All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, February 28, 2022

Prisoners: Not people, just commodities locked in a warehouse!

 Instead of brutality, prisons could be a place to instill dignity and a sense of worth 

That headline says it all. It’s the caption on a recent piece written by a prominent attorney for The Star-Ledger, of Newark, New Jersey. 

Says Charles McKenna: “Our prison system is designed to demean, degrade and dehumanize. Prisons treat inmates as commodities in a warehouse and not people.” 

Comments made by HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS clients in recent weeks prompt me to beat on this old drum one more time. Currently, Michigan’s corrections budget is about $2 billion a year. We could be doing so much better! 

My hero, Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative, tells it like it is: “Incarcerated people are beaten, stabbed, raped, and killed in facilities run by corrupt officials who abuse their power with impunity. People who need medical care, help managing their disabilities, mental health and addiction treatment, and suicide prevention are denied care, ignored, punished, and placed in solitary confinement.” 

Those are the very reasons we have an HFP! Those are the things that our team-members are helping Michigan prisoners with every day! 

Yes, Michigan is creeping along with minor steps toward prison reform. That’s not good enough.

I’m Dutch, and I must tell you that I’m extremely proud of the criminal justice system of the Netherlands. True, it hopes to deter and mitigate crime, but it has rehabilitation in mind. According to Wikipedia, “the Dutch incarceration philosophy stresses the need to minimise the hardships on the prisoner. This philosophy emphasises maximising prisoner contacts with family and the preservation of community ties. Prisoners are able to enjoy many of the benefits of life on the outside.” 

Laments McKenna in his newspaper essay: “...there has been no true attempt at altering the system since it was implemented with the birth of the republic. It is a failed system and we should not accept failure... 

It’s time for state legislators to put politics aside. This is not a “tough on crime” issue. It’s a “positive step for Michigan’s future” issue. Let’s look at the Netherlands. Let’s look at Norway. We can do better. But first, we must want to do better! 

May the day come when the emphasis of Michigan’s $5 million per day expenditure is on rehabilitation instead of retribution.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

When old men and gang bangers wind up in the same room

It sounds so innocent! What could go wrong when you double-bunk an old guy and a younger prisoner? 

A whole lot! That’s what! 

James, who speaks from experience, is on a mission to change all of that. He’s 71, and he’s hoping that his story will prompt some action by the Michigan Department of Corrections as well as the state legislature. 

James explains that when a young guy gets paired up with an old dude, there’s often intimidation. More often than not, he claims, the younger inmates see these elderly men as easy marks, unable to defend themselves or protect their personal property. 

James has been behind bars for 49 years. Here's what he has to say. 

“I have been assaulted and victimized several times by younger prisoners. James said that one time his bunkie admitted taking his personal property and assaulting him when he tried to take it back, but he was issued a major misconduct for fighting, because the guard didn’t see who threw the first punch. In addition, he was forced to pay $4,000 restitution to the state for his hospital visit. 

In another incident, a younger prisoner stole his television set while he was using the telephone. Fortunately, he says, he was able to get his TV set back, but only after paying a so-called ‘finder’s fee.’ 

While James is willing to forgive others (telling himself that if he wants forgiveness for past crimes and transgressions, he’d better practice what he preaches), he’s on a campaign to bring about change. 

“Sadly, we prisoners are not only surrounded by high walls of concrete, chain-link fences and razor wire, we are beset with walls of secrecy, codes of silence, and stereotypes.” Rather than being labeled a “snitch,” many of the old timers just refuse to report these incidents. 

He says it’s way past time for the state to do something about this. For one thing, it’s illegal. The courts have ruled that officials must review inmates’ compatibility before double-bunking, and prison officials are actually liable. 

Sadly, I’ve been neglectful in not addressing this problem in the past. The current practice of just randomly double-bunking elderly and younger prisoners is not only unacceptable, but dangerous. 

Concludes James: Make no mistake, there is nothing natural about growing old in prison, especially when the aging process is accelerated by repeated traumatic abuse, which often results in constant fear, anxiety and despair. Within such a toxic environment, hopelessness has a way of breaking a person’s spirit, and just as surely thereafter, the body and mind. 

It’s time to get on the bandwagon with James. Let’s give the old-timers a voice! 

Forward this to someone important in Lansing.


Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Sure I'll forgive, if the offense wasn't too serious!

A news story in our area these days is proving one thing: When considering forgiveness, it’s difficult to get past the seriousness of the offense. 

