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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.)


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Ambassadors of Light (Part 2 of 3)

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Day Two

Saturday morning I woke up at 4:30 am and could not return to sleep. I had a difficult time getting to sleep the previous night eagerly anticipating what the following day would be like. My mind raced as I tried hard not to forget everything I wanted to tell my daughter that day.

I knew there would be no do over; no second chance to make a first impression to my daughter on this day. We would be together seven hours and it would be the first time we spent time together apart from her mother. I wanted to make her proud and it was my fervent hope that I wouldn't disappoint her in any way.

It would be the first time my daughter would 
enter the prison beyond the visiting room. We would be able to do a range of fun activities fathers and daughters normally do in society daily for the first time ever; activities we were previously prevented from doing in the visiting room since her birth eight-and-a-half years ago due to inordinate visiting room restrictions.

That morning I brushed my teeth, took a hot shower, shaved, and began the day. I combed my hair and put gel in it to hold it in place, knowing we would be having a busy day packed with fun activities. I wanted my hair to look nice for my daughter because there would be photographers capturing images of the event all day long.

After getting ready I listened to a relaxing song named "Slow Burn" by Richard Elliot. I needed to relax and dissolve some of the excitement that was relentlessly vying to consume me. I picked up the letter I wrote my daughter the previous night, a 
certificate of commitment to raise her with Christian principles I received during the seminar the previous day, and proceeded to the educational building where day two of the camp would begin at 7:30 am.

It was raining and I worried that it might complicate bringing the children in to the prison later that morning. I was determined to remain optimistic though and not allow the weather to eclipse the illumination of our special day. We had prepared for this day for weeks now and the part of the camp that would include our children was only a couple hours away.

After arriving at the school building the prisoners in the camp gathered with volunteers in a classroom where we ate a breakfast provided by the volunteers similar to the one the previous day. We were each given green T-shirts with the "1 Day With God" logo silk-screened on them to wear instead of the state blue issued shirts we normally wear daily. We were also provided lanyards and name tags.

We were then allowed to 
select a blanket for our child(ren) from among dozens of beautiful blankets made by camp volunteers. After looking at several of them I decided on a pink and white satin blanket that felt really soft. I wrapped myself in the blanket for a little while as I sat in my chair thinking about my daughter before placing it inside the backpack I packed with toys for my daughter the previous day.

As all the incarcerated fathers waited to see their child(ren) we sang songs lead by award-winning gospel recording artist Sonnie Day. A lifelong resident of Detroit, she has appeared on major stages, television networks, and radio stations across the country. She is also founder and executive director of the organization Ruby Girl, an Angel Tree advocate, vision coach, and entrepreneur.

Sonnie offered testimony about her travels to over 70 different prisons in seven different states with Prison Fellowship and Forgiven Ministry. She shared how God has used the gift of her voice to inspire social change, how the former incarceration of her daughter's father impacted their lives, and asked the prisoner fathers in the camp about the experiences and events which lead to their incarceration.

During her message Sonnie stated that the prison industrial complex experiment has woefully failed our communities, masked the true causes of crime (i.e., poverty, addiction, absence of fathers in the home, etc.), and described how it has disproportionately impacted the poor and communities of color.

She espouses the belief that crime reduction can only occur by understanding the root of the problem rather than blindly spending taxpayer dollars on the 
symptoms. During her presentation she was accompanied by her mother who was also there to support the incarcerated fathers and the camp.

Sonnie's presentation was followed by testimony from Sherelle Hogan, author of "The Prisoner's Kid: My Journey to Freedom." She is also founder and president of Pure Heart Foundation, a community-based nonprofit organization in Detroit.

Sherelle shared her turbulent story about growing up between the ages of six and 14-years-old as the daughter of two incarcerated parents. During that time she suffered beatings, sexual assault, attempted suicide multiple times, and experienced a series of devastating setbacks. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges she encountered Sherelle managed to overcome them through her journey of healing.

