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Monday, May 25, 2020

Juvenile Lifers Stricken With COVID-19 in Michigan Prisons

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.
As Michigan leads the nation in the chilling number of COVID-19 deaths occurring inside its prison, 196 incarcerated people sentenced to mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for crimes they were accused of committing when they were children ("juvenile lifers") are in prisons waiting to receive new resentencing hearings.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of all 2,500 juvenile lifers affected nationwide. In Michigan 363 people were originally affected by the ruling.
The high court stated that juvenile offenders who are not "irreparably corrupt," "incapable of change," or do not "exhibit such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible" cannot receive a LWOP sentence again when they are resentenced. Those who do not fit this criteria are candidates to receive a term-of-year sentence making them eligible for release one day.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, "Deciding that a juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society would require making a judgment that [s/he] is incorrigible -- but incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth and for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence."
The court added, "Life without parole foreswears the rehabilitative ideal. It reflects an irrevocable judgment about [an offender's] value and place in society, at odds with a child's capacity for change." (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2465 (2012))
Michigan is now shamefully home to the largest number of juvenile lifers in the nation. Thirty-seven states now either prohibit LWOP sentences for children or have not imposed the draconian sentence since 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the sentence for minors.
Eight years after the landmark ruling there are still 196 Michigan juvenile lifers waiting to be resentenced. Over 80 of them have already served at least twenty years behind bars and ten of them have served over 40 years. They are still awaiting resentencing hearings because prosecutors delayed the process by filing motions seeking LWOP sentences in each case nearly four years ago.
This means each person must receive an expensive mitigation hearing to determine whether or not they are candidates to receive a LWOP sentence replete with psychologists, brain science experts, mitigation experts, and other necessary expert witnesses at taxpayer expense. The total costs, including attorney fees and court costs, will likely exceed $30,000 for each person. Some have already cost as high as $70,000.
It will cost the state a conservative estimated total of $5.7 million to conduct all the mitigation and resentencing hearings. And, each year juvenile lifers remain imprisoned, taxpayers are paying an additional $30,000 annual cost of incarceration per person. All this is occurring in the midst of the highest unemployment rate and worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The first 190 juvenile lifers who were resentenced over the past eight years received an average sentence of 30 years. Of that number over 100 of them have been released and none have reoffended. Their zero percent recidivism rate is currently the lowest of any demographic released by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Parole Board.
The average overall recidivism rate for offenders in Michigan is currently 29%, according to the MDOC. The national average recidivism rate is closer to 60%.
"Research shows that individuals released after having served very long sentences, including life sentences, have the lowest recidivism rates of any category of previously incarcerated individuals." (R. Weisberg, D.A. Mukamal, & J.D. Segall, "Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California." Stanford Criminal Justice Center (2011)).
Two weeks ago a friend of mine named Jesse Hayes was released from prison after serving 31 years behind bars. He and I grew up together in prison and have known each other for many years. He was a juvenile lifer arrested at age 16 in Oakland County and is now 47-years-old.
Like me, Jesse spent the majority of his teenage years, all of his 20's, 30's, and most of his 40's in prison. He is one of the fortunate juvenile lifers to have been resentenced and afforded an opportunity to be released before contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to observe Jesse grow and mature from a troubled teen into a responsible, empathetic, forward-thinking man who maintains a positive outlook on life and enjoys helping others. His evolution did not occur in a straight line, however. In life, it never does.
During the earlier part of our incarceration Jesse and I were housed in the most volatile and dangerous prisons in Michigan. We were often the youngest and most vulnerable people there having to defend ourselves against attempts by older incarcerated people to assault, steal from, extort, and exploit us. Because of our young age we were seen as easy prey.
Despite the barrage of negative events we experienced we managed to navigate through the treacherous waters of adult prisons and emerge stronger and wiser. And through it all we never gave up hope that one day we might be able to return to our families and regain our hard fought freedom.
Jesse's family stood by and supported him during his entire incarceration and they are helping with his transition as a returning citizen. He is doing well with his adjustment and will be an asset to his community. He will be among those who maintain the zero percent recidivism rate for juvenile lifers who were given a second chance.
In recent months several juvenile lifers have contracted COVID-19 awaiting their resentencing hearings. One of them was resentenced and died in April awaiting his release which would have occurred this month. Six other juvenile lifers have also died in custody waiting for their resentencing hearings over the past eight years previous to the COVID-19 crisis.
One of the juvenile lifers who has contracted COVID-19 at the prison I am presently located, the Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF), is a long-time friend of mine from Flint, Michigan, I have known for 30 years named Simba Senghor.
Simba and I met at the Riverside Correctional Facility Reception and Guidance Center (RG&C) in 1989 when I was working as a porter in the intake area at that time. I was tasked with keeping the area clean and also passing out clothing to new people who were entering the prison system.
We were both arrested at age 15 when we were too young to receive a driver's license, enlist in the armed forces, or enter a theatre to watch a Rated R movie. And though we were too young to visit a prison at the time of our arrest, we were sentenced to die in one.
During the past three decades I have witnessed Simba's growth and evolution since he entered the prison system. No longer the impetuous, myopic, risk-taking kid he was back then, today he is a responsible 47-year-old man who has engaged in years of introspective work and self-education.
Earlier this year I invited Simba to attend Kwanzaa and Black History Month programs I co-sponsored along with other men at LCF who were a part of the organizing committee. We had the honor of hosting Dr. Jamie Monson, Director of the African Studies Program at Michigan State University, and a team of her amazing staff and students.
Simba and I were profoundly impacted by the messages of our esteemed guests. They were monuments to years of investing time learning and teaching our peers about African, Black, and Latinx history, culture, and identity at a number of different prisons in Michigan.
Me being selected by our peers to be a presenter at both events was a special moment for both Simba and I. It demonstrated that through serious study and discipline we can share a stage speaking about the same subjects as world class scholars in their fields even from inside a prison. It also affirmed that the work we have been doing has tremendous value to the world beyond what we have seen and experienced behind prison walls.
Prior to COVID-19 infiltrating the prison I saw Simba in the general library perusing through several books Dr. Monson donated to the prison. We discussed something from one of the books and our enthusiasm about Dr. Monson's willingness to offer continued learning opportunities to people at LCF through the African Studies Department Outreach Program.
Simba and I both appreciate the value of using education as tools to transform lives, and we understand the detrimental affects that can stem from their paucity. We remain inspired by the timeless wisdom of people like Oliver Wendell Holmes who once wrote, "Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions."
Prosecutors argue that people like Simba are irredeemable because of crimes they were convicted of committing decades ago. They ignore the reality that the crimes are snapshots in time of who they were when they were minors. They don't tell us who the person is today after years of incarceration, maturity, and participating in a number of rehabilitative programs.
