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Monday, June 19, 2017

Mich. Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice Draws National Attention

by Necalli Ollin

After thunderstorms barreled through the state Sunday morning, clouds dispersed later that day to create a sunny backdrop for the widely anticipated "Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice." Citizens across the country descended on Erma Henderson Memorial Park in Detroit, Michigan on June 18, 2017 from 2 pm to 5 pm to shine a powerful spotlight on issues adversely affecting juvenile lifers.

Event organizers Elena Herrada and Efren Paredes, Jr. began planning for two months prior to the date of the event. Plans included doing outreach on radio shows, speaking to college students, inviting event speakers, creating and distributing posters, developing an online platform to contact state legislators to pass Michigan prison reform, and promoting the event on social media and blogs.

Elena Herrada is a Detroit Superstation AM 910 radio show host and adjunct professor at Marygrove College and Wayne County Community College. Efren Paredes, Jr. is an advocate for social change, youth mentor, blogger, and one of Michigan's 363 juvenile lifers.

The event was endorsed by an impressive list of groups and organizations from around the country. Among them are Amnesty International, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Human Rights Advocates, The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), Voice of Detroit Newspaper, My Brother's Keeper Prison Outreach Program (MBK-POP), Xica Nation, ACLU (Detroit), Humanity for Prisoners, and ICAN (Incarcerated Childrens' Advocacy Network).

Other supporters included The Injustice Must End (TIME), South Eastern Michigan Indians, Inc. (SEMII), Black Lives Matter, and LaSED (Latin American Social and Economic Development), Peace Education Center of Greater Lansing, My Brother's Keeper Prison Outreach Program (MBK-POP), National Lifers of America, Inc. (Chapter 1030), Sacred Heart Catholic Church (Detroit), St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Keep the Vote No Takeover, Moratorium Now, Detroit School Board in Exile, Operation Get Down, and others.

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, recently wrote a message to organizers about the event stating, "Thank you so much for your organizing and activism on this issue. It's great to see people committing to highlighting this shameful practice. We would be very pleased to be listed as an endorser of your convening. I hope it goes well. All the best."

Stevenson is the author of the New York Times Bestseller "Just Mercy" and the attorney who successfully argued the landmark Miller v. Alabama case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 which lead to the end of mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders nationwide.

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences were unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of the nation's 2,500 juvenile lifers. Of that number 363 prisoners are from Michigan.

"Juvenile lifers" are prisoners sentenced to mandatory LWOP when they were juveniles. Michigan shamefully ranks second in the nation as the state with the highest population of juvenile lifers.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a United Nations treaty, requires that imprisonment be used only as a "measure of last resort" for juvenile offenders, and "for the shortest appropriate time."

In 2016 the high court made their 2012 ruling retroactive. They also held that when resentencing prisoners reimposing LWOP sentences again must become "rare," "uncommon," and reserved only for those who are "incapable of change."

Since the latter ruling 15 months ago only a small fraction of Michigan's juvenile lifers have been resentenced. The remaining prisoners continue serving unconstitutional sentences. Prosecutors have stalled the process and some have not scheduled any cases for resentencing in their counties.

Prosecutors from Berrien, Gennesse, Macomb, Oakland, and Saginaw counties are shamefully seeking LWOP sentences for almost all the 100 juvenile lifer cases in those counties being resentenced. Wayne County is seeking LWOP sentences for 61 of the 158 cases in its jurisdiction. They are doing this despite the U.S. Supreme Court rulings referenced above.

In recent years 19 states have banned LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders and six states have no juveniles serving the deplorable sentence. This means that half the country has abandoned the practice while many Michigan prosecutors have maliciously obstructed justice in juvenile lifer cases for the past five years. During this time six juvenile lifers have died awaiting the justice they were never fortunate enough to receive.

Among the issues the event called attention to are:

Prosecutors to:
- Uphold the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility statement as ministers of justice;
- For them to have more than a nominal commitment to rehabilitation;
- To stop pursuing LWOP sentences that are at odds with U.S. Supreme Court rulings; and
- To stop delaying juvenile lifer resentencing hearings across the state.

They called on judges to:
- Impose the minimum term-of-year sentence allowed pursuant to MCL 769.25 for all juvenile lifers being resentenced and stop imposing LWOP sentences on juvenile offenders.

