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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, October 29, 2021

God doesn’t make junk, but prisons do!

God don’t make no junk! 

50 years ago, long before those words appeared on rock music album covers and on t-shirts, I saw that phrase scribbled with crayons on a white sheet of paper. It was tacked up on the wall of a tiny office, occupied by a sweet woman who worked with challenged youngsters. I never forgot it. 

I’m thinking of those words today, seething, after receiving an absolutely devastating report on one of the prisoners we helped obtain freedom. I’ll just call him John Doe, because his isn’t the only story of its kind. It happens to incarcerated John Does every day. 

As a young black kid John got into some petty crime. A white judge decided he was going to make an example of him, and sent him to prison with a heavy sentence. It was more than 40 years before John was able to get a parole, and that was thanks to some help from our gang. But, I’m afraid the damage was irreparable. 

Research shows that life behind bars can and often does eliminate meaning and purpose from the incarcerated. On top of that, the appalling conditions common in prisons and jails — such as overcrowding, solitary confinement, and routine exposure to violence — can have further negative effects, such as “Post-Incarceration Syndrome,” a syndrome similar to PTSD. It simply means that, even after serving their official sentences, many people continue to suffer the mental effects. 

Well, it’s been a year since this 60-year-old walked out of that prison. Since that time he

-has had numerous girl friends

-has been accused of domestic violence

-has owned 5 different cars

-has been taken advantage of by all kinds of unsavory people

-has burned bridges with friends who helped him

-has been in and out of trouble with his Parole Officer

-has spent some time in a mental hospital

-has tried to take his own life

-and has even fathered a baby! 

Today, one year later, he’s back behind bars. 

You're going to have a hard time believing this, but he's a nice man! I've assured him our friendship will stick. But here's the deal.

Once again, the system has failed. Once again, those of us who look the other way and say it’s not our problem have failed! We put people in cages for decades, let these appalling conditions ruin them, and then offer no special counseling, no guidance and little or no assistance upon their release. 

And we call them the criminals! 

God does NOT make junk, but I can’t say the same about prisons. 

I’m not all that happy, either, about what more I could have done.

 

 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Maurice H. Carter March 29, 1944 - October 25, 2004

This was a rotten weekend 17 years ago! 

If you check the calendar, you’ll find that the 2004 and 2021 dates are identical. 

On Friday, October 22, 2004, my pal Maurice Carter was in the hospital. Up until then, we had hope that Maurice could still get a new liver...his only hope for survival. But on that fateful weekend, all hope dissipated. 

I went to visit him at Butterworth in Grand Rapids...unconscious, no response. 

I returned on Saturday the 23rd, only to be advised that I would have to wear protective gear. He had gone “full code.” Everything had shut down and he was in a coma. It was the beginning of the end. 

He died in the early morning hours of October 25. 

Maurice would have enjoyed our 20th Anniversary Observance of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS a few days ago. After all, the whole organization was formed as a result of his dream. 

For those who haven’t read the story, Maurice spent 29 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In the years that I spent with him in his battle for freedom, Maurice would often say, “When my case came up, the wheels of justice ground to a halt!” 

Well, 17 years later, I’m surprised to report that the wheels have started rolling. Granted, the pace is slow, but they are rolling here in Michigan. And it’s due, in part, to these three words: Conviction Integrity Unit. 

Maurice had little regard for prosecutors, for very good reason, and he and I were pretty much in agreement on the matter. Now comes the CIU, and I’m grudgingly admitting that, yes, some prosecutors are making a difference! 

A Conviction Integrity Unit is a division of a prosecutorial office that works to prevent, identify, and remedy false convictions. Several of these units have accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. Wayne County had the first one in Michigan, I believe...it was started in 2018. The Michigan Attorney General formed such a unit in 2019. Now the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has given preliminary approval for a CIU. 

I’m not ready to predict that this trend will produce a change in the way prosecutors think or operate, but these are major steps forward! Maurice would be impressed. 