"Research suggests that more than 90% of justice-involved youth will no longer engage in crimal behavior by the time they reach their mid-20s." (Elizabeth Scott & Laurence Steinberg, "Rethinking Juvenile Justice" 38 (2008))
These individuals are often identified as adolescent-limited offenders, whose antisocial behavior typically starts in adolescence and declines as they mature into adulthood. Thus, less than 10% of justice-involved youth will continue to engage in criminal behavior past their mid-20s.
In the first ever national survey of victims' views on safety and justice titled "Crime Survivors Speak," published in 2016 by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, the report found that 61% of victims prefer "shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation to prison sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible."
The report also found that for every victim who prefers the criminal justice system focus on punishment there are two victims who prefer its focus on rehabilitation, and 89% of victims prefer more investment in school and education to more investments in prisons and jails.
Each person is a culmination of their lived experiences and decisions. They are not defined by any one event, nor by their best or worst choice in life. The problem is that many prosecutors become obsessed with people's crimes and their cynicism prevents them from acknowledging their inherent dignity and redemptive qualities.
People learn, they grow, and they change. Everyone is a work in progress. No one is the same person in their 40's and 50's that they were in their teens. No one is the same person they were when they committed their crime even a year later. To believe that they are defies reason and common sense.
I was arrested in March 1989 in Berrien County at age 15 and sentenced to LWOP. I am now 47-years-old and to date I have spent over two-thirds of my entire life in prison. My arrest occurred at the height of the pernicious propaganda campaign when criminologists, lawmakers, and prosecutors were branding juvenile offenders as "superpredators."
A month after I was jailed the Central Park Five were arrested in New York City, the subjects of the Netflix documentary film series "When They See Us." In the midst of the national media firestorm surrounding their case I stood trial only three months after my arrest.
Four other juveniles admittedly involved in the planning or commission of the same crime I was charged with were sentenced as follows:
* 16-year-old named Alex Mui received an 18-45 year sentence for Armed Robbery and had his homicide charge dropped in exchange for testifying against me;
* 17-year-old named Eric Mui received two 18-45 year sentences for Armed Robbery and Second-Degree Murder in exchange for his cooperation with the prosecutor and police;
* 16-year-old named Jason Williamson was charged as a juvenile and received a six month sentence for Armed Robbery; and
* 16-year-old named Steve Miller, who admitted being involved in the planning of the crime and participating in an attempted Armed Robbery two days earlier, was granted immunity by the prosecutor in exchange for his testimony against me and others in the case.
All four individuals were older than me at the time of arrest and the two who received the 18-45 year sentences were released 15 years ago. I am the only person who was charged in the case who still remains incarcerated. I have served nearly twice the amount of time as the 17-year-old who plead guilty to Second-Degree Murder and Armed Robbery, and 62 times the amount of time the person did who received a six month sentence in the case.
Despite my circumstances during the past 31 years I have dedicated my life to education, becoming a problem solver, sound consequential thinker, and selflessly helping enrich the lives of others through education.
According to Dr. Akbar, author of "Community of Self" and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Florida State University, "A male is a biological creature. A boy is a creature in transition. And a man is a person who has arrived at a purpose and a destiny." His words have been a lodestar serving as a reminder of our perpetually evolving transcendent nature as human beings in life.
Among my accomplishments are proudly organizing to help create a Latinx charter middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, co-founding the first MSU My Brother' Keeper Prison Outreach Program, and co-founding Presente.org -- the largest online Latinx social justice organizing platform.
I am also a Literary Braille Transcriber certified by the U.S. Library of Congress. For 13 years I transcribed print textbooks into braille for blind and visually impaired children around the globe. Additional accomplishments can be viewed at http://Bitly.com/EfrenCV.
In 2008 the Berkeley City Council in California passed a resolution condemning my sentence as a human rights violation, and in 2016 LATINA magazine named me as one of four Latinx people in the nation deserving of clemency.
I enjoy support for my release from current and former MDOC employees, filmmakers, a former juror from my case, national organizations, legal scholars, Directors of various university Latinx Studies Departments, authors, community leaders, one of the nation's leading wrongful conviction investigators, and others.
Five years ago I was one of five people whose cases were featured in the documentary film "Natural Life." The film was about the issue of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in Michigan. Last year my case was also the subject of the documentary film installation "Half Truths and Full Lies." The installation was produced by award-winning filmmakers Tirtza Even, Meg McLagan, and Elyse Blennerhassett.
Over 750 people have signed the "Free Efrén Paredes, Jr." online petition expressing support for my release and asking that my resentencing judge impose a term-of-year sentence in my case proportionate to what others similarly situated have received. The petition is available at http://Bitly.com/FreeEfren.
Despite the national attention my case has garnered I am not the only juvenile lifer who has done positive things with their life. Many others have also and continue to do so to this day. I am just fortunate to have an enormous support network, as well as a platform and access to resources to share our story. Other juvenile lifers could do similar things if they did as well. I am emblematic of what their potential can be if they had equal access to the same opportunities.
If released I have a home to go to in Van Buren County where I would live with my wife of seven years and our school-aged daughter. I also have a strong support system consisting of family, friends, and amazing supporters and grassroots organizers who have poured their hearts into helping raise awareness about my case for many years.
During the past year I have been participating in an extensive, in-depth interview with a journalist and book author to provide the public with a detailed portrait of what life looks like for someone who has been incarcerated for decades since the age of 15.
In the interview I answer questions about the legal process, my experiences growing up in prison, social justice activism, how I've educated myself, the mental and emotional impacts of incarceration, fatherhood, never before publicized aspects of my personal life, and many more issues. The series is available at http://EfrensWords.home.blog.
People have asked me why I believe juvenile lifers have managed to maintain a zero percent recidivism rate, and what sets them apart from other incarcerated people.
The reality is that before any of them were released they spent decades behind bars haunted by a death-by-incarceration sentence. They opened their eyes every morning feeling the enormous gravity of the sentence they were serving and went to bed each night with the frightening reminder that they may never again experience living life as a free person in society.
The trauma of incarceration and countless daunting experiences since they were kids is forever seared into their memories. The women and men who have been tormented by these events, and now given one chance to experience freedom for the first time in their adult lives, is not something they will throw away.
These individuals will work diligently to be law-abiding citizens and do the jobs that many others are unwilling to do. They will also volunteer to help people and learn new experiences. One such person is my friend of nearly three decades from Detroit named James Thomas.
James was arrested at age 15 and served 31 years behind bars. Since his release he has been active in the community doing a number of projects offering spiritual guidance for a ministry, and serving as the Transition Specialist for Chance for Life (CFL), and Co-Coordinator for Nation Outside (Detroit Chapter).
Since his release James and a team of volunteers from the Detroit area have been providing free food to people living in Inkster. In recent months they have been able to provide boxes of food to 500 families by coordinating with city officials due to the enormous need because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Last month James and other volunteers passed out Easter bags to 400 children in Inkster and 230 children in Detroit so the children could enjoy some semblance of normalcy and not miss out on Easter this year due to the Governor's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order. For Halloween James and other volunteers hosted a Safe Haven Community Night, creating a safe space where children could trick-or-treat without fear of being harmed.