She eventually found a faith-based mentor, became involved in the church, and began transforming her life. She went on to graduate from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, with a degree in psychology and created Pure Heart Foundation to help prevent other youth of an incarcerated parent from enduring a painful childhood that resembled her own.

The foundation provides counseling, tutoring, mental wellness sessions, after school programs, 
scholarships, Christmas gifts, and more to children who have an incarcerated parent. It also offers a safe space for children where they can learn and grow together with others who share their struggles so they don't feel abandoned or alone.

The children of the incarcerated fathers began arriving at a local church at 8 am to be registered and treated to a large array of breakfast choices. The children were also paired with two Forgiven Ministry mentors who would escort each child into the prison later that morning. The objective of arriving early was also so the volunteers could spend time interacting with the children and mothers or caregivers so they would become more familiar and comfortable together in advance of traveling to the prison.

Family members or other caregivers who brought the children were allowed to remain at the church for the day to hear presentations from various speakers, 
watch a movie, eat lunch, and interact with other family members of incarcerated fathers. Presenters discussed the importance of the camp with the family members and shared some of the lessons the incarcerated fathers learned the previous day.

During the presentations and singing the fathers were hearing at the prison volunteers were simultaneously transporting children from the local church to the prison's gymnasium. The children played games, could choose to have face painting, interacted with other children, ate snacks, and were kept occupied by their mentors as they waited for the remaining children to arrive.

As the volunteers traveled between the church and prison we received continued updates about their progress. Among the updates we received was that some of the families and caregivers bringing the children to the church were encountering weather and travel delays as a result of detours. The stream of updates continued to fuel our excitement as several fathers kept glancing at the clock on the wall, myself included.

During that time we also learned there were a few fathers whose children would be unable to participate for various reasons. The fathers were still encouraged to participate in the camp, however. They would be able to assist with activities, interact with the other fathers and children, and the backpack of gifts they selected for their children would be mailed to the children by camp organizers. Though the fathers were terribly disappointed by the unfortunate news they all went forward with the camp for themselves and their children.

At 11 am the moment finally arrived. After all the children arrived in the gymnasium it was time for the fathers to see their children. Some of the fathers were nervous, some were experiencing anxiety, but all were very excited. They had all been on their best behavior all year long hoping to qualify to participate in the camp.

Some of the children traveled from as far away as Georgia and Kentucky to be there that day. Their families understood the importance of the camp and were grateful to have the opportunity to have the fathers and children enjoy this special day together. Time and distance would not keep these children and the fathers apart this day.

As the fathers walked down two short hallways from the classroom we were in I felt a surge of 
energy coursing through my body. Even though I had seen my daughter on dozens of visits before this day would be completely different. It was the first time I would spend hours alone with my daughter for the first time since her birth. All our previous contact was in the visiting room, on the phone, and through letters. This day was going to be very special.

Entering the gymnasium through a small corridor I could see dozens of people who had packed the room. All the children were lined up horizontally on the opposite side of the corridor we entered with their volunteers. They were all clapping for the fathers and the children were anxiously trying to see their fathers who were in a single 
file line waiting to enter the gymnasium one at a time. The energy in the room was palpable.

I immediately spotted my daughter in the crowd. She was wearing a green T-shirt that matched the one I was wearing; pants covered in large, bold, colorful butterfly 
print; pink running shoes; and her hair was pulled back in a white cloth ponytail holder. She appeared nervous from all the noise, large crowd, and electricity in the air until she saw me.

In ancient indigenous Mexican culture it was believed that fallen warriors who died in battle returned to this life in the form of butterflies. Little did this miniature image of me know that the butterflies she wore represented enduring symbols of transformation, resilience, and migration. And on this day they would be collective icons of a new beginning for my daughter and I.

A smile quickly beamed across our faces and my daughter immediately began waving and jumping up and down with excitement. A volunteer holding a microphone introduced each father's family name over the speaker system and then each father and his child(ren) would run to meet each other in the middle of the gym.

