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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, May 28, 2021

TW3!

TWTWTW, better known as TW3, was the title of a BBC TV comedy show in the 1960s. The letters stood for these words: That was the week that was! 

Today I’m reminded of that title. This has been one amazing week! Not one, but two clients of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, both wrongly convicted, walked free! 

The good news: Ray Gray and Gilbert Poole are free! 

The bad news: Combined, they spent 80 years behind bars for something they didn’t do! 

The big question: Will either of them ever get paid by the state? 

Raymond Gray, 69, served 48 years after being convicted of killing someone in an armed robbery. He was actually at home at the time. Sadly, he was not exonerated. His attorney was able to arrange a plea deal with the Wayne County Prosecutor and a judge. Ray walked out of the Muskegon Correctional Facility Tuesday afternoon. 

Gilbert Poole, 56, served 32 years after being convicted of stabbing a man to death in Pontiac. This many years later, DNA evidence proved conclusively that he was not the killer. Gilbert walked out of the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson Thursday morning. 

These two men will be the first to acknowledge that gifts like these don’t just fall like manna from heaven. It takes years of hard work, prayer, and downright legal wrangling. 

In addition to all of that, it helps immensely when someone is there to hold their hand, to offer encouragement, to help with a toothache or medical problem. That’s where HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS comes in. 

Former HFP Board Chair Dan Rooks once expressed his pride in our organization’s reputation of not abandoning our friends, so I share a couple of numbers with you. Believing in his innocence, I began working with Ray Gray 17 years ago! I was at the prison gate to welcome him. Believing in his innocence, Cooley Law School Innocence Project attorney Marla Mitchell-Cichon (a member of the HFP Board of Directors) began working with Gilbert Poole 18 years ago! She was at the prison gate to welcome him. 

In closing I just want to say that I hope Ray Gray continues his fight for exoneration, so he can collect $2.4 million owed him by the state. And I wish Gilbert Poole success as he attempts to collect the $1.6 million settlement owed him! That money won’t help recover all the lost years, but it will help even the score and ease the pain. 

"We will never know what our life would have been like had we not gone through this horrible experience."

Exoneree Yusef Salaam

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

This prize fighter deserves some prize money!

In the words of a New York umpire decades ago, I calls ‘em like I see’s em! 

I see Ray Gray’s victory this week as bittersweet! And here’s why. He’s now a free man, and we praise God for that! But the state’s not going to pay him a cent, and we damn the state for that! 

Legal scholars may scoff at me, judges and prosecutors may brush me off, but here’s how I see’s it! 

Raymond F. Gray, 69, of Detroit, was convicted by a judge in an armed robbery shooting death in 1973. Some legal experts have said all along that the evidence was questionable, and Ray has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Those who know him have no doubt that he is innocent. 

Now here’s an important point in my story. In 2016 the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act was approved in Michigan. The money’s not easy to get, but if it can be proven that a person was wrongly convicted, that person is entitled to $50,000 per year for the time spent behind bars! 

Are you starting to get the picture? 

Ray’s attorney, Gabi Silver, had filed for a new trial two months ago. 15 years ago, a group of people who specialize in wrongful convictions and I held an all-day working session in a Detroit library hoping to prove Ray Gray's innocence. It’s no secret that the case was shaky. 

Instead of a new trial, however, the Wayne County Prosecutor and a judge arrange a plea deal. Ray agrees to plead “no contest” to second degree murder, the court agrees to resentence him to 25-40 years, and since he has already served 48 years, he’s freed. Right now. A win for everybody, right? 

Attorney Wolf Mueller, who has worked with several exonerated former prisoners to get money from the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, says in The Detroit News: "Unfortunately, Mr. Gray's plea deal will make him ineligible for compensation from the state because he doesn't meet the requirement of criminal charges being dismissed. But the most important thing is that he will not die in prison and can now try to rebuild his life." 