Another former juvenile lifer named Kimberly Woodson from Detroit is also doing impressive community engagement work since her release after serving 29 years in prison. She has been a powerful voice for incarcerated women and the need to abolish LWOP sentences.
As Executive Director of the non-profit corporation Redeeming Kimberly, she helps connect returning citizens from prison with resources that can assist their transition back into society. She is also a Canvas Manager for Michigan Liberation, a Regional Connector for ICAN (Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network), and is happily married.
But the title Kimberly holds most dear is that of being a mother. Each day Kimberly basks in the glow of her beloved two-year-old daughter who brings her tremendous pride and joy. She maintains a positive outlook and encourages people to never give up hope or lose their faith. Kimberly believes, "As long as you are breathing, you can be redeemed."
Many juvenile lifers who are released from prison could be a tremendous asset to judges and courts to mentor troubled youth and make their communities safer. Young people are more inclined to listen to -- and be deterred from a life of crime -- by those who understand them and have been in their shoes before than people who haven't.
Another friend of mine, José Burgos, a former juvenile lifer from Detroit released from prison in 2019 after serving 27 years knows this firsthand. He participated in youth deterrent programs and mentored at-risk youth for several years while he was in prison.
He devoted a great deal of time transforming lives and working to help young people become a better version of themselves each day to avoid the pitfalls he endured growing up that lead him to prison.
During his incarceration José learned to embody the words of Victor Frankl who once wrote, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."
Today José works for an agency assisting returning citizens who were former juvenile lifers with their transition back into the community. He is also a Regional Connector for ICAN (Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network).
Since his release José has been a panelist on various forums discussing the juvenile lifer issue, mass incarceration, and the need for prison reform. He and Kimberly Woodson are also regular guests on "The Elena Herrada Show," which airs on AM 910 Detroit Superstation.
Each of these former juvenile lifers are people anyone would be proud to have as a neighbor if they took the time to get to know them. They deeply value their freedom and are committed to living the remainder of their lives proudly serving their communities.
The National Academies of Sciences summarized the research on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and found that "long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure." (National Research Council, "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences" (2014)
The online Change.org petition, "Support Michigan Prison Reform," contains a 10-Point Michigan Prison Reform Platform that has generated over 6,000 signatures and continues to rise daily. The petition includes a proposed reform related to juveniles serving mandatory LWOP sentences which calls on lawmakers to:
"Abolish life-without-parole sentences for all juvenile offenders or, alternatively, grant the Parole Board jurisdiction over prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles, and make them eligible for meaningful parole consideration at least every two years after they have served 20 years. S/he would be parole eligible after serving 15 years if convicted of the lesser offense of aiding and abetting, and not as being the principle perpetrator of the crime."
The Support Michigan Prison Reform petition is available at http://Bitly.com/MichPR.
The Convention On the Rights of the Child, the world's most widely supported international treaty, provides that imprisonment be used only as a "measure of last resort" for juvenile offenders, and "for the shortest approriate time."
Over 100 organizations, professional associations, and faith-based groups (or houses of worship) have also expressed support to end the pernicious practice of sentencing children to LWOP sentences. Supporters include the American Correctional Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, National Black Police Association, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name a few. A complete list of supporters is available at http://FairSentencingOfYouth.org/Official-Supporters.
To date over 3,300 incarcerated people in Michigan prisons have contracted COVID-19 and 59 of them have died. At the prison I am housed nearly 800 incarcerated people have contracted the virus and 22 people have died.
Michigan juvenile lifers should not still be incarcerated where they are unable to social distance in crowded dining halls and housing units, and are being forced to risk their lives each day trying to avoid contracting deadly diseases like COVID-19.
There has been a 700% surge in strokes in men my age due to COVID-19, and men have been found to be nearly twice as high as women to become infected with the virus in some geographical areas. There is also new evidence that people living and working in densely populated spaces are becoming reinfected with COVID-19 after they have recovered.
Many juvenile lifers will continue being subjected to tremendous risk of dying or experiencing irreversible neurological, brain, kidney, heart, or lung damage, and recontracting the COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed for months to come if they remain incarcerated.
According to Tarika Daftary-Kapur, Ph.D. and Tina M. Zottoli, Ph.D., "In terms of risk to public safety, juvenile lifers can be considered low-impact releases." ("Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience," 10. Montclair State University: 2020).
Sentencing bodies can dismiss meritless motions filed by prosecutors who are seeking LWOP sentences against juvenile lifers being resentenced and proceed to resentence the cases before them to prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars, precious judicial resources, and time.
They can also grant personal recognizance bonds to juvenile lifers while they await their resentencing hearings and place them on GPS tethers. They would still remain under a form of incarceration with their families or friends, only rather than being held in vectors of COVID-19 transmission, they would have a humane opportunity to social distance and protect themselves from contracting the deadly disease.
Alternatively, Governor Gretchen Whitmer also has an opportunity to resolve the eight-year gridlock that juvenile lifers have been unfairly and cruelly subjected to by commuting the sentences of each person to a 25-year minimum sentence, which would conform with MCL 769.25a. The maximum end of the sentence is a 60-year mandatory term.
If the Governor commuted these sentences not a single person would be released. It would only grant the Parole Board jurisdiction to begin reviewing the cases after they have served 25 years and give the Parole Board the authority to release them after considering a number of factors.
The Governor could also ask Attorney General Nessel to take the cases over and withdraw the motions seeking LWOP sentences submitted by prosecutors, and allow judges to impose new sentences. She is authorized to do this because prosecutors have clearly demonstrated the inability to be fair and unbiased, and have abused their authority for years.
In either event the Parole Board would use its wealth of resources to determine whether or not each person could be safely returned back into the community as it does for thousands of people it releases each year. Anyone that does not fit that criteria could remain incarcerated for up to the 60-year maximum term.
Based on the overwhelming success juvenile lifers have had who have been released, commuting the sentences of juvenile lifers would be an evidence-based, data-driven safe decision by the Governor. It would also be economically sound and morally correct.
We would be wise to put into practice the words of Aryn Siler, author of "Buried Alive," 17 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 293 (2013), who urges us to reject the dark fatalism of throwing away the key on juvenile offenders and replace it with rehabilitation rather than "a long, drawn out, meaningless, tortuous, and hopeless existence unto death."
(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is a blogger, thought leader, and social justice changemaker. He has been featured in various TV news, radio show, and podcast interviews to discuss the COVID-19 crisis in Michigan prisons. His interviews and ongoing series about this and other social justice issues can be read at http://fb.com/Free.Efren.)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Final Installment of Juvenile Lifer Interview Series with Efren Paredes, Jr.

