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Premature deaths occur behind bars. Wanna know why?

What would it be like for a person behind bars?   As a worker with the incarcerated, I often ask that question when certain issues arise in my own life. That was the case when I recently underwent surgery for colon cancer.   -The mass was discovered during a routine check-up by my primary care physician. In that prison healthcare is so marginal, how likely is it that a malignant mass would be found in its early stage?   -Upon discovery of the problem, I was able to meet with a surgeon within a week! For the incarcerated, nothing happens quickly.   -Preparation for a colonoscopy begins one day in advance, with a colon-cleansing regimen that demands frequent urgent bathroom visits. Virtually impossible in our state prisons! Can you imagine?   -Pain meds were critical in my post-op recovery. HFP Office Manager Susie Greenbauer, who handles most of our medical complaints, says: “…the surgeon will recommend follow up visits, therapy, certain meds, further care and the MDOC provide

Justice for all? Really?

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."   Reciting The Pledge of Allegiance is sorta like offering The Lord’s Prayer. We get so accustomed to saying them that we don’t really pay attention to the words.   The United States may be the “land of the free, and the home of the brave,” but if you think that, in our nation, there is “justice for all,” you’ve got another guess coming!   Case in point.   The HFP office helps many incarcerated people in the preparation of applications for a commutation of sentence. I was asked to review the application of an elderly Native American physician, and that’s when my blood starting boiling!   Here’s a capsule of his story.   Dr. Desai’s business partner was strangled to death in 1983. 12 years later, based on a conversation by 2 other people alleging that he had solicited someone to commit the c

How is it possible? A positive ending to the outrageous Maurice Carter Story!

I hate to visit the city of Benton Harbor, Michigan. I have friends there. I have done business there. I have worshiped there. But the tragic memories of the shameful Maurice Carter case come alive every time my car reaches the city limits.   That was the case just the other day. Award-winning film maker Nathan Roels wanted to shoot some footage at the scene of the crime for which Maurice was wrongly convicted. Roels is producing a short documentary about the Carter story, having been commissioned by Humanity for Prisoners. The focus on that story is especially significant this year. For one thing, 2024 marks the 20 th anniversary of Maurice’s release from prison. And, a group of University of Michigan law students hope to file an appeal for a posthumous pardon by Governor Whitmer soon.   I reluctantly agreed to the Benton Harbor visit.   I find it amazing that God can take this list of shameful facts to create beauty: -Maurice was arrested for shooting and injuring an off-dut

Black victims, LGBTQ victims, shooting victims: all June musing topics of this prisoner advocate

As an advocate doing my best to help the incarcerated---men and women who are unable to help themselves---news stories about crime and crime victims, racial discrimination and suppression, and the idea that all of us are not created equal, have been capturing my attention this month.   Guns   Today, for example, marks eight years since a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and leaving 53 wounded. The June 12, 2016, massacre was one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history!   Yet, progress in dealing with the issue is slow, indeed. The Center for American Progress reports that voters are increasingly recognizing that gun violence is a serious problem, and that weak gun laws are driving the rise in violent crime. “When state legislatures repeal effective gun laws, such as those requiring a permit to purchase a firearm or to carry guns in public places, violent crime increases and communities becomes less safe. Elected officials who

Does God love prisoners? Do we?

  Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. Dalai Lama   When Pastor Nate discussed our love for each other, and God’s love for us on Sunday, my thoughts immediately went to prisoners. It’s important that we get reminders about saying “I love you” to family and friends.   It’s important to be reminded that, no matter our failures and shortcomings, God loves us.   But, when Jesus gives us instructions (not suggestions!) about love, things get sticky. I’m talking about   Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.   It was troubling enough when Jesus explained to a questioner that, by “neighbor,” he wasn’t talking about the guy next door. He was saying that it’s up to us to behave like that Good Samaritan in his parable.   But then he went on to say, “Love your enemies.” Could that possibly mean prisoners? Especially the ones who may have harmed me or my friends? The ones who cont

Kindness: Not just a gesture, but a necessity!

