Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When our prisoner emails get blocked, do we turn the other cheek?

Jesus was such a radical!  In my devotions this week he was saying, Love your enemies…pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.         

I’m really struggling with that today.

As the leader of an agency trying to follow the Matthew 25 admonition to show compassion to prisoners, I honestly believe that some officials on the state payroll are doing what they can to thwart our efforts.  Witness this:

On February 5, our email service to some 500 prisoners gets blocked without warning or explanation for 12 days.

On March 13, it happens all over again…no email communications allowed between 500 prisoners in the State of Michigan and me.  As of today, still not fixed!

Since the first of February, almost all email communications between Michigan’s prison for women in Ypsilanti grinds to a halt. Messages started resuming in recent days, but they had been sent nearly a month ago.

And that prompts me to ask:  Should we respond with a sledge hammer, or should we turn the other cheek?

I’m still not sure.  Trying to model Jesus doesn’t always mean being a softie.  We saw him lovingly holding little kids on his lap.  We saw his deep compassion toward a woman accused of infidelity.  On the other hand, we saw his temper when he kicked the money changers out of the temple and we heard it in his voice when he called Pharisees “sons of hell.”

We’ve tried responding in a calm and respectable manner.  We are working quietly and patiently with a representative of the MDOC who has been helpful, and our conversations have been business-like.  In addition we have filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act, hoping to find out how this email disruption occurred, and why.

Here’s where I’m coming from (today at least):  I can and will pray for people who operate and work in the Michigan Department of Corrections.  But I feel that we cannot stand idly by, with our hands in our pockets, when certain forces seem to be intent on hampering our work.  As long as I’m running this outfit, I’m going to insist that our goal never change or be compromised!  And that goal, simply stated, is to extend compassion to prisoners in the name of Jesus. It’s what we’ve always done.  We have no intention of giving up.

Pastor Nate reminds me that little David had more than just a few stones with which to attack Goliath.  He had an extra weapon in his arsenal that the enemy just didn’t have. 

If what we do is “Jesus work,” as I label it, standing in its way might not be such a good idea, or all that successful.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On saving animals, caring for prisoners

This is Albert Schweitzer’s premise, and I agree with it:

Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.

And I have no problem with wanting to rescue dogs, or to save whales and elephants.  There appears to be a huge majority of people who not only care about our wildlife, but who are willing to put their money where their mouth is.  Click on these worthy causes, and you’ll find big agencies with wide appeal and fat checkbooks.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, on the other hand, focuses on disenfranchised people, and that subject isn’t nearly as popular.

Witness the discussion at our Board of Directors meeting yesterday.  “Maybe we’ll have to just level with our supporters and explain that a lack of funds will mean a severe reduction in our services to inmates.”  “Our appeals are getting stale.”  “How can we put a new spin on our work, to touch the heartstrings of the public?”  The problem is staring us in the face:  We’re broke!

I don’t know how to put a new spin on trying to help a prisoner with Parkinson’s Disease to get an appointment with a neurologist;  or trying to help a mentally retarded senior citizen who is being terrorized by young prisoners;  or trying to help a mentally ill woman who has been cruelly abused by prison staff;  or trying to help an inmate with limited writing and spelling skills in filling out his commutation application form;  or trying to assist a mother behind bars in finding her long lost daughter.

I have a hard time figuring out how goals like this can sound appealing to generous donors and foundations:  Seeking improved hospice-type care and bedside visits for prisoners dying alone in cold and lonely infirmaries;  seeking compassionate releases for terminally ill inmates thus allowing them final, dying moments with family and friends;  working toward changes in our judicial system that puts women away for life after they finally take action to end years of domestic abuse;  begging for reforms that would obtain release for deserving paroleable lifers;  and seeking parole reforms that would let other agencies care for seriously ill geriatric prisoners.

Perhaps Matt and I could take a course or attend a seminar to figure out how to put a Madison Avenue “spin” on these unpopular efforts.  Perhaps.  But that would take us away from the work that we feel is so very important.