Yes, yes. The last thing the state wanted to do was pay $2.4 million to a poor black man for spending the past 48 years in prison for something he didn’t do. Free but penniless, he can now “try to rebuild his life.” 

Not even an apology, let alone dollars. 

That just sucks. 

Ray, a 5-time Golden Gloves boxing champ before he went to prison, said in comments to friends and family yesterday, “I feel like a boxer whose corner has thrown in the towel, but he wants to fight on.”

 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Bad person in prison? More likely, poor person in prison!

For the past 20 years or so I’ve been vocal about mass incarceration. Our prisons are too full. Our nation’s incarceration rate is matched by no other country. 

I’m starting to change my mind. 

Oh, I agree that many people in our prisons should be released. Right now! It’s estimated that between 2.3 and 5% of all U.S. Prisoners are innocent! That’s over 100,000 people. 

Then consider those still in prisons over non-violent drug charges, those who were seriously overcharged and/or over-sentenced by over-zealous prosecutors and judges, the indigent who couldn’t afford good defense. 

Think of all the spouse abuse victims spending time behind bars because they fought back. Think of the sad number of old-timers in prison who, statistics prove, will never reoffend, but who cannot be released because of life-without-parole guidelines. 

The list goes on and on. 

But here’s my point. Granted, our prisons are too full, but I also think they’re too full of the wrong people! 

Take a look at white collar crimes alone, for example. I offer this quote from a highly respected investigative journalist: 

It started to dawn on me that the Department of Justice and the SEC were broken institutions when it came to corporate white-collar [crime] enforcement. In the wake of the financial crisis, I started to see other examples in the tech world, in the pharmaceutical world, in the industrial world, in retail— Walmart, Google, Pfizer— companies that were making mistakes, admitting to wrongdoing, [even] criminal wrongdoing, but no senior individuals were being charged. I realized that this is a broken system...

 Jesse Eisinger, Pulitzer prizewinner 

Take a look at those in public office. 

-An inordinate number of police officers involved in various types of misconduct.

-Prison guards who abuse mentally ill inmates, with little accountability.

-County Prosecutors who knowingly initiate wrongful convictions and who boast immunity.

-U.S. marshals who kill 22 suspects and/or bystanders every year!

-Top public officials in our land who get away with sex trafficking and sex with minors.

-National leaders without consciences who, for example, incited a national insurrection. 

I completely agree with author Michelle Alexander when she says, “...if we say to ourselves that the problem of mass incarceration is just too big, too daunting for us to do anything about and that we should instead direct our energies to battles that might be more easily won, history will judge us harshly.” 

But I’m also of the belief that our prisons are full of poor suckers who didn’t have the capital, the clout, the power or the public sentiment to avoid incarceration. 

And that is simply shameful!



 

Friday, May 21, 2021

A soft answer turneth away wrath!

As so often happens, something I’m watching or something I’m reading triggers thoughts for a blog.

Tuesday evening I was privately fuming about the attack on our nation’s capitol. People get all worked up over a lie, a non-issue, to the point where they actually get involved with guns and violence. But when it comes to the inhumane treatment of thousands upon thousands of prisoners, we decide that maybe we should have a meeting and talk about it. 

By Wednesday morning, I couldn’t wait to get to the computer to get started on my Thursday “mad-as-hell” essay. 

It’s easy to explain that if the state did things the right way, HFP wouldn’t be very busy. For example, we file FOIA requests for those behind bars because the state won’t let them do it. We have a panel of doctors helping because prison health care is abominable. 

Then I started running out of steam, so I contacted Matt. Why do we spend so much time emailing photographs, searching for family members, and just providing answers to questions? 

Known for his brevity, Matt quickly emailed back: HFP is family when family isn’t there. 

Huh? That doesn’t convey fire and anger and “fed-up-ness!” That’s warm and fuzzy. 