The audience was rather small. Perhaps 30 people. But in that tiny gathering, there were four former clients of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS!   We had been invited by the Holland Museum to show Nate Roel’s award-winning video Behind Our Walls   as a part of their monthly Cultural Lens series. The film is a powerful documentary featuring the Calvin Prison Initiative project, an in-prison college program led by Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary.   I want to tell you about the four HFP clients who were there.   The first was Mark Hartman, our own Executive Director. Mark served 12 years for a crime he didn’t commit. His story leading to Humanity for Prisoners is a good one. He had never heard of us, but while in prison a fellow inmate gave him a copy of my book Sweet Freedom.  Having been arrested in Berrien County, he was amazed at the similarities between his story and that of Maurice Carter. He wanted to meet the author. That led to a very special bond between Mark and

Remembering our veterans behind bars: Still heroes!

The Government calls them “justice-involved veterans.” They’re former service members now serving time under the supervision of the criminal justice system.   On this Memorial Day, I’d like to pay tribute not only to incarcerated veterans in the State of Michigan, but also to the Michigan Department of Corrections for its treatment and care of veterans.   How many are in prison, and what brought them there?   Well, there are more than 100,000 military veterans locked up   in prisons throughout the United States…some 2,000 of them right here in Michigan. More than 98% are men.   According to the VA, more than half of “justice-involved veterans” have either mental health problems or substance-abuse disorders, most notably alcohol or cocaine addiction. In addition, a large percentage are also homeless or at-risk for homelessness, and many others face such challenges as finding work and reintegrating into society. Sadly, these vets also may be at higher risk for suicide.   What c

Prisoners: Not visited by God dropping down from a cloud!

Sometimes the members of our team just need an attaboy! Sometimes prisoners grumble, sometimes we fail in our attempts to help, sometimes we’re there with too little too late, sometimes we cannot find the right words. It’s not all fun and games in the HFP office.   Five years ago, a wonderful Roman Catholic nun, internationally known for her fight against the death penalty and author of Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean, came to Grand Haven as our guest speaker for the HFP author/lecture series. I had occasion to review a video of her comments this week, and it renews my excitement about the unique mission of HFP!   She insisted, in her lecture, that we’re doing “the God work in the world, the Christ work.” Added Sister Prejean: “Prisoners aren’t visited by God descended in some cloud and going to prison. It’s folks like us!”   Why do we do what we do?   “It’s always around compassion. It’s always around justice. It’s always to those who have no voice and nobody on their s

Taking on Goliath!

I relived the story of David and Goliath today!   I use a Bible reading plan that includes readings from the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament.   While it’s very popular, as followers of Jesus, to focus a lot of attention on the New Testament, I have a real love for many of the Old Testament stories. And today, I especially identified with David, the young shepherd boy, with 5 smooth stones in his pocket.   For those not familiar with the story, as told in First Samuel, a foreign nation had a giant of a champion named Goliath. He would taunt the army of the Israelites, challenging them to send someone to fight him. If he won, the Israelites would have to become slaves of his country…or, vice versa. Well, the guy was so huge and so threatening that no one dared give it a try.   When young David was bringing food to his brothers serving in the army, he heard the rant of  this big dude, and stated that he would take on Goliath. David was a shepherd, accustomed to defendi

Deathbed and prisoner conversions---are they real?

I was leafing through our denomination’s periodical, The Banner, this week when I happened upon a provocative little piece written by a campus pastor. Michael Wagenman, who serves at Western University in London, Ontario, was specifically dealing with the topic of deathbed conversions. His question: Does God always accept deathbed conversions?   That prompted my thought processes. I see some real similarities between questions about deathbed conversions and claims of conversion and statements of belief by the incarcerated.   I cringe when I hear and see TV trial coverage of local area defendants, especially when the camera focuses on family members and friends of victims , when they are given the opportunity to address the alleged perpetrator. With tearful voices they express rhetoric of revenge and hatred. They assure the accused criminal that he or she will rot in hell. One representative of a prominent family said, a while back, that he would never be able to forgive the person

What is it about “It’s not working” that we don’t understand?

I was chatting with one of our board members on camera, working on a publicity video for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Marla Mitchell-Cichon, recently retired director of the Cooley-WMU Innocence Project, made this startling statement: “We’re going to have to get rid of the prison system (as we know it)! It doesn’t work! It never worked!"   She pointed out that the goal of incarceration is to reform, so that those who are released will become productive members of society. She insisted that this is NOT what the prison system is doing!   On May 3, the Kalamazoo County Bar Association presented its Liberty Bell Award to SaConna Johnson in its annual Law Day event. Ms. Johnson is the Head Client Advocate at Kalamazoo Defender, a non-profit public defender office. This public defender office provides legal representation within the court system, and through its care hub hooks up clients with social services.   In her acceptance speech, she bluntly informed some 50 local attorneys incl

It’s seems right that the pope has a heart for prisoners! Should we, as well?

