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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Efrén Invites Prosecutor to Participate in Youth Deterrent Program

[The following is a proposal sent to Berrien County Prosecutor, Michael Sepic, from Efrén Paredes, Jr. in September 2019 inviting his office to participate in the creation of a youth deterrent program to help prevent and reduce youth violence in the county. To date Efrén has received no response to his proposal.]

RE: Youth Deterrent Program Proposal

Dear Mr. Sepic:

I am writing to invite your office to consider participating in the creation of a Youth Deterrent Program ("YDP") to assist at-risk youth in Berrien County.

Last month I moderated an event at the Lakeland Correctional Facility ("LCF") where we hosted DJ Hilson, Muskegon County Prosecutor and outgoing President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM). It was a very positive event that was widely attended and well received by Mr. Hilson, prisoners, and facility staff who were present.

At the event I asked Mr. Hilson to consider partnering with us to create a YDP which could be helpful to at-risk youth in his county. He expressed that he really liked the idea and accepted the invitation. I am currently gathering background and supporting documentation about similar evidence-based programs in the state to share with him.

YDPs currently exist at three Michigan prisons. They consist of representatives from various prosecutors' offices, members of law enforcement, and/or social workers accompanying a small group of at-risk youth to engage in dialogue with prisoners. They convene for a couple hours each month in a prison visit room where the public visits prisoners when the space is available outside of regularly scheduled visiting hours.

During YDP dialogues prisoners encourage youth to remain in school and avoid a criminal lifestyle. They also share stories about their lives, the consequences of making poor choices, and the harsh experience of incarceration. Prisoners are carefully screened to participate in the YDP by prison administrators. Close supervision by the team of people who escort the youth to the prison is present at all times.

The curriculum for training participants of the program is based on the work of Dr. William Glasser, Jr. His widely recognized training program was developed over 50 years ago. The primary components of Dr. Glasser's training program that would be utilized in our YDP include Choice Theory and Reality Therapy which are available in the book, "Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom."

All prisoners involved in YDPs are unpaid volunteers who donate their time and service to be a part of the program because they choose to. The benefits they accrue from their participation is helping transform the lives of young people, making our communities safer, and giving back to society by helping repair the harm they caused.

Participating also helps prisoners become better returning citizens by developing a deeper sense of humanity and appreciation for the sanctity of life on their journey to redemption. It not only aids in the transformation of their own lives, it also helps them model that transformation for many at-risk youth who embrace the belief that they can't be what they can't see.

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, 95% of all prisoners return to the community one day. Cultivating a working relationship between your office and prisoners from the county can help build an important bridge that provides the community -- and your office -- with important assets and resources. They can also become invaluable entry points into areas of the county you otherwise wouldn't have when they are eventually released.

If the proposed version of a YDP isn't feasible other options you may wish to consider include arranging to have prisoners speak to at-risk youth in real-time via video teleconferencing, over the phone, or forming a group of prisoners to write them letters or messages. Combinations of these could also be helpful.

In 2015 I was selected as one of 20 prisoners to participate in the Michigan State University My Brother's Keeper Program taught by Dr. Austin Jackson. In the program we received training to mentor at-risk youth in Grades 6-8 in the Detroit Public Schools. We also developed a peer-to-peer mentoring program to help young prisoners already in the carceral system.

I co-created and facilitated a conflict resolution workshop in 2013 alongside a psychologist, three social workers from Mental Health Services, and a prison counselor as then-President of the National Lifers of America ("NLA"). The workshop was instrumental in reducing violence in the prison and helping transform the distorted thinking and dysfunctional behavior of hundreds of prisoner participants of all ages and races.

That same year I helped develop the curriculum for the "Peer Enrichment and Parole Readiness" workshop, along with the Director of American Friends Service Committee, Natalie Holbrook, and a group of 15 other prisoners. The workshop is now being taught at six different prisons across the state.

My experience growing up between the ages of 15 to 46 behind bars and interacting with thousands of prisoners of all ages, races, and classes; and the knowledge I have attained from decades of researching criminal thinking, trauma, violence, adolescent development, toxic masculinity, and cognitive behavioral therapy, will be helpful making the creation of a YDP a reality.

Also helpful will be the skills I have developed mentoring at-risk youth inside and outside of prison; completing numerous self-help and rehabilitative programs; and voluntarily participating in over 100 therapy sessions with licensed mental health professionals during the past nine years.

With the rising tide of gun violence around the country by the hands of troubled young men I believe it is imperative that we tirelessly work to combat the scourges of racism, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. We can ill-afford to wait for additional acts of senseless violence to ravage our communities using weapons of war before exploring sensible alternatives to help solve the problem.

Simply jailing offenders after they have committed crimes, coupled with ignoring their dignity and redemptive qualities, has proven a dismal failure to preventing criminality. It is a reactionary response after harm is inflicted on undeserving members of the community.

Preventing the infliction of harm to themselves and the community is more prosocial and sensible than trying to repair the wreckage of recklessness and destruction of its aftermath. Waiting for crime to happen before acting often proves too late.

If incarceration alone truly prevented crime we would have eradicated it long ago and be the safest country in the world. No nation in human history has imprisoned more of its citizens with the frequency and duration that we have. Though we are 5% of the world's total population we house nearly a staggering 25% of its incarcerated people.

A large number of troubled youth are impervious to guidance from counselors, members of law enforcement, and even their own parents. Many of them, however, will listen to incarcerated -- and formerly incarcerated men -- who share their lived experiences and have traveled through the same corridors of criminality.

Proactive evidence-based programs like YDPs are effective because youth are able to interact with prisoners who can share stories with them about the horrors of incarceration and the consequences of making poor choices. They can also offer them myriad reasons they should change the trajectory of their lives and open the door to transformation.

An abundance of research shows that intrinsic motivation is nearly always a more reliable driver and durable predictor of positive behavior than anything extrinsic. This is among one of the many reasons it is so important to reach and provide troubled youth with much needed identity, purpose, and direction before it's too late.

The vast majority of prisoners want to help heal their communities from the pain and devastation they once caused. This is evidenced by several formerly incarcerated friends of mine who were originally sentenced to life without parole who have subsequently been released and returned to their communities.

Today they are mentoring youth, gainfully employed, pursuing college degrees, feeding the homeless, and some are even working closely with law enforcement to help make their communities safer. These men are no longer the dangers to society they once posed as impetuous, reckless, risk-taking teenagers.

Each day they are proving that no one's life experiences can be reduced to a single story. Prisoners are no more defined by their greatest accomplishment than they are by their worst mistake. It is a culmination of their lived experiences that defines them. Not a snapshot in time.

Men like this can help you reach troubled youth and detour those headed in the wrong direction. They can also help them explore the possibility of new horizons through engagement and helping them develop critical thinking skills, impulse control, and the value of emotional intelligence and sound consequential thinking.

Formerly incarcerated citizens who have spent decades behind bars gain a deeper appreciation and respect for freedom and the sanctity of life. By carving out opportunities from hardships they learn, grow, and change during years of separation from society, and by engaging in deep introspection which helps transform them in profound ways. Rather than only learning to do less of the bad, they also learn to do more of the good.

