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Monday, January 9, 2017

My Brother's Keeper Prison Outreach Program, Innovative Model of Transformation


by Efren Paredes Jr.  


My Brother's Keeper Program (MBK) is a Michigan State University mentoring program for at-risk African-American boys, Grades 6-8, in the Detroit Public Schools. The program uses undergraduate and graduate students as mentors and models. It was designed to also assist students imagine what they want to become as they transition into adulthood.

MBK promotes an Africentric approach to education which centers African-American children within the context of familiar cultural and social references from their own historical settings. When children are centered in cultural ways it helps make learning interesting and personal. Many children of color view schools as foreign places because they do foreign things. As such, they have been trapped in foreign conceptions of reality. This can lead to a destructive pattern of deifying other people and dehumanizing themselves.

The MBK program began in 1990 by founding director Dr. Geneva Smitherman, MSU Distinguished Professor Emerita. The program is now under the directorship of Dr. Austin Jackson, Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Transcultural Studies in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.

In the Summer of 2016 Dr. Jackson launched the first prison component of MBK in the nation at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility. The concept was originally proposed to Dr. Jackson by a prisoner named Ricardo Ferrell. This project has come to be known as the MBK Prison Outreach Program (MBK-POP).

MBK-POP will have at least two primary objectives. According to Dr. Jackson, MBK-POP will, "(1) create a dynamic, sustainable inmate-centered peer mentoring program (Fall 2016); and (2) engage and assist the MSU MBK Program with educational, mentoring, and cultural programming useful for intervention and deterrence instruction."

There are currently 20 prisoners participating in MBK-POP. Each week Dr. Jackson travels to the Handlon Correctional Facility to teach the prisoners important skills and provide them with didactic materials helpful to develop into effective mentors. He provides workshops, makes PowerPoint presentations, shows educational DVDs, and holds debates and group discussions. Dr. Jackson is currently providing lessons about critical race theory (CRT), rhetoric, and preparing prisoners to begin facilitating classes and teaching portions of the curriculum.

Several of these mentors-in-training are from urban areas and share many of the same childhood experiences as those they will be mentoring. It is this firsthand knowledge, experience of incarceration, and personal transformation that makes them uniquely qualified to connect with the young people they will be working with and help them make better choices for their future.

I was fortunate to be one of the candidates selected to participate in MBK-POP. I am using the skills I have developed during nearly three decades of incarceration and my wealth of experiences mentoring college students, high school students, and prisoners to further the objectives of MBK-POP. My knowledge of Latino Studies, Black Studies, Hip-Hop culture, and communications will also be very useful as we advance through the MBK-POP syllabus.

According to Dr. Wade Nobles, "When the essence of a people is disrupted or disturbed there is similar disruption observed in their consciousness. When the essence of a people is distorted a change in their perceptions of reality occurs. This means how they come to understand or know is distorted."

Developing mentors allows us to create healers in the community who can inspire others to become whole again and illuminate their spirit. This self-discovery helps restore their essence and end the debilitating disconnect that prevents them from realizing their potential. It also helps end the dizzying distortions that skew the way people interpret life through a fractured lens.

One of the most potent kinds of power people can have is the power to label their experience. According to CRT scholar Angela P. Harris, "The struggle over what to call things, and hence how to understand and ultimately experience them, is a struggle over social power." Harris adds, "Just as history is written by the winners, language is shaped by the socially dominant."

People must become disenchanted with the notion that others will equip them with the tools to restore their agency. This will help them end their dependency on others and perceived racial subordination. When people deconstruct the false narratives manufactured about them they are able to define their own experiences and re-imagine brighter possibilities and outcomes for their lives.

The refusal to be measured by the tape of foreign branding will lead them to discover the need to reconnect with their culture. Nothing occurs outside of culture. It is culture that shapes and gives meaning to our reality.

This awareness will empower people to defy the murder of their selfhood and break the shackles of nihilism, a term Cornel West refers to as "the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaningless, hopelessness, and lovelessness."

Through our work MBK-POP endeavors to build enduring intellectual structures of excellence. The program aspires to become an innovative model of success to be emulated in prisons across the nation. It is a blueprint born from centuries of struggle and fierce self-determination.

MBK-POP recognizes the inherent value and dignity of children and categorically rejects the notion that they are dispensable. We are committed to creating new learning pathways that keep them at the center of their educational experience -- not on the periphery -- and awaken their genius.

Please support the My Brother's Keeper PrisonOutreach Program (MBK-POP), "Like" its official Facebook page, and invite others to do the same.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Exploring Freedom Through Free Verse Arts


by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Six weeks after beginning a Free Verse Arts poetry workshop at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, prisoner participants are feeling a renewed sense of hope and inspiration.

Free Verse Arts is a collaboration between the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University, Ingham County Youth Services Center in Lansing, and the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility. It is lead by Project Director and RCAH Academic Specialist in Community and Socially Engaged Arts Guillermo Delgado.

The project provides a space to participants to use arts as a tool for community engagement and to foster positive social change in the prison system and beyond. According to the Free Verse Arts official Facebook page, "our goal is to shine a spotlight on the unseen and unheard." It is an ambitious undertaking that, though on its face some audiences may initially question its purpose, upon closer examination discover is a worthwhile and meaningful endeavor.

Professor Delgado was accompanied by several students from one of his MSU RCAH classes who assisted him with teaching and leading weekly exercises and projects which included learning to compose various styles of poetry, doing art projects, and creating journals an chapbooks. The MSU students were enthusiastically engaged in the workshop the entire time and exuded a positive energy. This helped some of the first-time prisoner participants be more comfortable and not succumb to the fears that threaten to shut them down when expressing themselves through their art and poetry.

Each week workshop participants read their finished poetry in front of the classroom and shared enlightening stories about thir personal growth. Their confidence grew exponentially as they developed new skills and discovered ways to explore their imagination and share it with others. Everyone present encouraged each other during readings and construction of art and poetry. They also fostered an enriching learning environment with helpful comments, finger snaps, and smiles. Laughter reverberated throughout the classroom during some of the entertaining poetry readings.

