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Friday, April 4, 2008

Invincible Hope Flourishes After 20 Birthdays in Captivity

"Real difficulties can be overcome; it is only the imaginary ones that are unconquerable."--Theodore N. Vail

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

Friday, April 4, 2008, was the 20th birthday I have spent incarcerated. I have been separated from my family, friends, and society from my 16th through 35th birthdays.

While this is a very painful and unfortunate reality, I took time to reflect over recent events in my life and the hundreds of wonderful people who have joined my campaign for justice. I used this day to celebrate our campaign, life, and the concept of hope.

I thought about all the great presentations being made about my case across the state, the recent newspaper articles that appeared in The New Citizens Press and The Michigan Citizen, and the radio interviews done by members of The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee in California and Michigan.

We have committee members also working fervently in Texas and Tennessee generating support as well. The Fast 4 Freedom concluded with over 100 people who fasted across the globe in support of our campaign. Almost daily, Helen receives communications from people from different regions of the country asking how they can contribute to our campaign.

Last week I was contacted by the coordinator of the newly created organization Youth for Youth Justice. The coordinator, a University of Michigan student, asked me to offer my insight about the juvenile life without parole issue. She also sought my feedback about ways to improve the efficacy of the group.

Youth for Youth Justice is a group of high school students who are beginning to make presentations and conduct workshops about the need to abolish the imposition of life without parole sentences on children. They are currently working on creating a council of youth to include students from high schools across the state. I will be working closely with Youth for Youth Justice to help them raise awareness about the work they are doing.

Last weekend I called and spoke to members of the Saginaw TIME Committee during two presentations made about my case in Saginaw. I also spoke to an activist who was in attendance named David, a former member of the Saginaw city council, and a high school student.

David took a lot of our information, business cards, and postcards and committed to help our campaign. He planned to visit various local groups he is affiliated with to make presentations about the case and get people's support. He was enthusiastic and found it very disturbing that I could still be in prison all these years, based on the facts in my case.

This former city council member volunteered to take my case and appeal to the mayor of the city to get involved and endorse our efforts. He was optimistic that he could also get others involved as well. Having a history of ties with various members of the community will certainly be helpful with the work he seeks to do.

During one of the Saginaw calls I spoke to a high school student, a 15-year-old Latino male. I reminded him that I was his age when I was separated from society and imprisoned. During the course of our conversation he expressed wanting to organize two local high schools around the juvenile life without parole issue so students can become instrumental in ending the practice.

He was very eager to begin circulating information about my case, educating people about the facts, gathering postcards, and helping in any way he can. According to Helen he even posted an image of our banner on his MySpace page. I will begin working closely with this student to help advance the work he is doing. I believe there is a lot of potential in getting students involved in this issue at the high school and college levels.

Helen and I also worked with two college students last week regarding the juvenile life without parole issue. One was a journalism student from Loyola University in Chicago, who was writing a story about juvenile life without parole for an assignment. We provided helpful information and responded to questions the student had on the subject. She learned about me through the TIME Committee web site,

The other student we worked with was from the University of Michigan. He was preparing a class assignment about juvenile life without parole as well. With Helen's assistance I was able to provide him relevant research info and offer guidance with his project. The student learned about me through the Abolish Life Without Parole Sentences for Children in the USA Facebook group.

Contacts like these are a reminder to me of the importance of the work that committee members have done circulating things to thousands of people via the Internet. They post information about my case on web sites, blogs, discussion boards, comment sections, Facebook pages, MySpace pages, and via e-mails. I am grateful for every post that people make. Each one has the potential to reach millions of people and advance our campaign all over the globe.

Needless to say the past 10 days have been very busy for me.

Around my birthday each year family and friends often ask me what I would like them to purchase for me, or ask if I would like them to send me money so I can order something for myself.

