Wednesday, June 15, 2016

PAWS With a Cause Partners with Muskegon Prisoners

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

One cold winter morning on December 17, 2015 representatives from PAWS With a Cause entered the gates of the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) accompanied by 18 dogs eager to explore their new temporary homes.

The PAWS program teaches prisoners how to train dogs to establish foundation behaviors and learn commands. According to their mission statement, PAWS "enhances the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities through custom-trained Assistance Dogs."

Upon completion of their training the canines go on to become Service, Hearing, Seizure Response or Service Dogs for Children with Autism. Applicants request Seizure Response Dogs 40% of the time.

Dogs enrolled in the PAWS program are assigned two prisoner dog handlers. Though many prisoners seek to become dog handlers most will not be selected because of the program's limited size capacity.

Criteria which evaluates program candidates prevents participation in the program for prisoners who have an assaultive record, history of animal cruelty, or have received specific prohibited misconduct reports. Prisoners who receive misconduct reports once in the program are also subject to termination.

PAWS dog handlers learn the skills they need to train the dogs through instructional videos. Program dog trainers also visit the prison weekly to provide lessons and answer questions and concerns handlers may have.

Unbeknownst to most, dog handlers sleep in the same cell with the dogs they train. They become their companions for four months and are tasked with the responsibility of feeding, bathing, and cleaning up after the dogs.

The cells prisoners share the dog with are the size of an average home bathroom. Most dog handlers spend much of their time with their dogs outside of the cell walking them around the prison yard, socializing them, and teaching them the program curriculum.

According to Donald Gimotty, being selected as one of the dog handlers is "one of the most remarkable blessings" in his life.

"It gives me a great sense of pride to provide specialized training to dogs that can helps people," said Gimotty. "Each time that happens part of me leaves prison to provide service to others. That's pretty special in my world." 

The atmosphere at the facility has improved significantly since the arrival of the PAWS program. Violence has dissipated and the dogs have had a calming effect at the prison, a fact echoed in evidence-based research.

Dogs in the PAWS program have become a conversation piece between both prisoners and staff. They have increased communication between people of various races and religions and enriched the concept of community. Additionally, they have taught the valuable lesson that building bridges, not walls, unites humanity.

Prisoners who had dogs as pets when they were in society either as adults or growing up as children feel good seeing the dogs daily. The contact offers them the opportunity to fill the void of limited experiences in prison by reconnecting with some semblance of normalcy. 

Any time prisoners are able to reconnect with normal things people experience in society it affords them the chance to enjoy those few precious moments that connect them to the idea of freedom in some small way.

One prisoner in the PAWS program added, "Because the dogs are not part of the 'tough prison' image they [the dogs] actually undermine that mythos and help foster a more 'humane' energy. Ironic, considering they are animals, isn't it?"

As a reflection of the value PAWS dog handlers place on the program, when I asked this prisoner if I could name him for this writing he stated, "Just make me anonymous. I want your writing to be about the program, not about me."

Through the PAWS program prisoners learn about responsibility and receive daily lessons about caring and compassion. They also learn the value of developing patience, tolerance, and caring for others.

One staff member stated, "I wish there was more space available at MCF for the PAWS program. It has had a positive impact on everyone involved. Expanding the program to maximize its benefits would be awesome."

PAWS With a Cause is yet another valuable program that reflects the wisdom of MCF Warden Sherry Burt. Her stewardship continues to blossom with vibrant ideas that effectuate positive change at MCF.

As a progressive pioneer of innovative ways to promote public safety, Warden Burt continues to transform prisoner lives through her tireless efforts of promoting prisoner programming that helps prevent the stigma of "prison" from defining people's lives.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Unseen Perils of Perpetuating Incarceration

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

For nearly three decades the nation's get tough on crime policy has lead to overcrowded prisons across the country. Though crime has continued on a downward spiral the past several years, it has been absent a shift in incarceration policies.

The U.S. currently incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, including China which has nearly six times our population. One in every four women in the U.S. now has an incarcerated family member.

Shamefully, we are also home to more prisoners being sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles than the entire rest of the world combined.

While prosecutors and law enforcement clamor for longer prison sentences and parole reductions, the human toll of enforcing these policies largely goes ignored. The focus remains on inordinate punitive policies and developing band-aid approaches to symptoms of crime.

Only recently have citizens begun to discover the immense financial burden building and maintaining prisons are on state budgets. This is only because of the large numbers of school closings and neglected infrastructure projects (e.g., road and bridge maintenance and repair).

