Friday, April 17, 2015

A lot of talk, not much else

It was probably the wrong day for me to attend a meeting.  I suppose the case could be made that I dislike attending most meetings most of the time.  But yesterday was different.

In just one day, our office dealt with a record number of communications from Michigan prisoners and/or their family members.  Among the 28 with whom we communicated, several needed help with seeking a commutation of their sentences, one claimed wrongful conviction, one is suing the system, one was having trouble with a bunkie (room-mate), one wants a letter written to a judge, one was just denied parole, one hoped for some re-entry information, one reported a bullying problem of older women behind bars.  And the list went on and on.  We couldn’t keep up with the requests, and by the end of the day Matt and I were catching our breath, still trying to find answers.

By evening it was time to head to Grand Rapids, where Crossroads Bible Institute was presenting a seminar on the effects of solitary confinement in our prisons.  An important topic.

As I rethink the whole meeting one day later, I am reminded of the saying that often is attributed to Mark Twain:  Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.  Substitute the word “weather” for “prisons,” and you’d have my thoughts exactly.

Lois DeMott of Michigan’s Family Participation Program gave first-hand accounts of the horrors of solitary confinement when mixed with mental illness. 

Natalie Holbrook of American Friends Service Committee gave alarming statistics about the Michigan prison system, the shameful number of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) beds, and the always-present issue of racial disparity.

Pete Martel of AFSC gave a first-hand account of a typical day in solitary.

A psychologist and former prison warden agreed that solitary confinement drives people crazy.

And after more than an hour of this, Rich Rienstra of Citizens for Prison Reform finally said:  “We’re hearing all the stories.  What is anybody doing about it?” 

No good answers.

A person in the audience asked, “Can you give me the name of one Michigan legislator who gets it, and wants to make change?”

They could not.

Finally, former Calvin Seminary President James DeJong, now a Crossroad volunteer, pointed out that the gospel of Jesus Christ can and does change lives.  At last, something that all these people could hang their hats on.  This was more in their comfort zone. 

So at the end of the day, participants in CBI’s international Bible study program felt good, I’m sure, and returned to their important work with prisoners.  But the rest of us continue to struggle:  Lois DeMott trying to help prison families to negotiate through our prison system one at a time;  Natalie and Pete struggling to change the system;  Rich and Carol Rienstra banging their heads against a stubborn State of Michigan wall;  and HFP down in the trenches holding hands with needy inmates.

James, the brother of Jesus, said in frustration:  Faith without works is dead.

Yet, the Bible study programs thrive.  And the rest of us keep trying to remind the faithful that this is the other half of prison ministry, and we’re not thriving.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

My Easter thoughts for prisoners

This is one of my favorite parts of the Easter story in the Bible, as told by Dr. Luke:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:  “Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Here was Jesus practicing what he had preached, in Matthew 25:  showing compassion to a prisoner. 

And that’s what he offers to prisoners today.  Doesn’t make any difference whether they are guilty or not.  Doesn’t make any difference if their past is checkered.  Doesn’t make any difference if they never darkened the door of a church. 

I’d especially like to pass along this Easter message to

-the prisoner whose heart was broken when he received divorce papers
-the prisoner whose wife fled with his kids, and he can’t find any of them
-the prisoner stabbed yesterday by a group of gang-bangers
-the mentally ill prisoner who was hog-tied for punishment
-the prisoner on dialysis who is still considered a threat to society by the Parole Board
-the prisoner who took it on herself to end years of domestic abuse, and is now serving life for trying to save her own life
-the prisoner who committed shameful acts while high on drugs and now cannot forgive himself
-the elderly prisoner who keeps getting robbed by predators
-the wrongly-convicted prisoner who now cannot find it in himself to forgive cops, prosecutor and judge
(add the name of a prisoner here, and his/her plight).

Songwriters Avery and Marsh put these powerful words to a delightful tune:  EVERY MORNING IS EASTER MORNING FROM NOW ON! 

Thank you, Jesus!

May all of us who are in one prison or another claim the message of the resurrection today.

Friday, April 3, 2015

From God's unending bag of surprises

Things like this continue to surprise me, even though, by now, I should be getting used to the most unusual ways God works.

This is the story of two wrongly convicted prisoners, from two different worlds.

Ed is 70, black, and not highly educated.

Mark is 20 years younger, white, and highly educated.

I met them both in the year 2009.  Edward was in a remote location in the Upper Peninsula.  Mark was in a Muskegon prison, right near our home.  Both had compelling stories, and neither belonged behind bars.

Ed was blessed to have the assistance of Toronto-based AIDWYC, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.  (Yes, that’s the way they spell defense in Canada.)  But, due to alleged insurance issues, the AIDWYC trustees decided that the organization would no longer handle cases outside of that country.  Ed was devastated.  He had been clinging to that hope for eventual freedom.  I am not an attorney, and HFP does not take on cases of wrongful conviction.  The best I could do was to console him, pray for him, and try to find someone else to help.