One prisoner in the workshop named Jaime Lopez Lorza stated, "Being in Free Verse Arts was a very motivating experience. I am grateful to have participated in the project. Professor Delgado and the students did a wonderful job guiding and teaching us steps to expand the creative aspects of our minds."

Lorza added, "The workshop taught me that my creativity is connected to past life experiences. Expressing those experiences not only helps me become a better person through introspection, it helps me also teach others valuable lessons in the process. Professor Delgado is a wonderful and inspiring human being. I am honored to have met him."

A workshop participant myself, it is always a great experience to witness how much prisoners can learn and absorb from art and poetry workshops. I have participated in art and poetry workshops conducted by other universities in the past and had the pleasure of witnessing their enormous impact on prisoner lives. Until I began participating in the workshops I had never created art or poetry, nor was I interested in it. The workshops awakened my creativity in ways previously unimaginable.
The Free Verse Arts workshop was mentally and emotionally liberating. For the two hours the class was held each week prisoners knew they would be in a space that nourished their potential in myriad ways. It was a time that allowed them to transcend the daily experiences of prison life and transform ourselves through the healing power of art and poetry. Unfortunately prisons themselves do not offer arts and poetry workshops. Such programs are made available to prisoners only from citizen volunteers.

Incarceration and isolation evoke painful feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, and loneliness. These things make it very difficult for prisoners to engage with others even in a space designed to help them (e.g., Free Verse Arts workshops). Prisoners often descend into depression as they struggle to resist exploration into the dark caverns of their past they find themselves incessantly trapped in. The fact that the workshops are able to connect with prisoners against this backdrop, and summon their creative genius, is a testament to the efficacy of them empowering people to explore their creativity and imagine a better future.

Professor Delgado recognizes the intrinsic value in others and the importance of the concept of redemption. His genuine interest in offering rehabilitative programs to adult prisoners and incarcerated youth are admirable and deserving of recognition. Though not the central theme of his work, he is creating a safer society by building a bridge between the community and prisons to help incarcerated men and children become better returning citizens.

It takes courage to do the work Professor Delgado and others like him do going through the rigors of entering prisons and youth centers. The same can be said for the students who joined him. They traveled nearly an hour each way to the prison weekly and were subjected to clothed body searches by guards -- a policy all volunteers who enter prisons are required to do. Still, they are sacrifices of time, personal space, and dignity that they chose to endure because they wanted to provide a life-changing opportunity to prisoners seeking to improve their lives.

By the conclusion of the workshop many lessons were learned by everyone involved. Prisoners were reminded that they are not forgotten, they are human beings capable of change, and with a little encouragement and genuine concern they can accomplish constructive things while incarcerated. They also learned that a life of service and kindness to others can reciprocate those actions in return. In other words, we can strengthen the fabric of humanity by projecting positive energy into the world and becoming agents of social change.

MSU students discovered that in the midst of a caged environment isolated from the world there exist people who became entangled in the criminal justice system but possess the capacity to not be defined by it. The students also experienced a semblance of what it can feel like to be deprived of physical freedom and denied privileges and basic enjoyments of life often taken for granted. It is a humbling experience that is certain to impact them for the remainder of their lives.

Prisons and legislators would do well supporting projects like Free Verse Arts that generate substantive results. Our state prison system would benefit greatly by making similar projects available at prisons across the state. These projects are investments in the future that can yield a greater return to the public for a fraction of the cost necessary to operate less effective programs. And, they make the community safer by rehabilitating returning citizens in ways that actually work.


The Residential College of the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University is becoming a leader in prisoner reformation through the programs it currently offers at the Handlon Correctional Facility. In addition to Free Verse Arts they are offering the Story Catcher's Drama Club lead by Dr. Lisa Biggs, as well as the My Brother's Keeper program lead by Program Director Dr. Austin Jackson. (Posts about the latter two programs are forthcoming.)

I want to extend a special thanks to Professor Delgado for bringing Free Verse Arts to the Handlon Correctional Facility and to Ricardo Ferrell for inviting you. I want to also thank all the MSU students who participated. I hope you take the lessons learned and use them to help generate social change throughout the world. To Madeline, the MSU student who assisted prisoner Lorza and myself during the workshop, thanks for the encouragement, support, and best of luck to you as you pursue your career path.

I strongly urge people to support Free Verse Arts and the work being done by Professor Delgado in prisons and youth centers. "Like" the Free Verse Arts Facebook page, share it with others, and encourage people to learn more about the project.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Unraveling the Juvenile Lifer Series on Michigan Radio


by Efren Paredes, Jr.

A recent series about prisoners being resentenced who originally received mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers") has been airing on Michigan Radio this week.

Michigan is home to 363 prisoners who previously received this extreme sentence which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is unconstitutional. The high court ordered re-sentencing for all 2,500 prisoners affected across the nation.

In their opinion the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the only juvenile offenders who can receive LWOP sentences are those "rare" cases where the person is "irreparably corrupt" and "incapable of change." They also added that such sentences should become "uncommon."

Prosecutors across Michigan responded to the high court by filing motions to pursue LWOP sentences again in 228 of the 363 cases rather than term of year sentences now allowed by Michigan law.

One of the subjects discussed Tuesday, December 13, on Michigan Radio was the conduct of juvenile lifers during incarceration. This was raised because some prosecutors seek to use it as one of the factors to consider what type of sentence to pursue against prisoners.

Former Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Director Patricia Caruso was featured on Michigan Radio to share her experience working with juvenile lifers when she was a Warden, MDOC Director, and President of the American Correctional Association.

During her interview Caruso stated that given everything she knows about the corrections department and prisoner reform she supports the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that imposing LWOP sentences on juvenile offenders should be rare and uncommon.

