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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

He ain't heavy, Mister!

I still remember seeing a drawing in a magazine when I was a little boy. I’m sure it was a reprint, but the message stuck with me. It was a drawing of a little boy carrying a still younger lad on his back. The caption was: He ain’t heavy, Mister, he’s my brother. 

That drawing and that phrase made history. Fr. Edward Flanagan of Boy’s Town spotted it in a magazine in 1941, and obtained permission to use it for promotional purposes. It also became a popular song. 

As I’m reviewing the astonishing year-end figures of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, that phrase comes to mind. 

We hear and read about prisoners fighting, killing each other, attacking each other, raping each other. I’m not making light of it, or denying that it happens. But there’s another very decent code that I have seen behind bars, actually reflected in this beautiful quote. 

I first discovered it in 2003 when my friend Maurice Carter experienced a severe Hepatitis C episode in prison. His bunkie, Jerry Talison, was finally able to find our telephone number. He called Marcia, who is a Registered Nurse, and together the two of them saved Maurice’s life. 

Some years later a group of prisoners in Jackson contacted me to ask if I could help one of their fellow inmates. Old Bill was 80 and dying, but had no friends or loved ones on the outside. He just didn’t want to die in prison. We arranged to have him released to a beautiful hospice facility, and his final weeks on earth were heavenly. 

Readers of this column will remember an item that I post every year from a prisoner who had been on death row in Texas, “What’s in the Brown Paper Bag?” A touching story. 

The theme I’m stressing here is prisoners caring for prisoners. And here’s why. 

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS signed up more than 2,000 new clients in 2021. That’s more than 6% of the current Michigan prison population! It represents a 17% increase over last year! 

How does that happen? Simple. One person in prison discovers that HFP cares, and the word spreads. At least 5 times a day some incarcerated person will email us, not with a request for help, but with a message: I have a friend who needs help. 

Our pledge for the New Year comes from the book of Hebrews: “...remember those in prison as if you were together with them...” 

We’ll be there for them with a cup of cool water.

They ain’t heavy. They’re our brothers and sisters!

  

 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Desmond Tutu: 1931 - 2021

 All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.

 Desmond Tutu 

This quote is seen by everyone who walks into the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS office. We chose to have this powerful statement printed on the back wall for all to see as they enter our building. 

Today all of us at HFP pay tribute to Archbishop Tutu. He died peacefully on December 26, 2021, in a care center in Cape Town. He was 90. I was still a practicing journalist when he came under the limelight during the 1980s apartheid movement in South Africa. His bold stance on these matters of racism and his on-going battle for the rights of the oppressed brought him many accolades. He was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Sydney Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

What better way to honor this hero than to share his own words, uttered in his over four decades of public life? 

Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.

When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves.

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

Do a little bit of good wherever you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.

A person is a person because s/he recognizes others as persons. 

Is it any wonder that we have this man’s quote on our wall? It represents the kind of thinking that helped us launch this work 20 years ago! It represents our philosophy today as we do our best to show all persons behind bars that they matter! 

Today, may those of us who work among the incarcerated, and those of us who support our work, remember these profound words of this exemplary Christian: 

I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one un-deserving of forgiveness.


 

 

Friday, December 24, 2021

HFP Holiday Series, #4, Remembering “the little guy” on Christmas Day

Comedian Flip Wilson used to have a line, when caught doing something wrong: “The devil made me do it!" 

I have the flip side of that, as I reflect on 85 years of living. “Jesus of Nazareth, born on this day some 2,000 years ago, led me to do it!” I’m talking about sticking up for the “little guy.” 

My mind is wandering back to Christmas morning, 1953. And I’ll get to that in a minute. 

But first, some examples of how I imperfectly did my best to help the “little guy." 

As a young News Director in a conservative community, I did my best to give fair coverage to unpopular groups and organizations, such as labor unions and certain political parties. 

Years later, when I founded a male chorus called HIS MEN, I avoided concert halls and steered the group into jails and prisons, nursing homes and orphanages. 

Years later, I met a Black man who claimed wrongful conviction, and spent the next decade proving to the world that he was right. 

OK, now let’s go back to Christmas morning, 1953. 

I was a high school junior, an experienced pianist and budding organist. I played 3 gigs on that Christmas morning, and the thing that makes me the proudest is that two of the three were for the “little guy.” 

I got up early in the morning, took our family’s 1951 Plymouth to the Mona Lake Mission, a tiny church-sponsored project along the shores of Mona Lake for the poorest of the poor. I provided their Christmas music on a beat-up old piano in a rented room. 