It was the first time I was able to ever run to see my daughter. Because visiting rules prohibit a prisoner from holding their child after age two I had also not been able to hold her or pick her up in several years. This day was different though. The visiting room restrictions didn't 
apply to the camp. An atmosphere for fathers and their child(ren) to bond and strengthen their relationship would be fostered in the camp, unlike in visiting rooms which are designed to keep parents and their children apart.

For years I felt bad because my daughter would ask me to pick her up or carry her and I wasn't allowed to do it. I feared she felt I didn't want to do it or couldn't lift her anymore because she had grown older. As these thoughts vacillated in the recesses of my mind my daughter and I ran out to meet in the center of the gymnasium. I immediately wrapped my arms around her, picked her up, and held her in the air. With tears of joy running down my face I told her I loved her and I was very happy to see her.

In a small voice full of excitement she said, "I love you and I'm happy to see you too. Daddy, you can still pick me up!" It reinforced my thinking that she still yearned to have her father pick her up even after all this time. As I looked at her beautiful little face I quickly noticed the "#1 Dad" face painting she proudly wore on her left cheek. When I told her how nice it looked she thanked me and told me she had it done by a volunteer while she waited to see me.

I also met the two volunteer mentors named Deb and Arthur who were assigned to assist my daughter and I throughout the day. They were both very nice people who had quickly bonded with my daughter that morning. I would later learn that Deb was the wife of Mike, a church pastor and one of the presenters the previous day who taught us lessons about fatherhood. Arthur was also a mentor the previous day. I recalled him being one of the men who prayed for us.

Two photographers remained present all day long. They captured dozens of treasured moments of each activity -- hundreds throughout the day -- to be used in a video that camp organizers 
create after the event. Camp organizers mail a video to each child who participated in the camp to cherish the memories of that special day. The first image photographers captured of my daughter and I that day was the moment we first ran out to each other for the first time when I picked her up and held her in the air.

Soon after exchanging pleasantries with our mentors John Spencley, Assistant Deputy Warden/Operations, expressed his hopes for a productive day on behalf of Warden Lester Parish's office. ADW Spencley remained present for a couple hours on the Warden's behalf because he was out of state and unable to be present himself.

As I held my daughter during ADW Spencley's remarks she took one of her small hands and began waving it through my hair and said, "Gel, huh?" I nodded up and down, laughed, and silently thought to myself, "So much for waking up early and working hard to look good for 
photos today." I quickly reminded myself that my hair looked nice for my daughter when she first saw me that day and that's what mattered. It was a minor problem I could fix later.

The first round of activities included fathers and their children participating in various games involving running, dribbling a basketball, jumping through a large hoop, running toward a chair with a balloon in it and popping the balloon by sitting on it; and running toward a small basket with a tennis ball, placing the ball in the basket, grabbing a different ball in the basket, and running to give it to the next person in line to repeat the process.

All the fathers and children were divided into four lines/teams to compete against each other during the games. Volunteers were on the sidelines cheering for the teams clapping and yelling 
words of encouragement. It was a joy to see all the children ranging from ages five to teenagers running, playing, laughing, and having a wonderful time.

For my daughter and I it would be creating memories of numerous firsts in our father/daughter experience. In this instance it was the first time we were able to compete together as a team in a fun physical activity. I was also able to cheer her on and encourage her as we competed. I am unable to do that for her with her mother, sister, and grandparents during her soccer games so it meant a lot me that I could do it for her this day.

Neither of us had ever seen the other run before or dribble a basketball. We were both almost amazed to see the other person running and dribbling. It was a proud moment to see my little girl exhibiting athletic skills I hadn't seen before. In fact, it made me consider encouraging her to play on a basketball team considering how well she could dribble.

One funny moment that occurred happened after my daughter ran during one of the competitions we participated in. Speaking through giggles as she held a hand over her mouth she said, "I just swallowed my mocos! Has that ever happened to you before Daddy?" I laughed and responded, "Yes ma, it happened when I was a little kid before too. Don't worry it won't hurt you." ("Mocos" are Spanish for nasal drainage.)