Caruso went on to say that many of the misconduct reports that juvenile lifers received that were formerly considered major rule infractions are now designated as minor rule infractions under the system's revised policy regarding misconduct reports. She added that juvenile lifers receiving misconduct reports reflects more about them being adolescents than about the potential for their success upon release.

Understandably, a few things have been missed during the Michigan Radio series. One subject is circumstances surrounding prisoner misconduct reports.

When juvenile lifers received misconduct reports they were still serving death-by-incarceration sentences. They were living each day with the reality that they were condemned to die in prison. Hope had been extinguished and many lacked a sense of purpose.

It would be misguided for people to offer that juvenile lifers should be judged by the darkest period of their lives when they were enduring despair and struggling to survive. Many were devastated, experiencing depressing, abandoned by family, totally isolated from the world, and undergoing other forms of trauma.
Another important issue to be raised is the number of misconduct reports prisoners receive for things they did not actually do. Prisoners share cells with other prisoners, and sometimes even several other prisoners in open dormitory settings. In this situation a prisoner can hide contraband (e.g., knives, drugs, etc.) in another prisoner's area without her/his knowledge instead of hiding it in their own area to avoid punishment if prison staff find the item. It is a rampant problem that corrections officials admit they cannot prevent or resolve.

Numerous misconduct reports have been written on prisoners because of contraband that did not belong to them. But because a staff member finds the contraband in a specific prisoner's area of control s/he has no choice but to write a misconduct report on the prisoner who is responsible for that area.

They have no latitude to decline writing it on the person even if they know the prisoner has no reputation of causing problems and may likely not be guilty.

Then there is the issue of fights and assaults. Many young prisoners receive misconduct reports for fighting because they were victims defending themselves against assaults by older prisoners or defending themselves from being robbed or extorted for sex or money. Young prisoners are often targets of aggression by older prisoners.

Some prisoners are also written assault on staff misconduct reports for not even committing an assault. They can receive an assault charge for moving during a clothed body search being conducted by staff, pulling away from a staff member after being handcuffed, or inadvertently bumping into a staff member, etc.

While there do exist incidents of prisoner fights or assaults that are inexcusable every situation is different and should be judged on the individual circumstances, not solely by the name of the charge filed against them which can be very misleading. These are just a few of many examples that occur related to prisoner misconducts that most members of the public are unaware of, including prosecutors and judges.

Three more points deserving of attention in this discussion are statistics related.

First, prisoners who have spent more than 20 years in prison who are released have a very low recidivism rate. That number decreases even further when the prisoner reaches age 40, is married, or has children. A prisoner in all four categories would be the lowest of all recidivism prospects.

Second, prisoners convicted of first-degree homicide who are released have less than a 1% chance of recidivating. They are statistically the lowest of all categories of prisoners to possibly return to prison. It is a fact that often goes ignored.

Third, studies show that there is no direct correlation between the number of misconduct reports prisoners receive and their success upon re-entry into society. There are many people who are simply unable to cope while living in a human cage for any length of time. A large number also suffer from mental health issues which exacerbate the situation further.

It is also worth noting that no misconduct charge, with the exception of the charge of homicide, has prevented prisoners from returning to society as productive citizens. The Parole Board releases thousands of prisoners each year who have received misconduct reports in their past. And, each year the vast majority of parolees successfully complete all the terms of their parole conditions. Juvenile lifers who are released can be equally successful.

When it comes to identifying the "rare" and "uncommon" cases that are eligible to receive LWOP sentences some ministers of justice are reluctant to answer the question. The U.S Supreme Court, however, made it abundantly clear. Their answer was the rare juvenile who is "irreparably corrupt" and "incapable of change."

I have never met a single juvenile lifer who was guilty of the crime he was convicted of that did not express remorse for his actions and deeply regret making the choices that lead to his incarceration. In every case he wishes he could undo the tragedy and readily admits that, if given the opportunity to go back in time, he would never make the same mistake again.

This is only one example that reflects the maturity many juvenile lifers have undergone leading to reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation.

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton stated on Michigan Radio that he wished the MDOC offered additional programming to juvenile lifers because he acknowledged they do not qualify for many programs due to the amount of time they were sentenced to. Ironically, he also attempted to argue that the majority of the juvenile lifers in his county are incapable of change.

Two questions should be asked: one, if Prosecutor Leyton believes juvenile lifers are incapable of change why does he wish the MDOC would offer them more programs; and two, why do psychologists reject any attempts to divine the future of juvenile lifers and claim they are incapable of change?

In his Stanford Law Review article, "Two Cultures of Punishment," Joshua Kleinfeld writes:

"A free will can reverse itself, a proud person can learn humility, a selfish person can learn to be fair. To say someone has a vice is not to say someone is ruined. There is space between the person and her shortcomings."

Any human behavior expert, parent, or teacher will admit that juveniles are capable of change in their lives. The issue isn't about IF they are capable of change, it's WHEN they will change.

Advocates for juvenile lifers to receive term of year sentences have never sought the immediate release of every juvenile lifer. They have simply asked for them to receive sentences that allow for meaningful parole consideration during their incarceration.

This would allow the Parole Board to receive jurisdiction over these cases and use their vast knowledge of rehabilitation to determine when, if ever, juvenile lifers should be released on a case-by-case basis.

A prisoner could receive a 25 to 60 year sentence and serve the entire 60 year maximum term. Only those persons who do not pose a risk to public safety and earn a parole through positive conduct will be released when the Parole Board deems appropriate. It is a fair approach that balances justice for all involved.

The Michigan Radio juvenile lifer series is doing a great job exploring the subject. I am hopeful the public will become more educated about all the facets of this important issue.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner who was arrested at age 15 and sentenced to LWOP in 1989. Incarcerated now for nearly 28 years, he is now 43-years-old. You can learn more about Efren by visiting www.fb.com/Free.Efren and www.4Efren.blogspot.com.)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Interview with Efren Paredes, Jr. About Juvenile Life Without Parole Resentencings

by Necalli Ollin

The following is a recent interview conducted with Efren Paredes, Jr. via phone from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

Necalli Ollin (NO): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that prisoners who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole (LWOP) when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers") received unconstitutional sentences and ordered them to be resentenced. What are the new sentencing guidelines for the 363 Michigan prisoners who will be resentenced?