According to Stacey Abrams, thought leader and author of "Lead from the Outside": "The best ideas and policies are typically collaborative and those that succeed are the product of a community." This wisdom can help rescue our troubled youth, heal our communities, and replace the specters of intolerance and wrath with compassion and second chances.

I am hopeful you will give thoughtful consideration to this proposal and/or share it with any agency in the county receptive to seeing it materialize. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. I am receptive to having a thoughtful dialogue with you. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,


Efrén Paredes, Jr.
#203116
Lakeland Correctional Facility
141 First Street
Coldwater, MI 49036

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Efrén Completes "Education and Human Flourishing" Course

by Necalli Ollin

oday Efrén Paredes, Jr. completed the class "Education and Human Flourishing," taught at the Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) by Dale Brown, Western Michigan University, Lecturer in the Dept. of Philosophy; Research Assistant in the Dept. of Teaching, Learning, and Educational Studies; and Director of WMU Prison Education Outreach Program. Efrén was one of only 20 prisoners qualified to meet the strict criteria required by facility administrators to participate in the class.

According to Brown, "The focus of this course was shifting ideas about how human nature and diversity -- involving social categorization, stereotyping, and cultural bias -- play an important role in our understanding what kinds of flourishing, and education, are possible and desirable."

During the class students learned about moral virtues, moral vices, and strategies to bridge the gap between the people we are and the people we seek to become. The class also studied philosophy, systems of thinking, learned that appreciative engagement with merit or worth is what produces happiness in our lives, among other subjects.

As one solution to help repair the devastation caused by the school-to-prison pipeline, the course emphasized the value of creating a prison-to-college pipeline. Evidence-based research has proven higher learning significantly reduces recidivism by transforming lives and fostering a departure from antisocial beliefs and actions.

"Students enjoyed learning how to engage in metacognition (i.e., thinking about how they think and the ways of thinking that are most likely to facilitate learning) and exploring ways to enrich their lives so they can acquire the skills to become better versions of themselves," according to Efrén.

He added, "Our instructor did a great job of bringing the college classroom experience to the prison and inspiring students to utilize their potential to be successful and flourish in life. He encouraged students to be confident in themselves and keep stirring their curiosity and imagination as they excavate the world's repository of knowledge."

Efrén wrote his final paper for the class in response to the question, "Why has higher education in prison not received wider public support?" He plans to continue building upon his final paper and submitting it for publication in an academic journal. He wants to also make it available to the public across multiple platforms to be used as a tool to help change public perception about the issue.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Pres. of Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Mich. Visits Coldwater Prison


by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019, prisoners at the Lakeland Correctional Facility hosted DJ Hilson, Muskegon County Prosecutor and President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. Hilson accepted the invitation to speak at the facility from prisoners interested in building bridges and beginning a dialogue between prosecutors and prisoners.

A large number of prisoners turned out to hear Hilson share his thoughts and answer a broad range of questions regarding important criminal justice issues. Some of the subjects discussed included the school to prison pipeline, sentencing reform, and rehabilitation. He also shared how his faith guides his daily life and his dedication to community engagement.

Hilson stated he was impressed with the atmosphere and view of the sprawling prison grounds which he absorbed as he ambulated from the Control Center to the building we convened in. Absent the fences draped in concertina wire that ring the prison, he could see a landscape more closely resembling a park or college campus than a compound caging human lives.

As he walked through the prison, Hilson observed dogs from the dog rescue program being walked around by their trainers, prisoners harvesting an array of vegetable gardens, and several beautifully manicured islands of vibrant flower beds. He also passed an assortment of bushes and trees, stone bird baths, and an outdoor fish pond -- home to dozens of colorful goldfish.

The landscaping is the product of former Wardens at the prison who sought to create a vision of humanity and foster a milieu of rehabilitation. It was created through decades of hard work by prisoners in the facility horticulture program and is maintained daily by prisoner groundskeepers.

At the event Hilson was introduced by a member of the Warden's Forum named Cedric Tooks. This writer moderated the dialogue. I received several questions from audience members and was tasked with presenting Hilson the ones that were appropriate, beneficial to the audience, and within the agreed upon terms in advance of the event (i.e., no questions or advice regarding personal cases).

Both prisoners and facility staff enjoyed the dialogue with Hilson and had a lot of positive takeaways. Even prisoners who were initially reluctant to attend the event because the speaker was a prosecutor expressed they were glad that they accepted the invitation to go.

According to one prisoner, "Going to the event wasn't what I thought it would be. I expected to hear a bunch of tough on crime rhetoric and about how horrible prisoners are. Instead, [Hilson] told us he views us [i.e., prisoners] as human beings capable of change even though we've made mistakes. That really stuck with me."

Several prisoners stated they respected Hilson's courage to speak inside a prison. Rather than attempt to ingratiate himself with prisoners, he expressed his genuine feelings and beliefs. He even began a couple statements with, "I know this isn't going to be popular," signaling he understood prisoners may not agree with his answer to a question.

Though there were some areas of disagreement during the hour-and-a-half long exchange of ideas, Hilson and audience members were able to agree on several issues. He also remarked that he would remain open-minded and receptive to sensible future policy reform ideas.

One idea Hilson and prisoners were able to agree on was collaborating to deter at-risk youth from entering the criminal justice system as one way for prisoners to help heal our communities and make them safer. Hilson accepted our invitation to work with event organizers to create a Youth Deterrent Program ("YDP") to help at-risk youth and prevent crime.

YDPs currently exist at three Michigan prisons. They consist of representatives from the prosecutor's office, law enforcement, social workers, and non-governmental organizations -- or combinations thereof -- accompanying a small group of at-risk youth to engage in dialogue with prisoners. They convene for a couple hours each month in a prison visit room where the public visits prisoners when the space is available outside of regularly scheduled visiting hours.

During YDP dialogues prisoners encourage youth to remain in school and avoid a criminal lifestyle. They also share stories about their lives and the harsh experience of incarceration. Prisoners are carefully screened to participate in the YDP by prison administrators. Close supervision by the team of people who escort the youth to the prison and prison custody staff also remain present at all times.

If this version of a YDP isn't feasible at LCF other options can include arranging to have prisoners speak to at-risk youth in various counties in real-time via video teleconferencing, over the phone, or forming a group of prisoners to write them letters or messages. Combinations of these could also be helpful.

At one point during my conversation with Hilson I conveyed to him that no prisoner's life experiences can be reduced to a single story. They are no more defined by their greatest accomplishment than they are by their worst mistake. It is a culmination of their life experiences that defines them. Not a snapshot in time.
I also expressed the importance of remembering that 95% of all prisoners return to their communities one day. They aren't banished to another planet after they leave the courtroom never to be seen again. Some people seem to embrace this false narrative, however, given the way prisoners are demonized and portrayed as menacing, irredeemable figures.