by Necalli Ollin

For the past year-and-a-half Efrén Paredes, Jr. has been participating in an interview to provide the public with a detailed portrait of what life looks like for someone who has been incarcerated for decades since the age of 15. It is the most extensive, in-depth interview published of a juvenile lifer in the nation.

In the interview Efrén answers questions about the legal process, his experience growing up in prison, social justice activism, toxic masculinity, spirituality, and how he's educated himself. He also discusses mental health, the mental and emotional impacts of incarceration, and much more.

In the final installment of this interview Efrén shares never before publicly revealed aspects of his private life, fatherhood, marriage, and his thoughts and plans about the future, if released. He takes readers on a fascinating journey allowing them to see how he interprets the world, solves problems, and tirelessly works to push the boundaries to improve the lives of others inside and outside of prison.

The interview is especially helpful to policymakers, people studying criminal justice reform, anyone trying to understand what juvenile lifers experience in prison, attorneys defending juvenile lifers at mitigation and resentencing hearings, and even sentencing bodies who will determine the fate of juvenile lifers at resentencing hearings.

For years Efrén has selflessly written about prison and social justice issues. He has also chronicled the stories and experiences of incarcerated people. Throughout it all he has kept his personal life private and out of the media spotlight. After 18 months of being interviewed we finally gain insight into Efrén the person like never before.

According to Efrén, "The interview has had a tremendous impact on many lives and we've received a lot of positive feedback." He adds, "I allowed myself to open up and be vulnerable for the interview so people could learn and benefit from my lived experiences, including my pain and personal failures. It was difficult at times, but in the end I'm grateful I did it."

The final installment of the interview series can be read at http://EfrensWords.home.blog/Part-Eleven/ and can also be read in its entirety at http://EfrensWords.home.blog. You are encouraged to read this riveting interview and gift to us all, and share it widely with others in your network.

#FreeEfren #JLWOP #AbolishDBI #HTFL

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Efrén Paredes, Jr. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Message

