All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Another death in prison. Another day.

“Each human should die in the sight of a loving face,” Mother Theresa. 

Our heart breaks every time we hear about another death behind bars with no loving face in sight. Over the past 20 years we have seen so many situations that could have been different, could have been better, kinder, more humane. 

Here in Michigan, because we keep our prisoners behind bars for so long, our population is aging, and that means more will die while incarcerated. Traditionally our state has 75-80 inmates who are 80 and older! Some are in wheelchairs. Some on oxygen. What could possibly be the purpose in keeping these oldsters locked up? Does anyone really think they’re going to reoffend? Besides that, the cost of caring for these people is double or triple the normal expense. Ah, well...preaching to the choir, I know. 

What I’m leading up to here, is a discussion about how to lend a little more dignity to the situation. 

Each year, some 4,000 people die in state prisons...more than 100 right here in Michigan. The situation got a bit worse in 2021 because we lost 32 prisoners due to COVID-related issues. While some lives are lost due to criminal action behind bars, many die from natural causes. And, each year there are a few cases where a person dies alone, whose friends and loved ones either don’t care or are no longer in existence. Their remains get buried in a private prison cemetery in Jackson called Cherry Hill, and they are forgotten. 

I have long thought that we should have an annual service early in the year specifically honoring those prisoners, much like we honor the “unknown soldier.” But our caring team thinks we should do more, perhaps expanding our effort to holding a memorial service for all Michigan inmates who died the previous year. 

Perhaps am “all-faith” service involving not only Catholic and Protestant clergy, but an imam and a rabbi as well? Where to hold it? Who to invite? 

Louise Reichert, author of that wonderful publication THE PRISONER’S PRAYER BOOK, is keeping the pressure on, and it is my goal to do something about it. We’re pleased to have added a former prison chaplain to our Board of Directors who has promised to help. The idea is not going to fade away. My promise. 

Your thoughts, ideas and suggestions are welcome. 

One thing is certain: We must do better.


Wednesday, January 19, 2022

No "Give 'em hell" this time! Just a warm, fuzzy.

I had two ideas for blog postings today. Both had teeth in them. 

I wanted to write a follow-up to that public demonstration outside Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility on Sunday. I so appreciated all of the people who showed up to protest the way we’re treating women in our Michigan prison system! One participant told me there were two bus-loads of people, and that cars were lined up and down the street. God bless those brave souls who weren’t worried about cold temps and slippery sidewalks! 

I also wanted to write about rising costs for prisoners, after Matt posted a note from a guy who was explaining the crunch that people behind bars are facing. True, the minimum wage went up for Michigan workers. True, prices keep going up inside and outside of prison. BUT, no wage increase for prison workers, if they’re lucky enough to get a job. Maddening! 

But then I thought, “Maybe it’s time for a warm and fuzzy.” We sometimes forget just how important they are. 

I was just looking at a note that I had received from a former prisoner, along with a year-end gift to HFP. 

Greetings, Doug,

(then explaining who he was)

I talked with you when I was in prison in Marquette. I want to wish you blessings! I’m doing fine---I’ve been out since late April. I’m helping out at a homeless shelter here in Saginaw. I send my prayers. 

Our visit must have been about 15 years ago, in the early days of HFP. One-on-one contacts with friends behind bars never come home empty. 

Then, earlier today, Matt forwarded the names and addresses of recent HFP donors, so I could prepare, sign and post thank-you notes. Among them was the name of a prisoner who had sent a check, hoping it could get here by the end of the year so that we could reach our goal in the matching-fund drive. It didn’t get issued until January 10. The check was for $20.00. Can you imagine the magnitude of a gift from a person who probably earns a dollar a day? Impressive! Touching! I assured him that his donation made a difference.

So today I’m putting aside the “Give ‘em hell” speech. 

Those of us who work with the incarcerated love these people! So did our Lord. And many of them love us right back again, as these two little stories illustrate. 

And that ain’t all bad!

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Bon appetit!

Today I want to talk about prison cuisine and Alex Friedmann. 

Alex Friedmann is managing editor of PRISON LEGAL NEWS. But when it comes to prison food, he knows what he’s talking about. 

From 1987 to 1999, he served a total of 10 years in Tennessee state and county jails. While incarcerated, he saw the stereotypically abysmal trays of overboiled vegetables, mystery meat, white bread, and sodas, but he also saw food being leveraged as further punishment by prison officials. For instance, inmates were occasionally served so-called “food loaf,” which contains an entire tray of food—meat, dessert, bread, vegetables—mashed together and baked. We’ve heard numerous stories about “food loaf” in Michigan. 

“It’s a terrible, awful thing, and they serve it,” he says. 

I’m bringing up the topic, because the COVID crisis seems to have made the problem even worse in Michigan prisons. 

Said one of my friends: “...had a slimy bologna sandwich for lunch and cold, gummy mac & cheese for supper. At least the beets were okay cold, but barely cooked. Cold peas are just nasty.” 