Here’s the situation. The Supreme Court has ruled that we may not sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole anymore. Because the ruling was retroactive, some men and women serving life terms for crimes they committed as teenagers have a chance at freedom, IF the judge agrees to a lenient sentence the second time around. And that’s what is happening in Grand Rapids. A juvenile lifer will be getting a new sentence. 

And here’s where it gets sticky. The 1997 crime we’re talking about was a terrible one involving a baby. Even many progressive thinkers have a problem with freeing a person for something that heinous. 

To his credit, Kent County Circuit Judge Paul Denefeld has obviously done his homework. He discovered that the teen who committed the crime had had a terrible childhood. And, his investigation revealed that the man’s prison record is “stellar and that he has indeed been rehabilitated.” 

That makes no difference to the family of the victim, or to Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker: “This (crime) goes to a level of really serious depravity that quite frankly I don’t think anyone’s ever seen.” News stories reflect their strong opposition to freeing the accused, who is now 42 years of age and has been in prison for 21 years. 

Here’s my point. If all we desire with incarceration is punishment and retribution, the man should remain behind bars. If, however, we call it the Department of Corrections, because we expect rehabilitation and restoration, then, when such rehabilitation and restoration occurs, we should welcome that person back into society. 

LWOP, says David R. Dow in the Daily Beast: “ up on everyone, regardless of whether they exhibit any capacity for growth and change; it robs people of hope...” 

I so appreciate Norway’s position on this. No life without parole in Norway...a cap of 21 years, and that’s it, even for mass murderers. Rehabilitation of the offender is the goal. 

Granted, we can’t bring back the life of the baby. And that’s sad. But we might be able to save the life of a misguided juvenile who is now seeking a fresh start. And that’s good! 

I think the first step is to understand that forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. It’s a gift you give yourself. 

— T. D. Jakes

Monday, February 14, 2022

Valentine's Day wishes to a special group!

On this Valentine’s day, instead of the traditional “Roses are red, violets are blue,” message, try this one on for size: 

I may not get to see you as often as I like,

I may not get to hold you in my arms all the night.

But deep in my heart, I truly know

You’re the one that I love, and I can’t let go. 

Valentine’s Day is much like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day when it comes to happiness vs. pain. These special days were created to show kindness, love and respect to special people in our lives. But, on Mother’s Day, for example, there’s pain for that woman who would love to be a mother but can’t. On Father’s Day, for example, there’s pain in the home where a father was tragically killed in a recent accident. 

Yes, there’s pain on this Valentine’s Day for those who have lost a spouse, for those whose marriage didn’t survive, and for those who never found the right partner. But, I submit that no human emotions are as complex as those experienced today by those whose partner is in prison. 

The words that I quoted above were penned on a note from a prisoner’s loved one. 

The first struggle for these special women and men is to keep the relationship together. Persons behind bars have far too much time to think, worry and fret. It’s very easy for them to become suspicious, or jealous, or just plain angry. The partner on the outside faces the daunting task of just trying to keep things on an even keel. Support groups are helpful, but the challenges are immense. 

Communication is a huge problem. Visits are limited, phone calls are limited, letters are censored, and e-mail messages are so easily misinterpreted or too quickly sent without much aforethought. 

The next struggle for the person who has a loved one behind bars is dealing with his or her own friends. Those persons who wonder why you couldn’t just find somebody on the outside with like interests, desire and perhaps color. Those persons who think you’re crazy for holding onto fantasies that have little chance of working in real life. 

And so, today, unconditional love from me to my many, many friends who have incarcerated loved ones. You have my love, my respect, my best wishes. Blessings on your future with your Valentine! 

“Long-term relationships, the ones that matter, are all about weathering the peaks and the valleys.” – Nicholas Sparks

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

We’re not allowed to lie, but police have a green light!

 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor 

Back when I was a kid we had to memorize the King James version of the Ten Commandments. Commandment #9, in plain English, means that you darn well better not lie. 

Yet, there’s something many people are not aware of. The Ten Commandments do not apply to your friendly police officer. Police are legally allowed to lie to you during an interrogation, and it is not uncommon for them to do so. I’ve never understood the fairness of this concept. 

You and I may not lie, and not just because it’s morally wrong. It is illegal to lie to police, for example, about your identity during a traffic stop or while being placed under arrest. Filing a false police report is also a crime. The most serious offense, of course, is perjury...that can be a felony. 

