Showing posts from 2023

Memorial Day. Thinking beyond the loss of vets.

M emorial Day is a federal holiday for honoring and mourning the U.S. military personnel who have died while serving in the armed forces. It is observed on the last Monday of May, which means it’s coming soon.   It is a somber holiday.   I remember, as a child, standing in the crowd watching the Muskegon Memorial Day parade. I remember seeing young and old military personnel marching with solemn looks on their faces. Tragedies in the Second World War had many women in the crowd shedding tears.   Over the years we have expanded the observance of Memorial Day to include memories of other loved ones. Flowers are placed on the graves of family members and relatives. My mom and dad are buried in northern Michigan, and one of our cousins kindly sees to it that there are flowers on their grave marker each year.   All of this leads me to the discussion, once again, of prisoner deaths. Each year more than 100 residents of Michigan prisons die. Just as on the outside, the causes vary. Ye

National CO Week? Yep, they deserve it!

Many years ago I was speaking to a delightful group of senior citizens in a college campus setting, telling of the work of HFP. In describing conditions in our prison system, I expressed concern about corrections officers who mistreated the mentally ill, who loved their badge and their power more than the subjects they were working with, and who felt that no punishment was too great for law violators.   Following my presentation, a sweet grey-haired woman raised her hand. “I just want you to know,” she said, “that my son has a college degree, has chosen to serve as a correctional officer, loves his work, and takes his job seriously. He's proud of what he does!” That was a very important reminder to me: We should not paint with a broad brush!   We forget that COs are not properly trained to care for the mentally ill, are not paid enough for what they do, are overworked (due to staff shortages, (some are ordered to work double shifts!), and are generally despised and often mistre

Animals? Yes! Buildings? Yes! Prisoners? Let me think about it!

  I love stories, reports, TV features and documentaries about restoration, rehabilitation and renewal. With a background in broadcast journalism, I am a news junkie. Each day I review newspapers, on-line news reports, and television reports.   As a radio newsman decades ago, I loved to write and air stories about rescues and fresh starts. I still enjoy features about rescuing pets, saving old buildings, restoring run-down business districts, and helping abandoned small towns.   The thing is, I’m not in the news business anymore. And, in my current profession, I’m troubled about reports like these.   -In the U.S., over 400,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail almost 7 million times. Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain behind bars until their trial.   - On average, incarcerated people earn between 86 cents and $3.45 per day for the most common prison jobs. In at least five st

Empathy, not only for prisoners, but for each other. Important!

em·pa·thy Noun The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.   I’m quick with an opinion re the incredible success HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has experienced with the incarcerated. It’s not what most organizations would boast about, because we often fail in our efforts to help the inmate as requested. Sometimes we get a partial victory. I’m convinced the real reason people behind bars love us is because we care! We listen. We do our best to assure them that, no matter how little or how much we can accomplish on their behalf, they matter!   Earlier in life, I had a couple of “non-empathy” experiences.   1981.   I had enjoyed a highly successful radio career until this year when, due to some incredibly unwise business decisions, my northern Michigan radio station went broke. I was devastated. I had no one to blame but Doug. My self-esteem was at an all-time low. Our corporate attorney recommended a lawyer who specialized in bankruptcy proceedings to help me.   The

I welcome you to the free world, James! I wonder if society will?

It never gets old.   I have no idea how many prisoners I’ve greeted at the door as they stepped into freedom. It happened again Tuesday morning. James (Ba’ Boy) O’Neal was being released on parole. For the first time in 46 years he walked out of that prison with no cuffs. For the first time in 46 years he rode in a vehicle without being shackled. For the first time in 46 years he didn’t have to eat garbage. We stopped at a nearby Panera’s for a juicy egg, cheese and sausage sandwich.   It was a sweet reunion for James O’Neal and Doug Tjapkes! Years ago he contacted our office for assistance in helping a friend who was experiencing health care problems. We were successful in that endeavor, and he and I became friends. I communicated with the Parole Board several times on his behalf over the years, and participated at his public hearing before the Michigan Parole Board.   And so, there was a lot of background, a lot of history, a lot of love in that welcome. There was a lot of la

Remembering Marcia, thanking her kids!

We’ve all seen it and heard about it. Perhaps you’ve been a part of it.   An elderly parent dies, and before the surviving kids can even think about fighting over who will get what, decisions must be made about a memorial service. Which funeral director? Where will it be held? Who will preside? Who will sing? Which family members should share stories? Sometimes a mini-family feud.   It’s all on my mind today. We lost Marcia exactly one year ago.   As a little boy, the funeral service confused me. I must confess that I hated to go. I had been taught in Sunday School that heaven was a wonderful place, that there would be no more sickness, death or tears, and everyone would be happy. There was no evidence of that in a funeral service. The funeral cars were black, the people wore black, the casket was rolled to the front of the sanctuary, the preacher somberly quoted Bible verses, people wept, the body was lowered into a grave and we all went home.   Today, I pay tribute to our fou

Another sad commentary on Michigan's mental health centers: OUR STATE PRISONS!