The untold consequences of our continued callous approach to solving the crime problem are devastating communities. Society's addiction to utilizing prison as the primary instrument of social control only exacerbates the crisis.

It has created a vortex wherein human lives are being destroyed or, at the very minimum, severely damaged. Years of incarceration has lead to many prisoners now leaving the system with mental health issues if they didn't already arrive with them.

Harsh incarceration has imposed unimaginable stresses on prisoner daily lives. It often leads to them experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon release, which sometimes manifests itself in violence against others or other acts of criminality.

An unforgiving prison system that does not take seriously the need to provide meaningful rehabilitative and therapeutic programming can only yield disastrous results. It is essential to making broken people whole again.

We can not expect prisoners to see the good in others when the only model they witness of human interaction is one that ignores the value of human life and dignity. This is one reason many children who are who are abused become abusers themselves. It is learned behavior.

People who endure protracted mistreatment, rejection and various of forms of emotional and psychological abuse will develop anger, depression and other symptoms detrimental to their mental health.

They struggle to develop self-worth, lose respect for authority, and battle with other internal issues as a consequence of the collateral damage that ensues.

When society instills the idea in prisoners that they can never be forgiven for what they have done we model a very bleak and dangerous outlook for our returning citizens. We teach them that they should also not forgive others.

Society must re-examine its view of prisoners keeping in mind that 95% of them will one day return home with the potential of becoming a neighbor or co-worker. The question people must ask themselves is, "What kind of person do I want that to be?"

It is an answer that can best be predicted by society's own attitude and behavior. If we want to witness something different we have to do something different.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Navigating the Mich. Parole Board Prisoner Release Process

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Despite the fact that crime has consistently been on the decline the past several years, the media's over-reporting of crime has generated an array of public fears and raised concerns about the parole process.

These fears have grown exponentially when it comes to reporting about the cases of juvenile lifers. These prisoners will be resentenced in the coming months, and many of them will become parole eligible.

Juvenile lifers are those prisoners who were convicted when they were juveniles and received mandatory life without parole sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that such sentences are unconstitutional.

In Michigan no juvenile lifer who is resentenced will be released from court after resentencing. Each is required to return to prison to have their case reviewed by the Parole Board for release consideration.

Release evaluations consist of several variables. Some of them include the nature of the crime, prisoner's role in the crime, prisoner's security level, and misconduct history. Previous incarceration and parole history, program completions, and a psychological evaluation are also considered.

When prisoners become parole eligible they are interviewed by a Parole Board member and asked several important questions. Some of the questions include why the crime was committed, what their role in the crime was, what they have been doing with their time while incarcerated, what their plans are upon release, etc.

Prisoners are also asked questions to learn about the insight they have developed during their incarceration. The Parole Board wants to know what they have learned about themselves and the actions that lead to their criminal behavior, how they have changed their thinking and behavior, how/if they express empathy, etc.

The Parole Board must be reasonably convinced a prisoner will not pose a danger to society if released or they will not parole the prisoner. In some instances parole denials can and have spanned several years until the Parole Board feels the prisoner is ready for release.

Theoretically a prisoner who receives a 25 to 60 year sentence could remain imprisoned 60 years. They would only become eligible to begin receiving parole "consideration" after serving 25 years. They could be released in 30 years, 45 years, or as long as 60 years.

Though no two cases are the same, the Parole Board applies its public safety litmus test equally and scrutinizes their list of variables in each situation.

The mere fact that a prisoner becomes parole eligible is not a mandate for their release. It is simply an opportunity for the Parole Board to begin "considering" their release.

Michigan citizens can feel safe knowing that qualified professionals are reviewing each case of parole eligibility. Many states do not even have Parole Boards and prisoners are released upon becoming parole eligible.

While the Parole Board cannot predict every prisoner's future behavior, the tools they use help them protect the public and vastly minimize future recidivism.

Inherent in the parole process is the offer of second chances, acknowledgment of rehabilitation and the concept of redemption. It is a process that recognizes change.

The parole process is not intended to be a mechanism that metes out death by incarceration sentences or a creative alternative to the death penalty.
The door should never be closed to the idea of reformation. If it is, prisons will become veritable graveyards of hopes and dreams.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Denying Second Chances is Divorced from Humanity

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

News about upcoming resentencing hearings for youthful offenders who were sentenced to life without parole ("juvenile lifers") has been a frequent occurrence in the media.

Unfortunately the focus remains on inordinate punishment, while rehabilitation continues to be an outlier in the conversation.

Most juvenile lifers have spent decades behind bars. They have been imprisoned most of their teens, all their 20s and most of their 30s. Many prisoners have been incarcerated well into their 40s and 50s.

