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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

On suicide, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts behind bars

The suicide rate among prisoners is four times as high as among the general population: Wikipedia. 

With a hundred calls coming in per day at the HFP office, you can well imagine that some of these prisoners are discussing suicide. I’m going to let them do the writing. 

Inmate #1, a resident at Women’s Huron Valley who struggles with suicidal thoughts, suffered a panic attack after being told she had to move one more time. 

When I was cuffed and taken to the unit for suicidal thoughts or actions the officer there was in rare form. "So you want to hang from the rafters so you don't have to move? Well, I got news for your ass! You’re still moving when you leave here, ain't nothing wrong with you. You kill me playing games cuz you don't want to move." She was screaming this and many more of her own diagnoses of my mental health. So I sat in a room, locked in with nothing and no way to get my medication for my mental health. 

Inmate #2 writes from Carson City CF: 

Last night, at about 230 AM, I was having thoughts of suicide. I went to the officers’ desk and told 3 male officers my situation. I was told to go back to my room. I then told them that I have made serious suicide attempts. I showed them I had been cutting on my wrist, and one of the officers said, “We don’t care. You have a direct order to go back to your room.” I did so. They never came to check on me or follow the rules covering how to handle or deal with such a matter. I could have died in that cell had I cut deeper. 

Inmate #3 just wrote from Macomb CF: 

Let's talk about a helluva morning. I came into work (as a Prisoner Observation Aide (POA)) only to find a body laying in the hallway. Apparently the individual advised staff multiple times throughout the night that he was suicidal but his complaints went ignored. Based on the statements of the surrounding prisoners, Nurses refused to respond when called. I've seen more deaths at this facility since returning in 2018 than I've seen during my entire 22-years of incarceration. 

Many experts on the topic believe this situation worsened due to the pandemic. Keri Blakinger, writer for the Marshall Project, explains:

Prisons across the country cut off classes and visits for several months during the pandemic, instead locking prisoners into dorms and cells to prevent the spread of disease. The use of solitary confinement increased by 500 percent while the virus ran rampant behind bars, killing nearly 3,000 staff members and prisoners nationwide. As their friends died and fell sick, prisoners contended with sewage leaks, riots and unidentifiable food served in meager rations. 

I conclude with these words from World Vision founder Bob Pierce: 

“Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” 



Saturday, June 18, 2022

Juneteenth! I was in the dark!

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never written a column about Juneteenth. I’m ashamed to admit that, until 40 years ago, I had never even heard the word “Juneteenth.” I had no idea what it was, or what it meant. 

I was attending a meeting in Grand Rapids on June 19, sometime in the late 1980s, with my good friend Rev. Cy Young, Black preacher and MLK devotee. After the meeting, he invited me to join him at a nearby park, where African Americans were observing Juneteenth. 

I had to ask what the heck he was talking about.

You probably already know this. But, here's a simple explanation from CNN...and this is what Cy Young had to explain to me:  Juneteenth -- also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day -- commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. A blend of the words June and nineteenth, it marks June 19, 1865: the day that Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3, proclaiming that the enslaved African Americans there were free. 

There weren’t many people in the park on that day to celebrate Juneteenth, but in all fairness, it was very early in the day. I still remember the beautiful exhibits depicting Black history, and the delicious food tents featuring some outstanding soul food. Especially the food! 

Sadly, memories of Juneteenth faded from my memory again. 

Many years later, the Black Lives Matter movement brought Juneteenth to the forefront again, and I was so proud that last year our President signed a proclamation that transformed Juneteenth from an obscure word/observance to a national holiday! ““Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They embrace them,” President Biden said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.” 

I realize that Juneteenth lands on Father’s Day this year, but let’s not ignore it. In a day when it feels like the pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction, when state legislatures want to limit classroom discussion of racial issues in our history, when white supremacy seems to be gaining in popularity, I’m proud to observe Juneteenth! 

And so, on Juneteenth, 2022, the founder of Humanity for Prisoners celebrates with our thousands of Black friends, Black clients, their families and loved ones, and reminds them---with our slogan---YOU MATTER!

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

O death, where is thy sting? In prison!

Death. It’s a dark subject, and it’s been on my mind too much these days! 

Within a matter of weeks, I lost my wife of nearly 65 years, a fellow member of HIS MEN whose friendship dates back to 1958, my old fishing buddy with whom we had vacationed for decades, and a long-time neighbor whose kids grew up, played with and camped with our offspring. That’s enough for now, thank you. 

Amidst the sorrow and grief, however, there were positives. The lengthy lives of Marcia, Hermie, Arnie and Ellie gently came to an end with family and friends on hand. All were people of faith who realized that this was not the end. Arrangements were properly handled by capable and caring professionals. Loving support came to their families from all directions. Appropriate memorial services were conducted. 

