Thursday, October 8, 2015

I think she caught the drift

I was standing before a group of high school seniors, doing my best in trying to explain how we treat prisoners, and why.  I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to a young girl sitting in the front row.  Our eyes would connect for a minute.  Then she’d drift off.  Was I so boring she was falling asleep?  One never knows when trying to communicate with teens.

But then it was time for questions and answers.

From that young lady in the front row, as she thought back on my account of the Maurice Carter story which led me into this business:  “What was the connecting factor?  Why did you keep on going?  When you thought you had done everything you could for Maurice, why not just quit?”  My answer:  “Because something happened that I had not planned on…we became dear friends, and that changes everything.  You can’t just explain to a very close friend that you’re sorry, and you’re going to stop helping now.”

She seemed to understand.

And moments later, two related questions.  Number one:  “Do you believe that some people belong in prison?”  A quick response:  “Yes, of course.”  And then the heavy punch:  “For those people who really belong in prison, the persons who committed bad crimes, do you just tell them, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to help you?”  And my response was just as quick:  “No.  What we must remember is that incarceration is the punishment.  We have no right to inflict additional punishment.  If, for example, a prison doctor were to say to the inmate, ‘I’m not going to give you medication for your pain because of the nature of your crime…you’ll just have to suffer,’ we would go to bat for him or her.  If a prisoner, no matter how vile the misdeed, is being treated cruelly, we’ll extend compassion.”

This was a public school setting, so I couldn’t expound as I might when speaking to a church group.  The answers that I gave her were not only the philosophy of HFP.  They’re the heart of the gospel.  This is what Jesus did for Matt and me.  This is why we do what we do!

She smiled.

I think she got it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An open letter to women in Michigan prisons

There are about 43,000 people in Michigan’s state prison system.  This does not include people who are incarcerated in county jails, nor does it include those persons in federal prison facilities.  Of this 43,000, approximately 2,200 are women.  They are all housed in several buildings on one campus called Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in the city of Ypsilanti.  HFP has received and is still receiving a constant flow of complaints related to overflowing problems.  In response to these letters, telephone calls and email messages from both inmates and their loved ones, President Doug Tjapkes asked for and was granted a private audience with the new Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington.  Following the meeting, he penned this letter to the women at Huron Valley.  If you have a friend, relative or loved one at WHV, you are welcome to share this letter.

My dear friends at WHV,

For months we have been hearing your cries for help, your pleas for understanding, your simple requests for relief due to overcrowding issues.  As a result of this deluge of messages that arrived by mail, email and telephone, I requested a meeting with the new director of the MDOC, Heidi Washington.  I know that many of you had hoped that she would have been granted the Warden position at WHV.  I know that many of you had hoped to see miracles at WHV the moment she took office as Director.  In my opinion, she’ll be far more effective in this position.  And my simple advice is to give her a little time.

In preparation for the meeting, I felt totally inadequate to be raising your complaints. I would be voicing the issue as a man, totally unfamiliar with your environment, your issues, and your uniquely feminine needs and problems.  And so I decided that Ms. Washington should hear your voices.  I searched through the many pieces of communication, captured your words on print, and gave them to the Director as well as reading them to her.

On overcrowded conditions, she heard you say, In this 4-man unit there is no window, no desk, no chair, no trash can, no door-mirror or bulletin board.  It’s infested with ants.  Water runs down the wall when it rains, over an electrical outlet.

On inmate activities, she heard you say, I counted the chairs to sit in…we have 55 chairs for 180 women in our community place.  If we cannot find a place to sit we have to go back to our rooms.  In our rooms we have one chair, so one of us ALWAYS has to be on our bunks.  I eat, sleep, type, write, read, paint, crochet, watch TV on my bunk.

On delayed meals, she heard you say, 4 PM count, and still have not been down to lunch.  We’ll be having dinner at midnight!

On long visitation delays, she heard you say, Last Thursday in the visiting room 2 inmates were refused to use the restroom, resulting in them urinating on themselves.  There is several hours in between the inmates’ visitors leaving and the inmates being searched before they can return to their housing units.

