Friday, July 24, 2015

July 24: A very special day!

The note in my pocket calendar on this date consists simply of two names---Matt and Maurice.  Both family members.

Matt is our youngest son, sometimes referred to as a tag-along because he came along so much later that his three older siblings.  He was born in 1978 when his parents already had passed the age of 40.  Today is his birthday.

Maurice’s full name was Maurice Henry Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, who also became family to us.  He was a wrongly convicted Michigan prisoner whom I met back in the 1990s.  Today is the day he walked out of prison, in the year 2004, after serving 29 years for a crime he did not commit.

As Maurice’s closest friend, I was there to walk out that prison door in Jackson with him.  As a cub reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune, Matthew was there in Jackson to cover the story.  In fact, it is his photograph that appears on the cover of my book which tells the Tjapkes/Carter story, SWEET FREEDOM.  Maurice is clasping his freedom papers in his upraised hands.

It’s fitting that Matt and I take a moment to reflect on this day, not just because we celebrate his birthday and the three months of freedom that Maurice enjoyed before we lost him, but also to marvel how God took the life of that dear man to shape the future for father and son.

It’s easy for me to see, in retrospect, that my careers as a radio broadcaster/journalist and then as a church organ salesman, were merely preparation for my final and most important occupation as an advocate for prisoners.  And it’s fascinating to see how, thanks to Maurice Carter, Matt’s career path made some zigs and some zags and he landed right here in the same business:  helping prisoners!

Together Matt and I handle communications with and requests from prisoners on a daily basis, 7 days a week, in addition to raising funds to support our meager budget, maintaining daily entries on social media, writing and publishing a monthly newsletter, coordinating efforts of some 50 professional people who serve us regularly in an advisory panel, and just plain working hard at touching the lives of Michigan prisoners one at a time in the name of Jesus.

On July 24, 2015, I am so thankful

-that Matthew became a member of our family
-that Maurice entered the lives of our entire family
-that the legacy of Maurice Henry Carter lives on through the vibrant ministry of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, with father and son at the helm!

Some son, that Matthew!

Some guy, that Maurice!

Some God, that master planner!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

That can't happen to me!

A person who has the means chose not to support our work this week.  That’s not so unusual…after all, our work really isn’t very popular.  But his reason sticks in my craw, and deserves a response.  Here’s what he told a member of our board:  I can write a book on the issues I have with prisons, legal system, overcrowding and any other issue someone in jail has BUT the biggest is just don't go to jail.

Here’s the problem I have with that.  The guy is really saying, “That couldn’t happen to me.  If people just lived the way I live, they wouldn’t wind up behind bars.”  And that is so sadly untrue.

While it is true that many of the inmates with whom we work are poor and didn’t have the means to hire good legal counsel, the wealthy are not exempt.  It may be true that it’s difficult for a rich man to get into heaven, based on Jesus’ words, but it’s certainly not hard for him to get into jail!

Let me just cite a few examples of people who, I am sure, probably thought the same thing:  That can’t happen to me.

I know of not one, but two TEACHERS, both exemplary Christian men, who were brought down by naughty little girls who concocted stories that juries believed.

I know of two BUSINESSMEN, both followers of the gospel, who were brought down by little girls and their scheming mothers.

I know of a PHYSICIAN who was physically unable to commit the crime for which he was charged brought down by a malicious patient and an equally malicious prosecutor.

I know of a BANKER whose wife was killed when she fell down the basement stairs, but who wound up behind bars because some cop was convinced that the man gave her a shove.

I know of an ATTORNEY who specialized in dealing with exotic coins who was falsely accused in a criminal scheme and spent much of her life behind bars.

All of these people didn’t have a worry financially.  All were able to hire good lawyers.  But police officers with tunnel-vision and voter-seeking prosecutors in an imperfect system put these innocent people in prison.

Here’s the thing.  You don’t have to support HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS if you don’t like what we do, or if you don’t believe that prisoners deserve to be treated like humans.  That’s between you, your conscience and your God.

But you hadn’t better say, “It can’t happen to me.”

The better choice might be, “There but for the grace of God…”     

Monday, July 13, 2015

An empty chair at the memorial service

Michelle’s teen-aged son will be buried today.  The boy’s father and grandparents will be there.  His mother will be absent.

I cannot begin to describe my emotions:  heartbreak, anger, disgust.  And I don’t even know Michelle! 

Here’s the story in a nutshell.

Our office received a message last week from the mother of a prisoner at the Women’s Huron Valley facility in Ypsilanti.  Her friend Michelle, age 44, learned that her 18-year-old son Josh had died unexpectedly at home due to an asthma attack.  A death in the family is a serious problem for prisoners…something, we believe, that must be improved in the future.

We followed the situation day by day, here’s the way it developed.

On the 7th, the day after the young man died, she was informed that she could be transported to the funeral home in the thumb area, accompanied by two officers, but she and her family would have to pay the tab:  $1,000 each way. 

On the 10th, we received a message that Michelle had found two off-duty officers willing to make the trip with her.

