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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Small Gifts, Big Treasures

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

When I receive visits from friends and family I see them in a visiting room which is located toward the front of the prison, near the prison's control center. And, each time I make the trip, I feel as if I am entering another world.

In many ways, I am.

I am always amazed when I enter the visiting room and I see children who come to visit their imprisoned family members. It is always a refreshing experience seeing them laugh, smile, talk, play, and interact with others.

Observing children interact with other children is even more enjoyable. They are always so full of energy and seemingly oblivious to where they are. They walk around and do things not realizing they are even in the confines of a prison. Seeing these children can always brighten the day of those who observe their activities and exploration of life.

Often times children who are visiting other prisoners sit near me in the visiting room. I am never surprised to see or hear them say or do funny things that make me laugh or smile. What is even more amazing about this is that I am able to share in their fun without even having to communicate with them.

Even if I wanted to communicate with the children I see on visits I couldn't. Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) visiting policy prohibits prisoners from communicating with the visitors of other prisoners, including children. Doing so can result in termination of their visit.

On one occasion, in recent months, I was on a visit when a small child who was less than two-years-old walked up to me, smiled, and said, "Hi!" I smiled at the little boy and within seconds the visiting room officer confronted me and stated, "No cross-visiting with the kid!" I hadn't even said anything to the child. I merely smiled at him.

I know the visits are very meaningful for those who the children are visiting because they are members of their family. They are afforded the opportunity to spend time together, bond with each other, and be a part of each other's lives, which is a positive thing for all involved. It helps establish and maintain strong family ties.

While seeing children during visits is a special time, it is also a disappointing time because I am not allowed to visit my only nephew, Landon, who is now two-years-old. Landon was born on Christmas Day 2005. Since Landon's birth I have only been able to see photographs of him and speak to him on the phone. (A photo of Landon appears above.)

Due to Landon's age he doesn't understand the things I tell him, and I certainly don't understand what he tells me. He's just learning how to put words together and construct sentences. Other than the photos, talking to him on the phone, and hearing the stories about him from friends and family, I have never seen Landon in person.

MDOC policy doesn't consider Landon to be my immediate family, so I can not see him until he turns 18-years-old. I can see other visitors' children whom I don't even know each week in the visiting room, and they can even sit right next to me, or in close proximity to me in the visiting room, but my own nephew can't visit.

According to MDOC policy nephews are considered to be friends. So are aunts, uncles, and cousins according to their rules. These rules went into effect in 1995 when the MDOC made sweeping revisions to its visiting policies across the state.

From 1995 to 2000 I was precluded from visiting with my youngest brother Hans. In 1995, when the MDOC changed its visiting policies, even immediate family members under age 18 were disallowed from visiting prisoners in the MDOC. According to their policy I could not visit Hans until he turned 18-years-old.

In 2000, after Hans turned 18, and after a long court battle between prisoners and the state prison system, immediate family of any age could again visit prisoners (accompanied with their parent or guardian, of course). If not for a federal judge who truly cared about the emotional and psychological damage this ongoing separation was causing, the cruel practice of keeping siblings totally separated would have never desisted.

The judge's order and opinion came too late for Hans and me though. Hans had already turned 18 and we had been denied the opportunity to see each other on visits with the rest of the family for five long years. We can never have that restored.

The last time I held a child in my arms was in 1990 when I last saw my cousin Arielle who was born that year. Since that time I have not seen a child or held a child from my family besides seeing my youngest brother Hans from 1989 until 1995 when the visiting policy changed. Hans was between the ages of 7 and 13 during that time.

Seeing children on visits makes a prisoner really appreciate the gift of life. It is a reminder to them about some of the small things that mean so much in free society. Prisoners see other adults every day inside the prison. So, seeing other adults on visits isn't unordinary.

However, prisoners never see children inside a prison except on TV, in photos they receive in the mail, or in periodicals. The only time they will ever see a child is during a visit. Prisoners who do not receive visits will never see children at all until they are released from prison.

For now it doesn't appear I will get to share any of Landon's childhood until I am released. I just hope that day comes in the near future or I will miss sharing his childhood altogether. If I am not released within the next couple of years I could be forced to wait to see Landon until he becomes an adult according to Michigan law — in 16 more years.