They also called on lawmakers to:
- Pass legislation abolishing LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders; to
- Give jurisdiction to the Parole Board to begin reviewing all juvenile lifer cases for meaningful parole consideration annually after serving 15 years; and to
- Allow juvenile offenders who are resentenced to receive good time and disciplinary credits, which is currently not allowed.



A 10-Point Michigan Prison Reform Platform and online petition was also unveiled that citizens across the state can digitally sign. The petition will deliver emails to state legislators calling on them to reform the state's prison system. Some of the proposed reforms include abolishing LWOP sentences for juveniles, restoring good time eligibility for all prisoners, reducing the predatory pricing of phone calls, providing relief to prisoners serving life or long indeterminate sentences, etc.

Among the rich array of people who spoke at the event were Eric Alexander from the Washington, DC-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth; Dr. Austin Jackson, Director, MSU My Brother's Keeper Program; Ken Grunow, President, Amnesty International (Detroit); Rodd Monts, Legislative Department Field Director, ACLU of Michigan; Dr. John Masterson, Board Member, Peace Education Center of Greater Lansing; and Mario Bueno, Co-Director, LUCK, Inc.

Also speaking that afternoon were Hon. Peter Deegan, retired judge, prosecutor, and past President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan; Velia Koppenhoefer, member of The Injustice Must End (TIME); Elyse Blennerhassett, Columbia University graduate student, New York-based podcast producer, and photographer; former prisoners who were convicted as juveniles who were paroled and are now productive citizens, and others.

   
  


Speakers shared personal stories and offered examples of the capacity for change in young people. They emphasized the need to not impose extreme sentences on youth offenders and for judges to be mindful of the concept of redemption.

Retired judge, prosecutor, and past President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, Peter Deegan, urged prosecutors to not make decisions in juvenile lifer cases that are at odds with U.S. Supreme Court rulings. He said it makes sense that if a person who received an unconstitutional sentence as a teen can demonstrate they've been rehabilitated, they should have a chance at parole one day.

Velia Koppenhoefer, member of The Injustice Must End (TIME), stated, "We are not asking prosecutors or judges to do any more than the nation's high court has ordered in this matter."

Koppenhoefer added, "We are simply asking them to follow the law. Providing term-of-year sentences to juvenile lifers and the opportunity for meaningful parole consideration is a sensible and humane solution that can bring resolution to the problem."

Speakers expressed frustration with the state spending $34,000 to incarcerate each prisoner yearly yet only investing $7,000 annually per pupil, and the fact that the state pays more for incarceration than it does for higher education.

To punctuate the value of children's futures at the event two children were permitted to speak during the program, a girl age 7 and a boy age 10. The seven-year-old also assisted organizers distribute flyers, business cards, and water during the program.

Paredes, who called the event from prison and had his voice amplified over the event sound system stated, "We betray humanity when we condemn people to die in prison because of mistakes they made when they were children."

Members of the print, television, and radio media provided coverage of the event. It was also recorded by a documentary film producer and podcast producer to be featured as part of a future production.

Nearly 200 people attended the rally throughout the afternoon and enjoyed the uplifting atmosphere. One attendee from Lansing, Michigan described the experience as "powerful and moving." Another person who traveled from out of state characterized the energy at the event as "inspiring" and described feeling "a sense of hope and renewal."

A currently incarcerated juvenile lifer, Ronnie Waters who has served 37 years in prison, expressed gratitude for the event. He stated, "Thank you from the heart for not forgetting about the difficult fight that juvenile lifers are engaged in across the state. Knowing you are there to support us lifts our spirits during this long, difficult wait. May God be with all of you freedom fighters who never stop beating the drum for justice. We love you all."

Event organizers vowed to keep organizing to bring attention to the issues surrounding juvenile lifer resentencing hearings and prison reform affecting all prisoners. They also expressed plans to mobilize thousands of prisoner families, friends, and formerly incarcerated people to become active in the election process and stand behind public office candidates that support prison reform. Among the offices they will seek to impact include the Governor, Attorney General, lawmakers, mayors, judges, prosecutors, city clerks, and others.

According to Paredes, "Children for generations will be impacted by our decision to act or our unwillingness to do so. We can not sit silently in the periphery as spectators and allow the lives and futures of our young people to be carelessly thrown away."

