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 Montcalm 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 a leader in the industry, and became proficient in the use of the latest computer software and technology.

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.

Between 2008-10 Efren participated in three University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) creative writing and art workshops. One of his poems was selected to be featured in a PCAP writing anthology titled "A Crack in the Concrete."

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" and a course named "Juvenile Restoration in Progress (JRIP)." JRIP was a course taught by a Lansing Community College Professor and Prison Fellowship volunteer that was designed to provide resources and life skills to prisoners who have been 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 Detroit-based non-profit corporation that offers their programs inside Michigan prisons. One of the program's founders, Jessica Taylor, is a commissioner of the Detroit Police Department.

Efren has participated on panels and spoken at conferences regarding mass incarceration, cultural, race-relations, and political issues via phone on the campuses of Michigan State University, University of Oregon, University of Southern California, University of California, Berkeley, and School of the Arts Institute (Chicago).

He 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), Michigan Radio, Central Michigan University Public Radio, the Jack Ebling Show, La Raza Chronicles, KPFA Radio, Detriot Superstation 910 AM, Thousand Kites, Juvenile Justice Matters, Youth Radio, and others.

Articles about Efren have been featured on ColorLines, RaceWire, 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, 99% Invisible, The Theory of Everything, AlterNet, and other web sites. In 2015 Latina Magazine named Efren as one of four Latino prisoners in the U.S. deserving of 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 station based in Quito, Ecuador.

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

During his incarceration Efren has raised money for underfunded classrooms, youth summer camps, and breast cancer awareness. He also applied for and received grants from a 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 various religious services and cultural organization events throughout his incarceration. He has been a keynote speaker at Cinco de Mayo, Latino History Month, Kwanzaa, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Black History Month events, just to name a few.
He has also 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 those people have included professors, state representatives, poets, authors, psychologists, lawyers, and social justice advocates.

Efren has successfully completed therapeutic courses facilitated by social workers and psychologists in Anger Management, Stress Management, Grief and Loss, Character Development, and Group Therapy. He also co-facilitated Conflict Resolution classes along with facility staff at the Kinross Correctional Facility in 2014.

During the course of his incarceration Efren has received commendations from prison Wardens for the positive work he has done assisting the prisoner population through his work serving over 14 six-month terms as a member of the Warden's Forum at various prisons. He also has the support of a retired Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund Executive Director as well as current and retired Michigan Department of Corrections staff.

Efren is currently the subject of an immersive audio project being created by a New York-based podcast producer and Columbia University graduate student. An Emory University law professor is also devoting an entire chapter to 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. 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 10/14/16

(To view information about Efren's activities, accomplishments, and read several of his writings please visit www.4Efren.blogspot.com and www.fb.com/Free.Efren.)

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.)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Berrien County Prosecutor Betrays Rule of Law in Juvenile Lifer Cases (Part 2)

The United States is a party to several treaties that have been interpreted by their oversight bodies, and recognized by states parties, to prohibit the irreducible sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders. The U.S. Constitution, Art. VI, Cl. 2, states that the United States must uphold these treaty obligations.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that imprisonment be used only as a "measure of last resort" for juvenile offenders, and "for the shortest appropriate time." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires that criminal procedures for juvenile offenders should take into account "their age and desirability of promoting their rehabilitation."

In Michigan 71% of juveniles serving life without parole sentences are children of color. In response to that shameful number, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has found that the sentence is applied disproportionately to youth of color, amounting to pervasive discrimination.

The United Nations has also adopted the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice that provides that "confinement shall be imposed only after careful consideration" and for the "shortest period possible." Included, was Commentary stating that the "well-being and future of the juvenile offender should always outweigh retributive sanctions."

To underscore their position they passed additional resolution in support, the U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprives of Their Liberty, which emphasizes imprisonment "as a last resort" and "for the shortest tie possible."

Earlier this month Berrien County Prosecutor, Michael Sepic, made the ill-conceived decision to pursue life without parole sentences for all 10 juveniles lifers who must be resentenced from his county. "Juvenile lifers" are prisoners who received a life without parole sentence when they were juveniles.

