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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

It's hot. And it's hell in prison!

 It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.

 Yogi Berra

With all the coverage these days about the proposed new Michigan budget, have you heard anything about air conditioning for state prisons? Me neither. 

We’re tough on crime in this state. If they hadn’t committed the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time. And by God, when it’s hot, they can just sweat! 

Michigan’s 29 state prisons don’t have air conditioning. The news reports of heat waves in the western and eastern sections of our country remind us that it gets hot in the summer. In Michigan, too. And when it does, conditions in our prisoners become unbearable. 

Courts in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Mississippi have ruled that incarceration in extremely hot or cold temperatures violates the Eighth Amendment. But those rulings had no national impact on air conditioning in prisons. 

Except for special units, Michigan’s prisons have no AC. Last year we were flooded with complaints, as the high temperature situation became more complicated with all of the COVID issues. But just imagine how terrible it might be if we got hit with some kind of a heat wave like that in other parts of our country. 

Think about it. We’re not just talking about persons dealing with high temperatures. Many people in prison are especially susceptible to heat-related illness. Some have certain health conditions or medications that make them especially vulnerable. Conditions such as diabetes and obesity can limit people’s ability to regulate their body heat. Old age also increases risk of heat-related illness and problems. 

More than 30,000 people are living in these Michigan pressure cookers while the rest of us enjoy our AC. And no one is rushing to improve the situation. 

We contend that refusing to install air conditioning isn’t a matter of cost savings at all. It’s appearing to be tough on crime. Furthermore, it’s our contention that denying air conditioning to incarcerated people is subjecting people to cruel and unusual punishment, and even handing out death sentences. 

How do you feel? Your state representative and state senator should know. 

Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me.

Frederick Buechner

Monday, June 28, 2021

Are pigs flying in Berrien County?

The leopard cannot change its spots, nor can the tiger change its stripes

Science Daily 

Has Berrien County really changed? Only time will tell. 

On Friday, Berrien County Circuit Court Judge Angela M. Pasula set aside the conviction of Corey Quentin McCall, who was wrongfully convicted of three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. 

On March 26, 2005, four armed men broke into a house and killed three people and shot a surviving victim during a robbery in Benton Harbor. The surviving victim eventually identified McCall as one of the gunmen after seeing his profile during the robbery for one-to-two seconds, even though the defendant was shopping in Walmart at the time. 

McCall was just 23 when sentenced to serve life without parole. 

Please don’t get me wrong. The fact that McCall, now 39, has been freed is wonderful. And highest praise goes to both the Michigan Attorney General’s new Conviction Integrity Unit and the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project. God bless these people who are working night and day to prove innocence. 

Because of their hard work, new evidence was found proving Mr. McCall’s innocence. With the help of the Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety, a phone was forensically analyzed that corroborated the new evidence. The Benton Harbor Department and the Berrien County Prosecutor's Office, we are told, collaborated with CIU special agents to review the previous investigation and pursue new leads.

In reading weekend news accounts, these quotes raise eyebrows. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel: "The exoneration of Mr. McCall is an example of the importance of a collaboration between multiple agencies. When I established the CIU, I envisioned our office working side-by-side with local prosecutors and police departments to uncover the truth.” 

Berrien County Prosecutor Steven Pierangeli : "It goes without saying that it is tragic Mr. McCall has served any time in prison for this crime.  Prosecutors in Berrien County make every effort to prevent this from occurring. Nothing can restore his lost youth or return to him the years he spent in prison."    

Keep in mind: 

-This is the same police department in Benton Harbor whose investigation led to McCall’s questionable arrest and conviction, as well as many others over the years.

-This is the same Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office that authorized the warrant and obtained the conviction, not only of this innocent man, but others in the past.

-This is the same Berrien County courtroom where McCall was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole...a courtroom with a long and dark history.

The exoneration deserves every headline. Mr. McCall deserves every apology. 

But, all this business about Benton Harbor and Berrien County loving justice and moving mountains to overturn and avoid wrongful convictions would be a radical departure from history.

 


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

That “prison funk” is bad stuff!

After spending 29 years behind bars, my friend Maurice Carter just couldn’t take enough baths and showers upon his release! He insisted that he was trying to get rid of a certain odor. “Prison funk,” he called it. After numerous baths and showers, he was convinced that the smell lingered. 

In recent weeks, in preparation for another report, I’ve been reviewing sad stories about some of our friends after their return to society. These stories lead me to believe that “prison funk” is a lot more than just an odor. I use it as a description of all the hellish things that hang on because of incarceration. 

I’m reviewing reports of homelessness, depression, suicide and attempted suicide, as well as addiction. These men and women couldn’t wait to get out, and were anxious to start a new life. Sadly, showers and baths were not enough to completely shake the “prison funk.” 

Here are some of the things that I see imprisonment negatively affecting:

            Relationships (so many bad choices upon release!)

            Psychological disorders (so much depression!)

            Employment (so many stigma problems!)

            Substance abuse (so many cases of relapse!). 

And that says nothing about how incarceration has affected

            Family

            Spouses

            Community. 