HFP is adding one new Michigan prisoner per day to the list of inmates we are helping!  Our assistance is sometimes limited, but our presence is so appreciated by those behind bars!  I call it “Jesus work.”  It’s lonely down here in the trenches, working one-on-one with these deserving and needy people.  And if we can’t figure out some way to unlock pocketbooks it’ll be even more lonely. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On the importance of humble pie

I don’t eat it very often.  Perhaps I should word that differently:  I don’t eat humble pie often enough!

I was giving a speech to a group of senior citizens at Aquinas College, telling of some of the horrors that go on behind bars in the Michigan prison system.  When she got the opportunity, a very pleasant woman raised her hand and explained that she has a son who is a corrections officer.  She went on to say that he has a college degree, is a beautiful Christian person, takes his job seriously, and does his very best to take care of prisoners in a proper and appropriate fashion. 

It was a message I needed to hear.  In our work, we deal with numerous inmates who have suffered from cruel and abusive treatment.  There’s no excuse for it, and those state employees engaged in such behavior deserve strong reprimand.  But they do not represent all Michigan prison staffers, many of whom are doing their very best every day in a very thankless position. I must strive to make this clear in my presentations.

The same holds true for prison wardens.  We have had some unpleasant experiences at Michigan prisons that I feel can be traced right up to the top official in the building:  the warden.  But we must be careful not to paint a picture of all wardens with that brush.

I have had personal dealings with the two prison wardens that serve the three facilities in Muskegon.  Warden Mary Berghuis is in charge of both Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility and West Shoreline CF.  Warden Sherry Burt is in charge of Muskegon Correctional Facility.  I think they’re tops!  In my opinion, with wardens like this at every facility we’d have drastically fewer problems.

An upstanding Christian inmate who shares thoughts with me on a rather regular basis and who has worked personally with both wardens agrees with me:  These women have heart!

I bring this up under the topic of humble pie, because I recently let a misunderstanding between staff members at Muskegon Correctional Facility and me escalate into something that turned out to be a non-issue.  Said Warden Burt to the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS:  “Why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?”

One more slice of humble pie, please.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Looking for answers

Since we began offering assistance to prisoners in 2001, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has made remarkable strides right here in the State of Michigan!

Now with two full-time staffers and an advisory panel of 50 attorneys, doctors, ministers and other professionals, HFP is providing services such as these at a rate of 150-200 times a month---

          Obtaining legal and medical opinions
          Finding long-lost relatives and loved ones
          Assisting in preparation for Parole Board visits or Public Hearings
          Helping to properly fill out commutation application forms
          Vetting names of attorneys under consideration
          Placing inmates in touch with the correct agency for further assistance.

In recent years we have expanded on these unique services by

          Conducting in-prison seminars on the above subjects plus anger management
          Offering gospel concerts by our SWEET FREEDOM music team.

Our work, extending ACTION WITH COMPASSION, couldn’t be more vibrant at the moment!  I often refer to it as “Jesus work,” as rooted in Matthew 25.

And that raises the question:  Why is the Michigan Department of Corrections obviously trying to slow down or hinder our ministry?

Witness these unusual developments in the past 6 weeks---

-Email service through JPay was disconnected from February 5-18.  The MDOC explained that the blockage was “inadvertent,” and apologized for any inconvenience.

-Since the first of February, there has been NO email service to some 100 women in the Michigan facility at Ypsilanti.  So far, no explanation from JPay or the Prison Warden.

-Periodically email messages are still being mysteriously censored with no explanation other than that a department policy or law has been violated, and if no violation was found the reason is simply listed as “other.”

-Yesterday I was informed that, as the President of HFP, I can either continue to  provide programs and concerts at Muskegon Correctional Facility or I can continue to email MCF inmates, BUT NOT BOTH!  The prison Inspector has determined that this would be a violation of policy.  Yet, right next door, at Brooks Correctional Facility, I am quietly encouraged by the Warden to do all of the above!