He countered false claims and hyperbole made by prosecutors about the manufactured danger juvenile lifers allegedly pose to public safety by pointing to the fact that prisoners serving life sentences who are paroled statistically have less than a 2% chance of reoffending. They have ranked the lowest of all offense categories for over 100 years and consistently demonstrated they can be safely returned to society with minimal risks or danger to the public.

The state's addiction to incarceration as a solution to the crime problem is a failed solution that must be replaced with sensible alternatives that work. If not, mass incarceration will continue to be a vortex that suffocates everything in its path. 




A link to the "Support Michigan Prison Reform" petition is available at www.TinyURL.com/MIPR2017





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The following is the 10-Point Michigan Prison Reform Platform that is part of the "Support Michigan Prison Reform" online petition:

1. Abolish life without parole (LWOP) sentences for all juvenile offenders, revise MCL 769.25 to allow juvenile lifers to receive meaningful parole eligibility annually after serving 15 years, and allow them to receive good time and disciplinary credits if they receive a term-of-years when resentenced.

2. Restore good time eligibility so prisoners can earn early release for completion of rehabilitative programming and demonstration of positive behavior.

3. End Michigan's failed truth in sentencing policy which is largely responsible for maintaining a large prison population despite a widely recognized consistent statistical drop in crime for several years.

4. End mandatory minimum sentences and give discretion to judges to impose sentences based on all the facts of an individual case since no two cases are the same.

5. Institute presumptive parole for prisoners who complete all parole program requirements and screen high probability of parole so prisoners are not arbitrarily denied paroles they have fairly earned.

6. Stop sending women to prison who have been the victims of violence for defending themselves against their abusers.

7. Increase rehabilitative programming opportunities for all prisoner demographics, including those serving long sentences since 95% of all prisoners will become returning citizens one day.

8. Allow the Parole Board to obtain jurisdiction over prisoners serving long indeterminate sentences and begin annually reviewing them for parole consideration after they have served 20 years.

9. Allow prisoners serving parolable life sentences to become eligible for parole review/release annually after serving 20 years; and allow prisoners serving non-parolable life sentences who were convicted over the age of 18 to become eligible for parole review/release annually after serving 25 years.

10. Reduce the predatory pricing of prisoner phone calls from $.20 per minute to $.10 per minute to help prisoners maintain family and community ties and foster rehabilitation.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice

by Necalli Ollin

Advocates working to abolish life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders ("juvenile lifers") are hosting the "Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice." The event will take place Sunday, June 18, 2017 from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm at Erma Henderson Memorial Park, located at 8810 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit, MI 48214.

The event is calling on:

- Prosecutors to uphold the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility statement as ministers of justice, to have more than a nominal commitment to rehabilitation, and stop delaying juvenile lifer resentencing hearings across the state;
- Judges to impose the minimum term-of-year sentence allowed pursuant to MCL 769.25 for all juvenile lifers being resentenced, which is currently a 25- to 60-year sentence; and
- Lawmakers to pass legislation giving jurisdiction to the Parole Board to begin reviewing all juvenile lifer cases for meaningful parole consideration annually after serving 20 years.

An online petition will also be launched that delivers emails to state lawmakers demanding passage of a 10-point prison reform platform that will impact every prisoner in the state. Included will be the restoring of good time, reducing the predatory pricing of prisoner phone calls, providing relief for prisoners serving life and long indeterminate sentences, and other important issues.

Additional information about the event and the 10-point prison reform platform is available by visiting: www.facebook.com/events/643683492488946.

The collaborative effort is being lead by Elena Herrada, adjunct professor at Marygrove College and Wayne County Community College, and Detroit Superstation AM 910 radio show host; and Efren Paredes, Jr., social justice advocate, blogger, and prisoner who was arrested in Berrien County at age 15 and sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) in 1989. Students attending Herrada's classes and others are also assisting organize the grassroots effort.

The "Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice" has been endorsed by Amnesty International, ICAN (Incarcerated Childrens' Advocacy Network), The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Humanity for Prisoners, Peace Education Center of Greater Lansing, Human Rights Advocates, National Lifers of America, Inc. (Chapter 1030), LaSED (Latin American Social and Economic Development), St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Keep the Vote No Takeover, Detroit School Board in Exile, Operation Get Down, and others.