On lack of programming availability, she heard you say, I am unable to get my recommended programming on time so that I can get out on my early release date, due to overcrowding.

My time was limited, so I couldn’t cover every problem, every issue.  But I want you to know that she heard you, not me!

And then came the reassuring words that I know you long to hear from the person at the top.

Re WHV:  That facility, and the women at WHV, have a very special place in my heart!

Re these complaints:  If they are legitimate, this is outrageous!

Re future action:  I’m overdue for a visit there.  It’s time that I get over there!

I’m writing this letter because I don’t want you to feel alone or unnoticed.

Matt and I, and our host of professional volunteers, are not magicians and we have no magic wand that will instantly solve your problems.  But we’re trying, and this was a huge step forward!

The Director is new on the job.  She’s savvy.  She has grit.  We think you’re going to see and feel change, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

Meanwhile, I’m convinced you are in her thoughts.

I know that you are in my prayers.

Even though hugs are not allowed on your property, here’s one by mail!

In Christ’s love,

Doug Tjapkes, President

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wrongful Conviction----It can happen to you!

It was a wrongful conviction case that got me into this business.  Radio broadcasting, my first and greatest love, was luring me back after a 20-year hiatus.  But then I met Maurice Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, sitting in a Michigan prison and claiming innocence.  That was in 1995.  The rest is history.

Until that time, na├»ve newsman that I was, I felt that prosecutors just wouldn’t get a warrant, an arrest and seek a conviction if they didn’t really have a case.  Little did I know. 

Today is Wrongful Conviction Day, being observed on an international basis.  The event was first organized by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (that’s the Canadian way to spell defense), based in Toronto and founded by former welterweight champ Rubin Hurricane Carter.  I frequently hear people say that all prisoners claim they are innocent.  Rubin Hurricane, on the other hand, told me when he was in Michigan drawing attention to the Maurice Carter case:  “When you hear a prisoner say he’s innocent, and he sticks with that story the whole time he’s in prison, you’d better listen!” 

Since that time, I have listened.  And I want to tell you something, as we observe this special day.  We hear the stories like those of Maurice Carter, and somehow we get the impression that it’s usually the poor, black people who usually wind up wrongly convicted…they have no funds for proper legal representation and they encounter racial bias among jurists and jurors.  While some of that is definitely true, the bigger truth is IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

I can tell you horror stories of wrongful convictions of a doctor, a lawyer, a cop, a banker, a businessman, a teacher…all of them white, and all of them with the means to hire good legal representation.  Yet, each of these people found themselves behind bars for a decade before adequate proof was established that they had done nothing wrong!  In a couple of cases, the innocent inmate died without exoneration.

There’s a special way that you can observe this day in Michigan.  Your state legislature is currently considering a bill that would compensate people who have been wrongly convicted.  You can make sure that your legislator votes for this bill, and you can keep an eye on Pure Michigan to ensure that these victims of wrongful conviction are promptly compensated without years and years of red tape wrangling.

Aside from that, join me in a prayer today for justice in our system, especially for those wrongly incarcerated.

Quoting the writer of Proverbs:  It is not good…to deprive the innocent of justice.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Pope behind bars: Leading by example!

Pope Francis provided a beautiful tutorial for religious leaders last week.  And really, for all people of all faiths.  Our pastors and rabbis and faith community leaders learned that it’s OK to talk about global warming, global economy, feeding the poor, and (gasp) caring about prisoners!  Nay, not only OK…but essential!

My heart was touched when he not only paid a visit to prison (as did our President recently), but took time to shake individual hands, and then to speak to the inmates. 

His message to prisoners was a simple one:

This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society. All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation. 

His message to you and me was equally as simple, and profound:

Jesus invites us to share in his lot, his way of living and acting. He teaches us to see the world through his eyes. Eyes which are not scandalized by the dust picked up along the way, but want to cleanse, heal and restore. He asks us to create new opportunities: for inmates, for their families, for correctional authorities, and for society as a whole.