Toronto attorney Phil Campbell, in a note to me upon Maurice’s passing, said, “...when you met him he was reviled as a dangerous criminal; he died a symbol of innocence.” 

As we warmly remember our friend Maurice Carter today, let’s pray that the wheels of justice roll faster and faster to reduce these shameful stories of wrongful conviction.

 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Most people never listen: Hemingway

 "Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk." --Doug Larson 

As the host of a daily radio talk show for more than 15 years, I learned some very important lessons. One of the best ones, the most meaningful, was the importance of listening. 

You’ll see and hear broadcasters who still haven’t received that message day in and day out on radio and TV. They claim to be interviewing, but they’re not listening to their guest. They’re simply nodding, and thinking about the next question they’re going to ask. Early on in the business, I learned that interviewing isn’t Q and A, it’s discussion! And meaningful discussion only happens when all parties listen. 

I’m harping on that topic today, because last night HFP CEO Matt Tjapkes introduced breaking news. He announced the formation of HFP’s first Client Advisory Committee. As you know, our clients reside in Michigan prisons. This has been a dream of our President for years: getting input, advice and suggestions from the people we serve. After a lengthy and deliberative process of selecting a broad cross-section of inmates, Matt announced the appointment of these six persons to our first committee, in alphabetical order: Steven Benjamin, Sharee Miller, LaChante Mobley, Jami Naturalite, Herbert Newman and Matthew Parker. 

I’m so pleased that these prison residents have agreed to serve in this capacity. I know all of them, and have great respect for all of them. 

This is a dramatic move for a prisoner advocacy agency. We know of no other organization that has taken a step in this direction. Granted, we’re going to have to walk before we run, but I think it is an exciting development. Who better to give us advice and suggestions than the very people we are trying to help? 

HFP, serving thousands of Michigan prisoners with this message: You matter! 

"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say." Bryant H. McGill



Monday, October 18, 2021

Feeling blessed! Celebrate with us!

If you want to really see how God blesses, you’d better pay attention! 

Example. 

When we formed a little male chorus called HIS MEN in 1972, we hand-picked 13 guys whom we already knew had good voices, were able to read music, and probably would enjoy singing together. Here’s the thing that I believe God really honored: The singers were not impressed with themselves! 

We weren’t in it for the money (we sang for free or for worthy Christian causes, and took not a cent for ourselves), we weren’t in it for the fame and glory (we avoided concert halls in favor of prisons, nursing homes, orphanages and children’s hospitals), and we weren’t trying to impress fellow musicians (we chose tasteful and fun arrangements of favorite hymns, instead of difficult and challenging anthems). 

I have always felt that, as a result, God quietly blessed us in such an amazing way. I think I’m a pretty decent choir director, but I could never take credit for that heavenly sound! That was divine intervention! 

That’s what I’m thinking about today, as we observe our 20th anniversary of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 

Based on the suggestions of Maurice Carter, I started this little one-man show with no goals of fame and glory. I’d had a little taste of that as a popular broadcaster and musician. Now it was time to roll up sleeves, and get hands dirty in the trenches. 

And so, following Mother Theresa’s wonderful advice, (“If you can’t feed a hundred people, just feed one!”), with Maurice Carter still in prison and with Douger still selling organs to pay the bills, we began helping needy people behind bars. One at a time. 

We made no headlines, we moved no mountains, but we tried to help with prompt response. If we could do nothing else, we listened, we held a hand, we let each person know that we cared. That he or she mattered. 

20 years later, I can honestly say that we have been blessed beyond measure...and I can take no credit for it. Blessed with strong and dedicated board leadership, blessed with caring and professional staff members, blessed with concerned and compassionate volunteers, and yes, blessed with an incredibly generous support system! 

HFP and its amazing team have quietly touched the lives of thousands of prisoners, and the story is still being written.

You can’t get more blessed than that! 