From there I drove to downtown Muskegon, and played the pipe organ for a traditional Christmas service of First Christian Reformed Church.  

Then, for the final service of that morning, I drove to our little church, Grace Christian Reformed, a church plant east of Muskegon, in another exceptionally low-income community. I was the sole musician for that Christmas service. 

I don’t know who got me started on this “little guy” kick. Perhaps it was my mom and dad, who taught me by example. Perhaps it was Bible teachers and preachers. 

But I know this. 

In his short time on earth, Jesus made no secret of the fact that the “little guy” was pretty darn important. 

I also know that I’m far too selfish to think about less fortunate on my own. 

And that’s why the Founder of HUMANITIY FOR PRISONERS, an organization focused on the “little guy” gives all credit on this Christmas, 2021, to that baby Born in Bethlehem.

May your day be blessed!

 

 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

HFP Holiday Series, #3, Bah, Humbug!

Louis Cassels was one of my favorite news writers. A Washington Correspondent for UPI for many years, he later became its national religion writer. In 1959 he wrote a parable for UPI that will last forever. I was News Director of WJBL in Holland when I first tore that copy off our newsroom teletype machine and aired it. For the next 25 years my listeners, first in Holland and then in Grand Haven, heard me read this parable at Christmas time. Today, as the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I share this beautiful story on Christmas Eve as my gift to you. 

Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a man, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. 

“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite and that he would much rather just stay at home. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service. 

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier. Then he went back to his fireside chair to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another and another — sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must have been throwing snowballs against his living room window. 

But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. 

Quickly he put on a coat and galoshes and then he tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them. So he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs and sprinkled them on the snow. He made a trail to the brightly lit, wide-open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the breadcrumbs and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. 

He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them and waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me — that I am not trying to hurt them but to help them. But how? 

Any move he made tended to frighten and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed, because they feared him. 

“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.” 

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow. 

“Now I understand,” he whispered. “Now I see why you had to do it.



 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

HFP Holiday Series, #2, Doing “Jesus Work!”

I was often asked, “Is your radio station a Christian station?” 

I knew where these people were coming from. They were hoping that I was running a radio station that broadcasts religious programming day and night, doing its best to save souls. 

And I would discreetly reply, “WGHN is not a religious station, but it is a Christian station. 

I was the owner and General Manager of the only radio station serving Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg back in the 60s and 70s. People who were aware of my broadcast experience knew that I had previously worked at two religious radio stations. As the new owner and manager of our community’s only radio station, there was no way I was going to force my religious beliefs on its listeners. 

I meant it when I said ours was a Christian radio station. It was Christ-like to treat employees with decency, pay them fair wages, and provide benefits. Also, a good Christian obviously does business with integrity. Furthermore, a good Christian is a good citizen. WGHN became a genuine part of the community, providing legitimate local news coverage and offering stimulating editorials. 

I say all of this because things are not that different with HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 

Sometimes, before providing financial support, questioners ask about our beliefs and our practices. Well, it’s no secret that as founder of HFP, I am a follower of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this week. But, it’s also important to hear this. HFP is not registered with the IRS as a faith-based agency. We do not insist that our staff and volunteers hold beliefs similar to ours. And even more important is our position with assistance to prisoners. It’s not like the old rescue mission policies, where you had to listen to a sermon before you got your free meal. We do our best to provide assistance to every Michigan prisoner who comes to us with a question or problem. There is no screening. There are no criteria. Every prisoner gets the message that he or she matters! 

Jesus’ mandate was to love your neighbor as yourself, and he was quick to point out that your neighbor is your fellow-man. That does not exclude persons residing behind bars. 

So, is HFP a religious organization? Nope, but it’s “Christian” in what it does. We’re doing our best to show that we care. That prisoners matter. 

It’s all because of that baby born in Bethlehem.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

HFP Holiday Series, #1, Jesus is the reason

It was Al Hoksbergen’s first sermon in Ferrysburg Community Church. 

This well-known theologian and progressive thinker in the Christian Reformed Church of North America had spent most of his career in ministries that were near campuses of 2 major Michigan universities. He was well-known and highly regarded in Reformed circles. 

How did he end up in a small-town church? Well, he wanted to retire in our community.

In expressing a willingness to accept a call to become our pastor, he thought it best that we experience him on the pulpit first. And so, as a guest pastor, he came to speak. And instead of giving us a heady lecture, full of scriptural truths and important doctrines, he nodded toward a gnarly old cross that our aesthetics committee had placed on the stage. Al simply stated, “That is what I preach.” 