Those in attendance will include family members and supporters of juvenile lifers, youth advocates, attorneys, members of the faith-based community, legislators, representatives of civil and human rights organizations, bloggers, podcast producers, and members of the state and national television, print, and radio media.

Ideas for writing support letters and emails for juvenile lifers, making phone calls, doing radio interviews, submitting letters to the editor, and other ideas that can be helpful to advocating for the release of juvenile lifers will be discussed.

Attendees are encouraged to create posters and wear T-shirts expressing support for juvenile lifers from their respective areas. They should reflect images of communities embracing returning citizens and the reunification of families. People are encouraged to also display large photos of juvenile lifers.

T-shirt ideas can include slogans such as "End Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences," "Support Second Chances for Youth," "Children Are Not Disposable," etc. People can also wear photos of juvenile lifers on T-shirts with the words "Free (Name of a juvenile lifer)" or just the words "Free (Name of a juvenile lifer)."

Efforts will also include urging citizens to vote against any prosecutors in the state who continue defying the U.S. Supreme Court by creating resentencing delays, abusing their authority, and arbitrarily pursuing LWOP sentences against juvenile lifers rather than term-of-year sentences.

Elected officials must be held accountable for their support of sentences that extinguish hope by being removed from office next election cycle. It is not the will of the people to viciously condemn youth to spend their entire lives in human cages.

According to Efren, "A sentence that perpetuates human storage in an austere world in which condemned prisoners are treated as bodies kept alive only to later be disposed of has no place in a civilized society."

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of the 2,500 prisoners affected nationwide. Of that number Michigan imprisons 363 juvenile lifers.

In a landmark ruling 16 months ago the high court strongly urged judges and prosecutors to pursue term-of-year sentences for those prisoners being resentenced. It held that the reimposition of a LWOP sentence must be "rare," "uncommon," and only reserved for those persons "who are incapable of change."

Since that decision only a small fraction of Michigan's juvenile lifers have been resentenced. Prosecutors have orchestrated incessant delays that have resulted in the death of six juvenile lifers who have died while waiting to be resentenced over the past five years.

Michigan prosecutors have also defied the U.S. Supreme Court by widely expressing their intent to pursue LWOP sentences again for 228 of the state's 363 cases. This excessive number is hardly rare or uncommon.

To educate the public about ways they can urge prosecutors to desist their sentencing delay tactics, and shine a spotlight on the overall issue, Efren has been calling in to Herrada's radio show and classrooms to speak to college students. He is appearing on her radio show weekly to discuss the event, and is harnessing the power of his vast network to help grow the campaign to abolish juvenile LWOP sentences.

People are urged to begin tuning in to Detroit Superstation AM 910 weekly Sunday mornings between 7:00 am and 8:00 am to hear Efren and Herrada discuss continued efforts to organize the "Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice."

People outside the broadcast listening area can hear the show in real-time on the AM 910 website and also listen to a taped version of interviews on YouTube in the days following the show. The YouTube links will appear on the Free Efren Facebook page available at www.fb.com/Free.Efren.

People interested in attending the Rally for Justice, assisting with organizing, and/or receiving email updates can send a message to event organizers via email to ElenaMHerrada2@gmail.com. Please put "Rally for Justice" in the subject line of the email.

Youth offenders have a remarkable capacity for change and deserve an opportunity to prove they possess redeemable qualities. State-sponsored death-by-incarceration is a deplorable policy that must be vehemently rejected and openly condemned by all people of conscience.

According to Efren, "We can not sit idly by and wait for prison reform to occur. We are all stakeholders in this very important matter. If we are not assertive with our agenda we will continue witnessing the same dismal results and failed representation by elected officials."

He added, "The addiction to constructing prisons as the solution to the crime problem has been an abysmal failure that has destroyed an untold number of lives and manifested itself as the school-to-prison pipeline. It has also created crushing images of self-contempt, personal alienation, and a poverty of thought."

Please invite friends and family members to attend the event, circulate the event widely on social media, and ask others to do the same. You can copy and paste the following sample paragraph to assist with this:

Support the "Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice" on June 18, 2017 in Detroit and the 10-Point Prison Reform Platform that affects every female and male prisoner in the state serving short- and long-term sentences. Learn more about the event at: www.facebook.com/events/643683492488946. Please circulate link widely via social media platforms, email, post to blogs and media web site comment sections, and invite others to do the same.