Efren Paredes, Jr. (EPJ): The sentencing guidelines will be a 25- to 40-year minimum to 60-year maximum if they receive a term of years, and LWOP if a judge imposes the maximum sentence. The term of years guidelines means that a judge can sentence a prisoner to any term of years between 25 to 40 years as a minimum sentence but the maximum term of years cannot exceed 60 years (e.g., 25-60 years, 30-60 years, etc.). So, there is latitude for judges to consider several factors before imposing a sentence. Previously judges had no such authority in these cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court made it abundantly clear in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana that LWOP sentences can only be re-imposed on juvenile offenders after conducting a mitigation hearing to consider several factors, including establishing that a prisoner has no possibility of change for the remainder of his/her life. The U.S. Supreme Court also said LWOP sentences must be rare and uncommon. The Michigan Court of Appeals reiterated this language this summer in another case.

NO: Some legal scholars say that the U.S. Supreme Court changed its position about what courts must consider at juvenile lifer resentencing hearings. What changed between their ruling in Miller v. Alabama in 2012 and the Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling in 2016?

EPJ: In Miller v. Alabama the high court said that courts must consider a juvenile's youth status before sentencing. In the Montgomery v. Louisiana case the high court ruled that sentencing bodies must determine the incorrigibility of a juvenile at the time the crime occurred. The latter is significantly different than the former. The requirement for implementation of an incorrigibility standard is a much more difficult standard to establish.

In his dissenting opinion in the Montgomery case the late justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "Under Miller, bear in mind, the inquiry is whether the inmate was seen to be incorrigible when he was sentenced--not whether he was proven corrigible and so can safely be paroled today." He continued, "[T]he Court ... makes imposition of that severe sanction [i.e., life without parole] a practical impossibility." Perhaps conservative judges and prosecutors will be more accepting of Scalia's interpretation of the ruling if they disagree with the interpretation of legal scholars.

NO: Which prisoners do you believe should receive a term of years sentence versus a LWOP sentence when they are resentenced?

EPJ: I oppose LWOP sentences for all juveniles. The rest of the civilized world outside the U.S. (including nations known to be flagrant human rights violators like China, Iran and Russia) no longer imposes this deplorable sentence on juveniles and neither should the U.S. Every child possesses the enormous capacity for change and, as the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated, they are categorically less culpable than adults. To impose a LWOP sentence on juveniles is sending them the message that no matter what they do or how they change it will not matter, they will still die in prison. It is similar to the death penalty except that prisoners agonize longer mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually when serving a LWOP sentence. The United Nations defines it as torture.
Additionally, imposing a term of years sentence allows prisoners to demonstrate through their actions when they have changed, they pose no danger to society, and can be productive citizens if released. Skilled psychologists will not even attempt to predict when a juvenile will be rehabilitated in their future. It is impossible to do. That decision should be made by Parole Boards who are better skilled and equipped to make that decision after having the opportunity to monitor prisoners' behavior and progress after they are incarcerated.

NO: Do you support the release of every prisoner who was sentenced to LWOP when they were juveniles?

EPJ: I support each of them having opportunities of presenting evidence of their rehabilitation to the Parole Board and convincing them that they can safely be released to society. Some people may need to serve 10 years in prison, and some may spend decades in prison depending on their demonstrated actions and maturity. There may also be some people that will never be released based on their refusal to be rehabilitated and change their lives.

The fight that has been taking place since the early 2000's by attorneys, human rights groups, and other juvenile advocates has been for juveniles to be afforded the "opportunity for parole consideration." It has never been for a "guarantee" of parole. This is a very reasonable and sensible approach which I support. Again, it is noted that the U.S. Supreme Court made it very clear that LWOP sentences should be rare, uncommon and only imposed on juvenile offenders who it can be proven have no chance of changing during the remainder of their lives.

NO: Do you believe that prisons rehabilitate prisoners?

EPJ: Prisoners rehabilitate themselves. There is little rehabilitation going on in Michigan prisons, though the MDOC has been making some positive steps in the right direction by adding new programs and making more vocational and higher education opportunities available in recent months. Unfortunately the vast majority of the programs are not available to prisoners serving life sentences. It is but one example of why prisoners serving lengthy sentences suffer so much despair and agonize daily over the inability to participate in life-changing opportunities that are offered to prisoners with earlier release dates.

It is a fact that 95% of the prison population, including those serving life sentences, will return to society one day. It is also true that prisoners serving life sentences have a less than 2% recidivism rate compared to upwards of 30% of the remaining prisoner population that is paroled annually. Prisons have been monuments to punishment and exclusion for decades. It is long overdue for policy makers to abandon this antiquated flawed approach. Society loses all the way around when it places citizens in prisons to mentally atrophy, become institutionalized, and detached from the realities of daily life. We should correct their thinking errors and prepare them to become productive citizens, not condemn them to be the worst they can be and become increasingly worse sitting in a prison cell. There is no civility in that and it is a poor reflection on lawmakers who wield the power to change it.
NO: What do you think will occur with the cases of prisoners who receive LWOP sentences again?

EPJ: Each and every case will be appealed to the Michigan appellate courts and even the federal courts, if necessary. It will result in years of protracted legal battles at taxpayer expense and also compound the emotional and psychological trauma that families impacted by the crimes must endure. Prosecutors who abuse their authority can harm entire communities in myriad ways in an effort to score political points. This is one of the reasons it is important for citizens to make their voices heard at the ballot box in the upcoming elections. Taxpayers have had their schools and various needed infrastructure projects (e.g., repairs of roads, tunnels, airports, etc.) defunded because of prosecutors who are wasting their hard-earned dollars on failed legal experiments.