My response is almost always asking people to order books for me or periodical subscriptions. I am always excited to receive new reading material. Often times people print articles and information from the Internet and mail them to me to read. I have learned and experienced many things in life vicariously through reading.

This year one of my birthday requests was for family members to create an Online petition, web page, and Facebook group for me to support the approval of a high school charter by the Los Angeles Unified School District board of directors. I learned about this through my friend and supporter, Mario Rocha. He is organizing a grassroots effort to get the charter approved. After just one day I learned that the Facebook group I asked people to create for me has generated over 150 supporters in four days.

Generating support for the creation of an institution of learning for Chicano/Latino children is important to me because I know the children will benefit immensely. Their futures and education are important to me and many others in the Chicano/Latino community. One day I hope to be able to walk through the doors of the school and visit what is destined to become one of the premier high schools in the nation.

In the months to come I hope to devote more time to the development of a rites of passage program for Chicano/Latino youth I have been working on. I have envisioned the program for some time but have not been able to finalize it. My eventual release will allow me to complete the program. It will allow me the opportunity to utilize it, see its application, and gauge its efficacy so it can be finalized and implemented.

I may have lost many years of my life to wrongful imprisonment, but it has never prevented me from helping others along the way. I have often paused during my own campaign for freedom to assist other worthy causes and people. I know how important it is to receive support and assistance for worthy causes. I would be remiss to not assist others, while I have fought so hard to receive the assistance of others.

As human beings we have an obligation to share the gifts and talents we have been blessed to receive. Speaking and writing to help others is a very important contribution we can make. Each is a footprint left in the world we are striving to make a better place for us all.

I thought about this today during a conversation I had with a DOC officer. The officer was observing two prisoners talking and he commented, "Why is he wasting his time talking to [the person's name]? He's always doing stupid stuff. That's a quick way to get a bad rep around here." We were standing on the prison yard at the time.

The officer was referring to one of the young prisoners who is defiant towards staff at times and is argumentative. He is new to the prison system. In the short time he has been here he has managed to accumulate misconduct reports for his errant behavior.

I told the officer I thought that was an unfair assessment of the situation. To characterize the young prisoner as someone "always doing stupid stuff" because he is having difficulty adjusting to imprisonment. I reminded him that man was created to be free and have dominion over the earth, not to be held captive. Incarceration is an unnatural condition that human beings do not seamlessly adjust to. Some people never make the adjustment at all.

This is one of many interesting moments I have had throughout my imprisonment. But, as I always endeavor to do, I transformed the situation into an educational opportunity.

I commented that many of the problems in the world today exist because of similar observations, or perhaps "condemnations" is a more appropriate term. People are too quick to tear down other human beings. Rather than find resolutions to problems they choose to speak ill of others. It requires no effort on their part and creates within them a false sense of superiority to the detriment of others.

I explained that we will never improve the human condition when we engage in behavior that fuels negative attitudes about others. We also foster destructive analyses and perceptions that create a fertile environment for failure. And, the more often it is repeated the greater chance that it will metastasize into a worse situation.

How do we know that this young problematic prisoner isn't a long-term victim of abuse? How do we know he is mentally competent to exercise circumspection? Or that he is even guilty of the crime he is in prison for? I always wonder about the latter question because of my own experience.

Rather than try to examine the various potential causal factors for the young prisoner's errant behavior the officer chose to make negative inferences through the biased lens he used to draw his conclusions.

I asked the officer how he thought the young prisoner could be changed without the appropriate intervention of others. How could he be expected to would learn the error of his conduct or be influenced to change without someone reaching out to him. It is wrong to assume that people know how to improve their lives and desist engaging in destructive behavior on their own. Many people lack those tools inside prison, and even in society. Some people have been in dysfunctional environments all their lives and it is all they know.

My recollection was that the Governor's Visions and Values philosophy in Michigan includes encouraging state employees to foster excellence. Inherent in "excellence" is the concept of redemption and looking for the good in others. The root word of "excellence" is "excel," which means to surpass or do "better than others." As a civil servant that includes promoting courtesy, or polite behavior.

