Showing posts from 2023

What's in the brown paper bag?

I pass along this story every year during the holiday season. It's not that I want to put a damper on all the fun and frivolity of the season. But, we must be mindful of all of our fellow humans, in all of their experiences. This is a beautiful story, really... .a story not written by me.   I feel certain that Luis Ramirez would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him.   He's dead.   This message came to me from Texas Death Row in the early days of HFP. I was so touched by the experience that I vowed to keep the story alive. We generally re-publish it during the holiday season. May it remind us, again, that the names on death row represent real people. And, that the death penalty is dead wrong!   Anyway, here’s my gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez: (In all caps, just the way he sent it)   I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.   I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN T

Does it have to be them and us?

Has the day of respectfully listening to a different opinion gone by the wayside? As an octogenarian, I cannot remember a time when there is so little respect for the opinion of others, and so little interest in open-minded conversation. So much division! So much shouting! So much anger!   This is serious stuff, and we’re going to have to give it some serious thought. I was seriously offended back in the 1960s when I covered a Spring Lake Board of Education meeting. As a local reporter, I asked a couple of pointed questions. A board member later chastised me implying that I was an enemy and certainly not appreciated. Later, however, cooler heads prevailed. We talked, and it became apparent that we had common goals. It was an honor for Marcia and me to be invited to a private social event hosted by the same man at a later date.   Many years later, while selling church organs, I had an unpleasant experience with the assistant pastor of a mega church. They were erecting a new struct

A challenge to provide kindness…all the way from Texas, of all places!

I can’t think of many good ideas from Texas, but here’s one!   I was recently contacted by a wonderful prisoner advocacy agency in the UK. They had heard about my experience with a death row prisoner in 2007. Charles Anthony Nealy and I were friends…he was a client of ours. Then he asked me to be his “spiritual advisor” at the time of his execution. While I loved Anthony, the experience was wretched!   Anyway, the 30-minute interview reminded me of one very nice memory in Texas: a mission project, and it could and should be done here.   On the day of Anthony’s execution, Marcia and I were invited to take a break at a place called the Hospitality House, in Huntsville, Texas. It was a beautiful facility erected and maintained by a Christian group in that state. I’ll explain it, then try to stir up some interest.   Many visitors at a state prison are from out-of-town. Some families and loved ones travel long distances to make such a visit. That was true in Texas, and it’s especial

Deaf kids? Hurting inmates? YOU can help!

It’s a tiny segment of society I’ve never thought about. But, thank God, someone did!   I’m talking about hearing-impaired teenagers. Think about it for a minute.   A teenager in a typical family sitting at the dinner table. Sibs and parents all laughing and talking. One person silent, living in another world…he can’t hear. A teenager sitting with a circle of friends in a school lunchroom…everyone talking and laughing. One person is silent, living in another world. She can’t hear.   I was intrigued by a short TV interview the other night with Dan Kregel, Executive Director of Youth for Christ of West Michigan. His agency has developed a program called Deaf Teen Quest, and it offers a new, exciting and participatory world for teens who can’t hear. There are leaders and counselors who chat via signing, and teens actually get together for events to laugh and talk, the things kids love to do, only with sign language.   YFCWM found a niche and ran with it. The program, only 5 years

Why it’s important for you to meet with us Friday night!

I realize that Friday nights are crowded…sporting events, happy hour meetings, cocktail parties, dinner parties, and a variety of other ways to celebrate TGIF. But just this once, it’s important that you take a break from that routine.   The 27 th marks the very first time that a powerful documentary labeled BEHIND OUR WALLS will be shown in Ottawa County. This award-winning film, produced by Nate Roels of Grand Rapids, conveys an important message about incarceration.   It'll be shown at Central Park Place in Grand Haven...the program begins at 7 PM. In 2015 Calvin College (now Calvin University) and Calvin Theological Seminary teamed up to prepare a classroom experience for a handful of prisoners at one of our state prisons in Ionia. I’ve been in that facility. The prison system has given Calvin Prison Initiative a classroom and a library in the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility. The class size is only 20 per year, but you should know that these people participate in

Love thy neighbor, when he or she is behind bars?