It is a reality that must be acknowledged by all stakeholders involved (e.g., judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, legislators, members of the community, etc.) and taken seriously, so wrath can be replaced with opportunity, and condemnation replaced with compassion.

If we don't strive to erase the stigmas metaphorically branded on returning citizens we run the chilling risk of transforming prisons into monster factories by objectifying prisoners. We also risk exponentially increasing the chances of these women/men recidivating and becoming deficits to society rather than assets by creating a dismal culture of failure.

According to Simon Sinek, author of the New York Times bestselling book, "Start With Why," "The more abstract people become, the more capable we are of doing them harm." This is one of the dangers of othering prisoners. Once we embark down that dark, narrow path it becomes easier to dehumanize them and engage in abhorrent behavior towards them.

Hilson acknowledged that prisoners who have served decades behind bars are not the same people they were at the time of their crimes. He also expressed his belief that there are things prosecutors can learn about the prison experience and prisoner's lives that can help better inform prosecutors how to tailor punishment for offenders.

The event was the first time Hilson participated in this type of dialogue inside a prison since he has been a prosecutor. He expressed his gratitude for being invited to participate and a willingness to return in the future to build on the successful dialogue that began that day.

It was a positive experience teeming with teachable moments for Hilson and his audience. A testament to the power of communication and keeping an open mind even in a place where people frequently find themselves at odds with one another as they struggle to cope with the daily horrors of incarceration.

The event also demonstrated that prosecutors and prisoners can occupy the same space at the same time and have a thoughtful conversation. Every point of contact doesn't have to be adversarial or in a courtroom.

When we can recognize the humanity in each other, regardless of our station in life, we can collaborate to usher in a new reality born of mutual respect and understanding. We also model the capacity of metanoia for future generations who aspire to stand on our shoulders as they explore ways to build a better future.

Hilson's visit was a step in the right direction to improve prosecutor and prisoner relations. Hopefully it was only the first chapter of working together to change the trajectory of troubled lives, help heal our communities, and explore ways to foster redemption and second chances.

(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is one of Michigan's 230+ remaining juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing. He is a blogger, change maker, and social justice activist whose case is the subject of the recent documentary film installation titled "Half Truths and Full Lies." You can learn more about Efrén or the film by visiting http://Facebook.com/Free.Efren)

Monday, July 22, 2019

Fed. Judge Makes Case to End Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders


by Efrén Paredes, Jr.









A federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan recently ruled that prison sentences are unconstitutional if they are "the functional equivalent of life without parole" (LWOP), exceed a juvenile offender's lifespan, or do not give the offender a "meaningful opportunity for parole consideration."

The ruling was made by Judge Mark Goldsmith in the case Hill v. Whitmer, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115855 (decided 7/12/19), regarding prisoners who were sentenced to LWOP when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers").

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of all 2,500 prisoners across the nation affected by the ruling.

The Miller decision held that a LWOP sentence could now only be imposed on juveniles in cases where judges have an option to mete out a term-of-years sentence or a LWOP sentence. In other words, judges must have discretion to choose.

The court made it abundantly clear, however, that LWOP sentences could only be imposed in cases where the juvenile offender is "irreparably corrupt" and incapable of change. They also stated that the extreme sentence must become "rare and uncommon."

Contrary to popular belief, the high court did not ban LWOP sentences altogether for juvenile offenders. They only struck down LWOP sentences in cases where a mandatory sentence was the only sentence that could be imposed by a judge at the time.

In Michigan there were 373 prisoners who needed to be resentenced. Of that number, 235 prisoners -- sixty-three percent -- have yet to be resentenced and continue serving unconstitutional sentences.

The inordinate delay has been the result of prosecutors abusing their authority to arbitrarily file motions seeking LWOP sentences against hundreds of prisoners who do not meet the requirements outlined in the landmark Miller ruling. Their misconduct has resulted in the need for costly mitigation hearings and expert witnesses at taxpayer expense.

Judge Goldsmith's ruling strikes at the heart of Michigan's law regarding the sentencing of juvenile lifers to extreme sentences. If a prison sentence that exceeds a juvenile offender's lifespan is unconstitutional because it denies the offender meaningful parole consideration, obviously a LWOP sentence that will never provide them parole consideration does as well.

Lawmakers continue clinging to pernicious punishment for juvenile offenders so they can campaign as being "tough on crime" rather than "smart on crime." LWOP sentences for juveniles would have been abolished years ago as twenty-one other states have already done if not for legislators' reticence to do the right thing.

If lawmakers are unable to resolve this ongoing legal battle one sensible solution is for Attorney General Dana Nessel to withdraw the motions filed by prosecutors seeking LWOP sentences again for the remaining 235 juvenile lifer cases. This would avert further delays, allow judges to schedule sentencing hearings, and proceed as they normally do when performing other individualized sentencing hearings.

The impediment to moving forward would be removed and prosecutors could still argue for imposition of radically extreme sentences, if they elect to do so. Sentencing bodies are not marionettes to prosecutors, however. They are independent thinkers who can interpret the law and will side with the U.S. Supreme Court more often than they will with prosecutors in the vast majority of cases.

Another proposed solution is for Governor Whitmer to commute the sentences of the remaining juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing to 25- to 60-year sentences, and give jurisdiction to the Parole Board to begin reviewing the cases for parole consideration after the prisoners have served twenty-five years. After twenty-five years all juvenile lifers will have served well over half their entire lives behind bars.

By commuting their sentences the prisoners would all remain convicted and not be released until the Parole Board determines they no longer pose a danger to society. The prisoners would not automatically be released. The Parole Board would use its wealth of resources to make these determinations as they do for thousands of cases each year.

Release of prisoners would be contingent upon their rehabilitation and what they are doing with their time while incarcerated. Those who do not demonstrate growth and maturity could remain incarcerated up to 60 years depending on their behavior, if they live that long.

Of the nearly seventy prisoners who have been paroled none have recidivated and all have become productive members of society. Prisoners serving LWOP sentences who are released have a less than one percent chance of recidivating. This is the lowest recidivism risk of all offense categories.

Commuting the sentences would also save taxpayers millions of dollars that could be reinvested in schools and infrastructure projects rather than spent on avoidable mitigation hearings. Conservative estimates have the cost of 235 hearings being upwards of $10 million to pay for attorneys, qualified expert witnesses, and court hearings.

Political theater and gamesmanship are not the solutions to correct failed public policies that prizedeath-by-incarceration sentences over rehabilitation and redemption for juvenile offenders. Creating more injustice is not a solution to resolving injustice, it only compounds the problem. We need more solutions not more problems.

(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is one of Michigan's 235 juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing. He is a blogger, change maker, and social justice activist whose case is the subject of the recent documentary film "Half Truths and Full Lies." You can learn more about Efrén or the film by visiting http://Facebook.com/Free.Efren)

Monday, March 4, 2019

"Half Truths and Full Lies" Film About Efren Paredes, Jr. Coming to Lansing, MI

You are cordially invited to the reception for the film installation "Half Truths and Full Lies."