American writer Damien Echols personally experienced incarceration. 

“Prison is designed to separate, isolate, and alienate you from everyone and everything. You're not allowed to do so much as touch your spouse, your parents, your children. The system does everything within its power to sever any physical or emotional links you have to anyone in the outside world. They want your children to grow up without ever knowing you. They want your spouse to forget your face and start a new life. They want you to sit alone, grieving, in a concrete box, unable even to say your last farewell at a parent's funeral.” 

It is that kind of treatment, that kind of experience, that creates the “prison funk” I am describing. No, “prison funk” is not just an odor, and it haunts the bejesus out of every person who leaves a cell behind and steps into freedom.

 I wholeheartedly agree with American historian Howard Zinn: 

It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”


Saturday, June 19, 2021

Happy Father's Day?

I have received all of my Father’s Day gifts already. I need no more. 

I have four beautiful adult kids, all healthy and well, who love each other. Each is happily married to a beautiful and devoted spouse. I have nine beautiful grandkids. There is harmony and laughter and love in our family. 

I am blessed beyond measure. 

Yet, my observance of Father’s Day is clouded, and it all goes back to this statement by my favorite theologian, Frederick Buechner: 

Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. 

The situation is this: I work 7 days a week with residents of the Michigan Prison System. And daily, this is what I see: 

Fathers whose wives have abandoned them, and who have no idea where their kids are.

Fathers whose kids despise them because of their plight, and who refuse to visit them.

Fathers who have never seen their kids.

Grandfathers who have grandchildren, but have never even met them.

Fathers of little kids, trying their best to be good daddies in absentia.

Fathers who feel like failures because of their example to kids. 

And that is just the beginning of the list. 

On Father’s Day, 2021, a couple of observations. 

First, for those of us in a free society, we must listen to Frederick Buechner. We must not tire in efforts to prevent young people from getting into prison, to seek better alternatives for many prison sentences, to improve prison conditions, and to make prisons more family-friendly. We can’t be completely happy until these dads behind bars feel some happiness. 

Second, join me in a prayer for fathers and grandfathers behind bars today. They crave the same benefits of parenthood that you and I enjoy. I send them these words of assurance from a favorite gospel song written by Lynda Randle: 

For the God on the mountain

Is still God in the valley

When things go wrong

He'll make them right

And the God of the good times

Is still God in the bad times

The God of the day

Is still God in the night. 

May ALL dads and granddads claim those words today. 

Moms and grandmothers, too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Wrong prisoner or wrong dog. Which would raise the bigger fuss?

Someone on Facebook raised an interesting point the other day. It was in the comment section below an article telling of an execution somewhere in the United States. The key point in the story was that, until the moment he died, the man claimed his innocence. 

The writer posed a “what if?” She said, “What if it was discovered that the wrong dog had been euthanized?” Her speculation was that public reaction to the loss of an innocent pet would be far more dramatic than if a state put to death an innocent person. 

Matt has often theorized that fund-raising would be much more successful for us if we were trying to save puppies and kittens, rather than showing kindness to incarcerated human beings. 

Whether or not you favor capital punishment, the problem of killing the wrong person is very troubling and very real. In a report earlier this year, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) said its examination of every death sentence handed down since 1973 – more than 9,600 in all – revealed that 185 death row inmates had been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted, 11 more than previously known. There have been 1,532 executions in the United States since 1976. 

I personally viewed one of those executions. My friend Anthony, on Death Row in Texas, maintained his innocence until the day he died in 2008. I was the last friend he saw before entering heaven’s gates. We prayed together. 

Now, with problems of obtaining appropriate death-dealing drugs, we’re hearing reports of states reviving old practices of frying people in electric chairs or gunning them down with firing squads. Are we making progress? 

The last administration thumbed its nose at death penalty opponents, shamefully arranging the unprecedented execution of 13 federal prisoners before President Trump left office. 

I well remember the situation in 2003 when the guilt of so many people on Illinois Death Row was questioned that then Governor George Ryan finally commuted the sentences of all 167 people in line for execution. 

Now that we have a new president who opposes the death penalty, I suppose we could and should press for a commutation of all prisoners on death row. But I suggest we go a step further. Let’s raise our voices in opposition to the death penalty. 

It’s time to encourage our President to place a moratorium on capital punishment.

Now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

GRATITUDE from behind bars!

Michigan prisoners are showing appreciation for our services in a most amazing and gracious manner. 

It’s no secret that I struggle when someone asks how HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS measures success.

I have appreciated Fr. Greg Boyle’s thoughts on the subject, when asked about his work with gang members. “Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I'm not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.”

But, it’s a fair question.

One very nice person said she had difficulty donating to our cause because another charity she supports can tell her exactly how many hungry children they are feeding. We can’t provide numbers like that. We can tell her how many prisoners we are working with, but that has nothing to do with success.

A grant writer consultant insists that success data is important. Yet, this is why it’s complicated. 

We’re responding to some 100 calls a day, and we obviously can’t help every person in prison with every problem he or she faces. So, compiling specific data regarding our successes isn’t easy. We consider it a huge success, for example, when the prisoner just shows gratitude that someone cares. But how do you reflect that on a chart or list? 