Sadly, that’s not the way it is in prison. 

This message came today: “Mr. P fell in the dayroom at about 7:00 last night and died. Staff had covered his body with some type of black tarp, and his body remained in the dayroom until 11:30pm. I have been to almost every prison in the MDOC in the past 33 years. I have seen a number of people die as the result of many different causes. Never have I seen, nor have I ever heard of, a prisoner's dead body left laying for 4 and a half hours, while the prison went on about normal operations. This has greatly affected me, to the point that I stayed in the cell, have not slept and my depression is quite deep this morning. 33 years, I've seen people murdered, and the body was not left laying for display for any amount of time, let alone 4 and one-half hours!” 

The MDOC later clarified for us that the prisoner died of a medical condition, but the body could not be removed until police had investigated and agreed to the release. Thus, the delay. 

Still, I’m sure that Mr. P was somebody’s long-time friend, too. Possibly someone’s old neighbor. Perhaps an old fishing buddy. Certainly a member of a family. But, no one was there with him in his final hours. Medical and spiritual personnel didn’t meet with family and friends. Another day, another death. 

Some years ago New York Times reporter Rachel Bedard wrote a feature about dying alone in prison. Her chilling words: As the doctors told him that his life would soon be over, his officers watched television, ate snacks, and read the newspaper. One day on my way out of his room, I asked an officer whether the patient would be told that he was being moved to a different prison once he left the hospital. He wasn’t entitled to know, said the officer flatly, because he was “property of the state.” 

The State of Michigan lost another piece of its property this week. 

For some, that stings. For others, it’s another available bed.



Sunday, June 12, 2022

Do we like the prosecutor or the defense attorney? Depends on the case!

 “...as an attorney I’m neither a judge nor a member of the jury. My job is not to decide or even to be seriously concerned with whether the defendant is guilty. My job is only to advocate on behalf of my client and insist that she is afforded all of the rights she is entitled to under the law.  Sam Johnstone, fictional attorney in James Chandler’s legal thriller, Misjudged. 

Ever since I met Maurice Carter in the mid-1990s, I’ve been a strong supporter of criminal defense attorneys and public defenders. 

I’m thinking about this today, as the developing story of a Grand Rapids police officer charged with second-degree murder continues to make the headlines. In that case, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker rightfully deserves credit for making that controversial decision. We share the opinion that prosecutors tend to go easy on cops. 

But there’s another strong player in this story, and he’s getting much fewer accolades. It’s the defense attorney for officer Christopher Schuur. His name is Mark Dodge. Mark Dodge is doing exactly what the attorney in the novel suggested. He’s making darn sure that his client gets proper treatment under the constitution. The defendant has rights. 

Now it’s Prosecutor Becker’s turn to prove that the charge was accurate and deserved. It’s up to him to convince a jury of the police officer’s peers that he was guilty of second-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Here’s the deal. When you think the jury reached an incorrect verdict and freed someone you’re convinced is a criminal, do not blame the defense attorney! He/she was just providing services guaranteed in our democracy. Blame the prosecutor! Reasonable doubt was not proven. 

I’ve had good friends, fine upstanding citizens, who say they cannot imagine how defense attorneys sleep at night, knowing that they are defending some snake who committed a terrible crime. Ladies and gentlemen, these attorneys are the backbone of our justice system! 

What really should be keeping us awake is the threat of losing this democracy to forces who prefer alternative styles of government. 

Back to attorney Johnstone again: “What everybody knows is maybe there is evidence tending to indicate guilt, but a person is not guilty until he or she is adjudicated as such by a judge either following a plea of guilty or after a finding by a judge or jury. Until then, the person is not guilty.”



Wednesday, June 8, 2022

National Higher Education Day came and went. Did you notice?

Monday, June 6, was National Higher Education Day. Why such a day? “It was designed to educate and inspire future graduates.” Boring. And so, more often than not, the day goes unnoticed. 

Well, it’s not going unnoticed here! 

On Monday, National Higher Education Day, more than 60 prisoners graduated from Jackson Community College at G. Robert Cotton and Cooper Street Correctional Facilities here in Michigan! By this time next week, similar numbers of prisoners will have graduated, in similar ceremonies ,at Parnall CF in Jackson, Lakeland CF in Coldwater, Gus Harrison CF in Adrian, and Women’s Huron Valley CF in Ypsilanti! All from Jackson CC! 

Supporters of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS know that we recently helped spread the word about some prison graduates at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia last month. And for good reason. 76 students from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 classes, after a COVID delay, finally got the recognition they had worked for in a combined ceremony. Calvin Prison Initiative is a joint project of Calvin University and the Calvin Theological Seminary. 20 inmates every year are enrolled in the Calvin program to get college degrees. 

A similar program has been launched in the Muskegon Correctional Facility by Hope College and Western Theological Seminary of Holland. 