Friday, May 5, 2017

2017 Cinco de Mayo Message

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo to everyone celebrating this day in Mexican history.

It isn't often we find people of every cultural and political background in our nation so widely celebrating a triumph in our neighbors' history. One can't help but admire the undauntable will of a small indigenous Mexican community that courageously represented the embodiment of resistance and defeated a foreign power in heroic fashion.

I want to ask people who are celebrating Cinco de Mayo today to not only acknowledge the authentic history of this day, but to also recognize the myriad current painful struggles that Mexican people are enduring across the United States.

People who genuinely value the lives of Mexican people are invited to support:

- An end to the deportations of undocumented Mexican nationals;
- The closing of immigration detention centers profiting from the misery of people trying to seek a better life for their families; and
- Advocate for passage of comprehensive immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship.

The dehumanizing forceful separation of families is an un-American, shameful policy that must be ended. We can't lecture to other nations about not mistreating people while immigrants in our country are under siege, we are openly offending our neighbors, and tearing their families apart.

Mexican people and immigrants are an integral part of the rich mosaic of backgrounds that comprise our great nation. Let's make sure they are accorded the respect they are due and transform the toxic political terrain that is demonizing them.

We also cannot forget the untold number of Mexican citizens and people of Mexican descent languishing in our nation's prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers whose voices remain muted. Many of them will experience this Cinco de Mayo alone, separated from their families and communities, and experiencing hunger.

Let's celebrate our diverse culture, history and values that have sustained us for so long, and support our Mexican friends, neighbors, and family members. We will all be better because of it. There can be no celebration of Cinco de Mayo absent civility, respect, and embracing the people who contribute so much to this country every day.

While it is a great moment in history to celebrate about the will to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds, it is an opportunity for us to also collectively work to ensure that its memory is not lost in the commercialization of a battle in a little town 155 years ago that transformed the contours of American history.

That can be a contribution we all make today so that the next generation of young people celebrating this day preserve its integrity and appreciate the sacrifices made by Mexican people to ensure that a world super power an ocean away did not reach our nation's southern border.

Monday, March 20, 2017

MSU Story Catcher's Drama Club Performs Play at Ionia Prison

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

After several months of production the moment finally arrived this past Friday for playwrites at the Handlon Correctional Facility to perform a play they produced titled "Only the Blind Can See." 

The play script was written by prisoner participants in the MSU Story Catcher's Drama Club and performed in the prison auditorium for the prisoner population. Also in attendance were Warden Dewayne Burton; Dr. Austin Jackson, director of the MSU My Brother's Keeper Program; and other prison staff members. It was the first play ever performed at the prison.

The Story Catcher's Drama Club is lead by Dr. Lisa Biggs, an actress and assistant professor in the Michigan State University Residential College of the Arts and Humanities.

Dr. Biggs created the "story catcher's" concept as a vehicle to deconstruct false and misleading narratives about members of marginalized communities. She believes we can empower communities by fostering the creation of counter-stories that shatter stereotypes, promote equality, and combat words that wound which can result in a withered self-concept.

Storytelling provides a forum for the marginalized voice. According to Richard Delgado, "Through personal histories, parables, chronicles, dreams, stories, poetry, fiction, and revisionist histories, the marginalized voice is allowed to teach us other realities that we need to know in our world."

"Only the Blind Can See" is a play about a teenage African-American male who collapses in a town. People all over the community make assumptions about the event, including believing that he was a victim of violence.

In the end it is a blind man who simply asks if anyone has checked the teenager's body for vitals. The question leads to the discovery that the teenager is still alive, revealing that many people drew wrong conclusions about what occurred.

It was the one character in the story that could not physically see who had the clearest vision of all. He did not allow his opinion to be distorted like other people did which resulted in their flawed conclusions.

The moral of the story was the need to recognize the importance of utilizing all our conceptual tools to interpret reality rather than reaching conclusions based on fragments of information. Too often people make erroneous assumptions about people or events with little or no evidence to support their belief.

The play was replete with a broad spectrum of experiences. Some were funny, serious, and others were designed to evoke serious thought, reflection, and penetrating insight.