Eventually, he got transferred.  You guessed it:  to Muskegon.  That was in the fall of 2012.  Now the two were in the same facility.

I put a bug in Mark’s ear:  See if you can do something to help this guy.

Mark, a recent graduate from Prison Fellowship’s fine TUMI seminary program, did more than that.  He virtually adopted the man!  He helped organize all of his legal papers.  He wrote briefs for him.  He helped Ed apply to Innocence Projects.  And now, God be praised, it appears that a fine IP is keenly interested!  There’s new hope for Ed!

Ed can wonder why he ever got transferred to Muskegon, Mark can wonder why God allowed him to go to prison in the first place, both can wonder why I ever introduced them to each other, and I can go on wondering just how many times God is going to use this 78-year-old crooked stick to make things happen in the lives of prisoners.

Isn’t this just like God?

Especially during Holy Week, we shouldn’t be all that surprised.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy Week, not all that nice for many prisoners

I live in a broken world.  Many of my friends are behind bars, and for many of them life isn’t all that great. 

While visiting in a Muskegon prison last night, one guy came to me to thank me for trying to help, even though I had done absolutely no good.  He has torn something in his leg, and so he hobbles along in pain.  Not only can he not get adequate pain medication, he can’t persuade anyone to approve the necessary surgery to repair this injury.  God knows we tried, all the way to the regional prison doctor and the warden of the facility.  I don’t know what else to do for the guy but to pray.

During the prison service last night I sat next to a man I’ve been trying to help for years.  Other than finding him an attorney who cares and who is now working on his case, I have done very little for him.  His conscience has dictated some activity in prison that has been very beneficial to law enforcement.  In fact, he was promised that if he testified in a court case, efforts would be made to have him re-sentenced so that he would be able to see freedom.  Well, he provided the necessary testimony and the state got a conviction.  But, the state then reneged on its promise.  Years later, he’s still wondering when he’ll get that hope for freedom.  I don’t know what else to do for the guy but to pray.

This morning I received an email message from a man I know in another Michigan facility.  He just received divorce papers.  Needless to say, relationships are more than difficult to maintain when one partner is in prison.  I love the man.  I love his wife.  I don’t know what else to do for the guy but to pray.

All of this is on my mind on the Monday morning of Holy Week…a time when we remember that our Lord experienced the worst injustice of all, and eventually was wrongly convicted and executed.

It’s in his name that I’ll be praying for these friends and many more this week.

I know he’ll understand.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The judicial system still has flaws, Maurice!

71 years ago a child was born to a poor, African American family in Gary, Indiana, who was destined to change my life.

Things didn’t go all that well for Maurice Henry Carter.  As a young man he made the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, right here in Michigan.  Two years later he was arrested for a crime that had occurred while he was in Benton Harbor, based on the testimony of a lying jail-house snitch.  It was a crime he knew nothing about, certainly had not committed.  And from there, things continued to go downhill. 

-An eyewitness who later was hired to be a secretary in the Prosecutor’s office testified that she saw him running from the scene of the crime.

-The victim of the crime, who couldn’t identify his picture for two years, suddenly remembered that Maurice was the perp  after seeing his arrest picture in the newspaper.

-The Berrien County Prosecutor was hell-bent to put a black man in prison, because a white cop and been shot and injured.  A white cop who, later, would also come to work for the Prosecutor’s office.

Maurice never gave up, and during his 29 years behind bars he ran full-speed ahead trying to prove his innocence.  For the last decade of his years on earth, I joined that fight, and though my background was in radio broadcasting and church music, my focus changed and I’m still battling for prisoners.

Our friendship blossomed after our first encounter in 1994, and because of it he had renewed faith and optimism.  Because of it my family became his family.  Because of it this little-known indigent man from Gary became overwhelmed by support from all around the world.  He was never exonerated.  But all who met him and loved him knew that he was innocent.

It’s Maurice’s birthday tomorrow.  He died in 2004.  And I guess the simple message is that our organization, founded as his dream-child, still encounters the same kind of unfairness that he dealt with on a daily basis.

Just in the past two months, the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS was seriously crippled by not one, but TWO, two-week-long blockages of all email communication with all 500 of our Michigan inmate friends!  No warning.  No explanation.  Sorry.

Just in recent days, prison inspectors are picking all kinds of unreasonable excuses to censor HFP email messages to inmates:

Can’t use the phrase ASAP.  You’re writing in code!
Can’t check on the well-being of a prisoner on behalf of a worried relative.  Violation of some policy!
Can’t offer to send a prayer shawl to the dying mother of an inmate.  Danger to emotional health!

Besides all of that our coffers are empty.  Helping “the least of these” isn’t the most popular cause among the long list of charities.

But the promise that God is faithful is just as strong now as it was on that day 11 years ago when we whispered our final “I love you” messages to each other.

Maurice Carter---quiet, gentle black man from Gary, Indiana---is still touching lives.

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.