Research shows that the older prisoners get the lower their risk of recidivating becomes when released, particularly after age 30. The rate of recidivism decreases even more for prisoners with children and/or who are married.

In the case of prisoners serving life sentences, their risk of returning to prison is the lowest of all incarcerated demographics. The recidivism rate for prisoners serving life sentences is less than 2%. The rest of the prison population that is released has an average of 25 - 30% recidivism.

Without question public safety is greater when releasing prisoners who have served long sentences. They have spent many years isolated from the world and reflecting about the crimes they have committed.

They have also come to profoundly understand what it means to lose their freedom for many years, and endured the painful experience of being separated from people they shared their lives with.

During nearly three decades of incarceration I have never met a prisoner serving a life sentence (who was guilty of the crime he committed) that did not deeply regret the actions that lead to his imprisonment. Each has expressed contrition for their mistakes.

It is common to hear prisoners serving life sentences say if they could go back in time to the day they committed their crime they would have made much different choices.

Prisoners express these things in the presence of other prisoners who have absolutely nothing to offer them such as paroles or commutations. They have nothing to gain by their honesty and openness.

This says a lot because many prisoners strive to create and maintain the facade of a rigid exterior and persona so that other prisoners will respect them or be more fearful of them.

Many of these prisoners participate in self-help programming and attend religious services even though their sentences have condemned them to die in prison.

All this demonstrates change. Their actions are reflections of hope, growth, and maturity; all elements essential to reforming their lives.

A society that continues evolving its standards of decency must begin embracing principles that promote life. We cannot become captives to policies designed to eclipse the souls of young offenders and condemn them to a lifetime of perpetual suffering.

Intrinsically every human being wants to do good. Circumstances in young people's lives they can not extricate themselves from derail that at times, but no single experience defines them, whether good or bad.

Statistics reflect that 95% of the prisoner population will return to society one day. This means they will all be offered a second chance to become productive citizens. Youthful offenders should not be excluded from this opportunity.

Denying people second chances is to deny them a life of meaning.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Proposal to Grant Michigan Juvenile Lifers Parole Consideration

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Advocates for prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole ("LWOP") for crimes they were convicted of committing when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers"), recently created a new online petition proposing changes to their sentences.

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles is unconstitutional in the case of Miller v. Alabama. The court acknowledged that children are different and have an enormous capacity for change.

Despite the court's ruling a patchwork of litigation ensued across the nation as a consequence of defiant state attorneys general who refused to acknowledge that the court's ruling had retroactive application.

According to many state attorneys general, the Miller case did not apply to cases that had already exhausted their appellate remedies; the vast majority of the 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide.

It would take four years for the U.S. Supreme Court to finally settle the retroactivity issue in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana in January 2016.

In its ruling the court held that unless a prosecutor can prove a defendant is "irreparably corrupt," and has no chance of ever being rehabilitated, s/he can not receive a LWOP sentence. Instead, s/he must be sentenced to a term of years.

The petition calls on the legislature to modify the existing Michigan statute governing first-degree murder cases for juvenile offenders to allow them to begin receiving meaningful parole consideration.

It asks lawmakers to revise the range of minimum sentencing guidelines, which currently allow a person to receive a 25- to 40-year minimum sentence, to be a flat 25-year minimum sentence. The maximum sentence of 60 years would remain the same.

The change would prevent the state from conducting 363 costly resentencing hearings at taxpayer expense for each prisoner affected. It would avert placing enormous burdens on county prosecutors, preserve limited state financial resources and prevent victim family members from having to experience additional potentially protracted, painful court hearings.

The Flint water crisis desperately needs taxpayer dollars and vast resources to remedy. There are many neglected infrastructure projects that need to be completed, and funding is needed to prevent further school closings.

Taxpayers are asking legislators to prioritize the state's resources to fund these three needs rather than allocating resources to be spent on avoidable resentencing hearings.

Revising the sentencing guidelines would give jurisdiction to the Parole Board over each juvenile lifer case. The Parole Board would review each case and only release juvenile lifers who would not pose a danger to society if released.

When people sign the petition a template letter is e-mailed to their state representative, state senator, and the Governor expressing support for the petition content. State legislators are selected by based on the zip code provided by the person signing the petition.

People can visit to view and sign the petition. You are encouraged to also share a link to the petition on Facebook, Twitter, and in e-mails and text messages.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Blossoms of Humanity Emerge from the Seeds of Consciousness

The Blossoms of Humanity Emerge from the Seeds of Consciousness

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

(I delivered the following message at the January 15, 2015 Power of Peace Project graduation ceremony held at the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF).)