Next it was time for fathers and their children to showcase their dance moves. Fathers and their children formed a Soul Train line and danced between two rows of fathers and their children as singer Sonnie Day M.C.'d the event. It was only the second event and my daughter was nervous and shy about dancing in the large crowd of people because we were the first group to dance.
After all the fathers and children danced the first time it was time for my daughter and I to give it one more try. The second time we went down the line she did a couple moves as I turned toward her, danced so she could see me in front of her, and encouraged her to follow me. After we finished I hugged her and told her she did a great job which helped ease her nervousness.

Next it was time for lunch. My daughter directed me to where our table was on the other side of the gym where our mentors waited for us. We talked with the volunteers while we ate hamburgers, potato chips, dessert, and drank iced tea. I drank several cups of iced tea the previous day and wasn't surprised my daughter would want to drink it as well. We had a choice between iced tea, lemonade, coffee and/or water.

One pleasant surprise was volunteers presenting a large birthday cake that was taken to each table for everyone to see. It symbolized a birthday that year for every child present and was an opportunity for the fathers to sing Happy Birthday to their child(ren) and share a piece of cake with them since they are physically unable to do so on their actual birthday unless they are on a visit together.

For some mysterious reason my daughter decided she was no longer going to eat cake or chocolate anymore about two years ago. Consequently, she passed on eating a piece of the birthday cake. When one of the volunteers told us there were also chocolate chip cookies, M&M cookies, and peanut butter protein bars my daughter opted for a protein bar. When it arrived she opened it, saw chocolate chips on top, and told me she didn't want it.

We managed to locate some trail mix that was acceptable to her. Even that proved to be challenging though. She separated the raisins and M&Ms from the peanuts in the trail mix, ate the peanuts, and gave me the rest. Needless to say, I ate M&Ms, raisins, and the protein bar, which was fine with me because I like them all. As long as she was happy that's all that counted to me.

During lunch my daughter and I were called over to an area of the gymnasium to have our photo taken in front of a "1 Day With God" backdrop. We took a photo and then we were asked by a volunteer to 
select from among several cut outs of leaves to be glued onto a painting of a tree. The tree was labeled "1 Day With God 2018 Camp" and will remain on display in the Chaplain's office. Some facilities display the paintings in the visiting room.

I told my daughter to pick whichever leaf she wanted and she was then allowed to write her name on the leaf with a marker and point anywhere on the tree she wanted to have it glued to. When she pointed to an area above the trunk of the tree I told her that the trunk was the strongest part of the tree. She smiled as the volunteer glued her leaf on the tree.

A stickler for detail just like her father, before we returned back to our table as my daughter saw her leaf get glued on the tree she noticed the leaf's stem was not glued down all the way with the rest of the leaf. She walked over to the painting, took her small index finger, and pressed down on the stem for a few seconds until it remained glued in 
place. I smiled at my daughter, told her I was glad she saw it, and assured her it was perfect now. In that moment my mind flashed back to an image of my younger self.

The next activity involved fathers and their child(ren) creating a small 
lampshade together for a small candle-style lamp. We had to use safety pins, different sizes of plastic crystal beads, and wire to construct the craft project. At first my daughter was insistent on opening and closing the safety pins herself. I was afraid she might poke herself -- and she came close to doing it one time -- so I was able to convince her we should compromise.

We agreed that one of our assigned volunteers named Arthur would hand us the beads to put on the safety pins, I would open the safety pins, my daughter and I would both put the beads on the pins, and then I would hold each pin in place while I guided the pointed end to the part of the pin it closes at so she just had to push it into place.

It was the first time we tackled a tedious task like this together. The closest we ever came to this in the visiting room was doing a large puzzle together but we couldn't get poked by that. Afterwards we walked over to a wall with our finished lamp. I unraveled the power cord and I told my daughter to plug it into the wall to ensure it worked. We took a photograph together with our lamp and returned the lamp to our table before being called to our next activity.

Next fathers and their child(ren) were called back to the open area of the gymnasium and handed two activity workbooks titled "Sowing Seeds of Connection: Cultivating the Parent/Child Relationship Workbook" by Justin Danforth.