Another even more famous Calvinist theologian named Karl Barth was at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago during a lecture tour in 1962. In a Q & A session afterwards, a student asked him if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth is said to have responded, “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’” 

As the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I, too, want to make a simple statement. Be assured that I don’t compare myself with theologians. The founder of HFP is a “crooked stick” who has a closet that overflows with skeletons, who daily battles his own demons, and who identifies with the Apostle Paul as “chief of all sinners.” But for the grace of God, he, too, might have spent time behind bars. 

This is my 85th Christmas, and it could very well be my last. I’d like to tie in the Christmas story with the founding of HFP. Church signs love to post the trite phrase, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” 

Well, I can truthfully say that he is the reason for this organization. 

I had no experience in this field, let alone any interest in getting involved with the incarcerated. But this Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this week, had different ideas. 

The most influential teacher in the history of mankind would grow up to tell his followers, “I was in prison and you visited me.” 

20 years ago, this carpenter from Nazareth led the way. 

I simply followed.



 

 

Monday, December 20, 2021

It ain’t a very Merry Christmas for David!

My friend David was one of the orneriest prisoners I’ve ever met. 

Maybe it was because his ex-wife ruined his life by accusing him of molesting their babies, in a “get-even” divorce dispute. 

Maybe it was because he was convicted of these uncommitted sex crimes in a kangaroo court setting. 

Maybe it was because he served every day of his 18-year sentence because he refused to admit guilt, and refused to get treatment for a non-existent problem. 

Nevertheless, all this unfairness resonated with me over the years and I stuck with him. I visited him in prison. I was at his side for a contentious meeting with the Parole Board. We still stay in touch. Friends are friends through thick and thin. 

David and I chatted this week, and he’s still ornery. 

Maybe it’s because undercover cops who, seeing his name on the sex offender registry, keep treating him as a predator and won’t leave him alone. 

Maybe it’s because he got evicted from his little camper trailer in the woods, because it had no water and no sewer. 

Maybe it’s because former prisoners who insist on keeping a pet as their only companion, cannot find places to live. 

Maybe it’s because the little apartment where he finally landed is riddled with black mold, and no amount of fumigating has made a dent in the bed-bug problem. The bugs are driving him crazy! 

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS does an exceptional job of helping incarcerated people in Michigan. We filled a gaping hole in the system, and it’s working. But there’s one more hole. We are not taking good care of our returning citizens. Preparation is inadequate, and follow-up is almost non-existent. We continue to hear stories of suicide, attempted suicide, recidivism, and yes...stories similar to David’s plight. 

It’s Christmas week. 

My friend David isn’t asking for money. His little disability check covers his expenses. His aging pit bull “Whiskey” is as mild as David is ornery, and the two are inseparable. 

All he wants for him and his dog is a clean room, free of black mold and bed bugs. 

That doesn’t sound like an excessive Christmas list to me. 

On these final days before we observe the birth of Jesus, agencies will seek last-minute contributions to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and rescue abused pets. 

I wonder who will help David.

 


 

 

 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Eyewitness testimony? Don’t trust it!

There’s a powerful story in the New York Times today. It’s not about terrible tornadoes, it’s not about January 6 hearings...it’s about eyewitness inaccuracy. And it’s a very important read. 

Writers Corina Knoll, Karen Zraick and Alexandra Alter tell this sad story in-depth. In 1981, Anthony Broadwater was wrongly convicted of raping Alice Sebold, who is now a best-selling author. He served his full sentence. Today’s story explains how he was cleared, after decades of living in the shadow of a crime he didn’t commit. 

It’ll remind you of two speakers we had in our HFP lecture series, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, who co-authored the best seller Picking Cotton. Our audience was captivated by Jennifer’s riveting account of being raped as a college student, and sending Ronald Cotton to prison as the rapist whom she incorrectly identified. 

These two stories raise an incredibly important issue: Eyewitness error is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. 

The problem is especially prevalent when authorities are dealing with different races. In fact, studies show that misidentifications by eyewitnesses, especially those that are cross-racial, make up a large percentage of erroneous convictions! 

My first experience with this was in my battle to help free Maurice Carter. In his trial, a secretary in a second-floor office down the street, identified Maurice as the man she saw running from the scene of the crime. This was interesting, because she had never met Maurice. Yet, while still watching from her second-story office window, she also saw the victim of the crime. It turns out that she knew the victim, yet she could not identify him!  Her testimony remained unchallenged, and Maurice went on to spend the next 29 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. 

