Friday, September 12, 2014

The shame of wrongful convictions

The words “wrongful conviction” were an unfamiliar phrase to me until 1995. That seems strange when one considers that I spent nearly 30 years in and out of broadcast newsrooms. But events that began in 1995 dramatically changed my life. And that is why, when contacted by my dear friend Win Wahrer from AIDWYC, I immediately responded with HFP support for what is being called WRONGFUL CONVICTION DAY. This informal day will be observed on October 2, and it prompts me to make a few comments about this sad subject.

My life was never the same after I developed a friendship with the late Maurice Carter, a dear soul who claimed wrongful conviction. For the next 9 years I joined him in a battle for freedom. The story is now told in a book called SWEET FREEDOM, and in a stage play called JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

Here are some staggering statistics that you should be aware of.

Years ago, a study in Ohio determined already back then, that some 10,000 innocent people were convicted every year in the United States!

A recent study estimates that about 4% of the people on death row in the U.S. are innocent!

Our attorney friend Jim Samuels, who helped free a guy thanks to DNA testing, reports that 320 prisoners have been freed by these scientific tests which proved their innocence!

Here’s the thing we’re forgetting: These are not numbers; they are people…real live human beings very much like you and me.

I’m among a small group who can attest to this first-hand.

My friend, who later became my brother, served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. There was no biological evidence for DNA testing to clear him. There wasn’t any evidence to convict him, either…but that made no difference. I was a personal witness to some of the shortcomings of our judicial system.

Another friend, for whom I later served as spiritual advisor, was not only wrongly convicted in the State of Texas, but also wrongly executed. My essay, describing the murder by the state that I witnessed, made the front page of a special section of the Grand Rapids Press.

These two experiences were life-changing. I share them, not to boast. I am just ashamed that the system in this wonderful country cannot do any better than that.

So here’s the strong reminder. When reading statistics, remember that we’re talking about sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

As we observe WRONGFUL CONVICTION DAY on October 2, please join me in asking God forgive us for our shortcomings, and seeking God’s blessing and guidance in helping to bring about change.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Water torture is real

We’d like to shed a little more light on the subject of water, and how it is sometimes used to torment and abuse mentally challenged Michigan prisoners…and not just women.

I hope you read the MLive story, written by a reporter for the Ann Arbor News, outlining alleged abuse of two female inmates at the women’s prison in Ypsilanti. One of the claims was water deprivation.

First you should know what the American Bar Association has to say about food and water deprivation: Correctional authorities should not withhold food or water from any prisoner.

I guess the staff at the women’s prison doesn’t feel these guidelines apply, because here’s what the mother of one of those inmates told me today: “Chief Christine Wilson (head of the acute unit) said they can keep food away for 24 hours and water for 3 or 4 days. She said that they can do that when a person is in segregation.” 3 or 4 days?!

But stuff like this has been going on for years.

Some ten years ago my friend Mary Ann reported that her mentally challenged brother was placed in segregation on a hot summer day by prison guards. And then, just to enhance the punishment, they turned off the cold water. All he had in his cell was hot water.

Shutting off water in a prisoner’s cell falls within state policy, but the policy goes on to say that inmates must be given water from time to time. Lois DeMott, mother of a young man who had been struggling with mental issues while in prison, says, “The problem is, water is not provided then according to policy.” She cites stories about her son as proof.

Who can forget the tragic account of Timmy Souders who died, chained to the prison floor, on a sweltering summer day in a Michigan prison? That was back in 2007. The feature on 60 Minutes can still be seen on-line.

DeMott, now coordinator of the Family Participation Program for Michigan prisons, flatly states that these detestable practices continue to occur in all segregation units in Michigan facilities. She contends that it is “normal practice” by some officers who, she says, “think their walls are so high they can get away with it.” And one of the reasons is that, so far, they have gotten away with it.

That’s precisely why we fed the ACLU these shocking details from Ypsilanti, and that’s precisely why the letter was written. It was time for us to stand up and be counted.

ACLU attorneys will be meeting with the Director of the MDOC on the 15th.

Think we’ll see any change?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Where have the media been?

Numerous articles have been written about the humorous epitaphs found on gravestones in cemeteries around the country. One of my all-time favorites is: I told you I was sick!