For the past 20 years I’ve been troubled by the manner in which mentally challenged inmates have been treated at Michigan’s only prison for women. We MUST demand more and better training for caregivers in all of Michigan’s correctional facilities.   I’m not going to come to any conclusion with this piece. This time, I’m going to let one of my friends behind bars, a whistleblower and a suicide watch observer, tell the story.   Jane has suicidal ideation. and has been dealing with it all her life. She finally reached out for help in the last few years.   Jane was moved to a unit that her therapist and psychiatrist were well aware triggered these thoughts…the administration is well aware as well. The day after they moved her she saw her psychiatrist. She was very honest about where her thoughts were. He concluded that she had to see her therapist once a week until these thoughts past.   That was the beginning of January. BOTH her psychiatrist and therapist left days later. She ne

NBC News and Easter? Really?

NBC News delivered an Easter message on Good Friday! I’m a broadcast journalist (no longer on the air)(“Thank the Lord,” some might say!), and I know that NBC executives would be appalled if they thought they had delivered a Jesus story. But that’s exactly what happened. It was the Evening News with Lester Holt. Always looking for a good newscast closer, they found this one . “In 1998, Randall Bagley shot and killed Donald Mitchell during a Maryland robbery. When Bagley asked for a sentence reduction 24 years later, Mitchell's son Idris stunned the courtroom by announcing his forgiveness and asking the judge to release him. Lester Holt shares more on this moving story of forgiveness.” As you know, I’m no longer in the news reporting business…I now speak up for people behind bars. Time and again I am saddened by the lack of forgiveness by otherwise very kind and decent people. When convicted criminals plead for a second chance, the phrase Forgive us our trespasses as we forgiv

On WORLD PIANO DAY, and why it should have meaning in your life!

An impact on one’s life doesn’t always come from a person. It may come from an inanimate object. I was reminded of that last week. Wednesday, March 29 th , was World Piano Day! Why? Duh! Because it was the 88 th day of the year!   I’m sometimes asked about people who may have touched my life. And there are many. But ranking at the top is not a person, but an 88-key Everett upright piano, manufactured in the early 1900s.   Sometimes referred to as a “pianoforte,” this behemoth featuring 10,000 moving parts and weighing 800 pounds, was somehow shoe-horned into our little 2 nd floor apartment above my father’s neighborhood grocery store…a job that would normally require 4 strong men!   Well, professional movers were not used back in 1941. Instead, you begged friends and relatives, promising a cold long-neck bottle of beer upon project completion.   My kind mother, who tolerated keyboard banging for a short period, decided that if this were to continue, she wanted genuine notes p

Whether in music or prisoner assistance, no more cookie-cutters!

  To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable   Ludwig van Beethoven   I made my way to a little nightspot recently, having been told I would hear some fine live music. Sitting next to me at the bar was a fellow musician. After 10 or 15 minutes he said to me, “Every song has the same beat.” I hadn’t been paying that much attention. Sure enough. I added to his statement. “Almost every tune is in the same key!”   I must be fair, here. The musicians were competent. The music was well done. The sounds were pleasant. Nothing out of place. BUT, everything sounded the same! As a musician who prefers creativity, I called it a day a little sooner than usual.   Later that same night, I surfed to a lesser-known cable TV channel, knowing that Bill and Gloria Gaither would be featuring an hour of gospel music. That should cheer me up.   The show featured a popular country/western musician singing old, favorite hymns. But here’s the thing. He played all in

Better late than never: Congrats, Public Defenders! Thanks to ALL defense attorneys!

March 18 arrived. No mention of the significance of the day. Not a word in newspapers. No special tributes or features on TV. Sadly, I almost let it slip by…it was flagged on the wrong date in my calendar.   Well, it’s not too late. March 18 is National Public Defender Day. To add to the trivia, let me tell you about a little-known division within the Department of Justice. It’s called The Bureau of Justice Assistance, and its job is to provide leadership and assistance to local criminal justice programs. That is the office that chose to make March 18 a special day on the calendar.  Public Defenders help those accused people who have no money for a lawyer. In Ottawa County such a plan was approved in June of 2018. The new Public Defender Office became fully operational in 2019.   I can still remember, as a young news reporter, questioning the integrity of those lawyers who chose to defend people on the wrong side of the law. How did they sleep at night, arguing on behalf of a per

What breaks our hearts! What breaks your hearts?