Well, a growing percentage of prisoners have found a most amazing way. They’re donating money to support our cause! Aware of the dramatic increase in office activity in the past year, they’re stepping up to the plate. Something we’ve never seen before! Something we've never asked for.

HFP has received some 60 cash donations from prisoners already this year...an average of 10 per month! Unheard of in this business! These people, if they are fortunate enough to even have a job, may earn 40 or 50 cents an hour. While their wages haven’t gone up in decades, prison store and vending machine prices just keep on rising. They're not flush with dollars. 

Now the headline. 

This week, we received the largest single gift from a Michigan prisoner! Mr. D, who has won a couple of court settlements, said, “I really want to make a generous donation to your corporation because you have been the first organization to really help these guys in here in a way that makes a difference. Please, send my love to each and every one of you and thank you.” 

His gift: $15,000.00! 

This proof may not be what statisticians were hoping for, but we’ll claim it as a strong indication of HFP success. And the resulting feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for our team is delicious! 

Thank you, Mr. D. Thank you, Lord!



 

 

 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Proudly treating transgender prisoners as fellow humans!

As we enter Pride Month, I’d like to focus on the T in the popular term LBGTQ. 

Some of my friends, especially those who share my Christian beliefs, really don’t like to talk about these things. If we don’t talk about them we don’t have to think about them, and if we don’t think about them we don’t have to deal with the complexity of these issues. 

When contacted for advice regarding a transgender person in one of our prisons, a Christian counselor bluntly stated to us: "Lots of luck with that one!"

First, a simple description of the word transgender. It’s an adjective, denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. 

In Pride Month, I’m very proud to state that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is working with at least 40 transgender Michigan prisoners! Consider, for a moment, just how difficult it must be for a transgender person to just survive in that environment! They face specific and unique problems due to ignorance, discrimination, and violence from guards and other prisoners. Therefore, they are exposed to horrific rates of abuse. The U.S. Transgender Survey found that 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. 

I spotted this headline recently in a Detroit Newspaper: A transgender woman says she has been shunned her whole life: by her parents, strangers and the prison system, where she was ignored until she got raped. 

HFP has been blessed to receive assistance and guidance from a small band of professionals, who have even agreed to become pen pals with some of our transgender clients. We not only do our best to help and encourage transgender persons behind bars, we also show respect by referring to their chosen sexual identity in correspondence and with the pronouns we use ("she" instead of "he," e.g.). Our imprisoned friends are so grateful for these simple demonstrations of kindness! 

How sad that transgender persons have become such a political target in our divided country! State legislatures in some 33 states are now entertaining bills that restrict their rights. And further checking reveals that the wording is almost identical. Some devious person, agency or group made a concerted effort to send a template to political operatives in each state. Shameful. 

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

May our transgender friends claim this today.

And may the rest of us respect it.

 

 


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

1,000 people in Michigan prisons are innocent! Do you care?

Baptist Preacher Jeff Gravins tells the story about a church searching for a new minister. A likely candidate was invited to speak on a Sunday morning. The congregation loved his sermon, and called him to become their new pastor. 

Great sermon the first week. The second week, the very same sermon. The third week, the same again. The fourth week, samo samo. 

That prompted a meeting by the church board. Said the church’s leading elder: “We are a bit concerned that you keep preaching the same sermon every Sunday. Our question is: ‘Do you have another sermon?’ The preacher took off his glasses, folded his arms and responded, ‘I do have another sermon. But this church hasn’t obeyed the first one yet.’” 

I’m starting to feel that way about wrongful convictions. 

20 years ago I founded this organization, while trying to free my wrongly convicted brother Maurice Carter. Ever since, I’ve been hammering on the topic. 

Last week, former Cooley Innocence Project Director and HFP Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon was in Jackson to hold the prison door open for Gilbert Poole, a wrongly convicted Michigan inmate who had spent 32 years behind bars. 

Just two days earlier, I was at the Muskegon Correctional Facility to welcome my friend Ray Gray, who spent 48 years in prison for a crime he did not commit! 

Does anyone care about this injustice? 

Best selling novelist John Grisham, who is also a lawyer, says in his book The Innocent Man (a must read!): Wrongful convictions happen every week in every state in this country.  And they happen for all the same reasons. 

Experts agree that 3-5% of prisoners are innocent. 

Let’s boil down the numbers. If we have about 35,000 people in our state prisons in Michigan right now, that means we have at least 1,000 men and women locked up in our state facilities who are innocent! 

Let’s go to the Washington Post for something else that you should find maddening. Here’s the headline: More than half of all wrongful criminal convictions are caused by government misconduct, study finds! 

In his story, WAPO writer Tom Jackman quotes U of M retired professor Samuel Gross: “Misconduct by police, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials is a regular problem, and it produces a steady stream of convictions of innocent people.” 

The study also found that police and prosecutors are rarely disciplined for actions that lead to a wrongful conviction. 

Something’s gotta happen, boys and girls, and it ain’t gonna happen if you don’t give a crap! 

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Desmond Tutu