Audience members described the play as "disciplined and heartfelt," "40 minutes of great entertainment," and "brilliantly done." They also discussed the performance with several other prisoners upon returning back to their housing units later that evening. They shared impactful scenes with friends and recited various lines by characters in the play.

Each cast member took their role(s) seriously and their performances reflected their commitment to success. Most had never performed before a large crowd and had to quickly overcome fears associated with that experience.

Shortly before the play began one cast member peeked through the curtain to view the audience. Upon seeing the large attendance he abruptly closed the curtain and returned to the back of the stage.

He indicated that he felt intimidated by the presence of so many people and didn't think he would be able to perform his character. After some encouragement from other cast members he regained his confidence and subsequently delivered a stellar performance.

Another cast member had been previously characterized as shy and introverted when the theater workshop initially began. One prisoner described him this way: "He never used to interact with other prisoners or come out of his cell. The class made him come out of his shell and start talking to people. He changed a lot in a good way."

According to Diarra Bryant, another member of the cast, "Men came together to present a narrative about the difficulties of life and the joy that comes from triumphing over struggle."

One of the youngest performers, Kenyatta Johnson, was impressed with how Dr. Biggs "continued to break down walls and barriers that the men in her class didn't even know existed." He added, "I learned a lot from the experience and forged new bonds with people from different walks of life I had never talked to before."

Dr. Biggs taught cast members deep listening skills, the importance of collaborating with and respecting the opinions of others, and she fostered the development of their self-confidence. She also challenged them to embrace vulnerability which can serve as a pathway to exploring new experiences.

I played multiple roles in the play as a student, storekeeper, poet, and mayor whose role was to calm escalating tensions in a city that was demanding answers to why the teenager collapsed.

I wrote the dialogue for a mayoral press conference scene which appeared in the play. It was a proud moment for me personally because it was the first time I ever wrote anything for or appeared in a play.

The name I gave to the character I developed in the play as the mayor, Carlos Munoz, Jr., was done as a tribute to a friend and mentors I admire and profoundly respect. Dr. Munoz is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, in the Chicano Studies Dept.; author of "Youth, Identity, Power"; and a long-time Chicano and human rights activist who recently suffered a stroke.

The success of the play would have never been possible without the dynamic stewardship and careful guidance of Dr. Biggs. Her passion for education and the arts is a model many other educators can learn from.

The cast of "Only the Blind Can See" would like to thank Warden Dewayne Burton for allowing the play to be performed, and to staff member Jodie Heard for coordinating the cast costume inventory, facilitating the scheduling of prisoner audience members to attend the performance, and printing the programs.

A special thanks to Dr. Biggs for sacrificing valuable time from her busy schedule to travel to the Ionia-based prison weekly for several months to share her wisdom, expertise, and inspire cast members to explore the depth of their imaginations.

One concept Dr. Biggs introduced to cast members was "sawubona," which she learned about while conducting a theater workshop for women prisoners in South Africa. The Zulu term inculcates the value of recognizing the inherent dignity in fellow human beings.

Lessons like these and others helped the men remove their intellectual blinders, evolve into better people, and empowered them to become the torch bearers to carry on Dr. Biggs' legacy of teaching the world the vital role that story catchers play in our society.

It is a legacy well-deserving of our time and dedication. And, one that will proudly be carried on.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

28 years of Incarceration

MAR 15, 2017 — Dear Friends, Family and Supporters,

Today marks 28 complete years Efren Paredes, Jr. has been incarcerated. It is a total of 10,220 grueling days or 245,280 hours, however you choose to calculate the numbers. No matter how you do the math it is an inordinate number by any standard. Efren now begins serving his 29th year in prison.

As many of you know, in January 2016 (over a year ago) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. The Court ordered that the 2,500 prisoners affected ("juvenile lifers") nationwide be resentenced.

Since that time less than 10% of Michigan's juvenile lifers have been resentenced despite the high court's landmark ruling. Several Michigan counties have not resentenced a single prisoner, including Berrien County, where Efren was originally sentenced.

If there is any positive news to report in all this it is the fact that of the Michigan prisoners who have been resentenced in recent months the majority have received 25- to 60-year sentences. It is the same sentence this petition is requesting that Efren's resentencing judge impose on him as well.