Minutes later, realizing that his answer was very short and not realizing that his words were in contrast to my mood, Matt said: I'll try to expand. Every person we work with in prison is given daily reminders of the biggest mistake in their life. To make matters worse, for most, the outside world has abandoned them as well. By the simple action of sending a photo, or trying to locate a lost friend, or providing some information on a favorite subject, HFP shows the client that they ARE worth our time. Kindness is in short supply in prison, and we hope to provide that to our clients along with some information that brightens their day. 

Realizing that this wasn’t fitting my theme and my mood, I chose to save his comments for another blog. He was right, of course...that was the premise on which HFP was founded. 

Then Matt went one step farther: I recently changed the final words on my email format. For a long time, it just said “peace,” which I do believe is also in short supply. But I changed my final words in prisoner mail to "you matter." So many feel they don't matter. By providing these simple services, we hope they remember that they do matter. 

So, go ahead and read Thursday’s entry. It’s OK to get mad as hell with me. 

But don’t stop there. It’s Friday. Re-read this piece, and feel the love and compassion that reaches from our office to the darkest corner of the dankest prison cell. 

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



 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Are we mad, yet? If not, why not?

'I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’ declared the longtime news anchor Howard Beale in the 1975 film classic Network . In the picture, people everywhere toss open their windows and repeat the catchphrase with a barbaric yap. They rush to the streets in maddening throng to air their grievances.”

Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D, Psychology Today 

People are funnier than anybody! That was the title of a Spike Jones record when I was a little kid. 

But it’s true. They storm the state capitol and capitol hill in Washington DC over the “big lie,” a proven non-issue, but when it comes to the abuse of a substantial segment of our population in prison, we just sit here and take it. 

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS can keep right on responding to thousands upon thousands of requests, complaints and pleas from people living in our state prison system.

-We can file hundreds and hundreds of FOIA requests for those behind bars, because our state refuses to call them “persons.”

- We can continue to respond to hundreds of calls each month about lack of medication, wrong medication, no medication---all kinds of medical complaints and issues---because prison healthcare is often a joke.

-We can continue to try to give prisoners hope by helping them file commutation applications, even though this governor has shown no interest in using her authority to release deserving inmates.

- And we can cluck our teeth when prisoners continue to describe their environment as “the darkest, evilest, and wickedest that humanity has managed to create for itself.” 

I think we’ve used up all the patience we could muster. Now it’s time to tell the world that enough is enough! 

HFP directors can lead the way. Our board can continue to support and collaborate with those agencies seeking change at the state level. But more than that, I think it’s time now to express the fact that we’re fed up with this. It’s time to aggressively meet with and perhaps join state agencies and committees that can bring about change. In a dignified and non-militant manner we must storm the capitol! 

I’m reminded of these words about incarceration by Victor Hugo: 

The sea is the pitiless social darkness into which the penal system casts those it has condemned, an unfathomable waste of misery. The human soul, lost in those depths, may become a corpse. Who shall revive it?

We can. We must! 

It’s time for our supporters, especially those who have family or loved ones behind bars, to “toss open their windows and repeat the catchphrase with a barbaric yap:

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

 

 

 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

You'll go down in history, Rick!

Remember this name: Richard E. Jackson. 

Rick Jackson was a prosecutor in Dallas, Texas. In the year 2000 he authorized the arrest of two homeless black men, whom he prosecuted for the murder of a local pastor. In both jury trials he got convictions, and the defendants were sent to prison for life. But here’s the deal: Jackson purposely withheld a ton of evidence! 

-Eyewitnesses couldn’t identify the 2 in a police lineup. The jury never heard this!

-The descriptions of the alleged killer(s) didn’t match. The jury never heard this!

-The state made deals with jailhouse snitches to testify. The jury never heard this! 

The reason I suggest that you remember the name of this former prosecutor is that finally a prosecutor has been penalized! He has been disbarred, and may no longer practice law in his state. 

Oh, the wheels of justice grind so slowly! 

