by Efren Paredes, Jr.
For nearly 26 years I have been housed at a number of different prisons across the state of Michigan.
Throughout my incarceration I have advocated the need for increased prisoner rehabilitative programming opportunities and been critical of Michigan prisons for their refusal to address the scarcity.
Research shows that 95% of all prisoners will one day return to society. Despite this fact most Michigan prisons only offer rehabilitative programming to prisoners who are within a year of their earliest release date.
Prisoners who are serving life or long indeterminate sentences are often prohibited from participating in the majority of these programs.
The blame for this falls squarely on the shoulders of Wardens who manage the prisons. They are responsible for not only the safety and security of the facility and protecting the public, but also for programs that are made available at their respective prisons.
Denying rehabilitative programming to prisoners throughout their incarceration compels them to spend years utilizing the dysfunctional thinking they had when entering the prison system.
Being dumped in a place that is teeming with like-minded people for years further exacerbates the problem and fosters an environment for them to adopt more criminal thinking.
This leaves prisoners in even more need of treatment than when they arrived and more vulnerable to negative influences. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners prisons are actually making them more likely to recidivate.
Prisons should be places with myriad programming opportunities. They should be therapeutic environments that minimize room for problems and maximize space for the flowering of human consciousness.
The earlier we can reach people with distorted thinking patterns the sooner we can help turn their lives around. Likewise, the more prisoners we can reach sooner, the more other prisoners we can influence to change.
I have witnessed firsthand how prisoners' lives are prevented from continuing in a downward spiral by immersing them in therapeutic programming and cognitive restructuring classes.
The more prisoners are taught to enrich their lives and purge themselves of criminal thinking the better they become prepared for their eventual transition to society.
If a prisoner has distorted thinking we cannot expect them to change on their own. It is akin to blaming addicts for their addictions and returning them to drug infested communities expecting them to change. They need help.
When I arrived at the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) a month ago I discovered a prison whose Warden, Sherry Burt, understands these realities.
In just the past 30 days I have had the opportunity to participate in programs at MCF such as Transition to Success (a class offered by Muskegon Community College), The Power of Peace Project, and a male leadership development class taught by Bishop Mbiyu Chui.
After the new year I am scheduled to enroll in the programs Juvenile Restoration in Progress (JRIP) and Chance for Life. The latter teaches the need to develop critical thinking skills, understanding the value of family and community, and the perils of addiction.
At the previous facility I was housed the only programming I was permitted to participate in was a parenting class. I was denied the opportunity to participate in the Thinking for Change, Violence Prevention Program, and any of the vocational trade programs.
Warden Burt is the only Warden whose name I have heard consistently be used synonymously with rehabilitative programming by prisoners at various facilities across the state.
According to the prisoners Warden Burt has earned their respect because of her commitment to help them recognize their unexercised infinite potential. They also note her desire to help them return to society as better human beings.
Rather than simply talk about rehabilitation Warden Burt steadfastly works to see it manifest into reality. She not only creates the space for the opportunities, she is known to be present at numerous events where prisoners graduate from the programs.
When Kit Cummings recently flew in from Atlanta, Georgia to begin two days of presentations about The Power of Peace Project Warden Burt was in attendance. Many other Wardens would not have attended the evening prisoner program even if invited.
Warden Burt understands the need for her stewardship and to demonstrate to others by example what it means to genuinely care about transforming lives. She also understands how lives are adversely impacted when they remain neglected.
Most prisoners have a sixth grade education, grew up in single parent homes, and were raised in communities where they frequently witnessed violence, drug abuse, and other forms of crime. Many of them were victims of various forms of abuse.
Changing these prisoners requires hard work, dedication, time and developing innovative ways to effectively reach them. It also calls for society to recognize that people are not perfect.
Just as people cannot be defined by the greatest accomplishment in their lives, they should not be defined by the worst mistake they make in their lives. Each person has inherently redemptive qualities and they possess the enormous capacity to change.
There is no magical cure to solving the crime problem. There are, however, sensible evidence-based methods to reducing the problem and rehabilitating prisoners.
The policy of prison administrators devising new ways to keep prisoners locked in their cells instead of involved in programs and education is a dismal failure. It only serves to foster more criminality and further erode the human spirit.
Each prisoner who is released will eventually become someone's neighbor in society. We can help determine what kind of neighbor they will become during their incarceration.
It begins by reproducing Warden Burt's progressive model of rehabilitation statewide and immersing prisoners in programming that will transform them by the renewing of their minds.