A fair question is: Why give a rat’s ass? Who cares whether men and women in prison have the opportunity to go back to school? Our answer is, you darned well better care! Northwestern University explains why: 

Even for those who are serving lengthy—even natural life—sentences, prison education has profound and often life-changing benefits. There is a substantial reduction in violence and disciplinary infractions among those involved in prison education. A survey of an Indiana prison, for instance, showed that incarcerated people who were enrolled in college classes committed 75% fewer infractions than incarcerated people who were not enrolled. Prison education also breaks down racial and ethnic barriers that are often a cause of tension and violence in prisons, significantly improves relations between staff members and the incarcerated, and dramatically enhances the prisoners’ self-esteem. 

Congrats to Calvin, congrats to Hope, congrats to JCC, congrats to the MDOC! 

Let’s not only applaud the efforts to educate, and the efforts of those getting educated, but NOW let’s think outside of the box as to how we can get these men and women out of there and back into society! We need them! They need a new life! 

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world."  Nelson Mandella

 


 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Thanks for friends; thanks to friends. All behind bars!

 “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”

– Muhammad Ali 

It should come as no surprise when I tell you that I have many friends behind bars. However, the depth of that friendship, in many cases, surprises even me. A perfect example of that is the in-prison response to the message that Matt had lost his mom, I had lost my wife, Marcia. 

As soon as the word filtered into the prison system, messages of condolence started arriving. 

Keep in mind that my friendship with these men and women is a long-distance one. Granted, I have visited with some, chatted by phone with some, and met some while on speaking engagements in prisons. But, it’s not an intimate type of relationship where we spend time over a cup of coffee or a beer, sharing our innermost thoughts. In fact, very few prisoners knew Marcia. Yet, it seemed as though, when I was hurting, many of my friends were hurting as well. 

Prisoners don’t purchase sympathy cards. They use their artistic skills to craft beautiful cards from scraps of paper and cloth. The cards began arriving. Then cards with multiple signatures arrived. Every person who signed the card also conveyed a short message of hope and encouragement, of kindness and compassion. 12 women who reside in Huron Valley. 21 men in Chippewa CF. 25 in Lakeland CF. 26 in Handlon. 45 residents of the Muskegon Correctional Facility, each one with a personal message and a signature! 

How often have I thought about sending a note or a card, but never quite got around to it? How often have I just sent a card without adding a personal note? 

These men and women have demonstrated genuine compassion and friendship. In response, may God give me the courage and ability to live up to this passage by 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.

My friends! I love 'em!

 


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

What are we going to do about it?

While World War II was raging, we had to practice hiding from the enemy. As a little boy growing up in Muskegon, I was seriously frightened during the air raid “blackouts” of the 1940s. I would tremble in the arms of my parents. I had nightmares about Hitler and Hirohito. 

Decades later, it was a different story.

When our kids were little, in the 60s and 70s, the threat of nuclear war was real and Civil Defense leaders recommended bomb shelters where families could hide from deadly radiation. There were practice drills in cities and schools. 

Today, it’s a different ball game. The kids in our schools must practice hiding and protecting themselves from shooters! Architects are even designing new school buildings to allow for hiding and protection. 

None of that helped 8, 9 and 10-year-old students at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday. A young gunman shot and killed 19 youngsters and 2 teachers before police shot him dead. 

I’m afraid our perception of the Second Amendment has run amuck. 

Maybe you’ll recall the words of the NRA head following a similar tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut back in 2012. His profound statement: The only thing to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. 

It is that kind of wacky thinking that has so derailed the debate over the Second Amendment that nothing makes sense any more. It has made a shambles of our two-party political system. And so, while Republicans claim Democrats want to take away our guns and our rights, and Democrats claim that Republicans want everyone to take arms for protection, our nation becomes not only the laughingstock of the world, but the slaughterhouse. We have more guns than people, more guns than motor vehicles! Mass shootings have become commonplace. 

The Washington Post reports that, since 1999 and the Columbine massacre, more than 311,000 school kids have been exposed to gun violence! 

As Michael Moore put it yesterday, “We love our guns more than we love our children.” 

Muttering “thoughts and prayers” isn’t enough. We’ve already had 27 school shootings this year! 

How many more precious jewels must we lose before we do SOMETHING to reduce this insanity?



Monday, May 16, 2022

When cruelty becomes torture, right in our state prisons!

There’s torture taking place in Michigan prisons. 

I’m not speaking figuratively. There’s actual, literal, torture occurring every day in some of our state’s correctional facilities. 

I’ll explain. 

For segregation areas, a prisoner count must be taken every half hour. It’s done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Here’s how. Corrections Officers have been issued heavy metal wands for this high-tech system. An electronic module has been installed in the door of every cell. When the officer touches the wand to the module, there’s a beep which signals that the count has been recorded. Simple, right? So what’s the problem? 

