Starry Morning

Good morning! It’s 5AM in Panama . . . when I usually am up and writing my blog . . . sitting in my flannel shirt and drinking Diet Coke. The Boquete coffee comes later . . . when I can savor my home grown coffee. The Diet Coke is just to pour caffeine into my system.

Life starts early in Chiriqui. Work starts at 7AM I guess because we are primarily an agricultural province. And in the rainy season it will often start to rain in the early afternoon, so you need to get as much as possible accomplished before the rain begins.

At 5AM it is pitch dark in Panama. I rolled over in bed this morning and looked out the windows that surround our bedroom and it was a clear morning with no moon and the stars were absolutely awesome! It was like being in a planetarium! Absolutely stunning!   Plus the orange and lemon trees are blooming and in the cool morning air it smells like living in a perfume factory.

All I could think of this morning  was Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting.

There are actually two Starry Night paintings . . . there is also this “Starry Night Over The Rhone” as well . . .

I enjoy watching the stars on clear Panama mornings . . . and I enjoy it not just for myself, but on behalf of my friend Brandon Hein  as well. Brandon has been in prison in California for 21 years for a crime nobody says he committed. Brandon, like a whole lot of 18-year-olds was guilty of drinking underage, smoking some pot, and getting into a fight . . . that’s it!  One of the boys he went to buy pot with had started the brawl and in the process the other boy stabbed another kid in the fight. The other kid who was acting as the drug dealer’s “body guard” was the son of an LAPD officer and ended up dying of his stab wound. The LA District attorney had just lost the OJ case, had been embarrassingly unsuccessful in charging Michael Jackson with sexually abusing boys, and had been forced to retry the case of the Menendez brothers, went after all of the boys who had come to buy drugs with a vengeance, charging all of the boys with felony murder. Initially the DA had actually tried to find a way to send all of these boys to the death chamber for essentially just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. In a highly politicized and publicized trail all the boys, not just the kid who wielded the knife, were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Incredible as it may seem, this happened in the USofA, in California, and in one of the greatest injustices of our time, these guys still rot in prison.

When I was preparing for a recent cruise visit to Devil’s Island, I was reviewing some of the books written by survivors of the French penal colony at Devil’s Island, popularized by the Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman film “Papillon.” I am amazed at how much of the same mentality still dominates the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  That’s an ironic name since there is little or no attempt at rehabilitation! It is warehousing pure and simple, and many of these folks in prison will eventually be moving back into your community!

Just before he left office, California’s former governor, the “Terminator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger granted clemency to the son of a political hack friend, a guy who actually had stabbed someone in the heart with the intent to kill him.  Clemency granted!   While Schwarzenegger should have granted clemency to Brandon Hein, who hadn’t killed anyone! … he instead chose to pay back a political debt.  However, he did reduce Brandon’s sentence from “life without possibility of parole” to a sentence of “29 years to life” with possibility of parole.   Granted, better than nothing.

So mornings, when I wake up, I often think about Brandon and his view from prison.  Brandon has become a fantastic artist and this is his “Morning Has Broken” view from a slit in his cell in a maximum security prison.

Brandon Hein My View

So I enjoy my “Starry Morning” in Panama on his behalf as well.

I know some of the stuff Brandon has dreamed about in prison for over 21 years and I pray that this gross injustice ends eventually and that Brandon can live some of his dreams.  Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” . . . but in Brandon’s case it is taking an incredibly long time to bend!

Brandon Hein In Vision

When he first went to prison I was still in the travel business and I used to send Brandon tons of cruise line brochure pictures which he stuck on the walls of his cell.  I can tell he still thinks about cruising since he calls this one “Cruise” . . .

Brandon Hein Cruise

Brandon’s artwork, often signed just “Heinsight” or “HS” is accomplished often with very limited materials, and sometimes with nothing.  At times he has fashioned his own hair on pencil stubs to make brushes, and made ink and paint from taking the greasy remains of lunch and mixing the food oil with scrapings from checkers.

The artist’s art usually reflects the artist’s life, as it does in Brandon’s case.  Much of his work reflects the struggle of life in prison while knowing that you are in many ways a victim of the “system.”   Much of his work is in many ways “disturbing” … just as life in prison is disturbing.


Friends of Brandon Hein maintain a Web site about Brandon and his case and where you can also buy his artwork


I have known Brandon Hein probably longer than anyone except his family and high school friends. I was an associate minister at the United Methodist Church of Westlake Village when I received a prayer request from a family visiting our church. It said, “Please pray for our son, Brandon Hein, who has been sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.”

Of course I visited the family and heard their story. My background includes pastoring a church in the South Bronx in the ‘60s, working as a volunteer clergyman in New York City prisons, and directing a drug rehabilitation program, so I was skeptical from the start. Brandon was in the process of being transferred from LA County to “State Property” and his family wanted me to visit. Before I visited him, I wanted to dig more deeply into the story and his family provided me with court documents, piles of clippings, etc. Still skeptical, but using my position as a clergyman, I went to visit Brandon.

I’ll never forget when Brandon was ushered into the attorney visiting room, legs and arms in shackles and dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Immature, scared and facing a life in prison, although 18, he barely looked 16. That was the first of many visits. Brandon and I became friends and I’ve watched him through the years grow into a man whose courage, discipline, maturity and positive faith in spite of everything has been an inspiration to me. Dr. Robert Schuller would have described Brandon in terms of “tough times never last, but tough people do.”

brandon-hein-and-richard-detrichBrandon has developed into an incredibly talented artist, improved and educated himself, volunteered and helped to create programs in prison to improve institutional life and to help other inmates adjust, cope, and catch a vision of a positive lifestyle and future. Both inside and through his friends outside, he has shared his “Heinsight.”

If you ask folks who they most respect and admire they usually pick an athlete, historical figure, politician, usually a person of note. I would pick a friend in prison … K24820 … Brandon Hein.

I have watched Brandon not just do time, but grow through the challenge, evidencing the personal, emotional and mental maturing that Nelson Mandela spoke of: . . . “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”