"Half Truths and Full Lies" is a multi-channel documentary film installation that depicts the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. who was arrested at age 15 and sentenced to life without parole in 1989 for a murder he asserts he did not commit. He has spent two-thirds of his entire life behind bars and will soon be 46-years-old.

The reception is Friday, March 15, 2019, from 5 - 8 p.m.

Location:
Casa de Rosado
204 W. Mt. Hope
Lansing, Michigan

Filmmaker Tirtza Even and members of Efren's family will be in attendance at the reception. Efren will also be calling in to the event from prison throughout the evening. He will be available to answer questions and participate in media interviews.

The reception is being held on the 30th anniversary of Efren's original arrest date. A selection of his essays, poetry; and an in-depth, revealing, exclusive new interview with him about his personal life and decades of experiences during his incarceration will also be available at the gallery. 

You are encouraged to use our Facebook event page to invite friends in your network to view the film installation, to share the event on your social media platforms, and ask others to do the same. The Facebook event page can be accessed at: www.bit.ly/HTFL315. You can visit the event page for any updates between now and the opening reception.
______________________________________________________________

"Half Truths and Full Lies" is a collaboration film project between nonfiction filmmakers Tirtza Even, Meg McLagan, and multimedia producer Elyse Blennerhassett.

The exhibit will be on display from March 15 - April 12, 2019. It is free and open to the public.

The film depicts, through documentation and reenactment, the case of Efren Paredes, Jr., a Latinx man from Michigan, who was arrested at age 15 and sentenced to life without parole for a homicide he asserts he did not commit.

The multi-channel installation takes on a Rashomon-like quality, as divergent accounts of the crime accrue, forming multiple portraits of Efren. These accounts reflect perspectives of a range of individuals, from a police detective detective to key witnesses from the tight-knit small town community who singled Efren out, as well as of those whose lives -- over the past 30 years -- were most affected by the teen's conviction: family members, teachers, and citizens who sat in judgment as jury members.

"Half Truths and Full Lies" tells a story about a story; one constructed by a group of teens who appear to have conspired to set up their peer, and whose narrative played on stereotypical assumptions about racial minorities. This account became the only one the public and the jury got to hear, and the one upon which the local police and prosecutor relied.

The installation, however, is also a story about a handful of alternative, untold stories, and at their center -- Efren's story of innocence. The project attempts to recuperate conflicting narrative possibilities, and to investigate the nature of truth-telling in both media and the law.

The goal of the film is to create a new form of storytelling that unfolds non-linear and in space: to surround the viewers with incompatible slivers of the narrative, and have them piece the story together themselves. Even when added up, however, the various angles of the story form a broken and inconsistent whole. The goal is to generate reasonable doubt about the narrative version used by the prosecutor, and to thus undermine its certainty.

Cinematography and editing assistance: Yoni Goldstein
Additional camera: Steve Maing and Gonzalo Escobar
Sound mixing: Julian Flavin

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences."

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

A new book titled "The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences" by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis was recently released. In the book the authors provide a litany of compelling reasons why the practice of sentencing prisoners to life in prison is misguided and inhumane.

Marc Mauer is the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization based in Washington, DC, that promotes criminal justice reform. He is also the author of "Race to Incarcerate" and "Invisible Punishment." Ashley Nellis is a senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project who has written extensively on the prevalence of life sentences in the United States.


Mauer and Nellis argue that there is no practical or moral justification for a sentence longer than twenty years. Harsher sentences have been shown to have little effect on crime rates, and a broad body of research demonstrates that people "age out" of crime, meaning that lawmakers are wastefully spending significant resources to incarcerate individuals who pose little or no threat to public safety.


They cite the 2017 Model Penal Code of The American Law Institute, a well-regarded, nonpartisan body of legal scholars, which concluded that "terms for single offenses in excess of 20 years are rarely justified on proportionality grounds, and are too long to serve most utilitarian purposes." Its standards are in alignment with the American Bar Association which has called for the length of sentences to be "no longer than needed to serve the purposes for which it was imposed." 


According to Mauer and Nellis, "Lengthy prison terms lead to diminished returns for public safety and distort how criminal justice resources are allocated. ...They also deny the possibility of redemption and reconnection to the community for individuals who no longer resemble the much younger lawbreakers who committed a serious crime for which they are incarcerated."


The book features important profiles of redemption about the lives of people who endured years experiencing the horrors of languishing in prison, were eventually released, and went on to become contributing members of society. It is an important contrast to the steady stream of negative stories depicted in the media which attempt to paint all offenders with the broad brush of failure.


One of the men Mauer writes about in the book is Ahmad Rahman. Rahman was one of my first mentors I corresponded with in prison during and after his incarceration. After having his sentence commuted by the Governor and being released from prison he went on to earn his PhD in African-American and African Studies.


After earning his PhD Rahman later became a professor at the University of Toledo and University of Michigan-Dearborn, respectively. He would surprise me by occasionally mailing me copies of peer-reviewed journal articles and other educational materials to foster my education which he knew I enjoyed reading. Unfortunately, while reading Mauer's story about Rahman in the book, I learned that he died of a heart attack since we last corresponded.


Rahman's story is one among the many success stories of former prisoners who have returned to the community and did great work after serving decades of incarceration. Had he remained in prison for the remainder of his life the world would have been denied the benefit of receiving the gifts he had to offer.


Reviews of the book include:
I can think of no authors more qualified to weigh in on the complex impact of life sentences than Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis. If ever there was a doubt that such sentences are deeply inhumane, one need only read their book. You will find yourself both horrified and deeply, irrevocably, moved." --Heather Ann Thompson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Blood in the Water"


"Sure to have a profound impact on legislators and everyday citizens across America. The Sentencing Project started working on criminal justice reform long before it became fashionable. Combining impeccable research with smart policy recommendations, their work continues to set the gold standard." --James Foreman, Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Locking Up Our Own"


"A blistering indictment of America's practice of sentencing people to die in prison that dares readers to change the way we think about public safety, redemption, and justice. Essential reading for anyone committed to restoring legitimacy to our institutions." --Vanita Gupta president and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.


I highly recommend that anyone interested in learning more about the policy of sentencing people to life in prison read this book. It is well-sourced and demonstrates why medieval failed practices of the past are incapable of solving the complex carceral problems of today.


(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner who has been incarcerated 30 years since age fifteen. He is the subject of the new documentary film titled "Half Truths and Full Lies," a social justice advocate, blogger, father, and husband.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Inside the Political World of Efren Paredes, Jr.

by Carlos Vicario

The following is the first in a series of interviews conducted with Efren Paredes, Jr. during the past six months. The first installment shares his views about America's current state of politics.

Carlos Vicario (CV): For starters Efren, what are your thoughts about the recent midterm elections?

Efren Paredes, Jr. (EPJ): I was pleased with the record-breaking increase in national voter turnout. I predicted it would happen based on a number of variables I have been closely observing the past several years. It was also great to see so many first-time voters go to the polls and use their voice to speak truth to power. Many of them were women, people of color, and young voters.