Nineteen states have already ended LWOP sentences for youthful offenders. States are increasingly abandoning this unforgiving punishment for kids, and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will abolish LWOP for juvenile offenders nationally in the coming months. When that occurs all the time, effort and public funds spent by prosecutors will have been wasted. Society should not be held hostage to rogue prosecutors whose narrow interests in justice are morally impoverished and perpetuate inequalities. This can change by electing prosecutors who will follow the rule of law and apply it fairly to everyone. No one should provide a safe haven for implicit or explicit racial animus.

NO: What are your thoughts about people who participated in the miscarriage of justice that lead to your wrongful incarceration that has lasted nearly three decades?

EPJ: I believe in the Creator and I believe in the concept of forgiveness. I have long ago moved on with my life. I refuse to be trapped in the past or harbor ill feelings towards others. Every moment I think about the past is a moment I can't think about the future. I am more concerned about tomorrow than I am yesterday. I recognize that people make mistakes, intentional or otherwise, and that people are more than the worst choice they have made in their lives. We burden ourselves enormously when we live our lives blaming others and it creates a very toxic environment that arrests our development.

I am surrounded by a loving family, wonderful friends, and many supporters who provide me regularly guidance and encouragement. I remain focused on successfully reintegrating into society, completing all the terms of any parole requirements I may be given, becoming gainfully employed, rebuilding ties with family and friends I have been separated from, working to mentor at-risk youth to prevent them from becoming incarcerated, and creating safer communities. There is no room in any of that for negative energy or unhealthy thoughts. I have a return value and possess a wealth of skills and experiences I can offer society.
NO: Your case is featured in the documentary film "Natural Life" produced by filmmaker Tirtza Even about Michigan prisoners who were sentenced to LWOP when they were juveniles. How has the film been received by people at its screenings?

EPJ: It has been received very well. The film features four other cases along with mine. It educates the viewer about the perils of imposing LWOP sentences on juveniles and why we should abandon the imposition of the deplorable sentence. I have personally called in to screenings of the film across the nation and answered dozens of questions by audience members. The film will be available soon for purchase or streaming via Amazon.com, Google Play, iTunes, and other online vendors. Efforts are also underway to make the film available on Netflix in the coming weeks. People can learn more about the film by visiting www.NaturalLifeFilm.org.

NO: What other projects are you currently working on you would like to share with our readers?

EPJ: I am the subject of a forthcoming investigative documentary dedicated solely to my case, as well as a separate documentary about extreme sentences. They consist of doing dozens of extensive interviews covering a broad range of areas. I am also working with a podcast producer who is a graduate student at Columbia University on an immersive audio project about my life.

I was approached by an MTV producer a few months ago who expressed interest in featuring my case as part of the "Unlocking the Truth" series currently airing on their station. Unfortunately my case could not be included because the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) denied them access to film me in person for the series. Filmed interviews of the prisoners featured was a necessary component to being included in the series.

Recently I was accepted into a new class being facilitated by a Michigan State University (MSU) professor at the prison I am located. The class consists of creating the first prison component of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) program that was created in 1990 on the MSU campus. The program trains people to mentor at-risk African-American students, Grades 6-8, with the objectives of: empowering them to eradicate fear of the unknowns, inspire them to pursue higher learning, increase their knowledge of viable career options, and foster educational self-esteem, personal responsibility, self-control and self-discipline.

I am presently serving on two of the committees developing the new MBK prisoner mentor curriculum. I will receive training between now and June 2017. Upon successful completion I will receive an MBK Mentor Internship Certification issued by the MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. I look forward to utilizing the wealth of knowledge and skills I have developed over the years working to help young people transform their lives.

NO: Thank you for responding to my questions. I look forward to interviewing you again soon. I want to share any developments with your case along the way to keep our readers updated about how things unfold.

EPJ: You're welcome. I will be sure to do that.


Friday, October 28, 2016

View Powerful Film Featuring Case of Efren Paredes, Jr.

The documentary film "Natural Life" by Tirtza Even which features the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. is now available for viewing on Google Play, VuDu, and by visiting the Apple Store on iTunes.

"Natural Life" discusses the subject of imposing life without parole sentences on juvenile offenders. The film uses Michigan as an example of why legislatures must abolish this deplorable policy. Michigan ranks second in the nation for the largest number of juveniles it has condemned to die in prison.

The viewer is introduced to important information and interviews with a retired judge, one of the nation's adolescent development experts, a private investigator, attorney, and other members of the community. Each offers important insight into various components of the issue.

Efren's case is one of five cases featured in the film. Family members and friends are encouraged to view the film and screen it at large events. You can contact Efren's family to request that he call in to any events after the film is screened to answer questions. He can also provide updates about the status of the resentencing hearings that should be occurring. His family can be reached via e-mail at EfrenUncaged@gmail.com.

One method commonly used by event organizers to ensure all those present can hear Efren's voice on the phone is by connecting your cell phone to an amp using a patch cord. This allows Efren to answer questions in real time. Patch cords are relatively inexpensive and available from computer and music supply stores.

You can also learn more about "Natural Life" by visiting www.NaturalLifeFilm.org.




Friday, October 14, 2016

Efren Paredes, Jr. Accomplishments During Incarceration

In 1989 Efren earned his GED at age 16. He also attended Montalm Community College and worked as a clerk for the school principal at the Michigan Reformatory. He subsequently worked as a clerk and teacher's aide at various prisons between 1990-97. Teachers described Efren as being a hard worker, excellent communicator, and being invaluable to the classroom setting.

Efren was certified as a Literary Braille Transcriber by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1997. He worked for Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund transcribing print textbooks into braille for blind and visually impaired children for 13 years. He also worked as a clerk in the accounting department, made presentations to board members, developed innovative ways to help make the corporation an industry leader, and became proficient in the use of the latest computer software and technology.

The International Library of Poetry selected Efren's poem, "Snowflakes," for publication in 2006 in their book "Immortal Verses." He was nominated as Poet of the Year by the International Society of Poets, and inducted as an International Poet of Merit and Honored Member of the International Society of Poets for 2006-07.