Then, later that same day, came this message:  The officers who were going to help Michelle have been mandated by the prison to work their regular shifts at the prison on Monday.  She wo't be able to go.  Her friends in the prison are showering her with love and sympathy.

I have difficulty accepting defeat, so I got up early this morning, summarized all of these messages, and fired off an email to one of our friends in the front office of the MDOC to ask if there was any way this grieving mother could still say farewell to her son at the 3 PM memorial service today.  And here is the response, verbatim:

I worked on this case most of Friday and unfortunately, we won’t be able to transport her today.  These funeral visits are based on the approval of the warden (which was received) and the availability of two trained staff members on voluntary overtime.  While one volunteer was located, the other volunteers could not be cleared for this assignment because they are on mandated overtime at the facility today.  As I’m sure you’ve heard, the facility is utilizing a significant amount of overtime right now because of our ongoing CO vacancies and as a result, it is difficult to find staff that are both eligible and willing to take voluntary overtime. While we ultimately had 3 staff people volunteer for the assignment, 2 could not be assigned because they were called in for mandated overtime today.  We simply don’t have the staff available to complete the funeral visit today, despite the best efforts of the family and the facility.

The name of our organization is HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  Giving our agency the name is one thing, but actually achieving humanity for prisoners is still another.  It’s easy to issue statements and cite policy.  It’s still another to hold the hand of a grieving mom.

I’m frustrated.  I'm angry.  I’m a parent and a grandparent. I’m hurting for Michelle.  I don’t know the answers, but I’m ashamed that my state couldn’t do better than this.  I find this completely unacceptable.

Thank God for the dear friends of Michelle behind bars who remain at her side.  May our Heavenly Father grant her peace in this difficult time, and enfold her in his everlasting arms.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

A happy holiday?

I love the Fourth of July, and I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade.

It’s important that we celebrate the birthday of this wonderful nation; fireworks, parades, and picnics…they’re all appropriate.

But it is important, as we pay tribute to the land of the brave and the home of the free, that not everyone in this land is free.  I’m going to give just a sample of some people who aren’t quite as enthusiastic on this Independence Day:

-Approximately 10% of all prisoners who have been wrongly convicted, due to flaws in our judicial system
-Many prisoners serving excessive sentences for non-violent crimes, due to such flawed programs as THREE STRIKES AND YOU’RE OUT
-Many women, victims of spouse abuse, who are serving excessive sentences for simply fighting for their lives
-Parolable lifers who are not getting another chance due to reluctant action by a Parole Board
-Former prisoners who, in some states, are not allowed to vote
-Many former prisoners who find that their record prevents them from getting jobs
-Many former prisoners who find life difficult because they are unable to get their names removed from poorly managed sex offender lists.

This doesn’t cover them all, but you get my point.

We would be remiss if we didn’t celebrate this wonderful day.

We would also be remiss if we showed no concern and no compassion for those who find it difficult to celebrate on the 4th.

May God help us, and be near them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Just another day? Not in a heart-beat!

It was a religious experience!  That’s the only way I can describe it.  And there were only five people in attendance. 

Let me explain.

As a full-time advocate for prisoners, I savor the opportunity to witness that rare occasion when an inmate steps into the free world.  My friend Joe Evans was due to be released from prison after 39 years behind bars. He has been serving a life sentence for a dastardly crime committed in his youth while high on drugs and alcohol.  Now, he’s a changed man.

Sensing that this might be a very special occasion, I invited videographer Dirk Wierenga to join with me.  Dirk is producing a professional documentary about the work and the mission of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  We were not disappointed.

The location for this little program was 3100 Cooper Street, Jackson, Michigan…right at the front door of the Cooper Street Correctional Facility. 

Joe is 61 now…his elderly mom and his cousin, who served as their driver, were on hand from the Detroit area to pick him up and take him home.

The prelude for this service is a discussion with a corrections officer at the front desk, who doesn’t have any idea what the inmate’s name is…he just knows his ID number.  And his main concern is that Dirk isn't carrying any telephone or photography equipment into the prison.  Other than that, he has little interest in the proceedings.

And then Part One of the ceremony:  Joe is warmly welcomed by his mother and his cousin.

Part Two (the one I particularly enjoy!):  Doug Tjapkes holds open the front door of the prison, as this dear man who spent two thirds of his life in prison, takes his first steps into freedom.

Part Three (which even tops Part Two!):  Joe puts down his footlocker containing all of his earthly possessions, and throws his arms around Doug, tears streaming down his face.  The bear hug seems to last forever.  There’s really no rush.  Words of thanks and gratitude and love.

Part Four:  When that hug is completed, Joe’s mother is next in line for a hugging session with Doug.

Part Five:  Joe is eloquent in this thanks to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS for our part in helping him to obtain this parole.  For the past five years we have been communicating, providing materials when necessary, holding his hand during health problems, speaking on his behalf in a Public Hearing, and finally welcoming him into society.  “HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is like the Red Cross for us in there,” says Joe.  “You are there to help when there’s no one else.”

