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!

 “ 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!