Sepic made the decision after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed mandatory life without parole sentences unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. His move contravened rulings the U.S. Supreme Court and Michigan Court of Appeals prescribed courts to follow, along with treaty requirements that state and local governments are obligated to uphold.

As an officer of the court Sepic has a duty to uphold the rule of law, not run afoul of it. The U.S. Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that life without parole sentences should be uncommon and reserved for rare cases that the vast majority of juveniles will not qualify for. Sepic, however, defied their ruling and pursued the extreme sentence for all the juvenile lifers from his county.

The Michigan Constitution, Art. 1, Sec. 16, prohibits cruel or unusual punishment. The words "rare" and "uncommon" are synonymous with the word "unusual," which is unconstitutional according to the state's Constitution.

Sepic's rogue actions are reinforcing research conducted by the Bar Association that found "juveniles convicted of murder in the United States [are] more likely to enter prison with a life without parole sentence than adult murder offenders."

The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth. It is a fact any parent, teacher, or rational adult understands. According to the American Psychological Association juveniles cannot be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, a disorder also referred to as psychopathy or sociopathy, because the diagnosis cannot be made on people before the age of 18. Incorrigibility is synonymous with antisocial personality disorder.

One incontrovertible example of how out of touch Sepic is with the issue of adolescent brain development is his inclusion in at least one of his motions to the Berrien County Trial Court that he intends to pursue a life without parole sentence against one of the juvenile lifers citing a psychological evaluation performed nearly 30 years ago.

Sepic's ignorance of adolescent development prevents him from acknowledging the indisputable fact that science and the medical field have since evolved tremendously and did not remain frozen in time.

Decades ago the lessons that scientists and researchers knew about adolescent brain development were largely gleaned from post-mortem examinations. Years later with the advent of fMRI technology the world has made remarkable discoveries that have rendered previous research incorrect or obsolete. Many psychological evaluations from decades ago are no longer relevant by today's standards.

According to sources close to Sepic, he [Sepic] negotiates reduced charges and sentences with an alarmingly high number of child sexual predators and individuals accused of physically harming children. While Sepic pursues deplorable sentences against juveniles who commit crimes and ignores their enormous redemptive potential, he simultaneously empowers those who violently offend them and provides them second chances.

Court records reveal that in some cases Sepic's office has declined to charge some adult sex offenders altogether, including the case of a former Berrien County Courthouse employee. Sepic's predecessor, Arthur Cotter, now a Berrien County Trial Court judge, also had a similar history of providing favorable treatment to sexual predators.

The fact that nearly all the 10 prisoners who will be resentenced are people of color further compounds the injustice. Berrien County's long history and culture of racial discrimination against citizens of color is widely known. Complaints and lawsuits have been filed against the county for decades over its blatant discriminatory practices and Jim Crow-style of justice.

To date nineteen states in the U.S. have categorically banned life without parole sentences for juveniles. As Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane M. Beckering recently wrote, "This recent trend illustrates that the island on which Michigan sits with regard to this particular sentencing practice is becoming increasing lonelier."

The nation's high court is on the cusp of categorically banning life without parole sentences for juveniles across the country. The ban is likely to be ordered within the next year or so based on the trend of states across the country banning the sentence at such a rapid pace.

The evolving standards of decency of a civilized society will eventually trump prosecutors with an insatiable appetite for inordinate and inhumane punishments against children. In the meantime the public will be forced to pay the high cost of protracted court hearings and appeals because of intransigent prosecutors intent on committing malfeasance and continuing years of racist policies targeting children of color.

Under the guise of being tough on crime prosecutors like Sepic will persist betraying the ethics of public service to become election-scoring vendetta seekers. Sadly, it is a platform no citizen entered the ballot box to cast their vote for.

Citizens will remember the optics of this when they return to the ballot box, however, because they understand that their next vote cannot be one of complicity to empowering further acts of shameful prosecutorial corruption.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Berrien County Prosecutor Betrays Rule of Law in Juvenile Lifer Cases



Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that imposing mandatory life without parole sentences on juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. The high court ordered the resentencing of the 2,500 prisoners affected nationwide. 

