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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

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."



Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The tables are turned: A prisoner makes our day!

I’m sure Mr. T had no idea how much he brightened spirits in our office the other day. 

By “our office,” I mean the headquarters for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. In that small office building, members of our team respond to between 75 and 100 requests for help every day. Many of the prisoners asking for assistance are not in an exceptionally good mood. Let’s face it, you and I do not run, as happy campers , through the front door of the doctor’s office to exclaim how great we feel. We usually go because we have a problem, and because we have a problem we’re often not in the best of moods. 

Well, as our Sarah started dealing with the daily stack of snail mail, she unfolded a letter that was not filled with grumbling and complaint. Instead, a hand-written note, specifically addressed to her, said: 

My name is _______ and I’ve been incarcerated in the MDOC since 2010 when, at 15 years old, I was convicted of murder in the second degree, and sentenced to 31-50 years. I’ve never been an angel, yet in a higher power I’ve strived to trust. In the past few years I’ve been on an industrious, diligent campaign for freedom, the upliftment of oppressed people, at-risk youth, the betterment of the next generation, at this point merely hoping to initiate change so others---whether youth or adult---do not go through the ordeals I’ve overcome alone. I can truly understand the value of the free world support and if I can help just a little, I know I’m doing something good to aid others who have gone or are going through what I’m going through. I am writing this brief note to advise you that I am contributing to the Humanity for Prisoner cause by donating $1,500. Your work is very inspiring, and I hope with my donation I am aiding. 

Young Mr. T has no idea how much he has done. Yes, his dollars will definitely help others who are incarcerated and who have special needs. But the gift, along with the giver’s kind intentions and generous spirit, goes far beyond financial assistance. This beautiful incident brightened our daily routine, relayed a message that rehabilitation can and does happen, and served as an important reminder to all of us---HFP team members and supporters alike---that kindness and compassion are not limited only to those persons outside of prison bars. 

“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” – Bob Kerrey



Wednesday, March 2, 2022

It pays to train a rescue dog. But not much!

To the state’s credit, there are some excellent dog training programs in the Michigan prison system. 24 Michigan prisons are approved to have some type of dog program. Perhaps one of the most unique is the Dawgz Adapt Program at the Alger Correctional Facility in the U.P. 

Working with the Delta County Animal Shelter in Escanaba, these prisoners take in and care for dogs that have been abused, neglected, abandoned, starved and even left for dead. It’s a huge challenge, but the guys take great pride in their work. They nurse the animals back to health, along with a lot of rehabilitation and reconditioning so that they can be adopted into a forever home someday. 

Not only do they train these canines, but they clean up their messes, potty-train them, trim their nails, and leaf through books to handle medical issues. 

The 10 inmates in this unit have completed an 8-week training class. In addition, they receive in-service training from outside professionals, as well as from books and videos. They work in 2-man teams, and it’s a 24/7 detail. 

For this incredible work they have been getting paid $2.65 a day. Not an hour, a day! That boils down to 11-cents an hour. But here’s the rub. The state claims their pay scale was wrong, and has been since 2012, and it must be corrected. SO, now their wages are being cut to $1.54 a day. That means these amazing dog trainers will be getting paid 6-cents an hour! 

Is that really fair? It’s not the fault of these guys, as well as dog trainers in the other 23 prisons, that a mistake was made on the wage rate ten years ago.

As these trainers explain it to HFP, for some of these dogs, it’s their last chance before possibly being put down. And for the men who are in the program, they not only learn a skilled trade but, let’s face it...it’s rehabilitation for them, too! 

Matt has always contended that if we were trying to rescue dogs instead of prisoners, we’d be more popular. Well, this time, we’re trying to do both. 

With a $2-billion-per-year budget, and the prison population decreasing, the state can’t pay these dog trainers $2.65 a day? 

Give me a break!