  Anyone can love a rose, but it takes a lot to love a leaf! Tom Flynn   I’ve been thinking a lot about love these days.   Perhaps it’s because Pastor Nate is in the middle of a sermon series on First Corinthians 13, that famous Bible passage about love. It’s easy for us to mouth popular cliches, “God is Love,” or “Love thy Neighbor,” but, as Nate is pointing out, the subject requires much closer examination. And deeper thought.   I’m a bit of a freak, I suppose, because I have a genuine love for persons who are incarcerated. I mean it. I love prisoners! And I think it started long before I got into this prisoner advocacy business.   I remember in 1969, my partner and I were excited to bring FM radio to Grand Haven. As the owners of the local radio station, we staged a big local ceremony when WGHN-FM went on the air. One of my first goals, as a broadcast journalist, was to do some in-depth programming on topics of interest. In those days, the use of heroin was becoming a major

It can't happen to me. Only to others!

If I got locked up in a prison for something I didn’t do, I’d be a raging bull!  Those were the words of the Rev. Al Hoksbergen, wonderful pastor, beautiful Christian, who was at my side during the years we tried to free Maurice Carter. I raise the issue this week because…   October 2 came and went. Not many people I know paid much attention to the fact that it was the 10 th annual International Wrongful Conviction Day.   Granted, the day has real meaning for me. It was a wrongful conviction that led to my beautiful relationship with Maurice Carter, which then led to the formation of a fine prisoner service agency called HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. But my point is this: It must be important to you, also!   My very good friend Marla Mitchell-Cichon, who for years served as Director of the Cooley Innocence Project, reminds that efforts to help the wrongly convicted go back much longer than 10 years. After all, I began working on the Carter case in the mid-1990s.   “I have been worki

On things I’m not reading, and why that makes me cross!

  I’m reading a lot about the UAW (United Auto Workers union) these days. Auto workers are on strike, hoping to get better wages and working conditions from the big three automakers. The UAW boasts about 12,700 members.   I’m not reading a lot about another union : MCO (Michigan Corrections Organization). The MCO Service Employees International Union, which represents about 6,000 Corrections Officers and other MDOC employees, is facing a major issue.   I’m reading a lot about Michigan’s Governor and Democratic-controlled senate and house, and their strong efforts to improve living conditions in Pure Michigan, and reverse the trend of population decline.   I’m not reading or hearing about the MDOC staff crisis in Michigan prisons.   An item on the Detroit News editorial page more than intrigued me…it infuriated me. It was written by Timothy Fleury, a correctional officer at the Alger CF located in Munising. He obviously hoped to get someone’s attention. A huge employee shortag

I wish you could hear the stories!

There’s no simple answer for some questions.   “Just tell me what you guys do over there at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.”   When we give our stock reply, helping prisoners one-on-one with their everyday needs and problems, more questions persist.   “When I give money to an agency that feeds hungry people, they can give me exact statistics…how many people they feed, in what countries, their ages, etc. If we’re going to award grants to HFP, we need stats!” Gulp.   Last week I was one of four persons in a panel discussion. I was on the panel because I started this program 22 years ago. The others were there because all had been helped by HFP. I’ll briefly share a story about each of them.   Heather was in another state when she contacted HFP. She was engaged to a prisoner in Michigan, and the two of them hoped to get married. Because of complications involving her residence in another state and his residency in a prison, a contrary county clerk decided she would have no part in issui

Are we willing to march?

I was so busy writing about HFP’s August 29 birthday that I never got around to discussing the August 28 Freedom March of 1963. That was the year that 200,000 demonstrators filled the streets of Washington DC, demanding improvements in jobs and freedom.   I have long contended that democracy not only demands orderly elections, but allows for peaceful protest on the streets.   Just a few days ago Governor Whitmer presented her “What’s Next” address. She noted many fine accomplishments in our state, and she outlined many more worthy goals. Notably missing, however, was an in-depth discussion of prisons and incarceration. Why? Because these topics do not impress voters.   The only comment I found in the entire speech was a vague reference to the budget just passed, saying that there was money to “upgrade correctional facilities.” That’s it? That’s all there is to talk about?   Meanwhile, our office continues to receive a barrage of complaints from residents of Michigan prisons and

22 years?

I’m quietly sitting here on the eve of HFP’s birthday. My wife Marcia, the wind beneath my wings through this project, is gone. Maurice Carter, the kind, gentle human being who insisted prisoners deserved humane treatment, is gone. I’m 86 and still here, but undeniably in my sunset years. And yet, as I reflect on it, HFP flourishes!   I signed all the proper legal documents on August 29, 2001, but that didn’t mean much. The fledgling organization called INNOCENT was now legal, but its impact and its future were uncertain.   Doug Tjapkes, church organ salesman who founded the agency, had to continue working in his day job. Marcia had groceries to buy and kids to feed. At a borrowed desk and a borrowed computer, I put up two web sites explaining our mission, and waited for reaction.   It came in a heartbeat, and it took only minutes to learn that advocating for prisoners was an uphill climb. Friends and family wondered if I was goofy. Early board members nodded kindly, but quietly

Are things getting better in Michigan? Another sad tale!