Well, many times that’s not exactly how the procedure goes, according to reports we receive. The wand is metal and it’s heavy, and if the officer chooses, he can slap it against the module. One loud clang. If he really wants to be annoying, the officer can slap it several times---rat-a-tat-a-tat. 

Larry, one of our informers, says, “Imagine someone banging on your door, your wall, every half hour of every day, while you eat, read, sleep!” Larry goes on to explain that these are not just a few renegade officers. “The exception is the officer who does his count without cruelty. The rule is officers who perform those duties with a callous disregard. And it isn’t just the prison guards. Mid-level and upper-level administrators not only condone this behavior, but many of them bang on the doors themselves. Even healthcare workers---people whose profession it is to relieve suffering---bang on our doors with their wands.” 

Larry’s letter to HFP was a sharp reminder to me. We’ve heard similar complaints from prisoners in seg for years, and until now I haven’t spoken up. 

The use of sound as a means of cruelty is not new. Carefully read this definition by The United National Convention Against Torture: 

...any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as...punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating...him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. 

The shoe fits! 

This procedure can be done without noise. It’s time to make sure that happens. 

Incarceration is the punishment. We may not add to it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Nice!

Back in the olden days, radio and television stations used to shut down at night. 

I’m 85 now, so I can talk like an old-timer. 

The radio station that I owned and operated for 19 years signed on at 6 AM, and signed off at sunset. We would begin the broadcast day with the playing of our national anthem. Similarly, we would end the day with a simple hymn, like “Now the Day is Over.” 

Television stations often used spectacular videos as the national anthem was playing, perhaps the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, sometimes local scenery. They did this at sign-on time early in the morning, and sign-off time late at night. 

The story is told of a TV executive who, while driving to his office each day, passed an attractive little neighborhood church. The lawn was manicured, the flowers spectacular, the landscaping done to perfection. Out of curiosity, he finally stopped to learn more about this little inner-city treasure. 

The pastor shared a most interesting story. The exterior of the church was tended to by a member who was born with a serious birth defect. Her face was so grotesque, the pastor said, that she refused to be seen in public. But, she wanted to do something of beauty. And so she devoted her life to keeping the appearance of the little church beautiful.  

The TV executive decided that photos of that church should and would be seen on his station’s sign-off, and so, each day, a church that few people would even know about became widely recognized and admired, thanks to a humble anonymous member of the parish. 

That was a very long lead-in to a story I heard just a few days ago. I’m sure, by now, you’ve seen and read accounts of the graduation ceremony at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

76 Michigan prisoners received bachelor’s degrees or associate’s degrees through the Calvin Prison Initiative program. 

What did not make the news was that MDOC Director Heidi Washington kindly and quietly decided that prisoners would not be required to wear their prison blues under graduation gowns (No mother should have to see that!). And then, some sugar daddy stood tall and picked up the tab for new shirts and pants for the graduates! 

As a newsman, that’s the kind of story I loved!

The anonymous donor obviously caught what John Bunyan was talking about when he said: 

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you."

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

By golly, school does make a difference!

Prison is an angry place. For something good to come from the prison experience it almost takes a miracle. But yes, things are happening! 

Prison Fellowship quotes a former inmate who says anger is the only acceptable emotion in prison. There are many reasons to be angry behind bars: loss of freedom, disrespect from fellow inmates, and so-called friends and family that have vanished. Besides, some days it seems if you aren’t angry, you’ll get run over. 

We’re learning that an antidote to that toxic environment is education. 

7 years ago Calvin University began offering a program leading to a Bachelor’s Degree. Each year 20 students from Michigan prisons are selected and enrolled in the five-year program at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. These are legitimate credit courses taught by professors. 

We’ve watched the program over the years, and a number of our friends and clients have participated. But the thing that really impressed me as to the program’s effectiveness was a simple luncheon meeting. 

Five former inmates, graduates of the Calvin Prison Initiative, had graciously agreed to make a presentation in an adult education class in our church. You gotta keep in mind, here, that these five men spent years and years in that dark, angry atmosphere that I described. The big difference is that these are not angry people. They recognize how fortunate they were to get into a program where they could not only further their education, but could fraternize with like-minded individuals, all people of faith. 

It's no secret that, even in our own circles, some negative or unkind things get said. In conversations with family and friends, it’s not uncommon to make negative comments about a co-worker, a friend, or relative, who did or said something we didn’t appreciate. 

When I had lunch with these men Sunday, I heard NOT ONE NEGATIVE WORD in the entire conversation. To the contrary, these guys---perhaps considered seasoned criminals by the rest of the world---were kind, gentle, loving, supportive, gracious, not only to their hosts, but with each other. It’s exactly the type of person, the type of behavior, we want back in society! 