It took the Innocence Project 10 years to accumulate evidence proving that Dennis Allen and Stanley Mozee were railroaded. Even after that, it took another 2 years to hold the prosecutor accountable for this travesty. 

Now, here’s the saddest part of this story. A recent study showed that misconduct by the government was responsible for more than half of our wrongful convictions. And worse yet, Rick Jackson is only the 4th prosecutor to face the consequences! 

Earlier this month, in this column, I posted a piece about a case that I feel involves a wrongful conviction right here in our own county. In that trial 20 years ago, the state used junk science to obtain a conviction. Some observers are excusing the prosecutor, saying that science has improved a lot since then. I think the state knew darn well that it was junk science. Getting a conviction was most important. 

Back in Texas, Dennis and Stanley, now 57 and 62 years of age, are free men now. 

Presumably the killer is still on the street somewhere. 

Rick Jackson may no longer practice law. He should be in prison. 

And so should all other rogue prosecutors who get off scot-free after locking up people for something they didn’t do.



Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Super-rich buy super yachts. Super-poor become our friends!

There’s a story in the news these days that hits me the wrong way. It’s about super-rich people. Seems they can’t find enough ways to spend their money so they’re buying boats. Big boats. Some as small as 75 feet long, but many in the 400-foot category. As a result, super-yacht builders have never been so busy! 

Let’s discuss the super-rich for a moment. 

Today, the twenty-six richest people in the world have more wealth than the world’s poorest 3.8 billion. 

Because they don’t know what to do with all that money, they buy huge private ships, spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Then they hire dozens of people to crew them, spending between $5 and $10 million a year to cruise from one hotspot to the next.  

Superyachts also serve as handy floating tax havens. As a Paradise Papers investigation showed, elites go to great lengths to avoid paying taxes on their luxury purchases. Big boats are also a good place to hide other, smaller luxury purchases, like artwork and jewelry. 

Talk to me all you wish about capitalism, but when I hear stories about billions of people struggling to just survive, and our earth’s looming ecological crisis, I start to understand what Jesus was talking about: 

...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is spending $500 million for a new yacht! 

I guess he can afford it. He makes $4 million an hour! 

Compare that with a very special group of my friends who reside in Michigan prisons and who, if lucky enough to get a job, probably make less than 50-cents an hour: .0000001% of Mr. Bezos’ wage. 

So far this week I have written 5 thank-you notes to prison residents for their donations to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. It’s difficult for me to imagine that they can find pennies, let alone dollars in their skimpy budget to help fellow inmates, but they’re doing it at a record-setting pace! While we feel blessed to receive even a $5 gift from the incarcerated, some of these gifts are amazing. One guy who is battling cancer just sent us a check for $500.00! 

Pastor Nate has asked our congregation to concentrate on these words from Jesus this month. I cannot think of a better way to end this piece: 

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.



Saturday, May 8, 2021

Mary Trap Tjapkes: 1914 - 1995

Doug Tjapkes is a perfect example of a mother’s influence. 

At Age 4 

“If you’re going to keep banging on that piano, you might as well take lessons and turn that noise into music.” 

Started piano lessons at age 4, switched to classical organ lessons at age 14, and at age 84 still play the piano and/or organ in church every Sunday! Music has always been an integral part of my life! 

At age 12 

“Look at this magazine article about a kid getting on the radio! You’re always imitating radio announcers. Why don’t you try give it a try?” 

Had my first radio program at 12, my first part-time radio job at age 17, became Grand Rapids’ youngest radio News Director at age 19...and remained in the radio broadcasting business until 1983! One of my first loves, and radio is still dear to my heart! 

Influence on writing 

My mom submitted an exceptional poem to a teacher while attending Muskegon High School. The instructor insisted that she had plagiarized the piece, and gave her an F! Who knows what kind of a writer she might have become if that man had been an encourager instead of an ass? 

She and I loved writing then, and I still do. I think she'd like the books and blogs. 