Between 2005-09 Efren participated in three University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) creative writing and art workshops. One of his poems was featured in the University of Michigan Creative Writing Workshop 2005 United Nations World Environmental Day anthology, "A Crack in the Concrete."

In 2008 Efren was part of a successful campaign to create a charter middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He also co-founded the online web site and organization Presente.org which advocates for social justice, civil rights, and human rights issues on behalf of Latina/os in the U.S. That same year the Berkeley City Council in California passed a resolution condemning Efren's sentence as a human rights violation.

In 2015 Efren successfully completed the "40 Days of Peace" and "40 Days of Power" programs, respectively. The Power of Peace Project founder, Kit Cummings, traveled to the Muskegon Correctional Facility from Atlanta, Georgia, to facilitate the program. The Power of Peace Project teaches about the value of non-violence and underscores the need to develop conflict resolution and race-relations skills.

That same year Efren successfully completed a course offered by Muskegon Community College (MCC) named "Transition to Success." The course teaches important skills to assist prisoners in their transition back to society. He also completed another MCC course named "The Elements of Music." He subsequently completed "Juvenile Restoration in Progress (JRIP)." JRIP was a course taught by a Lansing Community College professor and Prison Fellowship volunteer that was uniquely designed to provide resources and life skills to prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles.

Between 2015-16 Efren successfully completed Tier I and Tier II of Chance for Life, a program that teaches leadership, communication, mediation, and life skills. Chance for Life is a non-profit corporation strongly supported by the Michigan Department of Corrections that offers their programs inside Michigan prisons. One of the program's founders, Jessica Taylor, serves as a Detroit Police Department commissioner.

Efren has participated on panels and spoken at conferences regarding mass incarceration, cultural, race-relations, and political issues via phone at the U.S. Social Forum, Dia de la Mujer (Day of the Woman) Conference, Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art, David Weinberg Gallery, Thumbprint Summit, and St. Louis International Film Festival.
He has also been featured at events on the campuses of Columbia University, Michigan State University, Chicago School of the Arts Institute, Prescott College, University of Oregon, University of Michigan, University of Southern California (USC), and University of California, Berkeley.

For the past several years Efren has appeared on various radio stations and podcasts across the nation to discuss criminal justice issues. Some of the stations include National Public Radio (NPR), Youth Radio, Michigan Radio, Central Michigan University Public Radio, The Jack Ebling Show, La Raza Chronicles, KPFA Radio, Detroit Superstation 910 AM, Thousand Kites, Juvenile Justice Matters, 99% Invisible, and The Theory of Everything.

Articles about Efren have been featured on ColorLines, RaceWire, Xica Nation, The Progressive, The Michigan Citizen, South Bend Tribune, TelesurTV, Latina Lista, The Nation, Seattle Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Lansing State Journal, MLive, Associated Press, AlterNet, and other web sites. In 2016 LATINA magazine named Efren as one of four Latino prisons in the U.S. deserving clemency.

Efren has taken his message of non-violence and criminal justice reform to other countries as well. He spoke to a large audience of youth at a basketball tournament in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) and has appeared twice on TelesurTV, a television and radio station based in Quito, Ecuador.

In 2015 Efren was featured in the documentary film "Natural Life" produced by Tirtza Even. The film is about Michigan prisoners sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles. The film can be viewed on Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, and on iTunes by visiting the Apple Store. Efren will also be featured in two future films being produced. One is about extreme sentences and the other is an investigative documentary about the circumstances surrounding his incarceration.

While in prison Efren has raised money for underfunded public school classrooms, youth summer camps, and breast cancer awareness. He also applied for and received over $80,000 in grant funding from a non-profit corporation to build a weight training area and fund the purchase of library books, encyclopedias, and a learning resource center at a prison he was formally housed at.

Efren has been invited to speak at religious services of various faiths (e.g., Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Native American, and Buddhist) and cultural organization events throughout his incarceration. He has also been a keynote speaker at Cinco de Mayo, Latino History Month, Kwanzaa, Black History Month, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and other events.

Throughout his incarceration Efren has served multiple terms as a board member of several cultural and civil rights organizations at prisons he has been located. Among them include the NAACP, Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO), Hispanic Americans Striving Towards Advancement (HASTA), Indian Nations United (INU), and the National Lifers of America (NLA).

Efren has developed proposals and received approval by prison administrators to host numerous members of the public who have visited prisons to speak on an array of subjects. Some of the people who have visited prisons upon his invitation include professors, state legislators, poets, authors, psychologists, lawyers, clergy, and social justice advocates.

For nearly three decades Efren has successfully completed therapeutic courses facilitated by social workers and psychologists in Anger Management, Thinking Errors, Meditation, Stress Management, Grief and Loss, Character Development, and Group Therapy. He co-facilitated a Conflict Resolution class alongside facility staff at the Kinross Correctional Facility in 2014. Subsequently he completed a relationship course and the Inside-Out Dad program which teaches parenting skills to incarcerated fathers.

While incarcerated Efren has received commendations from prison Wardens for the positive work he has done assisting the prisoner population through his work serving 14 six-month terms as a member of the Warden's Forum at various prisons. He was elected to serve in the capacity as Warden's Forum Chairman the majority of the terms. Additionally, he has the documented support of a retired Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund Executive Director, as well as current and retired Michigan Department of Corrections staff.

In recent years Efren began teaching a comprehensive digital literacy course he designed to teach prisoners about Internet usage, web development, and blogging. He also provides lessons about harnessing the power of social networking to engineer social justice campaigns. His goal is to encourage prisoners to explore technology and allay their fears of re-entering society in the digital age as returning citizens. This is particularly helpful to prisoners who have been absent from society for many years.

Efren is currently the subject of an immersive audio project being created by a New York-based podcast producer and Columbia University graduate student. Among their collaborative efforts is producing a podcast series for The Marshall Project about Efren's life in prison. An Emory University law professor is also devoting a chapter about him in an upcoming book she is authoring about prisoners sentenced to life without parole sentences when they were juveniles.