Another impressive result was the historic number of women and most diverse freshman class ever elected to Congress. Democrats garnered a crushing 9 million more votes than the GOP during the midterms and took back the U.S. House (picking up 40 more seats). Voters sent a strong message to Washington that there would be government oversight now and things will no longer be business as usual.

The nation's demographics are rapidly changing. Each year a million Latinx youth are becoming eligible to vote nationwide, not to mention the numbers of other communities of color. There are also thousands of people moving to the mainland from the island of Puerto Rico who many forget are U.S. citizens eligible to vote; the same people the Trump administration neglected after hurricane Maria.

A recent study revealed that there was a 96% increase of Latinx voters in the 2018 midterm election from the 2014 midterms. It also reflected that 80% of them voted Democrat and one-fourth of them were first time voters. These numbers are a signal of what else is to come in a digital age that is accelerating the transformation of the electorate at warp speed.

In a major move that is certain to tip the political scales in Florida, an important state that the 2020 presidential candidate will desperately need to win the next election, voters passed a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to a million and a half disenfranchised formerly incarcerated citizens of that state. That number will add a large number of people of color to the voter rolls.

The Florida Governor and U.S. Senate races were only won by very slim margins. The number of new eligible first-time voters could easily change Florida from a red to blue state in 2020. And, not only is that highly likely to occur in Florida, it is probable in other red states around the country as well.

CV: What do you believe brought voters out to the polls in such large numbers during the 2018 midterm elections?

EPJ: Some of the primary reasons included a huge resistance movement against efforts at systemic voter suppression, increased efforts by voters of color to educate and energize their base, and the highly divisive and toxic
 climate of the nation which has been fueled by the racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant Trump rhetoric.

The nation has witnessed a surge in hate crimes since Trump took office in 2016. When voters entered the sanctity of the voting booth many did so haunted by the images of Tiki torch wielding white nationalists at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump all but endorsed them by characterizing the protesters as having "good people on both sides."

Though Trump's rhetoric has played well with his base he has alienated huge swaths of the nation. During the 2016 general election many voters of color, young people, and women stayed home
 instead of going to the ballot box. These voters realized how their absence hurt the country morally and politically and it brought them back out to reengage in 2018.

A huge credit for the uptick in voter engagement must also be given to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that have swept the nation with their message of women empowerment and solidarity. They definitely deserve major credit for seating over 100 women in Congress for the first time in history. It is a demographic that Trump foolishly continues to offend, disparage, and debase on a frequent basis.

CV: Do you believe the Democratic party is the future political choice for voters of this country based on current voter trends?

EPJ: If the Democratic party is to continue
 attracting and retaining women voters and voters from communities of color the party will need to pay closer attention to the needs of these demographics and properly represent them. Democrats cannot become complacent and assume that they are safe politically because they had so much success during the midterms. It would be divorced from reality.

Political parties have long taken for granted voters from communities of color, as well as women, young people, and the impoverished. Moving forward, this shameful approach to mistreating and devaluing voters is tantamount to political suicide. It is a failing strategy for winning future election cycles and a sure way to destroy a political party.

According to the results of a Gallup Poll released November 26, 2018 Trump's disapproval numbers have descended to a historic 60%. Only 38% expressed their approval. As the nation braces for the release of the Trump investigation report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller legal experts like Alan Dershowitz are forecasting the results will be devastating to Trump.

It is also noted that the same night the Gallup Poll was released Sen. Mia Love (R-Utah) stated in her concession speech to the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in her race that Trump's relationship with Blacks is transactional. Love, who is African-American, was a recent target of Trump who predicted she would lose her Senate seat to a Democrat during the midterm election. He expressed gratitude about Love's defeat because of her refusal to embrace him during her race for office.
The party of Trump is pushing voters away by the millions and almost no one from the party is condemning the devastating damage he is causing them. That persistent trend will likely remain constant for the next two years and continue eroding his party. His insistence on celebrating corrosive language is making him radioactive to the party.

CV: Having been incarcerated nearly 30 years since 1989 how have you developed your political acumen and remained current about the subject?

EPJ: I read books about politics, social issues, history, etc.; as well as an array of magazines, and newspapers, and I watch CNN, FOX News, PBS, C-SPAN, NBC News, and Univison
 news shows daily. I also listen to BBC News and several programs on NPR throughout the day from early morning until late in the evening each day. I have a steady diet of diverse external reference points each day that help me stay updated about current events.

I also have an amazing family, wonderful friends, and a support network of caring people that send
 me printouts of current information from the Internet and research things for me I want to learn more about. They share things with me on the phone, during visits, and in emails/letters as well. I have been able to experience things vicariously through them and they are frequently my guides through the rapidly changing and often dizzying world.

CV: Do you find it difficult to watch CNN and FOX News, two networks with polarized views of each other?

EPJ: No. I think it is important for people to hear all perspectives of issues rather than sit in an echo chamber each day. We don't learn, grow, and change responsibly if we drown out opposing voices with static personal beliefs. When the facts change our minds should change as well. Life doesn't operate in a straight line. The more external reference points we have to make decisions in our lives the better off we are in the long run.

Never changing our minds is symptomatic of insecurity and being trapped in a limited, self-absorbed world. I learn from people with opposing views each day. I may not always agree with them, but it doesn't always make me right and make them wrong. We can both learn from each other and should be encouraged to do so.

CV: What motivates you to follow politics and elections as closely as you do?

EPJ: For decades people from communities of color and women were devalued and denied the right to vote. People have died, protested, and suffered an untold number of injuries for our democracy. We also have brave service women and men stationed around the world who bravely defend our democracy. I would characterize it as a betrayal of our democratic values and being un-American not to be civically engaged.

As for following politics, I think the answer is clear: to not be concerned with it would be dangerous and akin to not being concerned with the future. Our elected officials represent us. Whether we are prisoners or free citizens we can affect policies and encourage citizens to become engaged politically. We can educate people about their right to vote and teach them the value of becoming civically engaged.

A recent study Florida revealed that formerly incarcerated citizens who are civically engaged have lower recidivism rates than those who are not. This is important. It is one of many reasons I encourage prisoners to register to vote when they are released to the community. Not only is it good for them, it is also good for the community.

People have a vested interest in protecting things they feel a part of and participate in. I know this firsthand when it comes to prisoners because I see the pride they take in learning new skills and how dedicated they are to constructive projects I invite them to be a part of. Many of them didn't have people who encouraged them to learn and grow previous to their imprisonment.

On a personal level, there is also a rewarding feeling each time I hear from excited formerly incarcerated people after casting their first votes. Even though I wasn't able to vote there are many others who are able to vote because of the contact we made behind bars. That means something to me because every time they are released from prison a part of me goes with them.

CV: Would you consider participating in voter engagement when released from prison?

EPJ: Yes, it is my civic duty. I would be a strong advocate and voice for underserved people, women, young people, and communities of color who have been marginalized and taken for granted. I have done this for many years both inside and outside of prison and it has prepared me to help people in my community when I am eventually released.