During my imprisonment I have helped many young prisoners. I have helped them mature and learn about themselves and life in general. I know how difficult it was to be young and in prison. I know the challenges they encounter and how difficult it is to adjust to the prison setting.

I told the officer I am certain there have been occasions when staff may have drawn the same conclusions about me that he made because I was trying to help problematic prisoners. I knew it had occurred before because some staff members told me about it after they learned that I was only trying to do something positive. I never allowed that to discourage me though because what I was doing was morally correct. I knew I could make a difference, and I did.

Somewhere along the line people have come to believe it is acceptable to permit human suffering. That it is alright to turn their face to injustice. It is sad and very unfortunate that the moral fabric of society has decayed to this point.

I told the officer there have been numerous times that I have heard prisoners defame the character of officers or other staff members that were undeserving of the scathing remarks made. If I were to adopt the thinking of the officer I was speaking to, I should have just stood there and allowed it to occur. But, I didn't.

Instead, I have defended the character of officers and other staff if I knew the assaults on their character were unwarranted. And, when I have done this I put myself potentially in harm's way each time. It isn't looked upon favorably by other prisoners for a prisoner to defend the character of an officer or staff member. It can result in the prisoner being treated as a pariah or being physically harmed. I never did this because I had to. I did it because it was the right thing to do.

Even knowing this it has not deterred me from expressing myself or speaking the truth. I vowed many years ago to not let this experience compel me to compromise my principles and I have remained faithful to that promise to myself.

After our discussion the officer looked at me and said, "You know, you're right. I hadn't looked at it that way. I shouldn't have said that. We all need a reality check sometimes I guess. Nobody is perfect."

He was right ... "nobody is perfect."

Our conversation just reinforced my feelings about always being honest with people and not letting others or circumstances dictate the course of my life. Being true to myself and others is more important to me than popularity.

Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions in life that aren't popular. We have to realize we will never make everyone happy though. If we go through life seeking fleeting moments of happiness that masquerade as permanence we will be chasing transient illusions our entire lives.

One of the marks of a strong leader is having the courage to do the right thing even when faced with opposition. As a firm believer in the Creator and the revealed Holy scriptures, I have an obligation to the Creator and my faith to do those things that are pleasing in the eyes of the Creator.

"No one can serve two masters." (Matthew 6:24) We are also reminded that, "A double minded man is unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8) If we live our lives trying to please other people we are not living a life pleasing to the Creator. This is why I can never abandon the idea of redemption and the belief that people are deserving of second chances.

If I didn't employ this philosophy about life I could never help all the people I have. I have to remind myself, "How can I ask the Creator for forgiveness if I don't forgive others?" I must also remember that the scripture says that by the same yardstick we use to judge others, so will we be judged.

Depriving someone of the opportunity to rebuild their life is synonymous with denying them life and robbing them of hope. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Clouds of despair are floating in so many of our mental skies. ... In the midst of hopelessness, there is the need to explore the meaning of hope."

He continued, "Hope is contagious. If you really hope, it has a way of getting over to others, and it generates something with them. ... Hope has a way of firing hope. ... Hope is necessary for life. Hope is necessary for freedom. It is necessary for creativity and for spirituality."

Dr. King delivered this message of hope 40 years ago on March 15, 1968. He delivered it the same day of my arrest (i.e., March 15, 1989).

We can all make a difference in the world. Every contribution has infinite potential. From a prison cell I have affected change in colleges, schools, churches, organizations, and in the lives of countless individuals. If I can impact the world like I do, totally separated from the lives I affect, whenever I am eventually released the depth and breadth of my work will be able to increase exponentially.

The path to self-discovery has been elusive to many for so long. Many don't even know that it exists. Our job is to shine our light into the world so that others can feel the power of its radiance and, like Dr. King said, make it "contagious."■