In September 2015 Efren was among 20 prisoners selected to help develop a prison outreach component of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) program based at Michigan State University (MSU). MBK is a program that trains people to become mentors to at-risk African-American boys, Grade 6-8, in the Detroit Public Schools. Their initial aim is to create a peer-to-peer prisoner mentoring program. Prisoners will subsequently receive the skills to mentor middle-school students. Upon successful completion of the program training Efren will receive an MBK Mentor Internship certification from the MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.

Updated 1/13/17

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nature Hurdles Prison Barriers Designed to Separate it From Society

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

I arrived at the Handlon Correctional Facility nearly a month ago. It is a Level 2 custody facility located in the rural town of Ionia, Michigan.

The facility is home to an impressive effort referred to as the "Vocational Village." The Village is located in the educational building and consists of various vocational programs offered by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) to prisoners interested in pursuing trade certifications in horticulture, CNC machining, welding, carpentry, custodial maintenance, and other areas.

Calvin College also has a presence at the facility and offers non-accredited and accredited college programming to prisoners that is funded by philanthropists. Soon Jackson Community College will be creating a satellite division at the prison to make classes available for 200 prisoners which will be funded by PELL grants.

Throughout the compound are small vegetable gardens maintained by prisoners. Though small in size the gardens are large enough to give prisoners an opportunity to feel a sense of pride nourishing tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, and zucchini. Each day prisoners visit their gardens to care for them by watering, weeding and cultivating the dirt. Sometimes they spend time in their gardens solely to enjoy the peaceful therapeutic experience and observe the progress of their labor.

It feels good to walk past the vast array of produce and peer into the vibrant mosaic that comprises each garden. There is something that innately attracts us to the magnetism of these green pools of life. It is common to hear the frequent observations made by prisoners as they pass by the gardens daily and comment about the cycles of change and growth the vegetables undergo. These communal acknowledgments reflect a collective appreciation for the sustenance nature so generously yields.

There is also an impressive array of flower gardens that are the product of the facility's horticulture program. The gardens artfully decorate the grounds giving them a more humane aesthetic. They are beacons of illumination, an oasis in the desert of suffocating blight that casts its dark, ugly shadow over the prison.

The past couple weeks I have frequently seen a hummingbird flying around two flower gardens located close to each other in an area of the prison that remains largely undisturbed by people. I watch him with amazement while he effortlessly glides between various plants. His wings rapidly flutter as he delicately drinks nectar from a broad range of delectable flowers. Hummingbirds possess sacred value in Mexican culture and history. They embody powerful spiritual symbolism and are representative of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli.

After approximately one week of being at the prison I noticed a set of shrubs as I walked down a walkway. It was the same type of small green shrub my parents had surrounding our home. When I initially saw them I was attracted to them because they reminded me of the shrubs I hadn't seen in nearly three decades. As I approached them I was hopeful they were the same soft shrubs I remembered from so many years ago. As I reached out to explore the texture of one of the shrubs I discovered I was right. It was indeed the same kind.
I departed the area the shrubs were located and thought to myself, "Nature is amazing. It has the capacity to leave indelible footprints in our memory that can last a lifetime." While it seemed like a strange encounter in some respects, the experience evoked childhood memories of playing on our lawn with my two younger brothers. It reminded me of the rocks that surrounded some of the shrubs and of memories of my father trimming them in the spring and fall.

I also recalled when I was mowing the front yard of our home the summer before I went to prison. As I mowed under the shrubs unbeknownst to me I pushed the lawn mower near a rabbit nest. The noise from the lawn mower prompted the bunnies to exit the nest and frantically scurry across the lawn.

A 15-year-old boy at the time, I was startled by what I observed and frightened that I may have run over the bunnies with the lawn mower. It was not an image I wanted to see. I quickly abandoned the running lawnmower and ran into our home to tell my father what occurred. He returned to the front yard with me, turned off the lawn mower, and together we scanned the yard for evidence of any harm I may have inadvertently caused. I was relieved to find that none of the bunnies were harmed and things were fine.

I never cease to marvel at how some of the simplest things can engender our minds to recall earlier experiences in our lives, even in prison. There is a deep yearning to experience things that offer us a sense of feeling liberated or evoke memories of when we were still living in society. Every semblance of freedom is enormously powerful to a person deprived of their liberty.

Prison causes people to appreciate small and seemingly insignificant things in life. It arouses thoughts of family, freedom, and the value of the awesome presence of creation and our interconnectedness. It also makes a person value looking out a window at the methodical movement of the sun as it inches incrementally across the sky, observe the wind as it blows gentle kisses at the leaves on trees, and enjoy the soft feeling of grass under their feet as they walk.

Another example is the presence of animal life. In society chipmunks are often a nuisance, especially for gardeners. In prison people spend hours observing them, feeding them, and sometimes even making them pets. Over the years I have witnessed prisons feed birds, squirrels, stray cats, and other animals they probably would have ignored in society.

During my incarceration I have met prisoners who only earn $10 or $15 a month from their prison jobs spend a few dollars each time they are paid to purchase peanuts for animals. This sacrifice generates a sense of self-worth and connecting with life and the world as a whole.

One prisoner I met a few years ago had served 60 years in prison. He was convicted of his crime when he was a teenager and sentenced to life without parole. By the time I met him most of his family members had passed away and the people he communicated with were largely prisoners. Because of this the only commissary items the prisoner received were donations from other prisoners.

I remember asking the prisoner if there was anything I could purchase from the commissary to help him out. His response to me was, "Just get me some trail mix so I can feed the chipmunks." Even a prisoner who had no means of income, and had spent over six decades in prison, cared more about feeding a small animal than himself.

When I was at the Muskegon Correctional Facility I used to place crackers, sunflower seeds, and cookies on my window sill. Each day small birds (including an occasional Blue Jay) and a squirrel would visit my window. When I didn't leave food on the window sill if the squirrel was hungry she would scratch on my window to get my attention. Over the course of time the animals grew increasingly familiar with me and allowed me to begin handing them the food instead of only leaving it on the window sill for them.