I want to begin by expressing my gratitude and appreciation to the people who have been reaching out to me and expressing their concern about my health and well-being as the nation grapples with one of the most horrific pandemics and national tragedies we have ever witnessed.
This is a very challenging time for the nation and unfortunately the worst is yet to come. According to data models based on the trajectory of how the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has impacted other countries, the disease isn't forecasted to peak in the U.S. until the end of April.
The mortality rate for those infected with COVID-19 as of March 23, 2020 in the U.S. is currently 1.3 percent. It's important to note that this number reflects a period of time when most hospitals still had enough ICU beds to care for infected patients. At this rate the nation could lose at least four million lives if the virus isn't aggressively contained and mitigated.
Yesterday Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer made the wise decision to issue a mandatory stay-at-home, stay safe executive order for Michigan residents which will remain in place for the next three weeks in an effort to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.
The number of people infected with COVID-19 since the first person tested positive in Michigan thirteen days ago is now 1,791. Twenty-four people have died. The number of people testing positive for the disease doubled over the weekend.
According to Governor Whitmer, without taking aggressive measures to contain the disease the number of people becoming infected with COVID-19 could soar by as high as five times this week in the state. As of today, the State of Michigan ranks sixth highest for the number of people who have tested positive in the nation.
Last week administrators at the prison I am currently housed, the Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF), suspended all visits from members of the public indefinitely. The Warden also announced they will understandably not be restored until the COVID-19 crisis is stabilized.
According to prison staff, as of today no one at the prison has tested positive for COVID-19. Incarcerated people don't find that very comforting, however, given that no testing for the disease has taken place for weeks within the MDOC due to the unavailability of test kits until March 22, 2020.
Previous to this the extent of diagnostic testing staff or incarcerated people in Michigan prisons consisted of people being asked a series a questions (e.g., if they have a cough, respiratory distress, etc.) and being administered a temperature check. If they didn't have a fever it was assumed they didn't have COVID-19.
For an incarcerated person this has meant being returned to the general population of the prison with hundreds of others. For staff members it has meant being allowed to enter the prison to work in direct contact with hundreds of incarcerated people and other staff members for an eight-hour shift.
This is deeply troubling because according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, people infected with COVID-19 can go days without exhibiting symptoms of the disease and still be very contagious. Some people remain asymptomatic the entire time and keep shedding the virus.
Many incarcerated people live barracks-style in congested dorms, gymnasiums, and other open settings surrounded by dozens of people originally designed to house only a fraction of the people they currently house. They live much closer together than students at college campus dorms which have been closed across the state to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Incarcerated people in Michigan prisons are also still standing in lines waiting to be fed in the prison dining hall where hundreds of people are fed three times a day seated at tables designed to seat four. There are usually approximately 100 people in the dining hall eating at one time.
Just this past week the prison I am housed at began limiting seating in the dining hall to two people per table. While a step in the right direction, the square tables are only three feet wide -- half the space the CDC guidelines call for social distancing. People serving meals on the serving line are also standing side-by-side separated approximately a foot apart.
By now it is a widely known fact that COVID-19 spreads more rapidly in density. The current dining arrangement in many prisons is the reason Governor Whitmer ordered restaurants in the community to no longer offer dine-in services and restricted them to drive-thru and delivery options only.
Prisons also continue transferring incarcerated people from prison to prison, increasing the chance of COVID-19 becoming community spread throughout prisons. County jails continue transporting people to prisons as well.
This is taking place despite the White House Coronavirus Task Force urging people to remain in their homes to minimize the transmission of the contagion, and the U.S. State Department issuing a Level 4 global travel advisory -- the highest level possible -- restricting Americans from nonessential travel.
The conditions inside prisons make it impossible to practice the safe social distancing guidelines prescribed by the CDC of keeping people separated by six feet. Prisons are a frightening incubator for spread of the highly contagious disease and pose an enormous public health risk.
The problem will also be exacerbated because of the health care provider's inability to provide a serious level of care, and its dismal history of exhibiting repeated deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of incarcerated people.
March 18, 2020 elected prosecutors from across the nation -- including from Michigan -- issued a joint statement addressing the rights and needs of those in custody, sounding the alarm about the impact an outbreak of COVID-19 could have on this vulnerable demographic. According to their statement:
"[L]little attention is being paid to the millions of people in the most overcrowded conditions that are ripe for the spread of this contagious and deadly virus: the people behind bars in America's jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers."
New data shows that four out of five people -- an astonishing 80% -- who have tested positive for COVID-19 contracted it from a person they didn't even know had the disease, and a recent study from Italy found that the mortality rate for men in every age group who contract the contagion is twice as high as for women.
We've also learned that COVID-19 can remain active in the air for up to three hours and on hard surfaces for up to two days, making people vulnerable to coming into contact with the disease in those ways as well.
During the past week it was announced that three MDOC employees have tested positive for COVID-19. They worked in Detroit, Jackson, and Lapeer. Media outlets have reported that two of the employees worked in contact with incarcerated people and one of them did not.