Efren's long history of impressive accomplishments and capacity for change are well-established and widely recognized. When juxtaposing Efren's case and history against those that have already received 25- to 60-year sentences, any fair-minded person will conclude that Efren is equally deserving of receiving a sentence proportionate to them as well.

We are calling on everyone who has already signed this petition to please invite at least 10 of your contacts to sign the petition and circulate it via email and social media pages. Ask them to also encourage others to feature the petition link on web sites and blogs as well. A shortcut link to the petition people can use is: www.TinyURL.com/Efren1016.

Please also take a moment to invite people to "Like" the Free Efren Facebook page so we can help keep them updated about our campaign to free Efren. The link is available at www.fb.com/FreeEfren.

Thank you for your continued support. Please keep Efren and his family in your prayers.

Sincerely,

The Injustice Must End (TIME)
Committee to Free Efren Paredes, Jr.

Mini-Tablets Now Available in Michigan Prisons

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

In a positive step in the right direction the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) has made it possible for Michigan prisoners to begin purchasing 4.3-inch screen mini-tablets.

The move makes it possible for prisoners to send and receive electronic messages to members of the public through the tablet, as well as purchase music to listen to, and store photos sent to them by people electronically.

The device, which is available in hundreds of prisons across the nation, does not allow access to the Internet. All features available on the tablet are pre-approved by MDOC administrators to meet all security requirements.

Women prisoners were allowed to purchase the tablets as part of a pilot project launched a couple years ago. Its success lead MDOC administrators to allow male prisoners to begin purchasing them early this year.

The tablets also feature a calculator, clock, alarm, and calendar. They are features that though very simple are important to many prisoners' day-to-day lives. The wristwatch currently allowed to be purchased by the MDOC alone is more expensive than the tablet.

Regularly priced at $39.99 the tablet is a wise investment. Michigan prisoners are fortunate to purchase the tablet for $19.99 for a two-month limited period of time.

Previous to allowing prisoners to purchase the tablets prisoners had to send and receive electronic messages using a kiosk manufactured by JPay. Access to the kiosks was limited to two 15-minute sessions per day, however, to accommodate usage by all the prisoners in each housing unit. The ratio of kiosks averages about two per every 140 prisoners.

This presented several challenges for many prisoners who can not type fast or hardly type at all. In many instances it would take prisoners a couple days to type a complete letter to send someone. The frustration often discouraged many prisoners from even sending messages.

Now prisoners can type messages on their personal tablets in their cells and spend as much time as they need to do so. Once complete, they can connect to the JPay kiosk and quickly send their message through the portal.

All electronic messages and photos sent to prisoners via JPay are screened by the company and MDOC staff prior to delivery. This can result in messages being delayed for hours or not being delivered until the following day.

To contact a Michigan prisoner electronically members of the public can visit www.JPay.com and locate the prisoner by her/his prison number. For instance, someone can contact me by searching for me using the number "203116" for a Michigan prisoner.

With the overwhelming positive response to the tablet it is the hope of many prisoners that the MDOC will one day allow prisoners to purchase tablets with larger screens.

A larger screen would allow them to purchase and read e-books, and make it easier for elderly and visually impaired prisoners to read and compose electronic messages.

The purchase of dictionary, thesaurus, and foreign language apps could also be helpful. So could trivia and educational games that teach science, math, and other disciplines.

Apps that could also prove very helpful are ones that allow prisoners to take correspondence courses which help them learn important social and life skills that help them prepare for their transition back to society.

Tablets can be transformed into instruments that foster literacy, increase communication between prisoners and members of the public, and aid rehabilitation which improves public safety. They will also reduce idleness. The more features that are available the more time prisoners will spend using it.

As society advances in the digital age it is important that prisoners not be left behind. Prisoners will one one day return to society and it is essential that they understand the fundamentals of communicating electronically.

Many Michigan prisoners who recently purchased tablets were incarcerated when the Internet, smart phones, and tablets were introduced to the world. They are now having to leap through decades of technological advances to acquire new information about things they have never used before.

Hopefully the future will not include another multi-generational technological drought for Michigan prisoners. It is counterproductive to keep future returning citizens digitally illiterate.

MDOC Director Heidi Washington deserves credit for helping lead Michigan prisoners out of the dark age of technology. Hopefully she will receive the abiding support she needs to advance her vision and stewardship.

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.