Client Josh said: “... we had beans which I was eating and I bit down on a stone and broke my tooth. These people treat us like dogs.”

A prisoner’s wife unloaded on me: 

Milk is mostly spoiled although the “best before date” is not yet exceeded, which makes it clear that it is not stored properly! The food is either undercooked or overcooked and most people don't eat chicken anymore because it's always pink and they get sick from it. Months ago there were maggots in the rice. Sometimes they don't know what kind of food it is, it's indefinable and if they are smart they don't eat it at all. My husband also says the potatoes, for example, are inedible as well as the rice, they are rotten and smell bad. There were countless times when there was no more oatmeal for breakfast or there were bugs inside. They often get cold hot dogs and cold oatmeal. Typical dinner when they are understaffed: 1 hot dog,1 slice of bread and 1 bag of mustard. 

We hear it over and over again! Is this acceptable? 

Back to Friedmann: 

”95% of those who are incarcerated will one day be released, so how they are treated behind bars—including what they are fed—may impact the rest of us after all. They will be your neighbors once they are released. What kind of people do we want coming back to our communities?” 



Wednesday, January 5, 2022

It's no way to treat your mom!

Suppose, through some unpleasant series of events, your mother, or sister, or daughter ended up in prison. And then suppose that this message from her showed up in your inbox this week. Your response? 

“This is absolutely cruel and unusual punishment! I have tested negative for COVID 19. So, this prison, WHV, decided it was a good idea to lock me up in a unit (Emmett) that’s been closed down due to unlivable conditions over 6 months ago. We have no hot water for showers or washing our hands. We've had no clean laundry for 6 days now. No commissary store. And, they serve us ice cold food from the chow hall. This unit has one microwave oven that barely works at all. 

“All our mail and grievances sit in milkcrates on the desk, not going anywhere. 

“There is no heat in this 16-man cell that they placed us in. My bunk is next to an outside door that leaks into the cell and is covered in mold. We have one hot-pot for hot water and were told not to drink it, that it’s for laundry. And yet when we get called for medication lines they let us outside with the positive cases, and some of these prisoners hug and kiss one another! My point: Why are we locked up in this craziness???? 

“Can someone outside help us?” 

Pat is a white, middle-aged woman who got into some drug trouble and wound up in Michigan’s only prison for women, Women’s Huron Valley. She’s among some 2,000 women who live in the sprawling facility in Ypsilanti.  She’s a client of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, and she sent us that message a few days ago. 

Sadly, we were not surprised. A check of the archives shows that I’ve been writing about these issues for years. The MDOC denies that it's all that bad. There's little change or improvement. 

In 2019 a class action suit was filed against the MDOC and that facility. In his story about the filing, Detroit Free Press writer Paul Egan reported “Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti is overcrowded, understaffed, poorly managed and ‘operating under a state of degradation, filth, and inhumanity, endangering the health and safety of incarcerated women and staff alike daily,’ the suit alleges.” 

In 2015, when she first took office, in a private face-to-face meeting with the new MDOC Director, Heidi Washington assured me that she had a personal interest in WHV and would see that changes were made. 

We’re still waiting.


Monday, January 3, 2022

2022: The year of the free phone call?

On Thanksgiving weekend Washington Post columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel lamented the fact that, during the holiday season, high prison and jail telephone rates would limit family time for those living behind bars. 

Said Ms. vanden Heuvel: “...many incarcerated people are charged steep fees to make phone calls to the outside world. On average, a 15-minute call costs $5.74, with some prisons charging a dollar or more per minute — not counting tacked-on hidden fees that can increase overall costs by up to 40 percent.” 

Michigan prison telephone calls cost .14 a minute. 

The Washington Post piece reported that the correctional telecom industry rakes in more than $1.4 billion annually from prisoner phone calls. And, that means, of course, that the cost is generally passed on to the families of incarcerated people — who are disproportionately low-income, and disproportionately people of color. 

While it was the holiday season that prompted the columnist to write about this topic, it has been relevant for over a year, due to the pandemic. The virus resulted in limited prison visits, which meant that phone calls were the only way many inmates were able to stay in touch with their families. 

The entire thrust of the column was that these telephone calls should be free! Said Columnist vanden Heuvel: “’s outrageous that a billion-dollar industry exists based on skimming profits from some of society’s most vulnerable people trying to meet one of our most fundamental needs: human connection.” 

She lists a lot of reasons why phone calls from jails and prisons should be free, not the least of which is the fact that incarcerated people who stay close with family members are less likely to reoffend. 

We’d like to propose that Michigan lawmakers consider this radical idea. We point out that, in 2019, New York became the first major U.S. city to make phone calls from jail free. And, in 2021, Connecticut became the first state to make all communication between inmates and their families free — including phone calls, video chats and emails! 

It’s time for Michigan to be a leader, not a follower, not a bystander. 

Let these profound words of Ms. vanden Heuvel resound, not only here in the HFP office, but through the halls of the State Capitol: 

Being convicted of a crime may deprive a person of their freedom — but it shouldn’t deprive someone of their humanity!