It was a sad day in 2013 when Michigan’s largest city filed for bankruptcy.   Today, we’re told, it’s a different story in Detroit. A new bridge is being built. New buildings are being erected. Historic buildings are being restored. According to numerous financial experts, a strong comeback is in the works.   Perhaps that is the case downtown. I can tell you this: We’re not seeing it in the criminal justice system!   A dear friend telephoned me from Detroit. I’ve known her for many years…her husband is a client of HFP, and we had a mutual friend named Maurice Carter. She called to say that her best friend’s husband was in prison and had been treated unfairly by the system in Detroit. She wondered if we could help.   Those of you who are aware of the work of Humanity for Prisoners also know that we are not attorneys, and we do not operate an Innocence Project. We cannot help, we can only steer. These two Black women realized that, also. But, as the bald guy says in the TV ad, “W

Judge Gary Giguere: A hero, indeed!

It’s no secret that an action film inspired by the story of Doug Tjapkes helping a wrongly convicted prisoner named Maurice Carter is in the works. I became Maurice’s partner in the late 1990s under some providential circumstances, and that decision changed my life. I fought at his side for nearly a decade, hoping to clear his name and gain his freedom.   The story became a book, then a stage play, and now a movie, and the names of numerous heroes are listed. However, there was a critical player in this story whose name was seldom mentioned. As my Maurice Carter memories get rekindled during the making of this movie, I’m compelled to set the record straight.   The person I’m talking about is Hon. Gary C. Giguere, Jr., Kalamazoo County Chief Judge Circuit/Probate Court. At that time, we knew him as Gary Giguere, a young criminal defense attorney with the prestigious Kalamazoo law firm of Levine and Levine.   The powerful legal forces that we were able to mobilize behind the Carter

When the wheels of justice ground to a halt

On Maurice Carter day, this story is worth repeating. Maurice Carter was not exaggerating when he complained about the lack of justice in his case. An off-duty white police officer was shot and injured in what may have been a hold-up attempt during the Christmas shopping season in Benton Harbor. That was back in the 1970s. Two years later, based on the testimony of a jail-house snitch, Maurice was arrested in his hometown of Gary, Indiana. It was 29 years later before he ever took a breath in free society again!   Talk about “grinding to a halt,” consider these points.   - No one, not even the police officer and his wife, identified Maurice from the police department lineup photos until 2 years later, after his photo accompanied the news of his arrest in the Benton Harbor newspaper.   -The only real witness to the crime, the store clerk, insisted that police arrested the wrong man. The shooter, she said, was “African black,” and Maurice was lighter-skinned. When asked if she co

Singing about the "Unsung"

I learned a lot about unsung heroes when I was a young radio newsman. As News Director of a small-market radio station, I discovered that we were pretty much taken for granted.   The larger stations in the larger markets were getting publicity and awards. That’s because their operations had enough money to spend on special investigations, documentaries, extensive coverage of events, etc. I’m not taking away the importance of their work. It’s just that, in the little radio stations, we had no money for that kind of exotica. With what dollars we had, we did our very best to make sure the people in our community were properly informed. I was one of hundreds of small-market reporters doing our best to not only fairly cover the news, but to make sure that public officials were operating within ethical norms.   That’s true in so many categories, isn’t it? We read and hear daily about heroes…rescuing people from sinking boats, burning buildings, smoking automobiles. Granted, those police

Listening to Michigan prosecutors cry

Michigan prosecutors have it tough these days. All you have to do is listen to them complain. Some of their most recent comments can be read in Paul Egan’s fine Detroit Free Press story: Michigan prosecutors push back as state allocates millions for indigent defense.   Keep in mind that I’m an amateur. I’m an old guy who got into the field of advocating for prisoners late in life. I have no legal credentials or experience. But, I am a journalist, and I accurately report what I see and have seen.   When I got into this business in the mid-1990s, prosecutors held all the good cards. They had police departments and state agencies at their beck and call. They had investigators on staff. And, they had dollars.   True, the constitution guarantees that everyone must have legal counsel. But, in those days, some penniless guy who got arrested might end up with a court-appointed attorney who got the job by submitting the lowest bid. My friend Maurice Carter was charged with assault with in