I am enjoying my connection with nature in a new setting. Each interaction is a calming, serene, potentially healing experience. Every moment is a jewel in time while enduring the monotony of daily prison life. It is an opportunity to detach mentally, spiritually, and emotionally from confinement even if only for a few brief moments at a time. As I so often remind other prisoners: They will never in life have this much time for reflection and deep introspection. Therefore, it is imperative that they take advantage of it and use it as an incubator for personal growth and development. 

Now if I can just figure out how to convince that little hummingbird to start visiting my window regularly so I can observe him more often that would be great.

(To learn more about Efren Paredes, Jr. visit www.fb.com/Free.Efren. Please "Like" the page and invite others to do the same.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stereotypes Can Prevent Acts of Kindness, Even in Prison


by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Recently I was scheduled for an appointment with the Health Services Clinic at the Handlon Correctional Facility. When I arrived the waiting room was full so I stood in the hallway until a seat became available. A young White prisoner in his early 20s stood near me waiting in the hallway as well.

It was a busy morning. Several prisoners were waiting to inject their early doses of insulin, others were waiting to see the physician or nurse, and there was a long line of prisoners waiting to have their blood drawn to be sent to the lab for various tests.

As I stood waiting I glanced over at the younger prisoner who was standing near me in the hallway who I will refer to as "Mike." His hair was short and blonde. He was dressed oddly in a set of state blues. He wore his pants pulled up past his naval with his shirt tucked deep into his pants. I silently thought to myself, "He must not realize how funny he looks dressed that way."

As I was having these thoughts Mike looked over at me and said, "Good morning! How are you doing today?" His words evoked the thoughts in me, "OK, I get it now. He's either very new to prison or has some other issues," because being friendly to people you don't know in prison is uncommon. Usually prisoners who don't know each other avoid communicating. The exchange of pleasantries between complete strangers in prison is rare.

Despite my initial observations about Mike I responded saying, "Good. How about you?" His response was, "Great! Hope you have a good day and God bless you." He said it so abruptly it was as if he couldn't wait to convey those words to me. It took me by surprise. I wouldn't allow the kindness of his words go unappreciated though and responded, "God bless you too."

In nearly three decades of incarceration no prisoner has ever said these words before when speaking to me for the first time. The situation prompted me to examine things closer. There was something about it that summoned me to not just dismiss it as some odd encounter.

After a few minutes seating space became available in the waiting room so Mike and I entered the area and sat down. A short time later Mike was called to stand in line to have his blood drawn. As he stood waiting I overheard him ask an officer in the hallway, "How are you doing?" The officer looked at him strangely and responded, "Alright," then abruptly looked away.

Mike then told the officer, "God bless you and I hope you have a good day." The officer looked at Mike with a puzzled look on his face and said, "I don't hear that from prisoners often," and returned to what he was doing writing at his desk.

At this point my thoughts about Mike's earlier behavior were only being reinforced. Or so I thought.

Next Mike began to ask the officer a series of questions about fishing. The officer then asked Mike, "Didn't you go to the hospital recently?" in an effort to change the subject. Mike responded, "Yes. I have been going to the University of Michigan almost every month for the last few years."

I could hear the entire conversation and I was just taking it all in.

Mike proceeded to tell the officer, "I have a brain tumor and I was supposed to die three years ago. I'm not even supposed to plug things into electrical outlets myself because my tumor could burst from the current. That's why I am so happy every day I wake up alive because I could have died anytime within the past few years."

Hearing Mike's words crystallized everything immediately.

"That was the reason I didn't dismiss this situation as some crazy guy just being friendly in prison," I thought to myself. "I was supposed to receive an important lesson today about life and it was through the painful experience of a stranger I didn't even know."

Afterwards Mike went to get his blood drawn. As he was leaving the room where they were doing blood draws we passed each other in the hall and I made a point of telling him, "Take care." He smiled, nodded his head up and down, and said, "You too."

Life offers many opportunities we frequently miss because of distorted stereotypes we unfairly project, flawed perceptions, or an unwillingness to pause and analyze situations before reaching hasty conclusions. And, I believe it occurs more often than we think.

There is a scripture in the Bible that cautions people about how they treat strangers because they never know when they could be entertaining angels. While I am not equating Mike to an angel I interpret that scripture to mean not only may we encounter divine messengers of the Creator during our lifetime, we will also receive important spiritual lessons from strangers.

As we go through life we navigate the daily deluge of competing interests we encounter. We complain about everything going wrong in our lives and rarely take the time to be grateful for the positive things that transpire. We selfishly ignore the gifts life bestows upon us. In so doing we become self-absorbed and cheat ourselves by becoming indifferent to the fullness of life.

Taking things for granted can lead to our self-destruction. It is tantamount to erroneously telling ourselves everything good that occurs in our lives happens because we singularly made it materialize. The reality is that much more transpires in our lives because of our interaction with others, the cycle of life, and the Creator. It doesn't take long to discover that doing things entirely alone independent of everyone around us won't get us very far. We impose serious limitations on ourselves when we do that and set ourselves up for failure.

When we allow ourselves to see the potential in others, open our hearts and minds to the possibilities of goodness, and accept that life is too short to manufacture stereotypes, foster divisions, or ignore the inherent dignity in others we discover the richness of a vibrant world around us beckoning to be explored.

We become receptive to new ideas, information, and knowledge we previously erected barriers against. We grow and nourish our spirits in profound ways and begin to exercise our full potential instead of weighing ourselves down with the negative energies of life that prevent our upward mobility.

It's been a few weeks and I haven't seen Mike again. I may never see him again. What I will do, however, is share his story with others as a lesson for them to learn from, and as a frequent reminder about the importance of appreciating every precious moment of life.

(To learn more about Efren Paredes, Jr. visit www.fb.com/Free.Efren. Please "Like" the page and circulate it widely.)