Michigan law provides that these prisoners, referred to as "juvenile lifers," must receive mitigation hearings as part of the resentencing process to consider several factors before receiving a new sentence. These factors were delineated in a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), and are referred to as the "Miller factors."

In Michigan, when being resentenced, juvenile lifers can receive a term of years or life without parole. Term of year sentencing guidelines are a 25- to 40-year minimum sentence, with a maximum sentence of 60 years. A life without parole sentence may only be imposed as a maximum punishment in cases which the U.S. Supreme Court has made abundantly clear, for "the truly rare juvenile" who is "irreparably corrupt--meaning incapable of rehabilitation for the remainder of his or her life." (People v. Hyatt, Mich. App. No. 325741, (p. 3)).

To drive home its underscoring of how rare life without parole sentences for juveniles should be, the Miller court used the words "rare" or "rarest" six times in its ruling.

The court also held that, "The distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentence on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes." Thus, when it comes to sentencing a juvenile, concern must be given to the offender's youth and its attendant characteristics.

The Miller court went on to say that because of a juvenile's "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon." The court further declared that in the "vast majority" of cases, such a sentence will be disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment.

Michigan prosecutors had until late-July 2016 to announce which cases they would seek life without parole sentences for again for the juvenile lifers being resentenced in their respective counties. On the eve of the deadline Berrien County Prosecutor, Michael Sepic, announced he would pursue the extreme sentence for all 10 prisoners from that county--nearly all prisoners of color. The list includes the case of Efren Paredes, Jr.

Ironically, the same day Sepic announced his decision the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a ruling further clarifying what sentencing judges must consider at resentencing hearings in the case of People v. Hyatt. In its ruling the court cautioned judges that prosecutors seeking a life without parole sentence under MCL 769.25(2) and the resultant Miller [mitigation] hearing, is not to be treated as a perfunctory exercise that will authorize the imposition of a life without parole sentence. According to the court, "Such an approach defies what was first announcd in Miller and made even clearer in Montgomery: life without parole is to be imposed on juvenile offenders in only the rarest of cases."

The Miller and Hyatt courts both recognized that it is "difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. In an amicus brief filed in the Miller case the American Psychology Association posited that the "positive predicative power of juvenile psychotherapy assessments ... remains poor."

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane M. Beckering contends that a sentencing court is, to a large degree "guessing, based on information that is widely recognized as unreliable given the malleability of a juvenile's still-developing brain, whether the juvenile is capable of reform."

Justice Beckering said the question we have to ask ourselves is: "If the imposition of the harshest possible penalty available under the law cannot be done with any degree of reliability given the offender being a minor about whom the court must predict his or her entire future, how can the sentence not be rendered either cruel due to guesswork or unusually unfair? ... How could such a speculative, roll-of-the-dice approach to meting out the most serious punishing on a group of offenders who are categorically less culpable not be cruel or unusual?"

The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled in the case of State v. Sweet, 879 N.W.2d 811 (2016), that "the enterprise of identifying which juvenile offenders are irretrievable at the time of trial is simply too speculative and likely impossible ... The risk of error in determining whether a life without parole sentence is proportionate is unacceptably high."

It continued, "We are asking the sentencer to do the impossible, namely to determine whether the offender is 'irretrievably corrupt' at a time when even trained professionals with years of clinical experience would not attempt to make such a determination."

One is forced to wonder about Sepic's bizarre obsession with imposing extreme sentences on juveniles in light of all that science and the medical community have taught us the past three decades about adolescent brain development. More troubling is what Sepic's own obstinance and deviant behavior reflects about other decisions he is making in his office that affect the public.

It is one thing to seek justice. It is another altogether for a prosecutor to eclipse his judgment and sensibilities with the darkness of his soul when considering the futures of young people.

Public servants who refuse to acknowledge the growth potential or redemptive qualities in young people, and harbor such deep hatred toward them, should not be in positions to abuse their authority in such a reckless and malicious way.

(To learn more about the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. please visit www.fb.com/Free.Efren and "Like" the page to express support.)

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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