Study upon study unanimously conclude that higher education programs in prison drastically reduce recidivism, cut down on crime, and save tax-payer dollars, not to mention the long-term contributions to the safety and well-being of the communities where these people are heading. 

Hope College and Western Theological Seminary of Holland are now operating a similar program in the Muskegon Correctional Facility. God bless both of these schools for providing such innovative opportunities for the incarcerated. 

Offering a college education behind bars is a win all the way around. Data support the fact that reentry for that prisoner is enhanced by increased personal income, lower unemployment, greater political engagement and volunteerism, and even improved health. 

They may not be perfect. They'll be modifying and improving along the way. But, our hope is that the MDOC not only supports these two wonderful programs, but also encourages more colleges to get involved.

 

 

 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

This mom didn’t tell you. She showed you!

It happened in a matter of seconds, but I never forgot it. 

It was a summer evening on a country road in northern lower Michigan. A man who owned his own semi-tractor had parked the big rig in the driveway of their home. He and his little boy were standing there, admiring its size and beauty I suppose. From the street you could see the man walk up to the truck, give the tire a kick, then spit. Moments later, the little boy walked up, gave the tire a kick, then spitted on the ground as well. 

It was a reminder to me as a parent that, like it or not, we lead by example. 

In the many kind and loving condolences that we are receiving in the wake of Marcia’s passing, those people behind bars really get the picture. Typical of the many comments we receive from incarcerated men and women is this quote to Matt: “I trust, that the good in you, you learned from your mom to do the kind of work you do." 

As our kids were growing up, they didn’t hear any instructions about being kind to others. They saw their mother, as a hospice nurse, get up in the middle of the night to be at the bedside of a dying patient. They didn’t see her sitting in the church pew with arms folded, grumbling and complaining about what the church could and should be doing. They saw her, in an official position as an elder, calling on women with problems that just couldn’t be discussed with a man. They didn’t hear pious comments about how Jesus loves people of all colors. They saw her welcome an itinerant black preacher into our home for a Sunday dinner. They saw her defy the guards and walk up to a shackled black prisoner and give him a hug.” 

It’s no surprise that all four of our offspring are in the people business. Her simple counsel was, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” 

And so, parents, take a lesson from Marcia: Be careful what tire you kick. Be careful where you spit. Somebody’s watching! 

RIP, Sweetie! Te Amo.



Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Marcia Tjapkes, 1937 – 2022

To say that she was the “wind beneath my wings” would be an understatement. Almost an insult. 

While I was the young wannabe “pillar of the community” running a local radio station, traveling around the world with musicians, and serving on a variety of boards, committees and commissions, someone had to keep the home fires burning. Our four wonderful kids and our nine delightful grandchildren are a testament to Marcia’s incredible parenting skills. 

Once the kids started growing up and the radio stations were history, Marcia Tjapkes sprouted her own wings. A registered nurse with innate medical skills, she went on to become one of the early certified hospice nurses in our county. She was a natural for that position, and for years provided compassion and assistance to men and women, along with their loved ones, in the final chapters of their lives. 

After that she obtained another certification and became the first Parish Nurse in her church. Having earlier served as the church’s first female elder, she was well aware of the many ways a Parish Nurse could be of invaluable assistance. 

While the late Maurice Carter gets the credit for the idea, and while I get the credit for its founding, I think it’s safe to say that there wouldn’t be a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS had it not been for Marcia’s perceptive medical skills. She arguably saved Maurice’s life while he was still in prison. 

Maurice was unaware that he was in the final stages of Hepatitis C...prison doctors never bothered to inform him that he had the disease. Then, one day he had a serious medical emergency in his cell, and his bunkie called our house. Marcia accepted the collect call, and immediately recognized the symptoms. Healthcare had already given Maurice some aspirin and returned him to his cell. Marcia insisted that his roommate get emergency assistance stat. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance, and his life was saved. 

Only God knows how many lives she touched in her own quiet way. Family and friends are well aware of how she touched our lives. 

The last years of her life became difficult and complicated, as she lost both physical and mental capabilities. 

That all ended late Saturday night when the message of Easter was no longer just a beautiful Bible story...it became a reality! 

What a life! What a woman! What a wife! What a mother! 

RIP, Sweetie. Te Amo! I’ll see you soon.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

On Easter and forgiveness, or lack thereof

Our pastor recently completed a sermon series for Lent on the topic of forgiveness. I’m so happy that I could hear those inspiring messages on Sunday, because in my world, I don’t hear much about forgiveness on weekdays. 

When we ask for forgiveness as we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we piously promise God that we, too, will “forgive those who trespass against us.” But when the prayer is over, and real-life situations develop, we seem to forget all about that vow. 

-Families and loved ones of crime victims refuse to forgive the perpetrator, arguing that the victim doesn’t get a second chance. Why should that person who committed the crime have such an opportunity? 