Now it’s time for all of us, from all faiths, to follow that example. 

It’s time for church mission groups to remember that third world countries are not the only “fields ripe for harvest.”  It’s time for church prayer groups to be reminded that persons behind bars must be regularly included in the list of prayer concerns.  It’s time for church education leaders to remember to include leaders of prison ministries in their schedule of programs and speakers.  It’s time to remind deacons and finance officers that prison ministry also costs money.  It’s time to remind prison volunteer groups that only 15% of persons behind bars even receive a visit.  It’s time to remind pen pal programs that thousands of lonely inmates would appreciate a simple letter once a month. 

After all, says Pope Francis:

Life means "getting our feet dirty" from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed. All of us are being sought out by the Teacher, who wants to help us resume our journey. The Lord goes in search of us; to all of us he stretches out a helping hand. It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities. It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I held the door open!

In my car alone, returning from a brief prison visit, I reflected on the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  It’s near the end of the month, and we still haven’t even reached 50% of our budget.  Money is tight.

And I thought:  If only our supporters could have spent the last hour with me.
It was a big day at MCF.  But only for a few people.

On the surface, it was another routine day at Muskegon Correctional Facility.

When I arrived at 8:30 AM, a friendly corrections officer at the front desk asked if he could be of service.  I announced that I was there to welcome a friend who planned to walk out on parole.  He was puzzled, and informed me that I was probably at the wrong facility.  There was no one else in the lobby…there were no prisoners in the nearby holding area. He was aware of nothing like this on the schedule.

Meanwhile, it was just another morning at the prison.

A big State of Michigan bus rolled up.  A new inmate was arriving from another facility.  Another guy, in chains, was being transferred out.

A prison trusty was pushing a broom.  He wasn’t going to be set free today. 

A couple guards were joshing as staff members arrived for the day.

Then the word came:  Two guys were getting out!  And one of them was my friend Bernard.  Just then, Bernard’s sister and her husband arrived from the Detroit area to pick him and take him home.

For the sake of background, I should explain that Bernard has been in prison for nearly 40 years, and he was not wrongly convicted.  I met him a few years ago following a speaking engagement at this facility.  I told the story about Maurice Carter, and how my 10-year fight to free Maurice led me into this work.  As it turns out, Bernard and Maurice were friends, and he contacted me to tell his story. After reviewing his situation, it was very apparent that Bernard was more than prepared to re-enter a free society.  HFP did what we could to help.  I testified on his behalf at a public hearing.  And I promised him that, on that day that he stepped out into freedom, I would be there to hold he door open.

In contrast to the day that Maurice walked free, there were no media people…just one videographer who is producing a documentary about HFP.  And there was no big crowd. The welcoming committee consisted of Michelle, her husband, and me.

With an obvious sign of relief that this day and moment had finally arrived, Bernard stepped into the prison waiting room and into the open arms of his sister.  Then hugs all around.

He picked up one cardboard box containing all of his earthly possessions.  I raced to the front door of the Muskegon Correctional Faciliy: “I’m holding the door open for you, my friend.” For the first time in 39-plus years, Bernard walked into the sunny outdoors without chains or shackles, grinning from ear to ear!  We were the only witnesses.  If only others could have seen it and felt it!

Said documentary producer Dirk Wierenga: “This was an awesome moment!”

Said an emotional Bernard:  “I want to thank HFP for being at my side all the way!”

Said a weeping Michelle as she gave me a bear hug:  “Priceless.  Just priceless, what HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has done!”

Said Doug to himself:  “This is why Matt and I do what we do!”

Despite this month’s budget shortfall, experiences like this one make us rich, indeed.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Hate to say it: Hate ain't good!

I’m so sick of hatred!

We hear and read of it every day, and it’s toxic.

Tell me, with a straight face, that nothing, absolutely nothing, on this list makes you see red:

President Obama
Donald Trump
Hillary Clinton
Gays, Lesbians and Transgenders
Gun-toting cops
Gun control proponents
Anyone of a different color
Anyone who doesn’t speak English
Welfare recipients
Corporate CEOs
Especially sex offenders
Which means

And that’s just a list off the top of my head.  I know that you can add more.