In prison I have learned to live with and communicate with people of different races, religions, beliefs, and ethnic backgrounds. I have built bridges between these communities and earned the respect of countless prisoners and staff. I have been elected to serve over 20 terms as a unit representative at different prisons, served multiple terms on the board of directors of various self-help organizations, and co-facilitated (alongside prison staff) courses on conflict resolution for prisoners.

I have developed the necessary communication, leadership, and political skills that would make me an asset to my community not only on a political front but also in countless other ways. I would be able to connect with people from areas others may be unwilling or unable to connect with, including our youth. I welcome the chance to use my skills and talents for the benefit of humanity on a broader stage when the opportunity presents itself.
CV: Is there a voter demographic that you feel is overlooked by politicians or that doesn’t receive much attention by them?

EPJ: I think a powerful voting block that is frequently ignored is formerly incarcerated people and the families and friends of currently incarcerated people. There are tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated people in Michigan. There are also over 100,000 people currently in prison, jail, on probation or parole in the state.

Most of these people have family and friends. If only 10 of their family members or friends form an organized voting block they will easily garner over one million votes. They can use their votes to produce criminal justice reform and change the offices of elected officials from the local level all the way to the Governor's office. This includes electing mayors, judges, prosecutors, State Senators, State Representatives, Attorney General, Secretary of State, etc.

Many people have the misfortune of having a family member behind bars or know someone entangled in the vicious cycle of mass incarceration. It is a disturbing crisis that studies have recognized for decades but politicians are only now having the courage to acknowledge they were complicit in creating. Several states have made changes to draconian policies in their jurisdictions in recent years and more are following the trend.

Criminal justice reform has also begun occurring at the highest levels of government. December 18, 2018 the U.S. Senate passed the "First Steps" bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Senate vote was a staggering 87-12. It is the largest overhaul to the criminal justice system in decades. The changes would support good time initiatives, second chances for offenders, and numerous other progressive reforms for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Trump has already stated he will sign the bill as a President of everyone, "including those who have made mistakes." He recognizes the prison industrial complex experiment has woefully failed to reduce crime, has shamefully wasted billions in taxpayer dollars, and resulted in too many inordinate sentences that do not make the nation safer. Trump also expressed that he supports second chances.

CV: Do you believe that the issue of criminal justice reform will remain a major issue in the years to come?

EPJ: It will definitely remain a major issue until the broken system is completely overhauled. The apparatus has adversely impacted communities for decades based on flawed policies and predictions. Recent reforms are a first step, as the bill's name suggests, in a long road of needed change. While it is a step in the right direction it is only a start.

Unfortunately millions of lives have suffered and been destroyed as a consequence of the misguided policies. Mass incarceration is the leading civil rights issue of our day and has drawn the global disdain of other nations. The U.S. shamefully incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world including China and Russia.

If 95% of people behind bars will one day return to society as reflected in statistics how do we want those people to reenter society? Do we want them to be bitter and uneducated, or better and equipped with the skills to become assets and contributing members of their communities? Common sense informs us the choice is very clear.

We have to look for ways to resolve the crisis humanely with reason and logic. Allowing emotion to override these things and act irrationally will continue to result in myriad failed solutions. The callous and unforgiving impulse to incarcerate people and dispose of their lives by throwing away the key will only continue driving us further into the pit of moral darkness.

On a spiritual level I believe it also contravenes pro-life views and Biblical philosophy. If believers aspire to promote Christian values they are moving in the opposite direction by condemning people to perpetual incarceration. I believe it is a betrayal of Christ's teachings to abandon the concept of redemption and ignore the intrinsic value of our fellow citizens.

CV: How long do you think we should keep offenders in prison for crimes they have committed?

EPJ: While I think every case is different and each one calls for different punishment I believe people who make mistakes deserve a second chance. This is especially true in the case of juvenile offenders who have the enormous capacity for change. There are a number of variables that should be taken into consideration.

Though there may be people who need to be incarcerated for long periods of time in some instances, the decision when/if to release each prisoner should be left up to the Parole Board. They can review the progress of prisoners during their incarceration and use their wealth of resources and risk assessment instruments to assess a prisoner's risk to the public if released.

Once the Parole Board determines a prisoner has been rehabilitated and no longer poses a danger to society the prisoner should become eligible for parole consideration. Incarcerating a person beyond the time necessary to rehabilitate them is cruel, inhumane, and a violation of United Nations treaties.

As former Michigan Department of Corrections Director Patricia Caruso stated while in office, we have to distinguish between who we are afraid of and who we are angry with; we can't conflate the two. Blind anger has driven much of our criminal justice policy in the past. It has clouded our rational judgment and sensibilities and is no way for the greatest nation in the world to treat its citizens.

CV: Do you support or oppose life sentences for offenders?

EPJ: I oppose any life sentence or virtual life sentence (e.g., long indeterminate sentence) that does not provide prisoners periodic meaningful release opportunities by demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation. Sentences that do not allow for this in a fair and realistic way are tantamount to death-by-incarceration.

Rather than issuing life sentences I believe it is more sensible and fiscally responsible for the legislature to grant the Parole Board jurisdiction to begin considering juvenile offenders for release every two years after serving a minimum 15 years. I would support adult offenders being considered for release by the Parole Board every two years after serving a minimum 20 years.

If an offender does not demonstrate growth and maturity during that time they will remain incarcerated and continue 
participating in rehabilitative programming until they change. There may be cases where some people are never released. But it is a decision that should be determined by the Parole Board during periodic reviews, not years in advance by sentencing bodies who are unable to realistically predict the future.

Life teaches people that the further away they get from a tragedy the more time they have to examine the situation and see it clearly. It also affords agents of the criminal justice system time to more objectively process events and examine prisoners' lives through the lens of redemption, rather than one that only seeks to condemn and banish them from society.

CV: Can you offer any data or research that supports your opinion about this issue?

EPJ: Most criminologists, social scientists, and reasonably minded corrections professionals who work around prisoners daily will agree
 with this assessment. Aging, harsh isolation, rehabilitative programming, having a support network, and other factors contribute to reducing the risk of prisoners reoffending.

Of the thousands of prisoners I have spoken to who have been incarcerated more than 20 years, who are guilty of the crime they were convicted of, I have never met a single person who does not deeply regret his actions. They also emphatically state they would not do it again if they had the chance to relive the moment they made their tragic mistake.

The possibility of dying in prison after spending decades of incarceration changes people forever. It also helps them learn to cherish their freedoms and develop a greater appreciation for the sanctity of life. Statistics reflect that people serving life without parole sentences have a less than half of one percent chance of reoffending if released. Prisoners serving parolable life sentences have less than a two percent chance of reoffending.

The national recidivism rate for all offense categories of prisoners is closer to 45%. This means that prisoners serving life sentences have the lowest reoffense rate of all other offense categories combined. The evidence of risk is in the facts and numbers. My personal experience in the carceral system and an index of research and data all support this.