SOLI DEO GLORIA!



Wednesday, October 13, 2021

I'm hoping we meet next Tuesday!

Anniversaries, especially for stores and organizations, are a great time for celebration. “It’s our 20th Anniversary Sale!” “50 years in business, and you’re invited to celebrate with us!” We read these ads in the newspaper, and we hear these loud and noisy commercials on television. 

Meanwhile, August 29, 2021, quietly came and went. That was the date, 20 years earlier, that we signed legal documents forming an organization now called HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. No fanfare. No celebration. No fireworks or confetti. 

Instead, our small team of workers and volunteers kicked butt, trying to answer the calls and pleas for help from hundreds of Michigan prisoners. Sometimes up to 2,000 calls a month! 

Well, to be clear, we are going to celebrate. 

Next Tuesday, October 19, is the date for our annual HFP Community Author Lecture Series. Due to COVID, nobody will be attending because we can’t hold it in a public hall. It’s anybody’s guess how many will actually celebrate with us, because the observance will be live-streamed. 

BUT, I hope you will be there! You’ve been with me on this blog site for a long time, and you know where I stand, what I think. 

Next Tuesday, I’ll be delivering the main address. Make no mistake. I have no illusions at all that I’m in the same category as authors Sister Helen Prejean, Alex Kotlowitz, Jim Wallis or Fr. Greg Boyle. But I AM in the same camp. My little book SWEET FREEDOM, stumblingly and simply written, tells a powerful story of how each of us can do our best to help someone! 

I’d love it if you could join us next Tuesday evening. We’ll make sure the link is available. 

You’ll get to enjoy the music of our concert pianist/board member Veena Kulkarni-Rankin. You’ll learn more about a committed Board of Directors, amazing volunteers, and underpaid and overworked staffers who assure Michigan prisoners that “they matter.” And, I hope to make some persuasive comments insisting that WE ARE ALL CALLED TO BE SERVANTS. 

Please mark it on your calendar. 

Starting this project was no insignificant occasion in my life, and it will mean the world to me if you can be there with me on Tuesday. I’m also hoping to hear from you following the event. 

Just as our clients behind bars, you matter!


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Making things easier cannot be good for you!

I’ve come to this conclusion. Whether it’s public elections or public records, tightening of rules is not for your benefit. The stated reasons for these tightened restrictions bear no resemblance to the truth. The real reasons, frankly, are nefarious.

I bring up the matter of elections because I read in a news story this week that officials are making it more difficult to apply for absentee ballots in Michigan. Now I’m reading this stuff every day about how states are implementing new rules and procedures that make it more difficult to vote, and that seems so counter-productive to me. Don’t we want everyone to vote, to make easier for everyone to vote? How about automatic voter registration when you get a driver’s license? How about making election day a national holiday? 

The stated reason: We’re trying to prevent fraud in our elections. My interpretation: We’re trying to make it harder for those people who oppose our ideas to vote. 

The same is true for FOIA requests. 

In a recent column, the MLive Media Group complained about the many barriers as they attempted to obtain public records...records that belong to you and me. We could identify with that because members of the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS team are filing requests every day under the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of prisoners. Michigan is one of only a handful of states that refuse to allow prisoners permission to file such requests. These requests, mind you, are for important documents that could make a profound difference in the prisoner’s legal status. 

Said MLive’s Sara Scott: “The FOIA system, especially in Michigan, is set up to make things difficult.” She’s absolutely correct. 

Right here in our squeaky clean Ottawa County I have heard public officials, off the record, chuckling about how difficult they make it for persons hoping to get information through FOIA requests. That’s rotten! 

Here again, stated reasons are that vital information must be guarded, and that all steps must be taken to avoid frivolous requests. My interpretation: There may be stuff in here that we don’t want you to know about. 

Whether it’s voting in public elections, or attempting to obtain important public documents, making things easy may not be the popular way. 

But it’s the right way.