The workbook is comprised of several pages of questions and activities the father and child(ren) can ask each other to learn more about one another. My daughter and I stretched out on the floor on our side, across from one another as we faced each other, and asked each other questions from the workbook. Each time someone answered a question the other person would write it down in their workbook.

During this activity my daughter said, "Daddy, I never saw you lay down before until today! I didn't even know you could lay down." It hadn't really dawned on me that the only things my daughter has ever seen me do is walk a few steps, stand, and sit during our visits. I was beginning to realize how little she has seen me do and just assumed she knew I could do the things I can do. That day I was becoming more of a real, whole person to her through all our interactions and bonding moments.

A short time later she asked, "Daddy, are those the shoes you wear in here [meaning inside the prison]?" I responded, "Yes," and told her I hand-washed them so they would be clean for her. She smiled and raised her eyebrows with surprise. I was discovering just how much alike we are when it comes to paying attention to details. I was really glad I did it now because she learned I went through the effort of cleaning them and making them mark-free just for her.

As we worked through a couple pages of questions we had fun learning things about each other. I told my daughter when the camp was over she would take her workbook with her and I would take mine with me so we can 
continue working through the workbook together. She liked that idea and said, "OK Daddy, when I go to the hotel with Mommy tonight when you call us on the phone we will work on it."

Surprised by her enthusiasm I told her, "That sounds great but tonight just relax and get some rest. Spend time with Mommy and tell her about our day, she has been at the church all day and she wants to spend time with you. We will work on the workbook again soon." She agreed and thought that sounded like a good idea. Plus, she was still looking forward to swimming that evening 
in the hotel swimming pool.

Next on the day's agenda was a presentation by a man named Yago who performs strong man feats for entertainment. This day he blew up a rubber hot water bottle until it popped, bent a horse-shoe into the shape of a heart, bent a pole into the shape of a fish, and rolled up a frying pan into the shape of a burrito. Yago also discussed the importance of surrendering our lives to God and making important changes in his life through his faith.

My daughter and I sat down on the gymnasium floor during the presentation and she decided to choose this time to take a break by using me like the back of a chair behind her. As she sat in front of me she laid her head on my chest for a few minutes as I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her. She also spent a few minutes using my legs as a pillow to lay on while facing the presenter so she could take a rest and 
watch the presentation as I rubbed her back.

Periodically I asked my daughter how she was feeling or what was on her mind. She said she was feeling fine and just seemed a bit tired from the pace of the day, not to mention the emotional exhaustion I knew she had to be feeling. As I looked around several children of other fathers were napping, laying down, hugging or being hugged by their fathers, during this time as well.

I make a point of being a good listener when I communicate with my daughter so she feels validated and knows her thoughts matter. I even ask her for advice as a way to begin a dialogue regularly to learn how she may approach a situation and help her develop critical thinking skills. Research informs us that the best way to have a good conversation or be an effective communicator is to be the first person to listen. 

After the strong man presentation the next event was the highly anticipated Daddy/daughter dance followed by the father/son walk. It was a part of the camp volunteers told fathers the previous day would be very emotional. We were warned that nearly all the female volunteers and many of the males present often cry during that time. I would soon learn that prediction proved true.

Before the dance began each of the fathers were called to the open area of the gym to receive a rose for their daughter(s). After receiving the rose I presented it to my daughter, gave her a kiss on the cheek, picked her up, and we danced during two slow songs that played on the speakers. Everyone's focus in the room descended on this moment as they looked on to the fathers dancing with their beautiful princesses.

When my daughter took the rose she smiled big and thanked me. Shortly after I picked her up I told her I loved her and what a special daughter she is. Tears streamed down my face as I apologized to her for being unable to take her to her first two Daddy/daughter dances in First and Second Grade and having to ask one of my brothers to take her for me. I promised her when I go home one day that I will never 
miss any of her Daddy/daughter dances for anything in the world.

As I spoke to my daughter tears began running down her face as well as she told me she couldn't wait for me to come home to not just take her to her Daddy/daughter dances but also attend her soccer games, spend time with her and the family, and do other fun things with her. She also said, "I wish Mom was here with us to see all this," and that she wished there was a camp for Moms and Dads like this too.