To counter that, as we come to the end of this week, I offer two suggestions.

First, regardless of your feelings about the Christian faith, grab a Bible, or if you don’t have one just Google I Corinthians 13.  It’s time to re-read the words from St. Paul, a man who---prior to a dramatic change in his life---hated Christians so much that he supervised, participated in and witnessed their killings. 

I was taught to love this passage by an itinerant black preacher named Cy Young.  In his big voice, I can still hear him say:  “Douglas, I want to be able to give a good answer when my life is over and Jesus asks me what I did to improve our relations with white people.”  Cy had the gift of recitation, and his words from this passage have more relevance today than ever:

Love is patient
Love is kind
It does not envy
It does not boast
It is not proud
It is not rude
It is not self-seeking
It is not easily angered
It keeps no record of wrong-doing.

And second, if you’re within driving distance, make your plans now to attend a community discussion next Thursday, September 24, at 7 PM in Grand Haven’s Lakeshore Middle School.  Two beautiful people, Jennifer Thompson-Canino and Ronald Cotton will personally share their moving story, as told in their best-seller PICKING COTTON.  It’s a story that we need today more than ever---a story of love, and redemption, and forgiveness.

And please don’t grumble about the $25 ticket price.  All program expenses have been covered by a group of generous sponsors, so this money actually amounts to on-going support of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, which I am proud to say, extends compassion to a segment of society that feels hated and unwanted.  If you honestly cannot afford it, I’ll buy you a ticket.

I’ll plan to see you there.

…the greatest of these is love.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Who's gonna help these women?

In California, they’re reducing the number of prisoners.  But it took a Federal Court order to get the ball rolling.  Is that what it’s going to take in Michigan?  Nothing else has worked so far.

Michigan’s terribly overcrowded prison for women has been a best-kept secret by government and corrections officials.  We’re going to do our part to change that.

All female state inmates are housed in one prison:  Women’s Huron Valley Facility, in Ypsilanti.  There are actually two facilities in one, and together they currently hold approximately 2,200 inmates, and corrections officials told me last week that the number is going up. 

The reasons why the women’s prison population is increasing are worthy of a story, but we’ll save that for another time.  For now, we want to discuss the many ways women’s rights are being violated by the state prison system due to this overcrowded situation.

Our office is being inundated by complaints from prisoners, and we’ve been in this business long enough to know that these aren’t the “whiney-complainey” type people who always have a bitch.  These are our friends---nice, common-sense people who are trying to make the best of their situation.

The American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker organization, has a fine chapter here in Michigan.  After a lengthy investigation into this overcrowding business in Ypsilanti, the Michigan office last summer sent a strong four-page letter to the corrections department, state legislators, and even a copy to Governor Snyder.  I don’t know whether they ever received a reply, but I do know that the letter did no good.  Zilch! 

One year later, and reports are flooding into our office---

          -women have no place to sit
          -women have no room in their crowded cells
          -women have absolutely no privacy---ever
          -bunks moved into closets
          -bunks moved into TV rooms
          -bunks moved into activity rooms
          -some of these rooms have no windows
          -many of these rooms have poor circulation
          -some are infested with ants
          -some have leaky roofs
          -overcrowding problems make staff irritable
          -irritated staff members write more tickets
          -visitation by friends and family is affected.

In other words, it’s a living hell in there.  It’s to the women’s credit that they haven’t revolted, not that anyone would listen or care.

I’m in the process of preparing a front page for our October newsletter with actual quotes from prisoners and family members at Huron Valley.  I hope it gets widely distributed.  I pray that it gets some action.

It appears the new prison administration, our Governor and our state legislature have no plans to bring about change.  And if that is the case, perhaps it’s time to go to the courts.  I wonder which civil rights attorney would have the guts to start a class action suit for these deserving women? 

God’s children, created in his image, shamefully stacked like cord-wood in Pure Michigan.

It’s time for action.