problems. We labeled the show Problem Solvers, and I hosted it along with my assistant Barb Werly.                                                                                                                          

People could call with a problem. We and our listeners would then try to solve it. We did not limit the type of problem. If necessary, we would make an outgoing call to get an answer. 

I didn’t create the show for ratings...I did it to help people, but the ratings followed! It was one of the most popular mid-morning shows on west Michigan radio, emanating from our little 500-watt transmitter in our small town! 

That’s what is happening with HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 20 years ago, we started out just helping those who claimed wrongful conviction. We found we couldn’t limit our assistance to one category. Calls were coming in about problems with health care, abuse, Parole Board issues, etc. We had to help. And so, over the years, HFP became “the problem solvers.” 

-People were worried about mail tampering, because the Parole Board was no longer acknowledging receipt of their commutation applications. An HFP message to the Governor, and the policy was changed! 

-A client believed a medical examiner had lied on an autopsy report, but he couldn’t get his hands on the document because our state won’t allow prisoners to file FOIA requests. We did it for him, and he was right! He’s elated, and has new hope. 

Sometimes family members call. 

A young man had been diagnosed with a serious case of diabetes while in a private hospital, but when returned to prison he didn’t receive his critically needed insulin. HFP stepped in, and he got it. 

An elderly grandmother was dying and had hoped to speak with her grandson by telephone one last time, but his prison telephone privileges had been revoked. HFP persuaded the warden to grant an exception. 

It’s what we do. 

But this is even more important! Our prompt response to 50-75 calls a day, 7 days a week, conveys this message: Someone will listen. Someone cares!

We will and we do. 

"Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference." – Kevin Heath

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Heroes venture behind bars!

Every time I drive past a major intersection here in Grand Haven, I get a warm feeling. There’s a big skilled nursing facility on that corner, and I’m sure the past year has been a stressful time for both occupants and staff. But here’s the thing I like: There are signs in the lawn all around the building saying Heroes work here! 

The pandemic has helped us become aware of all kinds of heroes. In addition to the doctors, nurses and first responders, we have found heroes who kept our grocery stores open, for example; who kept public transportation alive; and yes, who hauled away our garbage. All kinds of unsung heroes. 

I’ve been thinking about this subject since last weekend when I heard one of my favorite country gospel groups, The Isaacs, singing their song called Heroes. The theme is that you may not know their names, but many everyday people are heroes all the same. 

Today I’m going to do something about it. I’m surrounded by a group of heroes, and I’m going to tell the world about it. 

Here’s the story. 

Last month, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS responded to a record number of calls for help: 2,131! That boils down to 70 messages a day to our office via email, snail mail and telephone, 7 days a week for the month of March! 

To expand on that a little more, just a couple years ago, in 2019, we responded to a total of 6,800 calls. So far this year, we’ve already received 5,800 calls! 

Some of the requests for assistance are more urgent than others, but I assure you these are not frivolous matters. And our policy is, and always has been, that Michigan inmates seeking help from us will get a prompt response. We may not be able to help them right away, but they won’t be ignored. 

Obviously, to handle that kind of volume. It takes a team. 

So, here goes. To the office gang---Susie, Sarah, Melissa, Ted, and Matt; and to our group of marvelous volunteers--- Bob 1 and Bob 2, Jen, Taylor, Rebekah, Harley, Bill, Ron, Kathy, Paul, Gabriella, and Heather, I dedicate this chorus from the Isaacs: 

He's a hero and she's a hero

It doesn't matter that nobody knows their name

They keep on givin' to make life worth livin'

Might go unnoticed but they're heroes just the same 

Representing many men and women behind bars in Michigan, inmate Eddie summed it up best in his email message to HFP this week: In case you didn't know, you are appreciated!




Saturday, April 3, 2021

Dave and I have an Easter gift for you!

This is a very special Easter gift! 

The following piece was written by a very special friend, David Schelhaas. Dave is a retired college English professor who now lives in Iowa. Many years ago he lived here in our part of the state, taught at Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, and was a charter member of HIS MEN…a singing group that I founded in 1972. 

He’s not only a fine singer, but an excellent writer. I invite you to savor this little gem on Easter Sunday, 2021: 

Thinking He Was the Gardener 

Thinking he was the gardener

she did not recognize him,

eyes blurred with tears, the weight

of grief breaking her heart.


Now, all these centuries later, we find

her misidentification of him as gardener

happily apt.

For he is the gardener

of our lives and our salvation---

planter, waterer, weeder, feeder, completer.


He is the gardener

of all green and growing things, of

grasses, flowers and trees. The great sequoias,

redwoods, and cedars of the world bow down to him

who bends to tend the almost invisible lettuce seeds

planted this morning in my garden.


He cares for all creatures, plants

the conies, those “feeble folk,”

in houses of stone to protect them, gives

water for the wild donkeys, delights

in the antics of leviathan.


Before time was, he cast stars

like seeds into the endless

furrows of space and still

charts their growth over seasons

that linger on for eons.


Dear, sad Mary, one word and she knew him,

yet all eternity may not be time enough

for her to comprehend him.


Thank you, David. 

Christ, the gardener, is risen. He is risen, indeed!