A volunteer handed my daughter some tissue which she used to wipe the tears from our eyes as we continued dancing. It was now the second time she saw my tears that day, and the first day in her life to ever see them. Recognizing this she stated, "Daddy you are really emotional." I told her it was alright and that they were tears of joy. I also told her it was good for people to let their tears out and not suppress them because it is healthy for us and will help us feel better.

A short time later my daughter gave me a puzzled look as she noticed something black on the tip of my nose. It was remnants of her face paint that had virtually melted away from the sweat generated by the activities of the day and frequent hugs we had given each other. As she attempted to wipe the paint off with her finger she discovered it wouldn't wipe off.

Remaining true to form, and refusing to acquiesce to the stubborn paint, she quickly recalled an effective Mommy technique previously used on her from her catalog of memories. She knew it would do the trick. Without hesitation she put her index finger on her tongue to moisten it and then used it to wipe the paint off. Satisfied with her success she nodded her head up and down and said, "You're good." 

After we danced it was time for the father/son walk, another really special moment. The open area of the gym was now exclusively available to fathers and sons. The fathers walked around with their sons, held them, and some gave them piggyback rides. My daughter and I went over to our table and sat for a while as we watched the fathers interacting with their sons.

While seated at the table I asked my daughter if she was comfortable sharing the daily affirmation I wrote for her with Deb and Arthur. She reads me the affirmation regularly on the phone but she had never read it to me face to face and I thought this would be a good time to do it if she was comfortable. Without hesitation she agreed to share it with Deb and Arthur as well.

I also wanted my daughter to share her affirmation so that others would recognize its value and perhaps consider encouraging fathers to write daily affirmations for their children as part of the camp in the future. I have written one for my daughter each year she has been in school to address her evolving needs and maturity and I am committed to 
continue doing so until she completes high school.

During this time I also took the opportunity to share the origin of my daughter's first and middle name with our mentors to share the importance of bestowing empowering names on our children. Her first and middle name have indigenous Mexican origins. Her first name is derived from a name that means "I love you" and her middle name means "the seed that can transform into anything."

The mentors praised my daughter about her names and it was a positive experience for her. It was a proud moment to share with people in my daughter's presence about how much effort, love, and care went into selecting the names my wife and I did for her. They are powerful names that serve as daily reminders to her about her greatness and boundless potential.

Next the fathers were given time to spend with their children anywhere in the gymnasium. They could 
choose to walk around together or have a seat and talk together. I asked my daughter what she wanted to do and she asked me to give her a piggyback ride. I gave her a piggyback ride for a few minutes for the first time during our interaction ever. Piggyback rides are not allowed in visiting rooms.

After her piggyback ride she wanted to show me she could do push-ups and she asked me to do some pull-ups on the pull-up bar. She counted out loud until I completed 10 and then we sat down on a chair and listened as she told me how much fun we were having that day. I took the opportunity to also tell her how much her mother loves her and what a great parent she is. I expressed to her that it was important to never take her mother for granted and all she does for her each day.

Shortly after this part of the camp fathers and their children were called to the front of the gymnasium along with their children. The fathers were told this was the part of the day when they would perform the Father's Blessing which they learned and practiced the previous day during the "Godly Dads" training. It consisted of fathers standing directly in front of their child, putting their hands on the child's shoulders, looking them in the eye, and telling them the following four things followed by hugging and giving them a kiss:

"I love you.
I am so proud of you!
You are a wonderful daughter/son.
I am so glad you are my child."

I did as instructed, however, before hugging and kissing my daughter I squatted down so we could be eye to eye and, with my hands still on her shoulders I shared additional things I wanted to tell her. I told her how smart, beautiful, and brave she is and indexed a number of specific things she does or has done that I am proud of her for.