Involvement with prisoners 

My mom established relationships with more than one prisoner, sending letters of encouragement and support on a regular basis, despite words of caution from other members of the family. 

Her influence no doubt led me to get involved in the Maurice Carter case, and in 2001 to create what is now HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 

Importance of personal notes 

When the memorial service was held for Mary Tjapkes in 1995, people showed up in droves to say that she had dropped them a note, baked them a pie, or invited them for coffee at a critical time in their lives. 

I’m still trying to live up to that! 

What a mom! Happy Mother’s Day, Mom...RIP. I’ll see you soon.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Why the Karen Boes case is important to YOU. And its outcome!

You’ll be hearing and reading a lot about Karen Boes in the next few days. She’s the woman from Zeeland who was convicted of first-degree murder in the fiery death of her 14-year-old daughter. The state claims she set the fire. 

I know that the issue of race is a factor when it comes to wrongful convictions. It’s no secret that many cases involve indigent, Black people...and that’s rotten. But Karen is a White person, living in lily-white southern Ottawa County...and she wasn’t poor. 

That’s why you must pay attention to this case. I keep hammering on this! It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that YOU could be a victim someday. I can rattle off numerous names of prominent people---White, middle to upper-class people---who were wrongly convicted. A business person, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, even a cop! 

The Michigan Innocence Clinic is asking Ottawa County Circuit Court to grant Karen a new trial, and you’ll want to keep an eye on this. You see, the Assistant Prosecutor who obtained Karen’s conviction in 2003 was Jon Hulsing, who is now a judge in the very same circuit court. You think she’ll get a fair shake? Nearly every judge in our county has served earlier in the Prosecutor’s Office. I don’t like that, but it’s what we have. 

When you get a chance read Karen’s story in The Daily Beast. I thought the case stunk back then, and I still think so. The Innocence Clinic claims to have proof that junk science was used to convict Karen, and based on new and better science today, it contends that a jury never would have found her guilty. 

I’m not as generous with my opinion. Here's my position. The state new darn well that it was using junk science back then. And it is my contention that if a Prosecutor uses unethical methods to rob an innocent woman of 20 years of her life, that is a crime. That Prosecutor should be charged! 

Prosecutorial misconduct is a major reason for wrongful convictions. Sadly, Prosecutors are immune. I don’t see any quick answers to the problem. Some say, for example, that Prosecutors should be appointed rather than elected. One thing is certain: Prosecutors must be held accountable. 

Meanwhile, watch Karen’s case. 

And watch your back!



Monday, May 3, 2021

Sonny is the sunny one!

Sonny writes to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS from behind bars: 

I’m writing to let you know that I appreciate your help. I’ve been dealing with this situation for over two decades and I’m glad that you exist. I have lost a lot of family, friends and loved ones over the years, and their support. HFP is that ray of sunshine when one feels hopeless! It will not be forgotten or underappreciated! 

Sonny then goes on to give us the name of an incarcerated friend, asking if we can shine a little sunshine on him, as well. 

Sonny doesn’t realize that we’re on a two-way street. 

It’s true that we love spreading sunshine. With 50 to 100 calls and messages coming in everyday, all dealing with prison problems and issues, members of our team will do their very best to help brighten someone’s day. 

BUT, it’s also important for us to let Sonny and his friends know that the reverse is also true: they shed heavenly light on our dreary days! Those 50 to 100 calls weigh on our hearts and minds, so a kind message to HFP means a lot, as well. 

Sonny’s message is not uncommon. Yet we cherish every one of them! 

And we feel the sunshine in other ways. 

Two incarcerated persons sent donations to HFP last week!

One person behind bars sent a reservation to the HFP Unball!

Residents of an Ionia facility sent a $500 gift from their Prisoner Benefit Fund! 

So, to you and your friends Sonny, thanks for brightening our day! 

“Let there always be a bright spot in your heart for the people around you. They might need a bit of sunshine.”

― Ron Baratono