This Sunday the Associated Press reported that a COVID-19 outbreak has occurred at the Rikers Island detention center in New York. Thirty-eight incarcerated people tested positive for the disease. This means potentially hundreds of others they lived and interacted with who have not yet exhibited symptoms may be infected as well.
And yesterday the local news reported the first case of an incarcerated person at the Kinross Correctional Facility (KCF) in Kincheloe, Michigan, testing positive for COVID-19. KCF houses over 1,000 incarcerated people in double-bunked pole barns, which each house hundreds of people.
Now that diagnostic testing for COVID-19 has begun in the MDOC it is inevitable we will begin hearing additional reports of people testing positive for the virus in prisons across Michigan in the coming days. The fear of incarcerated people is if more mitigation and containment efforts are not implemented in prisons there could be a surge of infection which would be catastrophic.
One thing that needs to immediately occur is for prisons to discontinue feeding incarcerated people in dining halls. They should instead prepare meals for them in disposable containers and/or bags to consume in their living quarters.
The practice of eating in dining halls as the spread of COVID-19 is accelerating across the country is diametrically opposed to the CDC guidelines and poses a serious danger to public safety. The objective is to mitigate the propagation of the highly contagious disease, not wait for people to contract it and then act.
No effort has completely prevented COVID-19 from spreading anywhere in the world. Some countries are doing better than others at it. But the ones that are have completely locked the country down and issued stay-at-home orders to their citizens which are being strictly enforced.
I am grateful to share that the status of my personal health is currently good. I've been going out to take walks and get fresh air daily, exercising alone, and spending a lot of time reading. I have a lot of writing projects I'm working on that are keeping me busy as well.
Though the majority of people will survive if they contract COVID-19, we have to shield ourselves and others from being hunted by it as much as possible. We're not invincible. Thousands of people are succumbing to COVID-19 around the globe and no one is being spared.
It is important that we take all the CDC COVID-19 guidelines very seriously. Listen to the scientists, doctors, and health experts. We should continue washing our hands frequently, sanitizing hard surfaces, and practice social distancing.
Ignoring any of these guidelines will not only put our personal lives at risk, but the lives of our family members, friends, and neighbors as well. A short time ago the World Health Organization announced that the U.S. is on track to soon become the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis is becoming more serious by the moment.
COVID-19 is ravaging people's lungs. It's leaving many of them scarred and some people are losing 20-30% of their lung capacity. Some people have also reported losing the ability to taste and smell. Whether the damage remains permanently is still unknown at this time.
We have a moral and social responsibility to support and help one another during this time. And the more we work together to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 the sooner we will be able to defeat the virus and resume our normal lives.
Taking care of our mental and emotional health is also critically important right now. Unmanaged stress can compromise our immune system which is something we can ill-afford. The confluence of crisis and uncertainty can grip people with fear and anxiety. So can being barraged with intrusive worries.
I am reminding people around me every day who are struggling mentally or emotionally right now that no one benefits from becoming panicked during this time. We have to remain calm and clear minded so we can make good choices, driven by facts not by fear.
I encourage people to use this time for self-care, reflection, and recentering. These activities can have a calming and healing effect. As I have personally experienced, taking walks and enjoying the outdoors while still practicing social distancing can be helpful as well.
Members of the public should enjoy the time they are spending with those they are sheltering in their homes with, and strive to forge deeper connections with them. Celebrate the gift of life and be grateful for one another at a time when thousands of families are suffering the devastating loss of loved ones due to COVID-19.
Take time to introduce a hobby you enjoy with someone else which can stimulate their brain activity and be serenity-inducing, creativity-boosting, and health-enhancing. Please also do each other an enormous favor and exercise an abundance of patience with one another.
People can also call one another and use video chat platforms like Skype, Face Time, and Facebook Messenger to connect. Don't equate social distancing with emotional distancing. Instead, devote energy to nurturing emotional connections.
That said, we should take the time to address each other's mental and emotional health needs and concerns right now as well. There are a lot of people struggling with depression and anxiety in need of our help and support.
A 2005 Australian study found that having a strong social support system can increase life expectancy by as much as 22 percent. Listening to people, offering them words of encouragement, and validating them goes a long way.
Taking time to helping our children and young people is also important right now. Many kids are living in fear and struggling to make sense of everything going on. Their lives were abruptly upended with no advanced notice of any kind. They will need help developing coping strategies and ideas to manage their frustration.
Consider visiting YouTube and TED Talks to view talks about meditation, yoga, and techniques to cope with stress and anxiety. I recommend watching videos by Deepak Chopra whose books have been a guide and inspiration to help me cope with decades of living in isolation.
To all the courageous medical professionals and first responders risking their lives everyday fighting the battle against COVID-19 on the front line; the school employees (like my beloved mother) still going to work each day to prepare meals to deliver to their students who struggle with food insecurity; shopping angels -- people shopping for their elderly neighbors so they don't have to leave their homes to risk their health; people producing much needed masks and gowns for health care workers in their own homes; and the many, many others doing their part to help make a difference -- the nation thanks you.
The road forward may be difficult and the end may seem very distant at times, but we are resilient and we'll make it through this crisis together. We have to believe in ourselves, in each other, and continue supporting one another. When we tell each another "I got you" make it count.
Let's choose faith over fear, and peace over panic. Life is sacred, and the safety and protection of every human life is paramount right now. Please be careful and stay healthy.
Praying for the nation,
--Efrén Paredes, Jr.
http://fb.com/Free.Efren