I’m writing this piece late on Sunday. One more time, Pope Francis prompts these comments.   The pope was in a women’s prison in Venice today. The Holy See set up the Vatican Pavilion at the Biennale, one of the most prestigious events on the art world's calendar, inside the prison.   I’m not going to talk much about the art exhibit, except to tell you about the spectacular prison entrance. Persons walking through the opening gate encountered a wall mural, painted by Maurizio Cattelan, showing two giant filthy feet. The work, titled “Father,” recalls the feet that Francis washes each year in a Holy Thursday ritual that he routinely performs on prisoners!   More details about the art exhibit are available in various news sources. I want to focus on, not only the words of Pope Francis, but the example that he sets for the church, and for you and me.   The pope began his visit with a meeting with 80 women prisoners at the Giudecca Women’s Prison. Pope Francis, pushed in a whee

New data about mistreatment of blacks: another black eye for death penalty

What a surprise (and an honor!) when an activist organist in England contacted me recently. Reprieve, a human rights group that opposes the death penalty, had heard of my personal experience in witnessing an execution. The resulting interview,  with a panel of researchers in another country via Zoom, was most interesting!   My feelings about the death penalty are well known, and I have posted numerous essays on this website regarding my 2007 experience in witnessing the execution of a friend and client.   But now about the new research.   The lengthy, in-depth report by Reprieve, made major news this week in the United States, both in the New York Times and National Public Radio!   The focus was on botched executions, and there was one statistic in particular that wasn’t anticipated. The research found, among other things, that Black people had 220% higher odds of suffering a botched lethal injection execution than white people!   That new insight just adds another way Black

Is the constitutional defense of prisoner abuse in jeopardy?

Eighth Amendment, Bill of Rights: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. Prisons are a hot spot for violations of the 8 th Amendment!   Since I got into this prisoner advocacy business a few decades ago, I have seen flagrant examples of “cruel and unusual punishments.” It is not uncommon for HFP team members to deal with topics like---   -Solitary confinement -Medical care or lack thereof -Mental health issues -Excessive force -Sexual and psychological abuse Etc.   The 8 th Amendment has been our ammunition for fighting cruel and unusual punishment, but now I’m hearing that there’s a possibility that even this weapon might get weakened. Here’s a notice I received from the Marshall Project this week:   When the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case of Grants Pass v. Johnson later this month, the justices will consider how far cities can go in policing homeless people. But just as the court sw

If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much!

Some of my Hollander friends and I used to jokingly say that to friends who were not of Dutch descent.   On a more serious note, though, I’m saddened by the way we treat people who are not the same as we are. Daily we hear about attacks on Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Blacks, gays, lesbians, transgender persons…and let’s not forget prisoners.   “Such then is the human condition, that to wish greatness for one's country is to wish harm to one's neighbors.” ― Voltaire   Today the hot topic is immigrants and migrants. In our neck of the woods, this has been fueled by a Kent County murder case involving a previously deported immigrant.   Donald Trump was in Grand Rapids yesterday to fuel the fire. We already know how he feels about these people. He charges that many are criminals from prisons, and recently he accused migrants — many of them women and children escaping poverty and violence — of “ poisoning the blood ” of America with drugs and disease. He even claimed some

Forgiveness doesn’t come easy for the wrongly convicted!

Maurice Carter was a dear and gentle soul, and he carried no anger with him when released from prison after serving 29 years for a crime he did not commit. But he struggled with this idea of forgiveness.   He had a problem trying to forgive Wilbur Gillespie, who lied to police telling them that Maurice was the perp, in order to avoid major prison time for a drug arrest.   He had a problem trying to forgive off-duty police officer Tom Shadler, victim of the crime, who could not identify Maurice as the perp until two years later when his photo appeared with the notice of his arrest on the front page of the newspaper.   And I know he would struggle to forgive the crooked cops who framed him, an inept defense attorney who could have won, and the prosecutor who not only got a guilty verdict, but helped keep him behind bars for 29 years.   Years later, when I formed an organization called INNOCENT, which later became HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, Marcia asked me how many people I knew who