It takes courage to do and stand for the right things in life. This is especially true in the prison setting. For this every participant in this program is deserving of accolades. They took the time to do something meaningful with their lives when they could have elected to sit in the day-room and play cards or lay in their beds and watch TV.

The men who participated in this program did so even though it may not have been a popular thing to do among the people they live around or associate with. They understand what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politics, nor popular, but one must take it because it's right."

They were willing to make personal sacrifices and take risks to challenge their thinking and do better. And, they took this chance understanding the adage, "What is to give light must endure burning." (Victor Frankl)

Much of what we read and discussed during this 40-day program weren't things we didn't already know. What the program did was help us align each principle and value into a constellation that formed a clearer image of what peace means and can do for our community. It is a package of carefully woven together ideas that can serve as a blueprint to foster peace and empower the lives of others.

It is now our responsibility to carry the torch we have been handed. We have to do our part to make this program attractive to others and encourage their participation.

"A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus." (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), meaning that we have to share this message with those who don't already agree with its philosophy to change our environment one person at a time. We won't produce meaningful change by "speaking to the choir." It will occur by doing the work necessary to convert people to a new way of thinking.

The Power of Peace Project: Forty Days to Peace

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

November 5, 2014 I began participating in "Forty Days to Peace," a program created by Kit Cummings, author, motivational speaker, and founder of The Power of Peace Project.

Kit traveled from his home in Atlanta, Georgia to visit the Muskegon Correctional Facility and speak to potential candidates, encouraging their participation in the Forty Days to Peace. Kit's inspiring message resonated with those in attendance and generated wide interest in the program. He delivered his message to nearly 200 prisoners about peace, responsibility, transformation, and other important issues germane to self-development.

For some, Kit's message was the catalyst they needed to help unlock their consciousness and awaken the desire to end the cycle of violence that destroys our communities. One prisoner told me that hearing Kit's message was the first time he felt compelled to engage in service to others and become an agent of positive change.

Forty Days to Peace teaches people to cultivate inner peace, foster peace in others and, by extension, produces harmonious communities. At the onset of the program participants are given a black rubber wristband that states, "I Am the Power of Peace," to wear daily and a copy of the "Forty Days to Peace" booklet.

For 40 days participants wear their wristband as a symbol of peace and a reminder of their commitment to sincerely work on one step a week for the entire 40-day journey. These steps include working to break th destructive habits and patterns of complaining without gratitude, blaming without integrity, excuse-making without effort, playing the victim, never saying "I'm sorry," never saying "thank you," and never asking for help.

Participants also pledge to live by the following Seven Steps to Peace during that time: being a peacemaker wherever they go; treating their adversaries with respect; when provoked not retaliating, but finding a better way; when cursed not cursing back, and using deliberate language; not lying, cheating or stealing; when they are wrong promptly admitting it and quickly making amends; and treating their enemies the way that they wish to be treated.

The program requires reading and meditating on inspirational quotes from various twentieth century peacemakers daily, visualizing themselves living that way that day, and journaling about epiphanies, ideas and breakthroughs.

Each week participants meet in the facility auditorium to view a brief 10 minute video message from Kit about the lesson that week. Afterwards they convene in small study groups with program facilitators to engage in discussions about progress, obstacles and failures in their daily program.

At the end of the program Kit returned to the prison to deliver an important message at a graduation ceremony held January 15, 2015. The day had special significance because it was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and marked the fourth annual anniversary of the inception of The Power of Peace Project. Sadly, it was also the anniversary of the death of Kit's father; a story he shared with us in his message.

Three prisoners read essays they wrote about a peacemaker who has influenced their lives and six speakers selected by the program facilitators spoke a few minutes about how the program impacted them and/or others around them.

A few songs were performed by one of the program facilitators and afterwards Kit issued certificates of completion to those who successfully completed the program. Kit then invited all the graduates to join him in the gymnasium for turkey deli sandwiches, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies and fruit punch. The meal was purchased by the Prisoner Benefit Fund.

This was the fourth time the program had been launched at the prison. The men who participated thoroughly enjoyed the program, but most of all, they were able to develop important communication, conflict resolution, and life skills to foster internal and external peace.

The Power of Peace Project has proven to reduce violence in some of the most dangerous prisons in the country. Kit has shared his program in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. He also works with high school students, organizations and others.