Part Six:  Sweet departure, as Joe and his little family leave Jackson for home, a home-cooked meal, and a good-night’s sleep in a soft bed with lights out and sound turned off.

Said Dirk:  “It was a special day…one I will never forget!”

Back to my opening statement:  It was a religious experience!  No hymns were sung, there was no sermon, the only prayers uttered were silent ones, and the congregation totaled 5. 

Jesus was there.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Til death do us part

I played the organ for the memorial service of a good friend today.  While funeral services can be very sad and heartbreaking, that was not the case in this particular situation.

Jan, her husband, her kids and her grandchildren were all aware that her health was rapidly fading.  Her last days were beautiful because

            she had medical experts who kept her apprised as to what was happening
            she didn’t have to worry about excessive pain, thanks to hospice
            she was blessed to have compassionate professionals taking care of her needs
            she was residing in a warm, pleasant, comfortable atmosphere
            she was surrounded by family right down to her last living moments.

As I heard about this and thought about this during the service this morning, I must confess that my mind began to wander.  Because of my line of work---interacting with Michigan prisoners on a daily basis---my thoughts often drift to the plight of inmates.  Maybe you weren’t aware of this, but they are not much different from you and me and Jan.  They get sick in prison, too.  And while we try to obtain compassionate releases for the terminally ill so that they be afforded the same treatment that Jan received, we often fail.  In that case, they die in prison.  And the conditions just aren’t the same.

-Doctors may refuse to answer their questions, saying that’s not why they get paid.
-Healthcare may choose to deny pain meds if they’re not having a good day.          
-Compassionate professionals might be hard to find.
-The cold and impersonal infirmary isn’t remotely akin to “a comfortable atmosphere.
-It takes special permission to get a bedside visit for the terminally ill.  Ain’t no way that    the dying prisoner is going to be surrounded by family at the final moments of life.

One wife of a dying prisoner, with whom we worked, couldn’t even find her husband for two days just before his death…and no one would tell her!

For the past two years HFP has pressed for three things:  More compassionate releases for the terminally ill, more hospice-type care for those who are not released, and improved family visitation for the dying.

Our continued comments on these subjects, along with the repeated complaints of family members of dying inmates, seem to be falling on deaf ears.  That won’t happen if you get involved and place your suggestions before elected officials.  Do you know the names of your State Representative and your State Senator?  Contact them, as well as the Governor’s office.  

Then join us in a two-pronged prayer, for improvements in the system, and for peace for those who are dying behind bars.

Otto and Joe and Tricia and Fran deserve no less than Jan received.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Father's Day prayer

Father God,

On this special day honoring dads, we remember fathers and grandfathers whose hearts are heavy.

We pray for Mr. E, whose lavish life-style came to an abrupt halt when two evil families plotted a way to get their hands on some of his wealth.  Their little girls would tell stories about his fictitious behavior.  Cops, a prosecutor and a jury all believed their story.  Mr. E doesn’t live in his mansion any more, doesn’t drive any of his fancy cars, and doesn’t eat gourmet meals.  His life behind bars is hell.  And he won’t get any visits today.  His wife of 20 years went looking for someone else who could give her the good life.  And his two daughters, now parents themselves, don’t really want their kids to know anything about “naughty” Grandpa. There are hundreds more like Mr E, nay thousands, and we place their broken hearts before you.

We pray for Mr. B, an angry and an embarrassed father, who’ll be making the long drive to visit his son in prison today…but he’s not happy about it.  He can’t identify with all those tattoos and with long hair in a pony-tail.  In his days kids smoked cigarettes, not pot, and went to the barber shop twice a month.  But deep in his heart, he’s upset with himself.  Did he really have to work so many hours that he didn’t have time to go fishing with the kid, to drive him to little league, to attend the school play when he was the star?  Is it too late to try to communicate with the boy, to tell him he really does love him, to tell him that he really meant no harm?  Would it be too awkward to give him a hug?  There are hundreds more like Mr B, nay thousands, and we place their troubled hearts before you.

We pray for Mr. T, an elderly African American grandfather, who is no longer able to drive and who is hoping he can get a ride to the women’s prison.  His ancestors were slaves, and he still wonders just how much life has improved for some people of color.  His little grand-daughter was born and raised in the ghetto.  She was selling her body for drugs almost before she was out of puberty.  She became a single mom while still in her teens, thinking that she then might have something and somebody to love.  It didn’t work.  But Grandpa T wants to get to prison today to tell her how proud he is about her accomplishments in prison…getting her GED, helping the prison chaplain, playing music and singing hymns in the Sunday services.  It took time, but the prayers of her grandparents were answered.  She has a second chance! There are hundreds more grand-dads like Mr. T, nay thousands, and we place their tender hearts before you.

We offer this prayer on behalf of all fathers and grandfathers in prison, and/or who are parents of kids in prison.  And we do so in the name of your son, whose short but profound life and ministry on this earth now offer hope for an eternal Father’s Day where the celebration will never end and where there’ll be no pain and sorrow.