CV: Are you saying that you believe using the criminal justice system to exact revenge is wrong?

EPJ: Criminal offenses are wrong and I support punishment for them, but I do not support it absent rehabilitation. The criminal justice system was never designed as an instrument for revenge. I believe that inflicting more pain i
n a reciprocal world will not decrease the impact of a crime being done. It only compounds the misery suffered by everyone affected and destabilizes communities by impeding the path to peace and reconciliation.

CV: Do you think you would ever consider running for political office when you are released one day?

EPJ: I have no desire to seek political office of any kind upon release. I have a friend who worked as a legislative aide to a Michigan State Representative after serving nearly two decades in prison who found it to be a positive experience. I wouldn't rule out ever working for/with someone holding political office or assisting them in some capacity, but I wouldn't want to hold any office myself. I believe I can serve people in my community in more ways than just politically and I don't want to restrict myself to promoting party politics.

CV: What do you mean when you say you don't want to promote "party politics"?

EPJ: I will not support an individual party's platform that is not designed to serve everyone equally regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status. To me it should be about people before party. We should elect people based on what they support and policies they plan to change not based on what party they represent.

I don't think political parties are evolving with the times as rapidly as they should and many in their leadership are practicing throwback era politics. We need change that reflects inclusion in all aspects of politics. I support a progressive platform which also includes a broad coalition of people that will introduce policies which reflect this vision.

CV: Efren, thank you for answering my questions. I look forward to sharing the rest of our interview with our readers in the weeks to come.

EPJ: Thank you.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner and subject of a new multi-channel documentary film installation, "Half Truths and Full Lies." He is also a blogger, social justice activist, and youth advocate. You can learn more about Efren by visiting www.fb.com/Free.Efren and www.tinyurl.com/Efren1016.)

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Ambassadors of Light (Part 3 of 3)


by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Unpacking the Day

After the conclusion of the camp I returned to my housing unit and called my wife to tell her about the day. When we spoke she told me my daughter was really excited when she left being with me and rejoined her in the parking lot. She pointed out, however, that shortly after they got into the car and began exiting the parking lot my daughter began crying.

When my wife asked her if she was alright she silently nodded in the affirmative. My wife then asked her if she had a lot of emotions that had accrued throughout the day and my daughter again nodded up and down, indicating that she did. She was clearly overwhelmed and trying to process the storm of emotions she was experiencing.

I understood what my daughter was feeling because I, too, was feeling engulfed by the day. After speaking to my wife on the phone I went to my cell and briefly spoke to my cellmate. He was excited for me and asked how the day went. I told him it went really well but kept my remarks brief. I added that I would share more 
details with him later on. Shortly thereafter he left the cell to give me some space.

Once I was completely alone in the cell I was able to reflect more on the day and how emotionally exhausting it was absent any distractions. I hadn't had another experience like it in three decades of incarceration. I knew it was all positive though and that was what I remained focused on. It was a series of special moments I would be able to share with my daughter for years to come.

Visits from family and friends are always a mix of happiness and sadness for prisoners. It is a time when prisoners drop their guard and allow themselves to experience some semblance of normalcy with people who not only genuinely love and care about them, but also miss them tremendously.

It is also a time when prisoners and their loved ones know that as each second on the clock slowly ticks away they grow increasingly closer to the moment their precious time together will be terminated until they have the good fortune of visiting again. For some people that opportunity may not arrive again for weeks. For others it could be months or even years depending on a broad range of unpredictable variables beyond their control.

Most prisoners spend their days expending exhaustive energy suppressing and masking their emotions around their peers as a way to survive and cope with their isolation and painful separation from loved ones. It also helps them battle against the debilitating feeling of loneliness that seemingly seeks to incessantly suffocate their hopes and aspirations.

It is akin to being held captive in a self-imposed mental and emotional prison. It is also an unproductive way of processing thoughts and emotions. Internalizing corrosive thoughts is antithetical to growth and can result in long-term damage to a prisoner's life and relationships.

This day was different though. It was a day filled with many firsts I had never experienced with my daughter before and there was nothing for me to juxtapose it with. As one prisoner who participated in a previous camp told me ahead of this year's event, "It will be better than the best visit you've ever had."

Over the years I have learned the importance of finding ways to process my thoughts and emotions in prosocial ways through a culmination of extensive research, experience, and guidance from therapists. Though it has taken a great deal of introspective work it has equipped me with the necessary skills to 
create and maintain healthy relationships, as well as help others.

I concluded the day knowing I made good choices for my daughter, family, and myself. I shared experiences with my daughter that will have an enduring impact on her life and shape her 
future in myriad ways. Few incarcerated fathers will be fortunate enough to experience such an amazing life-changing day behind the merciless walls of prison.
One of the books we received the previous day was titled "Jesus Calling" by Sarah Young. It is a beautifully bound book of daily devotional readings. An excerpt for October 5, the first day the "1 Day With God" camp began states, "True Joy is a by-product of living in [Jesus'] Presence. Therefore you can experience it in palaces, in prisons ... anywhere."

This passage encapsulates the sentiments shared by many fathers who participated in the camp. Several characterized it as the best day they had ever experienced in prison. A number of them felt they were not even in prison for six hours, and many said it marked a new beginning for them and their child.

One of the fathers was able to meet his 6-year-old daughter for the first time ever during the camp. Another father met his 10-year-old son for the first time, and one father told the story about only being able to see his 12-year-old son four times during the past seven years because of the camp.

Circumstances with their families prevented them from previously seeing their children. Some are financially unable to travel, some have not had good relations with the child's mother, some are not approved to 
visit the prison because of outstanding unpaid tickets, some fathers only recently learned they had a child, among a host of other issues.

Two of the children traveled a considerable distance to participate in the camp that day. One child flew from Kentucky to Detroit and then had to coordinate with other family members to make the four-hour drive from Detroit to Manistee. The other child traveled 17 hours by car from Georgia to be there.
Each of the fathers was consumed with emotion by the end of the camp and their hearts and minds were indelibly seared by the memories that were created. At the conclusion of the balloon ceremony one volunteer with tears in his eyes who observed the open displays of affection and joy between fathers and their children said, "This is exactly why we do these camps. It is worth all the hard work and preparation that goes into every single one. It changes lives forever."

The family members or caregivers who traveled to bring a child to participate in the camp were heroes that day. Without their willingness to contribute their time, energy, and financial resources the children could not have experienced the camp with their father. They put the children before themselves and demonstrated a selfless act of service and concern for the future of each child.

Several families, including mine, traveled to Manistee the previous day and stayed 
in a hotel to ensure the child they brought would arrive at the church Saturday morning at 8 am. My wife and daughter stayed in a hotel Saturday evening as well so they could visit me the following day.

The volunteers who hosted the event were incredibly organized, dedicated, and committed to making the camp a success. They were very kind and respectful people of faith who modeled Christian values in both their words and actions. Many of them have hosted several camps in the past and expressed eagerness to host many more in the future.