The day of the graduation participants of Forty Days of Peace, me included, were invited to take a new pledge to begin another 40-day program named "Forty Days to Freedom." I accepted the invitation and am embarking on a new journey I know will be as rewarding and edifying as the first program.

I would like to extend a special thanks to Kit for creating these programs and also thank Warden Sherry Burt, Special Activities Director Sharon Haner, and the program facilitators for bringing the program to the Muskegon Correctional Facility and providing participants the space and opportunity to generate and foster peace.

The entire prison is a safer an better place when we produce new ambassadors of peace.

As we wrap up this phase of the program we should all be encouraged to continue expanding our consciousness and building on the foundation we have established. Participating in programs that reinforce positive growth and development is one way to keep contributing to this positive Movement.

It all begins with us. None of this would be possible absent our participation. We serve as the nexus between yesterday and tomorrow. Through our actions we will carry on the legacy of the Power of Peace project and sustain its success.

We should all be grateful for this opportunity and proud of our accomplishments.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nelson Mandela, Soldier for Peace

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

For 27 years Nelson Mandela surmounted myriad battles he confronted daily against an oppressive government intent on breaking his spirit. He did it all while categorically rejecting the use of violence. Had he chose the use of force as the solution to the problems he faced his legacy would have likely been terminated early by a senseless act of violence.

It took enormous courage and fortitude to combat the barrage of attacks Mandela faced at the hands of his ruthless captors. His struggle taught him that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. In this truth was a seed he planted in the hearts of people for generations.

Mandela always strived to give birth to the best within himself. He remained unwavering in his steadfast commitment to draw immeasurable wisdom and strength from the Creator. In his story we learn that what doesn't destroy you can only make you stronger.

To be imprisoned nearly three decades and experience the cruel injustices of South African apartheid would have defeated many people. Instead, Mandela transformed his anger, disappointment, and pain into a powerful weapon that lead to his eventual release and an end to apartheid. He ascended from the bowels of a dismal prison cell to the comfort of living in the opulent South African presidential palace as the nation's leader.

Mandela taught us that the Creator will never give us a burden greater than we can bear. His resilience never capitulated to oppression, psychological brutalities, and the incessant injustices he faced. He knew that as long as he continued to tap into the infinite Source of life (i.e., the Creator) he would continue to not only survive in the worst conditions known to man, he would thrive in them.

I have studied Mandela's life for over two decades to learn how he was able to survive so many years of wrongful imprisonment and not allow it to destroy his life. Incorporating many of his practices and beliefs into my daily life has helped me perpetually grow and continue bringing myself more in alignment with the Creator.

One of the most profound lessons Mandela taught us was the need to forgive others. I learned to understand that forgiving others was not something I was doing for them; it is something I do for myself. Forgiveness means letting go of the narrative that pain has had on my life, disallowing its toxicity to poison my life, and liberating myself from struggling under the crushing weight of hatred, anger and the thirst for revenge. It means not allowing my past to define my future.

Mandela was a living example of how not to sabotage our lives because of the mistakes and negative actions of others. Once we realize our capacity for brilliance we can soar above the negative forces that keep us obsessing about the past.

I was able to begin healing from years of wrongful incarceration once I jettisoned the false belief that I will always remain tethered to the darkness (e.g., anger, resentment, pain, etc.) of the past. I discovered that healing occurs in the present not in the past. And, once I made a conscious choice to sever that connection I could move forward.

I also learned that in every experience, painful or otherwise, is a lesson for us about life; something we need to learn. If we remain angry and hurt we will miss the lesson and be trapped in a cloud of pain. It prevents our upward mobility and keeps our lives descending in a downward spiral.

Too often people elect to remain captives to distorted views of themselves than to do the necessary work to liberate themselves from these self-imposed shackles. They continue looking for sources of peace externally and avoid cultivating it internally. Mandela recognized this mistake and did the inversion.

Holding on to feelings of revenge and a vindictive mentality diminishes our quality of life. We torment ourselves and remain enslaved to others. Once we learn to forgive them we desist hearing painful voices of the past or giving them power over our lives. We create space to be occupied with positive energy when we eradicate negative energy.

Mandela taught us that rejecting dis-empowering thoughts and infusing ourselves with the Creator's power and wisdom allows us to realize the law of reciprocity that teaches us the adage, "As we do unto others so will it be done unto us." Espousing this reality collectively can transform the world one person at a time.

In so doing we can, in the words of Mandela, "turn our common suffering into hope for the future." We can also eliminate societal ills that prevent us from seeing peace manifest in the world.

(This essay was written as an assignment for The Power of Peace Project as one of the requirements for successfully completing the "40 Days to Peace" program.)