-Readers and viewers of crime stories in the news express their anger and disgust. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” or, “I’d be the first one to throw the switch” on the electric chair. 

-Prosecutors and judges, while ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to resentence those prisoners who received life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, resist at every turn. Regardless of how undeveloped the brain was at the time of the crime, regardless of how lengthy stays in prison have changed lives, acts and thoughts of forgiveness are elusive. Revenge and retribution reign. 

In this business, we hear stories of no forgiveness every day. 

Somehow, we didn’t pay much attention to some important Easter week stories. 

We weren’t listening when Jesus asked the Father to forgive a bunch of brutal, cruel soldiers who whipped him, teased him and spat on him: “...for they know not what they do.” 

We didn’t really pay any attention to Jesus’ last-minute pardon of a hardened criminal on the cross next to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Yet, we’re not ashamed or embarrassed to freely accept the forgiveness we received when death was defeated some 2,000 years ago. 

CHRIST IS RISEN! 

I pray that the message of Easter, 2022, finally makes an impact.



Wednesday, April 13, 2022

There ARE some good prisoner stories! Here's one.

There was something different about Tayrone. 

We see promising futures for many Michigan prisoners whom we serve, hoping for a second chance. But HFP CEO Matt Tjapkes saw a brighter spark in this new client of ours. 

Tayrone had been involved in an armed robbery at the age of 19. He knew he did wrong, and entered a plea of guilty. A judge gave him 8-20 years. But, a life of crime was not in the cards for Tayrone. No sirree. Once outta there, he was going to get a proper education and make something of himself. 

Matt caught that desire in his interaction with the man. Tayrone had set his sights on the University of Michigan. Yep, when he caught a parole, that’s where he wanted to be (Tayrone and a whole lot of other kids. Not everyone just gets accepted at a major university, especially the U of M!). 

It was a gamble, one that Matt felt was worth it. He contacted a former HFP board member who, in an earlier life, had been an instructor at the U of M Medical School. Matt simply put the two together, with a request to our guy that, if he, too, saw a strong possibility of success, perhaps he could help. 

And that’s exactly what happened. 

As those two men communicated, our retired prof caught that same promise for the future. His first step was to speak with a Parole Board rep, who agreed that if this young man managed to get accepted at the University of Michigan, a parole was almost assured. 

Strings were pulled and, miracle of miracles, Tayrone was accepted! The Parole Board, in turn, granted him a parole after serving his minimum. Now it was the parolee’s turn to prove himself. 

To the consternation of his supporters, Tayrone not only jumped in with both feet, taking on a full load at the U of M, but he got a job as well. There were bills to pay. Could he possibly survive? 

He did, and with flying colors! He graduated from the University of Michigan, launched a new career and went on his way. We never did hear back from him. But, that happens. After all, of those ten lepers Jesus healed, only one came back to say “thank you.” 

It’s a good story. Perfect for Holy Week. We’re proud to tell it!



Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Behind bars? Not much respect!

All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. UN General Assembly, Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners 

Some 20 years ago, I found that Michigan didn't abide by that principle, as I was trying to assist a wrongly-convicted prisoner.

 -The chairman of the Michigan Parole Board harangued and harassed him, finally suggesting that he would free him immediately if he would just admit to committing the crime. Maurice Carter refused.

-The Assistant Attorney General recommended no medical parole for Maurice, even though he was dying from Hepatitis C, final stage. A danger to society. 

-The circuit court judge hearing the circumstances of Maurice’s terminal disease, said “We all gotta die sometime!” 

-The Governor of our State, when faced with the request for a compassionate release, waited a year before granting approval. It was too late. Maurice died 3 months after his release. 

One might think that, over the period of 20 years, we’d become a bit more civil, more humane. But, based on my experiences in just the past 10 days, that ain’t happening! 

I attended two public hearings conducted by the Michigan Parole Board last week. I was disappointed to discover that, despite a change in state administrations and a replacement of an Assistant Attorney General, there was little improvement. A 76-year-old woman who showed considerable remorse for her crime, committed in a moment of passion, was badgered until reduced to tears. In the second hearing, a wrongly convicted prisoner who has now served 30 years was badgered by the Assistant AG, doing her best to prod him into showing remorse for something he didn’t do. 

One week later I attended a court session where, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, a juvenile’s sentence of life without parole had to be changed. The prisoner, at age 44, met every point for rehabilitation and restoration, after committing at the age of 17. The judge, a former prosecutor, would have no part of leniency. In my opinion, the resentence numbers that she ordered, 40-60 years with credit for time served, completely violate the spirit of the Supreme Court decision. 

I show little sympathy when prisoners refuse to halt their criminal behavior while incarcerated, and then get vetoes from Parole Boards and judges. 