One would think that any agency trying to make life a little brighter for inmates would be welcomed by the department.

One would think that with the multiple problems of housing more than 40,000 prisoners, the advocacy on behalf of inmates by HFP would be the least of their concerns.

Are we missing something?

In the New Testament book of James I’m advised to “count it all joy” when faced with trials and tribulations.

I’m having a hard time seeing it that way.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

On prisoners, and saying "Thanks!"

My mother taught me a valuable lesson, and she did it by modeling.  She always took time to say “thank you.”  And she didn’t do it in some trite manner, as if it were an after-thought.  She took the time to send a note of thanks on pretty note paper.  She dropped off a freshly-baked coffee cake.  She made a personal visit.  Her expressions of gratitude were genuine.

In my devotions, I love reading the gospels…I like the Jesus stories.  I’m totally amazed that, even though crowds swarmed around him begging for healing, he never got sick of it.  Never sent them away saying he’d done enough healing that day.  And then there came the ten lepers.  Only one of them returned to say, “Thank you.”

HFP Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I got another “prison fix” this week, and it reminded me of some of those Bible stories.  150 men in the room, all of them with needs, all of them wanting help.  But here’s the thing that really touched me:  They first expressed thanks!

It was a meeting of the National Lifers Association chapter in Muskegon Correctional Facility.  I was to give an overview of HFP and the assistance that we attempt to offer, and Dan, a clinical psychologist, was to discuss anger management.  After our presentation, the floor microphones were turned on and the men were allowed to ask questions.

For me, there were all kinds of needs:  help for a prisoner who is dying, help getting medical care, help in filling out commutation application forms, help getting fresh air in a prison unit, help in pursuing an alleged wrongful conviction.  The list went on and on.  And for Dan, more assistance in working with anger management behind bars.  Insisted one inmate, hoping to persuade Dan to come back for a workshop:  "We need it here!"

But here’s the thing.  Every man, before seeking help, expressed thanks!  Thanks for helping brother Maurice Carter.  Thanks for writing your book. Your appearance tonight was a God-send!  Thanks just for caring.  Thanks for taking of your personal time to come here.  And the words and demonstrations of gratitude continued until the moment we walked out of the prison auditorium.  Frequent bursts of applause.  People waiting in line just to shake the hand of a caring individual.  Bear hugs from old friends.  Tears.  Laughter.  Promises for the future.

It was a prison fix that Dan and I desperately needed.  HFP is in serious financial trouble.  In my dark moments, it feels like we’re sinking.  It gets difficult to see the sun for all the dark clouds.

And then, in a single hour-and-a-half session, I realize that shutting down isn’t an option.  And for that message, it’s time for me to say to our hundreds and thousands of friends behind bars:  Thank you!

God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say 'thank you?'

Thursday, February 19, 2015

For Black History Month: A tribute to 3 blacks who colored my life!

Mattie Davis

In 1954, this little Dutch teenager began his first part-time radio job at station WMUS in Muskegon.  To this point in my life, I had attended an all-white Dutch church and an all-white private Dutch school.  Imagine the culture shock each Sunday morning when I expected to unlock the front door of the radio station to let in the singers of a black gospel quartet called the Heavenly Echoes.

The manager of this all-male ensemble was a dynamite little African American woman named Sister Mattie Davis.  One of my first lessons from her involved prayer.  I was used to all the Christian clich├ęs that I had heard in my circles all of my life.  Not so when Sister Mattie Davis offered her prayer on the radio every Sunday morning.  Despite serious racist issues back in the 50s, she would earnestly plead for the safe-keeping of first responders:  “the policemens and the firemens!” 

Sister Mattie Davis, and her prayers, touched my life.

Cy Young

In the early 1970s someone contacted me at my radio station, WGHN in Grand Haven, and asked if I would like a guest on my talk show in observance of Black History Week (It was only a week back in the 70s).  I quickly agreed, and a towering, handsome black dude showed up driving a car that looked like an accident waiting to happen.  He introduced himself as Cy Young, former entertainer and emcee, now a pastor.  He claimed to have the gift of recitation, and had memorized all of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches!