Monday, March 16, 2020

Corrupt Policing During the Arrest of Efrén Paredes, Jr. (Part 2 of 2)

by Dr. John Masterson
Emeritus Professor of Mathematics
Michigan State University

The evidence strongly suggests that Efrén Paredes, Jr.'s version of what actually occurred during the time he was alone in a police car with the arresting officer in his case, former Berrien County Sheriff's Department detective William Tucker, is far more credible than the one Tucker falsified for the following reasons:

(1) According to one of Efrén's former high school teachers, "Those who knew Efrén then knew he didn't use the word 'ain't' or the language Tucker claimed. He respected authority and was never offensive to adults. That's not the student or kind of person he was."

(2) There is no audio recording of the exchange Efrén and Tucker in the police car. Tucker could have easily recorded their drive to the jail, particularly since they were alone, if he was concerned about protecting the integrity of anything that was said. He purposely placed Efrén in the front seat of his police car and didn't have anyone accompany them to avoid having any witnesses present.

(3) Tucker's decision to place Efrén in the front seat of the police car next to him was calculated and deliberate so he could attempt to engage him in conversation. Police do not seat murder suspects in the front seat with them. Tucker clearly had a motive for breaking with normal practice and doing so.

(4) Efrén knew not to talk to police outside the presence of an attorney well before his arrest. Further, he informed Tucker he had an attorney from the moment of his arrest in the presence of his family and again when they were alone in the car.

(5) During Efrén's trial before a packed courtroom he testified under oath that he did not kill the victim in his case and he had no role in the crime.

(6) After his trial and conviction Efrén spoke to two men from the probation department who interviewed him to prepare a Pre-Sentence Investigation Report for his sentencing judge. When asked to describe his version of the crime, according to the report Efrén responded, "I didn't do anything to be arrested. I am being charged for something I didn't do and had no part of."

(7) At his sentencing hearing when asked by the judge if he had anything to say to the court prior to receiving his sentence Efrén stated, "I don't believe I should be sentenced for something I didn't do."

(8) There have been numerous complaints against Tucker by people he arrested in the past claiming he engaged in various forms of misconduct in their cases. Common complaints have included him falsifying statements attributed to them, and using threats and intimidation to coerce people into making statements.

(9) In hundreds of interviews with various television, print, and radio media outlets during his 31-year incarceration Efrén has denied committing the crime and Tucker's false claims, and has remained consistent about what actually occurred that day. He also did so at a nine-and-a-half hour 2008 public hearing when he was seeking a commutation of his sentence under a barrage of questioning from five parole board members and an Assistant Attorney General.

(10) During his time at the Berrien County Sheriff's Department Tucker was suspended for insubordination. In a 1997 lawsuit it was also revealed:

"Tucker was demoted to sergeant in connection with misconduct involving two [police] informants. ... Tucker admitted to having sexual relations with the second informant[.]" (Mata v. County of Berrien, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19344, 13 (W.D. Mich 1997))

Throughout his employment with the Berrien County Sheriff's Department, and since his early departure from the department in 2005, Tucker has been embroiled in various controversies according to stories featured in local newspapers.

Tucker's lack of good judgment, abuse of authority, and credibility gap are clear in his mishandling of Efrén's arrest and mistreatment of a vulnerable 15-year-old boy. It is further evident in the way Tucker performed his duties in other cases and abused his position as a police officer to take advantage of vulnerable people.

His actions are clearly at odds with being an honest, credible public servant, and his conduct in Efrén's case rises to the level of corruption and committing fraud upon the court by knowingly providing false testimony to the court.

"Police corruption refers to dishonest and illegal acts by police officers. These actions may range from stealing evidence to perjury and obstruction of justice." (Laurie L. Levenson, "Police Corruption and New Models for Reform," 35 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 1 (2001))

In her academic journal article, "Bias in Blue: Instructing Jurors to Consider the Testimony of Police Officer Witnesses with Caution," 44 Pepp. L. Rev. 245, 263-64 (2017), Vida B. Johnson, Visiting Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, writes:

"Police officers are also interested parties; the motivations to lie, shade the truth, and protect colleagues exist. Just like a witness seeking a reward or a witness with some other interest in the case, police officers often have financial, career, ideological, or institutional interests at play, particularly in certain types of cases."

She adds, "Although it may reveal a 'dismal' side of our criminal justice system to acknowledge these biases, ignoring police officer bias does not make it go away."