Stories like this come across our desks every day, and break our hearts every day.   My son called tonight and stated that a new inmate had been added to the veteran's unit in Saginaw prison. He stated that the man has severe dementia and is needing help BAD. He is 74 years old. Today he walked around naked and voided all over himself, and didn’t even know that he had done it. My son was told that the man was put in that unit to protect himself from men in other units taking advantage of him.   Reacting to a report that two lifers had passed away at Women’s Huron Valley, one of our friends wrote: It is so unfortunate that WHV doesn’t even allow us to have any sort of memorial service for our sisters.   In response to the death of a middle-aged resident of a Muskegon prion, a friend says: He was rushed to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. He had delayed going to health-care until it was too late. (This happens often, because of the unfortunate rule that prisoners face a $5

Wages go down. Prices go up!

  The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” – Albert Camus   In a telephone chat with one of my friends behind bars the other day, the topic of prisoner pay came up once again. He has certain MDOC certifications that entitle him to a slightly higher pay rate for certain jobs. But, he was transferred to a facility that doesn’t recognize those certifications. He’ll have to settle for the lower pay.   I was discussing the topic with a former prisoner, and he shared a similar story where, upon transfer, the people at the new facility wouldn’t pay the rate that he had been receiving for years at the old facility.   Keep in mind, now, that these prison people aren’t doing their best to balance the prison budget. They’re doing their best to be unkind to the residents of that facility.   This week I received a message from one of the prison dog handlers. “Well, the buggers went ahead and cut the maintenance, upholstery, and all dog handlers' pay. We

We agreed that prisoners mattered, but we didn’t know what the heck we were doing!

  God uses those with limited abilities to further his kingdom.   Bill Gaither   Bill was chatting with the Booth Brothers, fine gospel music group, in one of his TV videos. His response, as shown above, came after Michael Booth, the group’s tenor, shared that he was unable to reach some rather high notes.   I found Gaither’s comment meaningful because of the HFP story.   I started this organization 22 years ago at the urging Maurice Carter, who at that time had served 26  years in prison for a crime he did not commit. There were many more people behind bars, he insisted, who needed outside help. Well, I didn’t know much about the justice system, but I knew about helping prisoners. I had been fighting at Maurice’s side for 8 years.   It’s fair to say that, when my good friend and lawyer John Carlyle offered to help set up this unique organization, we had no idea what we were doing. Talk about limited abilities!   1.       Maurice was still behind bars, and had no legal or bus

Intestinal issues, mental illness, wrongful conviction...all in a day's work. Even on Sunday!

  O day of rest and gladness, O day of joy and light   I love this old hymn, composed by Christopher Wordsworth back in 1862, but it doesn’t really describe typical Sundays of this octogenarian. I look forward to being busy on Sunday! I’m a church musician, and the older I get the more it feels like music soothes my soul. Sunday the 19 th was particularly busy, because I was the only keyboard musician on duty that day. I played both organ and piano during the service. When I finally returned home, it was time to crash. I mixed up a Bloody Mary, grabbed the Sunday newspaper, and plopped on the couch.   Within the hour a telephone call. It was my friend Brad, in a Michigan prison. Could I find some help for a fellow inmate? David, who lives in a cell right across from him, has been experiencing physical problems for the past couple of years. When he goes to the bathroom, a part of his bowel actually comes out, and so each time he is forced to put his body back together again. It

Inflation behind bars. Do we give a damn?

I’m reading about the crazy battles in Lansing, as lawmakers fight over which tax breaks they’ll approve. Let’s face it. Inflation is real, we all feel it, and we’d like relief.   “Inflation has driven the cost up on everyday goods, which is squeezing household budgets and forcing families to forego necessities,” Governor Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids and House Speaker Joe Tate of Detroit said in a joint statement. “That’s why they sent us to Lansing…”   I read through Lansing accounts in Bridge Magazine, the Detroit News, and the Detroit Free Press. I scoured all reports to see if there was anything about how inflation affects Michigan prisoners. Nary a word!   Inflation behind bars is especially crippling, because as store prices continue to rise, wages remain stagnant.   Check out these messages on my desk, just received.   Doug at Saginaw CF : “Lunch today is pseudo Bologna, so my bunkie is making a simple bowl cook-up. ‘Simple’ is going to

Transgender persons. Finding little dignity among us. Even less behind bars!

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” Jesus   A ll prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. UN General Assembly Resolution   It’s exceptionally difficult to find even a hint of dignity behind bars. Incarcerated people are known by their prison ID number, not by their name. When speaking to an inmate, corrections officers don’t use the words Mr. or Mrs., Rev. or Dr. They call them by their last name. They shout it out. There’s no respect or dignity involved.   I guess that’s why I go overboard in trying to give the incarcerated a little hint of dignity. From the day I started this business, with every piece of mail I sent to every person living behind bars, I never included the name of the prison facility in the address. I give the inmate’s name, ID#, street address, city, state and zip. That has been, and still is, the policy of Humanity for Prisoners. It may not seem like much, but it’s our li