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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.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Exploring Freedom Through Free Verse Arts


by Efren Paredes, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

Unraveling the Juvenile Lifer Series on Michigan Radio


by Efren Paredes, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 31, 2016

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

by Necalli Ollin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO: Do you believe that prisons rehabilitate prisoners?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, October 28, 2016

View Powerful Film Featuring Case of Efren Paredes, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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