Substantial evidence demonstrates that police perjury is so prevalent that scholars have characterized it as a "subcultural norm rather than an individual aberration." (Stephen W. Gard, "Bearing False Witness: Perjured Affidavits and the Fourth Amendment," 41 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 445, 448 (2008))

"Blue lies are so pervasive that even former prosecutors have described them as 'commonplace' and 'prevalent.'" (Myron W. Orfield, Jr., "Deterrence, Perjury, and the Heater Factor," 63 U. Colo. L. Rev. 75, 107 (1992))

Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges in one survey expressed their belief that perjury is present in approximately twenty percent of all cases. A separate survey of police officers was even more troubling. "Seventy-six percent of responding officers agreed that officers shade the facts to establish probable cause; forty-eight percent believed judges were often correct in disbelieving police testimony." (Myron W. Orfield, Jr., "The Exclusionary Rule and Deterrence," 54 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1016, 1050-51 & n.129 (1987))

Of the dozens of people who witnessed Efrén speaking to any member of law enforcement or testifying in court, no one other than Tucker falsely claims that Efrén made any statement contrary to him denying he committed the crime or had an attorney. Tucker sought to be a hero in the case by being the sole person able to extract a statement from Efrén that would be prejudicial in some way.

It is a technique routinely used by police to bolster their claims and make a case stronger than it was previously to boost the appearance of their success rates. Some of the ways police do this is by:

"Claiming to have heard a confession or an out-of-context condemning statement, recovering weapons or other evidence planted in a particular location, obscuring evidence that points to someone else, or hiding evidence of the suspect's innocence." (Christopher Slobogin, Professor of Law & Alumni Research Scholar, University of Florida College of Law, "Testilying: Police Perjury and What to Do About It," 67 U. Colo. L. Rev. 1037, (996))

Sadly, events like this occur far too often in cities across America. And it occurs most often between encounters with white officers and black and brown youth. In Efrén's case he is Latino and Tucker is white; as were all the investigating police in his case.

According to Lupe S. Salinas, retired Criminal Court Judge in Houston, Texas, and a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of Texas, who serves as a Professor of Law at Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law:

"The mistreatment of Latinos by law enforcement has been extensive. However, for whatever reasons, media coverage has been minimal." (Lupe S. Salinas, "Lawless Cops, Latino Injustice, and Revictimization by the Justice System," 2018 Mich. St. L. Rev. 1095, 1128 (2018))

Since 2009 an alarming number of police officers have been identified as members of white supremacist groups. Professor Vida B. Johnson, Georgetown Law School, writes, "In that same period, there have been scandals in over 100 different police departments, in 49 different states where individuals have sent overtly racist emails, texts, or made racist comments via social media."

She adds, "[S]ome of these shocking occurrences have involved high-ranking members of their respective police forces." ("KKK in the PD: White Supremacist Police and What To Do About It," 23 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 205, 210 (2019))

This troubling number is in addition to scores of widely documented instances of racism that have been committed by police officers against communities of color for decades while performing their routine job duties before the advent of the digital sphere.

Purveyors of racism are able to express themselves more openly today by hiding behind blue screens giving them a false sense of anonymity across a panoply of platforms. Proliferation of the digital evidence in recent years has only made it easier to expose the prevalence of this activity.

Though most members of law enforcement strive to perform their duty with integrity there are always rogue actors seeking to fulfill personal goals and hidden agendas. "Our nation has experienced a regrettable history of lawlessness among a significant minority of police officers." (Salinas, supra, at 1213).

Reporting on the frequency of police officers arrested for committing crimes, one study found that "During 2005-2012, 10,787 individual non-federal sworn law enforcement officers with general powers of arrest faced criminal charges." (Philip M. Stinson, Associate Professor, Bowling Green St. Univ., Presentation at the 2017 Urban Elected Prosecutors Summit: "Police Shootings Data: What We Know and What We Don't Know" 12 (Apr. 20, 2017))

This astonishing number is significant because police corruption results in wrongful convictions across the country. According to the National Registry of Exonerations website there have been 2,434 documented exonerations as of May 5, 2019. (NAT'L REGISTRY OF EXONERATIONS, www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx (last visited May 5, 2019)).

"Wrongful conviction estimates, calculated from different methods, range from 0.03 to 15% of felony convictions." (Rossmo & Pollock, supra, at 796). Of the 2,434 cases that have been exonerated nationwide over 100 of them have occurred in the State of Michigan.

Though Tucker is woefully emblematic of police corruption he is only a small part of the overall problem pervasive in police departments across America. Most police officers strive to do the right thing. But as long as a culture referred to as the "Blue Wall of Silence" persists, even good cops will be degraded by the pernicious actions of the minority.

We have to work collectively to prevent police corruption, cast a light on its incidents, and restore integrity in the criminal justice system or run the risk of the few bad apples narrative becoming one that depicts a rotten orchard. If we don't, we run the risk of becoming the next Efrén Paredes, Jr. handcuffed sitting in a car next to a rogue cop like William Tucker.

It's a nightmare scenario any law-abiding citizen -- or 15-year-old kid -- can ill-afford to encounter without risking the loss of unwarranted decades of their freedom.


(To learn more about the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr. or how you can support his campaign for justice visit http://fb.com/Free.Efren or http://Bitly.com/FreeEfren.)