And yet, according to the Innocence Project--- 

1.    It is almost always legal for police to lie during interrogations.

2.    False confessions are a leading cause of wrongful conviction in the U.S.

3.    Minors are particularly vulnerable to deceptive police tactics.

4.    Police deception is currently allowed in every state. 

I bring up the topic today because a recent newspaper item indicates that the State of Utah is now considering a bill that would prohibit police lying to juveniles during interrogation. The bill defines deception as "false information about evidence." During an interrogation, an investigator could not claim they have proof of a juvenile's crime if they don't have it. A few other states have made this policy change, I’m learning, prohibiting deception in juvenile interrogations, apparently recognizing this major difference in development: Brains don't fully develop until age 25 or 26. 

I guess we are forced to walk before we run, but it seems to me that we just ought to abandon this practice, period. Regardless of the age of the person being questioned. How about demanding the truth all the way around? No lies. 

The Innocence Project stresses that you and I have the power to help end police deception by letting our lawmakers know that we support all efforts to ban these practices. 

What a neat concept for Pure Michigan! 

Let’s clamor for it.



Sunday, February 6, 2022

YOU are called to be a deacon!`

I was invited to put my name in the hopper as a candidate for deacon in the first church we attended. I was a bit miffed. The reason for that unreasonable emotion was that a very good friend, also my age, was asked if he would be a candidate for elder. That was the important position in the church...that’s where they should have wanted my name. How shamefully misguided were my thoughts. 

Matt and I are starting a new series of podcasts about HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. In our first session, Matt pointed out that the HFP team is made up of “deacons.” We get that profound concept from no less than theologian Dr. John Rottman, Calvin Seminary Professor who serves on the HFP Board of Directors. 

To get an idea of a deacon’s assignment, I’d like to quote from the form for the ordination of deacons, as worded by the Christian Reformed Church of North America. Deacons, we are told, are charged with leading and equipping members of the church like “awakening compassion, demonstrating mercy, seeking justice." Thanks to the leadership of deacons, we are taught to “love God, our neighbors, and the creation with acts of generous sharing, joyful hospitality, thoughtful care, and wise stewardship.” In addition, the form insists, we must "respect the dignity of all people, work to change exploitive systems, and work toward reconciliation and peacemaking." 

I think there’s a clear message churches, and to HFP. But, in my humble opinion, it’s broader than that. I think that you and I are called to be deacons. 

To churches, who ordain elders and deacons, I think about a simple message offered by Rev. John Pavlovitz, of Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s not in the formal language of the CRC. It’s in blunt street language. “I’m not interested in the Scriptures you can recite or the prayers you utter out loud. Show me a working theology of empathy. Show me that you actually give a damn about people.” 

In that Dr. Rottman insists that our HFP crew is made up of deacons, regardless of our personal beliefs and theology, there’s a message to me and our team as well. In that it’s Black History Month, I’ll choose this quote from Dr. MLK, as he discussed the role of the good Samaritan. Let’s hold hands and accept this together: 

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But the good Samaritan reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

- Martin Luther King


Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Black History Month story: How Black people led to the formation of HFP!

Black History Month and Humanity for Prisoners. Believe it or not, there’s a direct link. 

As an octogenarian, I’m allowed to do some reflecting. I’d like to give you a brief overview of how God used Black people in the life of this white Dutch boy, in a way that eventually resulted in an amazing program of assistance to Michigan prisoners. 

It began nearly 70 years ago when, still in my teens, I began a radio broadcasting career. The Muskegon radio station that hired me carried a couple of live broadcasts on Sunday morning featuring Black musicians. Beautiful prayers offered by Sister Mattie Davis and incredible music performed by the Spiritualaires led to some lasting friendships and numerous beautiful experiences for this young lad. 

Fast forward to a couple decades later, when I owned my own radio station in Grand Haven. The booking of a guest speaker, an itinerant Black preacher by the name of Cy Young, for my daily talk show made an incredible impact. He was a follower of Dr. Martin Luther King, and loudly proclaimed his speeches and espoused his philosophy. As a result of our close bond, he introduced me to his many contacts in the Black community, especially among musicians. 

It's no wonder that, in the mid-90s, when I heard about an indigent Black man who claimed he was wrongly convicted, I felt a desire to at least try to help. The story of Maurice Carter is legend, now, told in books and on the stage. 

But the story didn’t end there. This kind, gentle Black man, who lived as a free man for only 3 months upon his release from prison, insisted that more needed to be done to help those people who faced problems similar to his. And so, a tiny agency was born in 2001 that eventually mushroomed into a leading force among prisoner advocacy agencies in Michigan, known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 

Dr. King once said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” 

Definitely true in my life. 

Because of that, the same can be said for thousands of Michigan prisoners.