Most wrongful convictions make the news because of DNA-based exonerations. But, according to the Innocence Project, DNA evidence only affects a fraction of criminal cases because it either doesn’t exist or is destroyed after the conviction. 

Prosecutors know darn well that eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury. Yet, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder. We don’t record events exactly as we see them, nor do we recall them like a tape that has been rewound. 

Take the time to read the NYT account. 

Then wonder, with me, how many more Anthony Broadwaters and Ronald Cottons there are out there.



 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

What's in the brown paper bag?

I have often shared this story during the holidays. In a year that has been so difficult, in so many ways, this poignant letter seems more important than ever. I feel certain that the author, Luis Ramirez, would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him. He's dead. 

This message came to me from Death Row in Texas. We hear a lot of negative descriptions of prisoners. As the Founder of HFP, though, I think it's important for all of us to be reminded that prisoners are people, they have feelings and emotions, and, in our opinion, they matter! 

Anyway, here’s my gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez: (In all caps, just the way he sent it) 

I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.  I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET. I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST. 

THE FIRST PERSON I MET THERE WAS NAPOLEON BEASLEY. BACK THEN, DEATH ROW PRISONERS STILL WORKED.  HIS JOB WAS TO CLEAN UP THE WING AND HELP SERVE DURING MEAL TIMES.  HE WAS WALKING AROUND SWEEPING THE POD IN THESE RIDICULOUS-LOOKING RUBBER BOOTS.  HE CAME UP TO THE BARS OF THE CELL AND ASKED ME IF I WAS NEW.  I TOLD HIM THAT I HAD JUST ARRIVED ON D.R.  HE ASKED WHAT MY NAME IS.  I TOLD HIM.  HE HOLLERED AT EVERYONE:  “THERE'S A NEW MAN HERE.  HE JUST DROVE UP.  HIS NAME IS LUIS RAMIREZ.” 

I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF IT.  LIKE MOST OF YOU, I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT EVERYONE ON D.R. WAS EVIL. NOW THEY ALL KNEW MY NAME.  I WAS SURE THEY WOULD SOON BEGIN HARASSING ME. 

WELL, THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED.  AFTER SUPPER WAS SERVED, NAPOLEON WAS ONCE AGAIN SWEEPING THE FLOORS.  AS HE PASSED MY CELL HE SWEPT A BROWN PAPER BAG INTO IT.  I ASKED HIM, “WHAT'S THIS?”  HE SAID FOR ME TO LOOK INSIDE, AND CONTINUED ON HIS WAY. 

MAN I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT.  I CAREFULLY OPENED THE BAG.  WHAT I FOUND WAS THE LAST THING I EVER EXPECTED TO FIND ON DEATH ROW, AND EVERYTHING I NEEDED.  THE BAG CONTAINED SOME STAMPS, ENVELOPES, NOTE PAD, PEN, SOAP, SHAMPOO, TOOTHPASTE, TOOTH BRUSH, A PASTRY, A SODA, AND A COUPLE OF RAMEN NOODLES.  I REMEMBER ASKING NAPOLEON WHERE THIS CAME FROM.  HE TOLD ME THAT EVERYONE HAD PITCHED IN.  I ASKED HIM TO FIND OUT WHO HAD CONTRIBUTED…I WANTED TO PAY THEM BACK.  HE SAID, “IT'S NOT LIKE THAT.  JUST REMEMBER THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE SOMEONE COMING HERE LIKE YOU, YOU PITCH IN SOMETHING.” 

I SAT THERE ON MY BUNK AND THOUGHT OF HOW MANY TIMES I HAD SEEN “GOOD PEOPLE” OF THE WORLD PASS BY SOME MAN, WOMAN OR CHILD HOLDING A SIGN THAT SAID HUNGRY, OR WILL WORK FOR FOOD.  I'M GUILTY OF THE SAME.  I JUST PASSED THEM BY.  YET HERE ON DEATH ROW AMONG THE “WORST OF THE WORST,” I DIDN'T HAVE TO HOLD UP A SIGN. 

I NEVER GOT TO TELL NAPOLEON ABOUT MY FEELINGS. HE WAS EXECUTED.  I COULDN'T FIND HIS FAMILY. 

WHAT'S IN THE BROWN PAPER BAG?  I FOUND CARING, KINDNESS, LOVE, HUMANITY AND COMPASSION ON A SCALE THAT I'VE NEVER SEEN THE “GOOD PEOPLE” IN THE FREE WORLD SHOW TOWARDS ONE ANOTHER. 