I wanted to be specific and not generalize or gloss over anything so that she recognized how much I pay attention to her life and remember about the details. I also wanted the blessing to be unique to her so she would know it was very personal and wanted the moment to be seared into her memory. As soon as I concluded the blessing my daughter smiled, thanked me, hugged me, and gave me a kiss. 
My daughter loved the photo and picture frame and asked me right away if I decorated the picture frame for her. After confirming that I did, she looked closely at all the things I put on the frame and quickly made the connections I intended her to make with the things I chose to put on the frame (i.e., images of animals resembling her pets, her favorite animated movie characters, etc.).

The next to final activity of the day was the presentation of gifts. When my daughter and I walked back to our table she found the photo we took earlier in front of the "One Day With God 2018 Camp" backdrop. It had been printed and placed inside the picture frame I decorated for her the previous day. Volunteers had printed the photos and inserted them in all the picture frames for each child while we were participating in other activities.

I then walked over to a table in the back of the gymnasium where all the backpacks were located that we had placed our gifts inside for our children. I found my daughter's backpack and carried it over to the table she was seated at. I began removing each gift from the backpack for my daughter, one by one, as I briefly told her why I specifically chose each gift.

As she beamed with joy and excitement she stated, "Daddy I'm going to save this backpack and these gifts forever so I never forget this day!" It was the most excited I had ever seen her before. It felt good to actually physically give my daughter gifts I picked for her from my hands directly to hers. That, too, was another first in our interaction since her birth because prisoners are prohibited from giving or receiving gifts in the visiting room. Doing so would be considered smuggling and result in a permanent visitor restriction.

I presented my daughter with the letter I wrote her the previous evening which she read to me. I also signed a 
certificate of commitment in front of her promising to raise her using spiritual values and presented it to her. I removed my green "1 Day With God" camp T-shirt, wrote a message on it, and placed it in her backpack to take home with her. (She told me she would use it to sleep in.)

I gave my daughter the camp name tag I wore that day sans the lanyard which we returned to camp organizers. Our mentors wrote messages on her camp T-shirt, I wrote a message on it, and my daughter and I wrote thank you messages on our mentors' camp T-shirts as well.

A short time later we prepared for the final part of the camp. One of our mentors, Deb, retrieved my daughter's pink Columbia fleece jacket from the room it was kept in during the camp and offer it to my daughter. I reached out to accept the little jacket so I could hold it for my daughter to put her arms through.

It was the first time I had ever helped my daughter put a jacket on before because coats and jackets are not allowed in visiting rooms. Even though it was a small gesture it was one among a series of memories I wanted to remain in my daughter's mind about that day. We gathered all my daughter's gifts, her letter, certificate, lamp, and workbook and carefully packed her backpack to capacity. 

Once we were done gathering things all the fathers, children, and volunteers walked through a hallway of the building the gymnasium is located in. As we exited the building together we were each given helium balloons to take outside with us. We walked a short distance away from the building and gathered in a large grassy area of the prison. The sun was now out as it peeked out through the pockets of white, fluffy clouds in the sky.

Two large fences laced with razor wire separated us from the parking lot. Lined up on the other side of the fence and facing us were family members ready to pick up our children. They were accompanied by volunteers from the local church who hosted them throughout the day. My daughter and I recognized her mother right away as we waved to each other and yelled each other's names.

We sang a song together and shortly thereafter a volunteer with a bullhorn announced, "Children, if you know your father loves you release your balloons." My daughter and all the other children present released their balloons. The next announcement was, "All the fathers who love their children release your balloons." As all the fathers released their balloons I picked my daughter up and we watched the sea of balloons being slowly carried off by the gentle Fall breeze.

We were then given the final opportunity to say our farewells. I thanked our mentors Deb and Arthur and expressed I was very grateful for them, their time, and efforts. I then hugged and kissed my daughter and we both told each other how wonderful our day was together.

As I began walking back to the building that houses the gymnasium my daughter and I started waving to each other. She ran towards me for one more hug when I was a short distance away and then quickly returned to Deb and Arthur. Once all the fathers returned to the building the children and volunteers were escorted by prison staff through a gate to the parking lot and the children were reunited with their mothers or caregivers.

(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.)