It was a powerful, memorable radio broadcast, and it led to a friendship that lasted until Cy’s death.  He not only recited the words, he walked the talk.  He lived Dr. King’s message.  Our relationship led to multiple multi-racial experiences in my life.  I loved the man!

Cy Young made an incredible impact on this young broadcaster and musician.

Maurice Henry Carter

I first met Maurice in the mid-1990s, an indigent African American from Gary, Indiana, serving a life sentence in the State of Michigan for something he said he didn’t do.  I worked side-by-side with him for the next decade to free him and to prove that the state was wrong.  During that time we became brothers, and my family became his family. 

To my dismay, we never cleared his name.  Over the years a large team was amassed to help Maurice, but the best we could do was obtain a compassionate release for him in 2003 because he was suffering in the late stages of Hepatitis C.  He died three months after he walked out of prison.

In Black History Month, 2015, I would be remiss if I did not pay tribute to these three wonderful people of color.  I thank God that, in his plan for my life, he arranged these amazing acquaintances!  Now my life is filled with people of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.  How rich I am!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

It was a dirty trick! And it hurt!

The dirty trick was performed with a two-edged sword by the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

EDGE ONE cut off all email correspondence between HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS and nearly 500 inmates in the Michigan prison system.  In order for inmates to communicate with us, I must first open an account by sending an email message to an inmate.  Once the prisoner receives that message, he/she may begin conversing with me by email through an on-line service called JPay.  On or about February 5, my name was mysteriously removed from the email account lists of ALL our friends.  This effectively cut off all email communications between us!

EDGE TWO removed all previous email messages from the mailboxes of these prisoners.  ALL previous correspondence, dating back to the beginning of our conversations!  This includes important legal information, sometimes actual legal documents, medical information, personal information.  It’s all gone!

This action by the state came without warning or advance notice.  We first got wind of the embargo when confused inmates and their families starting calling the office.  The confusion soon turned to hurt and anger.  One dear man, 60 years of age, still hoping to get a parole on a 30-50 year sentence, thought I had shut him down.  He had just asked a simple question by email, and the next day my name was off his list.  His heart was broken.  He couldn’t sleep.  What had he done to hurt my feelings?  Others were angry, blaming wardens for shutting us down.  But it wasn’t the fault of local wardens.  The action was taken in Lansing.

How many prisoners does this affect?  Well, we have nearly 400 men on our email account list with JPay, and nearly 80 women. 

Will they still be able to communicate with HFP?  Yes, but it must be done through regular snail mail which is cumbersome and slow.  Due to problems with some prison mail rooms, snail mail delays for days and even weeks are not uncommon.  Email was cheap and it was fast.  10 cents a letter, and instant communication.

So yes, it was a dirty trick by the MDOC, an entity that apparently does not have to provide answers if it doesn’t feel like it.  And yes, it hurt.  It hurt those of us trying to extend compassion to inmates on a daily basis.  And it hurt prisoners like Clarence, who thought we just arbitrarily pulled the plug on him.  It hurts others like those who contacted our office just in the past week asking us to help in a case of abuse of a mentally ill inmate, asking us to check into the death of a prisoner who may not have received appropriate treatment, asking us to help fill out a commutation application form, asking us to help in getting a gluten-free diet, asking us to help find re-entry resources in a certain part of the state…and the list goes on and on.  It’s what we do.

Other prisoner advocacy agencies are watching.  If it can happen to us, it can happen to them.  Some are distancing themselves, and that hurts, too. 

We may be small, but the God we serve and in whose name we do this work, is mighty!  As Matt said, “Did they think we would just accept this and shut down?”  It ain’t gonna happen!

We need your support and your prayers as we begin serious talks with our legal counsel next week.

Romans 8:31.