That’s the way it has been with this troubling issue of abuse of mentally ill inmates at Michigan’s prison for women in Ypsilanti.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has been aware of it for months. We have media people who read our dispatches, watch our blog and receive our newsletter. Yet, no one saw the news value of this outrage.

As early as May of this year we started dispatching troubling reports on our daily email network. We were getting these reports directly from inmates who had witnessed the abuse. Reporters wouldn’t bite.

For the month of June we dedicated the front page of our newsletter to these abuses, and encouraged our supporters to spread the word. Nobody in the media picked up on it.

On July 29, armed with ammunition provided by HFP, the ACLU sent a scathing 5-page letter to the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and the prison warden. HFP immediately issued a news release to that effect. No news in our papers or on the TV.

Finally, Kyle Feldscher of the Ann Arbor News, obtained a copy of the ACLU letter (more than a month after it was written), and the story made front page news yesterday. Screamed the headline: WATER DEPRIVATION, HOG-TYING OF MENTALLY ILL INMATE, AMONG COMPLAINTS AT PRISON NEAR ANN ARBOR.

Yep, we’ve been telling you the system is sick, boys and girls in the media. This is a news story. A big one. Finally someone listened.

Exposure of these alleged atrocities could very well make a huge impact.

We’re praying for positive results.

We’re praying for the victims of this abuse, also.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

One person CAN make a difference!

It wasn’t that Ms. S wanted to get even. She just wanted to be able to sleep at night.

Ms. S had a prison job as a volunteer. She was assigned to be an observer in a unit where mentally ill prisoners are housed. Some may be suicidal, and the state wants to catch the problem before it worsens. The Michigan Department of Corrections says that this program has been quite successful.

But in the case of Ms. S, she claims that she witnessed atrocities that should not have happened. A woman of faith, she takes her Christianity seriously and felt that she could no longer remain silent when mentally ill prisoners were being abused. Besides that, those visions of evil-doing kept her awake at night.

And so she spoke out, not only in the prison system, but to sources outside the prison. Retaliation was predictable and swift. She lost her coveted job as a volunteer. Her communications were monitored. Prison life became difficult. But Ms. S was not to be deterred.

She had witnessed shameful treatment of two mentally ill inmates, and daily she fed her information to outside contacts. One woman was actually hogtied, and left that way “until she could learn to behave.” Another was denied a sip of water until she was so dehydrated she could no longer drink. The second victim was given drugs to sedate her, but even after she was unconscious a nurse continued the injections. Eventually the inmate was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Life support has now been removed, and word is that she will not survive.

Ms. S not only detailed these atrocities in daily dispatches, but persuaded other volunteers to sign on. We have in our possession clumsy affidavits on bits and pieces of paper signed by additional courageous volunteers who dared to stand up and be counted.

For weeks nothing happened, as the HFP office continued to stir the pot behind the scenes. But then came some movement. The ACLU, with co-signers from the U of M Law School, sent a scathing 5-page letter to the director of the MDOC as well as the prison warden demanding changes and requesting an immediate meeting. Ammunition for this letter was provided by HFP. In addition, our office filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding these alleged 8th Amendment violations: cruel and unusual punishment. This week, according to inside sources, the DOJ was to make an appearance at the prison in Ypsilanti. As a third step, HFP consulted with legal counsel in hopes of initiating legal action on behalf of a victim's family.

If the state will not listen to the voices of the little people, perhaps it will take note of the collective voices of the DOJ, the ACLU and the U of M. Perhaps the threat of legal action will get some attention.

There will be changes in the way mentally ill women are treated in prison. You can bet on it.

We can all learn an important lesson from this. Silence is not an option when we witness wrong-doing. One person can make a difference.

Perhaps, in between psych-therapy sessions, our whistle blower, Ms. S, would have time to take a bow.

She deserves it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Was Jesus joking?

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

It was an informal setting, and I was doing my usual grumbling about the way man treats man. Matt and I never cease to be amazed at the way human beings treat fellow human beings while they are in prison. I was complaining about prisoners preying on elderly sex offenders. Unscrupulous guards looking the other way when alleged violent criminals get brutally beaten by fellow inmates. The callous decisions by the state to punish some inmates by sending them to far-away facilities in the U.P., making it prohibitive for family and friends to visit.