But, when prisoners show promise, when obviously there has been rehabilitation, when their continued presence behind bars serves no purpose, when there’s not even a hint that they might reoffend, we are the criminals if we blow them off, mock them, ridicule them and deny a second chance.

 

 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Touching at the time of execution is OK: US Supreme Court!

Luke 5 passage about a man with a skin disease: He said to Jesus, “Lord, if you want, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do want to. Be clean.” Instantly, the skin disease left the man. 

Touching and Christianity fit well together. 

Bill Gaither’s popular gospel song--- 

Something happened and now I know, He touched me and made me whole. 

My friend Tommy asked me to bring up this topic upon hearing a news report regarding a Supreme Court decision that the State of Texas was wrong in not allowing a minister to touch a person at the time of execution. 

The prisoner simply wanted his pastor to be in the chamber with him at the time of his passing, audibly praying and laying hands on him. The clergyman said this was “deeply rooted in the man’s faith.” 

Some leery observers and justices thought the prisoner just wanted to delay the date of his death. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the dissenting opinion, accused the guy of trying to “manipulate the judicial process.” 

You may remember that I received an unsettling request years ago. My friend Anthony, who was on Texas death row, asked me to be his spiritual advisor. It was, as you might imagine, a life-changing experience. 

I can’t get into why this particular prisoner raised the issue of touching. But, I can tell you this: Texas didn’t allow even a hint of intimacy for the poor sucker facing a lethal injection when I was there in 2008! 

For a simple conversation on death row we had to chat on rickety telephones on either side of bullet-proof glass. When I prayed, we had to hold an old style black telephone to one ear and press our hands on the glass together, hoping that God might grant us some sort of connection. 

It got worse. 

In our final pre-execution session there was still a screen between us. And I still couldn’t touch him when we prayed. And I was not allowed to give him a hug when we said goodbye. Unconscionable. 

The Supreme Court got it right. 

“The human touch is that little snippet of physical affection that brings a bit of comfort, support, and kindness. It doesn’t take much from the one who gives it, but can make a huge difference in the one who receives it.”

― Mya Robarts

 

 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The incarcerated: They ARE persons to us!

Sunshine Week came and went earlier this month, without even a squawk from this corner.  I apologize for that. For those not familiar with the observance, Sunshine Week was created to raise awareness and appreciation for our access to public information and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

When it was adopted in 1976, the act stated that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees. 

Some years later, the Michigan Department of Corrections rebelled, saying that these FOIA requests from prisoners were taking too much of their time, and were costing millions of dollars. Instead of making some provisions that would prevent prisoners from filing frivolous requests, in typical knee-jerk style, the state legislature of Pure Michigan took action in 1994 that flatly stated that incarcerated individuals are not persons. 

My friend Adam, who, while he was a guest of the Michigan Department of Corrections, was incensed when he was denied documents requested under FOIA, with this explanation: 

’Person’ means an individual, corporation, limited liability company, firm, organization, association, governmental entity or other legal entity. ‘Person’ does not include an individual serving a sentence of imprisonment in a state or county correctional facility in this state or any other state, or in a federal correctional facility.” 

Says Adam: “You can’t take my humanity, only I can surrender it. You can’t take my personhood, but then grant it to an entity like a corporation." 

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is taking a strong stand on this issue, and is putting its action where its mouth is. We have found that there are many prisoners who have legitimate needs for documents. And so, we have specialists who file the requests on their behalf and get the results to them. It’s arduous work, time-consuming, and often frustrating. But it’s also rewarding! Last year, our team filed some 550 FOIA requests for Michigan inmates. Some with outstanding results. All with sincere gratitude! 

Sadly, Pure Michigan cannot make much of a boast for Sunshine Week observance. We are one of only 3 states that deny this civil right to the incarcerated without question. 

Phhhttt!

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Wrongful convictions: just plain cruel!

Here’s the thing when it comes to writing about wrongful convictions. It’s a constant roller coaster ride! 

Tuesday was the perfect example. 

Early in the morning I celebrated (although she wasn’t aware of it!) with HFP board member Marla Mitchell-Cichon, former director of the Cooley Innocence Project at WMU. They were a major part of the news story you may have read, where two Michigan brothers were released from our prison system after serving 25 years for a crime they did not commit. 

Despite claims of alibis, George and Melvin DeJesus were convicted in 1997 of murder and felony firearm in the 1995 killing of Margaret Midkiff, who was found dead in her Pontiac home They were sentenced to life without parole. Finally, they're free! 

As many of you know, it was a wrongful conviction that sucked me into this prisoner advocacy business 20 years ago. It was sickening then, and it’s sickening now. Good-news stories, like the one above, place your roller coaster car at the apex. 

Then comes the plunge. 