The day also would not have been possible without the cooperation and support of Chaplain Paul Duby who helped coordinate the event along with members of Warden Lester Parish's administration and custody staff who oversaw the security aspect of the event. The prison staff present that day were helpful and courteous.

The camp gave me an even deeper appreciation for fatherhood than I previously had. While I have been doing my best to fulfill my role as a father to my daughter despite my physical absence, the camp provided me an opportunity to interact with my daughter and for us to see each other through a lens never before possible.

Despite my physical absence I do my best to stay involved in my daughter's life daily and make my presence felt. I call my wife daily to see how they are doing and speak to my daughter nearly every time I call if she isn't doing homework or busy with other productive activities. I also write her letters and send her greeting cards.

My daughter and I work on her homework together, talk about her day at school, and I have her read me her daily affirmation when we talk on the phone. Before her soccer games I call and offer her words of encouragement. I tell her even if she doesn't win I am proud of her because I know she did her best. I also remind her that we have to fail or lose in life in order to learn or get better at things sometimes.

My wife brings my daughter to visit as often as she can. When we visit we play board games, read books, and talk as much as we can. It's always frustrating because visiting room rules do not allow prisoners to get up from their chairs once they are seated. They are only permitted to leave their chair to greet their visitors, for 
photos, and when leaving the visiting room.

These inordinate rules severely restrict interactions between prisoners and their children during visits. It is also often very demoralizing for children and something incarcerated parents must expend a great deal of energy and creativity combating to prevent. If they don't it can result in irreparable harm to their relationship and to the child.

Children are too young to understand why a parent can not hold them or play with them during prison visits when their other parent does it at home daily. It can cause some children to begin feeling rejected or a sense of abandonment by their incarcerated parent and develop resentment toward them.

I did not realize the full impact it would have on my daughter to see me do simple things like run, dribble a basketball, lay on the ground, do pull-ups, give her a piggyback ride, cheer her on during competitions we partnered in together, dance with her, give her gifts in person, or 
create a craft with her. Though I could assume how she may interpret these things for the first time I had no previous way of contrasting them with previous experiences with her to know with certainty.

At best all I had was hope and conjecture which cannot be equated or juxtaposed with experience. Once we experienced these things together I discovered how much deeper our father/daughter bond evolved. It also demonstrated firsthand how much of an impact I can have on my daughter when physically present and reinforced why it is so important for me to be a positive role model for her.

In many ways the camp allowed my daughter to see me as a fully functional father for the first time ever, not just a man saying things fathers do. I was actually humanized in her eyes. Not only was she able to hear words of inspiration she was able to observe the corresponding actions. She was able to see both symbol and substance in motion.

My daughter has taught me myriad valuable lessons about life since her birth. She has taught me to be more compassionate, empathetic, understanding, patient, tolerant, respectful, and the amount of work and dedication it takes to properly raise a child. She also singlehandedly dismantled previously held distorted views and stereotypes I regrettably adopted about the limitations and roles of women and girls I learned growing up.
The birth of a child changes a parent and alters the trajectory of their lives forever. The new family member becomes the heartbeat of their sphere and center of their orbit. A child creates a tectonic shift in their thinking, redefines their identity, and introduces them to a new concept of love.

Having a daughter has taught me that the refrain women and girls "should stay in their 
place" is flawed and offensive. Instead, I now recognize and know that a woman or girl's place is everywhere. It took her birth for me to truly recognize the importance of gender equality and fierce urgency of combating female objectification and misogyny.

I am now the first to admit I have made mistakes in the past when it comes to some of the shameful views about gender roles, the myths of male privilege, and corrosiveness of pernicious patriarchy that I learned growing up in a morally challenged society. My daughter has created paradigm shifts in my life that would not have occurred absent her enormous presence in my life.

Gone from my life are the distorted views of power imbalances and limitations which previously mislead me to regrettably believe it was acceptable for women to be subjected to in relationships. My daughter deconstructed the false notion that women are subordinate to men in relationships, and replaced it with the wisdom that men and women must always be equals.

The birth of my daughter has also provided me myriad didactic lessons in humanity, and the need to assiduously strive to fulfill the most important role and responsibility I will ever have in life: to become the best father I can ever be, empower my daughter to accomplish anything her male counterparts can in life, and relentlessly foster her genius.

My wife and I are reminded about the caring and empathetic qualities of our daughter as she channels these characteristics in her daily life. 

Last year she became the first second-grader in her school to be awarded the "Kind Hero Award" for helping a little boy from her class find his lost lunch 
money in the cafeteria. She even reminds my wife and I during conversations we are having that she senses tension in that we aren't using empathy.

Within recent weeks my daughter brought the presence of a knife she discovered in the school bathroom to the attention of her teacher which likely averted a potentially harmful situation. She constantly reflects the lessons my wife and I instill in her about treating others the way we want to be treated and valuing the lives and wellbeing of others.

I believe we can be the catalyst for change in prison and beyond its walls by offering incarcerated men healthy alternative narratives to consider about women and girls so they can learn, change, and grow. It is one way to help them reshape the contours of their consciousness and make our communities safer since 90% of them will return to society one day.

I can't think of many better places than prisons to foster the eradication of 
toxic masculinity and transform adult males into men of integrity. Men who remain dysfunctional and mentally incarcerated will return to society as liabilities instead of assets. It is imperative that we encourage them to become their best and leave a legacy of responsible manhood for the next generation.

As incarcerated fathers learn the skills to serve and support our children they will become equipped to reduce the risk of children developing ungovernable behaviors or becoming susceptible to maladaptive reactions in one or more areas of functioning. They will also recognize we collectively have an obligation to help children thrive, maximize their potential, and fulfill their dreams. In so doing they can become a driving force to strengthen and stabilize families and communities.

Efforts like "One Day With God" camps can help vanquish the miasma of paralyzing fear and despair that has held incarcerated fathers captive far too long. They may not be a panacea, but they are certainly a worthy enterprise producing compelling results which deserve widespread public support.

Previous to the camp I have avoided discussing my daughter in writings I share in the public domain to shield her from the public eye. The treasured experience of our day together at the "One Day With God" camp was so important, however, that I felt I should share it in hopes that others can learn and benefit from its lessons and insight.

One of the biggest takeaways from the camp is how much children need their fathers in their lives. If I was able to impact my daughter's life the way I did in a single day during the camp it is a testament to the profound impact I will be able to have on her life daily when I am fortunate enough to be released. Being a constant presence in her life will allow me to inspire her to 
continue being confident, brilliant, and be her best self each day.

In the meantime I look forward to my daughter receiving the video of camp photographs from event organizers so she can revisit the memories of that day whenever she desires. It will also serve as a frequent reminder to her about how much her father loves her and how proud I am she is my daughter.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner and subject of a new multi-channel documentary film installation, "Half Truths and Full Lies." He is also a blogger, social justice activist, and youth advocate. You can learn more about Efren by visiting www.fb.com/Free.Efren and www.tinyurl.com/Efren1016.)