And that’s when my friend said, “Really? Even when you know the person is guilty of an evil, horrific crime? I can see it for those who have been wrongly convicted, for those who have received an unfair and lengthy sentence. But do you really feel that way for the ‘worst of the worst?’”

Yes, I do, for two reasons: one non-religious, and one religious. Number one, the constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment. In other words, incarceration is the punishment for the alleged crime. We may not add to that. And number two, Jesus insists that the way we treat our prisoners is the way we treat him. Take a look at the top of this article, where we quote his words in Matthew 25. I don’t see any way around it, do you?

And yet, my friend and many other Christian people just can’t get their minds around this subject.

The same holds true for criminal defense. I know that some Christian people say to defense attorneys who represent persons who have committed heinous crimes, “I don’t know how you sleep at night!” When the real statement should be: “If we didn’t guarantee constitutional rights to every person charged with a crime, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

This is not some radical position of liberal, bleeding hearts. It comes straight from holy scripture. The Bible just doesn’t give us any “wiggle room:” Remember those in prison as if you were together with them…

There but for the grace of God…

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What will YOU do about it?

Michigan State Representative Joe Haveman, Republican from Holland, was addressing 75 people keenly interested in sentencing and Parole Board reform. The Michigan primary election had been held earlier the same week.

"How many people here voted on Tuesday?" Among the 75, a paltry few hands went up.

"Before you voted, how many of you met with the candidates to find out their views on prison issues?" One hand went up.

And there, boys and girls, is the problem.

75 people, all in the same room, demanding reform, and nobody doing anything about it.

There are a few very simple facts that you can discuss with your state legislators.

-One of every five dollars in our state general fund budget goes to corrections: more than any other state!

-Michigan keeps people in prison longer than any other state!

-Michigan's Parole Board in many cases has taken over the role of judge, and is greatly responsible for our prison over-population!

The big question isn't what HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is going to do about it. Or CITIZENS ALLIANCE ON PRISONS & PUBLIC SPENDING. Or CITIZENS FOR PRISON REFORM. Or MICHIGAN COUNCIL ON CRIME AND DELINQUENCY.

The question is what YOU will do about it!

Our only hope for reform is by responsible legislation. Legislators as well as the Governor are elected to office. They listen to voters, but only if voters speak up. If you do not go to the polls, and you do not speak to your elected officials, you're simply going to have to remain silent. You're not cooperating. You're not helping. You're part of the problem.

Let's made a decision today to make a difference. List the three points mentioned above in your missive to elected officials, demand an opinion, request action, and express outrage.

Prisoner advocacy agencies in this state are working hard. Now it's your turn.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Still learning from Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams saddens me, in many ways. I’ll miss his incredible talent, his delicious humor. But the thing that saddens me the most is that his life didn’t have to end this way.

I hesitated before writing this entry, because it’s very personal and it really doesn’t have a lot to do with my work with prisoners. Except that I’m still here doing it at age 77, and still loving life to the fullest.

My simple message: depression is curable. And, pious and simplistic bits of advice are not the answer.

During my two-year bout with depression in the mid-90s, well-meaning people had quick advice, like, “Just trust in the Lord.” Well, I had never stopped trusting in the Lord, but I was afflicted with a disease. In one of the Homecoming videos, Gloria Gaither encourages those with depression to sing a song about Jesus. I’ll grant you that music was incredibly soothing to me during this difficult time. But it wasn’t the cure.

I find this quite amazing: We quickly run to the doctor when we experience serious physical problems. We won’t even put up with a prolonged bellyache. There’s gotta be a cure. But when we have a mental problem, there’s a stigma attached. We’re reluctant to admit that our mind is ill and that we need a doctor. Instead, we think we’ll tough it out. What a serious mistake.

Just like with physical problems, it may take a while to find the right professional to get to the root of the problem. A well-meaning minister sent me to a Christian counselor. Our chemistry didn’t blend at all, and my condition worsened. I went to another, and he made me angry. No healing there. But finally, thanks to some divine intervention, I connected with the right therapist. I called Marcia on my cell phone after the first visit, with a simple message: “I’m going to get better!”

It’s no shame to experience depression, any more than it’s a shame to have a headache. Stories do not have to have a tragic ending like that of Robin Williams.

The psalmist says: “…weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

May we learn from today’s sad news report. There are qualified professionals to help us deal with depression. But they can’t help us if we don’t seek it.

Depression is curable. I’m a living example.