After reading this story, I wanted to send a note of thanks to Luis Ramirez. But I was too late. He was executed by the state of Texas in October, 2005. He was 42. He claimed wrongful conviction until his death. 

 

“What you do to these men, you do to God"
--Mother Teresa during her visit to San Quentin Prison

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Jake Terpstra, 1927 - 2021. What a fighter!

I have fought the good fight!  If Jake Terpstra didn’t say that when he strolled through the pearly gates last week, I’ll bet St. Peter said it for him! 

Matt’s short email message to me: “We lost Jake.” 

That really hit me hard. He was referring to the death of Jacob Terpstra of Grand Rapids, a fighter and crusader for all that is right and just until the very day he stopped breathing. He was 94. 

In earlier life, Jake Terpstra’s focus was on the welfare of kids. Holding an MSW, he worked for many years for the state, and then for the feds. On the national level, he was particularly focused on humanizing detention programs for children. He was the author of a book that can still be purchased, BECAUSE KIDS ARE WORTH IT. 

In later life, detention at all levels was of concern to him. That’s when he and I connected. 

He used to say, “No one does more for Michigan prisoners than Doug Tjapkes!” In all fairness, he wasn’t referring to me...he meant HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Back in those days, HFP was a one-man show, so I got the credit. His premise was correct, however. I don’t think anyone does more for our prisoners than HFP.

In one of our many conversations he expressed the desire for a pen pal. I paired him up with a man I believed had been wrongly convicted, but who had made a terrible mistake while behind bars. The two became best of friends. That prisoner has never had, and will never have again, such a fierce advocate! 

Jake was born only 9 years before I arrived on this planet. But I never dared grumble about getting old. “Getting old is a privilege,” Jake used to say, and he obviously felt that not a moment was to be wasted! 

While I might have considered sitting in my Lazy Boy and reading a good book, Jake, on the other hand, was putting on warm clothes so he could get out on the street to carry a sign with some worthy protest group. 

When he couldn’t go on the street anymore, he continued to write. It was just a few months ago that his fine article, Mistakes can be corrected, appeared in The Banner, a publication of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. 

In lamenting the shamefully poor treatment of mentally ill, especially behind bars, Jake said it was important that elected officials do something. But then he asked: 

But what about ordinary Christians? In Matthew 25:36, Jesus said, “I was a stranger … sick and in prison, and you visited me.” This may be the time that Canada and the United States are willing to try to address the needs of prisoners who are mentally ill and to avoid the dangers posed by lack of treatment to the whole prison population. As a result, they and all prisoners will be more inclined to feel as if they are part of the human race. 

RIP, Jake. We’ll try to pick up where you left off!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Black prisoners facing a White world

When in prison, chances are your roommate will be Black. But, chances are, the warden, the chaplain, your social worker and your health-care professional will be White. 

I really never gave much thought to the plight of a Black person in our criminal justice system until I met Maurice Carter. As I began to try to help my wrongly convicted friend, I discovered just how “white” his world was. 

Maurice was charged and prosecuted by a white prosecutor. He was convicted by an all-white jury. He was tried and sentenced by a white judge. Yes, there were some Black cops involved in the investigation and actual arrest, but I’m convinced at least some were dirty. His Parole Board review was conducted by a white PB chairman. He was questioned in the public hearing by a white Assistant Attorney General. And, in the end, his sentence was commuted by a white Governor who dragged her heels for a year. 

Our readers know I’ve grumbled a lot about this. While the population of African American people in Michigan remains at about the 13% level, more than half of the population in our state prisons is made up of Black people. 

In response to a recent article in The Banner, official publication of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, which criticized mental health care behind bars, a reader responded. “Addressing mental health issues is much needed. However, you can’t address the American prison system without acknowledging the racial disparities.” 

She went on: “Prisoners of color make up more than half of the population, yet the administration, chaplains, wardens, guards, social workers, medical/dental professionals, as well as mental health workers, are by and large white.” 

She’s absolutely correct. Of the 112 people listed in MDOC “Administration,” for example, 22 are Black...less than 20%. Of the 2,136 persons listed as “Professional” who work for the department, 588 are Black...less than 28%. And, there are 368 para-professionals hired by the MDOC. Of that number, only 73 are black. Again, less than 20%. 

It’s a problem on the national level. It’s a problem on the state level. 

It is the human face—a face of color—of the racial injustice of the United States criminal justice system that is the most compelling reason for reform. It is time for the United States to take affirmative steps to eliminate the racial disparities in its criminal justice system.

The Sentencing Project report to the UN, 4/19/18 

Amen and Amen!