Also Tuesday morning, I participated in a public hearing, conducted by the Michigan Parole Board, for a man who has been wrongly convicted. He has served 30 years for a crime he did not commit. Carlo Vartinelli was so convinced that he could get a fair trial that he turned down a plea deal that would have given him just a few years behind bars. But it didn’t work out that way. A jury found him guilty, and he got a life sentence. 

During those 30 years in prison, due to serious food allergies, he was nearly poisoned to death by careless prison food handlers, his wife died, and he suffered serious physical issues. One might think there would be at least some empathy and compassion. Yet, in that public hearing, his treatment wasn’t much better than that of the original trial. 

These hearings, now held virtually because of COVID, are fraught with technical issues. Add in the mix that one of the prisoner’s hearing aids was not working, and the native Mexican inmate can hardly speak English, and you found little dignity for this man who committed no crime, and who, if released, must be placed on the state sex offender registry. 

The Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan consistently did her best to trip up his testimony through his broken English responses, and relentlessly tried to persuade him to show remorse, even though he had done nothing wrong. 

Friend Marla keeps pushing for responsible legislation that will help reduce the number of wrongful convictions. “Michigan can do better,” she insists. 

Indeed.



Saturday, March 19, 2022

Firing squad? We’re going backwards!

How perfect! The State of South Carolina chooses the season of Lent to announce that it is now prepared to carry out executions by firing squad. The shootings can begin once the state Supreme Court approves the specifics of the procedure, according to the Greenville News. The state spent $53,000 to renovate its capital punishment facility after a law was passed allowing this procedure. 

Until now, South Carolina’s primary means of execution was the electric chair. But by law, inmates may now choose death by lethal injection or firing squad — provided the methods are available. The firing squad option was added after the state had trouble getting the right drugs for lethal injection.

I thought the story was so fitting for the season. After all, it is during Lent that we recall that incident a couple thousand years ago when our Lord was put to death in a most ugly and gruesome manner. Crucifixion was intended to be the most painful and humiliating death imaginable. And, if it didn’t work fast enough, the Roman guards helped it along. 

We’re told that guards could only leave the site after the victim had died. So, they were known to speed up the process by breaking legs, spearing the victim, banging on him, or even building a fire at the foot of the cross so he’d choke to death in the smoke.

Well, here’s the way things will go this many centuries later, now that we’re so much more civilized, according to recent news reports. 

In South Carolina three members of a firing squad will stand behind a wall and aim their rifles at the condemned person. That person will be strapped to a chair facing the gun barrels, but with a hood placed over their head. A “small aim point will be placed over their heart by a member of the execution team,” according to a Department of Corrections statement. 

All this, just when we thought we were making some progress on reducing capital punishment. The use of the death penalty has dropped sharply in our country over the past 25 years. 

Do I sound upset? You’re receiving this message from a man who actually viewed an execution in Texas, and who has some pretty strong feelings about the death penalty. 

Only Jesus Christ could have uttered back then, and probably still says today, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”



Wednesday, March 16, 2022

My Lenten message: Prisoners need new batteries!

Matt and I were recording a podcast with one of our staff members. Ted, who assists prisoners in obtaining important legal documents through the Freedom of Information Act, observed how his impression of the incarcerated has changed since he came to work for us. 

This has been true, I think, of every person who ever worked for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 

It’s no wonder our thoughts are negative. Our senses are almost numbed by the brutal and senseless crimes that grab the headlines day after day. And I know of people in the media who seem to enjoy reporting on horrible prisoner behavior behind bars. 

Yet (you’ve heard me say this time and again!), the prisoner who actually steered me into this business 20 years ago was one of the kindest, most gentle people I had ever met. Until given permission otherwise, he constantly referred to me as “Mr. Tjapkes.” In fact, he even hesitated to seek my help because I was trying to assist another guy behind bars and he didn’t want to be a bother. 

Well, it’s true...there are some bad apples in prison. We hear about it every day. So do you. 

But then there are the others. Many, many, many decent people who are locked in these cages. I have been a guest speaker in many prisoners. I have led music in many prisons. I have done workshops and book reviews with prisoners. I have been blessed EVERY time! 

Jesus wasn’t just fooling around when he said, “I was in prison and you visited me.” He didn’t say, “There’s this jerk behind bars that you should try to love.” I interpret his sentence to mean that, when I go behind bars, I am actually seeing the faces of Christ. 

One of my friends, formerly incarcerated, posted this on Facebook this week. Just read it and reflect on it: 

When a flashlight grows dim or quits working, you don’t throw it away, you change the batteries. When a person messes up and finds themselves in a dark place, do you cast them aside? Of course not. You help them change their batteries! Some need AA, attention and affection. Some need AAA, attention, affection and acceptance. And if they still don’t seem to shine...simply sit with them quietly and share your light.  Victory Today 

Pope Francis: "Lent comes providentially to awaken us, to shake us from our lethargy."